I’ve been reading Bl. John Henry Newman’s famous history book, Arians of the Fourth Century. The more he researched and wrote it, the more he recognized the failings of his own beloved Anglican Church. After he finished the book and moved on to studying the fifth century Monophysites, the situation got even worse for him. As he famously pointed out in his conversion autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua:
“….here, in the middle of the fifth century, I found, as it seemed to me, Christendom of the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries reflected. I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a Monophysite. The Church of the Via Media was in the position of the Oriental communion; Rome was, where she now is; and the Protestants were the Eutychians.”
So if you’ve ever wondered why he said that “To be deep in history is to cease being Protestant,” that’s why.
Anyway, human nature is human nature at all times and places, even though culture can change its expression radically. So let’s look into Newman’s Arian mirror and see some familiar faces!
One of the most important points that Newman brings up is that Arius was far from being the first Arian. He did his studies in Syria, not Alexandria. The Antioch schools were known for teaching literal and historical studies of the Bible, in contrast to Alexandria’s love of studying spiritual meanings. But Antioch was also known for its long line of heretics, starting with Bishop Paulus of Samosata (an ex-sophist who sucked up to Queen Zenobia and lost his see for teaching heresies). More, there was his friend St. Lucian of Antioch, who died a repentant martyr and lived as a scholar and editor of a new Septuagint edition, but who first managed to get himself excommunicated for many years for teaching a long list of heresies. He was the actual direct teacher of Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Leontius, and a host of other prominent Arian and Semi-Arian bishops, and they constantly leaned on his teaching authority to explain their bizarre ideas. Then they leaned on Paulus’ sophist rhetorical techniques to confuse the issues.
During this time, it was still customary for the Church to observe the disciplina arcani, a reverent concealment from the unbaptized of the really big doctrines of the Faith, which also entailed the departure of unbaptized persons from Mass before the Liturgy of the Eucharist could begin. There was a great deal of zeal for evangelization by pious pastors, but a great deal of reluctance to argue sacred doctrines in public, and thus drag God’s family matters through the mud. It was very difficult for people who knew better to argue against heresies, under these conditions. It was also tragically easy for glib Arians to drag unbaptized Christians into their groups, because they were willing to publicly “explain” the mysteries not yet revealed to them. There were also a lot of Christian academics running around who were perfectly willing to “explain” the Bible in some very loose, undemanding ways. People didn’t know who to believe.
Newman quotes Tertullian about similar practices among the Gnostics:
“It is uncertain… who among them is catechumen, who believer. They meet alike, they hear alike, they pray alike; nay, though the heathen should drop in, they will cast holy things to dogs, and their pearls, false jewels as they are, to swine. This overthrow of order they call simplicity, and our attention to it they call meretricious embellishment. They [receive Communion] with all men promiscuously; it being nothing to them in what they differ from them, provided they join with them for the destruction of the truth. They are all high-minded; all make pretence of knowledge. Their catechumens are perfect in the faith before they are fully taught.”
(De praescriptione haereticorum, 41.)
Newman explains why strong debate suddenly had to become a big thing for orthodox Catholics:
“Under these circumstances, it was the duty of the rulers of the Church, at whatever sacrifice of their feelings, to discuss the subject in controversy fully and unreservedly, and to state their decision openly. The only alternative was an unmanly non-interference, and an arbitrary or treacherous prohibition of the discussion. To enjoin silence on perplexed inquirers, is not to silence their thoughts; and in the case of serious minds, it is but natural to turn to the spiritual ruler for advice and relief, and to feel disappointment at the timidity, or irritation at the harshness, of those who refuse to lead a lawful inquiry which they cannot stifle. Such a course, then, is most unwise as well as cruel, inasmuch as it throws the question in dispute upon other arbitrators; or rather, it is more commonly insincere, the traitorous act of those who care little for the question in dispute, and are content that opinions should secretly prevail which they profess to condemn.”
Some people tried to create harmony in the Church by finding some formula that everybody could agree upon. That didn’t work.
“To attempt comprehensions of opinion, amiable as the motive frequently is, is to mistake arrangements of words, which have no existence except on paper, for habits which are realities; and ingenious generalizations of discordant sentiments for that practical agreement which alone can lead to co-operation…
…there are no two opinions so contrary to each other, but some form of words may be found vague enough to comprehend them both.”
Newman also talks about why people who don’t really care about God or religion would try to impose a certain creed on other people who do love God, or would work so hard to find mental evasions around the truth. (Bolding mine.)
“It may at first sight excite our surprise, that men who were so little careful to be consistent in their professions of faith, should be at the pains to find evasions for a test, which they might have subscribed as a matter of course, and then dismissed from their thoughts. But, not to mention the natural desire of continuing an opposition to which they had once committed themselves, and especially after a defeat, there is, moreover, that in religious mysteries which is ever distasteful to secular minds. The marvellous, which is sure to excite the impatience and resentment of the baffled reason, becomes insupportable when found in those solemn topics, which it would fain look upon, as necessary indeed for the uneducated, but irrelevant when addressed to those who are already skilled in the knowledge and the superficial decencies of virtue. The difficulties of science may be dismissed from the mind, and virtually forgotten; the precepts of morality, imperative as they are, may be received with the condescension, and applied with the modifications, of a self-applauding refinement. But what at once demands attention, yet refuses to satisfy curiosity, places itself above the human mind, imprints on it the thought of Him who is eternal, and enforces the necessity of obedience for its own sake. And thus it becomes to the proud and irreverent, what the consciousness of guilt is to the sinner: a spectre haunting the field, and disturbing the complacency, of their intellectual investigations….
