The Meletian Schism
We saw at the end of the previous part that Acacius and his Homœan colleagues at the small Council of Constantinople in 360 had appointed Meletius of Sebaste to the see of Antioch in place of Eudoxius, translated to Constantinople, under the mistaken impression that Meletius was of their party. In fact, although meek and unassuming, he was unswervingly orthodox, something they discovered when he preached his inaugural sermon. The reaction was immediate. Scarcely a month after his consecration, he was banished by the Emperor Constantius to his birthplace in Armenia, replaced on the episcopal throne by Euzoïus, one of Arius’s original supporters.
The Christians of Antioch were now divided into three parties, the Arians under Euzoïus while the orthodox faithful of the city were now divided between those who accepted the exiled Meletius as bishop and those who rejected him because he had been consecrated by Arians, and who remained loyal to the memory of St Eustathius, deposed by the Arians in 327. The Eustathians were led by a priest, Paulinus. This schism, which would persist for over half a century, long after all the original actors were dead, is not directly relevant to the seven œcumenical councils but it cannot be ignored for the simple reason that Antioch is one of the great patriarchates, on a level with Alexandria. For the orthodox faithful there to be divided and in conflict during an epic struggle against heresy was a deep wound in the Church.
Not long after this, political events in the empire once again intervened to alter the situation of the Church. As we saw, Julian had been appointed cæsar in Gaul by the Emperor Constantius. He was the son of Julius Constantius and grandson of Constantius Chlorus. Julius Constantius was the half-brother of Constantine the Great and so Julian was first cousin to Constantius the emperor, although this seems not to have created any family affection between them.
Julian had received an excellent classical education as a young man, having studied in Athens alongside St Basil, the future bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia, and St Gregory, the future patriarch of Constantinople. He loved Greek literature and philosophy, considered himself a philosopher, and developed a romantic attachment to Greek and Roman mythology, which led him, although raised as a Christian, to devote himself to the ancient gods. This would cause him to be known to history as Julian the Apostate but it was not something that he made widely known before he became emperor.
Perhaps in spite of his philosophical predilections, Julian turned out to have considerable practical ability. In Gaul he proved himself to be a brave and skilful commander in battle, and to be an honest and effective civil administrator. He expelled the Germanic invaders from Gaul and restored the peace and prosperity of the province. He was so successful that his soldiers acclaimed him imperator at Paris in February of 360. He made it clear that he did not intend to be Constantius’s subordinate, but the two cousins avoided open conflict until the spring of 361, when Constantius began preparations to put Julian back in his place. These preparations came to nothing. On 3 November 361, Constantius died of fever at Mopsuestia in Cilicia, aged just 44. On his deathbed he recognised Julian as his successor. Julian was not yet 30 years old when he became sole ruler of the Roman world.
The change of ruler had an unforeseen and vile consequence in Alexandria. As soon as the news reached the city that Constantius was dead, a pagan mob seized George the Cappadocian, usurper of St Athanasius’s see, and lynched him.
On 9 February 362, Julian issued an edict restoring to their sees all the bishops exiled by Constantius. He proclaimed toleration for all cults, including Christianity—as a pagan, he wanted to be on the good side of all gods, including that of the Jews and Christians. He even offered to rebuild the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem, a project that came to nothing, however. At the same time he attempted to restore the pagan cults. The official cults of the Greek and Roman cities had been moribund for centuries by this time and could only be revived as a sort of play-acting, so his efforts in this respect were unavailing.
His policy of toleration had definite limits and he found various petty ways to make life difficult for Christians, forbidding them to be school teachers and expelling them from the army for example; it did, however, have the advantage that it allowed orthodoxy to begin to revive from the Arian domination that Constantius had imposed on it.
St Athanasius, after spending six years concealed from Constantius’s soldiers in the deserts of Egypt, now returned to his see. At the same time, Eusebius of Vercellæ and Lucifer of Cagliari, two other of the bishops banished by Constantius, both of whom had spent their exile in upper Egypt, were released. Before returning to their sees in the West, Eusebius went to Alexandria and Lucifer went straight on to Antioch.
Athanasius immediately summoned a council of the bishops of Egypt to consider the situation created by the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia, and the unexpected change of government. Eusebius of Vercellæ attended the council while Lucifer was represented by two deacons. One of the objects of the council was to bring about a reconciliation between the Meletians and Eustathians in Antioch, and Eusebius was to go to Antioch after the council with the council’s recommendations. This was rendered moot by Lucifer’s actions in Antioch. His approach to delicate ecclesiastical questions was that of a bull in a china shop. Without consultation with any of the concerned parties, he spurned the Meletians and consecrated Paulinus as bishop. He then returned to his see in Sardinia. Not long after, Meletius in his turn returned from exile in Armenia to find the orthodox in the city hopelessly divided.
