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Eusebius of Nicomedia

Bishop, leader of the heresy of Arianism, place and date of birth unknown; d. 341

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Eusebius of Nicomedia, BISHOP, place and date of birth unknown; d. 341. He was a pupil, at Antioch, of Lucian the Martyr, in whose famous school he learned his Arian doctrines. He became Bishop of Berytus; but from ambitious motives he managed to get transferred, contrary to the canons of the early Church, to the see of Nicomedia, the residence of the Eastern Emperor Licinius, with whose wife Constantia, sister of Constantine, he was in high favor.

Arius, when he was condemned at Alexandria, by Alexander, bishop of that see, took refuge at Caesarea, where he was well received by the famous apologist and historian Eusebius, and wrote to Eusebius of Nicomedia for support. The letter is preserved. In it the heretic explains his views clearly enough, and appeals to his correspondent as to a “fellow Lucianist” Eusebius put himself at the head of the party, and wrote many letters in support of Arius. One is preserved, addressed to Paulinus, Bishop of Tyre. We learn from it what Eusebius’s doctrine was at this time: the Son, he says, is “not generated from the substance of the Father”, but He is “other in nature and power”; He was created, and this is not inconsistent with His Sonship, for the wicked are called sons of God (Is., i, 2; Deut., xxxii, 18) and so are even the drops of dew (Job, xxxviii, 28); He was begotten by God‘s free will. This is pure Arianism, borrowed from the letters of Arius himself, and possibly more definite than the doctrine of St. Lucian.

Alexander of Alexandria was obliged to address a circular to all bishops. He had hoped, he says, to cover the matter in silence, “but Eusebius, who is now at Nicomedia, considering the Church‘s affairs to be in his hands, because he has not been condemned for having left Berytus and for having coveted the Church of Nicomedia, is the leader of these apostates, and has sent round a document in their support, in order that he may seduce some of the ignorant into this disgraceful heresy.. If Eusebius should write to you, pay no attention”. Eusebius replied by assembling a council in his own province, which begged all the Eastern bishops to communicate with Arius, and to use their influence with Alexander in his favor. At the request of Arius, Eusebius of Caesarea and others met together in Palestine, and authorized him to return to the Church which he had governed in Alexandria.

The situation changed when Constantine had conquered Licinius in 323. The Christian emperor began by comprising Arius and Alexander in a common disapproval. Why could not they agree to differ about subtleties of this kind, as the philosophers did? A letter in this sense to the patriarch was ineffectual; so Constantine preferred the side of authority, and wrote an angry rebuke to Arius. In the case of the Donatists, he had obtained a decision from a “general” council, at Arles, of all the bishops of his then dominions. He now summoned a larger council, from the world of which his victorious arms had made him master. It met at Nicaea in 325. The bishops were nearly all Easterns; but a Western bishop, Hosius of Cordova, who was in the emperor’s confidence, took a leading part, and the pope was represented. Constantine ostentatiously declared that his duty at the council went no further than the guardianship of the bishops, but Eusebius of Caesarea makes it clear that he spoke on the theological question. The Bishop of Nicomedia and his friends put forward an Arian confession of faith, but it had only about seventeen supporters from among some three hundred members of the council, and it was hooted by the majority. The formula which was eventually adopted was resisted for some time by the Arian contingent, but eventually all the bishops signed, with the exception of the two Egyptians who had been before excommunicated by Alexander.

Eusebius of Nicomedia had bad luck. Though he had signed the creed, he had not agreed to the condemnation of Arius, who had been, so he said, misrepresented; and after the council he encouraged in their heresy some Arians whom Constantine had invited to Constantinople with a view to their conversion. Three months after the council, the Emperor sent him like Arius into exile, together with Theognis, Bishop of Nicaea, accusing him of having been a supporter of Licinius, and of having even approved of his persecutions, as well as of having sent spies to watch himself. But the banishment of the intriguer lasted only two years. It is said that it was Constantia, the widow of Licinius, who induced Constantine to recall Arius, and it is probable that she was also the cause of the return of her old friend Eusebius. By 329 he was in high favor with the emperor, with whom he may have had some kind of relationship, since Ammianus Marcellinus makes him a relative of Julian.

