|John Henry Newman
The Arians of the Fourth Century
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The Arians of the Fourth Century
Chapter V: Councils after the Reign of Constantius
Section 1: The Council of Alexandria in the Reign of Julian
The accession of Julian was followed by a general restoration of the banished Bishops; and all eyes throughout Christendom were at once turned towards Alexandria, as the Church, which, by its sufferings and its indomitable spirit, had claim to be the arbiter of doctrine, and the guarantee of peace to the Catholic world. Athanasius, as the story goes, was, on the death of his persecutor, suddenly found on his episcopal throne in one of the Churches of Alexandria; a legend, happily expressive of the unwearied activity and almost ubiquity of that extraordinary man, who, while a price was set on his head, mingled unperceived in the proceedings at Seleucia and Ariminum, and directed the movements of his fellow-labourers by his writings, when he was debarred the exercise of his dexterity in debate, and his persuasive energy in private conversation. He was soon joined by his fellow-exile, Eusebius of Vercellæ; Lucifer, who had journeyed with the latter from the Upper Thebaid, on his return to the West, having gone forward to Antioch on business which will presently be explained. Meanwhile, no time was lost in holding a Council at Alexandria (A.D. 362) on the general state of the Church.
The object of Julian in recalling the banished Bishops, was the renewal of those dissensions, by means of toleration, which Constantius had endeavoured to terminate by force. He knew these prelates to be of various opinions, Semi-Arians, Macedonians, Anomœans, as well as orthodox; and, determining to be neuter himself, he waited with the satisfaction of an Eclectic for the event; being persuaded, that Christianity could not withstand the shock of parties, not less discordant, and far more zealous, than the sects of philosophy. It is even said that he “invited to his palace the leaders of the hostile sects, that he might enjoy the agreeable spectacle of their furious encounters.” But, in indulging such anticipations of overthrowing Christianity, he but displayed his own ignorance of the foundation on which it was built. It could scarcely be conceived that an unbeliever, educated among heretics, would understand the vigour and indestructibility of the true Christian spirit; and Julian fell into the error, to which in all ages men of the world are exposed, of mistaking whatever shows itself on the surface of the Apostolic Community, its prominences and irregularities, all that is extravagant, and all that is transitory, for the real moving principle and life of the system. It is trying times alone that manifest the saints of God; but they live notwithstanding, and support the Church in their generation, though they remain in their obscurity. In the days of Arianism, indeed, they were in their measure, revealed to the world; still to such as Julian, they were unavoidably unknown, both in respect to their numbers and their divine gifts. The thousand of silent believers, who worshipped in spirit and in truth, were obscured by the tens and twenties of the various heretical factions, whose clamorous addresses besieged the Imperial Court; and Athanasius would be portrayed to Julian’s imagination after the picture of his own preceptor, the time-serving and unscrupulous Eusebius. The event of his experiment refuted the opinion which led to it. The impartial toleration of all religious persuasions, malicious as was its intent, did but contribute to the ascendancy of the right faith; that faith, which is the only true aliment of the human mind, which can be held as a principle as well as an opinion, and which influences the heart to suffer and to labour for its sake.
Of the subjects which engaged the notice of the Alexandrian Council, two only need here be mentioned; the treatment to be pursued towards the bishops, who had arianized in the reign of Constantius, and the settlement of the theological sense of the word Hypostasis. And here, of the former of these.