Unaware of what Lucifer was doing in Antioch, St Athanasius drafted the council’s letter to the Antiochenes, the Tomus ad Antiochenos, which represented a significant step forward in the resolution of the Arian controversy, even if not of the Meletian schism. It was the the first time that the terminological confusion that had dogged the controversy from the beginning was addressed explicitly, without, however, being completely resolved. It was also the first occasion when the status of the Holy Spirit and the question of the human nature of Christ were addressed.
On the twin councils of Ariminum and Seleucia, whose proceedings the Alexandrian council did not recognise, the Tomus provided that those who wished to return to communion with the orthodox should anathematize the Arian heresy and confess the faith of Nicæa. For the first time, however, it required as well the anathematization of those who taught that the Holy Spirit is a sort of creature and separate from the Father and Son: ‘For this is in truth a complete renunciation of the abominable heresy of the Arians, to refuse to divide the Holy Trinity, or to say that any part of it is a creature. For those who, while pretending to cite the faith confessed at Nicæa, venture to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, do nothing more than in words deny the Arian heresy while they retain it in thought.’ (Tomus ad Antichenos, 3; trans. H. Ellershaw, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, IV, 1892; from the New Advent website, ed. Kevin Knight.)
St Athanasius goes on to address the apparent disagreement between those who use the term subsistence (ὑπόστασις) to refer to each person of the Trinity and those who use it to refer to the Trinity as a whole. After questioning both parties, the council is assured that the first do not intend, like the Arians, to claim that the Persons of the Trinity are unlike, not of the same οὐσία, but that they are distinct Persons; and that the second do not intend, like Sabellius, to claim that the Trinity is a single Person with three manifestations, but that there is ‘one Godhead, and that it has one nature’ [μίαν γὰρ θεότητα, καὶ μίαν εἶναι τὴν ταύτης φύσιν]. Since the difference in terminology does not in fact amount to a difference in belief, they agree ‘that the faith confessed by the fathers at Nicæa is better than the said phrases, and that for the future they would prefer to be content to use its language.’ (Ibid., 5-6; Greek text Migne PG 26, col. 801.)
St Athanasius then turns to opinions about the human nature of the Son after the incarnation, that the Word occupied a man in the same way that He rested on the prophets, or that the Word occupied a body without a soul or intelligence, using it like a robot. He insists that these are not the orthodox faith: ‘the Word Himself was made flesh, and being in the Form of God, took the form of a servant, and from Mary after the flesh became man for us, and that thus in Him the human race is perfectly and wholly delivered from sin and quickened from the dead, and given access to the kingdom of the heavens. For they confessed also that the Saviour had not a body without a soul, nor without sense or intelligence [Ὡμολόγουν γὰρ καὶ τοῦτο, ὅτι οὐ σῶμα ἄψυχον, οὐδ’ ἀνόητον εἶχεν ὁ Σωτήρ]; for it was not possible, when the Lord had become man for us, that His body should be without intelligence: nor was the salvation effected in the Word Himself a salvation of body only, but of soul also. And being Son of God in truth, He became also Son of Man, and being God’s Only-begotten Son, He became also at the same time ‘firstborn among many brethren’ [Romans 8:29].’ (Ibid., 7; PG 26, col. 804)
Two decades later, St Gregory the Theologian, in his oration in memory of St Athanasius, would recall this important event: ‘For, when all the rest who sympathised with us were divided into three parties, and many were faltering in their conception of the Son, and still more in that of the Holy Ghost, (a point on which to be only slightly in error was to be orthodox) and few indeed were sound upon both points, he was the first and only one, or with the concurrence of but a few, to venture to confess in writing, with entire clearness and distinctness, the Unity of Godhead and Essence of the Three Persons, and thus to attain in later days, under the influence of inspiration, to the same faith in regard to the Holy Ghost, as had been bestowed at an earlier time on most of the Fathers in regard to the Son.’ (Oration 21.33, trans. C.G. Browne and J.E. Swallow, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, VII, 1894; from the New Advent website, ed. Kevin Knight.)
Shortly after the council in Alexandria, St Athanasius was again exiled, his fourth. It was not for ecclesiastical reasons but because the Emperor Julian found him to be too influential a leader in Egypt, competing with his own authority. Athanasius went into hiding in the desert near Alexandria.
Then once again the political situation changed everything. Julian, leading the army on the eastern frontier in the perennial war with Persia, was killed in battle on 26 June 363, aged only 31 and after a reign of less than two years. He was the last of the house of Constantine the Great, and was succeeded by one of his generals, Jovian, but Jovian’s reign was even shorter, as he died on 17 February 364, before he even reached Constantinople on his return from the eastern frontier. He in turn was succeeded by Valentinian, another army commander. Valentinian went to the western part of the empire, making his younger brother, Valens, Augustus with authority in the East. Unfortunately for the Christians of the East, Valens was a convinced Homœan Arian. After the brief interlude under Julian the Apostate and Jovian, the Church fell once again under the Arian blight as it had under Constantius.
Jovian lifted the exiles imposed by Julian, and St Athanasius returned to his see. Subsequently, before Valens had time to reimpose exile on the bishops he disapproved of, the Homœousian bishops made an effort to enlist the support of the Emperor Valentinian and Pope Liberius against the Anomœan and Homœan bishops. They held a local council at Lampsacus on the Asian shore of the Dardanelles and delegated Eustathius of Sebaste, Silvanus of Tarsus and Theophilus of Catabala to go to Milan and Rome with a letter professing allegiance to the Nicene Creed. Valentinian did not meet with them but Liberius welcomed them with open arms. He was unaware that Eustathius at least held unsound views on the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He gave them a letter accepting them into communion, and they returned to the East where they planned to hold a council at Tarsus to bring the Eastern bishops into agreement with them. They were too late, however, as Valens was now ready to exile them again, which he did in 365.
St Athanasius now endured his fifth exile, but it lasted only five months and was to be his last.
The Three Cappadocians
In the year 365 the Council of Nicæa is now forty years in the past, and the Arian controversy shows no sign of ending. The issues have been debated ad nauseam and are by now clear to all the parties to the controversy. It must be remembered that the convinced Arians were always a tiny minority in the Church but the inability of the majority up to this point to articulate what it is that makes Arianism unacceptable has prevented them from uniting in opposition. At the same time, two new issues are coming to the fore, first the nature of the Holy Spirit, and second the relation of the human to the divine in the incarnate Christ. The next fifteen years will resolve the trinitarian controversy begun by Arius, that is, how the three Persons of the Trinity are related, thanks to the theological labours of the great doctors of the church whom I will now introduce, and will clear the stage for subsequent christological debate, that is, concerning how the two Natures of the Incarnate Christ are related.
There now arrive on the scene three of the foremost theologians in the history of the Church, famous as the Three Cappadocians. The three were not yet even born when the Council of Nicæa met, but their names will forever be linked to its final triumph.
First are two brothers, Basil and Gregory, born in Cæsarea of Cappadocia in Asia Minor (now Kayseri in central Turkey), sons of St Basil the Elder and St Emmelia, brought up in a deeply pious family. Their grandmother was St Macrina the Elder, a disciple of St Gregory Thaumaturge. Not only would their parents and they be recognised as saints of the church, but their sister St Macrina, whom the Synaxarion describes as ‘the real spiritual leader of the family,’ and their brothers St Naucratius and St Peter. They both received a thorough classical and Christian education.
Basil became the founder of monastic life in Cappadocia, based on his experience of the monastic life of Egypt and Palestine. The Rule that he composed became the charter of monasticism in the East and was used by St Benedict of Nursia in introducing monasticism to the West. Basil was ordained a priest in Cæsarea in 363. When Valens came to the throne, Basil took over the catechetical instruction in the diocese to counter Arian influence. He was elected bishop of Cæsarea in 370, a post he held until his death at the beginning of 379. When St Athanasius the Great died in May 373, Basil inherited his role as the foremost champion of the Nicene faith. Basil was deeply influenced by the writings of Origen and belonged to the theological school represented by St Gregory Thaumaturge and Basil of Ancyra. Consequently, he did not make the sharp distinction between Homoousians and Homœousians that St Athanasius did. The Church commemorates him on 1 January, the day of his perfection, and as one of the Three Hierarchs on 30 January. He is known to history as St Basil the Great.
Basil’s brother Gregory was a teacher of rhetoric for a time but then retired to the monastery that his brother had founded at Annesi in Pontus. When Basil became bishop of Cæsarea, he presented Gregory for election as bishop of the small town of Nyssa in Cappadocia III, about 75 miles west of Cæsarea. His virtues were those of the scholar and hermit rather than bishop, and he soon fell victim to the Arians, who in 376 contrived his deposition and exile, which lasted for two years. When his brother Basil died, he took his place as defender of orthodoxy, and his deep learning and great eloquence soon established his authority. He died around 395, commemorated by the Church as St Gregory of Nyssa on 10 January.
The third is another Gregory, born in Arianzus in Cappadocia, who came from as deeply pious a family as did Basil. Gregory’s father, also called Gregory, and mother Nonna, his sister Gorgonia and his brother Cæsarius, have all been recognised as saints by the Church. Like Basil, he received the best education available at the time. He and his brother Cæsarius went to Cæsarea of Cappadocia to study rhetoric and there became friends with Basil. Gregory then studied in Cæsarea of Palestine and in Alexandria, then joined Basil in Athens to complete his education. There the two forged an alliance that was to last the rest of their lives. In 370, Gregory and his father, who was bishop of Nazianzus in Cappadocia, campaigned successfully for Basil’s election to the see of Cæsarea. Basil, needing support against the Arians, then presented Gregory to the see of Sasima, a small town in Cappadocia II, despite Gregory’s wish for the contemplative life. Gregory became one of the most renowned defenders of the Nicene faith and was invited by the orthodox of Constantinople to lead them when the city was under Arian domination, but an account of this can be put off until we reach the events surrounding the Second Œcumenical Council. He died in 390 and the Church commemorates him as St Gregory the Theologian on 25 January, and as one of the Three Hierarchs on 30 January.
When the Arian heresy arose, the debate was about the Persons of the Trinity. However, as we saw in St Athanasius’s Letter to the Antiochenes, by the 360s it was becoming apparent that the debate was narrowing. It was no longer about the Persons of the Trinity but rather about the language used to describe the Persons of the Trinity.
If we are to think at all, we must begin with a thought—a concept. We can then go on to probe it and develop it into further concepts. But the Trinity is by its nature beyond what mere human language can express. How then are we to speak of it truly? This was the problem that the Three Cappadocians faced.
Anything that we say about our world or the transcendent is underpinned and shaped by specific preconceptions. We may not be aware of them but they are nonetheless present in our mind. The technical term for these preconceptions is metaphysics. All the theologians of the early Church shared a metaphysics whose twin strands were derived, the one from Plato and the other from Aristotle. For them, this was just the way the world was. But it would be a mistake to think that this was a weakness in them. All of us, and not just they, have a metaphysics. It is possible to detect in what people say today the twin strands of our present ruling metaphysics, one strand derived from Newton and Kant, the other from Bentham, Locke and J.S. Mill.
The Three Cappadocians faced three questions: the ongoing Arian claim concerning God the Son, a new question involving God the Holy Spirit, and a second new question involving the incarnate Christ.
The first to enter the lists was St Basil, and he began by addressing the first of these three question. When he entered the debate in the early 360s, when he was still a priest, not yet bishop of Cæsarea, he saw the Anomœan heresy as the version of Arianism that needed to be refuted.
The leading teacher of the Anomœan heresy at the time was Eunomius of Cyzicus, who had published his Apologitikos to propagate it. Eunomius taught the two basic doctrines of Arius: first, that God the Son is not of the same substance (οὐσἰα) as God the Father and is radically subordinate to the Father; and second, that the Son is in some way a creation, although not like the rest of creation, and so is not coeternal with the Father. However, while Arius supported his teachings by citations of Scripture, Eunomius claimed to be able to demonstrate them by pure logic. In fact, he was so certain that logic can reveal truth that he made the claim, which scandalized his contemporaries, that God cannot know his own substance better than we ourselves can know it. (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, IV.vii.13)
Eunomius based this on three substantive claims.
First, he denied that any theological claim can be based on conceptualisation. Philosophers at the time distinguished ἔννοια, a thought, the basic notion that we have in our mind, which is the necessary starting point for any further reflection, from ἐπίνοια, conceptualisation, the building of further concepts on basic notions. He pointed out that conceptualisation can give rise to concepts that have no referent: for example, the basic notions ‘man’ and ‘horse’ combined to form the concept ‘centaur.’ For Eunomius, anything we truly say of God must be an ἔννοια, a basic notion.
Second, he denied that God can be identified using privatives, expressions like ‘immutable’ and ‘invisible’ that state the lack of a quality. At the same time, he claimed that ‘unbegotten,’ although privative in form, is not privative in fact when used of God because it does not mean the absence of an attribute but is a name.
And this leads to his third claim, based on the Stoic analysis of proper names: that each individual has a name that corresponds to the essential quality defining the individual. For Eunomius, the proper name for God is ‘unbeggoten.’ No other name can say anything true about God.
Basil quotes Eunomius’s conclusion: ‘So then, if [God is unbegotten] neither by way of conceptualization, nor by way of privation, nor in part (for he is without parts), nor as something else in him (for he is simple), nor as something else alongside him (for he is the one and only unbegotten), then it must be unbegotten substance.’ (St Basil of Cæsarea, Against Eunomius, I.11; trans. Mark DelCogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, 2011, p. 106) And, of course, from this it follows that, since ‘unbegotten’ identifies the substance (οὐσία) of God, then the Only-Begotten, the Son of God, logically cannot be of the same substance as the Unbegotten.
Eunomius taught that ‘the Unbegotten’ and ‘the Only-Begotten’ are the only true names for the Divinity, and that ‘Father’ and ‘Son,’ although they might be used in popular devotions, should not be used theologically because of their inescapable material connotations.
He based his radical subordination of the Only-Begotten on the usual proof texts: ‘… the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me’ (John 14:24), and ‘… I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I’ (John 14:28).
