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The Arians Of The Fourth Century - Blessed John Henry Newman

Supposed connexion of Platonism with Arianism

THE words of St. Jerome, with which the last section closed, may perhaps suggest the suspicion, that the Alexandrians, though orthodox themselves, yet incautiously prepared the way for Arianism by the countenance they gave to the use of the Platonic theological language. But, before speculating on the medium of connexion between Platonism and Arianism, it would be well to ascertain the existence of the connexion itself, which is very doubtful, whether we look for it in history, or in the respective characters of the parties professing the two doctrines; though it is certain that Platonism, and Origenism also, became the excuse and refuge of the heresy when it was condemned by the Church. I proceed to give an account of the rise and genius of Eclecticism, with the view of throwing light upon this question, i. e. of showing the relation of the philosophy both to the Alexandrian Church and to Arianism.

The Eclectic principle

The Eclectic philosophy is so called from its professing to select the better parts of the systems invented before it, and to digest these into one consistent doctrine. It is doubtful when the principle of it originated, but it is probably to be ascribed to the Alexandrian Jews. Certain it is, that the true faith never could come into contact with the heathen philosophies, without exercising its right to arbitrate between them, to protest against their vicious or erroneous dogmas, and to extend its countenance to whatever bore an exalted or a practical character. A cultivated taste would be likely to produce among the heathen the same critical spirit which was created by real religious knowledge; and accordingly we find in the philosophers of the Augustan and the succeeding age, an approximation to an eclectic or syncretistic system, similar to that which is found in the writings of Philo. Some authors have even supposed, that Potamo, the original projector of the school based on this principle, flourished in the reign of Augustus; but this notion is untenable, and we must refer him to the age of Severus, at the end of the second century. In the mean time, the Christians had continued to make use of the discriminative view of heathen philosophy which the Philonists had opened; and, as we have already seen, Clement, yet without allusion to particular sect or theory, which did not exist till after his day, declares himself the patron of the Eclectic principle. Thus we are introduced to the history of the school which embodied it.

Rise of the Eclectic sect

Ammonius, the contemporary of Potamo, and virtually the founder of the Eclectic sect, was born of Christian parents, and educated as a Christian in the catechetical institutions of Alexandria, under the superintendence of Clement or Pantænus. After a time, he renounced, at least secretly, his belief in Christianity; and opening a school of morals and theology, on the stock of principles, esoteric and exoteric, which he had learned in the Church, he became the founder of a system really his own, but which by a dexterous artifice he attributed to Plato. The philosophy thus introduced into the world, was at once patronised by the imperial court, both at Rome and in the East, and spread itself in the course of years throughout the empire, with bitter hostility and serious detriment to the interests of true religion; till at length, obtaining in the person of Julian a second apostate for its master, it became the authorised interpretation and apology for the state polytheism. It is a controverted point, whether or not Ammonius actually separated from the Church. His disciples affirm it; Eusebius, though not without some immaterial confusion of statement, denies it. On the whole, it is probable that he began his teaching as a Christian, and but gradually disclosed the systematic infidelity on which it was grounded. We are told expressly, that he bound his disciples to secrecy, which was not broken, till they in turn became lecturers in Rome, and were led one by one to divulge the real doctrines of their master; nor can we otherwise account for the fact of Origen having attended him for a time, since he who refused to hear Paulus of Antioch, when dependent on the patroness of that heretic, would scarcely have extended a voluntary countenance to a professed deserter from the Christian faith and name.

Its Neologism

This conclusion is confirmed by a consideration of the nature of the error substituted by Ammonius for the orthodox belief; which was in substance what in these times would be called Neologism, a heresy which, even more than others, has shown itself desirous and able to conceal itself under the garb of sound religion, and to keep the form, while it destroys the spirit, of Christianity. So close, indeed, was the outward resemblance between Eclecticism and the divine system of which it was the deadly enemy, that St. Austin remarks, in more than one passage, that the difference between the two professions lay but in the varied acceptation of a few words and propositions. This peculiar character of the Eclectic philosophy must be carefully noticed, for it exculpates the Catholic fathers from being really implicated in proceedings, of which at first they did not discern the drift; while it explains that apparent connexion which, at the distance of centuries, exists between them and the real originator of it.

