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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:
Lactantius: Chap. IX.—Of the devil, the world, God, providence, man, and his wisdom

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chap. ix.—of the devil, the world, god, providence, man, and his wisdom.

I will therefore set forth the method of all these things, that difficult and obscure subjects may be more easily understood; and I will bring to light all these deceptions 201 of the pretended deity, led by which men have departed very far from the way of truth. But I will retrace the matter far back from its source; that if any, unacquainted with the truth and ignorant, shall apply himself to the reading of this book, he may be instructed, and may understand what can in truth be “the source and origin of these evils;” and having received light, may perceive his own errors and those of the whole human race.  

Since God was possessed 202 of the greatest foresight for planning, and of the greatest skill for carrying out in action, before He commenced this business of the world,—inasmuch as there was in Him, and always is, the fountain of full and most complete goodness,—in order that goodness might spring as a stream from Him, and might flow forth afar, He produced a Spirit like to Himself, who might be endowed with the perfections of God the Father. But how He willed that, I will endeavour to show in the fourth book. 203 Then He made another being, in whom the disposition of the divine origin did not remain. Therefore he was infected with his own envy as with poison, and passed from good to evil; and at his own will, which had been given to him by God unfettered, 204 he acquired for himself a contrary name. From which it appears that the source of all evils is envy. For he envied his predecessor, 205 who through his stedfastness 206 is acceptable and dear to God the Father. This being, who from good became p. 53 evil by his own act, is called by the Greeks diabolus207 we call him accuser, because he reports to God the faults to which he himself entices us. God, therefore, when He began the fabric of the world, set over the whole work that first and greatest Son, and used Him at the same time as a counsellor and artificer, in planning, arranging, and accomplishing, since He is complete both in knowledge, 208 and judgment, and power; concerning whom I now speak more sparingly, because in another place 209 both His excellence, and His name, and His nature must be related by us. Let no one inquire of what materials God made these works so great and wonderful: for He made all things out of nothing.  

Nor are the poets to be listened to, who say that in the beginning was a chaos, that is, a confusion of matter and the elements; but that God afterwards divided all that mass, and having separated each object from the confused heap, and arranged them in order, He constructed and adorned the world. Now it is easy to reply to these persons, who do not understand the power of God: for they believe that He can produce nothing, except out of materials already existing 210 and prepared; in which error philosophers also were involved. For Cicero, while discussing the nature of the gods, 211 thus speaks: “First of all, therefore, it is not probable 212 that the matter 213 from which all things arose was made by divine providence, but that it has, and has had, a force and nature of its own. As therefore the builder, when he is about to erect any building, does not himself make the materials, but uses those which are already prepared, and the statuary 214 also uses the wax; so that divine providence ought to have had materials at hand, not of its own production, but already prepared for use. But if matter was not made by God, then neither was the earth, and water, and air, and fire, made by God.” Oh, how many faults there are in these ten lines! First, that he who in almost all his other disputations and books was a maintainer of the divine providence, and who used very acute arguments in assailing those who denied the existence of a providence, now himself, as a traitor or deserter, endeavoured to take away providence; in whose case, if you wish to oppose 215 him, neither consideration nor labour is required: it is only necessary to remind him of his own words. For it will be impossible for Cicero to be more strongly refuted by any one than by Cicero himself. But let us make this concession to the custom and practice of the Academics, 216 that men are permitted to speak with great freedom, and to entertain what sentiments they may wish. Let us examine the sentiments themselves. It is not probable, he says, that matter was made by God. By what arguments do you prove this? For you gave no reason for its being improbable. Therefore, on the contrary, it appears to me exceedingly probable; nor does it appear so without reason, when I reflect that there is something more in God, whom you verily reduce to the weakness of man, to whom you allow nothing else but the mere workmanship. In what respect, then, will that divine power differ from man, if God also, as man does, stands in need of the assistance of another? But He does stand in need of it, if He can construct nothing unless He is furnished with materials by another. But if this is the case, it is plain that His power is imperfect, and he who prepared the material 217 must be judged more powerful. By what name, therefore, shall he be called who excels God in power?—since it is greater to make that which is one’s own, than to arrange those things which are another’s. But if it is impossible that anything should be more powerful than God, who must necessarily be of perfect strength, power, and intelligence, it follows that He who made the things which are composed of matter, made matter also. For it was neither possible nor befitting that anything should exist without the exercise of God’s power, or against His will. But it is probable, he says, that matter has, and always has had, a force and nature of its own. 218 What force could it have, without any one to give it? what nature, without any one to produce it? If it had force, it took that force from some one. But from whom could it take it, unless it were from God? Moreover, if it had a nature, which plainly is so called from being produced, it must have been produced. But from whom could it have derived its existence, except God? For nature, from which you say that all things had their origin, if it has no understanding, can make nothing. But if it has the power of producing and making, then it has understanding, and must be God. For that force can be called by no other name, in which there is both the foresight 219 to plan, and the skill and power to carry into effect. Therefore Seneca, the most intelligent of all the Stoics, says better, who saw “that nature was nothing else but God.” Therefore he p. 54 says, “Shall we not praise God, who possesses natural excellence?” For He did not learn it from any one. Yes, truly, we will praise Him; for although it is natural to Him, He gave it to Himself, 220 since God Himself is nature. When, therefore, you assign the origin of all things to nature, and take it from God, you are in the same difficulty:—  

