We saw that the Council of Nicæa ended with the promulgation of the Nicene Creed, the exile of Arius and his supporters and the deposition of the bishops who championed Arianism. The years immediately after the Council of Nicæa seemed to be years of triumph for orthodoxy. The very year after it, Constantine’s mother Helena, visiting Jerusalem, discovered the tomb where Jesus had been buried and the True Cross. The emperor ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which down to this day has been Christianity’s most holy shrine, commanding that it should be made more magnificent than any other in the empire. Soon after, at Helena’s instigation, churches were built at the cave of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem and on the summit of the Mount of Olives, from which he ascended into heaven. There followed the construction of churches throughout the empire, replacing sites of pagan worship.
An event which would turn out to be critical in the struggle against Arianism occurred in June 328 when Athanasius succeeded St Alexander as Patriarch of Alexandria. Athanasius as a deacon had been a trusted adviser of Alexander and had accompanied him to the Council of Nicæa, where the Arian party had soon learned that he was a determined and able defender of orthodoxy, something they would not forget.
The triumph was only seeming, however. Beneath the surface, forces were at work sowing discord. The Emperor Constantine continued to reside at Nicomedia while Byzantium was transformed into his new capital of Constantinople. Although its bishop Eusebius had been exiled, his supporters were still influencing Constantine’s sister Constantia, and she managed to convince the emperor, first that Arius, then that Eusebius himself did not really hold the opinions for which they had been exiled. Arius was pardoned in 327 (although not at that time received back into communion by the Church) and came to the court at Nicomedia, while Eusebius soon after was restored as bishop of the city. At the same time Theognius returned to his see in Nicæa.
With their leaders once more in positions of influence, the Arian party began to revive. Although they could not publicly espouse doctrines that obviously contradicted the Nicene Creed, they had no lack of other ways to attack orthodoxy. Their modus operandi was to undermine leading supporters of the Nicene Creed among the bishops by underhanded means, replacing them with bishops who were at least tolerant of Arianism. In this they were helped by the fact that many among the bishops, who had no bent to Arianism, yet remained unsure whether the Nicene Creed did not imply Sabellianism. They were also assisted by Constantine’s settled policy of promoting peace and concord in the Church at any price—they could always represent those adhering to the Nicene Creed as fomenting discord when they, the Arianizers, only wished to live with them in peace.
St Athanasius described their practice: ‘The man who is their friend and their associate in impiety, although he is open to ten thousand charges for other enormities which he has committed; although the evidence and proof against him are most clear; he is approved of by them, and straightway becomes the friend of the Emperor, obtaining an introduction by his impiety; and making very many pretences, he acquires confidence before the magistrates to do whatever he desires. But he who exposes their impiety, and honestly advocates the cause of Christ, though he is pure in all things, though he is conscious of no delinquencies, though he meets with no accuser; yet on the false pretences which they have framed against him, is immediately seized and sent into banishment under a sentence of the Emperor, as if he were guilty of the crimes which they wish to charge upon him, or as if, like Naboth, he had insulted the King …’ (History of the Arians, 2; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, IV, trans. M. Atkinson and Archibald Robertson (1892). From the New Advent website, edited by Kevin Knight.)
The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the terminology used, Latin essentia, substantia, subsistentia, Greek οὐσία, ὑπόστασις, is ambiguous, since the words can be treated as synonyms or given distinct meanings. The problem of finding words that would describe what made the Trinity one God and at the same time distinguished Father, Son and Holy Spirit seemed insoluble.
It must be remembered, first, that the convinced partisans of Arius and the convinced supporters of the homoousion were each a small minority of the bishops of the Church and of the faithful. The majority were shocked by Arius’s teaching that the Son and Logos of God is a sort of creature and not true God. At the same time, most were unsure what the term homoousion implied. There always lurked the suspicion that it might lead to Sabellianism, the teaching that God the Father and God the Son are merely two manifestations of one and the same Person. The Nicene Creed, although the official teaching of the church, thus continued to be an issue. The anathema attached to it, condemning those ‘who say that God’s Son is from another subsistence or essence [ἐξ ἑτέρας ὑποστάσεως ἣ οὐσίας]’ was particularly problematic, as implying Sabellianism.
