|John Henry Newman
The Arians of the Fourth Century
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The Arians of the Fourth Century
It has appeared in the foregoing Chapter, that the temper of the Ante-Nicene Church was opposed to the imposition of doctrinal tests upon her members; and on the other hand, that such a measure became necessary in proportion as the cogency of Apostolic Tradition was weakened by lapse of time. This is a subject which will bear some further remarks; and will lead to an investigation of the principle upon which the formation and imposition of creeds rests. After this, I shall delineate the Catholic doctrine itself, as held in the first ages of Christianity; and then, the Arian substitution for it.
I have already observed, that the knowledge of the Christian mysteries was, in those times, accounted as a privilege, to be eagerly coveted. It was not likely, then, that reception of them would be accounted a test; which implies a concession on the part of the recipient, not an advantage. The idea of disbelieving, or criticizing the great doctrines of the faith, from the nature of the case, would scarcely occur to the primitive Christians. These doctrines were the subject of an Apostolical Tradition; they were the very truths which had been lately revealed to mankind. They had been committed to the Church’s keeping, and were dispensed by her to those who sought them, as a favour. They were facts, not opinions. To come to the Church was all one with expressing a readiness to receive her teaching; to hesitate to believe, after coming for the sake of believing, would be an inconsistency too rare to require a special provision against the chance of it. It was sufficient to meet the evil as it arose: the power of excommunication and deposition was in the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities, and, as in the case of Paulus, was used impartially. Yet, in the matter of fact, such instances of contumacy were comparatively rare; and the Ante-Nicene heresies were in many instances the innovations of those who had never been in the Church, or who had already been expelled from it.
We have some difficulty in putting ourselves into the situation of Christians in those times, from the circumstance that the Holy Scriptures are now our sole means of satisfying ourselves on points of doctrine. Thus, every one who comes to the Church considers himself entitled to judge and decide individually upon its creed. But in that primitive age, the Apostolical Tradition, that is, the Creed, was practically the chief source of instruction, especially considering the obscurities of Scripture; and being withdrawn from public view, it could not be subjected to the degradation of a comparison, on the part of inquirers and half-Christians, with those written documents which are vouchsafed to us from the same inspired authorities. As for the baptized and incorporate members of the Church, they of course had the privilege of comparing the written and the oral tradition, and might exercise it as profitably as in comparing and harmonizing Scripture with itself. But before baptism, the systematic knowledge was withheld; and without it, Scripture, instead of being the source of instruction on the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, was scarcely more than a sealed book, needing an interpretation, amply and powerfully as it served the purpose of proving those doctrines, when they were once disclosed. And so much on the reluctance of the primitive Fathers to publish creeds, on the ground that the knowledge of Christian doctrines was a privilege reserved for those who were baptized, and in no sense a subject of hesitation and dispute.—It may be added, that the very love of power, which in every age will sway the bulk of those who are exposed to the temptation of it, and ecclesiastics in the number, would indispose them to innovate upon a principle which made themselves the especial guardians of revealed truth.
