The Arian Controversy Part 2

Our accounts of the debate are very fragmentary. Eusebius pa.s.ses over an unpleasant subject, and Athanasius up and down his writings only tells us what he wants for his immediate purpose. Thus we cannot trace many of the Arian objections to the creed. Knowing, however, as we do that they were carefully discussed, we may presume that they were the standing difficulties of the next generation. These were four in number:--

(1.) 'From the essence' and 'of one essence' are materialist expressions, implying either that the Son is a separate part of the essence of the Father, or that there is some third essence prior to both. This objection was a difficulty in the East, and still more in the West, where 'essence' was represented by the materializing word _substantia_, from which we get our unfortunate translation 'of one substance.'

(2.) 'Of one essence' is Sabellian. This was true; and the defenders of the word did not seem to care if it was true. Marcellus almost certainly used incautious language, and it was many years before even Athanasius was fully awake to the danger from the Sabellian side.

(3.) The words 'essence' and 'of one essence' are not found in Scripture. This is what seems to have influenced the bishops most of all.

(4.) 'Of one essence' is contrary to church authority. This also was true, for the word had been rejected as materializing by a large council held at Antioch in 269 against Paul of Samosata. The point, however, at present raised was not that it had been rejected for a good reason, but simply that it had been rejected; and this is an appeal to church authority in the style of later times. The question was one of Scripture against church authority. Both parties indeed accepted Scripture as supreme, but when they differed in its interpretation, the Arians pleaded that a word not sanctioned by church authority could not be made a test of orthodoxy. If tradition gave them a foothold (and none could deny it), they thought themselves ent.i.tled to stay; if Scripture condemned them (and there could be no doubt of that), Athanasius thought himself bound to turn them out. It was on the ground of Scripture that the fathers of Nicaea took their stand, and the works of Athanasius, from first to last, are one continuous appeal to Scripture. In this case he argues that if the disputed word is not itself Scripture, its meaning is. This was quite enough; but if the Arians chose to drag in antiquarian questions, they might easily be met on that ground also, for the word had been used or recognised by Origen and others at Alexandria.

With regard to its rejection by the Syrian churches, he refuses all mechanical comparisons of date or numbers between the councils of Antioch and Nicaea, and endeavours to show that while Paul of Samosata had used the word in one sense, Arius denied it in another.

[Sidenote: Hesitation of the council.]

The council paused. The confessors in particular were an immense conservative force. If Hosius and Eustathius had been forward in attacking Arianism, few of them can have greatly wished to re-state the faith which had sustained them in their trial. Now the creed involved something like a revolution. The idea of a universal test was in itself a great change, best softened as much as might be. The insertion of a direct condemnation of Arianism was a still more serious step, and though the bishops had consented to it, they had not consented without misgiving. But when it was proposed to use a word of doubtful tendency, neither found in Scripture nor sanctioned by church authority, it would have been strange if they had not looked round for some escape.

[Sidenote: Arian evasions.]

Yet what escape was possible? Scripture can be used as a test if its authority is called in question, but not when its meaning is disputed.

If the Arians were to be excluded, it was useless to put into the creed the very words whose plain meaning they were charged with evading.

Athanasius gives an interesting account of this stage of the debate. It appears that when the bishops collected phrases from Scripture and set down that the Son is 'of G.o.d,' those wicked Arians said to each other, 'We can sign that, for we ourselves also are of G.o.d. Is it not written, All things are of G.o.d?'[8] So when the bishops saw their impious ingenuity, they put it more clearly, that the Son is not only of G.o.d like the creatures, but of the essence of G.o.d. And this was the reason why the word 'essence' was put into the creed. Again, the Arians were asked if they would confess that the Son is not a creature, but the power and eternal image of the Father and true G.o.d. Instead of giving a straightforward answer, they were caught whispering to each other. 'This is true of ourselves, for we men are called the image and glory of G.o.d.[9] We too are eternal, for we who live are always.[10] And powers of G.o.d are many. Is He not the Lord of powers (hosts)? The locust and the caterpillar are actually "my great power which I sent among you."[11] He is true G.o.d also, for he became true G.o.d as soon as he was created.' These were the evasions which compelled the bishops to sum up the sense of Scripture in the statement that the Son is of one essence with the Father.

[Footnote 8: 1 Cor. viii. 6.]

[Footnote 9: 1 Cor. xi. 7.]

[Footnote 10: 2 Cor. iv. 11; the impudence of the quotation is worth notice.]

[Footnote 11: Joel ii. 25 (army).]

[Sidenote: Acceptance of the creed.]

So far Athanasius. The longer the debate went on, the clearer it became that the meaning of Scripture could not be defined without going outside Scripture for words to define it. In the end, they all signed except a few. Many, however, signed with misgivings, and some almost avowedly as a formality to please the Emperor. 'The soul is none the worse for a little ink.' It is not a pleasant scene for the historian.