Instances have already occurred, of the line of conduct pursued by Athanasius in ecclesiastical matters. Deliberate apostasy and systematic heresy were the objects of his implacable opposition; but in his behaviour towards individuals, and in his judgment of the inconsistent, whether in conduct or creed, he evinces an admirable tenderness and forbearance. Not only did he reluctantly abandon his associate, the unfortunate Marcellus, on his sabellianizing, but he even makes favourable notice of the Semi-Arians, hostile to him both in word and deed, who rejected the orthodox test, and had confirmed against him personally at Philippopolis, the verdict of the commission at the Mareotis. When bishops of his own party, as Liberius of Rome, were induced to excommunicate him, far from resenting it, he speaks of them with a temper and candour, which, as displayed in the heat of controversy, evidences an enlarged prudence, to say nothing of Christian charity. It is this union of opposite excellences, firmness with discrimination and discretion, which is the characteristic praise of Athanasius: as well as of several of his predecessors in the See of Alexandria. The hundred years, preceding his episcopate, had given scope to the enlightened zeal of Dionysius, and the patient resoluteness of Alexander. On the other hand, when we look around at the other more conspicuous champions of orthodoxy of his time, much as we must revere and bless their memory, yet as regards this maturity and completeness of character, they are far inferior to Athanasius. The noble-minded Hilary was intemperate in his language, and assailed Constantius with an asperity unbecoming a dutiful subject. The fiery Bishop of Cagliari, exemplary as is his self-devotion, so openly showed his desire for martyrdom, as to lead the Emperor to exercise towards him a contemptuous forbearance. Eusebius of Vercellæ negotiated in the Councils, with a subtlety bordering on Arian insincerity. From these deficiencies of character Athanasius was exempt; and on the occasion which has given rise to these remarks, he had especial need of the combination of gifts, which has made his name immortal in the Church.
The question of the arianizing bishops was one of much difficulty. They were in possession of the Churches; and could not be deposed, if at all, without the risk of a permanent schism. It is evident, moreover, from the foregoing narrative, how many had been betrayed into an approval of the Arian opinions, without understanding or acting upon them. This was particularly the case in the West, where threats and ill-usage, had been more or less substituted for those fallacies, which the Latin language scarcely admitted. And even in the remote Greek Churches, there was much of that devout and unsuspecting simplicity, which was the easy sport of the supercilious sophistry of the Eusebians. This was the case with the father of Gregory Nazianzen; who, being persuaded to receive the Acacian confession of Constantinople (A.D. 359, 360), on the ground of its unmixed scripturalness, found himself suddenly deserted by a large portion of his flock, and was extricated from the charge of heresy, only by the dexterity of his learned son. Indeed, to many of the Arianizing bishops, may be applied the remarks, which Hilary makes upon the laity subjected to Arian teaching; that their own piety enabled them to interpret expressions religiously, which were originally invented as evasions of the orthodox doctrine.
And even in parts of the East, where a much clearer perception of the difference between truth and error existed, it must have been an extreme difficulty to such of the orthodox as lived among Arians, to determine, in what way best to accomplish duties, which were in opposition to each other. The same obligation of Christian unity, which was the apology for the laity who remained, as at Antioch, in communion with an Arian bishop, would lead to a similar recognition of his authority by clergy or bishops who were ecclesiastically subordinate to him. Thus Cyril of Jerusalem, who was in no sense either Anomœan or Eusebian, received consecration from the hands of his metropolitan Acacius; and St. Basil, surnamed the Great, the vigorous champion of orthodoxy against the Emperor Valens, attended the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 359, 360), as a deacon, in the train of his namesake Basil, the leader of the Semi-Arians.
On the other hand, it was scarcely safe to leave the deliberate heretic in possession of his spiritual power. Many bishops too were but the creatures of the times, raised up from the lowest of the people, and deficient in the elementary qualifications of learning and sobriety. Even those, who had but conceded to the violence of others, were the objects of a just suspicion; since, frankly as they now joined the Athanasians, they had already shown as much interest and reliance in the opposite party.
Swayed by these latter considerations, some of the assembled prelates advocated the adoption of harsh measures towards the Arianizers, considering that their deposition was due both to the injured dignity and to the safety of the Catholic Church. Athanasius, however, proposed a more temperate policy; and his influence was sufficient to triumph over the excitement of mind which commonly accompanies a deliverance from persecution. A decree was passed, that such bishops as had communicated with the Arians through weakness or surprise, should be recognized in their respective sees, on their signing the Nicene formulary; but that those, who had publicly defended the heresy, should only be admitted to lay-communion. No act could evince more clearly than this, that it was no party interest, but the ascendancy of the orthodox doctrine itself, which was the aim of the Athanasians. They allowed the power of the Church to remain in the hands of men indifferent to the interests of themselves, on their return to that faith, which they had denied through fear; and their ability to force on the Arianizers this condition, evidences what they might have done, had they chosen to make an appeal against the more culpable of them to the clergy and laity of their respective churches, and to create and send out bishops to supply their places. But they desired peace, as soon as the interests of truth were secured; and their magnanimous decision was forthwith adopted by Councils held at Rome, in Spain, Gaul, and Achaia. The state of Asia was less satisfactory. As to Antioch, its fortunes will immediately engage our attention. Phrygia and the Proconsulate were in the hands of the Semi-Arians and Macedonians; Thrace and Bithynia, controlled by the Imperial Metropolis, were the stronghold of the Eusebian or Court faction.