Their backwardness proceeded also from a profound reverence for the sacred mysteries of which they were the dispensers. Here they present us with the true exhibition of that pious sensitiveness which the heathen had conceived, but could not justly execute. The latter had their mysteries, but their rude attempts were superseded by the divine discipline of the Gospel, which here acted in the office which is peculiarly its own, rectifying, combining, and completing the inventions of uninstructed nature. If the early Church regarded the very knowledge of the truth as a fearful privilege, much more did it regard that truth itself as glorious and awful; and scarcely conversing about it to her children, shrank from the impiety of subjecting it to the hard gaze of the multitude. We still pray, in the Confirmation service, for those who are introduced into the full privileges of the Christian covenant, that they may be “filled with the spirit of God’s holy fear”; but the meaning and practical results of deep-seated religious reverence were far better understood in the primitive times than now, when the infidelity of the world has corrupted the Church. Now, we allow ourselves publicly to canvass the most solemn truths in a careless or fiercely argumentative way; truths, which it is as useless as it is unseemly to discuss in public, as being attainable only by the sober and watchful, by slow degrees, with dependence on the Giver of wisdom, and with strict obedience to the light which has already been granted. Then, they would scarcely express in writing, what is now not only preached to the mixed crowds who frequent our churches, but circulated in print among all ranks and classes of the unclean and the profane, and pressed upon all who choose to purchase it. Nay, so perplexed is the present state of things, that the Church is obliged to change her course of acting, after the spirit of the alteration made at Nicæa, and unwillingly to take part in the theological discussions of the day, as a man crushes venomous creatures of necessity, powerful to do it, but loathing the employment. This is the apology which the author of the present work, as far as it is worth while to introduce himself, offers to all sober-minded and zealous Christians, for venturing to exhibit publicly the great evangelical doctrines, not indeed in the medium of controversy or proof (which would be a still more humiliating office), but in an historical and explanatory form. And he earnestly trusts, that, while doing so, he may be betrayed into no familiarity or extravagance of expression, cautiously lowering the Truth, and (as it were), wrapping it in reverent language, and so depositing it in its due resting-place, which is the Christian’s heart: guiltless of those unutterable profanations with which a scrutinizing infidelity wounds and lacerates it. Here, again, is strikingly instanced the unfitness of books, compared with private communication, for the purposes of religious instruction; levelling, as they do, the distinctions of mind and temper by the formality of the written character, and conveying each kind of knowledge the less perfectly, in proportion as it is of a moral nature, and requires to be treated with delicacy and discrimination.
As to the primitive Fathers, with their reverential feelings towards the Supreme Being, great must have been their indignation first, and then their perplexity, when apostates disclosed and corrupted the sacred truth, or when the heretical or philosophical sects made guesses approximating to it. Though the heretics also had their mysteries, yet, it is remarkable, that as regards the high doctrines of the Gospel, they in great measure dropped that restraint and reserve by which the Catholics partly signified, and partly secured a reverence for them. Tertullian sharply exposes the want of a grave and orderly discipline among them in his day. “It is uncertain,” he says, “who among them is catechumen, who believer. They meet alike, they hear alike, they pray alike; nay, though the heathen should drop in, they will cast holy things to dogs, and their pearls, false jewels as they are, to swine. This overthrow of order they call simplicity, and our attention to it they call meretricious embellishment. They communicate with all men promiscuously; it being nothing to them in what they differ from them, provided they join with them for the destruction of the truth. They are all high-minded; all make pretence of knowledge. Their catechumens are perfect in the faith before they are fully taught. Even their women are singularly forward; venturing, that is, to teach, to argue, to exorcise, to undertake cures, nay, perhaps to baptise.”
The heretical spirit is ever one and the same in its various forms: this description of the Gnostics was exactly paralleled, in all those points for which we have introduced it here, in the history of Arianism; historically distinct as is the latter system from Gnosticism. Arius began by throwing out his questions as a subject of debate for public consideration; and at once formed crowds of controversialists from those classes who were the least qualified or deserving to take part in the discussion. Alexander, his diocesan, accuses him of siding with the Jews and heathen against the Church; and certainly we learn from the historians, that the heathen philosophers were from the first warmly interested in the dispute, so that some of them attended the Nicene Council, for the chance of ascertaining the orthodox doctrine. Alexander also charges him with employing women in his disturbance of the Church, apparently referring at the same time to the Apostle’s prediction of them. He speaks especially of the younger females as zealous in his