Instead of attempting to refute Eunomius directly, Basil offered an alternative language for theology, one whose efficacy has been proven since. He denied that we can know God’s substance: ‘I think that comprehension of God’s substance transcends not only human beings, but also every rational nature … It is to be expected that the very substance of God is incomprehensible to everyone except the Only-Begotten and the Holy Spirit. But we are led up from the activities of God and gain knowledge of the Maker through what he has made, and so come in this way to an understanding of his goodness and wisdom.’ (Ibid., I.14; pp. 112-113)
‘There is not one name which encompasses the entire nature of God and suffices to express it adequately. Rather, there are many diverse names, and each one contributes, in accordance with its own meaning, to a notion that is altogether dim and trifling as regards the whole but is at least sufficient for us. Now some of the names applied to God are indicative of what is present to God; others, on the contrary, of what is not present. From these two something like an impression of God is made in us, namely, from the denial of what is incongruous with him and from the affirmation of what belongs to him.’ (Ibid., I.10; p. 105)
These terms constitute what Basil called the ‘formula of being [λόγος τοῦ εἶναι]’ or ‘formula of substance [λόγος τῆς οὐσίας],’ which take the place of Eunomius’s ‘substance’: ‘… if someone takes the commonality of the substance [τὸ κοινόν τῆς οὐσίας] to mean that one and the same formula of being [λόγος τοῦ εἶναι] is observed in both, such that if, hypothetically speaking, the Father is conceived of as light in his substrate, then the substance of the Only-Begotten is also confessed as light, and whatever one may assign to the Father as the formula of his being, the very same also applies to the Son. If someone takes the commonality of the substance in this way, we accept it and claim it as our doctrine. For this is how divinity is one. Clearly, their unity is conceived to be a matter of the formula of the substance [λόγος τῆς οὐσίας].’ (Ibid., I.19; p. 120)
Some parts of the formula of being are common to Father and Son while some, the ‘distinguishing marks [ἰδιώματα],’ distinguish them: ‘The distinctive features [ἰδιότες], which are like certain characters and forms observed in the substance, differentiate what is common by means of the distinguishing characters and do not sunder the substance’s sameness in nature. For example, the divinity is common, whereas fatherhood and sonship are distinguishing marks: from the combination of both, that is, of the common and the unique, we arrive at a comprehension of the truth.’ (Ibid., 2.28; p. 174)
Against Eunomius’s interpretation of all references to the divinity in Scripture as references to the substance, Basil held that it is necessary to distinguish references to the divinity as such from references to the divine work in creation. The technical terminology for this is to distinguish θεολογία (theology) from οἰκονομία (economy). He employs the distinction to counter Eunomius’s claim that Acts 2:36, ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ,’ is a proof that the Only-Begotten is something made: ‘It was not the intention of the Apostle to communicate to us the subsistence [ὑπόστασις] of the Only-Begotten before the ages, which is the subject at hand … Everyone who has paid even marginal attention to the intent of the Apostle’s text recognizes that he does not teach us in the mode of theology, but hints at the reasons of the economy. He says: ‘God made him Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ By using the demonstrative pronoun he makes a clear reference to his humanity and to what all saw. But Eunomius transfers the expression ‘he made’ to the original begetting of the Only-Begotten … [The Apostle] is speaking of his rule and power over all, which the Father entrusted to him. He is not describing his arrival at being.’ (Ibid., II.3; pp. 133-134)
In the same way, Basil rejects Eunomius’s radical subordination of the Son. ‘All that remains, then, is that ‘greater than’ is said here according to the account of cause. Since the Son’s principle comes from the Father, it is in this sense that the Father is greater, as cause and principle. For this reason too the Lord said the following: ‘The Father is greater than I’ [John 14:28], clearly meaning insofar as he is Father. But what else does ‘father’ signify, other than that he is the cause and the principle of the one begotten from him? Generally speaking, a substance is not said to be greater or lesser than a substance …’ (Ibid. I.25; p. 127)
Eunomius called the Son ‘his [the Father’s] most perfect minister’ for creation, echoing an idea fairly common among earlier fathers of the Church (with the same philosophical background as the Gnostic idea that the Divinity is impassible and so must be shielded from direct contact with matter), that God the Word exists in order to do the things, like creation, that are inappropriate for God Almighty. Basil rejects this idea, teaching that what any one person of the Trinity is said to do is in fact done by the Trinity as such, and that God the Word is in no sense a mere minister. ‘After all, what ministering could have been needed by the one [the Father] who creates by will alone …? … How do we say that all things come to be through the Son? In this way: the divine will, taking its origin from the Primal Cause as from a kind of spring, proceeds to activity through his own image, God the Word … But if [as Eunomius claims] he [the Son] possesses glory not in virtue of being perfect God, but in virtue of being a reliable minister, how will he be different from the ministering spirits …?’ (Ibid., II.22; p. 162) Basil insists that there is no separation between the Father and the Son: ‘So the communion of the Son with the God and Father is revealed as eternal, seeing that our understanding advances from the Son to the Father without passing through a void and connects the Son with the Father without any interval between them. For no intermediary separates the Son from the Father.’ (Ibid., II.12; p. 146)
The second question, concerning the status of the Holy Spirit, was becoming an issue at this time, as Athanasius’s Letter to the Antiochenes has already warned us. Eustathius, bishop of Sebaste in Roman Armenia (now Sivas in Turkey), whom we have already met, would become the leader of those who questioned the divinity of the Holy Spirit (and so came to be called the Pneumatomachi, ‘the fighters against the Spirit’) while at the same time confessing the divinity of the Son and so claiming to oppose the Arians. He was one of the leaders of the Homœousian party. He had previously been deeply involved in the development of monasticism in Asia Minor, which had made him for long a close friend of St Basil the Great. Basil himself was not militantly opposed to the Homœousians, whom he regarded as divided from the Homoousians on a question of mere semantics, but when in the early 370s rumours began to circulate concerning Eustathius’s views on the Holy Spirit, Basil, for the sake of their friendship, tried to scotch them. In 373 he drafted a statement of the orthodox Nicene faith and convinced Eustathius to sign it before Theodotus, bishop of Nicopolis in Armenia, and his clergy as witnesses.