Essential mark of Neologism

The essential mark of Neologism is the denial of the exclusive Divine mission, and peculiar inspiration of the Scripture prophets; accompanied the while with a profession of general respect for them as benefactors of mankind, really instruments in God’s hand, and in some sense the organs of His revelations; nay, in a fuller measure such, than other religious and moral teachers. In its most specious form, it admits whatever is good and true in the various religions in the world, to have actually come from God; in its most degraded, it accounts them all equally to be the result of mere human benevolence and skill. In all its shapes, it differs from the orthodox belief, primarily, in denying the miracles of Scripture to have taken place, in the peculiar way therein represented, as distinctive marks of God’s presence accrediting the teaching of those who wrought them; next, as a consequence, in denying this teaching, as preserved in Scripture, to be in such sense the sole record of religious truth, that all who hear it are bound to profess themselves disciples of it. Its apparent connexion with Christianity lies, (as St. Austin remarks,) in the ambiguous use of certain terms, such as divine, revelation, inspiration, and the like; which may with equal ease be made to refer to ordinary and merely providential, or to miraculous appointments, in the counsels of Almighty Wisdom. And these words would be even more ambiguous than at the present day, in an age, when Christians were ready to grant, that the heathen were in some sense under a supernatural dispensation, as was explained in the last section.

Comparison of ancient with modern Neologism

The rationalism of the Eclectics, though equally opposed with the modern to the doctrine of the peculiar divinity of the Scripture revelations, was circumstantially different from it. The Neologists of the present day deny that the miracles took place in the manner related in the sacred record; the Eclectics denied their cogency as an evidence of the extraordinary presence of God. Instead of viewing them as events of very rare occurrence, and permitted for important objects in the course of God’s providence, they considered them to be common to every age and country, beyond the knowledge rather than the power of ordinary men, attainable by submitting to the discipline of certain mysterious rules, and the immediate work of beings far inferior to the supreme Governor of the world. It followed, that a display of miraculous agency having no connexion with the truth of the religious system which it accompanied, at least not more than any gift merely human, such as learning or talent, the inquirer was at once thrown upon the examination of the doctrines of Christianity, for the evidence of its divinity; and there being no place left for a claim on his allegiance to it as a whole, and for what is strictly termed faith, he admitted or rejected, as he chose, compared and mixed it with whatever was valuable elsewhere, and was at liberty to propose to himself that philosopher for a presiding authority, whom the Christians but condescended to praise for his approximation towards some of those truths which revelation had unfolded. The chapel of Alexander Severus was a fit emblem of that system, which placed on a level Abraham, Orpheus, Pythagoras, and the Sacred Name by which Christians are called. The zeal, the brotherly love, the beneficence, and the wise discipline of the Church, are applauded and held up for imitation in the letters of the Emperor Julian; who at another time calls the Almighty Guardian of the Israelites a “great God;” while in common with his sect he professed to restore the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to its ancient and pure Platonic basis. It followed as a natural consequence, that the claims of religion being no longer combined, defined, and embodied in a personal Mediator between God and man, its various precepts were dissipated back again and confused in the mass of human knowledge, as before Christ came; and in its stead a mere intellectual literature arose in the Eclectic school, and usurped the theological chair as an interpreter of sacred duties, and the instructor of the inquiring mind. “In the religion which he (Julian) had adopted,” says Gibbon, “piety and learning were almost synonymous; and a crowd of poets, of rhetoricians, and of philosophers, hastened to the Imperial Court, to occupy the vacant places of the bishops, who had seduced the credulity of Constantius.” Who does not recognise in this old philosophy the chief features of that recent school of liberalism and false illumination, political and moral, which is now Satan’s instrument in deluding the nations? but which is worse and more earthly than it, inasmuch as his former artifice, affecting a religious ceremonial, could not but leave so much of substantial truth mixed in the system, as to impress its disciples with somewhat of a lofty and serious character, utterly foreign to the cold scoffing spirit of modern rationalism.

