|John Henry Newman
The Arians of the Fourth Century
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The Arians of the Fourth Century
Section 2: Consequences of the Nicene Council
From the time that the Eusebians consented to subscribe to the Homoüsion in accordance with the wishes of a heathen prince, they became nothing better than a political party. They soon learned, indeed, to call themselves Homœüsians, or believers in the “like” substance (homœüsion), as if they still held the peculiarities of a religious creed; but in truth it is an abuse of language to say that they had any definite belief at all. For this reason, the account of the Homœüsian or Semi-Arian doctrine shall be postponed, till such time as we fall in with individuals whom we may believe to be serious in their professions, and to act under the influence of religious convictions however erroneous. Here the Eusebians must be described as a secular faction, which is the true character of them in the history in which they bear a part.
Strictly speaking, the Christian Church, as being a visible society, is necessarily a political power or party. It may be a party triumphant, or a party under persecution; but a party it always must be, prior in existence to the civil institutions with which it is surrounded, and from its latent divinity formidable and influential, even to the end of time. The grant of permanency was made in the beginning, not to the mere doctrine of the Gospel, but to the Association itself built upon the doctrine; in prediction, not only of the indestructibility of Christianity, but of the medium also through which it was to be manifested to the world. Thus the Ecclesiastical Body is a divinely-appointed means, towards realizing the great evangelical blessings. Christians depart from their duty, or become in an offensive sense political, not when they act as members of one community, but when they do so for temporal ends or in an illegal manner; not when they assume the attitude of a party, but when they split into many. If the primitive believers did not interfere with the acts of the civil government, it was merely because they had no civil rights enabling them legally to do so. But where they have rights, the case is different; and the existence of a secular spirit is to be ascertained, not by their using these, but their using them for ends short of the ends for which they were given. Doubtless in criticizing the mode of their exercising them in a particular case, differences of opinion may fairly exist; but the principle itself, the duty of using their civil rights in the service of religion, is clear; and since there is a popular misconception, that Christians, and especially the Clergy, as such, have no concern in temporal affairs, it is expedient to take every opportunity of formally denying the position, and demanding proof of it. In truth, the Church was framed for the express purpose of interfering, or (as irreligious men will say) meddling with the world. It is the plain duty of its members, not only to associate internally, but also to develop that internal union in an external warfare with the spirit of evil, whether in Kings’ courts or among the mixed multitude; and, if they can do nothing else, at least they can suffer for the truth, and remind men of it, by inflicting on them the task of persecution.
These principles being assumed, it is easy to enter into the relative positions of the Catholics and Arians at the era under consideration. As to the Arians, it is a matter of fact, that Arius and his friends commenced their career with the deliberate commission of disorderly and schismatical acts; and it is a clear inference from their subsequent proceedings, that they did so for private ends. For both reasons, then, they were a mere political faction, usurping the name of religion; and, as such, essentially anti-Christian. The question here is not whether their doctrine was right or wrong; but, whether they did not make it a secondary object of their exertions, an instrument towards attaining ends which they valued above it. Now it will be found, that the party was prior to the creed. They grafted their heresy on the schism of the Meletians, who continued to support them after they had published it; and they readily abandoned it, when their secular interests required the sacrifice. At the Council of Nicæa, they began by maintaining an erroneous doctrine; they ended by concessions which implied the further heresy that points of faith are of no importance; and, if they were odious when they blasphemed the truth, they were still more odious when they confessed it. It was the very principle of Eclecticism to make light of differences in belief; while it was involved in the primary notion of a Revelation that these differences were of importance, and it was taught with plainness in the Gospel, that to join with those who denied the right faith was a sin.
This adoption, however, on the part of the Eusebians, of the dreams of Pagan philosophy, served in some sort as a recommendation of them to a prince who, both from education and from knowledge of the world, was especially tempted to consider all truth as a theory which was not realized in a present tangible form. Accordingly, when once they had rid themselves of the mortification caused by their forced subscription, they had the satisfaction of finding themselves the most powerful party in the Church, as being the representative and organ of the Emperor’s sentiments. They then at once changed places with the Catholics; who sustained a double defeat, both in the continued power of those whom they had hoped to exclude from the Church, and again, in the invidiousness of their own unrelenting suspicion and dislike of men, who had seemed by subscription to satisfy all reasonable doubt respecting their orthodoxy.