The history of the Church of Antioch affords an illustration of the general disorders of the East at this period, and of the intention of the sanative measure passed at Alexandria respecting them. Eustathius, its Bishop, one of the principal Nicene champions, had been an early victim of Eusebian malice, being deposed on calumnious charges, A.D. 331. A series of Arian prelates succeeded; some of whom, Stephen, Leontius, and Eudoxius, have been commemorated in the foregoing pages. The Catholics of Antioch had disagreed among themselves, how to act under these circumstances. Some, both clergy and laity, refusing the communion of heretical teachers, had holden together for the time, as a distinct body, till the cause of truth should regain its natural supremacy; while others had admitted the usurping succession, which the Imperial will forced upon the Church. When Athanasius passed through Antioch on his return from his second exile (A.D. 348), he had acknowledged the seceders, from a respect for their orthodoxy, and for the rights of clergy and laity in the election of a bishop. Yet it cannot be denied, that men of zeal and boldness were found among those who remained in the heretical communion. Two laymen, Flavian and Diodorus, protested with spirit against the heterodoxy of the crafty Leontius, and kept alive an orthodox party in the midst of the Eusebians.
On the translation of Eudoxius to Constantinople, the year before the death of Constantius, an accident occurred, which, skilfully improved, might have healed the incipient schism among the Trinitarians. Scarcely had Meletius, the new Bishop of the Eusebian party, taken possession of his see, when he conformed to the Catholic faith. History describes him as gifted with remarkable sweetness and benevolence of disposition. Men thus characterized are often deficient in sensibility, in their practical judgment of heresy; which they abhor indeed in the abstract, yet countenance in the case of their friends, from a false charitableness; which leads them, not merely to hope the best, but to overlook the guilt of opposing the truth, where the fact is undeniable. Meletius had been brought up in the communion of the Eusebians; a misfortune, in which nearly all the Oriental Christians of his day were involved. Being considered as one of their party, he had been promoted by them to the see of Sebaste, in Armenia; but, taking offence at the conduct of his flock, he had retired to Berœa, in Syria. During the residence of the Court at Antioch, A.D. 361, the election of the new prelate of that see came on; and the choice of both Arians and Arianizing orthodox fell on Meletius. Acacius was the chief mover in this business. He had lately succeeded in establishing the principle of liberalism at Constantinople, where a condemnation had been passed on the use of words not found in Scripture, in confessions of faith; and he could scarcely have selected a more suitable instrument, as it appeared, of extending its influence, than a prelate, who united purity of life and amiableness of temper, to a seeming indifference to the distinctions between doctrinal truth and error.
On the new Patriarch’s arrival at Antioch, he was escorted by the court bishops, and his own clergy and laity, to the cathedral. Desirous of solemnizing the occasion, the Emperor himself had condescended to give the text, on which the assembled prelates were to comment. It was the celebrated passage from the Proverbs, in which Origen has piously detected, and the Arians perversely stifled, the great article of our faith; “the Lord hath created [possessed] Me in the beginning of His ways, before His works of old.” George of Laodicea, who, on the departure of Eudoxius from Antioch, had left the Semi-Arians and rejoined the Eusebians, opened the discussion with a dogmatic explanation of the words. Acacius followed with that ambiguity of language, which was the characteristic of his school. At length the new Patriarch arose, and to the surprise of the assembly, with a subdued manner, and in measured words, avoiding indeed the Nicene Homoüsion, but accurately fixing the meaning of his expressions, confessed the true Catholic tenet, so long exiled from the throne and altars of Antioch. A scene followed, such as might be expected from the excitable temper of the Orientals. The congregation received his discourse with shouts of joy; while the Arian archdeacon of the church running up, placed his hand before his mouth to prevent his speaking; on which Meletius thrust out his hand in sight of the people, and raising first three fingers, and then one, symbolized the great truth which he was unable to utter. The consequences of this bold confession might be expected. Meletius was banished, and a fresh Bishop appointed, Euzoius, the friend of Arius. But an important advantage resulted to the orthodox cause by this occurrence; Catholics and heretics were no longer united in one communion, the latter being thrown into the position of schismatics, who had rejected their own bishop. Such was the state of things, when the death of Constantius occasioned the return of Meletius, and the convocation of the Council of Alexandria, in which his case was considered.
