Theology Thursday: Eusebius of Caesarea

by Max Andrews

Theologian: Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260-340)

General summary of Eusebius and his theology: Eusebius grew up in Palestine.  There is nothing known about his parents, or how and when he became a Christian. He is also known as “Eusebius of Pamphilus.” Pamphilus had studied under Pierius, who had been a disciple of Origen.  When Pamphilus moved to Caesarea, Eusebius came under his influence.  Together they cataloged Origen’s library and wrote the multi-volume Defense of Origen.  Their collaboration came to an end following Pamphilus’s arrest (307) and execution (309) during the reign of Maximinus Daia

Eusebius’s Church History consists of ten volumes, the last three of which deal with the church in his day.  It appears that the “History” originally ended with Book VII prior to the outbreak of the Diocletian persecution in 303, with later books being added in successive editions (the last coming in 323).

Eusebius’s other writings include:

  • The Martyrs of Palestine (an eyewitness account of the Diocletian persecution)
  • Chronicle  (an account of world history)
  • Life of Constantine (a florid panegyric, but containing invaluable data)
  • Several apologetic works (among them, Preparation for the Gospel and Demonstration of the Gospel)

More than anyone, it is our debt to Eusebius and his documents that we have knowledge of the early church. Without it nearly everything we currently know about the early church would be unknown.

Eusebius was about forty when the Diocletian persecution began in 303, fifty when Galerius ordered its cessation (311), and sixty when it came to a complete halt under Constantine (323).  Elected bishop of Caesarea in 315, he regarded Constantine as a heaven-sent deliverer. Though he did not know him well – having had only brief and intermittent contacts with him – he viewed Constantine as God’s chosen instrument for Christianity’s final victory over its enemies.  His rosy view of Constantine’s place in history was shared by most of the Christians of his day who, like Eusebius, had suffered under fierce persecution, and saw God’s hand in the emperor’s conversion to Christianity.

Scarcely had Constantine assumed sole emperorship than a controversy broke out that threatened the unity of the church – and therewith, the empire: the Arian controversy.  Arius was an Alexandrian presbyter who denied that Christ was God, calling him instead, “the highest of created beings.”  Surprisingly, many Eastern bishops wholeheartedly agreed with Arius, while the western bishops unanimously opposed him.

Eusebius – a key figure in the East because he was massively learned and bishop of Palestine – led the majority “moderate” party that initially upheld Arius. He did so out of fear of division and in the hope that a compromise could be reached.  While Eusebius agreed to Nicaea’s “homoousion” formula (as over against the Arian position), he subsequently waffled, and never  gave Athanasius and the orthodox party his full support.

The lukewarm and unenthusiastic support for Eusebius was in part due to temperament. Like Constantine, Eusebius regarded Athanasius as a firebrand, a divisive figure who threatened the unity of the church.  In part it had to do with theology. Like many in the East, Eusebius feared the Western heresy of Sabellianism and was lukewarm toward Nicaea’s Homoousion settlement (“of the same substance with the Father”) because it smacked of modalism. The fact that the Homoousion had the strong support of known modalists such as Marcellus of Ancyra only confirmed Eastern suspicions that the Nicene formula was a Trojan horse for insinuating modalism and patripassianism into the doctrine of God.  In part, it had to do with his Origenistic training. Origen was strongly subordinationistic and held an adoptionist Christology, and it would appear that Eusebius was less than orthodox in his Christology.

Here are a few points about Eusebius other Church leaders said about him:

Athanasius: “Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine . . . did not fear to say openly that Christ is not true God.”

Jerome: “He did this in the name of the holy martyr Pamphilus, that he might designate with the name Pamphilus the first of the six books in defense of Origen which were written by Eusebius of Caesarea, whom every one knows to have been an Arian.”

Jerome: “Eusebius, prince of Arians”

Jerome: “I both in manhood and in extreme old age am of the same opinion, that Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea were indeed very learned men, but went astray in the truth of their opinions.”

Photius: “That Eusebius was carried off by Arianism, his books loudly proclaim …. That from the beginning he inwardly cherished the Arian doctrines, and that up to the end of his life he did not cease following them, many know, and it is easy to gather it from many sources.”

Unfortunately, Eusebius’s initial support of Arius, his subsequent waffling vis-à-vis the Arians, and his refusal ever to lend Athanasius his full support did little to bring the controversy to a clear and amicable conclusion. The controversy continued to rage throughout the century, and at one point (359) Arianism even became the official position of the Church.

His Church History is no mere retelling of events but a portrayal of Christianity as true heir of the Roman empire and the ultimate goal of human history.  For Eusebius faith is the combination and integration of philosophy and empire.

Concerning the theological implications of Eusebius’ view of history his view constitutes a shift away from the belief that Christianity is for the poor and oppressed to the view that the possessors of power and wealth are the true guardians of the faith.  It is a shift away from simplicity of worship and episcopacy to ornate basilicas, elaborate liturgies, and the development of a clerical aristocracy.  It is a displacement from the view that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and lies in the future, to its complete realization here and now in the Church.

This shift in perspective will lead to rejection of the Constantinian settlement on the part of some. Some will withdraw from the imperial church, seeking salvation on their own in the desert: the monastic movement.  Others will condemn the imperial church as apostate, setting up their own true church: the Donatists.

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