Athanasius was justly deposed for violence.

Summary

We must not confuse the ‘Melitian Schism’ early in the fourth century and the ‘Meletian Schism’ later in that century. The latter was a dispute between two pro-Nicene groups in Antioch, primarily about the number of hypostases in God. In contrast, the Melitians were the brave Christians in Egypt who, during the Great Persecution at the beginning of the fourth century, following Bishop Melitius of Lycopolis, refused to hide from that persecution.

However, the Melitians also refused to receive back into communion the Christians who had denied their faith during that persecution. This caused division in the church which the Nicene Council of 325 attempted to address.

Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, died in 328 and Athanasius was elected bishop in his place. A few years later, the Melitians appealed to the emperor for protection against Athanasius. They accused him of preventing people from entering church buildings, burning of churches, imprisonments, beatings, and even of murder.

But their appeal failed. Eusebius of Nicomedia was one of Arius’ supporters who were exiled after Nicaea but who were re-admitted within a few years and who became influential with emperor and the royal family. In the year 333 or 334, five years after Athanasius had become bishop of Alexandria and after the Melitians’ failed appeal, Eusebius approached them and negotiated an alliance with them: Eusebius “promised that he would obtain for them an audience with the Emperor if they would receive and champion Arius.”

In 334, Eusebius called a council to evaluate Athanasius’ conduct but Athanasius refused to attend. The emperor forced Athanasius to attend another council at Tyre in 335 for the same purpose. After the Council had sent a commission to Egypt, it excommunicated Athanasius for indefensible violence in the administration of his see, and deposed him from being archbishop of Alexandria.

Athanasius claimed that these accusations were formulated by ‘Arians’ to eliminate him as their theological opponent. However, the so-called Arians allied with the Melitians only after the Melitians already had unsuccessfully appealed to the emperor.

Athanasius’ aggression was not aimed at ‘Arians.’ The fundamental cause of Athanasius’ aggression is that he did not accept the arrangement made about the Melitians at Nicaea.

Athanasius furthermore claimed that the allegations were false. Some of the accusations were indeed proven to be false. However, papyrus letters discovered during the 20th century, which we cannot possibly dismiss as inventions, exaggerations, or propaganda, describe the barbaric treatment Athanasius had been dealing out. Therefore, “he had been justly convicted of disgraceful behaviour in his see.” (Hanson, p. 254-5)

Athanasius defends by slandering his opponents. “He represents the Council of Tyre, which was a properly constituted and entirely respectable gathering of churchmen, some of whom had been confessors in the Great Persecution, as a gang of disreputable conspirators, and brands all his opponents as favourers of heresy.” (Hanson, p. 262)

Purpose

Traditionally, Athanasius is the hero of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. However, this article shows that he was guilty of barbaric behavior.

Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria in 328. (Hanson, p. 246) Seven years later, in 335, he was condemned for violence against the Melitians, deposed from being archbishop of Alexandria, and excommunicated.

Athanasius claimed that these were false accusations formulated by heretics (Arians) to eliminate him as their theological opponent. Traditionally, the church had accepted his explanation.

This article is a summary of chapter 9 of the book by the eminent historian RPC Hanson in which he shows that Athanasius was truly guilty of serious misconduct and violence. 1Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

Newly discovered ancient documents confirm that Athanasius was justly condemned for violence by fourth-century church councils.

Hanson mentions several ancient sources but the most important evidence is ancient papyrus letters discovered during the 20th century in the sands of Egypt.

Due to discoveries of ancient documents and significant progress, the scholarship of the past hundred years has concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy presents history from the winner’s perspective and is a complete travesty. Hanson’s book reflects the revised account of that Controversy.

The Melitians were Christians who refused to hide from persecution but who also refused to accept back Christians who denied their faith during the Persecution.

The Melitians were a group of brave Christians in Egypt around the year 306 during the Great Persecution who, following Bishop Melitius of Lycopolis, taught that Christians should not hide from that persecution. However, they objected to the terms laid down by Peter, the bishop of Alexandria, for the readmission of ‘lapsed’ Christians.

Trouble began several years after 328.

Athanasius claimed that the Melitians began to complain about how they were treated as soon as Alexander died, implying that he was not the cause of their grievances. However, the Melitians began to complain about Athanasius’ treatment only several years later.

“Though Athanasius declared that as soon as bishop Alexander died the Melitians began stirring up trouble again, we have no evidence of such trouble, even in Athanasius’ own Festal Letters, till the year 332.” (Hanson, p. 249) 2RH = Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

“It is perhaps impossible to reconstruct the exact order of events, but the evidence seems to point clearly to the conclusion that several years must have elapsed between Athanasius succeeding to the see of Alexandria and the first moves of the Melitians against him.” (Hanson, p. 251)

Arians did not invent the accusations.

Athanasius claimed that ‘Arians’ invented false charges to eliminate him as their theological opponent. But the so-called Arians allied with the Melitians only after the Melitians already had unsuccessfully complained to the emperor.

Athanasius said that the Melitians and the ‘Arians’ were in cahoots from the beginning and that the ‘Arians’ were behind these false accusations.

Athanasius referred to his enemies as ‘Arians’, implying that they were followers of Arius, which they were not. (See – Athanasius invented Arianism.) Hanson refers to the so-called Arians as ‘Eusebians’ because their real leaders were Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia.

But not even these ‘Eusebians’ were behind the allegations. Hanson says that that partnership was only formed after the Melitians had already unsuccessfully appealed to the emperor about how Athanasius treated them:

“Athanasius in his account of the incidents leading up to Constantine’s letter puts the blame on the Arians and gives the impression that by this time the Melitians and the Arians had formed a deliberate alliance against him. But it is very likely that this alliance had not yet been formed.” (Hanson, p. 250)

“Epiphanius goes on to say that the leaders of the Melitians were, after their discomfiture [their failed appeal to the emperor], near the court … and were at that point taken in hand by Eusebius of Nicomedia who promised that he would obtain for them an audience with the Emperor if they would receive and champion Arius, and, on their agreeing, the fusion of the causes of Arius and of Melitius took place.” (Hanson, p. 250)

“In this year (333) or in the next the Melitians found an ally in the Eusebians.” (Hanson, p. 258)

This was, therefore, five years after Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria.

“The Melitians, harried unmercifully by Athanasius and unable at first to obtain help from the Emperor, turned to the only help available to them, that of the Eusebians.” (Hanson, p. 255)

Athanasius did not target Arians.

The fundamental cause of Athanasius’ aggression is that he did not accept the arrangement made about the Melitians at Nicaea.

“It seems clear also that Athanasius’ first efforts at gangsterism in his diocese had nothing to do with difference of opinion on the subject of the Arian Controversy, but were directed against the Melitians. He had not agreed with the arrangement made about the Melitians at Nicaea. Once he was in the saddle, he determined to suppress them with a strong hand, and was not at all scrupulous about the methods he used.” (Hanson, p. 254)

They accused Athanasius of assault.

The Melitians accused Athanasius of causing divisions and disturbances, preventing people from entering church buildings, murders, imprisonments, beatings, wounding, and burning of churches.

“Why should the Melitians have been discontented with Athanasius? If half of what Sozomenus said was alleged by them was true, they had every reason for hostility to Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. 251)

Sozomenus mentions:

“Accusation made by Melitians (not Arians) to the Emperor against Athanasius, charging him with causing divisions and disturbances in his diocese, with preventing people from entering the church (i.e. the church building) and (charges made particularly by ‘John’, that is John Arcaph the Melitian leader, and the clergy associated with him) of murders and imprisonments and undeserved beatings and woundings and burning of churches.” (Hanson, p. 249-250)

“Epiphanius at one point admits that Athanasius had used fairly strong measures.” (Hanson, p. 249)

Some allegations were true.

Some of the accusations were exaggerations but papyrus letters discovered in the 20th century, which we cannot possibly dismiss as inventions, exaggerations, or propaganda, describe the barbaric treatment Athanasius had been dealing out.

“Was this more than wild hearsay? Had they any genuine grievances? We might dismiss the accusations against Athanasius retailed by Sozomenus and Epiphanius as the product of sheer partisanship and not worthy of credence, as, for instance, Gwatkin does, and many a church historian before and after him who was willing to take Athanasius’ protestations of his innocence at their face value.” (Hanson, p. 251)

“But, accidentally or providentially, we have available to us contemporary evidence which we cannot possibly dismiss as invention or exaggeration or propaganda, to decide this point.” (Hanson, p. 251-2) “This evidence consists of papyrus letters discovered by British archaeologists and published by H. I. Bell in his book Jews and Christians in Egypt. … They plunge us into the middle of the events which concerned Athanasius between the years 331 and 335.” (Hanson, p. 252) “It is a factual account written for people under persecution, a private missive not intended for publication nor propaganda, and therefore all the more damning.” (Hanson, p. 252) “It describes … the barbarous treatment which he (Athanasius) is meanwhile dealing out to those Melitians who have opposed him.” (Hanson, p. 252)