The course to be pursued in this matter by the general Church was evident. There were now in Antioch, besides the heretical party, two communions professing orthodoxy, of which what may be called the Protestant body was without a head, Eustathius having died some years before. It was the obvious duty of the Council, to recommend the Eustathians to recognize Meletius, and to join in his communion, whatever original intrusion there might be in the episcopal succession from which he received his Orders, and whatever might have been his own previous errors of doctrine. The general principle of restoration, which they had made the rule of their conduct towards the Arianizers, led them to this. Accordingly, a commission was appointed to proceed to Antioch, and to exert their endeavours to bring the dissension to a happy termination.
Their charitable intentions, however, had been already frustrated by the unfortunate interference of Lucifer. This Latin Bishop, strenuous in contending for the faith, had little of the knowledge of human nature, or of the dexterity in negotiation, necessary for the management of so delicate a point as that which he had taken upon himself to settle. He had gone straight to Antioch, when Eusebius of Vercellæ proceeded to Alexandria; and, on the Alexandrian commission arriving at the former city, the mischief was done, and the mediation ineffectual. Indulging, instead of overcoming, the natural reluctance of the Eustathians to submit to Meletius, Lucifer had been induced, with the assistance of two others, to consecrate a separate head for their communion, and by so doing re-animate a dissension, which had run its course and was dying of itself. The result of this indiscretion was the rise of an additional, instead of the termination of the existing schism. Eusebius, who was at the head of the commission, retired from Antioch in disgust. Lucifer, offended at becoming the object of censure, separated first from Eusebius, and at length from all who acknowledged the conforming Arianizers. He founded a sect, which was called after his name, and lasted about fifty years.
As to the schism at Antioch, it was not terminated till the time of Chrysostom about the end of the century. Athanasius and the Egyptian Churches continued in communion with the Eustathians. Much as they had desired and exerted themselves for a reconciliation between the parties, they could not but recognize, while it existed, that body which had all along suffered and laboured with themselves. And certainly the intercourse, which Meletius held with the unprincipled Acacius, in the Antiochene Council the following year, and his refusal to communicate with Athanasius, were not adapted to make them repent their determination. The Occidentals and the Churches of Cyprus followed their example. The Eastern Christians, on the contrary, having for the most part themselves arianized, took part with the Meletians. At length St. Chrysostom successfully exerted his influence with the Egyptian and Western Catholics in behalf of Flavian, the successor of Meletius; a prelate, it must be admitted, not blameless in the ecclesiastical quarrel, though he had acted a bold part with Diodorus, afterwards Bishop of Tarsus, in resisting the insidious attempts of Leontius to secularize the Church.
The Council of Alexandria was also concerned in determining a doctrinal question; and here too it exercised a virtual mediation between the rival parties in the Antiochene Church.
The word Person which we venture to use in speaking of those three distinct and real modes in which it has pleased Almighty God to reveal to us His being, is in its philosophical sense too wide for our meaning. Its essential signification, as applied to ourselves, is that of an individual intelligent agent, answering to the Greek hypostasis, or reality. On the other hand, if we restrict it to its etymological sense of persona or prosopon, that is character, it evidently means less than the Scripture doctrine, which we wish to define by means of it, as denoting merely certain outward manifestations of the Supreme Being relatively to ourselves, which are of an accidental and variable nature. The statements of Revelation then lie between these antagonistic senses in which the doctrine of the Holy Trinity may be erroneously conceived, between Tritheism, and what is popularly called Unitarianism.
