Vol. 3, Chapter IX (Cont’d) – The Council of Nicaea, 325



(1) The twenty Canones, the doctrinal Symbol, and a Decree of the Council of Nicaea, and several Letters of bishop Alexander of Alexandria and the emperor Constantine (all collected in Greek and Latin in Mansi: Collect. sacrorum Conciliorum, tom. ii. fol. 635-704). Official minutes of the transactions themselves were not at that time made; only the decrees as adopted were set down in writing and subscribed by all (comp. Euseb. Vita Const. iii. 14). All later accounts of voluminous acts of the council are sheer fabrications (Comp. Hefele, i. p. 249 sqq.)

(2) Accounts of eye-witnesses, especially Eusebius, Vita Const. iii. 4-24 (superficial, rather Arianizing, and a panegyric of the emperor Constantine). The Church History of Eusebius, which should have closed with the council of Nice, comes down only to the year 324. Athanasius: De decretis Synodi Nic.; Orationes iv contra Arianos; Epist. ad Afros, and other historical and anti-Arian tracts in tom. i. and ii. of his Opera, ed. Bened. and the more important of them also in the first vol. of Thilo’s Bibliotheca Patrum Graec. dogmat. Lips. 1853. (Engl. transl. in the Oxford Library of the Fathers.)

(3) The later accounts of Epiphanius: Haer. 69; Socrates: H. E. i. 8 sqq.; Sozomen: H. E. i. 17 sqq.; Theodoret: H. E. i. 1-13; Rufinus: H. E. i. 1-6 (or lib. x., if his transl. of Eusebius be counted in). Gelasius Cyzicenus (about 476): Commentarius actorum Concilii Nicaeni (Greek and Latin in Mansi, tom. ii. fol. 759 sqq.; it professes to be founded on an old MS., but is filled with imaginary speeches). Comp. also the four Coptic fragments in Pitra: Spicilegium Solesmense, Par. 1852, vol. i. p. 509 sqq., and the Syriac fragments in Analecta Nicaena. Fragments relating to the Council of Nicaea. The Syriac text from am ancient MS. by H. Cowper, Lond. 1857.



Of the historians cited at §119 must be here especially mentioned Tillemont (R.C.), Walch, Schröckh, Gibbon, Hefele (i. pp. 249-426), A. de Broglie (vol. ii. ch. iv. pp. 3-70), and Stanley. Besides them, Ittig: Historia concilii Nicaeni, Lips. 1712. Is. Boyle: A historical View of the Council of Nice, with a translation of Documents, New York, 1856 (in Crusé’s ed. of Euseb.’s Church History). Comp. also §65 and 66 above, where this in connection with the other ecumenical councils has already been spoken of.

Eugene Revillout: Le Concile de Nicée d’après les textes coptes et les diverses collections canoniques. Paris, 1881. The works on Arianism and on Athanasius include accounts of the Council of Nicaea. On the Nicene Creed and its literature, see Schaff: Creeds of Christendom, vol. i. 12 sqq. and 24 sqq.; and the article of Ad. Harnack, in Herzog,2 vol. viii. (1881) 212-230, abridged in Schaff-Herzog (1886), ii. 1648 sqq.


The Council of Nicaea

Nicaea, the very name of which speaks victory, was the second city of Bithynia, only twenty English miles from the imperial residence of Nicomedia, and easily accessible by sea and land from all parts of the empire. It is now a miserable Turkish village, Is-nik, where nothing but a rude picture in the solitary church of St. Mary remains to the memory of the event which has given the place a name in the history of the world.

Hither, in the year 325, the twentieth of his reign (therefore the festive vicennalia), the emperor summoned the bishops of the empire by a letter of invitation, putting at their service the public conveyances, and liberally defraying from the public treasury the expenses of their residence in Nicaea and of their return. Each bishop was to bring with him two presbyters and three servants. They travelled partly in the public post carriages, partly on horses, mules, or asses, partly on foot. Many came to bring their private disputes before the emperor, who caused all their papers, without reading them, to be burned, and exhorted the parties to reconciliation and harmony.

The whole number of bishops assembled was at most three hundred and eighteen; that is, about one sixth of all the bishops of the empire, who are estimated as at least eighteen hundred (one thousand for the Greek provinces, eight hundred for the Latin), and only half as many as were at the council of Chalcedon. Including the presbyters and deacons and other attendants the number may, have amounted to between fifteen hundred and two thousand. Most of the Eastern provinces were strongly represented; the Latin church, on the contrary, had only seven delegates: from Spain Hosius of Cordova, from France Nicasius of Dijon, from North Africa Caecilian of Carthage, from Pannonia Domnus of Strido, from Italy Eustorgius of Milan and Marcus of Calabria, from Rome the two presbyters Victor or Vitus and Vincentius as delegates of the aged pope Sylvester I. A Persian bishop John, also, and a Gothic bishop, Theophilus, the forerunner and teacher of the Gothic Bible translator Ulfilas, were present.

The formal sessions began, after preliminary disputations between Catholics, Arians, and philosophers, probably about Pentecost, or at farthest after the arrival of the emperor on the 14th of June. They closed on the 25th of July, the anniversary of the accession of Constantine; though the members did not disperse till the 25th of August. They were held, it appears, part of the time in a church or some public building, part of the time in the emperor’s house.

The formal opening of the council was made by the stately entrance of the emperor, which Eusebius in his panegyrical flattery thus describes: “After all the bishops had entered the central building of the royal palace, on the sides of which very many seats were prepared, each took his place with becoming modesty, and silently awaited the arrival of the emperor. The court officers entered one after another, though only such as professed faith in Christ. The moment the approach of the emperor was announced by a given signal, they all rose from their seats, and the emperor appeared like a heavenly messenger of God, covered with gold and gems, a glorious presence, very tall and slender, full of beauty, strength, and majesty. With this external adornment he united the spiritual ornament of the fear of God, modesty, and humility, which could be seen in his downcast eyes, his blushing face, the motion of his body, and his walk. When he reached the golden throne prepared for him, he stopped, and sat not down till the bishops gave him the sign. And after him they all resumed their seats.”

How great the contrast between this position of the church and the time of her persecution but scarcely passed! What a revolution of opinion in bishops who had once feared the Roman emperor as the worst enemy of the church, and who now greeted the same emperor in his half barbarous attire as an angel of God from heaven, and gave him, though not yet even baptized, the honorary presidency of the highest assembly of the church!

After a brief salutatory address from the bishop on the right of the emperor, by which we are most probably to understand Eusebius of Caesarea, the emperor himself delivered with a gentle voice in the official Latin tongue the opening address, which was immediately after translated into Greek, and runs thus:

“It was my highest wish, my friends, that I might be permitted to enjoy your assembly. I must thank God that, in addition to all other blessings, he has shown me this highest one of all: to see you all gathered here in harmony and with one mind. May no malicious enemy rob us of this happiness, and after the tyranny of the enemy of Christ [Licinius and his army] is conquered by the help of the Redeemer, the wicked demon shall not persecute the divine law with new blasphemies. Discord in the church I consider more fearful and painful than any other war. As soon as I by the help of God had overcome my enemies, I believed that nothing more was now necessary than to give thanks to God in common joy with those whom I had liberated. But when I heard of your division, I was convinced that this matter should by no means be neglected, and in the desire to assist by my service, I have summoned you without delay. I shall, however, feel my desire fulfilled only when I see the minds of all united in that peaceful harmony which you, as the anointed of God, must preach to others. Delay not therefore, my friends, delay not, servants of God; put away all causes of strife, and loose all knots of discord by the laws of peace. Thus shall you accomplish the work most pleasing to God, and confer upon me, your fellow servant, an exceeding great joy.”

After this address he gave way to the (ecclesiastical) presidents of the council and the business began. The emperor, however, constantly, took an active part, and exercised a considerable influence.

Among the fathers of the council, besides a great number of obscure mediocrities, there were several distinguished and venerable men. Eusebius of Caesarea was most eminent for learning; the young archdeacon Athanasius, who accompanied the bishop Alexander of Alexandria, for zeal, intellect, and eloquence. Some, as confessors, still bore in their body the marks of Christ from the times of persecution: Paphnutius of the Upper Thebaid, Potamon of Heraklea, whose right eye had been put out, and Paul of Neo-Caesarea, who had been tortured with red hot iron under Licinius, and crippled in both his hands. Others were distinguished for extraordinary ascetic holiness, and even for miraculous works; like Jacob of Nisibis, who had spent years as a hermit in forests and eaves, and lived like a wild beast on roots and leaves, and Spyridion (or St. Spiro) of Cyprus, the patron of the Ionian isles, who even after his ordination remained a simple shepherd. Of the Eastern bishops, Eusebius of Caesarea, and of the Western, Hosius, or Osius, of Cordova, had the greatest influence with the emperor. These two probably sat by his side, and presided in the deliberations alternately with the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch.

In reference to the theological question the council was divided in the beginning into three parties.

The orthodox party, which held firmly to the deity of Christ, was at first in the minority, but in talent and influence the more weighty. At the head of it stood the bishop (or “pope”) Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, Macarius of Jerusalem, Marcellus of Ancyra, Rosins of Cordova (the court bishop), and above all the Alexandrian archdeacon, Athanasius, who, though small and young, and, according to later practice not admissible to a voice or a seat in a council, evinced more zeal and insight than all, and gave promise already of being the future head of the orthodox party.

The Arians or Eusebians numbered perhaps twenty bishops, under the lead of the influential bishop Eusebius of Nicemedia (afterwards of Constantinople), who was allied with the imperial family, and of the presbyter Arius, who attended at the command of the emperor, and was often called upon to set forth his views. To these also belonged Theognis of Nicaea, Maris of Chalcedon, and Menophantus of Ephesus; embracing in this remarkable way the bishops of the several seats of the orthodox ecumenical councils.