From this time onwards we find Eusebius of Nicomedia at the head of a small and compact party called, by St. Athanasius, the Eusebians, hoi peri ton Eusebion whose object it was to undo the work of Nicaea, and to procure the complete victory of Arianism. They did not publicly recall the signatures that had been forced from them. They explained that Arius had repented of any excess in his words, or had been misunderstood. They dropped the Nicene formulae, as ambiguous. They were the leaders of a much larger party of conservative prelates, who wished to stand well with the emperor, who reverenced the martyr Lucian and the great Origen, and were seriously alarmed at any danger of Sabellianism. The campaign opened with a successful attack on Eustathius of Antioch, the principal prelate of the East properly so called. He had been having an animated controversy with Eusebius of Caesarea, in which he had accused that learned personage of polytheism, while Eusebius retorted with a charge of Sabellianism. Eustathius was deposed and exiled, for alleged disrespectful expressions about the emperor’s mother, St. Helena, who was greatly devoted to the memory of St. Lucian. It is said that he was also charged with immorality and heresy, but it is certain that the whole case was got up by the Eusebians. The great see of Alexandria was filled in 328 by the deacon Athanasius, who had taken a leading part at Nicaea. Small in stature, and young in years, he was at the head of a singularly united body of nearly a hundred bishops, and his energy and vivacity, his courage and determination marked him out as the one foe whom the Eusebians had to dread. The Alexandrian Arians had now signed an ambiguous formula of submission, and Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote to Athanasius, asking him to reinstate them, adding a verbal message of threats. The Meletian schism, in Egypt, had only been partially healed by the mild measures decreed at Nicaea, and the schismatics were giving trouble. Constantine was induced by Eusebius to write to Athanasius curtly telling him he should be deposed, if he refused to receive into the Church any who demanded to be received. Athanasius explained why he could not do this, and the emperor seems to have been satisfied. Eusebius then joined hands with the Meletians, and induced them to trump up charges against Athanasius. They first pretended that he had invented a tribute of linen garments which he exacted. This was disproved, but Athanasius himself was sent for to the court. The Meletians then brought up a charge which did duty for many years, that he had ordered a priest named Macarius to overturn an altar and break up a chalice belonging to a priest named Ischyras, in the Mareotis, though in fact Ischyras had never been a priest, and at the time alleged could not have been pretending to say Mass, for he was ill in bed. It was also said that Athanasius had assisted a certain Philumenus to conspire against the emperor, and had given him a bag of gold. Again the accusers were refuted and put to flight. The saint returned to his Church with a letter from Constantine, in which the emperor sermonized the Alexandrians after his wont, urging them to peace and unity. But the question of the broken chalice was not dropped, and the Meletians further got hold of a bishop named Arsenius, whom they kept in hiding while they declared that Athanasius had put him to death; they carried about a severed hand, which they said was Arsenius’s, cut off by the patriarch for the purpose of magic. Athanasius induced Ischyras to sign a document denying the former charge, and managed to discover the whereabouts of Arsenius. Constantine in consequence wrote a letter to the patriarch declaring him innocent.

Eusebius had stood apart from all these false accusations, and he was not disheartened by so many failures. He got the Meletians to demand a synod, and represented to Constantine that it would be right for peace to be obtained before the assembling of many bishops, at Jerusalem, to celebrate the dedication of the new Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was in 335. A synod met at Tyre, whose history need not be detailed here. Athanasius brought some fifty bishops with him, but they had not been summoned, and were not allowed to sit with the rest. A deputation was sent into the Mareotis to inquire into the question of Ischyras and the chalice, and the chief enemies of Athanasius were chosen for the purpose. The synod was tumultuous, and even the Count Dionysius, who had come with soldiers to support the Eusebians, thought the proceedings unfair. It remains a mystery how so many well-meaning bishops were deceived into condemning Athanasius. He refused to await their judgment. Extricating himself with difficulty from the assembly, he led away his Egyptians and betook himself directly to Constantinople, where he accosted the emperor abruptly, and demanded justice. At his suggestion, the Council of Tyre was ordered to come before the emperor. Meanwhile Eusebius had brought the bishops on to Jerusalem, where the deliberations were made joyous by the reception back into the Church of the followers of Arius. The Egyptian bishops had drawn up a protest, attributing all that had been done at Tyre to a conspiracy between Eusebius and the Meletians and Arians, the enemies of the Church. Athanasius asserts that the final act at Jerusalem had been Eusebius’s aim all along; all the accusations against himself had tended only to get him out of the road, in order that the rehabilitation of the Arians might be effected.

Eusebius prevented any of the bishops at Jerusalem from going to Constantinople, save those he could trust, Eusebius of Caesarea, Theognis of Nicaea, Patrophilus of Scythopolis, and the two young Pannonian bishops Ursacius and Valens, who were to continue Eusebius’s policy long after his death. They carefully avoided renewing the accusations of murder and sacrilege, which Constantine had already examined; and Athanasius tells us that five Egyptian bishops reported to him that they rested their case on a new charge, that he had threatened to delay the corn ships from Alexandria which supplied Constantinople. The emperor was enraged. No opportunity of defense was given, and Athanasius was banished to Gaul. But, in public, Constantine said that he had put in force the decree of the Council of Tyre. Constantine the Younger, however, declared later that his father had intended to save Athanasius from his enemies by sending him away, and that before dying he had had the intention of restoring him. The leader of the Meletians, John Arkaph, was similarly exiled. Eusebius wanted him no further, and hence did not care to protect him. One triumph was yet wanting to Eusebius, the reconciliation of Arius, his friend. This was to be consummated at length at Constantinople, but the designs of man were frustrated by the hand of God. Arius died suddenly under peculiarly humiliating conditions, on the eve of the day appointed for his solemn restoration to Catholic communion in the cathedral of New Rome.

Until 337 the Eusebians were busy in obtaining, by calumny, the deposition of the bishops who supported the Nicene faith. Of these the best known are Paul of Constantinople, Asclepas of Gaza, and Marcellus, Metropolitan of Ancyra. In the case of Marcellus they had received considerable provocation. Marcellus had been their active enemy at Nicaea. At Tyre he had refused to condemn Athanasius, and he presented a book to the emperor in which the Eusebians received hard words. He was convicted, not without ground, of Sabellianizing, and took refuge at Rome. On May 22, 337, Constantine the Great died at Nicomedia, after having been baptized by Eusebius, bishop of the place. His brothers and all but two of his nephews were at once murdered, in order to simplify the succession, and the world was divided between his three young sons. An arrangement was effected between them by which all exiled bishops returned, and Athanasius came back to his flock. Eusebius was in reality a gainer by the new regime. Constantius, who was now lord of all the East, was but twenty years old. He wished to manage the Church, and he seems to have fallen an easy prey to the arts of the old intriguer Eusebius, so that the rest of his foolish and obstinate life was spent in persecuting Athanasius, and in carrying out Eusebius ‘s policy. Never himself an Arian, Constantius held orthodoxy to lie somewhere between Arianism and the Nicene faith. The Arians, who were ready to disguise their doctrine to some extent, were therefore able to obtain from him a favor, which he denied to the few uncompromising Catholics who rejected his generalities.

The see of Alexandria had remained vacant during the absence of Athanasius. Eusebius now claimed to put the Synod of Tyre in force, and a rival bishop was set up in the person of Pistus, one of the Arian priests whom Alexander had long ago excommunicated. Until now the East alone had been concerned. The Eusebians were the first to try to get Rome and the West on their side. They sent to the pope an embassy of two priests and a deacon, who carried with them the decisions of the Council of Tyre and the supposed proofs of the guilt of Athanasius, of which the accused himself had been unable to get a sight. Instead of at once granting his communion to Pistus, Pope Julius sent the documents to Athanasius, in order that he might prepare a defense. The latter summoned a council of his suffragans. More than eighty attended, and sent to Julius a complete defense of their patriarch. The arrival of Athanasius’s envoys bearing this letter struck terror into the minds of the ambassadors of the Eusebians. The priests fled, and the deacon could think of nothing better than to beg Julius to call a council, and be judge himself. The pope consented, on the ground that in the case of one of the chief Churches such as Alexandria, it was right and customary that the matter should be referred to him. He therefore wrote summoning both accusers and accused to a council of which he was willing that they should determine the place and time.

