OCTOBER 29, 2001
Listening to Lactantius
-- Martin E. Marty
Most whose lives are devoted to something other than the study of ancient Christianity have never heard of Lactantius. I had not since my Ph.D. exams forty-five years ago, and had little occasion to remember him or find him relevant since then. Scholars rediscovering him today admit that he was "after all a minor figure." Sometimes, though, minor figures provide at least small landmarks and resources that make them candidates for rediscovery and aids to discoverers.
I hoped to track down Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, author of The Making of a Christian Empire: Lactantius and Rome (Cornell, $39.95) while lecturing at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, but she had moved to McGill in Montreal. It was Robert Wilken, in a review of her book, who called Lactantius a "minor" but a landmarking figure (First Things, April, 2001). He goes easier on the Constantinian heritage than I would, but Wilken is an expert on Constantine's time and I'm not.
The landmark issue in the current study of Lactantius is whether "a theory of religious freedom rooted not in notions of toleration but in the nature of religious belief" ever appears on "Christian" soil before the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. That is the period from which moderns date real religious freedom, and after which "mainstream" Christians first developed theories of religious freedom. Such theorists are very few, but Lactantius, who became a part of the court of Constantine, in the fourth century, is one. His question was "Why should a god love a person who does not feel love in return?" To which he answered, in the words of Wilken, "coercion is inimical to the nature of religion." Wilken labels this "the first theological rationale for religious freedom, . . . the first rationale to be rooted in the nature of God and of devotion to God."
Reading Digeser, I thought of Roger Williams and William Penn, the seventeenth-century founders of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, respectively, who argued against coercion in religious matters on roughly similar grounds. I thought also of James Madison. Sure enough, so did Wilken. "It is unlikely that Madison read Lactantius," but, like him, he "had a religious understanding of religious freedom." The key, which was carried by precious few in the Christian world after Lactantius: you dare never coerce belief or worship, for God's sake.
That day I was speaking at St. Norbert's the newspapers carried front page stories about anthrax and Afghanistan. They also covered Madison, Wisconsin, torn between furious fighters over the question of coercing school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the "under God," phrase of which makes it religious.
Back to Lactantius's question. "Why should a god love a person who does not feel love in return?" And Wilken's summary of Degeser on Lactantius: "coercion is inimical to the nature of religion." The words of a fourth-century figure do not solve all the questions concerning the Pledge of Allegiance and coerced civil religion. It is helpful and hopeful, however, to look at the issue in an ancient Lactantian and a modern Madisonian light.