Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 7, Lactantius, etc

Ante Nicene Fathers Volume 7 Fathers of the Third and Fourth Century: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, 2 Clement, Early Liturgies

The seventh volume in the series edited by Philip Schaff and Alexander Roberts has a lot of variety in it, despite not being nearly as long as some of the other books in this series. It is also a bit more uneven, thanks largely to the materials at the end of the volume. More on that shortly.

Other than their chronological relationship, there's not a whole lot binding these disparate writers together in terms of theme or subject. I mean, they're Christians, but beyond that they're all over the place. Functionally this means that a review of the book as a whole is impossible. Instead, I'll hit the bits and pieces in broad strokes starting with


I said a review of the book as a whole is impossible--and I maintain that still. But the works by Lactantius alone make the whole worthwhile. The Divine Institutes isn't always the best theology, of course (something that could be said of literally every book written by every human ever, aside from Scripture), but it is a delightful read and worth your time. (Unfortunately, the modern translations all tend to be prohibitively expensive.) Just as one example:
"For the truth is always hateful on this account: because he who sins wishes to have free scope for sinning, and thinks that he cannot in any other way more securely enjoy the pleasure of his evil doings, than if there is no one whom his faults may displease."
The minor works are good too, especially the treatise on God's anger:
"Anger, therefore, has a befitting occasion in God. For it is not right that, when He sees such [sins], He should not be moved, and arise to take vengeance upon the wicked, and destroy the pestilent and guilty, so as to promote the interests of all good men. Thus even in anger itself there is also contained a showing of kindness."
If you read nothing else from this book, read the writings of Lactantius!

Venantius and Asterius Urbanus

The poem "On Easter" (not translated into verse in English) and the fragments of Asterius are worth reading if only because they are short, and there's always a sense of accomplishment to reading all of something. Which is why I will be adding all the children's books I've read to the kiddo to Goodreads at some point...
Aside from the length, both of these are still worth reading. The little poem is a delightful meditation on the Incarnation and Atonement without any of the later superstitious nonsense that would start to infect the church through its calendar.
Asterius is largely without substance, but there's no particular reason not to read so short a work.

Victorinus and Dionysius

These two authors provide slightly longer relics than the previous two, but with less overall substance. The commentary on the Apocalypse is especially unuseful--unless you are particularly interested in early church exposition of Scripture.
Still, I don't know that there's any heresy here (at least, not any more than you're likely to find in a modern interpretation of Revelation). So this might be a section to skim, albeit not one to completely skip.

The Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and The Homily Ascribed to Clement

Both of these works are available in a newer translation by Michael Holmes, which I highly recommend picking up as it is both based on better scholarship and an easier to read translation. The Didache is especially worth reading, while 2 Clement is... fine. Not terrible, but fine.

Constitutions of the Holy Apostles and Early Liturgies

These are sort-of interesting, particularly if you're looking to learn what the culture of the Early church was like and what sorts of social issues they were concerned with. (There's a whole passage about how men ought to watch how they dress so that they're not tempting women by showing too much skin.) And it is encouraging how clearly the church was concerned to be faithful to Scripture, even if I don't think they were always terribly successful.

Overall, neither of these sections needs more than a quick skimming--but they shouldn't be completely ignored either.

The sum of the whole is that this volume is a good one, largely because Lactantius is awesome. The rest is worthwhile, but not necessarily spectacular.