Thus it was not Athanasius who appealed to the pope, but the Eusebians, and that simply as a means of withdrawing from an awkward predicament. Pistus was not a success, and Constantius introduced by violence a certain Gregory, a Cappadocian, in his place. Athanasius, after addressing a protest to the whole Church against the methods of Eusebius, managed to escape with his life, and at once made his way to Rome to obey the pope’s summons. His accusers took good care not to appear. Julius wrote again, fixing the end of the year (339) as the term for their arrival. They detained the legates until the fixed time had elapsed, and sent them back in January, 340, with a letter full of studied and ironical politeness, of which Sozomen has preserved us the tenor. He says: “Having assembled at Antioch, they wrote an answer to Julius, elaborately worded and rhetorically composed, full of irony, and containing terrible threats. They admitted in this letter that Rome was always honored as the school of the Apostles, and the metropolis of the Faith from the beginning, although its teachers had settled in it from the East. But they thought that they ought not to take a secondary place because they had less great and populous Churches, since they were superior in virtue and intention. They reproached Julius with having communicated with Athanasius, and complained that this was an insult to their synod, and that their condemnation of him was made null; and they urged that this was unjust and contrary to ecclesiastical law. After thus reproaching Julius and complaining of ill usage, they promised, if he would accept the deposition of those whom they had deposed, and the appointment of those whom they had ordained, to grant him peace and communion, but if he withstood their decrees, they would refuse to do so. For they declared that the earlier Eastern bishops had made no objection when Novatian was driven out of the Roman Church. But they wrote nothing to Julius concerning their acts, which were contrary to the decisions of the Council of Nicaea, saying that they had many necessary reasons to allege in excuse, but that it was superfluous to make any defense against a vague and general suspicion that they had done wrong.” The traditional belief that Rome had been schooled by the Apostles, and had always been the metropolis of the Faith, is interesting in the mouths of those who were denying her right to interfere in the East, in a matter of jurisdiction; for it is to be remembered that neither then, nor at any time, was Athanasius accused of heresy. This claim of independence is the first sign of the breach which began with the foundation of Constantinople as New Rome, and which ended in the complete separation of that city and all its dependencies from Catholic communion. For Eusebius had not contented himself with Nicomedia, now that it was no longer the capital, but had managed to get St. Paul of Constantinople exiled once more, and had seized upon that see, which was evidently, in his view, to be set above Alexandria and Antioch, and to be in very deed a second Rome.

The Roman council met in the autumn of 340. The Eusebians were not represented, but many Easterns, their victims, who had taken refuge at Rome, were there from Thrace, Coele-Syria, Phoenicia and Palestine, besides Athanasius and Marcellus. Deputies came to complain of the violence at Alexandria. Others explained that many Egyptian bishops had wished to come, but had been prevented and even beaten or imprisoned. At the wish of the council the pope wrote a long letter to the Eusebians. It is one of the finest letters written by any pope, and lays bare all the deceits of Eusebius, with a clearness which is as unsparing as it is dignified. It is probable that the letter did not trouble Eusebius much, safe as he was in the emperor’s favor. It is true that by the death of Constantine II, Constans, the protector of orthodoxy, had inherited his dominions, and was now far more powerful than Constantius. But Eusebius had never posed as an Arian, and in 341 he had a fresh triumph in the great Dedication Synod of Antioch, where a large number of orthodox and conservative bishops ignored the Council of Nicaea, and showed themselves quite at one with the Eusebian party, though denying that they were followers of Arius, who was not even a bishop!

Eusebius died, full of years and honors, probably soon after the council; at all events he was dead before that of Sardica. He had arrived at the summit of his hopes. He may really have believed Arian doctrine, but clearly his chief aim had ever been his own aggrandisement, and the humiliation of those who had humbled him at Nicaea. He had succeeded. His enemies were in exile. His creatures sat in the sees of Alexandria and Antioch. He was bishop of the imperial city, and the young emperor obeyed his counsels. If Epiphanius is right in calling him an old man even before Nicaea, he must, now have reached a great age. His work lived after him. He had trained a group of prelates who continued his intrigues, and who followed the Court from place to place throughout the reign of Constantius. More than this, it may be said that the world suffers to this day from the evil wrought by this worldly bishop.


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