The resurgence of Arianism

The Council of Nicsa from which so much had been hoped did not bring enduring peace to the Catholic Church. Indeed, no council which has claimed to be inclusive or "ecumenical" has ever done so. Here and there a regional council has helped to restore unity in a particular area or in a segment of the Church, but many, perhaps most, of even these have failed. "Ecumenical" councils have either hardened old divisions or have led to new ones. They have usually been marked by bitterness and recriminations and, by bringing face to face those who have differed, have sharpened dissensions rather than healed them. However, like the Council of Nicsa, they have often contributed to a clarification of the thinking of Christians, have made more apparent what the issues were or are, and have enabled the majority to reach a common mind.

While, viewed from the vantage of the centuries, it is quite clear that the Council of Nicsa was an important stage in the attainment of the Catholic Church of a consensus of conviction on the relation of Jesus Christ to God, for more than a generation it was not at all certain that the definitions arrived at by the council would prevail. Indeed, it looked as though Arius, although anathematized and exiled, would win. The debate continued, the Arians accusing those who adhered to the Nicene formula of being Sabellians, and the defenders of the Nicene Creed charging the Arians with making Christ a second and subordinate God. In a sense the Arians were seeking to fit Christ into the monotheism towards which much of pagan philosophy had been moving. In contrast the Nicene party was stressing the uniqueness of Christ and the Christian revelation with its conception of God.

The outstanding defender of the Nicene position was Athanasius. To him the real issue was the salvation of men. As he saw it, salvation is the rescue of men from the mortality which sin has brought upon them to participation in the divine nature. This, he held, can be accomplished only as "true God" is united with "true man." He declared that "He [Christ] was made man that we might be made God." A man of stalwart character and deep religious faith and insight, his intrepid and unwavering support contributed notably to the eventual triumph of the form of the faith which is associated with Nicsa.

As we have suggested, for years the tide appeared to be flowing against Athanasius and the Nicene findings. By the year 328 Eusebius of Nicomedia was back from disgrace and had become a trusted adviser of Constantine. In 330, only five years after Nicsa, Eustathius, bishop of the important see of Antioch and a leader of the anti-Arians, but one whose theological convictions were Monarchian, was haled before a synod, charged with various offenses, partly his theological teachings and partly his conduct, was deposed, and was exiled by the Emperor.

The friends of Arius urged upon the Emperor his rehabilitation. Arius presented to Constantine a confession of faith which, although it avoided the chief points at issue, appeared to the Emperor to be satisfactory. He was, accordingly, permitted to return from exile and, shortly before his death, was restored to communion. Indeed, it was the bishops, summoned again by Constantine, who, meeting in Nicsa in 327, readmitted to fellowship both Eusebius of Nicomedia and Arius.

Seeing Athanasius as their chief opponent, Eusebius of Nicomedia and his supporters sought by various means to have him put out of his office. In 335, at the summons of Constantine, who continued to be disturbed by the divisions in the Church, a council convened at Tyre. It heard charges against Athanasius, largely by the Meletians, accusing him of arbitrariness and cruelty in his treatment of them. Dominated by the Arians, it ordered him deposed. The Arians eventually succeeded in having Athanasius banished to Gaul. Just how they accomplished this is not entirely clear, but perhaps they convinced Constantine that he was a disturber of the peace of the Church. Marcellus, Bishop of Ancyra, in Asia Minor, also a staunch anti-Arian, was accused by the Arians of Sabellian-ism and was driven from his see.

Constantine died in 337. Shortly before, he was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia. He was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius, and they divided the Empire among themselves. They permitted the exiled bishops to return and, in consequence, Athanasius was once more in Alexandria. The death of Constantine II, in 340, was followed by the division of the realm between the two survivors, Constans, who had the West, and Constantius, who ruled in the East. In the West the Catholic Church, supported by Constans, held to the Nicene decision, while in the East the major ity of the bishops seem to have been against it. Constantius sympathized with them, and the anti-Nicene cause was strengthened when, in 339, Eusebius of Nicomedia was made Bishop of Constantinople. A synod in Antioch in which Eusebius had marked influence brought about a second expulsion of Athanasius from Alexandria and put another in his place.

