Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (c.250–c.325), who lived and worked within the Roman Empire, was one of the earliest examples of a Christian apologist. While details about his life are scarce, we know that he lived through the persecution of Emperor Diocletian and that his written works are valuable for understanding the perspective of Christians in the late third and early fourth centuries. Near the end of his life, Lactantius was recruited by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, to advise him and to tutor Constantine’s son Crispus.
Lactantius was probably a teacher of rhetoric before his conversion. In that era, the term rhetoric referred to the art of persuasion, whether written or spoken. Having a background in rhetoric served Lactantius well as a Christian writer. His works are not considered to be theologically “deep,” and many commentators pointedly mention that he was a rhetorician, not a theologian. At the same time, his ability to explain Christian ideas to a Roman audience was invaluable to the early church. Lactantius fulfilled a role in his era similar to that of John Bunyan and C. S. Lewis in theirs: these men were all talented communicators with an ability to make spiritual ideas sensible to common people. His skill in communication has earned him the title “the Christian Cicero.”
The most important works written by Lactantius are the Divinae Insititutiones (Divine Institutes), several volumes of discourse on the Christian worldview. These books are considered one of the earliest examples of Christian apologetics coming from a Latin (Roman) source. Lactantius addressed issues such as God’s nature, perfection, and sovereignty. He also confronted the prevailing, polytheistic views of Roman culture. Much as New Testament writers like Paul sometimes quoted non-inspired texts, Lactantius often referred to secular works in order to support his arguments in favor of a Christian perspective.
Here are some quotes from the writings of Lactantius:
• “The first point of wisdom is to discern that which is false; the second, to know that which is true.”
• “But God, who is the Eternal Mind, is undoubtedly of excellence, complete and perfect in every part.”
• “There is no one, who possesses intelligence and uses reflection, who does not understand that it is one Being who both created all things and governs them with the same energy by which He created them.”
• “Devils so work that things which are not, appear to men as if they were real.”