Recent headlines about the Church of England pondering gender-neutral language for God reminded me of something I read in Lactantius recently. Writing in the early fourth century, Lactantius articulates how Christianity differs from classical philosophy but also from what we might call the more mystical wisdom or theosophy of pre-Socratic sages and hierophants. These differences especially concern the nature of God. (N.B. It’s worth pointing out here that Lactantius was almost certainly not a classical theist, by the way, but that’s a topic for a different time.)
By Divine Institutes 4.8, Lactantius has begun laying out his own view of God and turns to consider the Son specifically. He insists that discussion of “God’s son” does not entail that God somehow mated with a woman or required an opposite sex:
Yet since God was alone up to this point, with whom could he have mingled himself? On the contrary, since he was of such great power, so that he could do whatever he wanted, he was not needing the union of someone else for procreation anyway—unless perhaps we shall consider God to be both male and female (as Orpheus thought), because [supposed Orpheus] otherwise he could not generate anything, if one sex was lacking the force of another, as though he either would copulate with himself or would be unable to procreate without copulation. But even Hermes was of this same opinion, when he said God was “his own father” and “his own mother.” But if that were so, inasmuch as he is called “father” by the prophets, so too would he be called “mother.” 
In order to avoid the more colorful conclusions of Orpheus or Hermes, Lactantius’ solution to the generation of the Son draws a comparison with the creation of the angels in the lines that immediately follow. The angels come from God’s spiritus, but the Son is God’s intelligent speech (sermo). God’s Son, then, is as different from the angels as a man’s words differ from his passive breathing: comparable in certain respects but one is far greater than the other and more closely aligned with one’s person.
But what’s up with this stuff about Orpheus and Hermes? Wasn’t Orpheus just some legendary poet? And isn’t Hermes just supposed to be a god himself in the Greek pantheon? I’ll keep a long story short:
Dating back to the Hellenistic era, there had been an effort among Greek philologists to identify and contextualize the historical Orpheus. There was even a longstanding debate between the philological schools of Alexandria and Pergamum as to whether Orpheus was older than Homer or not, because lines of Orphic poetry appear in Homer’s epics. So, in antiquity, most people seem to have believed that Orpheus was a real person, even if they didn’t necessarily buy all the different myths and other claims about him. Perhaps more poignantly, because Orpheus had long been intricated in the Greek mystery cults, others had taken him as a kind of mystical prophet-poet. Thus, Orpheus was supposed to have been a kind of archaic, mystical theologian by some in antiquity, which is why Lactantius brings him up. We probably have the specific line of Orphic poetry that Lactantius was referencing.
As for Hermes, the Hellenistic era had also produced a curious blend of religious and philosophical syncretism:
In native Egyptian religion the divine patron of literature and learning was Thoth, god of the moon and calendar and scribe of the gods. In Greece, Thoth was identified with Hermes; Greeks living in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt called him Hermes trimegistos, “thrice great” Hermes, using one of Thoth’s native Egyptian epithets. Around the figure of Hermes Trismegistus grew up a substantial body of Greek pseudepigraphic literature composed in Egypt, some of it attributed to Hermes and some attributed to his alleged disciples—Asclepius (Imhotep), Agathodaimon (Chnoum), Ammon, Isis, Horus, Tat; while others of these “Hermetica”—that is, works associated with Hermes Trismegistus—now bear no attribution at all.
Much as in the case of Orpheus, many in antiquity believed there was real Hermes figure who left writings; Plato himself (who normally scorns that kind of thing) wondered if Hermes/Thoth was a “divine man,” a sagely, miracle-working stock character of the philosophical-religious framework of antiquity. In general, the Hermetica bear strong resemblance to the doctrine of the later gnostics, which in turn has hard-to-miss resonances with much older Egyptian cosmology in some places. Thus, somewhere in the Hermetic corpus, Lactantius (and presumably much of his intended audience) had read a description of the divine that had it to be essentially male-female, for lack of a better term. Like Orpheus’ writings, the Hermetica were supposed by some to offer real theological insights. Of course, Lactantius’ response to all of this has some bite: the real prophets (i.e., of the Old Testament) only ever speak of God as a fatherly figure.
Getting back to those Anglican rumblings, Lactantius bears reflection here not as a theological authority per se but as a historical datum to dispel a vaguely articulated view of doctrinal history often linked to these sorts of questions. Whether stated explicitly or nebulously implied, I think the view goes something like this: “We enlightened modern Christians now know all that paternal, masculine language about God in the Bible and early theology was basically a figure of speech, which condescended to the patriarchal expectations of the time. Since we can see it for what it is today, we can use better, more accurate language.” Strictly speaking, this is a colorable theological argument; Christians have been making those kinds of distinctions exegetically for a long time. But I think this particular notion runs into trouble if it mistakenly assumes what ancient people could and couldn’t countenance theologically. As Lactantius demonstrates with Orpheus and Hermes, some philosophical, theological, and mystic thinkers had already imagined a fairly gender-inclusive divinity, as it were, and probably centuries before Jesus came on the scene, at that. That many early Christians seem to have opted for a pointedly masculine description of the divine looks more like a conscious choice among alternative accounts of the divine and less like osmotic theological condescension to a patriarchal society.
- Translation my own. Div. Inst. 4.8. Latin text from CSEL, 19 (S. Brandt, 1890): Deus autem cum solus adhuc esset, cui permiscere se potuit? aut cum esset tantae potestatis, ut quidquid uellet efficeret, utique ad creandum societate alterius non indigebat: nisi forte existimabimus deum, sicut Orpheus putauit, et marem esse et feminam, quod aliter generare non quiuerit, nisi haberet uim sexus utriusque, quasi aut ipse secum coierit aut sine coitu non potuerit procreare. sed et Hermes in eadem fuit opinione, cum dicit eum αὐτοπάτορα et αὐτομήτορα. quod si ita esset, ut a prophetis pater dicitur, sic etiam mater diceretur. ↑
- Orphic Fragment 81: θῆλυς καὶ γενέτωρ κρατερὸς θεὸς Ἠρικεπαῖος, quoted by the later Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus in his commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. ↑
- Bentley Layton and David Brakke, eds., The Gnostic Scriptures, 2nd edition, The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 639. ↑
- Philebus, 18b–c. See Plato’s disdain for pseudepigraphic quackery in Republic 364e–365a. ↑