Arius has been knocked from his heresiarchal throne in recent historiography on the controversy that bears his name. While previous generations viewed Arius as the originator and inspiration of a tradition of theology that lasted for decades after his death, revisionist scholarship of the last fifty years has to various degrees expelled Arius from this regnant position.
‘[T]he direction of recent work’, writes Lewis Ayres, ‘has been to focus on Arius as a catalyst for a controversy within which his particular theology rapidly becomes marginal.’
The best perspective on Arius that has emerged within recent revisionist scholarship is to view him as embedded within a theological tradition shaped by third-century concerns that is attempting to re-express and revise itself in an early fourth-century context,
and furthermore as an interlocutor within an ecclesiastical alliance whose adherents were to varying extents committed to and in debate over this same tradition.
One goal of this study is to demonstrate how Arius’ relationship with Asterius, or more precisely, the relationship between Arius’ Thalia and Asterius’ Syntagmation, is one of the clearest pieces of evidence for this new perspective on Arius.
Establishing the chronology of the events and documents related to the controversy over Arius before Nicaea is notoriously difficult.
Still, another goal of this study is to give qualified support to Rowan Williams's proposal regarding the dating and circumstances of the Thalia of Arius by drawing attention to a few Athanasian passages, evidence that has hitherto been mostly neglected and that also demonstrates the intra-Eusebian debate over a shared theological tradition in which Arius participated.
While the Thalia is but one document among many that survive (at least in fragments) from before the Council of Nicaea whose precise dates and circumstances of composition are contested, it is one of only a handful authored by Arius himself and a crucial text for understanding the course of controversy over Arius and the development of his theology.
Furthermore, no one has ever tried to date the Syntagmation of Asterius more specifically than simply to before the Council of Nicaea; accordingly, this study attempts for the first time to date this important document more precisely, thereby facilitating a clearer view of the sequence of events in the pre-Nicene controversy over Arius and Asterius’ involvement in it.
One of the features of the Eusebian alliance was mutual defence.
Athanasius repeatedly presents Asterius as the advocate (συνήγορος) of Arianism.
This is usually taken to mean that he judged Asterius to be prominent among those Eusebians who supported Arius’ cause in the years leading up to the Council of Nicaea and afterwards. It is usually assumed that Arius, if not a source, was at least a foil for Asterius: Asterius defended Arius even as he developed his thought.
Athanasius himself is generally vague about their relationship. In most cases he accuses both of teaching the same things without mentioning influence in one direction or the other.
But in two passages in De decretis (sections 8 and 20) Athanasius claims that Arius copied from Asterius. These passages have rarely been cited in studies of Arius or Asterius, especially recently, and when they have it is usually with little or no comment.
Based in part on these passages, however, Markus Vinzent has suggested that Asterius might have had a formative influence on Arius.
These passages contribute to his view that what came to be known as ‘Arianism’ is really the theology of Asterius.
In the De decretis passages Athanasius claims that Arius learned very precise things from Asterius, first, specific language about the Son's ministerial and servile role in creation, and, second, a series of biblical passages useful for arguing against the uniqueness of the Son's relation to God. And there could well be other things that Arius learned from Asterius but which Athanasius did not mention. But I do not think that Asterius was as formative for Arius as Vinzent suggests. I argue that, if these De decretis passages are trustworthy,
Asterius’ influence on Arius only happened once the controversy over him had spread throughout the East.
I want to explore a historical question: how could Arius have learned from Asterius? They were probably of the same generation, coming to adulthood in the late third century. It is unlikely that they ever met in person, and there is certainly no record of such a meeting. They came from different parts of the world, one from Egypt, the other from Cappadocia. There is evidence that both were disciples of Lucian of Antioch, ‘fellow Lucianists’.
But precisely what this means is subject to debate, if it means much of anything at all; the claim does not necessitate any literary or personal contact between them, let alone theological sympathies or borrowings.
