Academic journal article The Hymn

Congregational Song as Theological Debate in Late Antiquity: A Case Study of Arius's Thalia and the Development of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

Academic journal article The Hymn

Congregational Song as Theological Debate in Late Antiquity: A Case Study of Arius's Thalia and the Development of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

Article excerpt

Hymns have always been critical to the dissemination of theological ideas.1 In Christianity, this is particularly true of the period known as late antiquity, in which hymnody was used as a battle ground for theologians competing for the coveted designation of "orthodox."2 The purpose of this study is twofold. First, it seeks to trace the reception of Arian hymnody in the decades surrounding the First Council of Nicaea. Second, it seeks to show the influence that one important hymn written by Arius himself-the Thalia-had on debates over Trinitarian orthodoxy in the late-third and early-fourth centuries. The main body of this article is therefore divided into two sections. The first traces the reception of Arian hymnody in several important bishoprics of the fourth and early-fifth centuries: Edessa, Antioch, Milan, and Constantinople. Leaders in these cities used and/or wrote hymns to respond to the perceived threat of Arianism within their respective bishoprics.3 Some documents even attest to the fact that antiArian hymns were sung in direct response to the singing practices of the Arians themselves. The second section of the article presents an analysis of the Thalia as one particular Arian hymn, illuminating those points which are especially illustrative of the conflict between Arian and Nicene Trinitarian theology. In other words, one section shows how the Thalia informed the thoughts and writings of the Nicene Fathers in particular, while the other shows how Arian hymnody informed the life of churches more broadly, beyond the council. It is hoped that teachers of hymnology might find this article useful for illustrating the importance of hymns to theological debate in late antiquity. Additionally, it is hoped that all readers might come to a new appreciation for the Thalia, a work long ago deemed "heretical," but one which was nonetheless an important influence on the development of Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy.

The Arian Controversy

The Arian theological controversy centered on the nature of Christ and the Trinity, specifically the relationship of the Son to the Father and Spirit. It was named for the Alexandrian presbyter Arius. Arius was born in the midto late-third century and ordained sometime around 311.4 He was popular as a preacher and as a theologian. History records that he was presbyter at an important church in Alexandria5 and that he was active in the local theological (catechetical) school in the city, a school whose personages and ideas were sometimes at odds with the local bishop.6 Arius himself was individually condemned by a regional synod of Egyptian bishops called by Alexander of Alexandria in 318, and in 325 his theological views generally were condemned by the First Council of Nicaea.7 Though Arius was later judged orthodox by a local synod in Palestine, he remained excommunicated at the sees of Alexandria and Constantinople until his death.

Arius's extant writings consist of just a few letters along with the Thalia.8 It is safe to assume, however, as the namesake of the most important theological controversy of his time, he wrote more extensively both in prose and poetic forms. Studies of the writings we do have from Arius have been reexamined over the past few decades, revealing a formidable and conservative theologian who had a commitment to a clear and rational Christology.9 Such a Christology is easily apparent in the Thalia, but the present study seeks only to discuss that text's impact on earlier, specifically Trinitarian, debates.

With regard to hymnology of the period, the Arian controversy is certainly the best documented. Therefore it should be understood that the choice of the Arian controversy for the subject of this article was driven somewhat by the availability of pertinent material. One of the unfortunate things about this period, at least from the point of view of current scholarship, is that those writings deemed heretical (or better perhaps, heterodox) have often not survived, or survive only in fragments or refutations by an opposing party. …

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