New Theological Controversies

The theological coalition in the east which had so often condemned Athanasius from 335 to 351 changed suddenly and unexpectedly in the late 350s. A powerful catalyst was added to the theological brew which had been steeping in the same controversies for twenty years—and reaction soon produced new combinations and alignments. The radical doctrines of Aetius and Eunomius shattered the broad alliance of bishops in Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine which had united to condemn Athanasius, Marcellus, and Photinus and to propose a series of creeds which sought to modify the Nicene formula without formally repudiating it.

Aetius was born c. 313, and poverty compelled him to support his family as a goldsmith.1 He studied in Antioch, Anazarbus, Tarsus, in Antioch again, and finally in Alexandria, where he learned medicine and Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately, the earlier stages of his ecclesiastical career are known only from Photius* summary of Philostorgius, which presents either unusual vicissitudes or some doubling up of episodes. Three steps stand out. Leontius ordained Aetius deacon in Antioch, where he began to teach. After 351 Aetius became a confidant of the Caesar Gallus, who sent him to his brother Julian in Asia Minor to steer him away from paganism.2 Then, in 357, Aetius came to Alexandria: he accompanied the new bishop George and was presumably active in attempts to obtain Egyptian acceptance of the creed and condemnations of the Council of Sirmium.3 When Leontius died, Aetius hurried to Antioch to win over Eudoxius.4 In 358 Aetius was exiled,5 then presumably recalled, since he presented his Syntagmation in Constantinople in the winter of 359/60—and was promptly exiled again.* In January 362 Aetius was recalled by Julian, and died shortly thereafter.7

Eunomius was a Cappadocian of humble origin, apparently born shortly before 330, who became a shorthand-writei; then decided to acquire a literary edu cation, first in Constantinople, then in Antioch, and finally in Alexandria, where he became the pupil and disciple of Aetius.8 He returned to Antioch with Aetius and was ordained as a deacon by Eudoxius. In December 359 (so it appears) he recited his Apology in Constantinople, after which, in January 360, he was appointed bishop of Cyzicus.9 Basil of Caesarea soon took up his pen to refute him and produced his Against Eunomius: Eunomius resigned his see in 361 and lived on for more than twenty years, defending himself from time to time (his Defense of His Apology belongs to 378).10

Aetius and Eunomius were dialecticians, aggressive and skilled in argument, and the latter earned the nickname 'the logic-chopper."1 Their innovation was to apply Aristotelian logic, specifically the principles of Aristotle's Categories, to Christian theology.12 Although it has been fashionable to make them both Neoplatonists, and to detect in Eunomius the influence of Iamblichus* exegesis of Plato's Cratylus,13 such hypotheses are neither necessary nor convincing.14 Still less should Aetius and Eunomius be styled 'Neo-Arians'—a term invented at the beginning of the twentieth century.15 For terms like 'Neoplatonist' are employed in order to emphasise that philosophers of Late Antiquity who called themselves Platonists (such as Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus) did not in fact preserve the philosophy of Plato unchanged, but interpreted the teachings of the master on the basis of assumptions and patterns of thought which differed greatly from his. The term 'Neo-Nicene' is entirely appropriate to describe the theology which prevailed in the later fourth century,16 but the so-called Neo-Arians stand in a very different relationship to their alleged avatar.

Arius died in 336 in circumstances which were embarrassing, degrading, and, by the standards of the age, damning.17 Henceforward, not even those who had regarded Arius or his views with sympathy ventured to defend him. Marcellus of Ancyra had accused Arius at length of heresy in 335/6, but when Euscbius defended himself and his theological allies against Marcellus in 337/8, he took care that neither his Against Marcellus nor his more systematic Ecclesiastical Theology ever named Arius.1S Two decades later, Athanasius depicted Aetius (and by implication Eunomius) as Arians who were reviving and restating the doctrines of the disgraced heresiarch (Sy/f. 38.4). Such a partisan view of their intentions should not be accepted as if it were the result of careful investigation or theological analysis: the opponents of Aetius and Eunomius were usually more concerned to ridicule and discredit them than to describe their views and their intellectual parentage accurately. It should not even be assumed (as it traditionally has been) that the views of Aetius and Eunomius really were fundamentally similar to those of Arius.19

Arius and the alleged 'Neo-Arians' need to be understood against their different intellectual backgrounds a generation apart. The theology of Aetius and Eunomius was a new phenomenon, whatever its similarities to some of the propositions which Arius had advanced (or was believed to have advanced). 'Eastern conservatives' like Basil of Ancyra, who had happily admitted Arius to communion when he gave assurances and toned down his views, found the ideas of these new radical theologians completely unacceptable. Aetius and Eunomius used formal logic to unravel and explain a theological mystery which ex bypothesi defied the normal rules of syllogistic reasoning.

Liberius had been arrested in the autumn of 355, interviewed by Constantius, and sent to Beroea in Thrace.20 By the spring of 357, he was ready to compromise. When Constantius visited Rome, both the people and the nobility of the city requested the return of their exiled bishop: the request was granted, and he reentered the city on 2 August.21 Fragments of the lost historical polemic by Hilary of Poitiers against Ursacius and Valens make clear what Liberius had done to secure permission to return. First, he accepted the condemnation and deposition of Athanasius by writing to the eastern bishops announcing that neither he nor the church of Rome was any longer in communion with Athanasius. This partial acceptance of the decisions of the Councils of Sirmium, Aries, and Milan was deemed insufficient by Potamius and Epictetus, and when Fortunatianus, the bishop of Aquileia, took a copy of the letter to the emperor, he was rebuffed by both the emperor and episcopal colleagues to whom he tendered the letter. Liberius accordingly wrote a second letter to the eastern bishops, in which he reiterated his condemnation of Athanasius and added his acceptance of the creed drawn up by the Council of Sirmium.22

When Liberius capitulated, there remained one prominent western bishop who still held out against the condemnation of Athanasius and the creed of Sirmium. The venerable Ossius of Corduba, now almost a centenarian, had prudently avoided the Councils of Aries and Milan, and had declined to subscribe to the synodical letter from Sirmium. Constantius summoned him to court at the same time as Liberius. When Ossius arrived, Constantius urged him to comply. The old man refused in displeasure and grief, but nevertheless obtained permission to return home to his city. Constantius wrote to Ossius more than once, mixing flattery and threats. Ossius remained obdurate and encouraged other Spanish bishops to resist. After some months Constantius sent for Ossius again and had him detained for a whole year in Sirmium, where Germinius could add his constant pleas. Finally, intimidation and harassment broke the aged bishop. Potamius of Lisbon arrived in Sirmium during the summer of 357: although Ossius still obdurately refused to condemn Marcellus, Photinus, and Athanasius or to accept the creed of 351, he was induced to allow his name to be attached, together with that of Potamius, to a theological manifesto in which, for the first time, the creed of the Council of Nicaea was explicitly repudiated {Hist. Ar. 42-46).2J

In the presence of Ursacius, Valens, and Germinius (and perhaps other bishops), Potamius and Ossius drew up a statement which professed to settle the central theological issues of the day.24 It should be suspected on a priori grounds that the document was drafted by Ursacius and Valens, and in fact Phoebadius of Agen presents Ursacius, Valens, and Potamius as its authors.2* The statement emphasised the uniqueness of God the Father, and hence the subordination of the Son. Since the document is a theoretical statement, rather than a profession of belief, there are no anathemas. The crucial innovation was a proposal to prohibit the contentious philosophical term around which debate had long centered:

Since some or many have been disturbed about [the term] essence (substantia), which is called ousia in Greek, that is, to make it more explicit, [the term] homoousios,26 there ought to be no mention [of it] at all, and no one should employ it, for the cause and reason that it is not contained in Holy Scripture, it is beyond the knowledge of man, and no one can explain the incarnation of the Son.

The nature of this manifesto must not be misunderstood. It was not a creed formally promulgated, formally accepted, and formally subscribed by a council of bishops.27 Hence it cannot have been presented to other bishops as a document requiring their signature. The manifesto was, to use modern parlance, a 'trial balloon.' The three Illyrian bishops and Potamius wished to use the authority of Ossius to undermine the creed of 325 which he had presented to the Council of Nicaea. They had not entirely miscalculated the theological temper of the East.

Careful preparations had been made. Leontius of Antioch was old and infirm. Eudoxius of Germanicia was one of the bishops in the imperial entourage when Constantius visited Rome in May 357. It appears that Eudoxius learned that Leontius was failing: he invented a plausible excuse, obtained permission to leave court, and sailed to Antioch. There, when Leontius died, Eudoxius was hastily elected and consecrated bishop without the sanction of George of Laodicea, Marcus of Arcthusa, or any other leading Syrian bishop.28 Eudoxius fostered the belief that he enjoyed support from the emperor and palace officials, and he at once began openly to uphold the views of Aetius. He convened a council of predominantly Syrian and Phoenician bishops in Antioch, which accepted and endorsed the Sirmian manifesto, writing a synodical letter to congratulate Ursacius, Valens, and Germinius for their services in promoting correct doctrine.29

Even in the church of Antioch, however, there were dissidents. When Eudoxius excommunicated them, George of Laodicea raised the alarm in Asia Minor. Basil of Ancyra had invited the bishops of Galatia to come to his city to dedicate a new church which he had built. George wrote to Maccdonius of Constantinople, Basil, Cecropius of Nicomedia, and Eugenius to warn them of the 'shipwreck* at Antioch, where Aetius was now an ordained priest and where Eudoxius was teaching that the Son is dissimilar from the Father.30 Because of the season and inclement weather, only twelve bishops attended the Council of Ancyra, which met shortly before Easter 358, but it drew up a long and carefully reasoned statement of the case for holding that the Son is of similar essence to the Father. The synodical letter was doubtless mainly the work of Basil himself and Eustathius of Sebasteia, whose names stand first in the subscriptions.31

The letter from the bishops at Ancyra addresses their fellow servants in Phoenice and 'the others who hold the same views as we do.' They express surprise that any further clarification of the faith is needed after the definitions provided at Constantinople in 336, at Antioch in 341, at Serdica in 343, and at Sirmium in 351, and after the explanations of the Council of Antioch in 344. The form of their exposition resembles that of the recent document that they set out to denounce and refute. Their central argument is that if the Son really is the son of God, begotten of his Father, not the creature of a creator, then he must be similar to the Father, and specifically must be similar in essence (homoios kat' ousian). They draw the corollary that to affirm that the Son is dissimilar in essence (anomoios kat' ousian) is to deny that he is truly Son. Accordingly, the bishops end their letter with a long series of anathemas against that view, capped by a half-hearted anathema on anyone who, 'by saying that the Father is the father of the Son by authority and essence, says that the Son is of one essence or of identical essence (tautoousios) with the Father.'32 The contrast of emphasis is the first open hint of a radical change in theological alliances.

The Council of Ancyra sent ambassadors to the emperor with a request to convene a council to confirm the doctrine established at the Councils of Serdica and Sirmium. Basil of Ancyra, Eustathius of Sebasteia, Eleusius of Cyzicus, and Leontius, who is described as an imperial chaplain, found Asphalius, a priest of Antioch, on the point of departing from court with an imperial letter; presumably commending Eudoxius.33 After hearing the delegation from Ancyra, however, Constantius wrote to the church of Antioch in a very different strain. He denied that Eudoxius came with his authority and accused him of deceit in the pursuit of power. He denounced Aetius as a virtual atheist and asserted his own belief that 'our Savior is the Son of God and of similar essence to the Father.' And he concluded by urging good men to come forward to defend the traditional faith of the church.34