The Arian party was fortunate, moreover, in its leaders; one the most dexterous politician, the other the most accomplished theologian of the age. Eusebius of Nicomedia was a Lucianist, the fellow-disciple of Arius. He was originally Bishop of Berytus, in Phœnicia; but, having gained the confidence of Constantia, sister to Constantine, and wife to Licinius, he was by her influence translated to Nicomedia, where the Eastern Court then resided. Here he secretly engaged in the cause of Licinius against his rival, and is even reported to have been indifferent to the security of the Christians during the persecution which followed; a charge which certainly derives some confirmation from Alexander’s circular epistle, in which the Arians are accused of directing the violence of the civil power against the orthodox of Alexandria. On the ruin of Licinius, he was screened by Constantia from the resentment of the conqueror; and, being recommended by his polished manners and shrewd and persuasive talent, he soon contrived to gain an influence over the mind of Constantine himself. From the time that Arius had recourse to him on his flight from Palestine, he is to be accounted the real head of the heretical party; and his influence is quickly discernible in the change which ensued in its language and conduct. While a courteous tone was assumed towards the defenders of the orthodox doctrine, the subtleties of dialectics, in which the sect excelled, were used, not in attacking, but in deceiving its opponents, in making unbelief plausible, and obliterating the distinctive marks of the true creed. It must not be forgotten that it was from Nicomedia, the see of Eusebius, that Constantine wrote his epistle to Alexander and Arius.
In supporting Arianism in its new direction, the other Eusebius, Bishop of Cæsarea, was of singular service. This distinguished writer, to whom the Christian world has so great a debt at the present day, though not characterized by the unprincipled ambition of his namesake, is unhappily connected in history with the Arian party. He seems to have had the faults and the virtues of the mere man of letters: strongly excited neither to good nor to evil, and careless at once of the cause of truth and the prizes of secular greatness, in comparison of the comforts and decencies of literary ease. His first master was Dorotheus of Antioch; afterwards he became a pupil of the School of Cæsarea, which seems to have been his birth-place, and where Origen had taught. Here he studied the works of that great master, and the other writers of the Alexandrian school. It does not appear when he first began to arianize. At Cæsarea he is celebrated as the friend of the Orthodox Pamphilus, afterwards martyred, whom he assisted in his defence of Origen, in answer to the charges of heterodoxy then in circulation against him. The first book of this work is still extant in the Latin translation of Ruffinus, and its statements of the Catholic doctrines are altogether explicit and accurate. In his own writings, numerous as they are, there is very little which fixes on Eusebius any charge, beyond that of an attachment to the Platonic phraseology. Had he not connected himself with the Arian party, it would have been unjust to have suspected him of heresy. But his acts are his confession. He openly sided with those whose blasphemies a true Christian would have abhorred; and he sanctioned and shared their deeds of violence and injustice perpetrated on the Catholics.
But it is a different reason which has led to the mention of Eusebius in this connection. The grave accusation under which he lies, is not that of arianizing, but of corrupting the simplicity of the Gospel with an Eclectic spirit. While he held out the ambiguous language of the schools as a refuge, and the Alexandrian imitation of it as an argument, against the pursuit of the orthodox, his conduct gave countenance to the secular maxim, that difference in creeds is a matter of inferior moment, and that, provided we confess as far as the very terms of Scripture, we may speculate as philosophers, and live as the world. A more dangerous adviser Constantine could hardly have selected, than a man thus variously gifted, thus exalted in the Church, thus disposed towards the very errors against which he required especially to be guarded. The remark has been made that, throughout his Ecclesiastical History no instance occurs of his expressing abhorrence of the superstitions of paganism, and that his custom is either to praise, or not to blame, such heretical writers as fall under his notice.
Nor must the influence of the Court pass unnoticed, in recounting the means by which Arianism secured a hold over the mind of the Emperor. Constantia, his favourite sister, was the original patroness of Eusebius of Nicomedia; and thus a princess, whose name would otherwise be dignified by her misfortunes, is known to Christians of later times only as a principal instrument of the success of heresy. Wrought upon by a presbyter, a creature of the bishop’s, who was in her confidence, she summoned Constantine to her bed-side in her last illness, begged him, as her parting request, to extend his favour to the Arians, and especially commended to his regard the presbyter himself, who had stimulated her to this experiment on the feelings of a brother. The hangers-on of the Imperial Court imitated her in her preference for the polite and smooth demeanour of the Eusebian prelates, which was advantageously contrasted to the stern simplicity of the Catholics. The eunuchs and slaves of the palace (strange to say) embraced the tenets of Arianism; and all the most light-minded and frivolous of mankind allowed themselves to pervert the solemn subject in controversy into matter for fashionable conversation or literary amusement.
