The Meletian Schism – Athanasius vs. Basil of Caesarea

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    "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)
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    “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)
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    “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)

Athanasius was deposed by the East but vindicated by the West.

A previous article discusses the conflict between Athanasius and the Melitians in the first seven years after he was elected bishop of Alexandria and concludes that Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians. The current article discusses the period from the Council of Tyre in 335, where Athanasius was condemned by the East, to the Council of Rome in 340, where he was vindicated by the Western Church under Julius, bishop of Rome.

Athanasius condemned at Tyre – AD 335

“Even if some of the proceedings of the Council of Tyre were high-handed, it was beyond doubt that Athanasius had behaved with violence against the Melitians and evinced in his general conduct an authoritarian character determined to exploit the influence of his see.” (Hanson, p. 272) For a further discussion, see – Athanasius was justly deposed.

The Council 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.” (Hanson, p. 261) “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.” (Hanson, p. 262) Athanasius was an extremely talented and powerful individual. As this article will show, he was able to recover.

Arius’ Death – AD 335-6

Constantine sent the bishops “a message stating that Arius and his friends had made a profession of faith to him which was orthodox, and commanding them to admit this group formally into the Church.” (Hanson, p. 264) “The Eusebian bishops … hastened to comply with the Emperor’s orders.” (Hanson, p. 264)

Note the authority which the emperor had over the church. Separation of Church and State was an unknown quantity. Effectively, the emperor was the head of the church.

However, “Arius suddenly died” in “335 or 336” “in Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 265) Athanasius wrote that Arius died as an answer to the prayers of Alexander, bishop of Constantinople. However, Athanasius’ account of Arius’ death “cannot be regarded as historically trustworthy.” (Hanson, p. 265)

Athanasius returns from Exile – AD 337

“Then on May 22nd 337 Constantine died and everything changed. All the exiled bishops were permitted to return to their sees Athanasius among them.” (Hanson, p. 265) But he took 6 months to return to Alexandria. The brilliant leader that he was, he first visited and strengthened the other bishops who had returned from exile:

“The Eastern bishops at Serdica stated that wherever Athanasius went on his lengthy return he stirred up trouble, i.e. he supported anti-Eusebian bishops returning from exile.” (Hanson, p. 266)

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy

“The first reference which Athanasius in his writings makes to Arians by name is in the Festal Letters 10, written in 338.'” (Hanson, p. 266) This is very important and discussed in much more detail by Lewis Ayres. See – The Creation of ‘Arianism’. Athanasius ‘created’ Arianism by tarring his opponents as followers of Arius:

“The development of Athanasius’ own polemical strategy seems to have begun only after his return from his first short exile (November 335–mid-337).” (Ayres, p. 108)

“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)

Athanasius’ polemical strategy was his explanation of why he was condemned and exiled, namely, by an Arian Conspiracy: All his enemies are followers of Arius. He was not guilty of any violence but was innocently condemned by these ‘Arians’ because of his strong opposition to Arianism.

Renewed Action Against Athanasius – AD 338

The year 338 “was to see a renewal of the opposition to Athanasius on the part of Eusebius of Nicomedia and his party. After all, Athanasius had been formally deposed by a properly constituted synod on charges which could hardly be refuted. It was against all church order and tradition that he should be readmitted to his see on the bare word of an Emperor who did not even have any jurisdiction in Egypt.” (Hanson, p. 266)

“In the winter of 337-338 the standing committee … of the church of Antioch met and sent a letter to the three Augusti … accusing Athanasius of acts of violence committed by himself or by his deputy, impugning the regularity of his election and recalling the uncancelled verdict of the Council of Tyre.” (Hanson, p. 266-7)

Athanasius sought support from the West.

“In reply to this move, Athanasius held a grand council of bishops in Alexandria in 338. It sent a circular to all bishops … suggesting that his enemies were preparing to overturn the decisions of the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 267)

Comment: This was part of Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy; whenever he was accused of violence, he claimed that he was being persecuted for his support for the Nicene Creed and his opposition to Arianism.

“He sent a deputation with this document to Rome. … Julius [bishop of Rome] therefore (still in the year 338) wrote to both parties (the Eastern Church with headquarters in Antioch and the bishops of Alexandria), summoning them to a synod in Rome.”

Athanasius becomes famous.

“From now on, the balance of power in Egypt shifts. … The later fanatical attachment to the person of Athanasius has its beginnings here, and the oversimplified vulgar identification of the Nicene interpretation with the true faith. This vulgarisation of theology was to have far-reaching on by no means wholly good results in the future.” (Hanson, p. 268)

Hanson is not here criticizing the Nicene Creed as such, but the Sabellian interpretation of it. As discussed in other articles, the term homoousios at Nicaea had a Sabellian pedigree and Athanasius himself was a Sabellian. (This website uses the term ‘Sabellian’ for any theology in which Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (one single Person with one single mind).)