After noting that the Holy Spirit is no more than named in the Nicene Creed, given that no one at the time questioned his status, the statement continues, ‘we must anathematize those who call the Holy Spirit a creature [κτίσμα], both those who think so, and those who will not confess that He is holy by nature [φύσει ἅγιον εἶναι], even as the Father is holy by nature, and as the Son is holy by nature, but deprive Him of His divine and blessed nature … we neither speak of the Holy Spirit as unbegotten—for we recognize One unbegotten and One Beginning of all existing things, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—nor speak of Him as begotten—for we have been taught One only begotten in the tradition of our Faith; and having been taught that the Spirit of Truth proceeds from the Father, we confess it to be from God without any act of creation.’ (Letter 125; Basil, Letters, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, Loeb Classical Library 215, 1928, II, pp. 267–69)
Despite signing this, Eustathius soon after repudiated it and attacked Basil’s defence of the Holy Spirit, forcing Basil to break with him definitively and to combat his teaching.
We know the arguments advanced by those who rejected the full divinity of the Holy Spirit from St Athanasius’s Letters to Serapion, written in 359–61.
Their proof texts were Amos 4:13, where the Father is quoted as creating spirit and declaring Christ, so that the Spirit must be a creature; 1 Timothy 5:21, where St Paul refers to God, the Lord Jesus Christ and ‘the elect angels’; John 1:3, where all things are made by God through the Word but there is no mention of the Spirit; and Zechariah 1:9, where a spirit speaking to the prophet is described as an angel. They also resorted to logical deduction, claiming that, if the Spirit is not a creature but of God the Father, it must be another son, or if of God the Son, then the Father’s grandson. St Athanasius provided rebuttals at the time but we will focus on the developed doctrine in the Three Cappadocians. Of course, the fundamental objection to all such claims is the baptismal formula: ‘… in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ since it is unthinkable that we be baptized into a creature.
St Gregory of Nyssa summarised the orthodox teaching in his treatise ‘On the Holy Spirit’ of 377: ‘… the Holy Spirit is of the same rank as the Father and the Son, so that there is no difference between them in anything to be thought or named, that devotion can ascribe to a Divine nature. We confess that, save His being contemplated as with peculiar attributes in regard of Person, the Holy Spirit is indeed from God, and of the Christ [ἐκ τοῦ Θεοῦ ἐστι, καὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐστι], according to Scripture, but that, while not to be confounded with the Father in being never originated, nor with the Son in being the Only-begotten, and while to be regarded separately in certain distinctive properties, He as in all else, as I have just said, an exact identity with them.
‘But in a Divine nature, as such, when once we have believed in it, we can recognize no distinctions suggested either by the Scripture teaching or by our own common sense; distinctions, that is, that would divide that Divine and transcendent nature within itself by any degrees of intensity and remission, so as to be altered from itself by being more or less. Because we firmly believe that it is simple, uniform, incomposite, because we see in it no complicity or composition of dissimilars, therefore it is that, when once our minds have grasped the idea of Deity, we accept by the implication of that very name the perfection in it of every conceivable thing that befits the Deity …
‘The view which is consistent with all reverence is as follows. We are not to think of the Father as ever parted from the Son, nor to look for the Son as separated from the Holy Spirit. As it is impossible to mount to the Father, unless our thoughts are exalted thither through the Son, so it is impossible also to say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to be known only in a perfect Trinity, in closest consequence and union with each other, before all creation, before all the ages, before anything whatever of which we can form an idea. The Father is always Father, and in Him the Son, and with the Son the Holy Spirit [ἀεὶ Πατὴρ ὁ Πατήρ ἐστι, καὶ ἐν τῷ Πατρὶ ὁ Υἱὸς, καὶ μετὰ τοῦ Υἱοῦ τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον]. If these Persons then, are inseparate from each other, how great is the folly of these men who undertake to sunder this indivisibility by certain distinctions of time, and so far to divide the Inseparable as to assert confidently, ‘the Father alone, through the Son alone, made all things’.