“…it is not wonderful, that those, who would confine our knowledge of God to things seen, should dislike to hear of His true and only Image. If the unbeliever has attempted to account for the rise of the doctrine, by the alleged natural growth of a veneration for the Person and acts of the Redeemer, let it at least be allowed to Christians to reverse the process of argument, and to maintain rather, that a low estimation of the evangelical blessings leads to unworthy conceptions of the Author of them. In the case of laymen it will show itself in a sceptical neglect of the subject of religion altogether; while ecclesiastics, on whose minds religion is forced, are tempted either to an undue exaltation of their order, or to a creed dishonourable to their Lord.”
Newman also talks about the Semi-Arians. Some of them were good Christians who were just confused, and some of them became saints and martyrs. But others were pretty nasty customers. One of the more interesting cases was St. Mark of Arethusa, a Semi-Arian bishop who once saved the life of young Julian the Apostate when some of the imperial family wanted to murder him along with his family. When Julian became Emperor, he learned that St. Mark had once pulled down a pagan temple. Julian condemned his savior, but “only” demanded that Mark rebuild the temple at his own or Church expense. Revolted by the very idea, St. Mark fled. People from his diocese were taken hostage against his return. St. Mark came back, and now the Emperor’s rescuer was to be treated like his enemy. He was scourged, had his beard torn out, was tortured in many ways, and then was dipped in honey, suspended in a net hanging from a frame, and thus was exposed while totally naked to all kinds of biting and stinging insects. While refusing to donate even one piece of gold to rebuild a pagan temple, he bore his sufferings bravely and humorously, and eventually was freed.
There’s a lot of good stuff here. There’s the discussion of how Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria let Arius get out of hand:
“In a public meeting of the clergy of Alexandria, [Arius] accused his diocesan of Sabellianism; an insult which Alexander, from deference to the talents and learning of the objector, sustained with somewhat too little of the dignity befitting “the ruler of the people.” The mischief which ensued from his misplaced meekness was considerable. Arius was one of the public preachers of Alexandria; and, as some suppose, Master of the Catechetical School. Others of the city Presbyters were stimulated by his example to similar irregularities. Colluthus, Carponas, and Sarmatas began to form each his own party in a Church which Meletius had already troubled; and Colluthus went so far as to promulgate an heretical doctrine, and to found a sect. Still hoping to settle these disorders without the exercise of his episcopal power, Alexander summoned a meeting of his clergy, in which Arius was allowed to state his doctrines freely, and to argue in their defence; and, whether from a desire not to overbear the discussion, or from distrust in his own power of accurately expressing the truth, and anxiety about the charge of heresy brought against himself, the Primate, though in no wise a man of feeble mind, is said to have refrained from committing himself on the controverted subject, “applauding,” as Sozomen tells us, “sometimes the one party, sometimes the other.” At length the error of Arius appeared to be of so serious and confirmed a nature, that countenance of it would have been sinful. It began to spread beyond the Alexandrian Church; the indecision of Alexander excited the murmurs of the Catholics; till, called unwillingly to the discharge of a severe duty, he gave public evidence of his real indignation against the blasphemies which he had so long endured, by excommunicating Arius with his followers.”
There’s a long discussion about why Emperor Constantine got fooled by the Arians into thinking that their theological differences were no big deal. I’ll only quote part of it:
“Concord is so eminently the perfection of the Christian temper, conduct, and discipline, and it had been so wonderfully exemplified in the previous history of the Church, that it was almost unavoidable in a heathen soldier and statesman to regard it as the sole precept of the Gospel.”
Here’s a really good bit about why the Church gets mixed up in politics:
“Strictly speaking, the Christian Church, as being a visible society, is necessarily a political power or party. It may be a party triumphant, or a party under persecution; but a party it always must be, prior in existence to the civil institutions with which it is surrounded, and from its latent divinity formidable and influential, even to the end of time. The grant of permanency was made in the beginning, not to the mere doctrine of the Gospel, but to the Association itself built upon the doctrine; in prediction, not only of the indestructibility of Christianity, but of the medium also through which it was to be manifested to the world. Thus the Ecclesiastical Body is a divinely-appointed means, towards realizing the great evangelical blessings. Christians depart from their duty, or become in an offensive sense political, not when they act as members of one community, but when they do so for temporal ends or in an illegal manner; not when they assume the attitude of a party, but when they split into many. If the primitive believers did not interfere with the acts of the civil government, it was merely because they had no civil rights enabling them legally to do so. But where they have rights, the case is different; and the existence of a secular spirit is to be ascertained, not by their using these, but their using them for ends short of the ends for which they were given.
“…In truth, the Church was framed for the express purpose of interfering, or (as irreligious men will say) meddling with the world. It is the plain duty of its members, not only to associate internally, but also to develop that internal union in an external warfare with the spirit of evil, whether in Kings’ courts or among the mixed multitude; and, if they can do nothing else, at least they can suffer for the truth, and remind men of it, by inflicting on them the task of persecution.”
I’m still reading the book, but Arians of the Fourth Century is excellent. You can download a nice PDF from archive.org, or you can read it over at Newman Reader.