[Sidenote: The letter of Eusebius.]

Eusebius of Caesarea was sorely disappointed. Instead of giving a creed to Christendom, he received back his confession in a form which at first he could not sign at all. There was some ground for his complaint that, under pretence of inserting the single word of _one essence_, which our wise and G.o.dly Emperor so admirably explained, the bishops had in effect drawn up a composition of their own. It was a venerable doc.u.ment of stainless orthodoxy, and they had laid rude hands on almost every clause of it. Instead of a confession which secured the a.s.sent of all parties by deciding nothing, they forced on him a stringent condemnation, not indeed of his own belief, but of opinions held by many of his friends, and separated by no clear logical distinction from his own. But now was he to sign or not? Eusebius was not one of the hypocrites, and would not sign till his scruples were satisfied. He tells us them in a letter to the people of his diocese, which he wrote under the evident feeling that his signature needed some apology. First he gives their own Caesarean creed, and protests his unchanged adherence to it. Then he relates its unanimous acceptance, subject to the insertion of the single word _of one essence_, which Constantine explained to be directed against materializing and unspiritual views of the divine generation. But it emerged from the debates in so altered a form that he could not sign it without careful examination. His first scruple was at _of the essence of the Father_, which was explained as not meant to imply any materializing separation. So, for the sake of peace, he was willing to accept it, as well as _of one essence_, now that he could do it with a good conscience. Similarly, _begotten, not made_, was explained to mean that the Son has nothing in common with the creatures made by him, but is of a higher essence, ineffably begotten of the Father. So also, on careful consideration, _of one essence with the Father_ implies no more than the uniqueness of the Son's generation, and his distinctness from the creatures. Other expressions prove equally innocent.

[Sidenote: Constantine's interference.]

Now that a general agreement had been reached, it was time for Constantine to interpose. He had summoned the council as a means of union, and enforced his exhortation to harmony by burning the letters of recrimination which the bishops had presented to him. To that text he still adhered. He knew too little of the controversy to have any very strong personal opinion, and the influences which might have guided him were divided. If Hosius of Cordova leaned to the Athanasian side, Eusebius of Nicomedia was almost Arian. If Constantine had any feeling in the matter--dislike, for example, of the popularity of Arius--he was shrewd enough not to declare it too hastily. If he tried to force a view of his own on the undecided bishops, he might offend half Christendom; but if he waited for the strongest force inside the council to a.s.sert itself, he might safely step in at the end to coerce the recusants.

Therefore whatever pleased the council pleased the Emperor too. When they tore up the Arian creed, he approved. When they accepted the Caesarean, he approved again. When the morally strong Athanasian minority urged the council to put in the disputed clauses, Constantine did his best to smooth the course of the debate. At last, always in the interest of unity, he proceeded to put pressure on the few who still held out.

Satisfactory explanations were given to Eusebius of Caesarea, and in the end they all signed but the two Egyptian Arians, Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica. These were sent into exile, as well as Arius himself; and a qualified subscription from Eusebius of Nicomedia only saved him for the moment. An imperial rescript also branded the heretic's followers with the name of Porphyrians, and ordered his writings to be burnt. The concealment of a copy was to be a capital offence.

[Sidenote: Close of the council.]

Other subjects decided by the council will not detain us long, though some of its members may have thought one or two of them quite as important as Arianism. The old Easter question was settled in favour of the Roman custom of observing, not the day of the Jewish pa.s.sover in memory of the crucifixion, but a later Sunday in memory of the resurrection. For how, explains Constantine--how could we who are Christians possibly keep the same day as those wicked Jews? The council, however, was right on the main point, that the feasts of Christian worship are not to be tied to those of Judaism. The third great subject for discussion was the Meletian schism in Egypt, and this was settled by a liberal compromise. The Meletian presbyter might act alone if there was no orthodox presbyter in the place, otherwise he was to be a coadjutor with a claim to succeed if found worthy. Athanasius (at least in later times) would have preferred severer measures, and more than once refers to these with unconcealed disgust. The rest of the business disposed of, Constantine dismissed the bishops with a splendid feast, which Eusebius enthusiastically likens to the kingdom of heaven.

[Sidenote: Results of the council.]