Second, although the supporters of Arianism continued to support Arius personally, attempting, successfully, to restore him to the emperor’s favour and, unsuccessfully thanks to the resistance of St Athanasius, to restore him to his position in the church of Alexandria, he had ceased in any real sense to lead the Arian party even before the Council of Nicæa. Indeed, his nominal followers no longer paid much attention to his teaching, which was developing in directions he would not necessarily have recognised. Even his death in Constantinople a decade after the Council of Nicæa meant little. From now on, the Arian party would be in other hands.
Deposing the Defenders of Nicæa
In the years immediately following the Council of Nicæa and following the death of St Alexander of Alexandria, the leading defenders of the Nicene Creed were St Eustathius, bishop of Antioch, St Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, and Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra in Galatia (present-day Ankara in Turkey). The Arianizers fixed their sights first on St Eustathius. Eustathius had evidently been unimpressed by Eusebius of Cæsarea’s defence against the charge of heresy at Nicæa and engaged in a pamphlet war with him, accusing him of covert Arianism, while Eusebius gave as good as he got, accusing St Eustathius of Sabellianism. Eusebius arranged that a local council should meet at Antioch, probably in the year 327, where Cyrus of Berœa and George of Laodicea, supporters of Arius, concocted various charges against him. Constantine, to end the controversy, banished Eustathius to Thrace where he died a few years later. Sozomen said that he bore calumny patiently, considering it better than to fight. (Ecclesiastical History, II, xix, 7)
Having disposed of St Eustathius, the Arianizers turned their attention next to St Athanasius of Alexandria. Unlike Eustathius, Athanasius was never one to bear calumny patiently, and he fought a battle with his accusers that lasted almost four decades, a battle that made him until his death the living embodiment of the cause of the Nicene Creed and earned him the title ‘the Great.’ Even Edward Gibbon, no friend of the Church or of the Greeks, was moved to say of him, ‘The immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defence he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being … He filled that eminent station [the see of Alexandria] above forty-six years, and his long administration was spent in a perpetual combat against the powers of Arianism. Five times was Athanasius expelled from his throne; twenty years he passed as an exile or a fugitive; and almost every province of the Roman empire was successively witness to his merits, and his sufferings in the cause of the Homoousion, which he considered as the sole pleasure and business, as the duty and the glory of his life.’ (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Everyman ed., 1910, II, pp. 290–291)
The Arianizers formed an alliance with the Melitian schismatics in Egypt to concoct various charges of misconduct against Athanasius, appealing to the Emperor Constantine and representing Athanasius as fomenting discord in the Church. Athanasius went to Nicomedia in A.D. 331 to defend himself before Constantine. His defence was successful and Constantine wrote to the people of Athanasius’s diocese condemning dissension and commending their bishop to them:
‘The foolish men carry their maliciousness at their tongues’ end. They carry about with them a sort of leaden anger, so that they reciprocally smite one another, and involve us by way of increasing their own punishment. The good teacher is accounted an enemy, while he who clothes himself with the vice of envy, contrary to all justice makes his gain of the gentle temper of the people … Wherefore I beseech you, lend help to yourselves; receive kindly our love, and with all your strength drive away those who desire to obliterate from among us the grace of unanimity; and looking unto God, love one another. I received gladly your Bishop Athanasius, and addressed him in such a manner, as being persuaded that he was a man of God. It is for you to understand these things, not for me to judge of them. I thought it becoming that the most reverend Athanasius himself should convey my salutation to you, knowing his kind care of you, which, in a manner worthy of that peaceable faith which I myself profess, is continually engaged in the good work of declaring saving knowledge, and will be able to exhort you as is suitable …’ (Quoted by St Athanasius in his Apologia contra Arianos, 62; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, IV (1892), trans. M. Atkinson and Archibald Robertson. From the New Advent website, edited by Kevin Knight.)
