Christian Pacifists: Lactantius

Lactantius was a famous teacher of Latin rhetoric who was known to be incredibly elegant. He converted to Christianity late in life and wrote so elegantly that he has been dubbed a “Christian Cicero”. He became the first advisor to Constantine, the first Christian emperor. His most important work is The Divine Institutes which is the only of his works that will be referenced here. The Divine Institutes is an example of early Christian systematic thinking which was written in order to combat the ideas of paganism by showing the superiority of Christian thought. Although his theology and knowledge of scripture is criticized, the work still offers a very beautiful presentation of Christian ideas.


Lactantius posed an interesting dilemma for this series. In Lactantius we get the most fierce and thorough condemnations of all killing, not least war. However, after the rise of Constantine, Lactantius wrote in support of his violent victory, contradicting much of what he had written before. He did not write an explanation as to what made his views change nor did he try to explain how this apparent change was actually consistent. Thus, I have decided to make sure the reader is fully aware of the change in views of Lactantius, yet feel no need in this essay to consider why such a change took place. His arguments against violence, despite an apparent change of heart later on in his life, remain.

Lactantius was absolutely fierce in his condemnation of killing of any kind. This was because of the God whom he worshipped. To him it was a given that were one to worship the true God, one could not end the life of another. They would “maintain concord with all.. even to enemies, love all men as brethren.. restrain anger and soothe every passion.” They would not “be at enmity with any human being nor desire anything at all which is the property of another.”

The Divine Institutes 5.8

But if God only were worshipped, there would not be dissensions and wars, since men would know that they are the sons of one God; and, therefore, among those who were connected by the sacred and inviolable bond of divine relationship, there would be no plottings, inasmuch as they would know what kind of punishments God prepared for the destroyers of souls, who sees through secret crimes, and even the very thoughts themselves.

Lactantius blamed pagans’ unjust ways (which included all kinds of violence) on the types of gods they followed. “Thus it comes to pass that the god fashions the life of his worshippers according to the character of his own will, since the most religious worship is to imitate” (5.10). To him, the Christian God is one who abhors violence and is thus against it. If we are to follow God then, we too should refrain from all violence.

The Divine Institutes 5.10

What then, or where, or of what character is piety? Truly it is among those who are ignorant of wars, who maintain concord with all, who are friendly even to their enemies, who love all men as brethren, who know how to restrain their anger, and to soothe every passion of the mind with calm government.

In the 17th chapter of the fifth book of his Divine Institutes, Lactantius quotes the Greek philosopher Carneades who said that, although it is normally not a just action to shed blood, we are often forced to do so, in which case it becomes just. He uses several examples including that of a shipwrecked person holding onto a plank of wood. It would be unjust to push someone off the plank if both could grab hold and live, but if only one person can fit, then it is not unjust for the stronger to push the weaker off. If we are in war, it is not unjust to kill an enemy lest you yourself are killed by them. Lactantius rejects this splitting up of justice and insists that justice is not folly (refusing to steal a horse from a wounded enemy and thus dying yourself), but that the philosophers, wise are they were, simply did not understand the justice of God. In responding to the argument set forth by Carneades he says,

The Divine Institutes 5.18

First of all, I deny that it can in any way happen that a man who is truly just should be in circumstances of this kind; for the just man is neither at enmity with any human being, nor desires anything at all which is the property of another. For why should he take a voyage, or what should he seek from another land, when his own is sufficient for him? Or why should he carry on war, and mix himself with the passions of others, when his mind is engaged in perpetual peace with men? Doubtless he will be delighted with foreign merchandise or with human blood, who does not know how to seek gain, who is satisfied with his mode of living, and considers it unlawful not only himself to commit slaughter, but to be present with those who do it, and to behold it!

So, according to Lactantius, one who is just won’t have to worry about such things because, being content with what they have and engaging in perpetual peace with all, they will have no desire to fight wars or gain possessions. He admits though that at times “it is possible that a man may be compelled even against his will to undergo these things” and thus gives a more direct answer. Is one ever just in pushing someone else off a plank? Even in order to survive? He answers with shockingly blunt *no*.

The Divine Institutes 5.18

I am not unwilling to confess he will rather die than put another to death. Nor will justice, which is the chief good of man, on this account receive the name of folly. For what ought to be better and dearer to man than innocence? And this must be the more perfect, the more you bring it to extremity, and choose to die rather than to detract from the character of innocence.

Taking the argument in the complete opposite direction Carneades was directing it, Lactantius says that in these situations, *all the more* would a just person preserve the life of another. He is able to maintain such a stance while others cannot because, unlike him, they do not believe in eternal life. He admits that it would be folly to let another live at the cost of your own life, but his understanding that through God we have eternal life changes everything. He explains why Christians endure even torture than to retaliate or defend.

