Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.34

Colin M. Whiting (trans.), Documents from the Luciferians: In Defense of the Nicene Creed. Writings from the Greco-Roman World, 43.   Atlanta:  SBL Press, 2019.  Pp. xv, 355.  ISBN 9781628372229.  $54.95.  

Reviewed by Winrich Löhr​, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg​ (


As ambitious emperors such as Constantius II or Theodosius I sought to integrate late antique Christianities, their policies created a fringe of resistant groups and individuals. One of those was a group of bishops and local churches (in, e.g., Spain, Rome, Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, and Eleutheropolis in Palestine)—that their opponents named after a certain Lucifer, bishop of Calaris (Sardinia), ‘Luciferians’ (see Jerome’s Adversus Luciferianos). It is, however, unclear whether Lucifer—who died in 370 C.E. (see Jerome, Chronicon, ed. R. Helm, 246), should be considered the ‘founder’ of the ‘Luciferians’ in any meaningful sense. These were, at any rate, strict and unforgiving adherents of the Nicene Creed of 325, who rejected the Homoian creed of the big Council of Rimini- Seleucia-Constantinople (359/360) and refused to have communion with its supporters. They also refused communion with those bishops who—particularly in the West—had first seemed to support the Nicene Creed, but had then been persuaded by Constantius II to embrace the Homoian orthodoxy of 359/360, only to abandon this position again to join the growing pro-Nicene consensus after the death of Constantius II in November 361. In the eyes of the ‘Luciferians’, the suspicious flexibility of these bishops—so necessary to end the doctrinal strife among the churches—turned them into prevaricators (praevaricatores), more intent on keeping their ecclesiastical office and the emoluments attendant on it than defending the purity of the faith.

This volume by Colin Whiting presents texts and fresh translations of writings emanating from this ecclesiastical fringe group: 1. A declaration of faith from the Luciferian presbyter Faustinus (Confessio Fidei, pp. 58-61); 2. a petition to the emperor Theodosius I (Libellus precum), datable to 383/84, presented by the same Faustinus together with his fellow presbyter Marcellinus (62-169); 3. Theodosius’ response to the petition of Faustinus and Marcellinus (the so called Lex Augusta, 170-175); 4. a treatise on the Trinity (De trinitate), addressed by Faustinus to the first wife of Theodosius, the empress Flavia Aelia Flacilla (176-315); 5. two letters of Athanasius of Alexandria to Lucifer of Calaris, which Whiting (following Louis Saltet) considers ‘Luciferian’ forgeries (316-329). The Latin text of the documents presented here is—with the occasional misprint1—mostly taken from the available modern editions, without their textual apparatus. For the Confessio Fidei, the Libellus precum and the Lex Augusta the edition of Aline Canellis in vol. 504 of the series Sources chrétiennes (Paris 2006) is used; the text of De Trinitate is taken from Manlio Simonetti´s edition in the series Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 69 (Turnhout 1967). As regards the two letters of (Pseudo-) Athanasius, their text—which is not yet available in a modern edition –is taken from Migne Patrologia Latina vol. 13. Whiting’s translations are fluent—and wherever I have checked them—accurate (my quotations below are from his translation). The rich bibliography (331-344) is very useful and appropriately polyglot.

The texts and their translations are preceded by an informative introduction that offers precise and succinct summaries of the documents translated (including their structure), and instructs readers as to their textual transmission, their modern editions and translations, and the main problems connected with their interpretation (23-57). The first section of the introduction (3-23) purports to give the reader some historical background. Here, however, some imprecisions have crept in.2 Moreover, the introduction characterizes the emerging Homoian orthodoxy in the West as ‘Arianizing’ and their opponents as ‘Arians’—a label, however, that these bishops explicitly rejected on several occasions (see, e.g. Athanasius, De synodis 22,3; Hilary of Poitiers, Contra Auxentium 13f, in Migne, Patrologia Latina 601 ff.), confirming this rejection by repeated condemnations of tenets ascribed to Arius and his supporters. Whiting also tends to view the opposition against Athanasius as part of an ‘Arian’ attempt to overthrow the Creed of Nicaea (5-7), thus apparently ignoring or rejecting the more nuanced picture proposed by the scholarship of the last forty years, namely that Athanasius was arguably never attacked and persecuted for doctrinal reasons, but rather for the manner of his election, for various (alleged) crimes and misdemeanours, and for high treason. The presentation and translation of these ‘Luciferian’ texts (which are accompanied by helpful notes) shed light on an ecclesiastical grouping that has been somewhat neglected, and also illuminate the religious policies of the fourth century and their circumstances in a more general sense.

The Libellus precum was—despite its considerable length—apparently accepted, read, and acted upon by the imperial bureaucracy. Faustinus and Marcellinus made, in fact, two requests, one very big and unrealistic, the other small and eventually granted by the emperor: Theodosius should either acknowledge—and instruct his bureaucracy accordingly—that the Luciferians are the only truly orthodox church, depriving nearly all the other Nicene bishops and clergy of the empire of their rank and office. Or, alternatively and more pragmatically, Theodosius should give orders that the few Luciferian bishops should be left in peace. If one wonders why a fringe group such as the Luciferians were successful with their request, one could point—as Whiting does—to the parallel case of the Novatians, another group of schismatic rigorist supporters of the Nicene creed who were nevertheless tolerated by Theodosius. Even heretics such as the followers of Aetius and Eunomius (that is, in hereseological parlance, the ‘Eunomians’) must have been intermittently successful with their petitions to the emperors—as the to and fro of laws sanctioning them and the partial suspensions of these same laws in Codex Theodosianus bk 16 seems to suggest.

