It almost goes without saying that the state of play in the study of the fourth century Arian controversy has undergone a sea change over the course of the last century. This might lead one to conclude that the older writers are no longer worth reading.
But that conclusion would be a mistake. To draw a parallel example: Peter Brown is usually credited–rightly–with inventing, like an impresario, the field of “late antiquity.” But do you know who still sets the agenda for the study of the period? Edward Gibbon. And Gibbon is, in any event, still worth reading if for no other reason than his prose.
In the study of Arianism, a figure who occupies, or ought to occupy, a similar (though of course lesser–there is only one Gibbon) rank is the English historian HM Gwatkin. Here is one index of his importance: in RPC Hanson’s huge tome The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Gwatkin receives two entries in the list of abbreviations–which is to say, his two books on Arianism remain important enough to merit shortlisting–and in addition is mentioned another 59 times in the book (not including the index and bibliography). 1 As a comparandum: can you guess how many times one encounters the name of another English historian of Arianism, one who remains much more well known than Gwatkin, viz., John Henry Newman? Three. 2
On pp. 47-8 of Studies of Arianism, in treating the Arian party’s (I use the singular for the sake of simplicity) objections to the homoousios, Gwatkin writes:
[According to the Arians,] [t]he use of ὁμοούσιος is contrary to tradition, having been condemned by the council of Antioch in 269 against Paul of Samosata. It is not clear whether he used the word or not; but the council certainly rejected it. The danger from the Manichean side had not passed away in 325; but this the Arians had already urged. Their insistence on the fact apart from the motives of the decision at Antioch was an appeal from Scripture to tradition. In fact, it is not too much to say that the victors at Nicaea leaned on Scripture, the Arians on tradition. Both sides indeed accepted Scripture as the paramount authority; but when the interpretation of Scripture was disputed, it became a question whether a word not sanctioned by tradition could be rightly made a test of orthodoxy. If tradition gave them a foothold (and none could deny it), the Arians thought themselves entitled to stay in the church. If Scripture condemned them (and there could be no doubt of that), Athanasius thought himself bound to turn them out. His works are one continuous appeal to Scripture. In this case his principal argument is that if the word ὁμοούσιος is not found in Scripture, the doctrine is. This was enough; but if the Arians referred to tradition, they might be met on that ground also. Athanasius claims the authority of Origen and Theognostus, and shews that even the incautious Dionysius of Alexandria freely recognized the disputed word when it was pressed upon him by his Roman namesake. With regard to its rejection by the Syrian churches, he refuses all mechanical comparisons of numbers or antiquity between the councils of Antioch and Nicaea, and endeavours to shew that while Paul of Samosata used the word in one sense, Arius denied it in another.
There are a few things worth commenting on in this brief passage: