The Meletian Schism – Athanasius vs. Basil of Caesarea

This article quotes mainly from world-class scholars of the last 100 years specializing in the fourth-century Arian Controversy.

Hanson Lecture – An informative 1981 lecture by R.P.C. Hanson on the Arian Controversy.

Hanson, Bishop RPC
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

Williams, Archbishop Rowan
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Anatolios, Khaled,
Retrieving Nicaea, 2011

The Meletian Schism was a dispute in the 360s and 370s between two factions in the Pro-Nicene Camp.

John Mason Neale described the two factions as the “old Catholic party … and the new Catholic party.” See the long quote at the end of this article. This schism must not be confused with the Melitian Schism several decades earlier in Egypt.

The Eustathians

The “old Catholic party” or ‘Eustathians’ are named after Eustathius who was bishop of Antioch 40 years earlier, attended the Nicene Council in 325, and influenced the wording of the Nicene Creed significantly.

For example, at the Council of Nicaea:

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

Similar to the Sabellians, Eustathius taught that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are a single hypostasis (one Person). In his view, the Son or Logos is merely an aspect or part of the Father and does not have a distinct existence. Consequently, soon after Nicaea, he was exiled for Sabellianism.

For example:

“Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

“’The Logos for Eustathius,’ says Loofs, … ‘has or is no proper hypostasis’.” (Hanson, p. 215)

“Within ten years of the Council of Nicaea all the leading supporters of the creed of that Council had been deposed or disgraced or exiled – Athanasius, Eustathius and Marcellus, and with them a large number of other bishops who are presumed to have belonged to the same school of thought.” (Hanson, p. 274)

“It seems most likely that Eustathius was primarily deposed for the heresy of Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 211)

After he was exiled, his followers remained a significant minority group at Antioch. They continued his teachings and elected rival bishops. The rallying call of the Eustathians was ’one hypostasis’.

“’One hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (Hanson, p. 213)

After Eustathius was deposed, the Eusebians, who taught three hypostases, dominated in Antioch.

The quote from Neale below refers to the Eusebians as Arians. However, we know today that that term is a serious misnomer. Arius did not leave behind a school of followers. See – Athanasius invented Arianism.

“The expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer.” (Hanson, p. xvii)

The Meletians

In contrast to the Eustathians, who believed in one hypostasis, the other pro-Nicene faction, the Meletians, named after bishop Meletius, believed in three hypostases that are equal in all respects.

Following the teachings of Basil of Caesarea, the “new Catholic party” formed in the 360s:

Similar to the Eusebians, they believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Persons). However, while the Eusebians regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father, this new ‘Catholic’ party regarded the three hypostases as ontologically equal.

While the Eustathians understood ‘homoousios’ (same substance) as indicating one substance, this new party understood it as meaning two substances that are alike in all respects.

In 361, the Eusebian majority elected Meletius as bishop of Antioch. However, Meletius later accepted the ‘three hypostases’ form of Nicene theology. The Meletian Schism is named after him because the most important aspect of the dispute was who the rightful bishop of Antioch was. For the pro-Nicenes, the choice was between Meletius and Paulinus, the rival bishop of the Eustathians. 1“In 361 the majority of the Antiochian church elected as bishop Meletius, who had formerly been an Arian, and was ordained by this party, but after his election professed the Nicene orthodoxy.” (Philip Schaff) 2“The Catholics … split among themselves; the majority adhered to the exiled Meletius, while the old and more strictly orthodox party, who had hitherto been known as the Eustathians, and with whom Athanasius communicated … elected Paulinus … who was ordained counter-bishop by Lucifer of Calaris.” (Philip Schaff)

A clash between Athanasius and Basil

In the 360s and 370s, the two most important pro-Nicenes of the fourth century, Athanasius and Basil of Caesarea, found themselves on opposing sides in this dispute. While Athanasius, who also proclaimed one hypostasis, supported the Eustathians, Basil supported Meletius.

While the official bishop of Antioch was Meletius, the Eustathians’ rival bishop was Paulinus. As shown here, Athanasius taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a single hypostasis (Person). Therefore, Athanasius and friends supported Paulinus:

Paulinus “was recognized as legitimate bishop of Antioch by Athanasius. Later, Athanasius’ successor Peter extended the same recognition to him and persuaded Damasus to do the same.” (Hanson, p. 801)

“In May 373 Athanasius died, Peter his successor was driven out, fled to Rome, and proceeded to poison the mind of Damasus against Basil and Meletius.” (Hanson, p. 798)

In 375, Damasus wrote a letter that “constituted also an official recognition of Paulinus, not Meletius, as bishop of Antioch.” (Hanson, p. 799)

Basil supported Meletius:

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius.” (Hanson, p. 801)

“Basil would not desert Meletius and Athanasius would not recognize him (Meletius) as bishop of Antioch.” (Hanson, p. 797)

Athanasius supported the Eustathians because, as shown by here, he also proclaimed a single hypostasis.