Athanasius is driven out of Alexandria. AD 338/9

“During the winter of 338/339 the Eusebian party … declared Athanasius deposed from the see of Alexandria again and … chose as bishop of Alexandria a learned Cappadocian called Gregory. … Constantius issued an edict to the Alexandrians telling them that he approved of Gregory. … Philagrius, reappointed prefect of Egypt, appeared on the scene with a detachment of soldiers. They drove Athanasius out of his episcopal residence. … In the resulting riots two large churches went up in flames and several people were killed. Gregory then arrived and tried to compel everybody to treat him as patriarch of Alexandria. This was a grave mistake on the part of the Eusebian party; their chief justification in opposing Athanasius had been that he had certainly used violence in administering his see, and they were now fighting him with his own tactics.” (Hanson, p. 268)

Athanasius appeals again to Rome.

“In March or April Athanasius published the Encyclical Letter of the Egyptian Bishops which had been provoked by the arrival of Gregory in Alexandria. The letter was in effect addressed to Julius of Rome, and to Rome Athanasius came late in 339. As a result of pressure put on him by Athanasius, Marcellus and other pro-Nicene exiles in Rome, Julius now wrote to the Eusebian party … inviting them to a council in Rome in the spring of 340, to be called for the purpose of investigating primarily the cases of Athanasius and Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. 269)

The Eusebians did not reply to this letter for a whole year. … (When they did reply, they) defended the validity of the Council of Tyre and its decisions, acknowledged that the Eastern Church respected the see of Rome, but did not feel inferior to it, repeated the charges against Athanasius and Marcellus and threatened schism if Rome continued to communicate with these two.” (Hanson, p. 269)

The West vindicates Athanasius – AD 341

“Julius finally held his Council of Rome quite early in 341. … Not only was Athanasius’ conduct examined by this Council and pronounced blameless, but Marcellus’ orthodoxy was investigated and declared to be sound.” (Hanson, p. 270)

The West attacks the East – AD 341

“After the council was over, Julius wrote a letter to the Eusebian bishops whose centre was at Antioch. He again uses the invidious (unpleasant) title for those to whom he addresses the letter, ‘the party of Eusebius. … (He wrote that) he did not like their claim that each Council has its own jurisdiction. … But, says Julius, ‘the party of Eusebius’ have received Arians, and Athanasius and Marcellus, doughty (tough) opponents of Arianism at the Council of Nicaea, have been shamefully and unjustly treated. This was in effect to impugn (question) the validity of a council – that of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 270)

Julius wrote further that “Marcellus is perfectly orthodox and indeed at Nicaea proved himself a zealous opponent of Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 271)

Marcellus was a leading Sabellian at and after Nicaea. He was indeed “a zealous opponent” of Arius at Nicaea. As mentioned below, the Sabellians had the upper hand at Nicaea. 

“The fact that the letter openly invokes the name of Arius to describe the eastern bishops is one indication that an Athanasian account of the conflict had been influential.” (Ayres, p. 125)

“Declercq describes this letter of Julius as ‘a truly magnificent document of quiet dignity and authoritative wisdom’. Simonetti, writing twenty-one years later, takes a very different view. The bishop of Rome, he thinks, had no secure precedent in seeking to oversee the Council of Tyre or hear appeals from it. He must have appeared to the Eastern bishops to be meddling.” (Hanson, p. 271)

The West was also Sabellian.

Hanson says: “The Western bishops made no serious attempt to analyse the complexity of the situation which faced them; they had hitherto remained on the periphery of the controversy; their traditional Monarchianism could square well enough with the little they knew of the Council of Nicaea; by an oversimplification they were able to see Marcellus as orthodox. This intervention gave those in the East who wished to change the Creed of Nicaea an opportunity; the West’s vindication of the manifestly heterodox Marcellus increased the disquiet which N had already created, for N appeared to favour the near-Sabellianism of Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. 272) Note some important points in this quote:

1. Initially, the West was not part of the Arian Controversy. For example, at Nicaea, the delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)
2. The West was traditionally ‘Monarchian’. This refers to the second-century form of Sabellianism (one hypostasis theology). That traditional theology allowed the West to see Marcellus as orthodox. Two years later, at the Council of Serdica of 343, the Western delegates created a statement that explicitly teaches one single hypostasis.
3. The Nicene Creed is Sabellian. As already stated, the key term in the Nicene Creed (homoousios) had a Sabellian pedigree. That article also shows that Sabellians dominated at Nicaea because the emperor Constantine took Alexander’s part in his quarrel with Arius, and because Alexander also taught one single hypostasis in God. Therefore, just about everybody regarded the Nicene Creed as Sabellian.

Division between East and West

“Once Julius had acted we begin to see divisions between the Church in the eastern and western halves of the empire emerging.” Ayres, p. 109)

“The chief causes … of the unhappy situation created after Julius had written his letter to the Eusebians of 341 … were the intrigue of Eusebius of Constantinople, the opportunism of Julius of Rome, and the misconduct of Athanasius of Alexandria, and among these three causes we must judge the last to be the most serious.” (Hanson, p. 274) 

So ends this chapter. The East had condemned both Athanasius and Marcellus, but for different reasons. The East, who was on the fringes of the Controversy before, had now not only vindicated both, but also attacked the East through Julius’ letter. Later that same year (431), the East held a Council to discuss Julius’ letter and issued the Dedication Creed. Two years later, in 343, the emperors called the Council at Serdica to seek reconciliation, but that council never met as one.



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    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy