Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Barnes, Michael R.
Mellon Saint-Laurent, Jeanne-Nicole
This dissertation offers an historical and doctrinal account of Lactantius’s principal work, The Divine Institutes. Lactantius’s opening remarks shape the central question: Why does he respond to violent political suppression with an elite discourse on virtue (virtus); and how does that discourse address Lactantius’s persecutors from the perspective of his Christian predecessors? To answer the question, this dissertation tells the story of how “power theology,” received through the classical tradition, came to ground Latin moral, political, and religious discourses, first among traditional Roman “pagans,” and then in the pre-Nicene Latin Christianity Lactantius represented in the era of Diocletian and Constantine. That story accounts for the way pre-Nicene Latin Christians reimagined an ancient ideal of martial prowess (virtus) according to Christ’s example, and thus presented a vision of human life conformed to his passion. Lactantius enters that history as the last formidable advocate of a traditional pre-Nicene Christianity. Such an account becomes possible only by expanding the textual and intellectual horizons that condition scholarly perspectives on Lactantius and the Latin tradition he received. This dissertation attempts such an expansion by tracing the social and historical context of power theology from its origins in Latin antiquity to Lactantius’s mature theology. Chapter 1 conducts extensive rereading of the classical sources Lactantius used in order to establish the social and political discourse he knew and debated. Within that discourse, Chapter 2 reveals a specific doctrinal content—power theology—which modern scholars have largely overlooked. These early chapters provide terms for a second conceptual adjustment in the area of early Latin apologetic. Chapter 3 traces Latin power theology into North African Christianity and shows the continuation of a Roman political and doctrinal tradition in the Christian context. Chapter 4 locates Lactantius on the arc of that tradition by establishing that power theology underwrites his language of virtue and grounds his polemic against the traditional gods. Chapter 5 examines Lactantius’s application of the technical sense of “power” in his Christology. These two latter chapters reset the modern scholarly discussion of Lactantius’s theology by demonstrating his continuation of “Catholic” pre-Nicene theologies of the Father and Son. Chapter 6 considers Lactantius’s new applications of power theology in the realm of ethics and politics. Born in opposition to Roman violence, the Latin apologists’ teaching on patientia blossoms in Lactantius’s doctrines of human equality and right(s). At every stage, the Latin tradition’s continuing opposition to violence, itself shaped by the example of Christ, drives this simultaneously doctrinal and moral conversation. The work thus concludes that Lactantius was a traditional pre-Nicene "Catholic" author, whose work constitutes a new point of departure for the project of Latin theology under the uncertain conditions of Constantine’s reign.