The following is an example from those letters:

“Isaac bishop of Leto came to Heraiscus (evidently an eminent Melitian bishop) in Alexandria, wanting to have supper with the bishop in the camp (near Alexandria, called Nicopolis). Some drunken adherents of Athanasius arrived at the 9th hour (3 p.m.), with soldiers. They shut the gates of the camp and began searching for Isaac and Heraiscus. Some soldiers in the camp had hidden them and when the Athanasian party could not find them, they attacked some Melitians whom they met coming into the camp and maltreated them and threw them out of Nicopolis. They then arrested five Melitians who were in a hostel imprisoned them for a time and then threw them too out of Nicopolis, and beat the keeper of the hostel for putting up Melitian monks. And they shut up somebody called Ammon in the camp because he welcomed Melitians into his house. So Callistus and his friends are afraid to visit Heraiscus in the camp.” (Hanson, p. 252-3)

Athanasius is traditionally described as a tender, gentle, and patient peacemaker but he behaved like an employer of thugs.

Athanasius is generally seen as the hero of the fourth century. While scholars in previous centuries have described Athanasius as:

“’The tenderness which could not but be loved’, the gentleness which made him … so patient and equitable as a peacemaker, the ‘majestic moral unity’ of his conduct and the freedom from anything ignoble in it.”

But Hanson says:

“We find Athanasius behaving like an employer of thugs hired to intimidate his enemies.” (RH 254)

The charge against him of the unscrupulous use of strong-arm tactics against his opponents was abundantly justified.

Not all accusations were true. One of the accusations was “that Athanasius had either murdered a bishop called Arsenius or … practised sorcery by using the severed hand of his corpse.” (Hanson, p. 256) However, “the agents of Athanasius discovered that Arsenius was alive and in possession of both his hands … and had him identified’ before Paul, bishop of Tyre.” (Hanson, p. 257). However, the accusations were not all false. Bell is cautious in his conclusions:

“The evidence of papyrus 1914, Bell remarks, makes it certain that the charges of violent and unscrupulous behaviour made against Athanasius at Caesarea in 334, at Tyre in 335, at Serdica in 343 and many times thereafter were not baseless.” (RH 254)

“’It was always suspicious’, says Bell, that Athanasius, while dwelling on the charges … which he could refute, says nothing of those which accused him of violence and oppression towards the Melitians. The reason is now clear: these charges were in part true … We must conclude that there was a germ of truth in the picture given of Athanasius by his enemies as a self-willed, unruly man apt to treat even the Imperial authority with contempt.’” (RH 254)

But Hanson concludes:

“The charge against him at Tyre was the unscrupulous use of strong-arm methods against his opponents, and that charge as a general accusation … was abundantly justified.” (Hanson, p. 255)

Tyre condemned Athanasius.

In 333, the Eusebians allied with the Melitians. In 334, Eusebius called a council to evaluate Athanasius’ conduct but Athanasius refused to attend. The emperor forced Athanasius to attend another council for the same purpose in 335. The Council sent a commission to Egypt. As a result, Athanasius was excommunicated for indefensible violence in the administration of his see.

“In this year (333) or in the next the Melitians found an ally in the Eusebians. … But it was not till the next year, 334, that the fruit of this alliance appeared. A Council was called to Caesarea in Palestine … to examine the conduct, not the doctrine, of Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. 258)

“Athanasius was summoned to it, but refused to attend.” (Hanson, p. 259)

“Next year, however, in the summer of 335, the Council of Caesarea was re-constituted or re-summoned in Tyre. And on this occasion Constantine showed openly his support of this move by appointing an imperial official, the consular Dionysius, to oversee it. It was not a vast assemblage, there were only about sixty bishops present, but it held a wide representation. … Athanasius was unwillingly compelled to attend by threats from Constantine. … He also knew that they had a strong case” (Hanson, p. 259)

“Athanasius had arrived (July 11th) accompanied by 30 Egyptian bishops who were his supporters, and who behaved during the session of Council in a disturbing and threatening manner. His encouragement over several years to his supporters to behave like hooligans was now recoiling on his own head.” (Hanson, p. 260)

“After some time the Council decided to send a Commission (to Egypt) … to collect evidence on the spot.” (Hanson, p. 260)

“The result was that the Council of Tyre condemned Athanasius on a number of charges, deposed him from being archbishop of Alexandria, excommunicated him, and forbade him to return to his former see. Precisely what the charges upon which he was condemned is not altogether clear. … They had not convicted Athanasius of murdering Arsenius nor of any doctrinal error at all.” (Hanson, p. 261)

“His conviction had nothing to do with doctrinal issues.” (Hanson, p. 255)

“It must have been clear to everybody that he had been for some time using indefensible violence in the administration of his see, even though it was not easy to bring him to book on exact charges.” (Hanson, p. 262)

“We can now see why, for at least twenty years after 335, no Eastern bishops would communicate with Athanasius. He had been justly convicted of disgraceful behaviour in his see.” (Hanson, p. 254-5)

Athanasius defended by attacking.