“You pay your debt by borrowing, 221 Geta.”

For while simply changing the name, you clearly admit that it was made by the same person by whom you deny that it was made.  

There follows a most senseless comparison. “As the builder,” he says, “when he is about to erect any building, does not himself make the materials, but uses those which are already prepared, and the statuary also the wax; so that divine providence ought to have had materials at hand, not of its own production, but already prepared for use.” Nay rather it ought not; for God will have less power if He makes from materials already provided, which is the part of man. The builder will erect nothing without wood, for he cannot make the wood itself; and not to be able to do this is the part of human weakness. But God Himself makes the materials for Himself, because He has the power. For to have the power is the property of God; for if He is not able, He is not God. Man produces his works out of that which already exists, because through his mortality he is weak, and through his weakness his power is limited and moderate; but God produces His works out of that which has no existence, because through His eternity He is strong, and through His strength His power is immense, which has no end or limit, like the life of the Maker Himself. What wonder, then, if God, when He was about to make the world, first prepared the material from which to make it, and prepared it out of that which had no existence? Because it is impossible for God to borrow anything from another source, inasmuch as all things are in Himself and from Himself. For if there is anything before Him, and if anything has been made, but not by Him, He will therefore lose both the power and the name of God. But it may be said matter was never made, like God, who out of matter made this world. In that case, it follows that two eternal principles are established, and those indeed opposed to one another, which cannot happen without discord and destruction. For those things which have a contrary force and method must of necessity come into collision. In this manner it will be impossible that both should be eternal, if they are opposed to one another, because one must overpower the other. Therefore the nature of that which is eternal cannot be otherwise than simple, so that all things descended from that source as from a fountain. Therefore either God proceeded from matter, or matter from God. Which of these is more true, is easily understood. For of these two, one is endued with sensibility, the other is insensible. The power of making anything cannot exist, except in that which has sensibility, intelligence, reflection, and the power of motion. Nor can anything be begun, or made, or completed, unless it shall have been foreseen by reason how it shall be made before it exists, and how it shall endure 222 after it has been made. In short, he only makes anything who has the will to make it, and hands to complete that which he has willed. But that which is insensible always lies inactive and torpid; nothing can originate in that source where there is no voluntary motion. For if every animal is possessed of reason, it is certain that it cannot be produced from that which is destitute of reason, nor can that which is not present in the original source 223 be received from any other quarter. Nor, however, let it disturb any one, that certain animals appear to be born from the earth. For the earth does not give birth to these of itself, but the Spirit of God, without which nothing is produced. Therefore God did not arise from matter, because a being endued with sensibility can never spring from one that is insensible, a wise one from one that is irrational, one that is incapable of suffering from one that can suffer, an incorporeal being from a corporeal one; but matter is rather from God. For whatever consists of a body solid, and capable of being handled, admits of an external force. That which admits of force is capable of dissolution; that which is dissolved perishes; that which perishes must necessarily have had an origin; that which had an origin had a source 224 from which it originated, that is, some maker, who is intelligent, foreseeing, and skilled in making. There is one assuredly, and that no other than God. And since He is possessed of sensibility, intelligence, providence, power, and vigour, He is able to create and make both animated and inanimate objects, because He has the means of making everything. But matter cannot always have existed, for if it had existed it would be incapable of change. For that which always was, does not cease always to be; and that which had no beginning must of necessity be without an end. Moreover, it is easier for that which had a beginning to be without an end, than for that which had no beginning, p. 55 to have an end. Therefore if matter was not made, nothing can be made from it. But if nothing can be made from it, then matter itself can have no existence. For matter is that out of which something is made. But everything out of which anything is made, inasmuch as it has received the hand of the artificer, is destroyed, 225 and begins to be some other thing. Therefore, since matter had an end, at the time when the world was made out of it, it also had a beginning. For that which is destroyed 226 was previously built up; that which is loosened was previously bound up; that which is brought to an end was begun. If, then, it is inferred from its change and end, that matter had a beginning, from whom could that beginning have been, except from God? God, therefore, is the only being who was not made; and therefore He can destroy other things, but He Himself cannot be destroyed. That which was in Him will always be permanent, because He has not been produced or sprung from any other source; nor does His birth depend on any other object, which being changed may cause His dissolution. He is of Himself, as we said in the first book; 227 and therefore He is such as He willed that He should be, incapable of suffering, unchangeable, incorruptible, blessed, and eternal.  

