The Date Of On The Council Of Nicaea

The work which is conventionally known as the Epistula de decretis Nicaenae synodi or, more briefly, as De Decretis has a far from compendious title in the Greek manuscripts of Athanasius: 'that the Council at Nicaea, having seen the villainy of the Eusebians, properly and piously propounded its decisions against the Arian heresy.' It is not easy to date precisely. In his introduction to the standard English translation of the work, Archibald Robertson contented himself with a date between 351 and the end of 355.' On the other hand, H.-G. Opitz, followed by the authors of recent patrological handbooks and surveys, deduced a date of 350/1 from the fact that Athanasius attacks the Arians for their readiness to use violence in the near future (2.2).2 The argument derives from Schwartz's observation that 'the new persecution which started shortly after the Battle of Mursa (28 September 351) was already threatening.'3 Recently H. C. Brennecke has proposed a date after 356, perhaps as late as c. 360, on a combination of historical and theological grounds: since Athanasius uses the term homoousios and defends the Nicene creed, which (so Brennecke holds) was 'never explicitly attacked' before 357, he can hardly be writing at an earlier date.4 The inference depends upon a general interpretation of the theological developments of the 350s which is both implausible in itself and explicitly rejected elsewhere in this volume.5 On the contrary, the text of On the Council of Nicaea fails to reflect the theological debates of the late 350s in any precisely identifiable way.6 Moreover, even though Opitz was over-optimis-tic in deducing the date of 350/1, Schwartz was certainly correct in holding that the fact that Athanasius writes as if violence were threatening but had not yet been employed excludes a date after he was dispossessed of his see in February 356.

The dare of 352/3 postulated in this book is deduced from the following considerations. Athanasius addressed On the Council of Nicaea to someone whom he neither names nor expressly describes, but who must surely be another bishop.7 Athanasius discloses that he had provided a 'broader refutation' of the Arians in an earlier letter to the same addressee (5.7), and that he is writing now because the latter reported to him the question he had posed 'to those advocating (TTp€op€uoi>-as) the views of Arius, among whom were both some of the associates of Eusebius and very many of the brothers who share the opinions of the church' (1.1). Can the occasion to which Athanasius refers be identified?

The bishop to whom Athanasius was writing had asked him what happened at the Council of Nicaca (2.3). Athanasius had of course attended the council, but he spurned the opportunity to give a detailed account of the events of 325, on which he spends little space. Instead he defends the word homoousios and the phrase 'of the essence of the Father' against the charge of being unscriptural, and ridicules his theological adversaries for inconsistency. In 325, he observes, the Eusebians had accepted and subscribed to the terms which they now reject (3.2), and they object to the proper use of unscriptural terms although they themselves use unscriptural terms to advocate impiety (18.4). It is not necessary to see here any allusion to the Sirmian manifesto of 357, which first expressly prohibited the use of unscriptural terms in credal statements.8 Nor is it necessary to see an allusion to Aetius in Athanasius* attribution to his opponents of the assertion that the Logos is 'a stranger to and in essence unlike the Father' (6.1), since the Orations against the Arians had used the self-same phrase long before 350 to characterise the Christology of Anus himself, of Eusebius of Nicomedia, and of Asterius (for example, 'the Logos is alien to and in everything unlike the essence and individuality of the Father' (1.5))'—and On the Council ofNicaea clearly draws on the earlier work.10 Hence it has been argued that Athanasius' main theological target was the so-called long creed of 344, and that Aetius later chose to emphasise the term 'unlike' in his teaching precisely because On the Council ofNicaea had already attacked it.11 It is also theoretically possible that Athanasius may have heard reports of Aetius' teaching before Aetius in any sense published them.

Athanasius appears to have written On the Council ofNicaea in Alexandria, since he quotes at length (and obviously not from memory) from the Hypotyposeis of Theognostus, from Dionysius of Alexandria against Sabellius (25), from Dionysius of Rome against the Sabellians (26), and from Origen's De Principiis (27.2/3). It is a reasonable hypothesis that he addressed the work to a prominent western bishop, but one with whom he had yet had no personal dealings. Hence the addressee may be identified without discomfort as Liberius, who is known to have written to Athanasius shortly after his consecration as bishop of Rome in May 352 (CSEL 65.155). One detail fits a bishop of Rome particularly well. Athanasius instructs the addressee in respectful terms on how to use the letter:

You, however, dearly beloved, read it by yourself when you receive it, and if you happen to decide that it is good, read it also to the brothers present on that occasion, so that they too, learning these things, may realise the council's devotion to the truth and its precise intentions, and may condemn the audacity of the Arians who fight Christ and their vain excuses, which they have learned among themselves to invent for the sake of their own impious heresy. (32.5)

If Liberius* name has disappeared from the title of On the Council ofNicaea, it could be because in 357 he finally subscribed to the synodical letter of the Council of Sirmium of 351"—precisely the document which On the Council ofNicaea asked him to reject.

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