I’m teaching a course about Nicaea

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

I am teaching this term — “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy.” It’s an online course with the Davenant Institute, and you can read the official description here. When I approached this course, I did not want it to be simply the fourth century, nor simply, “How did the Arian/Nicene controversy get resolved?”

As a scholar who has spent a lot of time working with the Council of Chalcedon, I wanted this course to demonstrate how the questions being debated from the time of Nestorius’ episcopate to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 were questions embedded in the thought of earlier thinkers, so I wanted to see the course reach a terminus of at least 451.

I also did not want anyone to get the idea that in 381 everything was settled. So extending to 451 helps finish off the Nicene narrative and push us onwards. Of course, the Council of Chalcedon opens up new cans of worms and results, ultimately, in new schisms and all sorts of things going a bit belly-up. There are no living ecclesiastical bodies directly descended from the Council of Ariminum or from Eunomius of Cyzicus, but the opponents of Chalcedon have a strong presence in the Middle East and count themselves part of apostolic succession.

And they all accept the Council of Nicaea.

Anyway, this, perhaps, wider temporal boundary than usual meant that some authors you might expect — Sts Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom, for example — are not covered in depth. Alas, such decisions must be made in a ten-week course.

I also wanted to assign entire works of substance, if possible, and not just excerpts or bits of sermons. I want my students to grapple with the tedious parts of ancient theological works as well as the parts of longer treatises that are interesting but may never make an anthology of texts on the Trinitarian or Christological debates. So they are reading all of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, all of St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, all five “Theological Orations” of St Gregory of Nazianzus (“the Theologian”), etc.

Another thing that I thought was important in approaching this period in theological history, and this is up to me in the lectures and discussions, was to avoid making conclusions into premisses — a perspective gained from Father John Behr here as well as in his book The Nicene Faith. Two examples: It is not straightforward that confessing the God Word as being homoousios (consubstantial/of one substance) with God the Father would obviously be orthodox. Nor is it straightforward that the Trinity is “three hypostaseis in one ousia“. Depending on how you define these words, both of these hallmarks of contemporary orthodoxy were susceptible to unorthodox understandings back then.

A final grand, structural thought was similar to the first. The ecumenical councils move from debating the Trinity to Christology, but the questions of both were abroad at the same time. Moreover, there is more afoot than either of these debates. That is one reason I wanted to include entire works. I also chose to include St Ephrem the Syrian because he represents a very different world than the Greek theologians, both because he is writing poetry and because he is writing in Syriac.

I do not know how lectures on these topics go with different professors. My educational background is in both theology and classics, so the world of Late Antiquity comes forth in my lectures not a little. I have no difficulty keeping the various members of the Constantinian dynasty clear in my mind. I know the political culture and political history of the period. I know the Latin poetry and even some of the Greek philosophy — besides, of course, all the Classical era classics! I love teaching this period and not losing sight of the wider political and cultural environment.

And I love not hiding the fact that I am an Anglican by conviction who has tendencies towards Eastern Orthodoxy.

After two initial weeks of covering the Council of Nicaea and then a blitz through history to 381, we have been and will be looking at Athanasius, Ephrem, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary and Augustine in one week, Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus, and Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon. Hilary and Augustine are unfairly lumped together because I did not want to cut either of them, but I have trouble envisioning a course that devotes attention to Athanasius but excludes Cyril, and I think Augustine On the Trinity is just too large to grapple with here. That’s for next term, when I get to teach St Augustine. 🙂

I have taken great delight in teaching this class so far. I enjoy preparing the lectures, and the students have good energy, come prepared, and have important things to say as well as good questions. We are almost halfway through. I’ll miss my Monday nights with them when it’s done.

But then, soon enough, I’ll be teaching my next course for Davenant. But more on that anon …

Ancient Christians of Cyprus: Epiphanios of Salamis (and Hilarion)

Epiphanios of Salamis

Epiphanios was born in Palestine in the year 310 and died in Cyprus in 403. He thus lived through one of the most famous theological controversies of all time, living long enough to see it come to an end within the borders of the Roman Empire — the Arian Controversy. We shall look at the so-called ‘Arians’ tomorrow night, but in short, the main lines of demarcation were between those who affirmed the full, complete divinity of Jesus Christ as well as the divinity of the Holy Spirit, including Athanasios of Alexandria and Epiphanios, and, on the ‘Arian’ side, those who denied the divinity of Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit in varying degrees and ways of expression.

Epiphanios is one of the cohort of the earliest monastic practitioners—men and women who chose to devote their lives solely to prayer, acts of charity, and life in the desert, whether alone or in community. He spent many years living amongst the monks of Egypt, who are traditionally considered the first monks (something I, personally, question). Whilst there, his status as a ‘heresy-hunter’ already emerged, for he found himself being tempted by a group of Gnostics at one occasion, and later on had a monk driven out for heresy.

This attitude of battle against the heretics would persist throughout the rest of his life, as a monk in Palestine, and then as a bishop in Cyprus, whither he was invited by the local church to take up the episcopacy of Salamis in 367. As a bishop, he continued to lead a life of spiritual discipline and prayer as well as engaging in the role of heresy-hunter and protector of orthodoxy even more rigorously. He undoubtedly gained himself enemies for his polemic regarding heresy, but the holiness of his life and orthodoxy of his teaching made him a well-honoured figure amongst those who agreed with him, and even the Arian emperor Valens dared not interfere with Epiphanios’ activity.

If we are to believe Epiphanios’ biographer, when he came to this island where he became Metropolitan, or head bishop, he found Gnostic Valentinians as well as Ophites, Sabellians or Modalists, Nicolaitans, followers of Simon Magus, Basilidians, and Carpocratians.[1] Whether these groups were all actually represented or not, who can say?

Certainly by 403 when Epiphanios died, they were not, due to his efforts both as a bishop as well a concerned citizen requesting the Emperor’s aid against these heretics; this extermination of heresy in Cyprus during this period would also have been due to the various rulings against them in the Roman Empire of which we know during the reign of Theodosios I in 380, 381, and 386.[2]

Epiphanios’ most famous work is the Panarion, a heresiology of 80 heresies where he describes and refutes them, including extracts from their own adherents. An earlier yet important work is his Ankoratos, an English translation of which is to be published by Young Kim, who is here tonight. This work is important because it shows that Epiphanios was not simply concerned with tearing down his opponents, the more popular portrayal of the man, but also with building up fellow-believers, answering their requests for teaching and help, and providing them with his own explanations of the biblical understanding the Church had of the Trinity.

Given his positioning as an author after the death of the great theologian Athanasios, Epiphanios is one of our important writers for the later stages of the Arian controversy. And he lived here in Cyprus.

The lessons from the life of Epiphanios are that there is something to be said for stick-to-itiveness. It is highly unpopular to be a heresy hunter today, and possibly with good reason. Yet is there not something to be said for standing up against the false teachings of the age, whether they are new ideas altogether, or re-inventions of old falsehoods?

I do not say that we should go and hunt the heretics and false teachers. But we should not fear them, either. We should we willing to stand up against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons or the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and say that this is not the biblical Christianity handed down to us from the Apostles. This, combined with a holy life, is what made Epiphanios famous.

The final Ancient Cypriot Christian I discussed last week was St. Hilarion, and the gist of what I said I have already said on this blog a couple of years ago. Enjoy!


[1] Polybius, Life of St. Epiphanius 59.

[2] See Theodosian Code 16.1.2, 3, 4.