The majority, whose organ was the renowned historian Eusebius of Caesarea, took middle ground between the right and the left, but bore nearer the right, and finally went over to that side. Many of them had an orthodox instinct, but little discernment; others were disciples of Origen, or preferred simple biblical expression to a scholastic terminology; others had no firm convictions, but only uncertain opinions, and were therefore easily swayed by the arguments of the stronger party or by mere external considerations.

The Arians first proposed a creed, which however was rejected with tumultuous disapproval, and torn to pieces; whereupon all the eighteen signers of it, excepting Theonas and Secundus, both of Egypt, abandoned the cause of Arius.

Then the church historian Eusebius, in the name of the middle party, proposed an ancient Palestinian Confession, which was very similar to the Nicene, and acknowledged the divine nature of Christ in general biblical terms, but avoided the term in question, ὁμοούσιος, consubstantialis, of the same essence. The emperor had already seen and approved this confession, and even the Arian minority were ready to accept it.

But this last circumstance itself was very suspicious to the extreme right. They wished a creed which no Arian could honestly subscribe, and especially insisted on inserting the expression homo-ousios, which the Arians hated and declared to be unscriptural, Sabellian, and materialistic. The emperor saw clearly that the Eusebian formula would not pass; and, as he had at heart, for the sake of peace, the most nearly unanimous decision which was possible, he gave his voice for the disputed word.

Then Hosius of Cordova appeared and announced that a confession was prepared which would now be read by the deacon (afterwards bishop) Hermogenes of Caesarea, the secretary of the synod. It is in substance the well-known Nicene creed with some additions and omissions of which we are to speak below. It is somewhat abrupt; the council not caring to do more than meet the immediate exigency. The direct concern was only to establish the doctrine of the true deity of the Son. The deity of the Holy Spirit, though inevitably involved, did not then come up as a subject of special discussion, and therefore the synod contented itself on this point with the sentence: “And (we believe) in the Holy Ghost.” The council of Constantinople enlarged the last article concerning the Holy Ghost. To the positive part of the Nicene confession is added a condemnation of the Arian heresy, which dropped out of the formula afterwards received.

Almost all the bishops subscribed the creed, Hosius at the head, and next him the two Roman presbyters in the name of their bishop. This is the first instance of such signing of a document in the Christian church. Eusebius of Caesarea also signed his name after a day’s deliberation, and vindicated this act in a letter to his diocese. Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea subscribed the creed without the condemnatory formula, and for this they were deposed and for a time banished, but finally consented to all the decrees of the council. The Arian historian Philostorgius, who however deserves little credit, accuses them of insincerity in having substituted, by the advice of the emperor, for ὁμο-ούσιος (of the same essence) the semi-Arian word ὁμοι-ούσιος (of like essence). Only two Egyptian bishops, Theonas and Secundus, persistently refused to sign, and were banished with Arius to Illyria. The books of Arius were burned and his followers branded as enemies of Christianity.

This is the first example of the civil punishment of heresy; and it is the beginning of a long succession of civil persecutions for all departures from the Catholic faith. Before the union of church and state ecclesiastical excommunication was the extreme penalty. Now banishment and afterwards even death were added, because all offences against the church were regarded as at the same time crimes against the state and civil society.

The two other points on which the council of Nicaea decided, the Easter question and the Meletian schism, have been already spoken of in their place. The council issued twenty canons in reference to discipline. The creed and the canons were written in a book, and again signed by the bishops. The council issued a letter to the Egyptian and Libyan bishops as to the decision of the three main points; the emperor also sent several edicts to the churches, in which he ascribed the decrees to divine inspiration, and set them forth as laws of the realm. On the twenty-ninth of July, the twentieth anniversary of his accession, he gave the members of the council a splendid banquet in his palace, which Eusebius (quite too susceptible to worldly splendor) describes as a figure of the reign of Christ on earth; he remunerated the bishops lavishly, and dismissed them with a suitable valedictory, and with letters of commendation to the authorities of all the provinces on their homeward way.

Thus ended the council of Nicaea. It is the first and most venerable of the ecumenical synods, and next to the apostolic council at Jerusalem the most important and the most illustrious of all the councils of Christendom. Athanasius calls it “a true monument and token of victory against every heresy;” Leo the Great, like Constantine, attributes its decrees to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and ascribes even to its canons perpetual validity; the Greek church annually observes (on the Sunday before Pentecost) a special feast in memory of it. There afterwards arose a multitude of apocryphal orations and legends in glorification of it, of which Gelasius of Cyzicus in the fifth century collected a whole volume.

