Richard Paul Vaggione, OHC

Eunomius of Cyzicus and the Nicene Revolution

Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 425 pp.

This book, as the title states, is about Eunomius of Cyzicus and the Nicene Revolution. More than that, it is an attempt to wade through the variegated evidence for the latter portion of the “Arian” controversy to provide an interpretive framework that can see past the polemic and offer a clearer picture of just what exactly happened to the Church in this period.

Chapter 1 begins, appropriately, with the birth of Eunomius and his early career. Born in Oltiseris in Cappadocia (near Galatia) of an insignificant (but locally important) family, Eunomius learned shorthand as a means for further education which ultimately led him (fortuitously, in Vaggione’s eyes) to Constantinople. Chapter two takes us to Antioch where he is trained in rhetoric and allies himself with Aetius (and, as a consequence, Paulinus of Tyre, Eusebius of Caesarean, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Asterius). Here, Vaggione notes, that Eunomius would most likely have been introduced to Aristotle (the Categories and Porphyry’s Isogoge were the standards of logic at the time). From there, Eunomius follows his master to Alexandria as his secretary.

Chapter 3 begins to exam Aetius and Eunomius as periti, or experts, and identity that will be a stable element of Eunomius’ life and ultimately his downfall. One of the characteristic elements of the periti, for Eunomius and Aetius, is a dedication to akribeia, or precision. As such, Eunomius placed himself in a specific class (periti) differentiated from the haute popularisation (theologically literate upper class) and the akeraioteroi (simpler sort). Any influence Eunomius would have would be restricted to his class and the theologically literate, and this “from above” approach would ultimately fail him. This wouldHere Vaggione also lays out some of the problems of “substance” language (i.e., homoousios) posed to a proper theological understanding of God such as the importation of physical attributes into God.

Chapter 4 is an important chapter for understanding the conceptual background of the non-Nicenes. First, Vaggione looks to the exegesis of both to force us to consider the real conflict as one of interpretive frameworks that control the outcome of ones scriptural interpretation. This is important because, as he argues, it is the interpretive framework and not the propositional content which can seize the imagination and gain popular support (this is why slogans, antiphonal psalmody, and key theological terms like homoousios became so important, not specifically because of what they meant, but because the masses could easily rally to such terms. A few other notes about this chapter worth mentioning. It is still common today (though not so much in scholarly literature as it once was) to see the heart of “Arianism” as a philosophical defense of the oneness of God. What Vaggione points out in explaining the “narrative framework” that governs non-Nicenes is a commitment to the single subject of Christ whose journey begins at creation, briefly appearing in the “theophanies” of the Old Testament, and culminating in the incarnation, death, and resurrection. In this narrative, Christ was begotten in measured time (chronos; or, one could say, creation was a result of this begetting), but not the “age” (aion) which preceded or lay outside of it.

Chapter 5 covers the conceptual differences between Aetius and Eunomius and the so-called “homoiousians” (e.g., Basil of Ancyra and Eustathius of Sebaste). Of particular importance is where to place the break between non-contingent and contingent, creator and creature. Was it between the Father and the Son or between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and creation? The question was pushed further by a innovative turn in Nicene theology, that God is unboundaried/infinite in essence (apeiron). For Eunomius, this places an unbridgeable gap between God and creation such that no knowledge of God is possible at all (let alone that at this time to say something was infinite in essence was to say it is unordered or chaotic, not a description one wants to give the one who brought the universe into order!). This was incoherent to Eunomius, who instead insisted on a chain of being in which essences inherently had a fixed order and that ever intelligible being is unlike every other outside its class. Thus, Eunomius argued that Christ was unlike in essence, because Christ dwelt at a specific spot in the chain of being and so necessarily was of a different essence. The Son, therefore, if he were to share any title with God, does so only at the level of attribute, not essence.

Chapter 6 covers the controversy over theological language with Basil the Great. Vaggione covers the typical ground of discussing Plato’s Cratylus (whether names are natural or conventional), as well as a helpful explanation of the Stoic idea of epinoia (concepts, that is, things which are apprehended in the mind, are real, but lack a subsistent existence of their own). Eunomius denies that any name can apply to God as an epinoia else we make God a mere conception in the human mind without substantial existence. The other problem was that Eunomius distinguished essence from actions such that the normal taxis of essence, action, product (in which one can work back to an essence from the product or action) becomes severed. The only solution is to know God’s essence through names, particularly unbegotten. This word best expresses God’s essence, which coincidently is identical with God’s knowledge of himself. Thus, Eunomiu’s (in)famous claim that we can know God’s essence just like God. Although, by this he did not mean the extent to which God knows his essence, but the mode, through immediate or intuitive knowledge brought to the mind through the name (they were not nominalists!).

One more thing about this chapter should be mentioned, and that was Basil’s response, which is representative for how the Nicene’s were handling the controversy at this time and what ultimately gave them the victory. First was their use of common speech (instead of solely scriptural language) for thinking through the problem of theological language. This moved the discussion from the realm of the periti to the masses. Second, was a positive account of human though which opened up the conceptual possibility of seeing God’s essence as infinite. Third, an infinite God meant our language about him is inadequate. Finally, all together this meant that one could use the polyvalent language in Scripture as well as common usage without having to be particularly precise. Chapters 7 and 8, then, chronicle how such flexibility in light of political and popular pressure allowed the Nicene’s to capture the imagination of the masses and how Eunomius’ “from above” approach ultimately failed him. The conclusion gives an interesting overview of Eunomius’ influence (for good or ill) from Late Antiquity, to the times of Gregory Palamas, and even the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment.

There is much to commend in Vaggione’s book. His attempt to bypass the polemical categories developed and passed on from the time of the controversy to the underlying narrative framework that drove exegetical and theological conclusions was helpful in explaining much of the data one finds concerning this period. While Ayres, in his Nicaea and Its Legacy proposes four streams instead of two, the method is similar enough. His prose was easy to read, and he explained difficult or foreign concepts (especially in chapters 5 and 6) clearly, without being bogged down by too many of the controversial points (i.e., the influence of Plato’s Cratylus on Eunomius argued for by Jean Daniélou, which Mark DelCogliano [Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names] has recently argued against, is used heuristically to explain the problem of naming without necessarily having to say that Eunomius was directly influenced by the Neoplatonic tradition of interpreting the Cratylus). Whatever shortcomings it might have (much research has been done on this period since the publication of this book in 2000, including and especially the work of Ayres and DelCogliano), I highly recommend it as an excellent addition in understanding this import period in the history of the Church.


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