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COUNCILS AFTER THE REIGN OF CONSTANTIUS.
THE COUNCIL OF ALEXANDRIA IN THE REIGN OF
The accession of Julian was followed by a general restoration of the banished Bishops; and all eyes throughout Christendom were at once turned towards Alexandria, as the Church, which, by its sufferings and its indomitable spirit, had claim to be the arbiter of doctrine, and the guarantee of peace to the Catholic world. Athanasius, as the story goes, was, on the death of his persecutor, suddenly found on his episcopal throne in one of the Churches of Alexandria'; a legend, happily expressive of the unwearied activity and almost ubiquity of that extraordinary man, who, while a price was set on his head, mingled unperceived in the proceedings at Seleucia and Ariminum’, and directed the movements of
his fellow-labourers by his writings, when he was debarred the exercise of his dexterity in debate, and his persuasive energy in private conversation. He was soon joined by his fellow-exile, Eusebius of Vercellæ ; Lucifer, who had journeyed with the latter from the Upper Thebaid, on his return to the West, having gone forward to Antioch on business which will presently be explained. Meanwhile, no time was lost in holding a Council at Alexandria (A.D. 362) on the general state of the Church.
The object of Julian in recalling the banished Bishops, was the renewal of those dissensions, by means of toleration, which Constantius had endeavoured to terminate by force. He knew these prelates to be of various opinions, Semi- Arians, Macedonians, Anomeans, as well as orthodox; and, determining to be neuter himself, he waited with the satisfaction of an Eclectic for the event; being persuaded, that Christianity could not withstand the shock of parties, not less discordant, and far more zealous, than the sects of philosophy. It is even said that he “invited to his palace the leaders of the hostile sects, that he might enjoy the agreeable spectacle of their furious encounters 3.” But, in indulging such anticipations of overthrowing Christianity, he but displayed his own ignorance of the foundation on which it was built. It could scarcely be conceived, that an unbeliever, educated among heretics, would understand the vigour and indestructibility of the true Christian spirit; and Julian fell into the error, to which in all ages men of the world are exposed, of mistaking whatever shows itself on the surface of the Apostolic Community, its prominences and irregularities, all that is extravagant, and all that is transitory, for the real moving principle and life of the system. It is trying times alone that manifest the saints of God; but they live notwithstanding, and support the Church in their generation, though they remain in their obscurity. In the days of Arianism, indeed, they were in their measure, revealed to the world; still to such as Julian, they were unavoidably unknown, both in respect to their numbers and their divine gifts. The thousand of silent believers, who worshipped in spirit and in truth, were obscured by the tens and twenties of the various heretical factions, whose clamorous addresses besieged the Imperial Court; and Athanasius would be portrayed to Julian's imagination after the picture of his own preceptor, the time-serving and unscrupulous Eusebius. The event of his experiment refuted the opinion which led to it. The impartial toleration of all religious persuasions, malicious as was its intent, did but contribute to the ascendancy of the right faith; that faith, which is the only true aliment of the human mind, which can be held as a principle as well as an opinion, and which influences the heart to suffer and to labour for its sake.
3 Gibbon, ch. xxiii.
Of the subjects which engaged the notice of the Alexandrian Council, two only need here be mentioned; the treatment to be pursued towards the bishops, who had arianized in the reign of Constantius, and the settlement of the theological sense of the word Hypostasis. And here, of the former of these.
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 be 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