So if it is taken for granted that Arius did learn from Asterius, how did this happen? How can we make sense of the evidence of De decretis 8 and 20? I suggest that in the composition of his Thalia, Arius drew upon the Syntagmation of Asterius, demonstrating Arius’ active involvement in the articulation of Eusebian theology in response to Asterius’ tract in support of himself. And furthermore I suggest that both documents belong to a relatively late stage of the pre-Nicene controversy over Arius, making it impossible that Asterius was responsible for the fundamental character and orientation of his theology. The influence of Asterius upon Arius must be understood in terms of refinement and nuance in presentation, not his basic theological orientation and vision.
The De decretis passages
In De decretis 7 Athanasius refutes the idea that ‘the Father alone personally effected (αὐτούργησε) the Son alone, whereas all the others came into existence through the Son as through a minister (ὑπουργός)’.
Then, at the beginning of De decretis 8, he grants this position for the sake of argument, writing:
If it is true that the rest of the creatures could not endure the exertions of the untempered hand of the unbegotten, then the Son alone came into existence by God alone and the others came into existence through the Son as through a minister and assistant. Indeed, this is what Asterius who sacrificed wrote, and Arius having copied it gave it to his own people. And from that time these deranged men use this catchphrase, though it be a shattered reed, unaware of the unsound idea that it contains.
The key line for our purposes is: ‘καὶ τοῦτο γὰρ Ἀστέριος ὁ θύσας ἔγραψεν, ὁ δὲ Ἄρειος μεταγράψας δέδωκε τοῖς ἰδίοις’ (‘Indeed, this is what Asterius who sacrificed wrote, and Arius having copied it gave it to his own people’).
The demonstrative pronoun τοῦτο is the grammatical object of the three verbs (ἔγραψεν, μεταγράψας, and δέδωκε), and refers to the idea or doctrine just described in De decretis 7 and 8.1. As for μεταγράφω, here and elsewhere Athanasius uses it to mean ‘to transcribe a copy, to make one copy from another’.
Thus Athanasius is not merely saying that Arius ‘copied’ the idea in the sense of ‘borrowed’ or ‘adopted from’, but that he ‘transcribed’ it, that is, produced one written text from another.
In other words, Athanasius affirms a literary relationship between Asterius and Arius, not merely a doctrinal one.
In addition, Athanasius has identified a ‘catchphrase’ that was included in a writing of Asterius (surely the Syntagmation, the only Asterian writing known to Athanasius), copied by Arius, and given to his people, whom Athanasius describes as ‘deranged men’ who used it ‘unaware of the unsound idea that is contains’. The term ‘catchphrase’ (ῥημάτιον) was frequently used by Athanasius to describe phrases which he believed encapsulated Arian views.
It is hard to determine whether Athanasius assigned a precise content to the catchphrase in this instance, but it stands for and summarises the Asterian teaching that he just described. In any case, Athanasius objects to calling the Son a minister and assistant because of those terms' negative theological implications (at least in his interpretation of the language). Such an idea and its attendant terminology, Athanasius claims, is found in the writing of Asterius, and Arius copied the idea, and possibly its attendant terminology, from Asterius in his writing, and thereby taught it to his supporters.
One might object that Athanasius uses μεταγράφω simply to vary his language, and by it he means nothing more than that Arius ‘wrote’ the same thing that Asterius did, that is, that Arius’ Thalia contained the same idea as found in the Syntagmation. Indeed, this is how Athanasius speaks of the relationship between Arius and Asterius in the Orationes contra Arianos. In Orationes contra Arianos 2.37 Athanasius suggests literary parallels between the Thalia and the Syntagmation, without suggesting influence in either direction. After describing how the Arians believed in multiple wisdoms and words, Athanasius wrote: ‘These things they have not only been quick to express in speech, but Arius composed in his Thalia and the sophist Asterius wrote that which we just stated above, as follows.’
What follows is an undisputed fragment of the Syntagmation, which Athanasius attributed solely to Asterius on two other occasions in his corpus.