The Eclectics not countenanced by the Alexandrian masters

The freedom of the Alexandrian masters from the Eclectic error was shown above, when I was explaining the principles of their teaching; a passage of Clement being cited, which clearly distinguished between the ordinary and the miraculous appointments of Providence. An examination of the dates of the history will show that they could not do more than bear this indirect testimony against it by anticipation. Clement himself was prior to the rise of Eclecticism; Origen prior to its public establishment as a sect. Ammonius opened his school at the end of the second century, and continued to preside in it at least till A. D. 242; during which period, and probably for some years after his death, the real character of his doctrines was carefully hidden from the world. He committed nothing to writing, whether of his exoteric or esoteric philosophy; and when Origen, who was scarcely his junior, attended him, about A. D. 200, probably had not yet decidedly settled the form of his system. Plotinus, the first promulgator and chief luminary of Eclecticism, began his public lectures A. D. 244; and for some time held himself bound by the promise of secrecy made to his master. Moreover, he selected Rome as the seat of his labours, and there is even proof that Origen and he never met. In Alexandria, on the contrary, the infant philosophy languished; no teacher of note succeeded to Ammonius; and even had it been otherwise, Origen had left the city for ever ten years previous to that philosopher’s death. It is clear, then, that he had no means of detecting the secret infidelity of the Eclectics; and the proof of this is still stronger, if, as Brucker calculates, Plotinus did not divulge his master’s secret till A. D. 255, since Origen died A. D. 253. Yet, even in this ignorance of the views of the Eclectics, we find the latter in his letter to Gregory expressing dissatisfaction at the actual effects which had resulted to the Church from that literature in which he himself was so eminently accomplished. “For my part,” he says to Gregory, “taught by experience, I will own to you, that rare is the man, who, having accepted the precious things of Egypt, leaves the country, and uses them in decorating the worship of God. Most men, who descend thither, are brothers of Hadad (Jeroboam), inventing heretical theories with heathen dexterity, and establishing, (so to say,) calves of gold in Bethel, the house of God.” So much concerning Origen’s ignorance of the Eclectic philosophy. As to his pupils, Gregory and Dionysius, the latter, who was Bishop of Alexandria, died A. D. 264; Gregory, on the other hand, pronounced his panegyrical oration upon Origen, in which his own attachment to heathen literature is avowed, as early as A. D. 239; and besides, he had no connexion whatever with Alexandria, but met with Origen at Cæsarea. Moreover, just at this time there were heresies actually spreading in the Church of an opposite theological character, such as Paulianism; which withdrew their attention from the prospect or actual rise of a Platonic pseudo-theology; as will hereafter be shown.

How connected with them

Such were the origin and principles of the Eclectic sect. It was an excrescence of the school of Alexandria, but not attributable to it in any other way, than other heresies might be ascribed to the Churches which give them birth, indeed, but cast them out and condemn them when they become manifest. It went out from the Christians, but it was not of them:—whether it resembled the Arians, on the other hand, and what use its tenets were to them, are the next points to consider.

