ž 1. Circumstances of the time favourable to the Success of the Heresy

{141} ON reading the history of Arianism the question naturally suggests itself how it came to start into existence so suddenly, and to spread with such rapidity. And a sadder reflection occurs to the Catholic student, as if the Christian body, so long and variously tried by persecution, deserved or promised better, than that its new prosperity should be marred by so deadly a heresy, and that, in every part of the orbis terrarum, conterminously with the Church herself. It was not so with other heresies; Sabellianism, Novatianism, and Pelagianism were at least as plausible systems of doctrine, and had as able teachers; but they had no great historical career, as Arianism had. In "The Arians of the Fourth Century" I did not attempt any solution of this difficulty, though I was not ignorant of the works of Mosheim and {142} other learned Germans, who had taken the subject in hand. Here I propose to inquire into it; and, in doing so, I shall at the same time be virtually fulfilling an engagement, to which I pledged myself long ago, and which I have never been able to fulfil, viz., to draw up some sort of introduction to the Treatises of Athanasius which I translated for the Oxford Library of the Fathers, and in the course of which the four Dissertations occur in English, with which I have commenced in my present Volume. I shall not be saying much that has not been said before, but I shall be saying it my own way.

Now first of all, before entering upon the real doctrinal difficulty, let it be observed, that the long and stubborn struggle in the empire for and against Arianism, which is so deplorable a phenomenon in the midst of the contemporaneous triumph of Christianity over Paganism, is nothing less than one passage in the history of the perpetual conflict, which ever has been waged, and which ever will be waged, between the Church and the secular power; and was that particular stage of it, which followed in natural course on the termination of the persecutions—the secular power, when foiled in its efforts to subdue the Church from without, next attempting, by entering her pale, to master her from within. It was a new thing in Greece and Rome that religion should be independent of state authority, and the same principle of Government which led the emperors to denounce Christianity, while they were pagans, led them to dictate to its bishops, when they had become Christians. Accordingly, a second conflict {143} was inevitable, whatever might be the shape which it assumed, or the issue upon which it turned. In any case it would be fierce and world-wide.

Next, that it would be a doctrinal controversy, and on one or other of the highest points of theology, nay, and relating to the Object of worship, was probable from the history of the preceding centuries. Christianity was not a mere sentiment or opinion; it was a faith. Its Founder said that He came "to bear witness to the Truth." St. Paul bids us "keep the deposit;" and St. John cautions us against the "spirit of error." The force of these announcements and warnings is illustrated in Christian history from the date of the Apostles to that of Athanasius:—all along there had been doctrinal controversies, especially concerning the Divine Nature, followed up by divisions, impeachments, appeals, trials, and anathemas. Arianism was but the continuation of a series; and, if it was more formidable and eventful than Paulinism or Montanism, this was because it had so large a field to act upon, and so few external hindrances to impede its course. Had the empire become Christian in the time of Noetus, he too might have filled the world with the exploits of his own heresy, as Arius did afterwards.

It was natural then that the first age of the emancipated Church, even more than the ages that followed, should be a time of eager, perilous, and wide-spread controversy; nor need such a phenomenon really perplex us, as if the brave martyrs and confessors of the Dioclesian era had the evil destiny of giving birth to a generation of misbelievers; for the Arianism of the fourth century was not {144} a popular heresy [Note]. The laity, as a whole, revolted from it in every part of Christendom. It was an epidemic of the schools and of theologians, and to them it was mainly confined. It did not spread among the parish priests and their flocks, or the great body of the monks; though, as time went on, it gained a certain portion of some of the larger towns, and some monastic communities. The classes which had furnished martyrs in the persecutions were in no sense the seat of the heresy.

Nor indeed were all the theological schools involved in this spiritual malady; it was the more intellectual of them which were recipients of its poison. Western Christendom, at that early date, was far behind the East in acuteness and learning. Of course there were schools in Gaul, Rome, and Carthage, not to mention other places; Tertullian and Hippolytus are the evidence of it; but, whatever was the intellectual proficiency of individuals belonging to these in the fourth century, it was not at hand to save Liberius from the imputation of subscribing a Semi-Arian confession, nor was it any aid to his Legates at the Council of Arles; and the incapacity, which made so many Western bishops at Ariminum unwilling victims of the heresy, would also save them from being, had they been so inclined, its intelligent and active propagators.

It was in the East especially, and, to speak more distinctly, in Asia, that its head-quarters were to be found; and Asia, with Antioch as its metropolis, had a culture {145} which the other parts of Christendom had not. Alexandria, which had so firm a tradition and grasp of orthodoxy, was but one city situated at the extremity of the Empire, commanding only the narrow valley of the Nile, and cut off by deserts and by the broad sea from the rest of the Roman world. Antioch, on the contrary, was but the chief of many flourishing seats of learning, and, by means of the public roads, was in easy communication with the whole of Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor, not to speak of Thrace and Greece. Moreover, its separate Churches, enjoying an autonomy which the Egyptian Churches had not, exercised a freedom of thought, and had a practice in controversy, peculiar to themselves; and, preferring the study of the literal to that of the allegorical sense of scripture, were indisposed to submit either to the authorities or to the proofs on which orthodoxy, such as the Alexandrian, rested the sacred doctrine in dispute. The schools of Asia, then, when once they became advocates of a theological opinion, had far larger resources for its propagation than Gaul or Africa, and far greater influence than Egypt.