Constantius agreed to Basil's request for another council and proposed Nicaea as its venue. Basil persuaded the emperor that Nicomedia was preferable, and an edict may already have been issued summoning bishops from the whole empire for a council to be held in the autumn of 358 when, on 24 August, an earthquake devastated Nicomedia and damaged nearby cities. Among the dead was Cecropius, the bishop of Nicomedia itself.35 What happened next is not altogether clear.36 There were long deliberations and consultations—and doubtless much intrigue within the palace. It is alleged that Basil and his allies succeeded in exiling no fewer than seventy of their opponents, including Eunomius and Aetius, and compelled Eudoxius to withdraw to his native Armenia.37 Finally, Constantius decided to hold two parallel councils in East and West, presumably because either he or the bishops who had his ear (Ursacius, Valens, and Germinius) thought that separate councils were more likely to pro duce a correct decision than a single empire-wide council—or at least could be more easily induced to do so. The western council met at Ariminum in July 359,38 but the date and place of the eastern council were changed more than once: in the autumn of 358 it was expected to meet at Ancyra, then the bishops were summoned to meet at Nicaea in the early summer of 359, but the council was transferred from there to Tarsus, and finally opened in Seleucia in lsauria on 27 September 359.39 By then, a wide rift had opened between East and West.

The Sirmian manifesto provoked an immediate and hostile reaction in the West. In Gaul Phoebadius, the first attested bishop of Agen in Aquitania, penned a refutation as soon as he learned of this 'deceit of diabolical cleverness.' He examined the main propositions of the manifesto and drew the correct inference that, since it forbade using the phrase 'of one essence,' it outlawed the creed of Nicaea. Consequently (he protested) the new statement of theological principles repudiated Christian tradition, and the authority of the aged and venerable Ossius could not disguise this indisputable fact.40

Phoebadius may have sent his work to a Gallic bishop in exile in the East. For there are similarities between his work and one which Hilary of Poitiers probably composed in the winter of 357/8, which have fostered the belief that Phoebadius drew on Hilary.41 But the assumption that Phoebadius used Hilary would rob his work of its force and immediacy—and at the time of writing Phoebadius had evidently not yet heard of the death of Ossius.42 It is historically more plausible to date Phoebadius' Against the Arians to the autumn of 357 and to explain its similarities to Hilary either as the natural result of two writers from the same cultural background arguing closely similar theses, which draw on the same traditions of theological reasoning, or by the hypothesis that Phoebadius sent a copy of his work to Hilary. Phoebadius presumably knew Hilary before his exile, and there is no difficulty in assuming that Hilary, perhaps only semi-consciously, incorporated phrases of what he had recently read.

Hilary of Poitiers had been condemned in 356 by the Council of Baeterrae, together with Rhodanius of Toulouse, probably because both refused to subscribe the synodical letter of the Council of Sirmium.43 Hilary was sent into exile in Phrygia. In the winter of 357/8 his position as a I,atin-speaking Gallic bishop in exile in Asia Minor gave him the opportunity to play an important political role. He composed (probably during the winter of 357/8) a work of historical polemic against the 'blasphemy of Sirmium.' He surveyed the Councils of Serdica, Sirmium, Aries, and Milan with a newly acquired conviction that the attacks on Athanasius were after all attacks on orthodoxy. He discussed and documented the capitulation of Liberius, he stressed the Nicene creed as the guarantee of true belief, and he arranged his argument as an attack on Ursacius and Valens.44 Hilary was writing for a western, primarily Gallic, audience, and his work had an immediate resonance.

A council of Gallic bishops met in the spring of 358, condemned the Sirmian manifesto, wrote to Hilary, and asked him pointed questions about recent theological developments in the East.45 Hilary responded by attempting to forge an alliance between the Gallic bishops and the party of Basil of Ancyra. The long letter to the bishops of Gaul and Britain which Hilary wrote later in 358, and which the manuscripts entitle 'On the Councils, or on the Creed of the Easterners/ constitutes primary evidence for the complicated theological situation at the time of its composition.46

