Saturday, July 07, 2007

Ten Interesting Facts About the Struggle for the Nicene Faith

1. Constantine's initial solution to the Arian controversy was to send a letter (in 324) to Alexander of Alexandria and Arius stating that the issue being debated amounted to a minor difference over a point of detail.

2. The idea for dealing with the Arian controversy in an "ecumenical" council came from Hosius of Cordova, who on his return from dropping off Constantine's letter, presided over a council in Antioch which installed Eustathius, an anti-Arian, and issued a rather clumsy confession of faith that proclaimed the Logos "begotten not from non-existence but from the Father, not as made but as properly an offspring."

3. In 325, Constantine invited every bishop of the empire to convene at Nicaea, over 1800 in all, at the empire's expense. However, only about three hundred (the traditional number is 318) actually attended, and only six from the West.

4. Three disparate parties were represented at Nicaea: (1) Arius' supporters, the most prominent being Eusebius of Nicodemia; (2) Alexander's supporters, such as Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus of Ancyra; and (3) those holding a "conservative" subordinationist position (as taught by Origen), by far the largest contingent, among them Eusebius of Caesarea. Many from this last party were at the time, or would eventually become, sympathizers of Arius.

5. All but two bishops signed the creed, wishing to keep the emperor happy. Yet many expressed suspicion that the creed's language -- particularly the term homoousios -- implied or outright taught the error of modalistic monarchianism. And, indeed, the views of at least one of the creed's prominent fervent supporters, Marcellus of Ancyra, were implicitly monarchian.

6. Eusebius of Nicodemia was exiled shortly after the Council of Nicaea for communicating Arius, but was recalled by Constantine in 328 to become bishop of the imperial capital and Constantine's principle advisor in the process. From this position, he labored to reestablish the dominance of the Eastern subordinationist position, undermining the Nicene formula (under Constantine's nose). Eusebius managed to depose and exile Alexander's successor, Athanasius, on trumped up charges, and Marcellus of Ancyra.

7. After Constantine's death, the depositions of Athanasius and Marcellus would lead to a schism between the East and the West when both bishops appealed to Julius of Rome. Eastern bishops gathered in Antioch in 341 to repudiate Arianism, disavow Rome's right to act as a court of appeal, and assert a subordinationist view of the Logos over against the alleged monarchianism implied by the Nicene symbol. The Latin church convened a separate council at Sardica, from which the Greeks withdrew when Athanasius and Marcellus were invited to sit, where they insisted that there is but one hypostasis of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (ousia and hypostasis were not yet distinct terms).

8. The efforts of Emperor Constantius (Constantine's son) to enforce a non-committal imperial orthodoxy led to the Council of Sirmium's (357) prohibition of terms such as ousia and homoousios, effectively repudiating the Nicene formula. This made room for a revival of "Arianism" in various forms, such as the Homoean party (from homoios, asserting that the Son is "like" the Father), the Anomoeans (who held that the Son was "unlike" the Father), and, lastly, those who insisted that the Son was not only "like" the Father, but "like in respect of substance" (the Homoiousian party).

9. The efforts of Athanasius from 359 to achieve reconciliation between the Homoousian and the Homoiousian parties opened the way to a fresh reappraisal of the Nicene symbol. The pro-Arian policies of Constantius II (and fifth and final exile of Athanasius) further encouraged the budding alliance between the two parties. From this alliance a "new Nicene party" would emerge, eventually finding worthy leadership in Basil of Caesarea (in Cappadocia) and Miletius of Antioch. Basil's brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, would also contribute their theological acumen to the Nicene cause. (These three would come to be known as the Cappadocian Fathers.)

10. Differences between the "old" Nicenes (West) and "new" Nicenes (East) continued to persist for a time, including uncertainty as to the divine status of the Holy Spirit. The differences would be resolved by the Cappadocians' ingenious distinction between the terms ousia and hypostasis in their articulation of the Trinity. The Council of Constantinople in 381 marked the final triumph of Nicene orthodoxy. Intriguingly, while condemning the Pneumatomachi ("Spirit-fighters"), the council did not insist on using homoousios to describe the Holy Spirit's relation to the Father, in deference to the few remaining Homoiousians.

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