Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Gwatkin on Athanasius

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:

  1. It is a common saying that every heretic has his text (and thus is in some degree biblicist), but it is striking that to a large degree it was the Arians who were traditionalists and conservatives. ὁμοούσιος was a new word, “not sanctioned by tradition,” and the Arian party attempted to take refuge in this fact. Not that this meant that Athanasius and others couldn’t make their case on the ground of alternative tradition; they could. But that was not their primary forum for argument. It served only as supplementary evidence.
  2. That primary forum was the exegesis of the Bible. It seems to me that Gwatkin is absolutely correct in saying that the works of Athanasius “are one continuous appeal to Scripture.” I’ve found that even when Athanasius says something that sounds pretty weird, you can usually see what he’s up to by figuring out what passage of Scripture he’s attempting to gloss.
  3. Gwatkin is of course correct that both sides in the debate treated Scripture as an, or even the, authority, but there was a difference in how they did this. That is to say, when it came to a new, and disputed, term not found in the Bible, the Arians took refuge in “tradition,” to bar its use and its necessity (e.g., Antioch had condemned the use of ὁμοούσιος). Athanasius, on the other hand, endeavored to show how the doctrine was required by Scripture, which in turn sanctioned the use of the term, and then used “tradition” as a secondary authority to bolster his case (e.g., its use by previous authorities such as Theognostus and Dionysius of Alexandria). One might refer to this view as “tradition as handmaid.” The point is nicely made in a remark by Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier in a quotation I recently saw in a friend’s Twitter feed and then tracked down: “The church is a creature of the word, and its life is an embodiment of the word rightly received. Tradition plays the role of moon to Scripture’s sun: what light (and authority) tradition bears is derivative, ministerial, a true if dim reflection of the light of Christ that shines forth from the canon that cradles him.”
  4. This is obviously superior to the rather wooden mode of argument used by the Arians, as summarized by Gwatkin. It was not (or should not have been) the term itself that was of chief importance, but its meaning (that is, res is more important than signum). Just because a particular council condemned a particular word for particular reasons does not render that word forever inadmissible. N.b. the final bit of the quotation: “while Paul of Samosata used the word in one sense, Arius denied it in another.” A good parallel example here is the anathema of Nicaea in 325, which reads Τοὺς δὲ λέγοντας, ὅτι ἦν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν, καὶ πρὶν γεννηθῆναι οὐκ ἦν, καὶ ὅτι ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων ἐγένετο, ἢ ἐξ ἑτέρας ὑποστάσεως ἢ οὐσίας φάσκοντας εἶναι, [ἢ κτιστόν,] τρεπτὸν ἢ ἀλλοιωτὸν τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, [τούτους] ἀναθεματίζει ἡ καθολικὴ [καὶ ἀποστολικὴ] ἐκκλησία, thus treating hypostasis and ousia as synonymous and condemning those who affirm the Son’s hypostatic difference from the Father. It would of course later become essential to orthodoxy to affirm that very thing, but the word hypostasis here does not mean what it later meant. Likewise, the question isn’t whether the term homoousios is somehow absolutely and in every instance useful or faithful, but whether, with a certain specified meaning, it expressed a doctrine that is required by the canonical witness. Athanasius was able to see this, at least by the 350s when he began to vigorously defend the homoousios, and this makes him exemplary with respect to the profitable use of both Scripture and tradition.
  1. Per a search of the book via the Amazon preview, which yields more occurrences than a search on Google Books.
  2. Hanson here appears to follow the judgment of Gwatkin himself, who writes, “Of Newman’s Arians of the Fourth Century let it suffice to say that his theories have always been scrupulously examined; so that if they have not often been accepted, it is only because there is usually good reason for rejecting them.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.