Let us now sum up the results of the council, so far as they concern Arianism. In one sense they were decisive. Arianism was so sharply condemned by the all but unanimous voice of Christendom, that nearly thirty years had to pa.s.s before it was openly avowed again. Conservative feeling in the West was engaged in steady defence of the great council; and even in the East its doctrine could be made to wear a conservative aspect as the actual faith of Christendom. On the other hand, were serious drawbacks. The triumph was rather a surprise than a solid victory. As it was a revolution which a minority had forced through by sheer strength of clearer thought, a reaction was inevitable when the half-convinced majority returned home. In other words, Athanasius had pushed the Easterns farther than they wished to go, and his victory recoiled on himself. But he could not retreat when once he had put the disputed words into the creed. Come what might, those words were irreversible. And if it was a dangerous policy which won the victory, the use made of it was deplorable. Though the exile of Arius and his friends was Constantine's work, much of the discredit must fall on the Athanasian leaders, for we cannot find that they objected to it either at the time or afterwards. It seriously embittered the controversy. If the Nicenes set the example of persecution, the other side improved on it till the whole contest threatened to degenerate into a series of personal quarrels and retaliations. The process was only checked by the common hatred of all parties to Julian, and by the growth of a better spirit among the Nicenes, as shown in the later writings of Athanasius.

CHAPTER III.

_THE EUSEBIAN REACTION._

[Sidenote: The problem stated.]

At first sight the reaction which followed the Nicene council is one of the strangest scenes in history. The decision was clear and all but unanimous. Arianism seemed crushed for ever by the universal reprobation of the Christian world. Yet it instantly renewed the contest, and fought its conquerors on equal terms for more than half a century. A reaction like this is plainly more than a court intrigue. Imperial favour could do a good deal in the Nicene age, but no emperor could long oppose any clear and definite belief of Christendom. Nothing could be plainer than the issue of the council. How then could Arianism venture to renew the contest?

[Sidenote: The reaction rather conservative than Arian.]

The answer is, that though the belief of the churches was certainly not Arian, neither was it yet definitely Nicene. The dominant feeling both in East and West was one of dislike to change, which we may conveniently call conservatism. But here there was a difference. Heresies in the East had always gathered round the person of the Lord, and more than one had already partly occupied the ground of Arianism. Thus Eastern conservatism inherited a doctrine from the last generation, and was inclined to look on the Nicene decisions as questionable innovations.

The Westerns thought otherwise. Leaning on authority as they habitually did, they cared little to discuss for themselves an unfamiliar question.

They could not even translate its technical terms into Latin without many misunderstandings. Therefore Western conservatism simply fell back on the august decisions of Nicaea. No later meeting could presume to rival 'the great and holy council' where Christendom had once for all p.r.o.nounced the condemnation of Arianism. In short, East and West were alike conservative; but while conservatism in the East went behind the council, in the West it was content to start from it.

[Sidenote: Supported by influence of: (1.) Heathens.]

The Eastern reaction was therefore in its essence not Arian but conservative. Its leaders might be conservatives like Eusebius of Caesarea, or court politicians like his successor, Acacius. They were never open Arians till 357. The front and strength of the party was conservative, and the Arians at its tail were in themselves only a source of weakness. Yet they could enlist powerful allies in the cause of reaction. Heathenism was still a living power in the world. It was strong in numbers even in the East, and even stronger in the imposing memories of history. Christianity was still an upstart on Caesar's throne. The favour of the G.o.ds had built up the Empire, and men's hearts misgave them that their wrath might overthrow it. Heathenism was still an established religion, the Emperor still its official head. Old Rome was still devoted to her ancient deities, her n.o.bles still recorded their priesthoods and augurships among their proudest honours, and the Senate itself still opened every sitting with an offering of incense on the altar of Victory. The public service was largely heathen, and the army too, especially its growing cohorts of barbarian auxiliaries.

Education also was mostly heathen, turning on heathen cla.s.sics and taught by heathen rhetoricians. Libanius, the teacher of Chrysostom, was also the honoured friend of Julian. Philosophy too was a great influence, now that it had leagued together all the failing powers of the ancient world against a rival not of this world. Its weakness as a moral force must not blind us to its charm for the imagination.

Neoplatonism brought Egypt to the aid of Greece, and drew on Christianity itself for help. The secrets of philosophy were set forth in the mysteries of Eastern superst.i.tion. From the dim background of a n.o.ble monotheism the ancient G.o.ds came forth to represent on earth a majesty above their own. No waverer could face the terrors of that mighty gathering of infernal powers. And the Nicene age was a time of unsettlement and change, of half-beliefs and wavering superst.i.tion, of weakness and unclean frivolity. Above all, society was heathen to an extent we can hardly realise. The two religions were strangely mixed.

The heathens on their side never quite understood the idea of worshipping one G.o.d only; while crowds of nominal Christians never asked for baptism unless a dangerous illness or an earthquake scared them, and thought it quite enough to show their faces in church once or twice a year. Meanwhile, they lived just like the heathens round them, steeped in superst.i.tions like their neighbours, attending freely their immoral games and dances, and sharing in the sins connected with them. Thus Arianism had many affinities with heathenism, in its philosophical idea of the Supreme, in its worship of a demiG.o.d of the vulgar type, in its rhetorical methods, and in its generally lower moral tone. Heathen influences therefore strongly supported Arianism.

