Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation

By Edward Peters | Go to book overview

relationship between Christ and God the Father. Arius denied the coeternity and equality of Christ, insisting upon Christ's inferiority. The lively intellectual climate of Alexandria and the Greek East generally led to a widening of the argument until both sides had made it the major issue in the Greek-speaking Christian Church. Powerful churchmen in their own right and churchmen who had the ear of the Emperor Constantine brought the question to imperial attention, and Constantine called a church council together in Nicaea, near Constantinople, in 325. There more than two hundred bishops argued out the philosophical and theological language that became the terminology of official Orthodox Christianity. Nicaea was something new in the Christian world, and it has been regarded as the first of the Ecumenical Councils and one of the most important events in European history. The council raised the question, not only of theological language and hard dogmatic definition of spiritual reality, but of the relative authority of individuals and offices, independent bishops and an assembly of bishops, the council and the emperor, and the council and the pope. Thus, the problem of the authority to define orthodoxy and heresy was associated at the outset with the problem of where authority lay in the Christian community. The long controversy over Arianism contributed greatly to developing the technical theological language of orthodox belief and in strengthening the hands of imperial churchmen in the face of heterodoxy. The Nicene Creed (no. 5) was one result of the controversy, which lingered on into the fifth century and formed the backdrop for the entry of the Christian Roman emperor onto the scene of religious disputes.

There is a very great amount of source material for the Arian movement, not only its early fourth-century stages, but its fourth- and fifth-century career, and its later career among the Germanic invaders of the Roman Empire. Another striking difference between fourth-century heretical movements and earlier movements is the available source material for the former. When a movement was able to focus the attention of the whole Church, either in council or in the activity of ecclesiastical leaders, holy men, and emperors, it kept many pens busy. Thus, fourth-century and later heresy entered more frequently into the routine life of the Church than it had earlier, and the specialty of heresiology, as well as the question of ecclesiastical authority, became a prominent aspect of ecclesiastical life.

The texts printed here illustrate some of the aspects of Arianism that led to its being considered later the symbol of all heresies: the character of Arius as a heresiarch, the suffering of holy men persecuted by wicked emperors, the decision of the Church in council, and the intricacies of credal formation.

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