But now the conclusion, with which Tully finished the sentiment, is much more absurd. 228 “But if matter,” he says, “was not made by God, the earth indeed, and water, and air, and fire, were not made by God.” How skilfully he avoided the danger! For he stated the former point as though it required no proof, whereas it was much more uncertain than that on account of which the statement was made. If matter, he says, was not made by God, the world was not made by God. He preferred to draw a false inference from that which is false, than a true one from that which is true. And though uncertain things ought to be proved from those which are certain, he drew a proof from an uncertainty, to overthrow that which was certain. For, that the world was made by divine providence (not to mention Trismegistus, who proclaims this; not to mention the verses of the Sibyls, who make the same announcement; not to mention the prophets, 229 who with one impulse and with harmonious 230 voice bear witness that the world was made, 231 and that it was the workmanship of God), even the philosophers almost universally agree; for this is the opinion of the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, and the Peripatetics, who are the chief of every sect. 232 In short, from those first seven wise men, 233 even to Socrates and Plato, it was held as an acknowledged and undoubted fact; until many ages afterwards 234 the crazy Epicurus lived, who alone ventured to deny that which is most evident, doubtless through the desire of discovering novelties, that he might found a sect in his own name. And because he could find out nothing new, that he might still appear to disagree with the others, he wished to overthrow old opinions. But in this all the philosophers who snarled 235 around him, refuted him. It is more certain, therefore, that the world was arranged by providence, than that matter was collected 236 by providence. Wherefore he ought not to have supposed that the world was not made by divine providence, because its matter was not made by divine providence; but because the world was made by divine providence, he ought to have concluded that matter also was made by the Deity. For it is more credible that matter was made by God, because He is all-powerful, than that the world was not made by God, because nothing can be made without mind, intelligence, and design. But this is not the fault of Cicero, but of the sect. For when he had undertaken a disputation, by which he might take away the nature of the gods, respecting which philosophers prated, in his ignorance of the truth he imagined that the Deity must altogether be taken away. He was able therefore to take away the gods, for they had no existence. But when he attempted to overthrow the divine providence, which is in the one God, because he had begun to strive against the truth, his arguments failed, and he necessarily fell into this pitfall, from which he was unable to withdraw himself. Here, then, I hold him firmly fixed; I hold him fastened to the spot, since Lucilius, who disputed on the other side, was silent. Here, then, is the turning-point; 237 on this everything depends. Let Cotta disentangle himself, if he can, from this difficulty; 238 let him bring forward arguments by which he may prove that matter has always existed, which no providence made. Let him show how anything ponderous and heavy either could exist without an author or could be changed, and how that which p. 56 always was ceased to be, so that that which never was might begin to be. And if he shall prove these things, then, and not till then, will I admit that the world itself was not established by divine providence, and yet in making this admission I shall hold him fast by another snare. For he will turn round again to the same point, to which he will be unwilling to return, so as to say that both the matter of which the world consists, and the world which consists of matter, existed by nature; though I contend that nature itself is God. For no one can make wonderful things, that is, things existing with the greatest order, except one who has intelligence, foresight, and power. And thus it will come to be seen that God made all things, and that nothing at all can exist which did not derive its origin from God.  

But the same, as often as he follows the Epicureans, 239 and does not admit that the world was made by God, is wont to inquire by what hands, by what machines, by what levers, by what contrivance, He made this work of such magnitude. He might see, if he could have lived at that time in which God made it. But, that man might not look into the works of God, He was unwilling to bring him into this world until all things were completed. But he could not be brought in: for how could he exist while the heaven above was being built, and the foundations of the earth beneath were being laid; when humid things, perchance, either benumbed with excessive stiffness were becoming congealed, or seethed with fiery heat and rendered solid were growing hard? Or how could he live when the sun was not yet established, and neither corn nor animals were produced? Therefore it was necessary that man should be last made, when the finishing 240 hand had now been applied to the world and to all other things. Finally, the sacred writings teach that man was the last work of God, and that he was brought into this world as into a house prepared and made ready; for all things were made on his account. The poets also acknowledge the same. Ovid, having described the completion of the world, and the formation of the other animals, added: 241 —  

“An animal more sacred than these, and more capacious of a lofty mind, was yet wanting, and which might exercise dominion over the rest. Man was produced.”