Athanasius’s enemies were not deterred. They organised a council at Cæsarea in Palestine in 334 to investigate his conduct. He refused to attend and nothing came of it. A more serious effort was made the following year. Eusebius of Nicomedia and his followers wrote letters to Constantine complaining of Athanasius’s conduct and this caused Constantine to summon a regional synod to meet at Tyre in Palestine in the summer of 335. His letter to the bishops included the passage:
‘Nothing shall be omitted on my part to further the interests of our religion. I have done all that you recommended in your letters. I have sent to those bishops whom you specified, directing them to repair to the council for the purpose of deliberating with you upon ecclesiastical matters. I have also sent Dionysius, a man of consular rank, to counsel those who are to sit in synod with you, and to be himself an eye witness of your proceedings, and particularly of the order and regularity that is maintained.’ (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, I, xxvii; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, III (1892), trans. Blomfield Jackson)
Athanasius attended and had no difficulty refuting the accusations of the Melitians and Arianizers, but his accusers, abetted by Dionysius, whom Athanasius described as ‘one of them,’ arranged for a commission, stacked with Athanasius’s opponents, to go to the Mareotis in Egypt to investigate the accusations on the scene. Anyone who might take Athanasius’s side or even be neutral was carefully excluded. The commission, inevitably, found against Athanasius and the synod thereupon deposed him.
There now intervened an unrelated event. The construction of Constantine’s great church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem had now been completed and it was to be dedicated on 13 September 335. Bishops from all over the east were called to Jerusalem to take part in the dedication, including those gathered at Tyre. At Jerusalem, the Arianizers took advantage of the assembly of bishops to readmit Arius formally to communion, but the church at Alexandria still refused to accept him back.
Athanasius, meanwhile, had gone straight from the Council of Tyre to Constantinople to appeal once again to Constantine. Constantine himself described Athanasius’s effort to get a hearing:
‘When I had returned to my beloved city named after me, Constantinople—I was on horseback—suddenly in the middle of the street the bishop Athanasius with others of his followers addressed me in such an unexpected fashion that I was astonished. For the all-seeing God be my witness, I would not even have recognised him at first sight if some of those with me had not told me who it was and what iniquity he had suffered, when naturally I asked them. I had neither talked with him on that occasion nor granted him an audience. He begged me, however, and I was refusing and was almost on the point of having him driven away when he became more pressing and asked nothing except that I summon you here. He believed that in your presence he could lay his complaints concerning the constraints he has suffered. As this seemed reasonable and appropriate in the circumstances, I willingly ordered that this letter be written to you in order that all of you who met at the Council of Tyre hasten here without delay to show by deeds the purity and impartiality of your judgement …’ (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, II, xxviii; Sources chrétiennes 306, pp. 357, 359, French trans. A.-J. Festugière.)
The emperor sent this message to the bishops gathered at Jerusalem, but it was only Eusebius of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Cæsarea, Theognius of Nicæa, Maris of Chalcedon, Ursacius of Singidunum, Valens of Mursa and Patrophilus of Scythopolis who went. Most of them were committed Arians and several had been members of the commission to the Mareotis. They avoided bringing forward the charges rebutted at Tyre but thought up new ones. At this point, Constantine evidently reached the conclusion that Athanasius was more of a hindrance to his efforts to restore unity and calm to the Church than a help, and precipitately banished him to Trier in Gaul. He may indeed have thought that Athanasius would be safer out of circulation.
St Athanasius went into exile on 6 November 335 and would remain there until all deposed bishops were recalled from exile on the death of Constantine in May 337. It seemed that the Arianizers had triumphed but Athanasius’s exile had certain valuable consequences. It introduced him to the western church, including St Sylvester, bishop of Rome. The western church had hitherto paid little attention to the Arian controversy and Athanasius was in a position to build support for the Nicene faith. The doctrine of the Trinity familiar to Latin-speaking theologians was still that of Tertullian of a century before, but it had familiarised them with the use of the Latin word substantia for the Trinity and persona for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even if Tertullian’s use of the terms was not consistent, and his doctrine was actually more like Marcellus’s, to which we will come in a moment, than like Athanasius’s. The Nicene Creed thus caused them less difficulty than it caused Greek-speaking theologians.