Since the Eusebians allied with the Melitians, Athanasius claimed that he was being persecuted for his theology, which was untrue. Athanasius never denies that Ischyras was assaulted but brands all his opponents as disreputable conspirators and heretics.

The alliance between the Eusebians and Melitians “gave Athanasius an opportunity of clouding the issue by ascribing all protest against his outrageous conduct to bias towards Arianism, an opportunity of which he strove earnestly to take advantage. But … Athanasius’ offence had nothing to do with doctrine.” (Hanson, p. 255)

“Athanasius never actually denies that Ischyras was assaulted. ‘He confines his defence to pointing out that Ischyras was not in a strict sense a presbyter at all; he came from the sect of Colluthus and Colluthus had never been consecrated bishop. … In short, his opponents cried ‘Violence and sacrilege’ and Athanasius replies ‘No: only violence’.” (Hanson, p. 256-7)

“He switches the attention from what was actually done to the status and history of Ischyras himself. He completely ignores the serious and well-attested evidence of his own continual use of violence.” (Hanson, p. 262)

“He represents the Council of Tyre, which was a properly constituted and entirely respectable gathering of churchmen, some of whom had been confessors in the Great Persecution, as a gang of disreputable conspirators, and brands all his opponents as favourers of heresy.” (Hanson, p. 262)

Arian writings were not preserved.

Since Athanasius’ theology ultimately prevailed, the church, over the centuries, has preserved his writings but not his opponents’ writings. As a result, most of the available information about Athanasius and the Melitians is in the writing of Athanasius himself, and he was determined to conceal his violent behavior:

“We must bear in mind that our main informant (Athanasius himself) is determined to conceal his violent behaviour by alleging that all was invented by people who were dangerous heretics, and that most of the rest of the sources, and most writers since, have taken this plea at its face value.” (Hanson, p. 255)

Conclusions

Athanasius began to defend the Nicene Creed only long after he was exiled.

At the time of his conflict with the Melitians, Athanasius had not yet begun his defense of the Nicene Creed. Another article shows that the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios fell out of the Controversy soon after Nicaea and were only brought back in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use it to defend against emperor Constantius. At the time of the Melitian conflict, the Eusebians had no theological axe to grind with Athanasius.

Athanasius’ behavior had a lasting impact on the church and set the stage for the persecutions during the Middle Ages.

“We can see by virtue of historical hindsight that Athanasius in following this policy set an evil example to his successors of the use of force and intrigue.” (Hanson, p. 255)

This verdict was a crushing blow for Athanasius, one from which it took him a long time to recover; and perhaps only he could have recovered from it.

For a further discussion, see – Estimates of Athanasius’ Character.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988
  • 2
    RH = Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

Homoian theology rejected Nicaea’s new terms.

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 said that the Son was begotten from the substance (ousia) of the Father and that He is of the same substance as the Father. The word in the Creed for “same substance” is homoousios (homo = same, ousia = substance).

In the fourth century, this was opposed by several church groups. Some said that the Son is homoi-ousios (of a similar substance) to the Father. Others said that He is heter-ousios (of a different substance). The Homoians (or Homoeans) were one of those groups that opposed the Nicene Creed but their approach was to avoid all uses of ousia-words on the grounds that “there is nothing written about them in divine Scripture and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding.”

In particular, they opposed the term homoousios. They simply said that the Son is ‘like’ the Father, without reference to substance. From the Greek word for ‘like’ (hómoios), we get the name Homoian.

In “Homoian teaching … the Son … (and) the Father … were alike in energy or power or activity.” (Hanson, p. 574)

Summary

Origin of Homoian Theology

Homoian theology specifically opposed the word homoousios. However, during the first 20-25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentioned homoousios. Therefore, nobody also argued against it. Consequently, the Homoian theology did not yet exist

In the early 350s, after Constantius had become emperor of the entire Roman Empire and attempted to force Western councils to agree to the Eastern decrees, Athanasius resurrected homoousios to resist the emperor’s effort. It was only after Athanasius included homoousios in his polemical strategy that the West began to defend that term and that Homoian theology emerged.