[Sidenote: (2.) Jews.]

The Jews also usually took the Arian side. They were still a power in the world, though it was long since Israel had challenged Rome to seventy years of internecine contest for the dominion of the East. But they had never forgiven her the destruction of Jehovah's temple.

[Sidenote: A.D. 66-135.] Half overcome themselves by the spell of the eternal Empire, they still looked vaguely for some Eastern deliverer to break her impious yoke. Still more fiercely they resented her adoption of the gospel, which indeed was no tidings of good-will or peace to them, but the opening of a thousand years of persecution. Thus they were a sort of caricature of the Christian churches. They made every land their own, yet were aliens in all. They lived subject to the laws of the Empire, yet gathered into corporations governed by their own. They were citizens of Rome, yet strangers to her imperial comprehensiveness. In a word, they were like a spirit in the body, but a spirit of uncleanness and of sordid gain. If they hated the Gentile, they could love his vices notwithstanding. If the old missionary zeal of Israel was extinct, they could still purvey impostures for the world. Jewish superst.i.tions were the plague of distant Spain, the despair of Chrysostom at Antioch. Thus the lower moral tone of Arianism and especially its denial of the Lord's divinity were enough to secure it a fair amount of Jewish support as against the Nicenes. At Alexandria, for example, the Jews were always ready for lawless outrage at the call of every enemy of Athanasius.

[Sidenote: (3.) The court.]

The court also leaned to Arianism. The genuine Arians, to do them justice, were not more pliant to imperial dictation than the Nicenes, but the genuine Arians were only one section of a motley coalition.

Their conservative patrons and allies were laid open to court influence by their dread of Sabellianism; for conservatism is the natural home of the impatient timidity which looks round at every difficulty for a saviour of society, and would fain turn the whole work of government into a crusade against a series of scarecrows. Thus when Constantius turned against them, their chiefs were found wanting in the self-respect which kept both Nicene and Arian leaders from condescending to a battle of intrigue with such masters of the art as flourished in the palace.

But for thirty years the intriguers found it their interest to profess conservatism. The court was as full of selfish cabals as that of the old French monarchy. Behind the glittering ceremonial on which the treasures of the world were squandered fought armies of place-hunters great and small, cooks and barbers, women and eunuchs, courtiers and spies, adventurers of every sort, for ever wresting the majesty of law to private favour, for ever aiming new oppressions at the men on whom the exactions of the Empire already fell with crushing weight. The n.o.blest bishops, the ablest generals, were their fairest prey; and we have no surer witness to the greatness of Athanasius or Julian than the pertinacious hatred of this odious horde. Intriguers of this kind found it better to unsettle the Nicene decisions, on behalf of conservatism forsooth, than to maintain them in the name of truth. There were many ways of upsetting them, and each might lead to gain; only one of defending them, and that was not attractive.

[Sidenote: (4.) Asia.]

Nor were Constantius and Valens without political reasons for their support of Arianism. We can see by the light of later history that the real centre of the Empire was the solid ma.s.s of Asia from the Bosphorus to Mount Taurus, and that Constantinople was its outwork on the side of Europe. In Rome on one side, Egypt and Syria on the other, we can already trace the tendencies which led to their separation from the orthodox Eastern Church and Empire. Now in the fourth century Asia was a stronghold of conservatism. There was a good deal of Arianism in Cappadocia, but we hear little of it in Asia. The group of Lucianists at Nicaea left neither Arian nor Nicene successors. The ten provinces of Asia 'verily knew not G.o.d' in Hilary's time; and even the later Nicene doctrine of Cappadocia was almost as much Semiarian as Athanasian. Thus Constantius and Valens pursued throughout an Asiatic policy, striking with one hand at Egypt, with the other at Rome. Every change in their action can be explained with reference to the changes of opinion in Asia.

[Sidenote: Conclusion.]

Upon the whole, we may say that Arian hatred of the council would have been powerless if it had not rested on a formidable ma.s.s of conservative discontent, while the conservative discontent might have died away if the court had not supplied it with the means of action. If the decision lay with the majority, every initiative had to come from the court.

Hence the reaction went on as long as these were agreed against the Nicene party; it was suspended as soon as Julian's policy turned another way, became unreal when conservative alarm subsided, and finally collapsed when Asia went over to the Nicene side.

[Sidenote: Sequel of the council.]

We may now return to the sequel of the great council. If Constantine thought he had restored peace in the churches, he soon found out his mistake. The literary war began again almost where his summons had interrupted it. The creed was signed and done with and seemed forgotten.

Receive SMS and Send Text Online for free >>

« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»

Novel »
Next  »