Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.49

Guido M. Berndt, Roland Steinacher (ed.), Arianism: Roman Heresy and Barbarian Creed.   Farnham; Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2014.  Pp. xviii, 381.  ISBN 9781409446590.  $139.95.  

Reviewed by Eugene Webb, University of Washington (


This volume of essays is an important contribution to the literature on Arianism, especially because it not only provides further clarification of the controversies around Arianism in its origins in the fourth century but also gives welcome attention to the various forms it took subsequently among the various Germanic peoples (Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards…) who adopted it—a subject greatly in need of more exploration.

Arianism has been a contested subject over the centuries, and this volume itself exemplifies that, since not only do the authors discuss the history of controversies in the field but some of them directly oppose one another’s interpretations of the surviving evidence and even disagree whether the term “Arianism” is still useful (since it has had so many meanings and nuances, and since later Arianism may have had little to do directly with Arius) or should be replaced with another. As Hans Christof Brenneke explains in his lucid introduction to the volume, in his controversy with his bishop, Alexander, Arius wanted to emphasize God’s transcendence and, appealing to Proverbs 8:22-25 (“The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old….before the beginning of the earth….”), he claimed that “God alone is ἀναρχῶς, and thus he was not always Father. Before all time, and before the creation of the world, God called the Son into being ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων” (p. 9). The ambiguity of a “creation” before all time and before the creation of the world is apparent, but Alexander interpreted it to mean that Arius assigned the Logos a place among created beings and concluded that he thought the Son/Logos was merely a man adopted by God. In subsequent controversy Alexander’s successor, Athanasius, denounced so many opponents as “Arian” and so loosely that the term came to cover too much ground to have any precision—a problem compounded for later historians by the Nicenes’ almost complete destruction of Arius’s own writings, so that we have only sketchy ideas of what exactly he had in mind.

In the present volume, the main issue is how we are to understand the “Arianism” of the Germanic peoples, whose non- Nicene Christianity was legally exempt from the otherwise universal obligation of Nicene orthodoxy after the Council of Constantinople in 381. Several of the authors of the essays contained here advocate replacing “Arian” with the term “Homoian” when referring to Germanic Christianity. The first essay, by Knut Schäferdiek, “Ulfila und der sogenannte gotische Arianismus,” argues this forcefully, saying that although they were called “Arians” by the Nicenes of the empire, they labeled themselves “catholic” or “orthodox” (he cites, for example, a Visigothic reference to converts “de Romana religione ad nostram fidem catholicam venientes,” p. 22) and that their own theology was not based on that of Arius at all. (This one essay of the volume is in German, but it is followed by a brief English summary.) The two writers that follow after Schäferdiek, on the other hand, Sara Parvis in “Was Ulfila Really a Homoian?” and Paul Parvis in an essay on Saint Sabas disagree with him on this. Sara Parvis argues that “there are “clear theological parallels between Arius and Ulfila” (p. 58) and that “Ulfila is an excellent example of the unhelpfulness of the category of ‘homoian’” (p. 65). “His links with the early players and early years of the Arian Controversy are, if anything, stronger than those of the later years,”” she says, “and it is there, I would suggest, that his theology also best fits.” Paul Parvis (whose main argument is that Saint Sabas, who has traditionally been treated as a Catholic convert, was actually an Arian with a doctored posthumous Catholic hagiography) also comments on the Arian vs. Homoian issue, dismissing it as a question of “whether the word ‘Arian’—inverted commas or no—should be excised from the historical lexicon altogether and replaced with a neologism that means precisely the same thing” (p. 75).

Several of the essays deal at least in part with what exactly Homoianism was and how the Goths associated with Ulfila (whose name is spelled in different ways by different authors in this collection) adopted it and how later Germanic peoples who entered the empire adopted it from those who learned it from him. Uta Heil’s “The Homoians,” which focuses on this, says that the earliest statement of the Homoian position was in a synod at Sirmium in 357 CE where the core concern was that one should refrain from speculative disputes involving non-biblical language (such as ousia and hypostasis). Its advocates wanted to drop both homoousios and homoiousios—terms argued for and against at Nicaea in 325 CE, with homoousios winning out there. The Sirmian formulation of 357 became the basis for imperially convoked synods at Rimini and Seleucia in 359 and finally the one in Constantinople in 360 (with Ulfila in attendance), which declared (p. 95) that the Son was “begotten before all ages and before every beginning” (to differentiate their position from that of Arius, says Heil), that the Son is “similar to the Father who begat him” (hence the term “homoian”), and that non-biblical terminology should be avoided. The Homoian doctrine of the Synod of Constantinople in 360 subsequently remained the official “orthodoxy” of the empire through most of the 370s. This was the theology that was adopted by Ulfila and was transmitted by him to the other Goths who migrated into the empire in the fourth century.

Hans Christof Brenneke, in his “Deconstruction of the so-called Germanic Arianism,” is not particularly concerned with the nomenclature of “Arian” vs. “Homoian,” but he agrees with Heil that Gothic Arianism was actually the religion of the 360 synod, and he uses that fact to counter the claim of numerous scholars of the last century or so that the reason Germanic tribes took up Arian Christianity is that there was a special affinity of the German cultural mind-set for Arianism. Rather, he says, Wulfila (his spelling of Ulfila) and other Goths chose it because at the time they entered the empire that was the “orthodox” version of Christianity they encountered: “In their view they did—obviously—not become Arians but simply Christians” (p. 120): “This barbarian turn towards Arianism can thus be found in the historic coincidence that the Goths adopted Christianity during the reign of Constantius II and Valens” (p. 123). Brennecke also argues that the theological writings of Wulfila were “entirely rooted in the Greek and Latin theological tradition” (p. 128).

Brendan Wolfe, in “Germanic Language and Germanic Homoianism,” makes a similar case, arguing that “the emphasis on hierarchy and obedience cannot possibly have been stronger in Germanic society than in the Late Roman Empire” and that “it is not clear that a hierarchy of honour within the Trinity was an un-Nicene doctrine in this period, let alone a distinctive reason to prefer Homoianism,” (p. 194). Rather, he suggests that a simpler reason for a Germanic preference for Homoianism is that words for “like” are equivalent in various languages and were easy to translate and understand, whereas the Greek philosophical vocabulary of the Nicenes was not.

Other essays in this collection are mainly concerned with the form the “Arian” (or “Homoian”) version of Christianity took in the actual lives of the various Germanic peoples during the centuries before they eventually took up what after 381 CE became the imperially endorsed Catholic version. If there is a common concern of all of these writers, it is the need to correct the tendency of earlier historians to look at questions about the Germanic Christianity of that time through Nicene spectacles. (Yitzhak Hen, in his brief concluding note to the volume speaks of this as the “Nicene myopia.”) This has led to a search for parallels or lack of parallel (deemed therefore more primitive or less developed) between Arian and Nicene church organization and religious life.

There is too much for full summary in this review, so I will list briefly some of the main points the other authors take up. Ulfila has often been referred to as “the apostle of the Goths,” but Herwig Wolfram argues that Vulfila (his spelling) was a secular leader, rather like the “judges” of ancient Israel, and although he was ordained a bishop, that was not his main role among the Goths (as a historian with Nicene expectations might have supposed it to be). He also argues for religious diversity among the Goths themselves (Homoian, Catholic, and Audaian), claiming (against Paul Parvis) that Sabas really was a Catholic. Ralph W. Mathisen, Guido M. Berndt and Roland Steinacher, Pietro Majocchi, and Uta Heil (in a second essay, on “The Homoians in Gaul”) all speak of the relatively relaxed relations between Germanic Arians and Catholics in most parts of the empire, with Arians and Catholics, attending each others’ churches and participating in each others’ liturgies and sacraments. Ralf Bockmann studies the archaeology of surviving Arian churches in various place to show how whatever other differences there may have been between Arians and Catholics, they did not produce “any iconographic or architectural differentiation” (p. 201), so that “it is easy to picture a mixed congregation” in such churches, with neither Arian nor Catholic laity actually much bothered “with the theological differences competing bishops discussed” (p. 218).

The exception to this general picture of tolerant intermingling comes in the essay of Robin Whelan on “Arianism in Africa,” where the Vandal kingdom (439-534 CE) made a sustained effort to make its version of Christianity the orthodoxy of the new kingdom, but he says that although it used to be thought that the Vandals were persecutors of Catholics, in reality “coercion in favour of the Homoian Church and against the Nicene was far from ever-present” (p. 245). Meritxell Pérez Marinez’s essay on Catholic opposition to Arian thought in England focuses on a point that was mainly a preoccupation of bishops because it supported their claims to power, the divinity of relics (something that, of course, would make no sense in Homoian terms): “the relics of the martyrs are consubstantial with God.…every single fragment was part of the divinity of the whole” (p. 308)

Manuel Koch’s essay on “Arianism and Ethnic Identity in Sixth-Century Visigothic Spain” echoes the other authors in this volume who emphasize the low level of tension between Arians and Catholics in most places and says this is the reason the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism under Reccared took place so easily. What King Reccared and his father, Leovigild, both wanted to do in different ways was to bring their domain under a single ecclesiastical structure that they controlled and could use as an instrument of governance. Reccared succeeded by converting himself and then establishing a universal Catholic Church. That there was so little resistance to this on the part of the Visigothic Arians Koch takes as an indication that the borderlines between Arianism and Catholicism were in practice “quite flexible” (p. 268) and that “a supposed dissolution of a religiously marked ethnic segregation was not the aim but the basis of the attempts of both Leovigild and Reccared” (p. 269). “This situation.” he says, “formed the precondition for the kings to be able to pursue their underlying aim: to end the existence of two ecclesiastical structures as a hindrance to the expansion of central royal power.”

Differing as they do in their carefully researched arguments, the essays in this volume give a rounded and nuanced picture of the state of current understanding of the religion and the social organization of the various Germanic peoples in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

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