To explain in a bit more detail:

Homoian theology is specifically anti-Nicene; particularly anti-ousia-language. They were “refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith.” (Williams, p. 234)1Archbishop Rowan Williams Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987 It specifically opposes the word homoousios in that Creed.

However, “for nearly twenty years after Nicaea, nobody mentions homoousios, not even Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. 170)2Bishop R.P.C. Hanson The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

And since nobody argued for homoousios, nobody also argued against it. Consequently, during those 25 years after Nicaea, the Homoian theology did not yet exist. “Only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)3Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004. Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

During those 20-25 years after Nicaea, Athanasius developed “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

“Athanasius appealed to Julius of Rome in 339–40 by using his strategy of narrating a theological conspiracy of ‘Arians’. His success had a profound impact on the next few years of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 108) At this stage, homoousios was not yet part of this strategy.

“Over the period AD 351–3 … the eastern Emperor Constantius achieved complete control of the whole empire.” He pushed “for a unified religious policy throughout his domains.” (Ayres, p. 133) “Through the 350s … we seem to see a growing opposition to Constantius’ attempts to force western councils to agree to the decrees of Sirmium 351.” (Ayres, p. 136)

In response, Athanasius resurrected homoousios and included it in his polemical strategy. “Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century. The 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (Ayres, p. 135) The West only began to support Nicaea after Athanasius included homoousios in his polemical strategy.

Thereafter, in the late 350s, Homoian theology emerged. “We cannot with confidence detect it (Homoian Arianism) before the year 357, when it appears in the Second Sirmian Creed.” (Hanson, p. 558)

The Dominant View

The Homoian view dominated during much of the Arian Controversy:

Homoian theology “was a development of the theology of Eusebius of Caesarea” (Hanson, p. 557). “Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and theologian” (Ayres, p. 58) “was the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at Nicaea. (Hanson, p. 159) Therefore, Homoian theology really already existed before the Nicene Creed was formulated.

“The Homoian group came to dominance in the church in the 350s” (Hanson, p. 558–559.) “Homoian Arians … had obtained power under Constantius from 360 to 361 and under Valens from 364 onwards.” (Hanson, p. 575) Homoian theology continued to dominate until Theodosius became emperor and immediately outlawed all non-Trinitarian branches of Christianity.

However, Marta Szada concluded that “the Latin Homoian Church survived long into the fifth century and had an active role in the process of converting the Goths into the Homoian Christianity.”

Theology

The main pillar of Homoian doctrine is “the incomparability of God the Father.” (Hanson, p. 563) For example, only the Father is Invisible, Immortal, and Ingenerate (exists without cause).

It also opposed Arius’ theology which said that the Son was created by the Father out of non-existence’.”

A drastic subordination of the Son to the Father had been the keynote of this school of thought.” (Hanson, p. 567) “It is characteristic of this type of Arianism to teach that the Father is the God of the Son.” (Hanson, p. 568)

But they did refer to the Son as “God.” (Hanson, p. 570) “The Son was God or divine while not being fully equal to the Father.” (Hanson, p. 574) See – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

“The status of the Spirit in Homoian teaching is emphatically short of divine.” The Spirit “is … not to be worshipped nor adored.” (Hanson, p. 571)

Sola Scriptura

“They prided themselves on their appeal to Scripture. … they pointed out that homoousios and ousia did not occur in the Bible.” (Hanson, p. 559) “The Homoian Arians … were not particularly interested in philosophy:” (Hanson, p. 568) They were, therefore, the Protestants of the fourth century.

Objections to Homoousios

Those Pro-Nicenes who view the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as Three were accused of “Tritheism.” (Hanson, p. 576)

But those who view Them as One were accused by the Homoians of “Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 575, 576)

Homoian Creeds

As stated, Homoian theology is particularly anti-Nicene and anti-ousia-language. Since, during the first 25 years after Nicaea, nobody used or defended ousia language, we find the first Homoian creeds in the 350s.

“The confession of 357 [the third Council of Sirmium] … text demonstrates … the emergence of ‘Homoian’ theology.” (Ayres, p. 138)

The two main Homoian Creeds are “the Second Sirmian Creed of 357” and “the Creed of Nice (Constantinople) (of 360).” (Hanson, p. 558-9)

– END OF SUMMARY –


Authors

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class scholars:

Hanson – A lecture by R.P.C. Hanson in 1981 on the Arian Controversy.

Hanson, Bishop R.P.C.
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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 at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Origin of Homoian Theology

Anti-Ousia

Homoian theology is specifically anti-Nicene. Particularly, it opposes all ousia-language. They were “refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith.” (Williams, p. 234)4Archbishop Rowan Williams Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987 For example, the Sirmian Manifesto (AD 357) said, concerning the ousia-terms:

There “ought to be no mention of any of them at all, nor any exposition of them in the Church, and for this reason and for this consideration that there is nothing written about them in divine Scripture and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding.” (Athan., De Syn., xxviii; Soz., ii, xxx; Hil., De Syn., xi)

Nobody mentioned homoousios.

Nobody mentioned homoousios during the first 20-25 years after Nicaea:

“For nearly twenty years after Nicaea, nobody mentions homoousios, not even Athanasius. This may be because it was much less significant than either later historians of the ancient Church or modern scholars thought that it was.” (Hanson, p. 170)

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. … It was not seen as that useful or important.” (Ayres, p. 96)5Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004. Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Nobody attacked homoousios.

Since nobody argued for homoousios, nobody also argued against it during those 25 years after Nicaea:

“There is no single theology of opposition to Nicaea. Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy

During those 25 years, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy:

“Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

Athanasius did not describe the Arian Controversy truthfully but misrepresented it:

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis” (Williams, p. 234).

“Once we begin to grasp the problems with Athanasius’ rhetorical unmasking of ‘Arians’ then we need to look beyond the Athanasian terminology of an ‘Arian’ conspiracy to get a more accurate sense of how to understand non-Marcellan and non-Athanasian eastern theologies during this period.” (Ayres, p. 432)

See The Creation of ‘Arianism’ for a discussion of that strategy.

Rome accepted this strategy.

Athanasius was able to sell his polemical strategy to the bishop of Rome:

“Athanasius appealed to Julius of Rome in 339–40 by using his strategy of narrating a theological conspiracy of ‘Arians’. His success had a profound impact on the next few years of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 108)

Julius of Rome held a council in Rome which “quickly vindicated Marcellus and Athanasius.” (Ayres, p. 109)

“Julius wrote to the east in 341 in a letter which shows the strong influence of the emerging Athanasian account of ‘Arianism’.” (Ayres, p. 109)

At this stage, homoousios was not yet part of this strategy.

Constantius pushed for a unified policy.

In the early 350s, after Constantius had become emperor of the entire empire in the early 350s, he attempted to force Western councils to agree to the creed of Sirmium 351, which had become the standard in the East:

“Over the period AD 351–3, and after a complex civil war, the eastern Emperor Constantius achieved complete control of the whole empire.” “At this point Constantius found himself sole ruler of the Roman world and with the ability to push for a unified religious policy throughout his domains in a way no emperor had been able to do since the death of his father in 337.” (Ayres, p. 133)

“Through the 350s … we seem to see a growing opposition to Constantius’ attempts to force western councils to agree to the decrees of Sirmium 351.” (Ayres, p. 136)

Athanasius resurrected homoousios.

In the 350s, Athanasius decided to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology:

“During the 350s Athanasius honed his polemic.” (Ayres, p. 140)

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

It was only after Athanasius included homoousios in his polemical strategy that the West began to defend that term:

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century. The 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (Ayres, p. 135)

Athanasius and the West did not defend Nicaea because they have always defended Nicaea. Rather, after Constantius attempted to force them to accept the Eusebian Creeds, they turned to Nicaea to strengthen their existing opposition:

“It seems unlikely that previous adherence to Nicaea motivated their growing opposition: it is much more likely that events in the second half of the decade prompted a turn to Nicaea as a focus for their already strong opposition.” (Ayres, p. 136)

In the ‘West’ there were, already before 357, “the beginnings of attempts on the part of a few to turn to Nicaea as a standard against the direction of Constantius’ policies. Events of 357 deeply shaped this movement.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Homoian theology emerged.

In response to Athanasius’ decision to rely on homoousios to strengthen his polemical strategy, Homoian theology, which directly opposed ousia-language, emerged in the late 350s:

“Though Homoian Arianism derived from the thought both of Eusebius of Caesarea and of Arius, we cannot with confidence detect it before the year 357, when it appears in the Second Sirmian Creed.” (Hanson, p. 558)

The Dominant View

The Homoian view dominated during much of the Arian Controversy:

Eusebius of Caesarea

Homoian theology “was a development of the theology of Eusebius of Caesarea” (Hanson, p. 557):

“Homoian Arianism derived from the thought both of Eusebius of Caesarea and of Arius.” (Hanson, p. 558)

“Akakius of Caesarea is usually regarded as the leader of the Homoian Arians par excellence. … He was clearly a devoted disciple of his predecessor.” (Hanson, p. 579-580) Hanson refers to Eusebius of Caesarea as “Akakius’ master.” (Hanson, p. 583)

“Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and theologian” (Ayres, p. 58) “attended the Council of Nicaea in 325” (Hanson, p. 47), was “universally acknowledged to be the most scholarly bishop of his day” (Hanson, p. 46; cf. 153), and “was the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at Nicaea. (Hanson, p. 159)

Lewis Ayres identifies “the Eusebians” (the followers of Eusebius of Caesarea) as one of the four “trajectories” within Christianity when the Arian Controversy began. Therefore, since Homoian theology was a development of the Eusebians’ theology within the context of an attack on Eusebian theology on the basis of the Nicene Creed, Homoian theology really already existed before the Nicene Creed was formulated.

Dominated as from the 350s.

“The Homoian group came to dominance in the church in the 350s” (Hanson, p. 558–559.) “Homoian Arianism is a much more diverse phenomenon, more widespread and in fact more longlasting.” (Hanson, p. 557)

Throughout the Arian Controversy, the church’s Doctrine of God was decided by the Roman Emperors:

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)

Similarly, Homoian theology continued to dominate under emperors Constantius and Valens:

“Homoian Arians … had obtained power under Constantius from 360 to 361 and under Valens from 364 onwards.” (Hanson, p. 575)

“By 366 Valens the supporter of Homoian Arianism ruled in the East and Valentinian, the Western Emperor, was keeping as far as possible neutral in religious matters.” (Hanson, p. 595)

“The Emperor in the East, Valens, … was a fanatical opponent of the pro-Nicenes, as also of the Eunomians, and a supporter of the Homoian creed.” (Hanson, p. 582, 588)

Homoian theology continued to dominate until, in 380, Theodosius became emperor and immediately outlawed all non-Trinitarian branches of Christianity with the Edict of Thessalonica:

“When Theodosius had entered Constantinople in November 380 he had given the Homoian Demophilus the chance to remain as bishop if he subscribed to Nicaea. When he did not he was exiled.” (Ayres, p. 253) 

Continued after 381

Marta Szada wrote:

“Frequently, studies focusing on the fourth-century Trinitarian controversy stop at the 380s and emphasize the importance of the Council of Constantinople and the Council of Aquileia in 381, and the end of Italian rule of the last Homoian emperor, Valentinian II. In very common interpretation, these events mark the virtual end of the Latin Homoianism … In the present paper … I argue that the Latin Homoian Church survived long into the fifth century and had an active role in the process of converting the Goths into the Homoian Christianity.”6Marta Szada, The Missing Link: The Homoian Church in the Danubian Provinces and Its Role in the Conversion of the Goths, Published 1 December 2020, Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum / Journal of Ancient Christianity)

Theology

The incomparability of God

The main pillar of Homoian doctrine is “the incomparability of God the Father.” (Hanson, p. 563) They had “a long list of texts … to demonstrate the incomparability of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 560) For example:

Invisible – “Christ is the visible God (the Father being the invisible God).” (Hanson, p. 569)

Immortal – “Christ is not the immortal God (for he is mortal, that is capable of in some sense encountering death, in contrast to the Father who is immortal).”

Ingenerate (exists without cause) – ‘We confess … one God, not two gods, for we do not describe him as two ingenerates.” (Hanson, p. 570)

Anti-Arius

Homoian theology also opposed Arius because it opposed the key aspect of Arius’ theology “that the Son was created by the Father ‘out of non-existence‘.” For example, the creed of the council of Ariminum anathematized those who say “that the Son is from nothing, and not from God the Father.” (Hanson, p. 564-5)

A Suffering God

The Homoian system was designed to avoid “the risk of saying that the Father suffered.” (Hanson, p. 566) “But they were perfectly ready to say that God the Son suffered. Indeed, their Christology was specifically designed to do so.” (Hanson, p. 565) “Here, they were on stronger ground than the pro-Nicenes, whose Christology … always wanted to avoid of concluding that the full, authentic Godhead suffered.” (Hanson, p. 566)

Christ is subordinate.

