The Construction of a Heresy

26 Oct

I have a hard time communicating to people why reading about and studying (it isn’t formal but while I’m not a historian I do consider what I do to be studying) history is such a passion of mine. Apparently my physical appearance doesn’t lead people to think of me as someone who spends a great deal of his spare time reading. As an example, a few months ago at a department meeting a young lady decided we had enough recent hires that we needed to do something to get to know each other better. She arranged a mixer which was patterned on speed dating where people switched seats every couple of minutes after chatting with each other. When she reached my table and I explained my history interest; this blog, conferences I go to, etc., her immediate response was, “I never would have dreamed that – I always thought of you as someone who did guy things.” On follow up those “guy things” would have included hunting and fishing. Now I don’t know why reading history can’t be a guy thing but I’m sure she left the chair puzzled as to why history fascinates me so much. I recently came across something which I hope can provide an example.

In my last post I mentioned how David Gwynn discussed Athanasius’ role in portraying Arianism and its adherents as a cohesive group which held to a fairly uniform set of beliefs. I recently finished Sara Parvis, Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, 325-345 which revises this even further. This is a good book which provides a detailed look at the religious conflicts in the two decades following Nicaea, including examining dates of various sources and Church Councils, the makeup and purposes of the respective Councils, and the gradual hardening of opinions during this period. Definitely not for beginners and I imagine a lot of what Parvis has to say is controversial but she does provide detailed arguments though in many cases she is forced to rely on her sense of logic rather than actual evidence which is always hazardous.

Anyway, on page 180 she has a subheading titled, The invention of Arianism. I don’t think I can explain how delighted I was when I came across this. If I could, I could provide a solution to the problem I stated in my first sentence of this post. All I can say is that while I didn’t literally skip across my living room or break into a dance or anything, it wouldn’t have taken much to get me there. Never mind that it blasted yet another hole into one of my preconceptions from when I first started seriously reading up on early Christianity. This isn’t the first point in this where I’ve discovered I was wrong, though so far I think it may be my largest error.

Icon from the Mégalo Metéoron Monastery in Greece, representing the First Ecumenical Council of Nikea 325 A.D., with the condemned Arius in the bottom of the icon.
Image from the Mégalo Metéoron Monastery in Greece. This representation of the 325 Council of Nicaea shows Arius as condemned, kneeling beneath Constantine. The Monastery was constructed in the mid-14th century (I don’t have detailed information on the date of the image) so this is a nice example of how Arius came to be portrayed, not of his actual role or status in the controversies. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In essence, Parvis argues that there was no such thing as Arianism before about 340. Arius was a figure in the struggle over Orthodoxy but a minor one. Instead, during the period of Athanasius’ second exile (339-346) he and Marcellus created Arianism as a tool in what was primarily a political struggle between Eusebius of Nicomedia and his allies, and Athanasius, Marcellus, and Julius of Rome. This struggle became enmeshed in the conflicts between Constantius and Constans over rule of the Empire (or rule over parts of it anyway).

After Marcellus and Athanasius spent their year together in Rome, however, a new animal arises in the writings of both: the full-blown Arian heresy, modelled on the constructs of the old heresiologies, with its diabolical initiative, its roots in previous heresies or philosophies, and its single male heresiarch with his malignant followers, who propagate theological perversions with great vigour, persecute the orthodox, and, most importantly of all, have been clearly condemned by the Church. p. 181. 1

Parvis’ discussion of this covers pages 180-199 and there’s no way I can completely cover her argument. However there are some interesting pieces of evidence which support this. First is Nicaea itself. The 325 Council, while condemning those who deny the Son’s eternity, or who believe he is of a different essence than the Father, does not anathematize them. They are wrong, but still in communion with the Church. 2

It is also interesting that Nicaea does not name Arius or Arians. This has to wait for the Council of Constantinople in 381, following the lead of Theodosius earlier that year where he decreed that the Nicene faith was the only proper one. 3

Then there are the various creeds published by the Eusebian party over the years. As I mentioned in my previous post, most of these are not Arian. Some, such as the Fourth Creed of Antioch, are very close to orthodox. But Athanasius condemns them all as Arian (almost all anyway), however distinct they are from “classical” Arianism. 4 And above all, there is the difference in Athanasius’ writings, from spending over 10 years discussing doctrinal issues with barely a mention of Arius, to this sudden, concerted expression of a well-developed heretical doctrine.

Why Arius? Why did Athanasius and Marcellus name their heresy after him? He was a presbyter, not a bishop. As the Eusebian party said from Antioch, “We have not been followers of Arians – how could Bishops, such as we, follow a presbyter?” 5 Now there’s no evidence, just my opinion, but it seems likely that Arius was more of a convenient target than anything. He was a figure in all of this but bishops such as Eusebius or Asterius were far more prominent. However they were also closely allied with Constantius. It would have been hard to go after them without implying that the Emperor was guilty by association. The fact that Arius was dead by this time couldn’t have hurt either. And claiming that a group of bishops were basing their direction based on a presbyter would further discredit them.