Further, Trier was the regional capital and the residence of Constantine’s eldest son, also named Constantine, who ruled Gaul as cæsar under his father. Athanasius became acquainted with the younger Constantine, who would support him until the latter’s untimely death in 340, aged only 24.
The Arianizers now turned their attention to Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra, who had championed the homoousion at Nicæa and who had defended Athanasius at the Council of Tyre. Marcellus had become involved in a pamphlet war with Asterius the Sophist, in the course of which he accused a wide circle of bishops of being covert Arians, thus arousing the ire of Eusebius of Cæsarea. Asterius was a professional teacher of rhetoric; he was also one of the most eminent theologians of the fourth century but could not be ordained because he had sacrificed to the pagan gods during the persecution of Diocletian. This, however, gave him the advantage that, as a layman, he could not be charged with heresy. As a consequence, he, a supporter of Arius since before the Council of Nicæa, became the most important public defender of Arianism after the Council, and theological adviser to the Arian bishops.
This pamphlet war gave the Arian party the ammunition they needed to bring a charge of heresy against Marcellus, as Eusebius of Cæsarea demonstrated in his work Contra Marcellum. Marcellus faced the problem that all theologians of the fourth century faced, how, with the ambiguous vocabulary then available, to describe what makes God one and at the same time what makes the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit three. Marcellus espoused a doctrine that had up to that time been one acceptable alternative (as Tertullian showed) but the increasing precision of trinitarian doctrine following the Council of Nicæa had left him on the wrong side of the line. He taught that the Word of God was an eternal power or faculty of God, but that it only became separate as the Son at the Incarnation, and would cease to be separated at the Last Judgement, when the Son’s Kingdom would have an end and the Word would return into God. He held strictly to the anathema of the Nicene Creed, that there was only one ousia and only one hypostasis in the Trinity. He denied that this was Sabellianism, holding that the Word incarnate as Son was not the same thing as the Father, but his enemies could make this look like a quibble. He was tried by a council held at Constantinople in 336, deposed and sent into exile, replaced in his see by Basil (not to be confused with St Basil the Great, whom we will come upon later).
With the principal defenders of the Nicene faith gone, the Arian party proceeded to secure the banishment of any other bishop who showed signs of opposing them. They appeared now to have triumphed completely. All that was left was to contrive in some way the supersession of the Nicene Creed, and this they immediately set about doing.
The Death of Constantine: Everything Changes
In the year 335, King Sapor of Persia unleashed a persecution of the Persian Christians. In the following year he broke his alliance with Rome and invaded the Christian kingdom of Armenia, which was under Roman protection. Constantine prepared to campaign against the Persians but fell ill when he was in Helenopolis on the Asian shore of the Sea of Marmara. He was taken to nearby Nicomedia where he died on 22 May 337 at the age of 65. His body was taken back to Constantinople where he, ‘the Equal of the Apostles,’ was laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
The Church would proclaim him, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, a saint and confer on him the title ‘the Great.’ He had been faithful since his vision before the battle of the Milvian Bridge, although, as was common at the time among the laity, he put off baptism until his last illness. Some modern critics have questioned the Church’s judgement in this matter but Christos Yannaras in The Truth and Unity of the Church (1990) has explained that the Church recognises saints not for any personal virtues they may possess, even if they possess many, but for their labour in the building of Christ’s Kingdom: ‘… In the person of Constantine the Great, the Church understood the truth of its universal nature: taking the entire world upon itself, transforming it into the Kingdom of God, taking concrete historical dimensions.’ (p. 72)
Constantine was succeeded by his sons Constantine, Constantius and Constans. They had ruled as cæsars under their father and now as Augusti shared the rule of the Roman Empire. Constantine, aged 21, ruled in the West with his capital at Trier, while Constans, aged 14, exercised nominal rule under his guardianship in the Balkans. Constantius, aged 19, ruled in the East with Constantinople as his capital, but his campaigns against the Persians kept him in Asia Minor for most of the time, with headquarters at Antioch. While their father had not taken sides in the theological controversies of his reign, concerned only that the Church should be at peace, his sons were committed, Constantine and Constans favouring the Nicene cause and Constantius that of the Arianizers. The frequent presence of Constantius in Antioch made the bishop of that city, Flacillus, a convinced Arian, particularly influential in the events we are about to recount.