The council of Nicaea is the most important event of the fourth century, and its bloodless intellectual victory over a dangerous error is of far greater consequence to the progress of true civilization, than all the bloody victories of Constantine and his successors. It forms an epoch in the history of doctrine, summing up the results of all previous discussions on the deity of Christ and the incarnation, and at the same time regulating the further development of the Catholic orthodoxy for centuries. The Nicene creed, in the enlarged form which it received after the second ecumenical council, is the only one of all, the symbols of doctrine which, with the exception of the subsequently added filioque, is acknowledged alike by the Greek, the Latin, and the Evangelical churches, and to this, day, after a course of fifteen centuries, is prayed and sung from Sunday to Sunday in all countries of the civilized world. The Apostles’ Creed indeed, is much more generally used in the West, and by its greater simplicity and more popular form is much better adapted to catechetical and liturgical purposes; but it has taken no root in the Eastern church; still less the Athanasian Creed, which exceeds the Nicene in logical precision and completeness. Upon the bed of lava grows the sweet fruit of the vine. The wild passions and the weaknesses of men, which encompassed the Nicene council, are extinguished, but the faith in the eternal deity of Christ has remained, and so long as this faith lives, the council of Nicaea will be named with reverence and with gratitude.


121. The Arian and Semi-Arian Reaction, a.d. 325-361

The victory of the council of Nicaea over the views of the majority of the bishops was a victory only in appearance. It had, to be sure, erected a mighty fortress, in which the defenders of the essential deity of Christ might ever take refuge from the assaults of heresy; and in this view it was of the utmost importance, and secured the final triumph of the truth. But some of the bishops had subscribed the homoousion with reluctance, or from regard to the emperor, or at best with the reservation of a broad interpretation; and with a change of circumstances they would readily turn in opposition. The controversy now for the first time fairly broke loose, and Arianism entered the stage of its political development and power. An intermediate period of great excitement ensued, during which council was held against council, creed was set forth against creed, and anathema against anathema was hurled. The pagan Ammianus Marcellinus says of the councils under Constantius: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops;” and even Athanasius rebuked the restless flutter of the clergy, who journeyed the empire over to find the true faith, and provoked the ridicule and contempt of the unbelieving world. In intolerance and violence the Arians exceeded the orthodox, and contested elections of bishops not rarely came to bloody encounters. The interference of imperial politics only poured oil on the flame, and embarrassed the natural course of the theological development.

The personal history of Athanasius was interwoven with the doctrinal controversy; he threw himself wholly into the cause which he advocated. The question whether his deposition was legitimate or not, was almost identical with the question whether the Nicene Creed should prevail.

Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea threw all their influence against the adherents of the homoousion. Constantine himself was turned by Eusebius of Caesarea, who stood between Athanasius and Arius, by his sister Constantia and her father confessor, and by a vague confession of Arius, to think more favorably of Arius, and to recall him from exile. Nevertheless he afterwards, as before, thought himself in accordance with the orthodox view and the Nicene creed. The real gist of the controversy he had never understood. Athanasius, who after the death of Alexander in April, 328, became bishop of Alexandria and head of the Nicene party, refused to reinstate the heretic in his former position, and was condemned and deposed for false accusations by two Arian councils, one at Tyre under the presidency of the historian Eusebius, the other at Constantinople in the year 335 (or 336), and banished by the emperor to Treves in Gaul in 336, as a disturber of the peace of the church.

Soon after this Arius, having been formally acquitted of the charge of heresy by a council at Jerusalem (a.d. 335), was to have been solemnly received back into the fellowship of the church at Constantinople. But on the evening before the intended procession from the imperial palace to the church of the Apostles, he suddenly died (a.d. 336), at the age of over eighty years, of an attack like cholera, while attending to a call of nature. This death was regarded by many as a divine judgment; by others, it was attributed to poisoning by enemies; by others, to the excessive joy of Arius in his triumph.

On the death of Constantine (337), who had shortly before received baptism from the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia, Athanasius was recalled from his banishment (338) by Constantine II. († 340), and received by the people with great enthusiasm; “more joyously than ever an emperor.” Some months afterwards (339) he held a council of nearly a hundred bishops in Alexandria for the vindication of the Nicene doctrine. But this was a temporary triumph.

In the East Arianism prevailed. Constantius, second son of Constantine the Great, and ruler in the East, together with his whole court, was attached to it with fanatical intolerance. Eusebius of Nicomedia was made bishop of Constantinople (338), and was the leader of the Arian and the more moderate, but less consistent semi-Arian parties in their common opposition to Athanasius and the orthodox West. Hence the name Eusebians. Athanasius was for a second time deposed, and took refuge with the bishop Julius of Rome (339 or 340), who in the autumn of 341 held a council of more than fifty bishops in defence of the exile and for the condemnation of his opponents. The whole Western church was in general more steadfast on the side of the Nicene orthodoxy, and honored in Athanasius a martyr of the true faith. On the contrary a synod at Antioch, held under the direction of the Eusebians on the occasion of the dedication of a church in 341, issued twenty-five canons, indeed, which were generally accepted as orthodox and valid, but at the same time confirmed the deposition of Athanasius, and set forth four creeds, which rejected Arianism, yet avoided the orthodox formula, particularly the vexed homoousion.

Thus the East and the West were in manifest conflict.