The Divine Institutes 5.19

For to choose to be tortured and slain, rather than to take incense in three fingers, and throw it upon the hearth [in honor of other gods] , appears as foolish as, in a case where life is endangered, to be more careful of the life of another than of one’s own. For they do not know how great an act of impiety it is to adore any other object than God, who made heaven and earth, who fashioned the human race, breathed into them the breath of life, and gave them light… How much more so does he who forsakes God [than one whom forsakes an earthly master], in whom the two names entitled to equal reverence, of Lord and Father, alike meet? For what benefit does he who buys a slave bestow upon him, beyond the nourishment with which he supplies him for his own advantage? And he who begets a son has it not in his power to effect that he shall be conceived, or born, or live; from which it is evident that he is not the father, but only the instrument of generation. Of what punishments, therefore, is he deserving, who forsakes Him who is both the true Master and Father, but those which God Himself has appointed? Who has prepared everlasting fire for the wicked spirits; and this He Himself threatens by His prophets to the impious and the rebellious.

Many of Lactantius’ defenses against “virtuous violence” relate to the idea that true virtue “especially consists in the acquisition of those things which neither any man, nor death itself, can take away from us.” (6.6) It is our desires for what others have which leads to such seemingly difficult situations.

In Divine Institutes 6.6 he gives a scathing attack on the Roman ideas of a just war.

He begins by criticizing the notion that virtue is being loyal to the state, for virtue is not dependent on something which can change.

The Divine Institutes 6.6

It is not virtue, therefore, either to be the enemy of the bad or the defender of the good, because virtue cannot be subject to uncertain chances…

When the agreement of men is taken away, virtue has no existence at all; for what are the interests of our country, but the inconveniences of another state or nation?— that is, to extend the boundaries which are violently taken from others, to increase the power of the state, to improve the revenues — all which things are not virtues, but the overthrowing of virtues: for, in the first place, the union of human society is taken away, innocence is taken away, the abstaining from the property of another is taken away; lastly, justice itself is taken away, which is unable to bear the tearing asunder of the human race, and wherever arms have glittered, must be banished and exterminated from thence…

He continues to criticize this argument as ignorant. Even the wise philosophers fell to such faulty logic, contradicting their own definitions and justice and virtue due to their lack of understanding of God.

The Divine Institutes 6.6 (Last sentence is 6.9)

Whoever, then, has gained for his country these goods — as they themselves call them — that is, who by the overthrow of cities and the destruction of nations has filled the treasury with money, has taken lands and enriched his country-men — he is extolled with praises to the heaven: in him there is said to be the greatest and perfect virtue. And this is the error not only of the people and the ignorant, but also of philosophers, who even give precepts for injustice… Therefore, when they are speaking of the duties relating to warfare, all that discourse is accommodated neither to justice nor to true virtue, but to this life and to civil institutions…  If therefore wisdom is taken away from the philosophers by their own confession, and justice is taken away from those who are regarded as just, it follows that all those descriptions of virtue must be false, because no one can know what true virtue is but he who is just and wise. But no one is just and wise but he whom God has instructed with heavenly precepts… Civil law is one thing, which varies everywhere according to customs; but justice is another thing, which God has set forth to all as uniform and simple: and he who is ignorant of God must also be ignorant of justice.

In 6.20 Lactantius criticizes all forms of killing. He begins with decrying gladiatorial games and continues on to include all forms of ending life, including capital punishment and war.

The Divine Institutes 6.20

For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.

Therefore let no one imagine that even this is allowed, to strangle newly-born children, which is the greatest impiety; for God breathes into their souls for life, and not for death… Wherefore, if any one on account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from marriage than with wicked hands to mar the work of God…

If, then, it is in no way permitted to commit homicide, it is not allowed us to be present at all, lest any bloodshed should overspread the conscience, since that blood is offered for the gratification of the people…

Therefore all spectacles ought to be avoided, not only that no vice may settle in our breasts, which ought to be tranquil and peaceful; but that the habitual indulgence of any pleasure may not soothe and captivate us, and turn us aside from God and from good works.

I also include an argument of his against suicide. I almost did not include it since the only controversial view towards suicide would be one which condoned it, but in it one can see his arguments against killing of all kinds.

The Divine Institutes 3.18

For if a homicide is guilty because he is a destroyer of man, he who puts himself to death is under the same guilt, because he puts to death a man. Yea, that crime may be considered to be greater, the punishment of which belongs to God alone. For as we did not come into this life of our own accord; so, on the other hand, we can only withdraw from this habitation of the body which has been appointed for us to keep, by the command of Him who placed us in this body that we may inhabit it, until He orders us to depart from it; and if any violence is offered to us, we must endure it with equanimity, since the death of an innocent person cannot be unavenged, and since we have a great Judge who alone always has the power of taking vengeance in His hands.

Further Reading

Everything is found in his The Divine Institutes The first number is the book and the second the chapter.

1.18, 3.18, 5.8, 5.10, 5.17-19, 5.23, 6.5 6.6, 6.9, 6.18, 6.20

More in the Series


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