In the choice of difficulties, then, between words which say too much and too little, the Latins, looking at the popular and practical side of the doctrine, selected the term which properly belonged to the external and defective notion of the Son and Spirit, and called Them Personæ, or Characters; with no intention, however, of infringing on the doctrine of their completeness and reality, as distinct from the Father, but aiming at the whole truth, as nearly as their language would permit. The Greeks, on the other hand, with their instinctive anxiety for philosophical accuracy of expression, secured the notion of Their existence in Themselves, by calling them Hypostases or Realities; for which they considered, with some reason, that they had the sanction of the Apostle in his Epistle to the Hebrews. Moreover, they were led to insist upon this internal view of the doctrine, by the prevalence of Sabellianism in the East in the third century; a heresy, which professed to resolve the distinction of the Three Persons, into a mere distinction of character. Hence the prominence given to the Three Hypostases or Realities, in the creeds of the Semi-Arians (for instance, Lucian’s and Basil’s, A.D. 341-358), who were the especial antagonists of Sabellius, Marcellus, Photinus, and kindred heretics. It was this praiseworthy jealousy of Sabellianism, which led the Greeks to lay stress upon the doctrine of the Hypostatic Word (the Word in real existence), lest the bare use of the terms, Word, Voice, Power, Wisdom, and Radiance, in designating our Lord, should lead to a forgetfulness of His Personality. At the same time, the word usia (substance) was adopted by them, to express the simple individuality of the Divine Nature, to which the Greeks, as scrupulously as the Latins, referred the separate Personalities of the Son and Spirit.
Thus the two great divisions of Christendom rested satisfied each with its own theology, agreeing in doctrine, though differing in the expression of it. But, when the course of the detestable controversy, which Arius had raised, introduced the Latins to the phraseology of the Greeks, accustomed to the word Persona, they were startled at the doctrine of the three Hypostases; a term which they could not translate except by the word substance, and therefore considered synonymous with the Greek usia, and which, in matter of fact, had led to Arianism on the one hand, and Tritheism on the other. And the Orientals, on their part, were suspicious of the Latin maintenance of the One Hypostasis, and Three Personæ; as if such a formula tended to Sabellianism.
This is but a general account of the difference between the Eastern and Western theology; for it is difficult to ascertain, when the language of the Greeks first became fixed and consistent. Some eminent critics have considered, that usia was not discriminated from hypostasis, till the Council which has given rise to these remarks. Others maintain, that the distinction between them is recognized in the “substance or hypostasis” of the Nicene Anathema; and these certainly have the authority of St. Basil on their side. Without attempting an opinion on a point, obscure in itself, and not of chief importance in the controversy, the existing difference between the Greeks and Latins, at the times of the Alexandrian Council, shall be here stated.
At this date, the formula of the Three Hypostases seems, as a matter of fact, to have been more or less a characteristic of the Arians. At the same time, it was held by the orthodox of Asia, who had communicated with them; that is, interpreted by them, of course, in the orthodox sense which it now bears. This will account for St. Basil’s explanation of the Nicene Anathema; it being natural in an Asiatic Christian, who seems (unavoidably) to have arianized for the first thirty years of his life, to imagine (whether rightly or not) that he perceived in it the distinction between Usia and Hypostasis, which he himself had been accustomed to recognize. Again, in the schism at Antioch, which has been above narrated, the party of Meletius, which had so long arianized, maintained the Three Hypostases, in opposition to the Eustathians, who, as a body, agreed with the Latins, and had in consequence been accused by the Arians of Sabellianism. Moreover, this connexion of the Oriental orthodox with the Semi-Arians, partly accounts for some apparent tritheisms of the former; a heresy into which the latter certainly did fall.
Athanasius, on the other hand, without caring to be uniform in his use of terms, about which the orthodox differed, favours the Latin usage, speaking of the Supreme Being as one Hypostasis, i.e. substance. And in this he differed from the previous writers of his own Church; who, not having experience of the Latin theology, nor of the perversions of Arianism, adopt, not only the word hypostasis but (what is stronger) the words “nature” and “substance,” to denote the separate Personalities of the Son and Spirit.
As to the Latins, it is said that, when Hosius came to Alexandria before the Nicene Council, he was desirous that some explanation should be made about the Hypostasis; though nothing was settled in consequence. But, soon after the Council of Sardica, an addition was made to its confession, which in Theodoret runs as follows: “Whereas the heretics maintain that the Hypostases of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are distinct and separate, we declare that according to the Catholic faith there is but one Hypostasis (which they call Usia) of the Three; and the Hypostasis of the Son is the same as the Father’s.”
