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§ 123. The Theological Principles involved: Import of the Controversy.

Here should be compared, of the works before mentioned, especially Petavius (tom. sec. De sanctissima Trinitate), and Möhler (Athanasius, third book), of the Romanists, and Baur, Dorner, and Voigt, of the Protestants.

We pass now to the internal history of the Arian conflict, the development of the antagonistic ideas; first marking some general points of view from which the subject must be conceived.

To the superficial and rationalistic eye this great struggle seems a metaphysical subtilty and a fruitless logomachy, revolving about a Greek iota. But it enters into the heart of Christianity, and must necessarily affect in a greater or less degree all other articles of faith. The different views of the contending parties concerning the relation of Christ to the Father involved the general question, whether Christianity is truly divine, the highest revelation, and an actual redemption, or merely a relative truth, which may be superseded by a more perfect revelation.

Thus the controversy is conceived even by Dr. Baur, who is characterized by a much deeper discernment of the philosophical and historical import of the conflicts in the history of Christian doctrine, than all other rationalistic historians. “The main question,” he says, “was, whether Christianity is the highest and absolute revelation of God, and such that by it in the Son of God the self-existent absolute being of God joins itself to man, and so communicates itself that man through the Son becomes truly one with God, and comes into such community of essence with God, as makes him absolutely certain of pardon and salvation. From this point of view Athanasius apprehended the gist of the controversy, always finally summing up all his objections to the Arian doctrine with the chief argument, that the whole substance of Christianity, all reality of redemption, everything which makes Christianity the perfect salvation, would be utterly null and meaningless, if he who is supposed to unite man with God in real unity of being, were not himself absolute God, or of one substance with the absolute God, but only a creature among creatures. The infinite chasm which separates creature from Creator, remains unfilled; there is nothing really mediatory between God and man, if between the two there be nothing more than some created and finite thing, or such a mediator and redeemer as the Arians conceive the Son of God in his essential distinction from God: not begotten from the essence of God and coeternal, but created out of nothing and arising in time. Just as the distinctive character of the Athanasian doctrine lies in its effort to conceive the relation of the Father and Son, and in it the relation of God and man, as unity and community of essence, the Arian doctrine on the contrary has the opposite aim of a separation by which, first Father and Son, and then God and man, are placed in the abstract opposition of infinite and finite. While, therefore, according to Athanasius, Christianity is the religion of the unity of God and man, according to Arius the essence of the Christian revelation can consist only in man’s becoming conscious of the difference which separates him, with all the finite, from the absolute being of God. What value, however, one must ask, has such a Christianity, when, instead of bringing man nearer to God, it only fixes the chasm between God and man?”13491349   Die christliche Kirche vom 4-6ten Jahrhundert, 1859, p. 97 sq.

Arianism was a religious political war against the spirit of the Christian revelation by the spirit of the world, which, after having persecuted the church three hundred years from without, sought under the Christian name to reduce her by degrading Christ to the category of the temporal and the created, and Christianity to the level of natural religion. It substituted for a truly divine Redeemer, a created demigod, an elevated Hercules. Arianism proceeded from human reason, Athanasianism from divine revelation; and each used the other source of knowledge as a subordinate and tributary factor. The former was deistic and rationalistic, the latter theistic and supernaturalistic, in spirit and effect. The one made reasonableness, the other agreement with Scripture, the criterion of truth. In the one the intellectual interest, in the other the moral and religious, was the motive principle. Yet Athanasius was at the same time a much deeper and abler thinker than Arius, who dealt in barren deductions of reason and dialectic formulas.13501350   Baur, Newman (The Arians, p. 17), and others put Arianism into connection with the Aristotelian philosophy, Athanasianism with the Platonic; while Petavius, Ritter, to some extent also Voigt (I. c. p. 194), and others exactly reverse the relation, and derive the Arian idea of God from Platonism and Neo-Platonism. This contrariety of opinion itself proves that such a comparison is rather confusing than helpful. The empirical, rational, logical tendency of Arianism is, to be sure, more Aristotelian than Platonic; and so far Baur is right. But the Aristotelian logic and dialectics may be used equally well in the service of Catholic orthodoxy, as they were in fact in the mediaeval scholasticism; while, on the other hand, the Platonic idealism, which was to Justin, Origen, and Augustine, a bridge to faith, may lead into all kinds of Gnostic and mystic error. All depends on making revelation and faith, or philosophy and reason, the starting-point and the ruling power of the theological system. Comp. also the observations of Dr. Dorner against Dr. Baur, in his Entwicklungsgesch. der Christologie, vol. i. p. 859, note.

In close connection with this stood another distinction. Arianism associated itself with the secular political power and the court party; it represented the imperio-papal principle, and the time of its prevalence under Constantius was an uninterrupted season of the most arbitrary and violent encroachments of the state upon the rights of the church. Athanasius, on the contrary, who was so often deposed by the emperor, and who uttered himself so boldly respecting Constantius, is the personal representative not only of orthodoxy, but also of the independence of the church with reference to the secular power, and in this respect a precursor of Gregory VII. in his contest with the German imperialism.

While Arianism bent to the changing politics of the court party, and fell into diverse schools and sects the moment it lost the imperial support, the Nicene faith, like its great champion Athanasius, remained under all outward changes of fortune true to itself, and made its mighty advance only by legitimate growth outward from within. Athanasius makes no distinction at all between the various shades of Arians and Semi-Arians, but throws them all into the same category of enemies of the catholic faith.13511351   I cannot refrain from quoting the striking judgment of George Bancroft, once a Unitarian preacher, on the import of the Arian controversy and the vast influence of the Athanasian doctrine on the onward march of true Christian civilization. “In vain,” says he in his address on the Progress of the Human Race, delivered before the New York Historical Society in 1854, p. 25 f., “did restless pride, as that of Arius, seek to paganize Christianity and make it the ally of imperial despotism; to prefer a belief resting on authority and unsupported by an inward witness, over the clear revelation of which the millions might see and feel and know the divine glory; to substitute the conception, framed after the pattern of heathenism, of an agent, superhuman yet finite, for faith in the ever continuing presence of God with man; to wrong the greatness and sanctity of the Spirit of God by representing it as a birth of time. Against these attempts to subordinate the enfranchising virtue of truth to false worship and to arbitrary power reason asserted its supremacy, and the party of superstition was driven from the field. Then mooned Ashtaroth was eclipsed and Osiris was seen no more in Memphian grove; then might have been heard the crash of the falling temples of Polytheism; and instead of them, came that harmony which holds Heaven and Earth in happiest union. Amid the deep sorrows of humanity during the sad conflict which was protracted through centuries for the overthrow of the past and the reconstruction of society, the consciousness of an incarnate God carried peace into the bosom of mankind. That faith emancipated the slave, broke the bondage of woman, redeemed the captive, elevated the low, lifted up the oppressed, consoled the wretched, inspired alike the heroes of thought and the countless masses. The down-trodden nations clung to it as to the certainty of their future emancipation; and it so filled the heart of the greatest poet of the Middle Ages—perhaps the greatest poet of all time—that he had no prayer so earnest as to behold in the profound and clear substance of the eternal light, that circling of reflected glory which showed the image of man.”

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