It is unlikely that Athanasius meant that the same passage was also found verbatim in the Thalia. Instead, the Asterian fragment is cited as textual evidence that the Arians taught multiple wisdoms and multiple words. The same doctrine, suggests Athanasius, was also found in the Thalia. But here Athanasius does not claim that Arius copied or learned this from Asterius. The best interpretation of this passage is that it is an expression of Athanasius’ concept of Arianism: since the same heretical doctrine is found expressed in all their writings (the Thalia, the Syntagmation, etc.), then any of their texts can be used to present the tenets of Arianism. The same idea is expressed elsewhere in the Orationes, where Eusebius of Nicomedia is included among those who wrote similar things.
So it seems improbable that in De decretis 8 Athanasius used μεταγράφω as a synonym for ‘wrote’, given his usage of the verb elsewhere and the recognised usage of the verb in other authors.
By the use of μεταγράφω Athanasius is suggesting something quite different about the relationship between Arius and Asterius in De decretis 8.1 than in Orationes contra Arianos 2.37.
Now on to De decretis 20. This passage does not suggest a literary relationship as clearly as the first passage from De decretis does, but it is at least implied. In De decretis 20.1–2 Athanasius relates how the Eusebians claimed that certain scriptural expressions were common to human beings and the Son, thereby indicating that the Son was ontologically on a par with humans:
Again, the bishops [at the Council of Nicaea] said that the Word must be described as the true power and image of the Father, as in every respect like the Father and indistinguishable from him, as immutable and always in him without division. For never was the Word not, but rather he was always existing eternally with the Father, as radiance does with light. [After all this was said] the Eusebians restrained themselves, not daring to contradict it because of their shame over being refuted. And yet once again they were caught babbling and making signals to each other with their eyes, [saying] that, on the contrary, the ‘like’ and the ‘always’ and the name ‘power’ and ‘in him’ are common to us and the Son, and that it does us no harm if we agree with them. As for ‘like’, because about us it is written: Man is the image and glory of God [1 Corinthians xi.7]. As for ‘always’, because it is written: Always while we live [2 Cor. iv.11]. As for ‘in him’, because in him we live and move and have our being [Acts xvii.28]. And as for ‘immutable’, because it is written: Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ [Romans viii.35, 39]. With regard to ‘power’, because the caterpillar and the locust are called a power and a great power [Joel ii.25]. And again because it is often used for people, for instance: All the power of the Lord came out of the land of Egypt [Exodus xii.41]. And furthermore because there are other heavenly powers, for it says: the Lord of powers is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold [Psalm xlv.8].
Immediately after this, Athanasius writes: ‘τοιαῦτα γὰρ καὶ Ἀστέριος ὁ λεγόμενος σοφιστὴς παρ’ αὐτῶν μαθὼν ἔγραψε καὶ παρ’ αὐτοῦ δὲ Ἄρειος μαθών, ὥσπερ εἴρηται’.
Or at least this is the text in Opitz's edition. Instead of παρ’ αὐτοῦ the manuscripts read πρὸ αὐτοῦ, and this is the reading in the 1698 Maurist edition, which was reprinted in Migne.
Accordingly, the well-known NPNF translation – which is in fact John Henry Newman's translation, which itself was based on the Benedictine edition – reads: ‘Indeed Asterius, by title the sophist, had said the like in writing, having learned it from them, and before him Arius having learned it also, as has been said.’
Opitz emended the Greek text based on a conjecture of Tillemont, who held that the manuscript reading made no sense. This alternate reading, he claimed, made better sense of the passage, restored a parallel construction (παρ’ αὐτῶν μαθὼν … παρ’ αὐτοῦ … μαθών), and was confirmed by and consistent with the ὥσπερ εἴρηται, which Tillemont took to refer back to De decretis 8.
The Tillemont-Opitz emendation has not been contested, and I accept it too.
Basing himself on the Opitz edition Khaled Anatolios rendered the key line as follows: ‘Asterius, who is called “the sophist”, has written these things, having learned from them and, along with him, Arius also, as has been said.’