cause, and as traversing Alexandria in their eagerness to promote it;—a fact confirmed by Epiphanius, who speaks (if he may be credited) of as many as seven hundred from the religious societies of that city at once taking part with the heresiarch. But Arius carried his agitation lower still. It is on no other authority than that of the historian Philostorgius, his own partisan, that we are assured of his composing and setting to music, songs on the subject of his doctrine for the use of the rudest classes of society, with a view of familiarizing them to it. Other of his compositions, of a higher literary excellence, were used at table as a religious accompaniment to the ordinary meal; one of which, in part preserved by Athanasius, enters upon the most sacred portions of the theological question. The success of these exertions in drawing public attention to his doctrine is recorded by Eusebius of Cæsarea, who, though no friend of the heresiarch himself, is unsuspicious evidence as being one of his party. “From a little spark a great fire was kindled. The quarrel began in the Alexandrian Church, then it spread through the whole of Egypt, Lybia, and the farther Thebais; then it ravaged the other provinces and cities, till the war of words enlisted not only the prelates of the churches, but the people too. At length the exposure was so extraordinary, that even in the heathen theatres, the divine doctrine became the subject of the vilest ridicule.” Such was Arianism at its commencement; and if it was so indecent in the hands of its originator, who, in spite of his courting the multitude, was distinguished by a certain reserve and loftiness in his personal deportment, much more flagrant was its impiety under the direction of his less refined successors. Valens, the favourite bishop of Constantius, exposed the solemnities of the Eucharist in a judicial examination to which Jews and heathen were admitted; Eudoxius, the Arianizer of the Gothic nations, when installed in the patriarchal throne of Constantinople, uttered as his first words a profane jest, which was received with loud laughter in the newly-consecrated Church of St. Sophia; and Aetius, the founder of the Anomœans, was the grossest and most despicable of buffoons. Later still, we find the same description of the heretical party in a discourse of the kind and amiable Gregory of Nazianzus. With a reference to the Arian troubles he says, “Now is priest an empty name; contempt is poured upon the rulers, as Scripture says…All fear is banished from our souls, shamelessness has taken its place. Knowledge is now at the will of him who chooses it, and all the deep mysteries of the Spirit. We are all pious, because we condemn the impiety of others. We use the infidels as our arbiters, and cast what is holy to dogs, and pearls before swine, publishing divine truths to profane ears and minds; and, wretches as we are, we carefully fulfil the wishes of our enemies, while, without blushing, we ‘pollute ourselves in our inventions.’ ”
Enough has now been said, by way of describing the condition of the Catholic Church, defenceless from the very sacredness and refinement of its discipline, when the attack of Arianism was made upon it; insulting its silence, provoking it to argue, unsettling and seducing its members, and in consequence requiring its authoritative judgment on the point in dispute. And in addition to the instruments of evil which were internally directed against it, the Eclectics had by this time extended their creed among the learned, with far greater decorum than the Arians, but still so as practically to interpret the Scriptures in the place of the Church, and to state dogmatically the conclusions for which the Arian controvertists were but indirectly preparing the mind by their objections and sophisms.
Under these circumstances, it was the duty of the rulers of the Church, at whatever sacrifice of their feelings, to discuss the subject in controversy fully and unreservedly, and to state their decision openly. The only alternative was an unmanly non-interference, and an arbitrary or treacherous prohibition of the discussion. To enjoin silence on perplexed inquirers, is not to silence their thoughts; and in the case of serious minds, it is but natural to turn to the spiritual ruler for advice and relief, and to feel disappointment at the timidity, or irritation at the harshness, of those who refuse to lead a lawful inquiry which they cannot stifle. Such a course, then, is most unwise as well as cruel, inasmuch as it throws the question in dispute upon other arbitrators; or rather, it is more commonly insincere, the traitorous act of those who care little for the question in dispute, and are content that opinions should secretly prevail which they profess to condemn. The Nicene Fathers might despair of reclaiming the Arian party, but they were bound to erect a witness for the truth, which might be a guide and a warning to all Catholics, against the lying spirit which was abroad in the Church. These remarks apply to a censure which is sometimes passed on them, as if it was their duty to have shut up the question in the words of Scripture; for the words of Scripture were the very subject in controversy, and to have prohibited the controversy, would, in fact, have been but to insult the perplexed, and to extend real encouragement to insidious opponents of the truth.—But it may be expedient here to explain more fully the principle of the obligation which led to their interposition.
Let it be observed then, that as regards the doctrine of the Trinity, the mere text of Scripture is not calculated either to satisfy the intellect or to ascertain the temper of those who profess to accept it as a rule of faith.