Athanasius took refuge in Rome and was joined there by Marcellus. The then Bishop of Rome, the first of that line to bear the name Julius, took the side of Athanasius and Marcellus. Eusebius and his associates had written Julius, presenting their case and asking him to call a synod (or council) and be the judge. This Julius did, but the Eastern bishops did not come. The synod met in Rome in 340 or 341 and exonerated the two. Anti-Nicene bishops convening in Antioch drew up statements of the faith which they apparently hoped would bridge the widening chasm between them and the supporters of Nic^a, but these did not accomplish that result.

In a further attempt to heal the breach, the two Emperors, acting at the suggestion of Julius, called a council of the entire Church which met at Sardica, the later Sophia, near the border between East and West, probably in 343. Before, the council had proceeded to business, the Eastern bishops, with Arian sympathies, protesting against the seating of Athanasius and Marcellus, withdrew, perhaps because they saw themselves outnumbered by their opponents. Bishop Hosius of Cordova presided. The council once more examined the charges against Athanasius and declared him innocent, adjudged Marcellus to be orthodox, and ordered the two, along with some others who had been ejected by the Eusebian party, reinstated in their posts. In 346 Athanasius returned in triumph to Alexandria. The Council of Sardica also issued a letter to all the bishops of the Catholic Church reporting its decisions, condemning the Arian views, and making a fresh statement of what it believed the Catholic faith to be. The council adopted a number of canons, largely disciplinary and administrative, for the regulation of the bishops. Among other acts the Council of Sardica decreed that if a bishop were deposed, he might appeal his case to the Bishop of Rome, who should take steps to see that it was heard and a decision given. Rome was forging ahead in its leadership in the Catholic Church.

Athanasius, as the outstanding champion of Nicene orthodoxy, was not allowed permanently to enjoy his victory. In 353 Constantius became the undisputed ruler of the entire Empire. His sympathies were clearly pro-Arian. He sought to achieve unity in the Church by bringing the Nicene party and the Western bishops to heel. Councils were called at Arles, in Gaul, in 353, and in Milan in 355. At the latter a tumultuous scene ensued. Yet the bishops were constrained to come into accord with their Eastern colleagues. Athanasius was again sent into exile (356), although this was spent chiefly in Egypt. For refusing to comply with the imperial wishes, Liberius, the Bishop of Rome, Hosius of Cordova, and one other were also exiled. At a council held in Sirmium, the imperial residence, in 357, the second to assemble there, the bishops, some of them clearly dominated by the Arian Emperor, put forward a creed which explicitly forbade the use of ousia, ho-moousia, or homoiousia on the grounds, as was the customary reason advanced by the Arians, that these were not to be found in the Scriptures. Thus the distinctive phrase of the Nicene Creed was condemned. Apparently the extreme Arians were impatient with the long effort to dodge the basic issue between themselves and the Nicene party by the utilization of words which could be interpreted in more than one way and believed them selves to be strong enough to come out unequivocally with their own position and to force through its acceptance by the entire Catholic Church. Hosius, said now to be a centenarian, signed the creed, but, it is alleged, only after he had been brought to the council against his will and had been beaten and tortured. There is some ground for belief, although this has been warmly debated, that under the stress of exile Bishop Liberius of Rome also assented to the Arian position. Obedient councils held in several cities in the next few years concurred; outwardly the unity of the Church had been restored. The official term for the relation of the Son to the Father was homois, "similar," that is, "the Son is like the Father."

The issue was complicated by the relations between the Church and the state. The Arians would have the Church submit to the Emperor, The Nicene party insisted on the autonomy of the Church as against the Arian rulers.

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