But it seems that the prepositional phrases with μαθὼν (παρ’ αὐτῶν and παρ’ αὐτοῦ) should be taken in a parallel sense. Παρά plus the genitive denotes source from which, not coincidence as in Anatolios's translation. Accordingly, the translation should be: ‘Now such things Asterius the so-called sophist wrote, having learned from them and Arius having learned from him, as has been said.’ I contend as well that the sole indicative verb of the sentence, ἔγραψε, also applies to Arius, as in: ‘and Arius [wrote], having learned from him’. Accordingly, Athanasius is again suggesting a literary relationship between Arius and Asterius, even if not as clearly and explicitly as in De decretis 8. Athanasius is also alluding to a kind of heretical succession: from the Eusebians through Asterius to Arius.
What Asterius learned from the Eusebians he wrote down: surely the Syntagmation is again meant. And then what Arius learned from Asterius – via the Syntagmation – he wrote.
One final detail of the key line from De decretis 20 is relevant: ‘as has been said’ (‘ὥσπερ εἴρηται’). While Lorenz thinks these words indicate that Athanasius is basing his statement on hearsay, both Tillemont and Opitz take them as a reference back to De decretis 8.
A survey of Athanasius’ use of the phrase ὥσπερ εἴρηται in his surviving corpus reveals that he uses it to refer back to a previous statement or idea; thus the interpretation of Tillemont and Opitz appears to be correct.
Accordingly, this phrase provides additional proof that Athanasius is positing a literary relationship between Arius and Asterius in section 20, just as in De decretis 8.
In both passages Athanasius surely makes reference to the Syntagmation, the only writing of Asterius that he knew. He indicates that he considers the text both at least in part inspired by the Eusebians and in some sense used by Arius in a writing. It was in Thalia that Arius drew upon the Syntagmation.
The Thalia and Syntagmation
Little is known about the circumstances of each document. A key passage for understanding the composition of the Thalia is found in De synodis 15, where Athanasius introduces and preserves the longest extant fragment of it.
Here Athanasius first lists four catchphrases which he claims sums up the teaching of Arius and his colleagues, on the basis of which they were expelled (ἐξεβλήθησαν) by Alexander from the Alexandrian church.
Then Athanasius writes a sentence that has proved difficult to interpret: ‘ἀλλ’ ἐκβληθεὶς καὶ ἐπιτριβεὶς Ἄρειος παρὰ τῶν περὶ Εὐσέβιον συνέθηκεν ἑαυτοῦ τὴν αἵρεσιν ἐν χάρτῃ’.
This passage was misinterpreted in the well-known English translation by Archibald Robertson in the NPNF series, from 1891: ‘However, after his expulsion, when he was with Eusebius and his fellows, he drew up his heresy upon paper.’
The mistake here is to take the prepositional phrase παρὰ τῶν περὶ Εὐσέβιον temporally. Robertson's translation is but a revised version of Newman's English translation, both versions of which contain the same misinterpretation.
In fact, this misinterpretation ultimately goes back to Petrus Nannius’ Latin translation of 1556 and was repeated in the 1698 Maurist translation.
With the prepositional phrase interpreted in this way, for centuries the passage was used as evidence that Arius resided in Nicomedia for a while and composed the Thalia there.
This traditional interpretation has been challenged by William Telfer, Charles Kannengiesser and Rowan Williams. Telfer pointed out that it was mistaken on two counts: (1) because it takes παρά + the genitive as indicating ‘rest at’ instead of ‘agent by whom’, and (2) because it treats ἐπιτριβεὶς as if it were διατρίβων.
Telfer suggested a rendering that is more grammatically plausible: ‘Nevertheless, Arius, thrown over and distressed by the Eusebian gang, committed his own heresy to writing.’ According to his interpretation, Arius was rejected by Eusebians and, desperate at losing their endorsement, he composed the Thalia (in Alexandria) to shore up his Egyptian support. Thus, according to Telfer, the Thalia is a document that makes no concessions to Eusebian concerns; in it there is no ‘common ground’ between Arius and the Eusebians; it is meant to appeal to a local Egyptian audience.