A Clash about the Number of Hypostases

The main point of this dispute was the number of hypostases (Persons) in God. While Athanasius and the Eustathians said one, Basil and the Meletians maintained three.

For example:

“A council headed by Athanasius at Alexandria in 362 … met to address a schism between followers of two pro-Nicene bishops at Antioch: Paulinus, who confessed the one hypostasis, and Melitius, who confessed three hypostaseis.” (Anatolios, p. 26-27)

In a letter to Basil, “Damasus sent a very cool reply … deliberately avoided making any statement about the three hypostases. It was the adhesion of Basil, Meletius and their followers to this doctrine of the hypostases which caused Damasus … to suspect them of heresy.” (Hanson, p. 798)

Basil taught three hypostases to prevent a Sabellian understanding of the term homoousios.

Initially, Basil was concerned that the term homoousios could be understood in a modalistic or Sabellian manner in which Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person. Therefore, when he agreed to the term, it was with the understanding that the Father, Son, and Spirit are acknowledged as distinct hypostases, each subsisting uniquely. He encouraged the Eustathians to embrace the terminology of three hypostases.3“Basil (of Caesarea) had originally exhibited some discomfort with the Nicene homoousios as vulnerable to modalistic interpretations. His acceptance of this term was conditioned by his construction of an accompanying set of terminology to designate the threeness of God: Father, Son, and Spirit are each a distinct hypostasis, with a unique manner of subsistence (tropos hyparxeōs). Basil, a supporter of Melitius, pressed the followers of Paulinus to adopt the language of three hypostaseis in order to safeguard Nicene theology from a Sabellian interpretation.” (Anatolios, p. 27)

Prosopon does not make a real distinction.

The Eustathians refused to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases. Instead, they said each is a distinct prosopon (pl. prosōpa). While prosopon can mean hypostasis, it can also indicate a role played in a theatre. Applied to the Trinity, it can indicate different roles played by a single Person. For that reason, the Sabellians accepted the term but Basil rejected it.

In Ancient Greek, prosopon originally designated one’s “face” or “mask”. In that sense, it was used in Greek theatre, since actors wore masks on stage to reveal their character and emotions to the audience.

“The ‘Paulinians’ … considered it (Basil’s concern) sufficiently addressed by acknowledging that each of the Trinity is a distinct person, or prosōpon. But Basil deemed this stratagem inadequate, since the term prosōpon could mean simply “role” or “manifestation,” and thus even a Sabellian could subscribe to such a confession.” (Anatolios, p. 27)

Basil wrote: “It is not enough to count differences in the prosōpa. It is necessary also to confess that each prosōpon exists in a true hypostasis. The mirage of prosōpa without hypostaseis is not denied even by Sabellius, who said that the same God, though he is one subject, is transformed according to the need of each occasion and is thus spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit.” (Epistle 210.5.36–41.)

“Basil treats hypostasis and πρσωπον (prosopon) as synonymous, but he also sees πρσωπον as less appropriate, too close to Sabellianism.” (Ayres, p. 210)

“The use of prosopon which was not characteristic of Marcellus but was apparently used by Sabellius …” (Hanson, p. 328)

“The doctrinal difference between the Meletians and the old Nicenes consisted chiefly in this: that the latter acknowledged three hypostases in the divine trinity, the former only three prosopa; the one laying the stress on the triplicity of the divine essence, the other on its unity.” (Philip Schaff)

As another example of the distinction between hypostasis and prosopon, Jerome disapproved of the phrase ‘three hypostaseis.’ (Anatolios, p 27) The Latin equivalent of prosopon is persona. Writing in Latin, Jerome described the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “una substantia, tres personae” (one substance, three prosopa). [Jerome, Epistle 15.4.] In other words, for Jerome, there was a real and important distinction between hypostasis and prosopon/persona.

This was the Core of the Arian Controversy.

The core of the Controversy always was about the number of hypostases in God. It began with the second-century Monarchains, continued in the third-century Sabellians, and remained the core of the dispute in the fourth century.

 For example:

In the second century, while the Logos-theologians identified the Logos as “the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy” (see – Apologists), the Monarchians proclaimed one hypostasis.

In the third century, the Sabellians taught one hypostasis and the followers of Origen taught three.