Whiting reminds us that in making their double request, the two ‘Luciferian’ presbyters adopted “a common tactic in antiquity” in order to avoid “the social humiliation” of the possible rejection of a simple request (30). Faustinus and Marcellinus offer numerous stories of Luciferian clergy being first persecuted and then protected or vindicated by divine intervention. Although Faustinus and Marcellinus repeatedly challenge their readers to verify their claims (32), these stories certainly contain some elements of—occasionally scatological—fiction (e.g., on the death of Arius, or on the public silencing of Ossius of Cordoba, see c. 7-8; 34-38). They also entertain their readers by liberally indulging their resentment and their ‘Schadenfreude’ (see, e.g., c. 64). But even if Faustinus and Marcellinus take a certain delight in Old Testament stories that relate the exemplary annihilation of large numbers of impious priests (c. 69-70), they are trying to keep their vengefulness in check: No, they assure their imperial addressee (c. 71), “we are not saying these things because we are the sort of men who want anyone’s blood to be spilled… For whoever wishes this to occur has deviated from Christian laws. It happened back then, naturally, because at the time it was also allowed under divine law.” The Libellus precum paints a picture according to which persecuting bishops try to enlist often hesitant and unwilling state officials in their fights against dissident Christian groups.

Pending further exploration, other sources for the fourth and early fifth centuries seem to confirm this picture (see, e.g., Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 4,24,4-5; Altercatio Heracliani Laici cum Germinio Episcopo de Fide Synodi Nicaenae et Ariminensis Arianorum, PLS 1, 345-350). The Libellus precum also offers a conspicuous example of explicit resistance against hereseological labelling (c. 86f): “Now, it is also necessary that we dispel the malice of the false nickname ‘Luciferians’, by which they call us. Who does not know that the name given to sectarians is that of the man whose new doctrines have been transmitted to his students on their teacher’s authority? But Christ is our teacher.” The Libellus precum is therefore a precious source for all those who wish to study more closely the process of establishing a legally enforceable religious orthodoxy in the later Roman Empire—a process that was anything but easy, smooth, and linear and that involved multiple agents and institutions at different levels. The response to the Libellus precum, the so called Lex Augusta, a letter from Theodosius I to Cynegius, the Eastern praetorian prefect, is probably to be dated to 384. This document, too, would repay closer study. By naming two ‘Luciferian’ bishops as guarantors of sound faith and by granting them and their followers legal protection, it adopts, Whiting shows, the method of the famous edict Cunctos Populos (CTh 16,1,2) of February 28, 380 with its championing of Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria. However, as Whiting rightly reminds us (40), in the case of the Lex Augusta a forgery cannot be completely ruled out. If the Libellus precum and the Lex Augusta suggest that the two Luciferian presbyters were successful in gaining access to the Theodosian court, the treatise De Trinitate is meant to confirm this impression. It answered a missive of the empress Flavia Aelia Flacilla, who apparently had sent them certain ‘Arian’ capitula3 arguing against the Nicene faith. Faustinus’ refutation seems to quote from these capitula, as transmitted and probably enlarged by his addressee, the empress (see, e.g., De Trinitate 13; 16; 19; 20; 29 (?); 30; 35; 38; 43; 48). De Trinitate is therefore not only a source for a further variety of Nicene theology, but —indirectly—also for a further variety of Homoian theology, possibly conceived in or around Constantinople. This again awaits future exploration.

Colin Whiting amply deserves the gratitude of all those interested in the later Roman Empire, and particularly in its unique symbiosis of imperial and religious power, for bringing these fascinating sources to the attention of a larger readership. ​


1.   See Libellus precum c. 19: “piissime (instead of ‘piissimi’) et religiosissimi imperatores”; c. 30: “quod paeculos (instead of ‘pauculos’) habeat sectatores…”.
2.   It is, strictly speaking, not correct to state that the Nicene Creed of 325 teaches that the Father and the Son are ‘equals’ and ‘coeternal’ (4)—this is a possible interpretation of the Creed (which is clearly not shared by Eusebius of Caesarea, apud Athanasius, De Decretis Nicaenae synodi 33,1-17) but its wording avoids these terms. It is also a curious lapsus calami to state that the Second Sirmian Creed of 357 (Hilary, De synodis 11) “contained no mention of the word ‘substance’ or ‘ousia’ at all” (7)—this important theological declaration, carefully worked out at a synod probably presided by Ossius of Cordoba and subsequently circulated under Ossius’ name, explicitly mentions, and rejects, the terms substantia, ousia, homousios, and homoiousios.
3.   For capitula, see P. Petitmengin, ‘Capitula’ paiens et chrétiens, in: J.Fredouille et alii (ed.), Titres et articulations du texte dans les oeuvres antiques: Actes du colloque de Chantilly, 13-15 decembre 1994 (Turnhout 1997), 491-509. ​

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