Christianity has always had to compete for a place among other world religions and belief systems. In addition to formal, established religions, the world in ancient times was filled with developed and half-baked philosophical systems which attracted attention, such as cynicism, skepticism, materialism, and fatalism. It was into such a world in North Africa that Lucius Caelius (Lactantius) was born in about 240. Growing up in a pagan intellectual environment, at some point he became a Christian, which caused him to lose his position in the persecutions of 303. It must be remembered that changing faith then was not like changing brands of cars now. Such shifts often involved the loss of jobs and, at times, lives, especially for those who accepted the newly emerging Christian religion.
Lactantius was a vigorous defender of the now-spreading Christian faith. In one work he linked the harmony of God’s creation with the wonders of the human body at work, a not unexpected position, since many early Christian writers saw a direct link between the human body and the cosmos and argued that through God both could be in harmony. In other writings he attacked pagan ideas then circulating in North Africa; as a writer, he depended more on logic and confronting the weaknesses in the pagan positions than he did on an appeal to Scripture or church doctrine.
A feature of such early Christian apologists is their unequivocal stands: the just were saved; those who erred or grossly sinned faced eternal damnation. No tolerant ambiguity here. In a work called De Mortibus Persecutorurn (On the Death of the Persecutors, c. 315) Lactantius argued that God “protects justice and leads all ungodly men and persecutors without fail to their deserved punishment.” In yet another work, De ira Dei (On the Wrath of God, c. 318), Lactantius cited examples of both an angry and a compassionate God in the 0ld and New Testaments to refute the arguments of those who said that an omnipotent God was indifferent to what went on in the universe. The name of Lactantius belongs to the long list of early North African Christians who were scrappy intellectual combatants for the faith, helping to give it credibility in the vigorous intellectual milieu of early Mediterranean culture.
O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested to your servant Lactantius, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
–Collect of a Theologian and Teacher,* Prayer Book and Hymnal*, 248-249
- Ligon Duncan, “Early African Apologists, 3-5,” www.fpcjackson.org/resources/church-history/earlyafrapolog.htm.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.