To heal this division, the two emperors, Constantius in the East and Constans in the West, summoned a general council at Sardica in Illyria, a.d. 343. Here the Nicene party and the Roman influence prevailed. Pope Julius was represented by two Italian priests. The Spanish bishop Hosius presided. The Nicene doctrine was here confirmed, and twelve canons were at the same time adopted, some of which are very important in reference to discipline and the authority of the Roman see. But the Arianizing Oriental bishops, dissatisfied with the admission of Athanasius, took no part in the proceedings, held an opposition council in the neighboring city of Philippolis, and confirmed the decrees of the council of Antioch. The opposite councils, therefore, inflamed the discord of the church, instead of allaying it.

Constantius was compelled, indeed, by his brother to restore Athanasius to his office in 346; but after the death of Constans, a.d. 350, be summoned three successive synods in favor of a moderate Arianism; one at Sirmium in Pannonia (351), one at Arelate or Arles in Gaul (353), and one at Milan in Italy, (355); he forced the decrees of these councils on the Western church, deposed and banished bishops, like Liberius of Rome, Hosius of Cordova, Hilary of Poictiers, Lucifer of Calaris, who resisted them, and drove Athanasius from the cathedral of Alexandria during divine service with five thousand armed soldiers, and supplied his place with an uneducated and avaricious Arian, George of Cappadocia (356). In these violent measures the court bishops and Eusebia, the last wife of Constantius and a zealous Arian, had great influence. Even in their exile the faithful adherents of the Nicene faith were subjected to all manner of abuse and vexation. Hence Constantius was vehemently attacked by Athanasius, Hilary, and Lucifer, compared to Pharaoh, Saul, Ahab, Belshazzar, and called an inhuman beast, the forerunner of Antichrist, and even Antichrist himself.

Thus Arianism gained the ascendency in the whole Roman empire; though not in its original rigorous form, but in the milder form of homoi-ousianism or the doctrine of similarity of essence, as opposed on the one hand to the Nicene homo-ousianism (sameness of essence), and on the other hand to the Arian hetero-ousianism (difference of essence).

Even the papal chair was desecrated by heresy during this Arian interregnum; after the deposition of Liberius, the deacon Felix II., “by antichristian wickedness,” as Athanasius expresses it, was elected his successor. Many Roman historians for this reason regard him as a mere anti-pope. But in the Roman church books this Felix is inserted, not only as a legitimate pope, but even as a saint, because, according to a much later legend, he was executed by Constantius, whom he called a heretic. His memory is celebrated on the twenty-ninth of July. His subsequent fortunes are very differently related. The Roman people desired the recall of Liberius, and he, weary of exile, was prevailed upon to apostatize by subscribing an Arian or at least Arianizing confession, and maintaining church fellowship with the Eusebians. On this condition he was restored to his papal dignity, and received with enthusiasm into Rome (358). He died in 366 in the orthodox faith, which he had denied through weakness, but not from conviction.

Even the almost centennarian bishop Hosius was induced by long imprisonment and the threats of the emperor, though not himself to compose (as Hilary states), yet to subscribe (as Athanasius and Sozomen say), the Arian formula of the second council of Sirmium, a.d. 357, but soon after repented his unfaithfulness, and condemned the Arian heresy shortly before his death.

The Nicene orthodoxy was thus apparently put down. But now the heretical majority, having overcome their common enemy, made ready their own dissolution by divisions among themselves. They separated into two factions. The right wing, the Eusebians or Semi-Arians, who were represented by Basil of Ancyra and Gregory of Laodicea, maintained that the Son was not indeed of the same essence (ὁμο-ούσιος), yet of like essence (ὁμοι-ούσιος), with the Father. To these belonged many who at heart agreed with the Nicene faith, but either harbored prejudices against Athanasius, or saw in the term ὁμο-ούσιος an approach to Sabellianism; for theological science had not yet duly fixed the distinction of substance (οὐσία) and person (ὑπόστασις), so that the homoousia might easily be confounded with unity of person. The left wing, or the decided Arians, under the lead of Eudoxius of Antioch, his deacon Aëtius, and especially the bishop Eunomius of Cyzicus in Mysia (after whom they were called also Eunomians), taught that the Son was of a different essence (ἑτεροούσιος), and even unlike the Father (ἀνόμοιος), and created out of nothing (ἐκ οὐκ ὄντων). They received also, from their standard terms, the names of Heterousiasts, Anomaeans, and Exukontians.

A number of councils were occupied with this internal dissension of the anti-Nicene party: two at Sirmium (the second, a.d. 357; the third, a.d. 358), one at Antioch (358), one at Ancyra (358), the double council at Seleucia and Rimini (359), and one at Constantinople (360). But the division was not healed. The proposed compromise of entirely avoiding the word ούσια, and substituting ὅμοιος like, for ὁμοιούσιος of like essence, and ἀνόμοιος, unlike, satisfied neither party. Constantius vainly endeavored to suppress the quarrel by his imperio-episcopal power. His death in 361 opened the way for the second and permanent victory of the Nicene orthodoxy.