The arts of flattery completed the triumph of the heretical party. So many are the temptations to which monarchs are exposed of forgetting that they are men, that it is obviously the duty of the Episcopal Order to remind them that there is a visible Power in the world, divinely founded and protected, superior to their own. But Eusebius places himself at the feet of a heathen; and forgetful of his own ordination-grace, allows the Emperor to style himself “the bishop of Paganism,” and “the predestined Apostle of virtue to all men.” The shrine of the Church was thrown open to his inspection; and, contrary to the spirit of Christianity, its mysteries were officiously explained to one who was not yet even a candidate for baptism. The restoration and erection of Churches, which is the honourable distinction of his reign, assimilated him, in the minds of his courtiers, to the Divine Founder and Priest of the invisible temple; and the magnificence, which soothed the vanity of a monarch, seemed in its charitable uses almost a substitute for personal religion.
While events thus gradually worked for the secular advancement of the heretical party, the Catholics were allotted gratifications and anxieties of a higher character. The proceedings of the Council had detected the paucity of the Arians among the Rulers of the Church; which had been the more clearly ascertained, inasmuch as no temporal interests had operated to gain for the orthodox cause that vast preponderance of advocates which it had actually obtained. Moreover, it had confirmed by the combined evidence of the universal Church, the argument from Scripture and local tradition, which each separate Christian community already possessed. And there was a satisfaction in having found a formula adequate to the preservation of the all-important article in controversy in all its purity. On the other hand, in spite of these immediate causes of congratulation, the fortunes of the Church were clouded in prospect, by the Emperor’s adoption of its Creed as a formula of peace, not of belief, and by the ready subscription of the unprincipled faction, which had previously objected to it. This immediate failure, which not unfrequently attends beneficial measures in their commencement, issued, as has been said, in the temporary triumph of the Arians. The disease, which had called for the Council, instead of being expelled from the system, was thrown back upon the Church, and for a time afflicted it; nor was it cast out, except by the persevering fasting and prayer, the labours and sufferings, of the oppressed believers. Meanwhile, the Catholic prelates could but retire from the Court party, and carefully watch its movements; and, in consequence, incurred the reproach and the penalty of being “troublers of Israel.” This may be illustrated from the subsequent history of Arius himself, with which this Chapter shall close.
It is doubtful, whether or not Arius was persuaded to sign the symbol at the Nicene Council; but at least he professed to receive it about five years afterwards. At this time Eusebius of Nicomedia had been restored to the favour of Constantine; who, on the other hand, influenced by his sister, had become less zealous in his adherence to the orthodox side of the controversy. An attempt was made by the friends of Arius to effect his re-admission into the Church at Alexandria. The great Athanasius was at this time Primate of Egypt; and in his instance the question was tried, whether or not the Church would adopt the secular principles, to which the Arians were willing to subject it, and would abandon its faith, as the condition of present peace and prosperity. He was already known as the counsellor of Alexander in the previous controversy; yet, Eusebius did not at once give up the hope of gaining him over, a hope which was strengthened by his recent triumph over the orthodox prelates of Antioch, Gaza, and Hadrianople, whom he had found means to deprive of their sees to make way for Arians. Failing in his attempt at conciliation, he pursued the policy which might have been anticipated, and accused the Bishop of Alexandria of a youthful rashness, and an obstinate contentious spirit, incompatible with the good understanding which ought to subsist among Christians. Arius was summoned to Court, presented an ambiguous confession, and was favourably received by Constantine. Thence he was despatched to Alexandria, and was quickly followed by an imperial injunction addressed to Athanasius, in order to secure the restoration of the heresiarch to the Church to which he had belonged. “On being informed of my pleasure,” says Constantine, in the fragment of the Epistle preserved by Athanasius, “give free admission to all, who are desirous of entering into communion with the Church. For if I learn of your standing in the way of any who were seeking it, or interdicting them, I will send at once those who shall depose you instead, by my authority, and banish you from your see.” It was not to be supposed, that Athanasius would yield to an order, though from his sovereign, which was conceived in such ignorance of the principles of Church communion, and of the powers of its Rulers; and, on his explanation, the Emperor professed himself well satisfied, that he should use his own discretion in the matter. The intrigues of the Eusebians, which followed, shall elsewhere be related; they ended in effecting the banishment of Athanasius into Gaul, the restoration of Arius at a Council held at Jerusalem, his return to Alexandria, and, when the anger of the intractable populace against him broke out into a tumult, his recall to Constantinople to give further explanations respecting his real opinions.