Though Charles Kannengiesser agreed with Telfer's critique of the traditional interpretation, he rejected Telfer's too, suggesting ‘Mais, jeté dehors et poussé par les Eusébians, Arius consigna sa propre hérésie par écrit – But, thrown out and pushed by the Eusebians, Arius put his own heresy in writing.’ Kannengiesser's interpretation suggests that Arius composed the Thalia at the instigation of the Eusebians as a direct reply to his excommunication by Alexander. Thus Kannenegiesser detects a causal connection between the two participles – his being ‘thrown out’ leads the Eusebians to ‘push’ him to write. According to Kannengiesser, then, Arius composed the Thalia after his ecclesiastical excommunication but while still in Alexandria, at the prompting of the Eusebians, precisely to bring his conflict with Alexander to a head.
And this ploy was successful, since it led to Alexander banishing Arius from Alexandria after publishing the Thalia. But, as Rowan Williams has noted, this interpretation seems unlikely since the Eusebians worked to persuade Alexander to restore Arius to communion, not to exacerbate the quarrel for political ends.
Williams considered Telfer's interpretation grammatically sound but historically implausible (since a breach between Arius and the Eusebians would surely have been exploited by their opponents) and Kannengiesser's less grammatically sound and historically unlikely. None the less, Williams follows Kannengiesser in the only translation he offers: ‘After his excommunication, Arius, under pressure from the Eusebian party, committed to writing a summary of his heresy.’ He also explored the possibility of construing the prepositional phrase with the main verb συνέθηκεν, without putting much confidence in this possibility because of its grammatical awkwardness. He offered four increasingly speculative renditions: Arius put his own heresy in writing ‘from the Eusebian camp, from the Eusebian point of view, at the prompting of the Eusebians, arising from the agency of the Eusebians’. Williams declined to offer his own definitive translation, considering the gist of the passage clear enough: Arius composed the Thalia with the encouragement of the Eusebians. He suggests this scenario: some time after Arius had won the initial support of the Eusebians, when the excommunicated Arius had relocated to Palestine, more detailed reports of Arius’ teaching began to trouble at least some of those Eusebians who had initially supported him. The Eusebians then encouraged Arius to clarify his position. Williams suggests, then, that Arius composed the Thalia in Palestine (after the synod of one hundred in Alexandria) to reassure the Eusebians of his basic theological agreement with them. In other words, the Thalia is a document to shore up and recover Eusebian support.
Following Rowan Williams, I translate the passage thus: ‘After his expulsion, Arius, at the prompting of the Eusebians, put down his own heresy on paper.’
But is this passage receptive of another interpretation besides that of Williams? The passage might mean that when Arius intially sought the support of the Eusebians, they asked him to clarify his views. Perhaps the participles joined by the co-ordinate conjunction καὶ specify the proximate conditions under which Arius composed the Thalia, events which happened in quick succession. Following Kannengiesser, it may well be the case that it was the excommunication itself that led the Eusebians to request from Arius a fuller statement of his theology, but not for the reasons that Kannengiesser thought. Perhaps something like this happened. The excommunication led Arius to seek support among Eusebian bishops. They may not have been so keen on Alexander's actions and theology, but still they were wary of endorsing an officially excommunicated heretic. And so they asked Arius to state his views more precisely to help them decide if his cause was really worth defending. If this interpretation is correct, then the Thalia is earlier than Williams thought, and furthermore it is not a document written to recover, but rather to win Eusebian support.
But there is a major problem with using the passage in De synodis 15.2 to support the hypothesis that the Thalia was written at an earlier date to win Eusebian support: there is no way that Arius could have copied from Asterius at this point, and thus the evidence of De decretis 8 and 20 would have to be disregarded. Only if the Syntagmation was written prior to the Thalia could Arius have copied from Asterius. Admittedly, information on the circumstances of the composition of the Syntagmation is scarce.