A few weeks after their father’s death, the three emperors issued a decree freeing all the banished bishops from exile. Athanasius names, of those banished for opposition to the Arianizers, Paul of Constantinople, Marcellus of Ancyra, Eutropius of Adrianople, Euphration of Balanea, Kymatius of Paltus, Carterius of Antaradus, Asclepas of Gaza, Cyrus of Berœa in Syria, Diodorus of Asia, Domnion of Sirmium and Ellanicus of Tripolis. (History of the Arians, 5; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, IV, trans. M. Atkinson and Archibald Robertson (1892). From the New Advent website, edited by Kevin Knight.)
Athanasius himself was among those released in June 337. The young Constantine wrote a letter to the Alexandrines giving his understanding of Athanasius’s banishment:
‘I suppose that it has not escaped the knowledge of your pious minds, that Athanasius, the interpreter of the adorable Law, was sent away into Gaul for a time, with the intent that, as the savageness of his bloodthirsty and inveterate enemies persecuted him to the hazard of his sacred life, he might thus escape suffering some irremediable calamity, through the perverse dealing of those evil men. In order therefore to escape this, he was snatched out of the jaws of his assailants, and was ordered to pass some time under my government, and so was supplied abundantly with all necessaries in this city, where he lived, although indeed his celebrated virtue, relying entirely on divine assistance, sets at nought the sufferings of adverse fortune.’ (Quoted in Athanasius, Apologia contra Arianos, 87; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, IV, trans. M. Atkinson and Archibald Robertson (1892). From the New Advent website, edited by Kevin Knight.)
Athanasius did not take the direct route by sea back to Alexandria but went overland through the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine, visiting the bishops on his way, encouraging the orthodox and controverting the heterodox. He arrived in Alexandria in November 337 to the joyous reception of the people. The Arianizers, confident in the support of Constantius, were quick to react. During the winter of 337–38 Flacillus of Antioch sent a letter to the three emperors repeating all the allegations against Athanasius and pointing out that his release from exile did not affect his deposition by the Council of Tyre.
A new factor had been added to the controversy, now that so many supporters of the Nicene Creed had passed their exiles in the West with the opportunity of influencing the western bishops. The Arianizers now felt the need to justify themselves to the church in the West, especially since Constantine and Constans, the rulers in the West, did not look upon them with favour. Eusebius of Nicomedia, Flacillus of Antioch, Maris of Chalcedon and others of the bishops gathered at Antioch that winter therefore sent a letter to St Julius, the bishop of Rome, at the same time enclosing a copy of the report of the commission to the Mareotis, soliciting his support or at least neutrality. The letter was taken to Rome by a priest and two deacons. This letter was to have consequences that the Arianizers did not foresee and would not welcome.
Athanasius, meanwhile, never one to shy from a fight, responded to the attack by the bishops at Antioch by summoning a council of the bishops of Egypt and Libya in 338. The assembled bishops drafted an encyclical letter defending Athanasius against the charges, and pointing out what was the true aim of his persecutors:
‘But while they desire to set aside that true Council [of Nicæa], they endeavour to give that name to their own unlawful combination [the Council of Tyre]; while they are unwilling that the decrees of the Council [of Nicæa] should be enforced, they desire to enforce their own decisions; and they use the name of a Council, while they refuse to submit themselves to one so great as this. Thus they care not for Councils, but only pretend to do so in order that they may root out the orthodox, and annul the decrees of the true and great Council against the Arians, in support of whom, both now and heretofore, they have ventured to assert these falsehoods against the Bishop Athanasius.’ (Quoted in Athanasius, Apologia contra Arianos, 7; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, IV, trans. M. Atkinson and Archibald Robertson (1892). From the New Advent website, edited by Kevin Knight.)