In essence, after Athanasius and Marcellus were exiled, they started to play hardball. They created a specific target, Arius, and helped define his doctrine. The rhetoric increased in volume and intensity and, in Athanasius’ case, the Creed of Nicaea came to be used as a weapon. Whatever the Eusebian party came up with, even if it might be able to be considered orthodox, it wasn’t Nicene and Athanasius was there to contest it. While there was a theological dispute, the real conflict was a political one where the Eusebians contested with the Athanasian party for control of the Church. Arianism was crafted as a weapon.

An interesting aside in all of this is the role of Constantine. His intervention and what seems to be a search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict ended up dragging things out for another four decades. Now maybe the Alexandrian party wouldn’t have achieved a decisive victory at Nicaea but if they had the battle over orthodoxy (and the political one for control of the Church) might have been over much more quickly. And within a few months of Nicaea, Constantine had done an about-face and was supporting the Eusebians. Too bad he didn’t keep a diary to let us know what he was thinking. I can almost read it:

Dear Diary, Friggin’ bishops. Alexander wants to kick half of them out of their sees and for what – over a disagreement about a few words? I don’t have time for this mess. I just finished with Licinius and who knows how many pissed off leftovers of his are running around. The Persians are still acting up and Mom tells me that my son and my wife are getting it on with each other every chance they get. I don’t have the time to replace 90 bishops and deal with everything that would cause. Better to come up with a solution and get ’em off each others’ necks.

So this is what I call fun, discovering something completely new. It’s also, I think, evidence of how poorly read I am in this area. I have a feeling what Parvis is discussing isn’t new – it may even be the mainstream opinion. But it was new to me. Her argument is persuasive though I have to guard myself from being overly willing to adopt opinions which point to increasing historical complexity. And there are a bunch of specifics she offers which must be points of disagreement among the scholarly community. If I wanted to, I could dive into several more books and probably a dozen journal articles to refine my thinking further. Actually I do want to, but I won’t. I’ve spent nearly a year tracing back from the end of the 4th century and am only now at the Council of Nicaea. If I’m ever going to read back to the origins of Christianity and then return to the 5th and 6th centuries, I can’t go into a detailed investigation of every issue, however interesting I find it.

1 Parvis believes Athanasius and Marcellus spent 340 together in Rome.

2 Parvis believes that Nicaea would not have been viewed as a victory by Alexander of Alexandria and his party. She argues that he and his group had been working toward an ecumenical council which would prove decisive in the adoption of their doctrine. Instead, the Eusebian group, while told to set aside their doctrine, continue as members of the Church and are allowed to retain positions of influence.

3 For Theodosius’ law, see Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History VII.4. Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History V.9 preserves the synodal letter of the Council of Constantinople while Socrates Scholasticus’ Ecclesiatical History V.8 provides a summary of the Council.

4 We should be very grateful to Athanasius for preserving the various creeds developed by the Eusebian party. His de Synodis 25.2-5 provides the text of this creed.

5 From Athanasius, de Synodis 22.

Gwynn, David M., Athanasius of Alexander: Bishop, Theologian, Ascetic, Father. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-19-921095-4.

Parvis, Sara, Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, 325-345. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19928-0131.

Robertson, Archibald, ed., Select Writings and Letters of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series 4. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012). ISBN (for 14-volume set): 978-1-56563-116-8.


Posted by on October 26, 2012 in Historiography, Religion


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5 responses to “The Construction of a Heresy

  1. Kathleen Neal

    October 31, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks Curt for bringing this book to my attention. The arguments about how heresy is not only a theological but also a political and rhetorical issue will be really useful next time I have to teach early Christianity. (And I love the idea of Constantine’s diary… It would make a great tutorial exercise I think!)

    • Curt Emanuel

      November 1, 2012 at 6:35 pm

      Thanks Kathy. I found it interesting. Too bad the Oxford Early Christianity books are so high. Not as bad as Brill though. BTW, I like your word of the day post idea – I mean, fissiparous? Heck, I have trouble with words like soteriological.

      • Kathleen Neal

        November 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm

        Had to look that one up too, even though I know I’ve read it before…
        BTW – Kath is fine, or Kathleen, but somehow I’ve never really been a ‘Kathy’; don’t know why.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    November 2, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    Sorry about that – I don’t know why I thought of you as a Kathy – I don’t usually take such liberties. What’s scary (not about your name or my missing it) is I’m not sure religion was more prominent in 4th century politics than it is today in the US. Ugh.


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