122. The Final Victory of Orthodoxy, and the Council of Constantinople, 381

Julian the Apostate tolerated all Christian parties, in the hope that they would destroy one another. With this view he recalled the orthodox bishops from exile. Even Athanasius returned, but was soon banished again as an “enemy of the gods,” and recalled by Jovian. Now for a time the strife of the Christians among themselves was silenced in their common warfare against paganism revived. The Arian controversy took its own natural course. The truth regained free play, and the Nicene spirit was permitted to assert its intrinsic power. It gradually achieved the victory; first in the Latin church, which held several orthodox synods in Rome, Milan, and Gaul; then in Egypt and the East, through the wise and energetic administration of Athanasius, and through the eloquence and the writings of the three great Cappadocian bishops Basil, Gregory of Nazianzum, and Gregory of Nyssa.

After the death of Athanasius in 373, Arianism regained dominion for a time in Alexandria, and practised all kinds of violence upon the orthodox.

In Constantinople Gregory Nazianzen labored, from 379, with great success in a small congregation, which alone remained true to the orthodox faith during the Arian rule; and he delivered in a domestic chapel, which he significantly named Anastasia (the church of the Resurrection), those renowned discourses on the deity of Christ which won him the title of the Divine, and with it many persecutions.

The raging fanaticism of the Arian emperor Valens (364-378) against both Semi-Arians and Athanasians wrought an approach of the former party to the latter. His successor, Gratian, was orthodox, and recalled the banished bishops.

Thus the heretical party was already in reality intellectually and morally broken, when the emperor Theodosius I., or the Great, a Spaniard by birth, and educated in the Nicene faith, ascended the throne, and in his long and powerful reign (379-395) externally completed the triumph of orthodoxy in the Roman empire. Soon after his accession he issued, in 380, the celebrated edict, in which he required all his subjects to confess the orthodox faith, and threatened the heretics with punishment. After his entrance into Constantinople he raised Gregory Nazianzen to the patriarchal chair in place of Demophilus (who honestly refused to renounce his heretical conviction), and drove the Arians, after their forty years’ reign, out of all the churches of the capital.

To give these forcible measures the sanction of law, and to restore unity in the church of the whole empire, Theodosius called the second ecumenical council at Constantinople in May, 381. This council, after the exit of the thirty-six Semi-Arian Macedonians or Pneumatomachi, consisted of only a hundred and fifty bishops. The Latin church was not represented at all. Meletius (who died soon after the opening), Gregory Nazianzen, and after his resignation Nectarius of Constantinople, successively presided. This preferment of the patriarch of Constantinople before the patriarch of Alexandria is explained by the third canon of the council, which assigns to the bishop of new Rome the first rank after the bishop of old Rome. The emperor attended the opening of the sessions, and showed the bishops all honor.

At this council no new symbol was framed, but the Nicene Creed, with some unessential changes and an important addition respecting the deity of the Holy Ghost against Macedonianism or Pneumatoinachism, was adopted. In this improved form the Nicene Creed has been received, though in the Greek church without the later Latin addition: filioque.

In the seven genuine canons of this council the heresies of the Eunomians or Anomoeans, of the Arians or Eudoxians, of the Semi-Arians or Pneumatomachi, of the Sabellians, Marcellians, and Apollinarians, were condemned, and questions of discipline adjusted.

The emperor ratified the decrees of the council, and as early as July, 381, enacted the law that all churches should be given up to bishops who believed in the equal divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and who stood in church fellowship with certain designated orthodox bishops. The public worship of heretics was forbidden.

Thus Arianism and the kindred errors were forever destroyed in the Roman empire, though kindred opinions continually reappear as isolated cases and in other connections.

But among the different barbarian peoples of the West, especially in Gaul and Spain, who had received Christianity from the Roman empire during the ascendency of Arianism, this doctrine was perpetuated two centuries longer: among the Goths till 587; among the Suevi in Spain till 560; among the Vandals who conquered North Africa in 429 and cruelly persecuted the Catholics, till their expulsion by Belisarius in 530; among the Burgundians till their incorporation in the Frank empire in 534, and among the Longobards till the close of the sixth century. These barbarians, however, held Arianism rather through accident than from conviction, and scarcely knew the difference between it and the orthodox doctrine. Alaric, the first conqueror of Rome; Genseric, the conqueror of North Africa; Theodoric the Great, king of Italy and hero of the Niebelungen Lied, were Arians. The first Teutonic translation of the Bible came from the Arian missionary Ulfilas.


123. The Theological Principles Involved: Import of the Controversy

Here should be compared, of the works before mentioned, especially Petavius (tom. sec. De sanctissima Trinitate), and Möhler (Athanasius, third book), of the Romanists, and Baur, Dorner, and Voigt, of the Protestants.

We pass now to the internal history of the Arian conflict, the development of the antagonistic ideas; first marking some general points of view from which the subject must be conceived.

To the superficial and rationalistic eye this great struggle seems a metaphysical subtilty and a fruitless logomachy, revolving about a Greek iota. But it enters into the heart of Christianity, and must necessarily affect in a greater or less degree all other articles of faith. The different views of the contending parties concerning the relation of Christ to the Father involved the general question, whether Christianity is truly divine, the highest revelation, and an actual redemption, or merely a relative truth, which may be superseded by a more perfect revelation.

Thus the controversy is conceived even by Dr. Baur, who is characterized by a much deeper discernment of the philosophical and historical import of the conflicts in the history of Christian doctrine, than all other rationalistic historians. “The main question,” he says, “was, whether Christianity is the highest and absolute revelation of God, and such that by it in the Son of God the self-existent absolute being of God joins itself to man, and so communicates itself that man through the Son becomes truly one with God, and comes into such community of essence with God, as makes him absolutely certain of pardon and salvation. From this point of view Athanasius apprehended the gist of the controversy, always finally summing up all his objections to the Arian doctrine with the chief argument, that the whole substance of Christianity, all reality of redemption, everything which makes Christianity the perfect salvation, would be utterly null and meaningless, if he who is supposed to unite man with God in real unity of being, were not himself absolute God, or of one substance with the absolute God, but only a creature among creatures. The infinite chasm which separates creature from Creator, remains unfilled; there is nothing really mediatory between God and man, if between the two there be nothing more than some created and finite thing, or such a mediator and redeemer as the Arians conceive the Son of God in his essential distinction from God: not begotten from the essence of God and coeternal, but created out of nothing and arising in time. Just as the distinctive character of the Athanasian doctrine lies in its effort to conceive the relation of the Father and Son, and in it the relation of God and man, as unity and community of essence, the Arian doctrine on the contrary has the opposite aim of a separation by which, first Father and Son, and then God and man, are placed in the abstract opposition of infinite and finite. While, therefore, according to Athanasius, Christianity is the religion of the unity of God and man, according to Arius the essence of the Christian revelation can consist only in man’s becoming conscious of the difference which separates him, with all the finite, from the absolute being of God. What value, however, one must ask, has such a Christianity, when, instead of bringing man nearer to God, it only fixes the chasm between God and man?”

Arianism was a religious political war against the spirit of the Christian revelation by the spirit of the world, which, after having persecuted the church three hundred years from without, sought under the Christian name to reduce her by degrading Christ to the category of the temporal and the created, and Christianity to the level of natural religion. It substituted for a truly divine Redeemer, a created demigod, an elevated Hercules. Arianism proceeded from human reason, Athanasianism from divine revelation; and each used the other source of knowledge as a subordinate and tributary factor. The former was deistic and rationalistic, the latter theistic and supernaturalistic, in spirit and effect. The one made reasonableness, the other agreement with Scripture, the criterion of truth. In the one the intellectual interest, in the other the moral and religious, was the motive principle. Yet Athanasius was at the same time a much deeper and abler thinker than Arius, who dealt in barren deductions of reason and dialectic formulas.

In close connection with this stood another distinction. Arianism associated itself with the secular political power and the court party; it represented the imperio-papal principle, and the time of its prevalence under Constantius was an uninterrupted season of the most arbitrary and violent encroachments of the state upon the rights of the church. Athanasius, on the contrary, who was so often deposed by the emperor, and who uttered himself so boldly respecting Constantius, is the personal representative not only of orthodoxy, but also of the independence of the church with reference to the secular power, and in this respect a precursor of Gregory VII. in his contest with the German imperialism.

While Arianism bent to the changing politics of the court party, and fell into diverse schools and sects the moment it lost the imperial support, the Nicene faith, like its great champion Athanasius, remained under all outward changes of fortune true to itself, and made its mighty advance only by legitimate growth outward from within. Athanasius makes no distinction at all between the various shades of Arians and Semi-Arians, but throws them all into the same category of enemies of the catholic faith.


124. Arianism

The doctrine of the Arians, or Eusebians, Aëtians, Eunomians, as they were called after their later leaders, or Exukontians, Heteroousiasts, and Anomoeans, as they were named from their characteristic terms, is in substance as follows:

The Father alone is God; therefore he alone is unbegotten, eternal, wise, good, and unchangeable, and he is separated by an infinite chasm from the world. He cannot create the world directly, but only through an agent, the Logos. The Son of God is pre-existent, before all creatures, and above all creatures, a middle being between God and the world, the creator of the world, the perfect image of the Father, and the executor of his thoughts, and thus capable of being called in a metaphorical sense God, and Logos, and Wisdom. But on the other hand, he himself is a creature, that is to say, the first creation of God, through whom the Father called other creatures into existence; he was created out of nothing (not out of the essence of God) by the will of the Father before all conceivable time; he is therefore not eternal, but had a beginning, and there was a time when he was not.