This letter was sent to all the bishops, including St Julius of Rome. Athanasius also took care to send a deputation of priests to Rome to argue his case, and these debated with the clerics sent from Antioch—worsting them, in the opinion of Julius. Julius, considering that the case against Athanasius was by no means proven, now wrote back to Eusebius and the other bishops at Antioch, summoning them and Athanasius to a council to meet in Rome and judge the accusations. He referred to a canon (otherwise unknown and certainly not recognised by the eastern bishops) giving the bishop of Rome the right of final appeal in such cases. The bishops gathered at Antioch did not reply to this letter for almost a year. They did not recognise any jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome in the matter and certainly did not want any part of a council called by him. On the other hand, they wanted to avoid alienating him and, if at all possible, to win him over.
At the end of 338, Constantius banished Paul of Constantinople, who went to Rome. Eusebius of Nicomedia was translated to the see of Constantinople in his place, contrary to the canon of the Council of Nicæa forbidding such transfers.
In the winter of 338–39, the Arian party with Eusebius, now Patriarch of Constantinople, at its head met again in Antioch. Sure of Constantius’s backing, they once again declared Athanasius deposed, naming Gregory the Cappadocian to replace him. In March 339, Philagrius, the Prefect of Egypt, arrived in Alexandria with a detachment of soldiers to instal Gregory on the patriarchal throne. Riots broke out, a church was burnt down, and Athanasius, fearing for his life, quickly boarded a ship and sailed straight for the West out of Constantius’s jurisdiction, arriving in Rome to begin his second exile. At about the same time, Constantius banished Marcellus of Ancyra once again. Marcellus also went to Rome, and so it happened that, at this critical moment in the Arian controversy, when the western church was about to be drawn into it, three of the principal Greek defenders of the Nicene Creed found themselves together in Rome under the protection of the pope.
But in the year 340, dissension in the Church was trumped by civil war in the Empire. The brothers Constantine and Constans fell out, Constantine feeling that he had not received his fair share of territory at the division in 337, Constans, now 17, resenting his older brother’s tutelage. Constantine, only 24 and after scarcely three years as Augustus, was killed in an ambush and Constans took over his territories, now sole ruler in the West with his headquarters at Trier.
It was also at about this time that the eminent but vacillating church historian Eusebius of Cæsarea died. He was succeeded by his disciple Acacius, equally learned but, unlike Eusebius, a convinced Arian. He would soon become one of the leaders of the Arian party. John Henry Newman described him as ‘The most distinguished of the [Eusebian] party, after Eusebius [of Nicomedia/Constantinople] himself, for ability, learning, and unscrupulousness.’ (The Arians of the Fourth Century, London, 1919, p. 275)
A year and a half passed after Athanasius’s arrival in Rome and none of the Eusebian party showed any sign of attending the council summoned by Julius. He held it without them at last early in the year 341, attended by fifty bishops, all from the West. It exonerated Athanasius and Marcellus completely. Julius now wrote to the Antiochene bishops, and the others whom he refers to slightingly as οἱ περὶ Εὐσέβιον, ‘the party of Eusebius,’ at Antioch with the decision of the council, accusing them of trying to overturn the condemnation of Arianism at the Council of Nicæa. In response, the Arianizers determined to call their own council, which met at Antioch in the middle of 341. The necessity that the Arianizers were now under to convince the western church that they were right and Athanasius was wrong led them to renew the theological debate that the Council of Nicæa had seemingly closed. The drafting of creeds to supersede the Nicene Creed became the order of the day in the next period of the Arian controversy, that from the Council of Antioch in 341, to which we turn in the next section, to the twin councils of Rimini and Seleucia, held in 359.