Eclectics contrasted with the Arians. Disputation

The Arian school has already been attributed to Antioch as its birth-place, and its character determined to be what we may call Aristotelico-Judaic. Now, at very first sight, there are striking points of difference between it and the Eclectics. On its Aristotelic side, its disputatious temper was altogether uncongenial to the new Platonists. These were commonly distinguished by their melancholy temperament, which disposed them to mysticism, and often urged them to eccentricities bordering on insanity. Far from cultivating the talents requisite for success in life, they placed the sublimer virtues in an abstraction from sense, and an indifference to ordinary duties. They believed that an intercourse with the intelligences of the spiritual world could only be effected by divesting themselves of their humanity; and that the acquisition of miraculous gifts would compensate for their neglect of rules necessary for the well-being of common mortals. In pursuit of this hidden talent, Plotinus meditated a journey into India, after the pattern of Apollonius; while bodily privations and magical rites were methods prescribed in their philosophy for rising in the scale of being. As might be expected from the professors of such a creed, the science of argumentation was disdained as useless in the case of those who were walking by an internal vision of the truth, not by the calculations of a tedious and progressive reason; and was only employed in condescending regard for such as were unable to rise to their own level. When Iamblichus was foiled in argument by a dialectitian, he observed that the syllogisms of his sect were not weapons which could be set before the many, being the energy of those inward virtues which are the peculiar ornament of the philosopher. Notions such as these, which have their measure of truth, if we substitute for the unreal and almost passive illumination of the mystics, that instinctive moral perception which the practice of virtue ensures, found no sympathy in the shrewd secular policy and the intriguing spirit of the Arians; nor again, in their sharp-witted unimaginative cleverness, their precise and technical disputations, their verbal distinctions, and their eager appeals to the judgment of the populace, which is ever destitute of refinement and delicacy, and has just enough acuteness of apprehension to be susceptible of sophistical reasonings.


On the other hand, viewing the school of Antioch on its Judaical side, we are met by a different but not less remarkable contrast to the Eclectics. These philosophers had followed the Alexandrians in adopting the allegorical rule; both from its evident suitableness to their mystical turn of mind, and as a means of obliterating the scandals, and reconciling the inconsistencies of the heathen mythology. Judaism, on the contrary, being carnal in its views, was essentially literal in its interpretations; and, in consequence, as hostile from its grossness, as the Sophists from their dryness, to the fanciful fastidiousness of the Eclectics. It had rejected the Messiah, because He did not fulfil its hopes of a temporal conqueror and king. It had clung to its obsolete ritual, as not discerning in it the anticipation of better promises and commands, then fulfilled in the Gospel. In the Christian Church, it was perpetuating the obstinacy of its unbelief in a disparagement of Christ’s spiritual authority, a reliance on the externals of religious worship, and an indulgence in worldly and sensual pleasures. Moreover, it had adopted in its most odious form the doctrine of the Chiliasts or Millenarians, respecting the reign of the saints upon earth; Origen, and afterwards his pupil Dionysius, opposing it on the basis of an allegorical interpretation of Scripture. And in this controversy, Judaism was still in connexion, more or less, with the School of Antioch: which is celebrated in those times, in contrast to the Alexandrian, for its adherence to the theory of the literal sense.

Difference in their respective doctrines

It may be added, as drawing an additional distinction between the Arians and the Eclectics, that while the latter maintained the doctrine of Emanations, and of the eternity of matter, the hypothesis of the former required or implied the rejection of both tenets; so that the philosophy did not even furnish the argumentative foundation of the heresy, to which its theology outwardly bore a partial resemblance.