Hilary argues at length that the two groups are in fact in agreement, that the terms homoousios and bomoiousios have precisely the same meaning and implications. He admits that the Gallic and eastern bishops harbor mutual suspicions, but sets out to remove western suspicions of eastern credal statements by quoting and expounding the anathemas of the recent Council of Ancyra and the creeds of the Councils of Antioch in 341, of Serdica in 343, and of Sirmium in 351, together with its twenty-seven anathemas. Hilary's apologetical intent emerges from a marginal note which he subsequently appended to a copy of the work sent to Lucifer of Caralis: he suppressed the last five of the Ancyran anathemas, including the proscription of the term homoousios, because he quotes only those which were reported to the emperor at Sirmium.47 For his Gallic audience, Hilary depicts his eastern allies as an embattled minority:

So great is the danger of the eastern churches that it is rare to find either clergy or laity of this faith (whose quality you are to judge). Great authority has been given to impiety by certain men, and the strength of the profane has been increased by the exiles of bishops of the cause of which you are not unaware. Apart from Eleusius and a few with him, the ten provinces of Asiana, in which I reside, in large part do not know God truly.48

With this holy remnant Hilary shares his creed. He may preach one essence, the eastern bishops similarity of essence, but both mean the same and hence agree on theological fundamentals.

In the final section of his long letter, Hilary turns abruptly to the eastern bishops.49 He congratulates them for resisting heresy and for sending an embassy to court, which rescued the emperor from the error into which the heretics had inveigled him. At Sirmium in 358, Ursacius, Valens, and Germinius had demanded that their letter expounding the terms homoousios and bomoiousios be read aloud. It rejected the former term as philosophically improper, since it precluded sharing of essence; as having been condemned long before by the council which deposed Paul of Samosata; and as having been imposed on the Council of Nicaea by force: it was non-scriptural and should be avoided. To counter this argument, Hilary defends both the term homoousios and the Nicene creed: to reject them is to become Arians—and the term bomoiousios stands or falls with homoousios.

No evidence describes how Hilary's letter was received. Yet an immediate and bracing effect may be indirectly detectable. Hilary declared that he had never heard the Nicene creed recited until shortly before his exile in 356, and that claim, despite its tendentious context, must reflect a general lack of familiarity with the creed in the West until the 350s.50 By 359, however, the western bishops assembled at Ariminum were ready to take their stand on the Nicene creed.51 Moreover, at least one literary product of the hardening of western opinion owes its origin to the stimulus of the writings which Hilary sent to Gaul. The Spanish bishop Gregory of lliberris composed On Orthodox Faith against the AriariSy a work which echoes both Phoebadius and Hilary's historical polemic against Ursacius and Valens.52 Gregory makes no obvious allusion to the precise historical context in which he is writing: however, the fact that he defends the term homoousios at length but ignores the formula 'alike in all things' officially adopted in 359 suggests that he was writing before the Council of Ariminum.53

In Rome, also before the Council of Ariminum, the converted grammarian Marius Victorinus embarked upon a more ambitious and arduous enterprise.54 He began to pen a dense refutation of Arius in which he defended the homoousion within a philosophical framework taken from Plotinus and Porphyry, which ultimately, through Augustine, had a great influence on the development of western trinitarian theology. Although Victorinus completed the last of his nine linked treatises against Arius and Arianism only in 363, he probably wrote the first group of four in 358 in reaction against the apparent triumph of 'Arianism' in 357 and to attack the homoeousian views of Basil of Ancyra and his allies.55

Victorinus devoted three treatises to refuting Arianism as expounded in two letters by the straw-man Candidus, whom he invented for the purpose. He then turned to a refutation of Arius himself and included in the first of his treatises Adversus Arium a bitter attack on Basil. The term homoiousios (he protested) was a very recent invention. Why had Basil, his friends, his pupils, and his fellow teachers kept quiet since 325? Even when he was with the emperor in Rome in 357, Basil had heard views which contradicted what he now asserted, but he had disregarded them and had dined with the very men on whom he was now pronouncing anathemas.56 The ferocity of Victorinus' defense of the absolute necessity of employing the term homoousios in theological discourse is an index of the resistance which the western bishops were likely to offer if any attempt was made to persuade them to reject or abandon the key term in the creed of Nicaea.57

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