Arianism thus rises far above Ebionism, Socinianism, deism, and rationalism, in maintaining the personal pre-existence of the Son before all worlds, which were his creation; but it agrees with those systems in lowering the Son to the sphere of the created, which of course includes the idea of temporalness and finiteness. It at first ascribed to him the predicate of unchangeableness also, but afterwards subjected him to the vicissitudes of created being. This contradiction, however, is solved, if need be, by the distinction between moral and physical unchangeableness; the Son is in his nature (φύσει) changeable, but remains good (καλός) by a free act of his will. Arius, after having once robbed the Son of divine essence, could not consistently allow him any divine attribute in the strict sense of the word; he limited his duration, his power, and his knowledge, and expressly asserted that the Son does not perfectly know the Father, and therefore cannot perfectly reveal him. The Son is essentially distinct from the Father, and — as Aëtius and Eunomius afterward more strongly expressed it — unlike the Father; and this dissimilarity was by some extended to all moral and metaphysical attributes and conditions. The dogma of the essential deity of Christ seemed to Arius to lead of necessity to Sabellianism or to the Gnostic dreams of emanation. As to the humanity of Christ, Arius ascribed to him only a human body, but not a rational soul, and on this point Apollinarius came to the same conclusion, though from orthodox premises, and with the intention of saving the unity of the divine personality of Christ.

The later development of Arianism brought out nothing really new, but rather revealed many inconsistencies and contradictions. Thus, for example, Eunomius, to whom clearness was the measure of truth, maintained that revelation has made everything clear, and man can perfectly know God; while Arius denied even to the Son the perfect knowledge of God or of himself. The negative and rationalistic element came forth in ever greater prominence, and the controversy became a metaphysical war, destitute of all deep religion, spirit. The eighteen formulas of faith which Arianism and Semi-Arianism produced between the councils of Nice and Constantinople, are leaves without blossoms, and branches without fruit. The natural course of the Arian heresy is downward, through the stage of Socinianism, into the rationalism which sees in Christ a mere man, the chief of his kind.

To pass now to the arguments used for and against this error:

1. The Arians drew their exegetical proofs from the passages of Scripture which seem to place Christ in any way in the category of that which is created, or ascribe to the incarnate (not the pre-temporal, divine) Logos growth, lack of knowledge, weariness, sorrow, and other changing human affections and states of mind, (Such as Luk_2:52; Heb_5:8, Heb_5:9; Joh_12:27, Joh_12:28; Mat_26:39; Mar_13:32; etc.) or teach a subordination of the Son to the Father.

Athanasius disposes of these arguments somewhat too easily, by referring the passages exclusively to the human side of the person of Jesus. When, for example, the Lord says he knows not the day, nor the hour of the judgment, this is due only to his human nature. For how should the Lord of heaven and earth, who made days and hours, not know them! He accuses the Arians of the Jewish conceit, that divine and human are incompatible. The Jews say How could Christ, if he were God, become man, and die on the cross? The Arians say: How can Christ, who was man, be at the same time God? We, says Athanasius, are Christians; we do not stone Christ when he asserts his eternal Godhead, nor are we offended in him when he speaks to us in the language of human poverty. But it is the peculiar doctrine of Holy Scripture to declare everywhere a double thing of Christ: that he, as Logos and image of the Father, was ever truly divine, and that he afterwards became man for our salvation. When Athanasius cannot refer such terms as “made,” “created,” “became,” to the human nature he takes them figuratively for “testified,” “constituted,” “demonstrated.”

As positive exegetical proofs against Arianism, Athanasius cites almost all the familiar proof-texts which ascribe to Christ divine names, divine attributes, divine works, and divine dignity, and which it is unnecessary here to mention in detail.

Of course his exegesis, as well as that of the fathers in general, when viewed from the level of the modern grammatical, historical, and critical method, contains a great deal of allegorizing caprice and fancy and sophistical subtilty. But it is in general far more profound and true than the heretical.

2. The theological arguments for Arianism were predominantly negative and rationalizing. The amount of them is, that the opposite view is unreasonable, is irreconcilable with strict monotheism and the dignity of God, and leads to Sabellian or Gnostic errors. It is true, Marcellus of Ancyra, one of the most zealous advocates of the Nicene homoousianism, fell into the Sabellian denial of the tri-personality, but most of the Nicene fathers steered with unerring tact between the Scylla of Sabellianism, and the Charybdis of Tritheism.

Athanasius met the theological objections of the Arians with overwhelming dialectical skill, and exposed the internal contradictions and philosophical absurdities of their positions. Arianism teaches two gods, an uncreated and a created, a supreme and a secondary god, and thus far relapses into heathen polytheism. It holds Christ to be a mere creature, and yet the creator of the world; as if a creature could be the source of life, the origin and the end of all creatures! It ascribes to Christ a pre-mundane existence, but denies him eternity, while yet time belongs to the idea of the world, and is created only therewith, so that before the world there was nothing but eternity. It supposes a time before the creation of the pre-existent Christ; thus involving God himself in the notion of time; which contradicts the absolute being of God. It asserts the unchangeableness of God, but denies, with the eternal generation of the Son, also the eternal Fatherhood; thus assuming after all a very essential change in God. Athanasius charges the Arians with dualism and heathenism, and he accuses them of destroying the whole doctrine of salvation. For if the Son is a creature, man remains still separated, as before, from God; no creature can redeem other creatures, and unite them with God. If Christ is not divine, much less can we be partakers of the divine nature and children of God.