Points of agreement between them

But in seasons of difficulty men look about on all sides for support; and Eclecticism, which had no attractions for the Sophists of Antioch while their speculations were unknown to the world at large, became a seasonable refuge, (as we learn from various authors,) in the hands of ingenious disputants, when pressed by the numbers and authority of the defenders of orthodoxy. First, there was an agreement between the Schools of Ammonius and of Paulus, in the cardinal point of an inveterate opposition to the Catholic doctrine of our Lord’s Divinity. The Judaizers admitted at most only His miraculous conception. The Eclectics, honouring Him as a teacher of wisdom, still, far from considering Him more than man, were active in preparing specimens from the heathen sages of equal holiness and power. Next, the two parties agreed in rejecting from their theology all mystery, in the ecclesiastical notion of the word. The Trinitarian hypothesis of the Eclectics, was not perplexed by any part of that difficulty of statement, which, in the true doctrine, results from the very incomprehensibility of the subject of it. They declared their belief in a sublime tenet, which Plato had first propounded and the Christians corrupted; but their three Divine Principles, (ἀρχικαὶ ὑποστάσεις,) were in no sense one, and, while essentially distinct from each other, there was a successive subordination of nature in the second and the third. In such speculations the judaizing Sophist found the very desideratum which he in vain demanded of the Church; a scripturally-worded creed, without its accompanying difficulty of conception. Accordingly, he might appeal to the doctrine thus put into his hands by way of contrast as fulfilling his just demands; nay, in proportion as he out-argued and unsettled the faith of his Catholic opponent, so did he open a way, as a matter of necessity and without formal effort, for the perverted creed of that philosophy which had so mischievously anticipated the labours, and usurped the office of an ecclesiastical Synod. But, further, it must be observed, that, when the Sophist had mastered the Eclectic theology, he had in fact a most powerful weapon to mislead or to embarrass his Catholic antagonist. The doctrine, which Ammonius professed to discover in the Church and to reclaim from the Christians, was employed by the Arian as the testimony of the early Fathers to the truth of the heretical view which he was maintaining. What was but incaution, or rather unavoidable liberty, in the Ante-Nicene theology, was made the ground of his defence. Clement and Origen, already interpreted by a malignant rule, were witnesses provided by the Eclectics by anticipation against orthodoxy. This express appeal to the Alexandrian writers, seems, in matter of fact, to have been reserved for a late period of the controversy; but from the first an advantage would accrue to the Arians by their agreement, (as far as it went,) with received language in the early Church. Perplexity and doubt were thus necessarily introduced into the minds of those who only heard the rumour of the discussion, and even of many who witnessed it, and who, but for this apparent primitive sanction, would have shrunk from the bold irreverent inquiries and the idle subtilties, which are the tokens of the genuine Arian temper. Nor was the allegorical principle of Eclecticism incompatible with the instruments of the Sophist. This also in the hands of a dexterous disputant, particularly in attack, would become more serviceable to the heretical, than to the orthodox cause. For, inasmuch as the Arians professed to be asking for reasons for their faith, evidence resting on allegorisms did not silence a pertinacious objector, but at the same time, it suggested to him the means of evading those more argumentative proofs of the Catholic doctrine, which are built upon the explicit and literal testimonies of Scripture. It was notoriously the artifice of Arius, which has been since more boldly adopted by modern heretics, to explain away its clearest declarations by a forced figurative exposition. Here that peculiar subtilty in the use of language, in which his school excelled, supported and extended the application of the allegorical rule, recommended, as it was, to the unguarded believer, and thrust upon the more wary, by its previous reception among the most illustrious ornaments, and truest champions of the Apostolic faith.

Eclectics in Syria

There is no sufficient evidence in history that the Arians made this use of Neo-Platonism till some time after their existence as a party. I believe they did not; and from the facts of the history, conclude Eusebius of Cæsarea to be the first to point it out to them: but some persons may attach importance to the circumstance, that Syria was a chief seat of the philosophy from its very first appearance. The virtuous and amiable Alexander Severus openly professed its creed in his Syrian court, and in consequence of this profession, extended his favour to the Jewish nation. Zenobia, a Jewess in religion, succeeded Alexander in her taste for heathen literature, and attachment to the syncretistic philosophy. Her instructor in the Greek language, the celebrated Longinus, had been the pupil of Ammonius, and was the early master of Porphyry, the most bitter opponent of Christianity that issued from the Eclectic school. Afterwards, Amelius, the friend and successor of Plotinus, transferred the seat of the philosophy from Rome to Laodicea in Syria; which became remarkable for the number and fame of its Eclectics. In the next century, Iamblicus and Libanius, the friend of Julian, both belonged to the Syrian branch of the sect. It is remarkable that, in the mean time, its Alexandrian branch declined in reputation on the death of Ammonius; probably in consequence of the hostility it met with from the Church which had the misfortune to give it birth.

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