There the last and memorable scene of his history took place, and furnishes a fresh illustration of the clearness and integrity, with which the Catholics maintained the true principles of Church union, against those who would have sacrificed truth to peace. The aged Alexander, bishop of the see, underwent a persecution of entreaties and threats, such as had already been employed against Athanasius. The Eusebians urged upon him, by way of warning, their fresh successes over the Bishops of Ancyra and Alexandria; and appointed a day, by which he was to admit Arius to communion, or to be ejected from his see. Constantine confirmed this alternative. At first, indeed, he had been struck with doubts respecting the sincerity of Arius; but, on the latter professing with an oath that his tenets were orthodox, and presenting a confession, in which the terms of Scripture were made the vehicle of his characteristic impieties, the Emperor dismissed his scruples, observing with an anxiety and seriousness which rise above his ordinary character, that Arius had well sworn if his words had no double meaning; otherwise, God would avenge. The miserable man did not hesitate to swear, that he professed the Creed of the Catholic Church without reservation, and that he had never said nor thought otherwise, than according to the statements which he now made.
For seven days previous to that appointed for his re-admission, the Church of Constantinople, Bishop and people, were given up to fasting and prayer. Alexander, after a vain endeavour to move the Emperor, had recourse to the most solemn and extraordinary form of anathema allowed in the Church; and with tears besought its Divine Guardian, either to take himself out of the world, or to remove thence the instrument of those extended and increasing spiritual evils, with which Christendom was darkening. On the evening before the day of his proposed triumph, Arius passed through the streets of the city with his party, in an ostentatious manner; when the stroke of death suddenly overtook him, and he expired before his danger was discovered.
Under the circumstances, a thoughtful mind cannot but account this as one of those remarkable interpositions of power, by which Divine Providence urges on the consciences of men in the natural course of things, what their reason from the first acknowledges, that He is not indifferent to human conduct. To say that these do not fall within the ordinary course of His governance, is merely to say that they are judgments; which, in the common meaning of the word, stand for events extraordinary and unexpected. That such do take place under the Christian Dispensation, is sufficiently proved by the history of Ananias and Sapphira. It is remarkable too, that the similar occurrences, which happen at the present day, are generally connected with some unusual perjury or extreme blasphemy; and, though we may not infer the sin from the circumstance of the temporal infliction, yet, the commission of the sin being ascertained, we may well account, that its guilt is providentially impressed on the minds and enlarged in the estimation of the multitude, by the visible penalty by which it is followed. Nor do we in such cases necessarily pass any absolute sentence upon the person, who appears to be the object of Divine Visitation; but merely upon the particular act which provoked it, and which has its fearful character of evil stamped upon it, independent of the punishment which draws our attention to it. The man of God, who prophesied against the altar in Bethel, is not to be regarded by the light of his last act, though a judgment followed it, but according to the general tenor of his life. Arius also must thus be viewed; though, unhappily, his closing deed is but the seal of a prevaricating and presumptuous career.
Athanasius, who is one of the authorities from whom the foregoing account is taken, received it from Macarius, a presbyter of the Church of Constantinople, who was in that city at the time. He adds, “while the Church was rejoicing at the deliverance, Alexander administered the communion in pious and orthodox form, praying with all the brethren and glorifying God greatly; not as if rejoicing over his death, (God forbid! for to all men it is appointed once to die,) but because in this event there was displayed somewhat more than a human judgment. For the Lord Himself, judging between the threats of the Eusebians and the prayer of Alexander, has in this event given sentence against the heresy of the Arians; showing it to be unworthy of ecclesiastical fellowship, and manifesting to all, that though it have the patronage of Emperor and of all men yet that by the Church itself it is condemned.”