Athanasius describes this handbook as ‘quite long’
and as articulating the theological views of the ‘Arians’, that is, the Eusebian alliance.
A pre-Nicene date has been consistently endorsed by scholars.
The only passage that hints at its origin is found in De synodis 18, where Athanasius introduces a series of fragments from the work. He writes that Asterius ‘produced a Syntagmation on the advice the Eusebians’ (‘ποιεῖ μετὰ γνώμης τῶν περὶ Εὐσέβιον συνταγμάτιον’).
Athanasius also reports that the Eusebians sent Asterius on a kind of ‘book tour’ to promote their cause, during which he travelled around the churches of the East giving public readings of his handbook.
So it seems that the Syntagmation was written in support of Arius, to drum up support for the Eusebian cause among easterners.
Accordingly, it belongs to a stage of the controversy when Arius had been excommunicated by Alexander but had already convinced the Eusebian leadership to support him, and one of their means of doing so was to have Asterius write a theological response, the Syntagmation. The Syntagmation is thus roughly contemporary with the letter that Eusebius wrote to Paulinus of Tyre urging him to write to Alexander of Alexandria to protest against his excommunication of Arius, a request with which Paulinus complied.
Certainty on chronological matters related to the controversy over Arius before Nicaea is elusive. But there is general agreement that at some point Arius relocated to Palestine and it was here that he wrote the extant letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia to secure his support.
Eusebius responded favourably, and became the champion of Arius. I suggest that both the Syntagmation and the Thalia belong to this stage of the controversy (which according to Williams's chronology would be 321–3). After he agreed to support Arius, in addition to writing to bishops such as Paulinus, Eusebius had Asterius write the Syntagmation in order to promote the cause of Arius throughout Syria by means of the ‘book tour’ (perhaps around 322).
Williams sees the Alexandrian synod of a hundred bishops as a reaction to Eusebius' endorsement of Arius and the list of its signatories as evidence that ‘many of Arius’ initial supporters’ among Syrian and Palestinian bishops ‘were wavering’.
If this is so, then Eusebius would have pushed Arius to write the Thalia to recover their support in its wake (perhaps around 323).
If this reconstruction is correct, the Thalia was written after the Syntagmation, and thus Arius could have borrowed, that is, copied from Asterius. This is speculative. But the merit of this interpretation is that it accounts for all the Athanasian evidence, De decretis 8 and 20 as well as De synodis 15 and 18. Other interpretations, such as for a composition of the Thalia while Arius was still in Alexandria, would have to discount some of it.
This interpretation also further complicates the literary relationship between Arius and Asterius: Arius is both an impetus for and influenced by the Syntagmation. This makes it even harder to disentangle the thought of Arius and Asterius in the works of Athanasius. But it is clear that Asterius can by no means be considered a formative influence on Arius. His influence on Arius came late in the controversy; it is more a question of intellectual refinement than fundamental formation.
Futhermore, if this reconstruction is correct, we come away with a better understanding of the original context of the Syntagmation. In the wake of Arius’ winning the support of Eusebius of Nicomedia around 321, it was mostly likely written at the urging of the Nicomedian bishop to promote the cause of the mistreated and misunderstood Alexandrian presbyter among eastern churchmen. It was part of a literary campaign that included the well-known letter of Eusebius to Paulinus, a letter that within a few years Asterius himself defended in his Apologia.
Finally, if this reconstruction is correct, it demonstrates that Arius was an important interlocutor within the newly formed Eusebian alliance and played a pivotal role in its efforts to clarify its position. Arius sparked the emergence of the Eusebian alliance by securing the support of Eusebius of Nicomedia, who then promoted his cause throughout the eastern provinces. A key element of his endorsement of Arius was commissioning Asterius to write the Syntagmation, upon which Arius then drew to bolster support of himself when writing the Thalia. This activity of mutual defence would continue among the Eusebians, even if Arius himself soon became marginalised. The relationship between Arius’ Thalia and Asterius’ Syntagmation as reconstructed here thus provides strong evidence for the recent revisionist view of Arius.