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Instances have already occurred, of the line of conduct pursued by Athanasius in ecclesiastical matters. Deliberate apostasy and systematic heresy were the objects of his implacable opposition ; but in his behaviour towards individuals, and in his judgment of the inconsistent, whether in conduct or creed, he evinces an admirable tenderness and forbearance. Not only did he reluctantly abandon his associate, the unfortunate Marcellus, on his sabellianizing, but he even makes favourable notice of the Semi-Arians, hostile to him both in word and deed, who rejected the orthodox test, and had confirmed against him personally at Philippopolis, the verdict of the commission at the Mareotis. When bishops of his own party, as Liberius of Rome, were induced to excommunicate him, far from resenting it, he speaks of them with a temper and candour, which, as displayed in the heat of controversy, evidences an enlarged prudence, to say nothing of Christian charity*. It is this union of opposite excellences, firmness with discrimination and discretion, which is the characteristic praise of Athanasius: as well as of several of his predecessors in the See of Alexandria. The hundred years, preceding his episcopate, had given scope to the enlightened zeal of Dionysius, and the patient resoluteness of Alexander. On the other hand, when we look around at the other more conspicuous champions of orthodoxy of his time, much as we must revere and bless their
4 Athan. de Syn. 41. Apol. contr. Arian. 89. Hist. Arian, ad Monach. 41, 42.
memory, yet as regards this maturity and completeness of character, they are far inferior to Athanasius. The noble-minded Hilary was intemperate in his language, and assailed Constantius with an asperity unbecoming a dutiful subject. The fiery Bishop of Cagliari, exemplary as is his self-devotion, so openly showed his desire for martyrdom, as to lead the Emperor to exercise towards him a contemptuous forbearance. Eusebius of Vercellæ negotiated in the Councils, with a subtlety bordering on Arian insincerity. From these deficiencies of character Athanasius was exempt; and on the occasion which has given rise to these remarks, he had especial need of the combination of gifts, which has made his name immortal in the Church.
The question of the arianizing bishops was one of much difficulty. They were in possession of the Churches; and could not be deposed, if at all, without the risk of a permanent schism. It is evident, moreover, from the foregoing narrative, how many had been betrayed into an approval of the Arian opinions, without understanding or acting upon them. This was particularly the case in the West, where threats and ill-usage, had been more or less substituted for those fallacies, which the Latin language scarcely admitted. And even in the remote Greek Churches, there was much of that devout and unsuspecting simplicity, which was the easy sport of the supercilious sophistry of the Eusebians. This was the case with the father of Gregory Nazianzen; who, being persuaded to receive the Acacian confession of Constantinople (A.D. 359, 360), on the ground of its unmixed scripturalness, found himself suddenly deserted
by a large portion of his flock, and was extricated from the charge of heresy, only by the dexterity of his learned son. Indeed, to many of the Arianizing bishops, may be applied the remarks, which Hilary makes upon the laity subjected to Arian teaching; that their own piety enabled them to interpret expressions religiously, which were originally invented as evasions of the orthodox doctrines.
And even in parts of the East, where a much clearer perception of the difference between truth and error existed, it must have been an extreme difficulty to such of the orthodox as lived among Arians, to determine, in what way best to accomplish duties, which were in opposition to each other. The same obligation of Christian unity, which was the apology for the laity who remained, as at Antioch, in communion with an Arian bishop, would lead to a similar recognition of his authority by clergy or bishops who were ecclesiastically subordinate to him. Thus Cyril of Jerusalem, who was in no sense either Anomaan or Eusebian, received consecration from the hands of his metropolitan Acacius; and St. Basil, surnamed the Great, the vigorous champion of orthodoxy against the Emperor Valens, attended the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 359, 360), as a deacon, in the train of his namesake Basil, the leader of the Semi-Arians.
On the other hand, it was scarcely safe to leave the deliberate heretic in possession of his spiritual power. Many bishops too were but the creatures of the times,
5 “Sanctiores sunt aures plebis,” he says, “quàm corda sacerdotum.” Bull, Defens. epilog. [Vide infr. Append. No. 5.]
raised up from the lowest of the people, and deficient in the elementary qualifications of learning and sobriety. Even those, who had but conceded to the violence of others, were the objects of a just suspicion; since, frankly as they now joined the Athanasians, they had already shown as much interest and reliance in the opposite party.
Swayed by these latter considerations, some of the assembled prelates advocated the adoption of harsh measures towards the Arianizers, considering that their deposition was due both to the injured dignity and to the safety of the Catholic Church. Athanasius, however, proposed a more temperate policy; and his influence was sufficient to triumph over the excitement of mind which commonly accompanies a deliverance from persecution. A decree was passed, that such bishops as had communicated with the Arians through weakness or surprise, should be recognized in their respective sees, on their signing the Nicene formulary; but that those, who had publicly defended the heresy, should only be admitted to lay-communion. No act could evince more clearly than this, that it was no party interest, but the ascendancy of the orthodox doctrine itself, which was the aim of the Athanasians. They allowed the power of the Church to remain in the hands of men indifferent to the interests of themselves, on their return to that faith, which they had denied through fear; and their ability to force on the Arianizers this condition, evidences what they might have done, had they chosen to make an appeal against the more culpable of them to the clergy and laity of their respective churches, and to create and
send out bishops to supply their places. But they desired
peace, as soon as the interests of truth were secured; and their magnanimous decision was forthwith adopted by Councils held at Rome, in Spain, Gaul, and Achaia. The state of Asia was less satisfactory. As to Antioch, its fortunes will immediately engage our attention. Phrygia and the Proconsulate were in the hands of the Semi-Arians and Macedonians; Thrace and Bithynia, controlled by the Imperial Metropolis, were the stronghold of the Eusebian or Court faction,
The history of the Church of Antioch affords an illustration of the general disorders of the East at this period, and of the intention of the sanative measure passed at Alexandria respecting them. Eustathius, its Bishop, one of the principal Nicene champions, had been an early victim of Eusebian malice, being deposed on calumnious charges, A.D. 331. A series of Arian prelates succeeded ; some of whom, Stephen, Leontius, and Eudoxius, have been commemorated in the foregoing pages. The Catholics of Antioch had disagreed among themselves, how to act under these circumstances. Some, both clergy and laity, refusing the communion of heretical teachers, had holden together for the time, as a distinct body, till the cause of truth should regain its natural supremacy ; while others had admitted the usurping succession, which the Imperial will forced upon the Church. When Athanasius passed through Antioch on his return from his second exile (A.D. 348), he had acknowledged the
6 Vide supra, p. 288.