1. Before the mind has been roused to reflection and inquisitiveness about its own acts and impressions, it acquiesces, if religiously trained, in that practical devotion to the Blessed Trinity, and implicit acknowledgment of the divinity of Son and Spirit, which holy Scripture at once teaches and exemplifies. This is the faith of uneducated men, which is not the less philosophically correct, nor less acceptable to God, because it does not happen to be conceived in those precise statements which presuppose the action of the mind on its own sentiments and notions. Moral feelings do not directly contemplate and realize to themselves the objects which excite them. A heathen in obeying his conscience, implicitly worships Him of whom he has never distinctly heard. Again, a child feels not the less affectionate reverence towards his parents, because he cannot discriminate in words, nay, or in idea, between them and others. As, however, his reason opens, he might ask himself concerning the ground of his own emotions and conduct towards them; and might find that these are the correlatives of their peculiar tenderness towards him, long and intimate knowledge of him, and unhesitating assumption of authority over him; all which he continually experiences. And further, he might trace these characteristics of their influence on him to the essential relation itself, which involves his own original debt to them for the gift of life and reason, the inestimable blessing of an indestructible, never-ending existence. And now his intellect contemplates the object of those affections, which acted truly from the first, and are not purer or stronger merely for this accession of knowledge. This will tend to illustrate the sacred subject to which we are directing our attention.
As the mind is cultivated and expanded, it cannot refrain from the attempt to analyze the vision which influences the heart, and the Object in which that vision centres; nor does it stop till it has, in some sort, succeeded in expressing in words, what has all along been a principle both of its affections and of its obedience. But here the parallel ceases; the Object of religious veneration being unseen, and dissimilar from all that is seen, reason can but represent it in the medium of those ideas which the experience of life affords (as we see in the Scripture account, as far as it is addressed to the intellect); and unless these ideas, however inadequate, be correctly applied to it, they react upon the affections, and deprave the religious principle. This is exemplified in the case of the heathen, who, trying to make their instinctive notion of the Deity an object of reflection, pictured to their minds false images, which eventually gave them a pattern and a sanction for sinning. Thus the systematic doctrine of the Trinity may be considered as the shadow, projected for the contemplation of the intellect, of the Object of scripturally-informed piety: a representation, economical; necessarily imperfect, as being exhibited in a foreign medium, and therefore involving apparent inconsistencies or mysteries; given to the Church by tradition contemporaneously with those apostolic writings, which are addressed more directly to the heart; kept in the background in the infancy of Christianity, when faith and obedience were vigorous, and brought forward at a time when, reason being disproportionately developed, and aiming at sovereignty in the province of religion, its presence became necessary to expel an usurping idol from the house of God.
If this account of the connexion between the theological system and the Scripture implication of it be substantially correct, it will be seen how ineffectual all attempts ever will be to secure the doctrine by mere general language. It may be readily granted that the intellectual representation should ever be subordinate to the cultivation of the religious affections. And after all, it must be owned, so reluctant is a well-constituted mind to reflect on its own motive principles, that the correct intellectual image, from its hardness of outline, may startle and offend those who have all along been acting upon it. Doubtless there are portions of the ecclesiastical doctrine, presently to be exhibited, which may at first sight seem a refinement, merely because the object and bearings of them are not understood without reflection and experience. But what is left to the Church but to speak out, in order to exclude error? Much as we may wish it, we cannot restrain the rovings of the intellect, or silence its clamorous demand for a formal statement concerning the Object of our worship. If, for instance, Scripture bids us adore God, and adore His Son, our reason at once asks, whether it does not follow that there are two Gods; and a system of doctrine becomes unavoidable; being framed, let it be observed, not with a view of explaining, but of arranging the inspired notices concerning the Supreme Being, of providing, not a consistent, but a connected statement. There the inquisitiveness of a pious mind rests, viz., when it has pursued the subject into the mystery which is its limit. But this is not all. The intellectual expression of theological truth not only excludes heresy, but directly assists the acts of religious worship and obedience; fixing and stimulating the Christian spirit in the same way as the knowledge of the One God relieves and illuminates the perplexed conscience of the religious heathen.—And thus much on the importance of Creeds to tranquillize the mind; the text of Scripture being addressed principally to the affections, and of a religious, not a philosophical character.