‘For neither did the Universal God make the universe ‘through the Son,’ as needing any help, nor does the Only-begotten God work all things ‘by the Holy Spirit,’ as having a power that comes short of His design; but the foundation of power is the Father, and the power of the Father is the Son, and the spirit of that power is the Holy Spirit; and Creation entirely, in all its visible and spiritual extent, is the finished work of that Divine power.’ (trans. William Moore in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, V, pp. 315–320; Migne PG 45, col. 1316)
We owe the definitive teaching on the Holy Spirit to St Gregory the Theologian in his Fifth Theological Oration (Oration 31), delivered just before the Second Œcumenical Council. In particular, he identified definitively the distinguishing mark of the Holy Spirit, that of proceeding from the Father.
Gregory summarised the views prevailing at the time: ‘But of the wise men amongst ourselves, some have conceived of him as an Activity, some as a Creature, some as God; and some have been uncertain which to call Him, out of reverence for Scripture, they say, as though it did not make the matter clear either way. And therefore they neither worship Him nor treat Him with dishonour, but take up a neutral position, or rather a very miserable one, with respect to Him. And of those who consider Him to be God, some are orthodox in mind only, while others venture to be so with the lips also.’ (Oration 31, para. 5; trans. C.G. Browne and J.E. Swallow, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, VII, 1894; from the New Advent website, ed. Kevin Knight)
The key difficulty was that the Holy Spirit is never explicitly identified as God in Scripture. Gregory accounted for this by teaching a revelation in stages, fitted to the capacity of people to comprehend. The Old Testament revealed to people who had been idolaters the One Only God clearly and the Son more obscurely. To those who worshipped God the Father, the New Testament revealed the Son clearly and the Spirit obscurely. The subsequent experience of the Church has revealed the Spirit clearly: ‘And again He [the Saviour] said that all things should be taught us by the Spirit when He should come to dwell amongst us. Of these things one, I take it, was the Deity of the Spirit Himself, made clear later on when such knowledge should be seasonable and capable of being received after our Saviour’s restoration, when it would no longer be received with incredulity because of its marvellous character. For what greater thing than this did either He promise, or the Spirit teach.’ (Ibid., para. 27)
Gregory mocked the argument from logic, that God must be either unbegotten or begotten, so that the Spirit must be another son or a grandson. This is to take words describing the Transcendent as if they must have the connotations that they have in earthly matters, so that some people are so simple as to think that God must be male because He is a Father, or that the Deity must be female since the word in Greek is of the feminine gender.
‘But since we do not admit your first division, which declares that there is no mean between Begotten and Unbegotten [γεννητοῦ καὶ ἀγεννήτου], at once, along with your magnificent division, away go your Brothers and your Grandsons, as when the first link of an intricate chain is broken they are broken with it, and disappear from your system of divinity. For, tell me, what position will you assign to that which Proceeds [Ποῦ γὰρ θήσεις τὸ ἐκπορευτὸν, εἰπέ μοι], which has started up between the two terms of your division, and is introduced by a better Theologian than you, our Saviour Himself? Or perhaps you have taken that word out of your Gospels for the sake of your Third Testament, ‘The Holy Ghost, which proceeds from the Father’ [τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον, ὃ παρὰ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορεύεται, referring to John 15:26], Who, inasmuch as He proceeds from That Source, is no Creature; and inasmuch as He is not Begotten is no Son; and inasmuch as He is between the Unbegotten and the Begotten is God. And thus escaping the toils of your syllogisms, He has manifested himself as God, stronger than your divisions. What then is Procession? Do you tell me what is the Unbegottenness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God. And who are we to do these things, we who cannot even see what lies at our feet, or number the sand of the sea, or the drops of rain, or the days of Eternity, much less enter into the Depths of God, and supply an account of that Nature which is so unspeakable and transcending all words?’ (Ibid., para. 8; Migne PG 36, col. 141)
‘What then? Is the Spirit God? Most certainly. Well then, is He Consubstantial [ὁμοούσιον]? Yes, if He is God … To us there is One God, for the Godhead is One, and all that proceeds from Him is referred to One, though we believe in Three Persons. For one is not more and another less God; nor is One before and another after; nor are They divided in will or parted in power; nor can you find here any of the qualities of divisible things; but the Godhead is, to speak concisely, undivided in separate Persons.’ (Ibid., para. 10; Migne PG 36, col. 144; para. 14)