So impious must we think it to search into those things which God wished to be kept secret! But his inquiries were not made through a desire of hearing or learning, but of refuting; for he was confident that no one could assert that. As though, in truth, it were to be supposed that these things were not made by God, because it cannot be plainly seen in what manner they were created! If you had been brought up in a well-built and ornamented house, and had never seen a workshop, 242 would you have supposed that that house was not built by man, because you did not know how it was built? You would assuredly ask the same question about the house which you now ask about the world—by what hands, with what implements, man had contrived such great works; and especially if you should see large stones, immense blocks, 243 vast columns, the whole work lofty and elevated, would not these things appear to you to exceed the measure of human strength, because you would not know that these things were made not so much by strength as by skill and ingenuity?  

But if man, in whom nothing is perfect, nevertheless effects more by skill than his feeble strength would permit, what reason is there why it should appear to you incredible, when it is alleged that the world was made by God, in whom, since He is perfect, wisdom can have no limit, and strength no measure? His works are seen by the eyes; but how He made them is not seen even by the mind, because, as Hermes says, the mortal cannot draw nigh to (that is, approach nearer, and follow up with the understanding) the immortal, the temporal 244 to the eternal, the corruptible to the incorruptible. And on this account the earthly animal is as yet incapable of perceiving 245 heavenly things, because it is shut in and held as it were in custody by the body, so that it cannot discern all things with free and unrestrained perception. Let him know, therefore, how foolishly he acts, who inquires into things which are indescribable. For this is to pass the limits of one’s own condition, and not to understand how far it is permitted man to approach. In short, when God revealed the truth to man, He wished us only to know those things which it concerned man to know for the attainment of life; but as to the things which related to a profane and eager curiosity 246 He was silent, that they might be secret. Why, then, do you inquire into things which you cannot know, and if you knew them you would not be happier. It is perfect wisdom in man, if he knows that there is but one God, and that all things were made by Him.  



The tricks of a juggler.  


Most prudent.  


Chap. vi., infra  




The Son of God, afterwards spoken of.  


By perseverance. There seems to be a contrast between the Son, who remained stedfast, and the evil spirits who fell.  


διάβολος, “slanderer or accuser.” The Greek and Latin words employed by Lactantius have the same meaning.  




Book iv. ch. vi., etc. [Deus, igitur, machinator constitutorque rerum, etc.]  


Lying under; answering to the Greek expression ὑποκειμένη ὕλη, subject matter.  


Not now found in the treatise which bears this title.  


Capable of proof.  


Materia; perhaps from “mater,” mother stuff—matter out of which anything is composed.  


The moulder. The ancients made statues of wax or clay, as well as of wood, ivory, and marble.  




Alluding to the well-known practise of the Academics, viz., of arguing on both sides of a question.  


The founder or preparer of the material.  


[Quam vim potuit habere nullo dante?]  




Sibi illam dedit. There is another reading, illa sibi illam dedit, but it does not give so good a sense.  


A proverbial expression, signifying “to get out of one difficulty by getting into another.” The passage in the text is a quotation from Terence, Phorm , v. 2. 15. [Not in some editions of our author; e.g., Basil, 1521.]  


Stand firm and stedfast.  


Which does not exist there, from whence it is sought.  




Distruitur, “pulled to pieces.” The word is thus used by Cicero.  


Distruitur, “pulled to pieces.” The word is thus used by Cicero.  


Ch. 3 and 7. [See pp. 11, 17, supra.]  


[Multo absurdior.]  


Lactantius seems to refer not to the true prophets, but to those of other nations, such as Orpheus and Zoroaster, or the magi of the Persians, the gymnosophists of the Indians, or the Druids of the Gauls. St. Augustine often makes mention of these. It would seem inconsistent to mention Moses and the prophets of God with the prophets of the heathens. [Compare, however, “Christian analogies,” etc., in Justin. See vol. i. 169; also Ibid., pp. 182, 283–286.]  


Pari voce.  


The work of the world, and the workmanship of God.  


Qui sunt principes omnis disciplinæ. There is another reading: quæ sunt principes omnium disciplinæ, “which are the leading sects of all.”  


Thales said that the world was the work of God.  


This statement is incorrect, as Plato was born b.c. 430, and Epicurus b.c. 337.  


There is probably an allusion to the Cynics.  


Conglobatam. Another reading is, quàm materiâ providentiam conglobatam.  






As often as he is an Epicurean.  


The last hand.  


Metamorph , book i.  


Fabrica. The word is also used to denote the exercise of skill in workmanship.  


Cæmenta, rough stones from the quarry.  


Pertaining to time, as opposed to eternal.  


Looking into.  


A curious and profane eagerness.  

Next: Chap. X.—Of the world, and its parts, the elements and seasons

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