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The Arians Of The Fourth Century - Blessed John Henry Newman

THE accession of Julian was followed by a general restoration of the banished Bishops; and all eyes throughout Christendom were at once turned towards Alexandria, as the Church, which, by its sufferings and its indomitable spirit, had claim to be the arbiter of doctrine, and the guarantee of peace to the Catholic world. Athanasius, as the story goes, was, on the death of his persecutor, suddenly found on his episcopal throne in one of the Churches of Alexandria; a legend, happily expressive of the unwearied activity and almost ubiquity of that extraordinary man, who, while a price was set on his head, mingled unperceived in the proceedings at Seleucia and Ariminum, and directed the movements of his fellow-labourers by his writings, when he was debarred the exercise of his dexterity in debate, and his persuasive energy in private conversation. He was soon joined by his fellow-exile, Eusebius of Vercellæ; Lucifer, who had journeyed with the latter from the Upper Thebaid, on his return to the West, having left him for Antioch on business which will presently be explained. Meanwhile, no time was lost in holding a Council at Alexandria (A.D. 362), on the general state of the Church.

Policy of Julian in recalling the Bishops from exile

The object of Julian in recalling the banished Bishops, was the renewal of those dissensions, by means of toleration, which Constantius had endeavoured to terminate by force. He knew these prelates to be of various opinions, Semi-arians, Macedonians, Anomœans, as well as orthodox; and, determining to be neuter himself, he waited with the satisfaction of an Eclectic for the event; being persuaded, that Christianity could not withstand the shock of parties, not less discordant, and far more zealous, than the sects of philosophy. It is even said that he “invited to his palace the leaders of the hostile sects, that he might enjoy the agreeable spectacle of their furious encounters.” But, in indulging such anticipations of overthrowing Christianity, he but displayed his own ignorance of the foundation, on which it was built. It could scarcely be conceived, that an unbeliever, educated among heretics, would understand the vigour and indestructibility of the true Christian spirit; and Julian fell into the error, to which in all ages men of the world are exposed, of mistaking whatever shows itself on the surface of the Apostolic Community, its prominences and irregularities, all that is extravagant, and all that is transitory, for the real moving principle and life of the system. It is trying times which manifest the saints of God; but they live notwithstanding, and support the Church in their generation, though they remain in their obscurity. In the days of Arianism, indeed, they were in their measure. revealed to the world; still to such as Julian, they were unavoidably unknown, both in respect to their numbers and their divine excellence. The thousand of silent believers, who worshipped in spirit and in truth, were obscured by the tens and twenties of the various heretical factions, whose clamorous addresses besieged the Imperial Court; and Athanasius would be pourtrayed to his imagination after the picture of his own preceptor, the time-serving and unscrupulous Eusebius. The event of his experiment refuted the opinion which led to it. The impartial toleration of all religious persuasions, malicious as was its intent, did but contribute to the ascendancy of the right faith; that faith, which is the only true aliment of the human mind, which can be held as a principle as well as an opinion, and which influences the heart to suffer and to labour for its sake.

Council of Alexandria

Of the subjects which engaged the notice of the Alexandrian Council, two only need here be mentioned; the treatment to be pursued towards the bishops, who had arianized in the reign of Constantius, and the settlement of the theological sense of the word Hypostasis. And here, of the former of these.

Prudence of Athanasius

Instances have already occurred, of the line of conduct pursued by Athanasius in ecclesiastical matters. Deliberate apostacy and systematic heresy, were the objects of his implacable opposition; but in his behaviour towards individuals, and in his judgment of the inconsistent, whether in conduct or creed, he evinces an admirable tenderness and forbearance. Not only did he reluctantly abandon his associate, the unfortunate Marcellus, on his sabellianizing, but he even makes favourable notice of the Semi-arians, hostile to him both in word and deed, who rejected the orthodox test, and had confirmed against him personally at Philippopolis, the verdict of the commission at the Mareotis. When prelates of his own party, as Liberius of Rome, were induced to excommunicate him, far from resenting it, he speaks of them with a temper and candour, which, as displayed in the heat of controversy, evidences an enlarged prudence, to say nothing of Christian charity. It is this union of opposite excellences, firmness with discrimination and discretion, which is the characteristic praise of Athanasius; as well as of several of his predecessors in the See of Alexandria. The hundred years, preceding his episcopate, had given scope to the enlightened zeal of Dionysius, and the patient resoluteness of Alexander. On the other hand, when we look around at the other more conspicuous champions of orthodoxy of his time, much as we must revere and bless their memory, yet as regards this maturity and completeness of character, they are far inferior to Athanasius. The noble-minded Hilary was intemperate in his language, and assailed Constantius with an asperity unbecoming a dutiful subject. The fiery Bishop of Cagliari, exemplary as is his self-devotion, so openly showed his desire for martyrdom, as to lead the Emperor to exercise towards him a contemptuous forbearance. Eusebius of Vercellæ negociated in the Councils, with a subtlety bordering on Arian insincerity. From these deficiencies of character Athanasius was exempt; and on the occasion, which has given rise to these remarks, he had especial need of the combination of gifts, which has made his name immortal in the Church.

Arianizers through ignorance

The question of the arianizing bishops was one of much difficulty. They were in possession of the Churches; and, could not be deposed, if at all, without the risk of a permanent schism. It is evident, moreover, from the foregoing narrative, how many had been betrayed into an approval of the Arian opinions, without understanding or acting upon them. This was particularly the case in the West; where threats and ill-usage, had been more or less substituted for those fallacies, which the Latin language scarcely admitted. And even in the remote Greek Churches, there was much of that devout and unsuspecting simplicity, which was the easy sport of the supercilious sophistry of the Arians. This was the case with the father of Gregory Nazianzen; who, being persuaded to receive the Acacian confession of Constantinople, (A.D. 359, 360,) on the ground of its unmixed scripturalness, found himself suddenly deserted by a large portion of his flock, and was extricated from the charge of heresy, only by the dexterity of his learned son. Indeed, to many of the arianizing bishops, may be applied the remarks, which Hilary makes upon the laity subjected to Arian teaching; that their own piety enabled them to interpret expressions religiously, which were originally invented as evasions of the orthodox doctrine.

Arianizers of necessity

And even in parts of the East, where a clear perception of the difference between truth and error existed, it must have been an extreme difficulty to such of the orthodox as lived among Arians, to determine, in what way best to accomplish duties, which were in opposition to each other. The same obligation of Christian unity, which was the apology for the laity, who remained, as at Antioch, in communion with an Arian bishop, would lead to a similar recognition of his authority by his brotherbishops, who were ecclesiastically subordinate to him. Thus Cyril of Jerusalem, who was in no sense an Anomœan or Eusebian, received consecration from the hands of his metropolitan Acacias; and St. Basil, surnamed the Great, the vigorous champion of orthodoxy against the Emperor Valens, attended the Council of Constantinople (A. D. 359, 360), as a deacon, in the train of his namesake Basil, the leader of the Semi-arians.

Arianizers without excuse

On the other hand, it was scarcely safe to leave the deliberate heretic in possession of his spiritual power. Many bishops too were but the creatures of the times, raised up from the lowest of the people, and deficient in the elementary qualifications of learning and sobriety. Even those, who had but conceded to the violence of others, were the objects of a just suspicion; since, frankly as they now joined the Athanasians, they had already shown as much interest and reliance in the opposite party.

Decree of the Council concerning them

Swayed by these latter considerations, some of the assembled prelates advocated the adoption of harsh measures towards the Arianizers, considering that their deposition was due both to the injured dignity, and to the safety of the Catholic Church. Athanasius, however, proposed more temperate measures; and his influence was sufficient to triumph over the excitement of mind which commonly accompanies a deliverance from persecution. A decree was passed, that such bishops as had communicated with the Arians through weakness or surprise, should be recognised in their respective sees, on their signing the Nicene formulary; but that those, who had publicly defended the heresy, should only be admitted to lay-communion. No act could evince more clearly than this, that it was no party interest, but the ascendancy of the orthodox doctrine itself, which was the aim of the Athanasians. They allowed the power of the Church to remain in the hands of men indifferent to the interests of themselves, on their return to that faith, which they had denied through fear; and their ability to force on the Arianizers this condition, evidences what they might have done, had they chosen to make an appeal against the more culpable of them to the clergy and laity of their respective churches, and to create and send out bishops to supply their places. But they desired peace, as soon as the interests of truth were secured; and their magnanimous decision was forthwith adopted by Councils held at Rome, in Spain, Gaul, and Achaia.

Unsatisfactory state of the East

The state of Asia was less satisfactory. The fortunes of the Church of Antioch will immediately engage our attention. Phrygia and the Proconsulate were in the hands of the Semi-arians and Macedonians; Thrace and Bithynia, controlled by the Imperial Metropolis, were the strong-hold of the Eusebian or pure Arian faction.

The Church of Antioch

The history of the Church of Antioch affords an illustration of the general disorders of the East at this period, and of the intention of the sanative measure passed at Alexandria respecting them. Eustathius, its Bishop, one of the principal Nicene champions, had been an early victim of Eusebian malice, being deposed on calumnious charges, A. D. 331. A series of Arian prelates succeeded; some of whom, Stephen, Leontius, and Eudoxius, have been commemorated in the foregoing pages. The Catholics of Antioch had disagreed among themselves, how to act under these circumstances. Some, both clergy and laity, refusing the communion of heretical teachers, had holden together for the time, as a distinct body, till the cause of truth should regain its natural supremacy; while others had admitted the usurping succession, which the Imperial will forced upon the Church. When Athanasius passed through Antioch on his return from his second exile (A. D. 348), he had acknowledged the seceders, from a respect for their orthodoxy, and for the rights of clergy and laity in the election of a bishop. Yet it cannot be denied, that men of zeal and boldness were found among the Arianizers. Two laymen, Flavian and Diodorus, protested with spirit against the heterodoxy of the crafty Leontius, and kept alive an orthodox party in the midst of the Eusebian communion.

Meletius conforms to orthodoxy

On the translation of Eudoxius to Constantinople, the year before the death of Constantius, an accident occurred, which, skilfully improved, might have healed the incipient schism among the Trinitarians. Scarcely had Meletius, the new prelate of the Eusebians, taken possession of his see, when he conformed to the Catholic faith. History describes him as gifted with remarkable sweetness and benevolence of disposition. Men thus characterized are often deficient in sensibility, in their practical judgment of heresy; which they abhor indeed in the abstract, yet countenance in the case of their friends, from a false charitableness; which leads them, not merely to hope the best, but to overlook the guilt of opposing the truth, where the fact is undeniable. Meletius had been brought up in the communion of the Arians; a misfortune, in which nearly all the Oriental Christians of his day were involved. Being considered as one of their party, he had been promoted by them to the see of Sebaste, in Armenia; but, taking offence at the conduct of his flock, he had retired to Berœa, in Syria. During the residence of the Court at Antioch, A.D. 361, the election of the new prelate of that see came on; and the choice of both Arians and Arianizing orthodox fell on Meletius. Acacius was the chief mover in this business. He had lately established the principle of liberalism at Constantinople, where a condemnation had been passed on the use of words not found in Scripture, in confessions of faith; and he could scarcely have selected a more suitable instrument, as it appeared, of extending its influence, than a prelate, who united purity of life and amiableness of temper, to a seeming indifference to the distinctions between doctrinal truth and error.

Meletius banished

On the new Patriarch’s arrival at Antioch, he was escorted by the court bishops, and his own clergy and laity, to the cathedral. Desirous of solemnising the occasion, the Emperor himself had condescended to give the text, on which the assembled prelates were to comment. It was the celebrated passage from the Proverbs, in which Origen has piously detected, and the Arians perversely stifled, the great article of our faith; “the Lord hath created [possessed] Me in the beginning of His ways, before His works of old.” George of Laodicea, who, on the departure of Eudoxius, had rejoined the Eusebians, opened the discussion with a dogmatic explanation of the words. Acacius followed with that ambiguity of language, which was the characteristic of his school. At length the Patriarch arose, and to the surprise of the assembly, with a subdued manner, and in measured words, avoiding indeed the Nicene Homoousion, but accurately fixing the meaning of his expressions, confessed the true Catholic tenet, so long exiled from the throne and altars of Antioch. A scene followed, such as might be expected from the excitable temper of the Orientals. The congregation received his discourse with shouts of joy; when the Arian archdeacon of the church running up, placed his hand before his mouth to prevent his speaking; on which Meletius thrust out his hand in sight of the people, and raising first three fingers, and then one, symbolized the great truth which he was unable to utter. The consequences of this bold confession might be expected. Meletius was banished, and a fresh prelate appointed, Euzoius, the friend of Arius. But an important advantage resulted to the orthodox cause by this occurrence; the Catholics and heretics were no longer united in one communion, and the latter were thrown more into the position of schismatics, who had rejected their own bishop. Such was the state of things, when the death of Constantius occasioned the return of Meletius, and the convocation of the Council of Alexandria, in which his case was considered.

The Council recognizes Meletius

The course to be pursued in this matter by the general Church was evident. There were now in Antioch, besides the heretical party, two communions professing orthodoxy, of which the Protestant body was without a head, Eustathius having died some years before. It was the obvious duty of the Council, to recommend the Eustathians to recognize Meletius, and to join his communion, whatever original intrusion there might be in the episcopal succession from which he received his orders, and whatever might have been his own previous errors of doctrine. The general principle of restoration, which they had made the rule of their conduct towards the Arianizers, led them to this. Accordingly, a commission was appointed to proceed to Antioch, and to exert their endeavours to bring the dissension to a happy termination.

Lucifer defeats its intentions

Their charitable intentions, however, had been already frustrated by the unfortunate interference of Lucifer. This Latin Bishop, strenuous in contending for the faith, had little of the knowledge of human nature, or of the dexterity in negociation, necessary for the management of so delicate a point, as that which he had taken upon himself to settle. He had gone straight to Antioch, when Eusebius of Vercellæ proceeded to Alexandria; and, on the Alexandrian commission arriving at the former city, the mischief was done, and the mediation ineffectual. Indulging, instead of overcoming, the natural reluctance of the Eustathians to submit to Meletius, Lucifer had been induced, with the assistance of two others, to consecrate a separate head for their communion, and by so doing re-animate a dissention, which had run its course and was dying of itself. The result of this indiscretion was the rise of an additional, instead of the termination of the existing schism. Eusebius, who was at the head of the commission, retired from Antioch in disgust. Lucifer, offended at becoming the object of censure, separated first from Eusebius, and at length from all who acknowledged the conforming Arianizers. He founded a sect, which was called after his name, and lasted about fifty years.

Schism at Antioch

As to the schism at Antioch, it was not terminated till the time of Chrysostom. Athanasius and the Egyptian Churches continued in communion with the Eustathians. Much as they had desired and exerted themselves for a reconciliation between the parties, they could not but recognize, while it existed, that body which had all along suffered and laboured with themselves. And certainly the intercourse, which Meletius held with the unprincipled Acacius, in the Antiochene Council the following year, was not adapted to make them repent their determination. The Occidentals and the Churches of Cyprus followed their example. The Eastern Christians, on the contrary, having for the most part themselves arianized, took part with the Meletians. At length St. Chrysostom successfully exerted his influence with the Egyptian and Western Christians in behalf of Flavian, the successor of Meletius; a prelate, it must be admitted, of unsatisfactory character, though he had acted a bold part with Diodorus, afterwards Bishop of Tarsus, in resisting the insidious attempts of Leontius to secularize the Church.

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