‘This, then, is my position with regard to these things, and I hope it may be always my position, and that of whosoever is dear to me; to worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, Three Persons, One Godhead, undivided in honour and glory and substance and kingdom … For if He is not to be worshipped, how can He deify me by Baptism? But if He is to be worshipped, surely He is an Object of adoration, and if an Object of adoration He must be God.’ (Ibid., para. 28)
The third question, concerning the nature of the Incarnate Christ, is associated with the name of Apollinaris. He was born into a Christian family in Beirut around A.D. 310, the son of a grammarian, and was well educated. When Julian the Apostate forbade Christians to study classical literature, Apollinaris and his father rewrote much of the Bible in classical meters to give Christians texts for schooling. He became bishop of Laodicea in Syria around 360 and died around 390. He was a militant opponent of Arianism and was highly esteemed by the orthodox until he began to circulate the christological teachings for which he would be condemned. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote, ‘It was the elderly and venerable Apolinaris of Laodicea, whom I, the blessed Pope Athanasius, and all the orthodox had always loved, who originally thought of this doctrine and put it forward. When some of his disciples told me about it I did not at first believe that a man like himself had introduced this doctrine to the world.’ (The Panarion, 77.2,1–2, trans. Frank Williams, Brill, 1994, p. 568) In 375, after his teachings were anathematized, Apollinaris broke with the Church and began consecrating his own bishops.
Apollinaris’s objects were to assert the unity of the human and the divine in the incarnate Christ, to teach his full divinity and to deny that there was moral development in his earthly life. His metaphysical presupposition was the Platonic conception of the human being as comprised of three discrete entities, σῶμα, ψυχή and νοῦς. We can translate σῶμα as body, but only if we remember that it does not have the same meaning as our modern notion of body: it is strictly the physical material of which we are composed, without sensation, awareness or activity. By ψυχή is meant sense impressions, nerve impulses and experiences of pain and pleasure. We can call it soul for lack of a better word. By νοῦς is meant awareness, thought, reasoning and acting. We can call it mind.
Apollinaris’s christological teaching was that the incarnate Christ possessed a human body and soul, but not a human mind. The place of the mind was taken by the Logos. His followers developed his doctrine in various ways, so that it is unclear what of Apollinarism is Apollinaris’s own teaching. St Gregory the Theologian provides us in his letters to Cledonius (Letters 101 and 102) and Nectarius (Letter 202) with a summary of the doctrine as it stood at the time of the Second Œcumenical Council.
The key proof text of Apollinarism was ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,’ [John 1:14], which they interpreted as meaning that the Incarnation involved only the flesh and not the human mind. This was reinforced by the text, ‘But we have the mind of Christ’ [1 Corinthians 2:16], which they interpreted as meaning that God the Word was the mind of Christ. They interpreted the statement of the Incarnation, ‘he became man,’ by associating it with Baruch 3:37: ‘Afterward did he [‘our God’] shew himself upon earth, and conversed with men,’ explaining it to mean merely that he consorted and conversed with men but was not perfect Man.
They further taught that the flesh of the incarnate Christ was not from the Virgin Mary but was a part of the original essence of the Logos, based on the passage, ‘And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven,’ [John 3:13] as if he was Son of Man even before the Incarnation and brought his flesh with him, so that he was not literally born of the Theotokos but passed through her as through a channel. In consequence, Christ experienced his Passion not in his human nature but in his divinity, and it was the divinity that died and was raised again by the Father on the third day.
What made Apollinarism a heresy was that it denied our salvation. As St Gregory the Theologian expressed it in his well-known aphorism, Τὸ γὰρ ἀπρόσληπτον, ἀθεράπευτον, ‘That which has not been assumed, has not been healed.’ (Letter 101, Migne PG 37, col. 181)
Gregory defended the orthodox teaching: ‘Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Saviour only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity. For if His Manhood is without soul, even the Arians admit this, that they they may attribute His Passion to the Godhead, as that which gives motion to the body is also that which suffers. But if He has a soul, and yet is without a mind, how is He man, for man is not a mindless animal? … But, says such an one, the Godhead took the place of the human intellect. How does this touch me? For Godhead joined to flesh alone is not man, nor to soul alone, nor to both apart from intellect, which is the most essential part of man. Keep then the whole man, and mingle Godhead therewith, that you may benefit me in my completeness.’ (Letter 101; trans. C.G. Browne and J.E. Swallow, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, VII, 1894; ed. Kevin Knight for New Advent)
The Christian faith is in an incarnate Christ who is perfect God and perfect Man, as only this makes our salvation possible. At the time of the Second Œcumenical Council, the Church was clear about this, but not about all the implications. They remained to be debated and resolved at the two following œcumenical councils.