2. Nor, in the next place, is an assent to the text of Scripture sufficient for the purposes of Christian fellowship. As the sacred text was not intended to satisfy the intellect, neither was it given as a test of the religious temper which it forms, and of which it is an expression. Doubtless no combination of words will ascertain an unity of sentiment in those who adopt them; but one form is more adapted for the purpose than another. Scripture being unsystematic, and the faith which it propounds being scattered through its documents, and understood only when they are viewed as a whole, the Creeds aim at concentrating its general spirit, so as to give security to the Church, as far as may be, that its members take that definite view of that faith which alone is the true one. But, if this be the case, how idle is it to suppose that to demand assent to a form of words which happens to be scriptural, is on that account sufficient to effect an unanimity in thought and action! If the Church would be vigorous and influential, it must be decided and plain-spoken in its doctrine, and must regard its faith rather as a character of mind than as a notion. To attempt comprehensions of opinion, amiable as the motive frequently is, is to mistake arrangements of words, which have no existence except on paper, for habits which are realities; and ingenious generalizations of discordant sentiments for that practical agreement which alone can lead to co-operation. We may indeed artificially classify light and darkness under one term or formula; but nature has her own fixed courses, and unites mankind by the sympathy of moral character, not by those forced resemblances which the imagination singles out at pleasure even in the most promiscuous collection of materials. However plausible may be the veil thus thrown over heterogeneous doctrines, the flimsy artifice is discomposed so soon as the principles beneath it are called upon to move and act. Nor are these attempted comprehensions innocent; for, it being the interest of our enemies to weaken the Church, they have always gained a point, when they have put upon us words for things, and persuaded us to fraternize with those who, differing from us in essentials, nevertheless happen, in the excursive range of opinion, somewhere to intersect that path of faith, which centres in supreme and zealous devotion to the service of God.
Let it be granted, then, as indisputable, that there are no two opinions so contrary to each other, but some form of words may be found vague enough to comprehend them both. The Pantheist will admit that there is a God, and the Humanitarian that Christ is God, if they are suffered to say so without explanation. But if this be so, it becomes the duty, as well as the evident policy of the Church, to interrogate them, before admitting them to her fellowship. If the Church be the pillar and ground of the truth, and bound to contend for the preservation of the faith once delivered to it; if we are answerable as ministers of Christ for the formation of one, and one only, character in the heart of man; and if the Scriptures are given us, as a means indeed towards that end, but inadequate to the office of interpreting themselves, except to such as live under the same Divine Influence which inspired them, and which is expressly sent down upon us that we may interpret them,—then, it is evidently our duty piously and cautiously to collect the sense of Scripture, and solemnly to promulgate it in such a form as is best suited, as far as it goes, to exclude the pride and unbelief of the world. It will be admitted that, to deny to individual Christians the use of terms not found in Scripture, as such, would be a superstition and an encroachment on their religious liberty; and in like manner, doubtless, to forbid the authorities of the Church to require an acceptance of such terms, when necessary, from its members, is to interfere with the discharge of their peculiar duties, as appointed of the Holy Ghost to be overseers of the Lord’s flock. And, though the discharge of this office is the most momentous and fearful that can come upon mortal man, and never to be undertaken except by the collective illumination of the Heads of the Church, yet, when innovations arise, they must discharge it to the best of their ability; and whether they succeed or fail, whether they have judged rightly or hastily of the necessity of their interposition, whether they devise their safeguard well or ill, draw the line of Church fellowship broadly or narrowly, countenance the profane reasoner, or cause the scrupulous to stumble,—to their Master they stand or fall, as in all other acts of duty, the obligation itself to protect the Faith remaining unquestionable.
This is an account of the abstract principle on which ecclesiastical confessions rest. In its practical adoption it has been softened in two important respects. First, the Creeds imposed have been compiled either from Apostolical traditions, or from primitive writings; so that in fact the Church has never been obliged literally to collect the sense of Scripture. Secondly, the test has been used, not as a condition of communion, but of authority. As learning is not necessary for a private Christian, so neither is the full knowledge of the theological system. The clergy, and others in station, must be questioned as to their doctrinal views: but for the mass of the laity, it is enough if they do not set up such counter-statements of their own, as imply that they have systematized, and that erroneously. In the Nicene Council, the test was but imposed on the Rulers of the Church. Lay communion was not denied to such as refused to take it, provided they introduced no novelties of their own; the anathemas or excommunications being directed solely against the Arian innovators.