Nor was this all; they managed to create for themselves a special controversial advantage, when they undertook the cause of Arius against Egypt, the only zealous champion of orthodoxy. They threw their main force, not against the orthodox doctrine which was the real subject in dispute, but against the symbol of the homoŘsion, and the conduct of Athanasius. They made the controversy appear a mere question of ecclesiastical expedience, and of ecclesiastical persons and parties. Thus they represented it to the Catholic West. What did the West know {146} about either the one or the other? All they knew was that they had hardly begun to enjoy the peace for which they had so long been praying, when suddenly they were all at war again. When then they seemed to side with the Eusebian party, they were in truth doing little more than making Athanasius a convenient scapegoat for ridding themselves of troubles which they saw no other way out of, not dreaming of tampering with a prime article of the Creed, but expressing their disapprobation of one whom they were taught to believe a restless, violent, party-spirited man, and of his arbitrary formula.

And of this view there might be many honest supporters in the East as well as in the West; for it carried them back to an historical question interesting to themselves personally. The question of the homoŘsion was not to them new; it was a party question between Antioch and Alexandria. Its adoption at NicŠa was the reversal of an act of the forefathers of the Asiatics in the great Council of Antioch sixty years before. It had in that Council been proposed as a test of orthodoxy, and put aside. It had been put aside, although already used by Alexandrian theologians. But at NicŠa, where the Alexandrian Athanasius conducted the controversy, it had been recalled, it had been definitively adopted. Why was a term to be had in honour in 325, which had been put aside in 264 or 272 as male sonans and dangerous? We cannot be surprised then that the homoŘsion, which perplexed the Western bishops, should have irritated the Orientals; the only wonder is, that East and West had concurred in accepting it at NicŠa. The Acts of the Council there held are not extant, and we are {147} left to determine this point by conjecture. Perhaps the horror which we know seized its Fathers at hearing the blasphemies of Arius, induced them to accept what they found to be the only effectual test against him and his party. Then, after the Council, there would be a reaction in their view of the matter, and the Arians, being a sharp-witted set, would not be slow to take advantage of it. And, with reference to such a reaction, it must be borne in mind, that Ecumenical Councils were at that time a novelty in the Church; and that their sovereign authority and the immutability of their decisions were points not familiar to the apprehension of every bishop. This shows itself in the subsequent events of the fourth century.

Also, it would appear that, out of the Eusebian Councils which followed the Nicene, two only, or rather one, actually absolved Arius. Of course I do not say that those various Councils were clear of heterodoxy: how their members came to consent to such heterodoxy is the question, into which I have in the following pages to inquire; but whatever their shortcomings, Arians they certainly were not. The proper Arian party did not show itself in the Councils till thirty years after the Nicene, under the name of Anomœans, AŰtius and Eunomius being its leaders; the Eusebian Councils in the interval were for the most part composed of Semi-Arians.

This then at first sight as to the successes of Arianism in the East and West upon its start in the fourth century: as to the hold which it got upon the Civil Power, we must bear in mind that the bishops had become at that time an order and a magistracy in the state. They were on terms {148} of intimacy with the Emperors, and if in the Asiatic provinces they were infected, as they certainly were, with the heterodox views of the Antiochene school, they would communicate the heresy in turn to the civil authorities. Athanasius had not the like opportunity of indoctrinating those authorities in the truth. When indeed in his exile he was thrown upon the wide world, then he came across both Constans and the junior Constantine, and at once he availed himself of his good fortune by disposing both of them in favour of the orthodox cause. But he had no access to the presence of Emperors when he was at home. The Imperial Court took up its abode from time to time in the great cities of the East; in Thessalonica, Constantinople, Nicomedia, NicŠa, Hierapolis, Ancyra, CŠsarea, Antioch:—I do not think it once went to Alexandria. It must be added that to statesmen, lawyers, and military chiefs, who had lately been Pagans, a religious teaching such as Arianism, which was clear and intelligible, was more acceptable than doctrines which described the Divine Being in language, self-contradictory in its letter, and which exacted a belief in truths which were absolutely above their comprehension. The same consideration will account for the Arianism of the converted Goths, Vandals and Lombards.

Now I proceed to the doctrinal inquiry.

Top | Contents | Volume contents | Works | Home


Note

Vide Appendix, Note 5, to "The Arians of the Fourth Century," ed. 3.
Return to text

Top | Contents | Volume contents | Works | Home


Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright ę 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.