Such was the state of the controversy, if it may so be called, at the time of the Alexandrian Council; the Church of Antioch being, as it were, the stage, upon which the two parties in dispute were represented, the Meletians siding with the orthodox of the East, and the Eustathians with those of the West. The Council, however, instead of taking part with either, determined, in accordance with the writings of Athanasius himself, that, since the question merely related to the usage of words, it was expedient to allow Christians to understand the “hypostasis” in one or other sense indifferently. The document which conveys its decision, informs us of the grounds of it. “If any propose to make additions to the Creed of Nicæa, (says the Synodal letter,) stop such persons and rather persuade them to pursue peace; for we ascribe such conduct to nothing short of a love of controversy. Offence having been given by a declaration on the part of certain persons, that there are Three Hypostases, and it having been urged that this language is not scriptural, and for that reason suspicious, we desired that the inquiry might not be pushed beyond the Nicene Confession. At the same time, because of this spirit of controversy, we questioned them, whether they spoke, as the Arians, of Hypostases foreign and dissimilar to each other, and diverse in substance, each independent and separate in itself, as in the case of individual creatures, or the offspring of man, or, as different substances, gold, silver, or brass; or, again, as other heretics hold, of Three Origins, and Three Gods. In answer, they solemnly assured us, that they neither said nor had imagined any such thing. On our inquiring, ‘In what sense then do you say this, or why do you use such expressions at all?’ they answered, ‘Because we believe in the Holy Trinity, not as a Trinity in name only, but in truth and reality. We acknowledge the Father truly and in real subsistence, and the Son truly in substance, and subsistent, and the Holy Ghost subsisting and existing.’ They said too, that they had not spoken of Three Gods, or Three Origins, nor would tolerate that statement or notion; but acknowledged a Holy Trinity indeed, but only One Godhead, and One Origin, and the Son consubstantial with the Father, as the Council declared, and the Holy Spirit, not a creature, nor foreign, but proper to and indivisible from, the substance of the Son and the Father.
“Satisfied with this explanation of the expressions in question, and the reasons for their use, we next examined the other party, who were accused by the above-mentioned as holding but One Hypostasis, whether their teaching coincided with that of the Sabellians, in destroying the substance of the Son and the subsistence of the Holy Spirit. They were as earnest as the others could be, in denying both the statement and thought of such a doctrine; ‘but we use Hypostasis’ (subsistence), they said, ‘considering it means the same as Usia (substance), and we hold that there is but one, because the Son is from the Usia (substance) of the Father, and because of the identity of Their nature; for we believe, as in One Godhead, so in One Divine Nature, and not that the Father’s is one, and that the Son’s is foreign, and the Holy Ghost’s also.’ It appeared then, that both those, who were accused of holding three Hypostases, agreed with the other party, and those, who spoke of one Substance, professed the doctrine of the former in the sense of their interpretation; by both was Arius anathematized as an enemy of Christ, Sabellius and Paulus of Samosata as impious, Valentinus and Basilides as strangers to the truth, Manichæus, as an originator of evil doctrines. And, after these explanations, all, by God’s grace, unanimously agree, that such expressions were not so desirable or accurate as the Nicene Creed, the words of which they promised for the future to acquiesce in and to use.”
Plain as was this statement, and natural as the decision resulting from it, yet it could scarcely be expected to find acceptance in a city, where recent events had increased dissensions of long standing. In providing the injured and zealous Eustathians with an ecclesiastical head, Lucifer had, under existing circumstances, administered a stimulant to the throbbings and festerings of the baser passions of human nature—passions, which it requires the strong exertion of Christian magnanimity and charity to overcome. The Meletians, on the other hand, recognized as they were by the Oriental Church as a legitimate branch of itself, were in the position of an establishment, and so exposed to the temptation of disdaining those whom the surrounding Churches considered as schismatics. How far each party was in fault, we are not able to determine; but blame lay somewhere, for the controversy about the Hypostasis, verbal as it was, became the watchword of the quarrel between the two parties, and only ended, when the Eustathians were finally absorbed by the larger and more powerful body.