In the dispute between Alexander and Arius, culminating in the Nicene Council, Alexander taught one and Arius three. At Nicaea, Constantine took Alexander’s side, resulting in a Creed that was open to a one-hypostasis reading. See – The Meaning of Homoousios.

After Constantine died in 337, the empire was divided East and West. In the 340s, while the empire remained divided, the Western Church taught one hypostasis and the East three.

When the empire was united again under Constantius in the 350s, Constantius forced the West to accept the Eastern three-hypostasis theology.

In the 360s-370s, Constantius’ successors mostly continued his three-hypostasis policy but the pro-Nicene were divided into one- and three-hypostases camps, as illustrated by the Meletian Schism.

In 380, emperor Theodosius made Athanasius’ one-hypostasis theology the state religion of the Roman Empire:

“Theodosius made known by law his intention of leading all his subjects to the reception of that faith which was professed by Damasus, bishop of Rome, and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria.” (Sozomen’s Church History VII.4)

For a detailed discussion, see – The Real Issue.

The Eustathians were Sabellians.

If we define Sabellianism as the teaching that only one Person (hypostasis) exists in God, then the Eustathians were Sabellians.

For example:

Hanson describes Paulinus as “a Sabellian heretic.” (Hanson’s Lecture) He was “Marcellan/Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. 799)

He derived “his tradition in continuity from Eustathius who had been bishop about forty years before” (Hanson, p. 800-1). As stated above, Eustathius was deposed for Sabellianism.

Basil of Caesarea regarded Athanasius and the Western support of one-hypostasis theology as Sabellianism, of which Marcellus was the primary representative:

Basil wrote a letter that “contained some shafts directed at Damasus because of his toleration of Eustathius and the Marcellans.” (Hanson, p. 799)

“Basil was never sure in his own mind that Athanasius had abandoned Marcellus of Ancyra and his followers.” (Hanson, p. 797)

“In a letter written to Athanasius he (Basil of Caesarea) complains that the Westerners have never brought any accusation against Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. 802)

“Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’ … rendered him suspect.” (Hanson, p. 801) This quote also confirms that Basil believed in three hypostases. See – Basil of Caesarea taught three substances (three Beings).

As discussed here, Athanasius did maintain a one-hypostasis theology, similar to the Sabellians.

“About the year 371 adherents of Marcellus approached Athanasius, presenting to him a statement of faith. … He accepted it and gave them a document expressing his agreement with their doctrine.” (Hanson, p. 801)

More descriptions of the Meletian Schism

“The schism at Antioch, between the Eustathians, or old Catholic party, under their Bishop Paulinus … and the new Catholic party under S. Meletius, had troubled both the East and West. The holiest Bishops in the East, such as S. Basil and S. Eusebius of Samosata, sided with Meletius. S. Damasus and the Western Bishops communicated with Paulinus. Meletius asserted Three Hypostases in the HOLY TRINITY, Paulinus One: S. Damasus would not allow the former, for fear of being considered an Arian, nor S. Basil the latter, lest he should be imagined a Sabellian.… S. Basil addressed a letter to him (Peter of Alexandria) … in which he complains in very strong language, that the Western Bishops, who could not be so well acquainted with the actual state of affairs, should presume to class Meletius and Eusebius among the Arians.” [A History of the Holy Eastern Church, Volume 1, by John Mason Neale, page 204]

“The opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic, and Vitalis, an Apollinarian heretic, against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East, later to be acknowledged universally as a great Doctor of the Church.” (Hanson’s Lecture)


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “In 361 the majority of the Antiochian church elected as bishop Meletius, who had formerly been an Arian, and was ordained by this party, but after his election professed the Nicene orthodoxy.” (Philip Schaff)
  • 2
    “The Catholics … split among themselves; the majority adhered to the exiled Meletius, while the old and more strictly orthodox party, who had hitherto been known as the Eustathians, and with whom Athanasius communicated … elected Paulinus … who was ordained counter-bishop by Lucifer of Calaris.” (Philip Schaff)
  • 3
    “Basil (of Caesarea) had originally exhibited some discomfort with the Nicene homoousios as vulnerable to modalistic interpretations. His acceptance of this term was conditioned by his construction of an accompanying set of terminology to designate the threeness of God: Father, Son, and Spirit are each a distinct hypostasis, with a unique manner of subsistence (tropos hyparxeōs). Basil, a supporter of Melitius, pressed the followers of Paulinus to adopt the language of three hypostaseis in order to safeguard Nicene theology from a Sabellian interpretation.” (Anatolios, p. 27)
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