“A drastic subordination of the Son to the Father had been the keynote of this school of thought.” (Hanson, p. 567)

“The Son is eternally … subordinated to the Father,” even after everything is completed that must be done for our salvation. (Hanson, p. 567)

“It is characteristic of this type of Arianism to teach that the Father is the God of the Son.” Therefore, the Son “worships the Father.” (Hanson, p. 568)

Christ is divine.

But they did refer to the Son as “God.” For example, they described Him as “God from God.” (Hanson, p. 570) However, “they pointed out that the word ‘god’ in the Bible was in several places applied to beings much inferior to God Almighty (and was therefore applicable in a reduced sense to Christ), e.g., Exod 7:1, Ps 82(81):6.” (Hanson, p. 560)

“In the intellectual climate of the fourth century, it was quite logical to maintain that the Son was God or divine while not being fully equal to the Father.” (Hanson, p. 574) For a further discussion, see – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

The Holy Spirit

“The status of the Spirit in Homoian teaching is emphatically short of divine.” “The Holy Spirit is created, and this certainly implies that, unlike the Son, he is not God.” (Hanson, p. 571) The Spirit “is … not to be worshipped nor adored.” (Hanson, p. 571)

Sola Scriptura

The Homoians claimed that their theology is based on the Bible alone:

“The Arians tended … to avoid allegorising. … They tend to take Scripture literally.” (Hanson, p. 559)

“They prided themselves on their appeal to Scripture. … they pointed out that homoousios and ousia did not occur in the Bible. ‘We do not call the Holy Spirit God … because Scripture does not call him (so)’.” (Hanson, p. 559)

“Truth is discovered not from argument but is proved by reliable proof-texts.” (Hanson, p. 561)

“The Homoian Arians … were not particularly interested in philosophy:” (Hanson, p. 568)

“The theologians of the fourth century … use the terminology of Greek philosophy. … It was never accepted by the Homoian Arians).” (Hanson, p. 871)

They were, therefore, the Protestants of the fourth century. They rejected all ousia-terms, including homoousion (same in substance), homoi-ousion (similar substance), and heter-ousion (different substance).

Objections to Homoousios

“In their attack on the Nicene doctrine, Homoian Arians take several different lines.” (Hanson, p. 575) For example:

“This talk of ‘substance’ is corporeal, material.” (Hanson, p. 576)

“If you argue that the Holy Spirit is of the same substance as the Son you are making him a Son of the Father also.” (Hanson, p. 576)

The Pro-Nicenes “sometimes worships the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as if they were Three, and sometimes worships them as One” (Hanson, p. 576)

Pro-Nicenes who view the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as if they were Three were accused by the Homoians of “Tritheism.” (Hanson, p. 576): “Three Eternals … Three without origin” (Hanson, p. 575); “Three Almighty Gods” (Hanson, p. 577).

Pro-Nicenes who view the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as if they were One were accused by the Homoians of “Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 575, 576) “The term homoousion is in effect to say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are identical.” (Hanson, p. 575-6) “Teaching that the Three are inseparable and equal identify them.” (Hanson, p. 576) (Sorry for the ambiguous words “identical” and “identify.” In these quotes, they mean that three are really one.)

See the discussion of the Meletian Schism for the two views in the homoousian camp.

Homoian Creeds

As stated, Homoian theology is particularly anti-Nicene and anti-ousia. Since, during the first 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentioned or used or defended the Nicene Creed or ousia language, there were also no anti-Nicene creeds or statements during that period.

Sirmium 351

The first sign of an anti-Nicene doctrine was the creed of Sirmium 351:

“Sirmium 351 had not only omitted ousia language, but positively condemned some uses of that language.” (Ayres, p. 138)

“Most significant of all, perhaps, is the appearance of anathemas directly and explicitly aimed at N.” (Hanson, p. 328) “This creed marks a definite shift towards a more sharply anti-Nicene doctrine.” (Hanson, p. 329)

Sirmium 357

“The confession of 357 [the third Council of Sirmium] even more strongly argues against ousia language, condemning use of it,” saying, “there should be no mention of it whatever, nor should anyone preach it.” “This text demonstrates … the emergence of ‘Homoian’ theology.” (Ayres, p. 138)

Constantinople 360

The two main Homoian Creeds are “the Second Sirmian Creed of 357” and “the Creed of Nice (Constantinople) (of 360).” (Hanson, p. 558-9) “The creed of Nice-Constantinople … was temporarily registered as ecumenical in 360.” (Hanson, p. 557)


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FOOTNOTES