June 04, 2004

The strange example of Arius

Sometimes I should just shut up and keep reading. In Timothy D. Barnes' Constantine and Eusebius, he notes that in 332, the Emperor Constantine issued a letter declaring that Arians should be called Porphyrians, after the pagan writer whose works Constantine ordered to be burned. Constantine also ordered Arius' works to be burned, adding that anyone who defied the order by keeping a copy was liable to summary execution. (I noted the Porphyry business here.)

Arius, of course, was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Nicea in 325; in the interim, however (327), Constantine examined the heresiarch, pronounced his views orthodox, and ordered that he be returned to the Church. Athanasius refused, and, in 332, Arius fired off an angry letter threatened to create a schismatic Church. Hence Constantine's order, which, it appears from Barnes' treatment, was as much occasioned by Arius' impudence as it was by any theological controversy. Constantine demanded an interview with the heresiarch; Barnes notes that the outcome of the meeting is unkown, but Arius next turns up in 335 headed to Jerusalem to receive communion, suggesting that he had perhaps once again persuaded the emperor that his positions were orthodox, or that he had cleverly made his positions to appear so, or that he had recanted to Constantine's satisfaction.

A murky business, indeed -- while Arius was on his way to Jerusalem, Athanasius was charged by his theological opponents with various wrongdoing, including murdering a man who turned up alive, and was on the lam. Not quite the situation Pagels, who wrote...

By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offence. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed.

...describes, when the orthodox Athanasius was a fugitive from justice, and the heresiarch was offered communion in Jerusalem...

Note: thanks to Gary Farber for correcting my spelling -- for whatever reason, I usually invert the final e and o in "emperor" when I type it -- even when I'm typing in a passage from a book and have the word properly spelled in front of me.

Posted by Ideofact at June 4, 2004 11:41 PM

Emperor. The other is a heresy. :-)

Posted by: Gary Farber at June 7, 2004 05:09 PM

I don't know why, but "emperor" is one of those words I always, always spell wrong when I'm typing. I'd like to think I spell it preporly when I'm writing it out longhand, but the orrer has become so engrained that I'm not entirely sure I'd do it cerroctly with a pen. ;-)

Posted by: Bill at June 7, 2004 09:38 PM

Astounding...I'd heard that Constantine kept on trying to influence the discussion between Arius and the church councils, but I never knew this part of the story.

After scanning through the post, it is easy to see that each element of what Pagels writes has some factual backing.

--burning of heretical books
--criminal penalties for unlawful possession of such books
--use of the law against theological opponents

On the other hand, using these facts to support a description of a authoritarian church (sternly enforcing orthodoxy) looks a little suspect.

Posted by: steve h at June 8, 2004 04:55 PM

The picture, obviously, is more muddled than Pagels makes it out to be.

I can't tell if I'm being unfair to her or not -- in the Gnostic Gospels, she's written probably a 4,000 word introduction in which she tries to set up the context of the first four centuries of Christianity in which these texts appeared. Obviously, she has to characterize things, and the impression she leaves may not be entirely inaccurate.

Still, it seems to me (and I'm hardly an expert) that the texts she's championing had been marginalized decades before Constantine came to power, and probably as early as the time of Irenaeus, if not before.

Posted by: Bill at June 9, 2004 02:05 AM