Impact of Arian Heretics

Basil defended against the Arian heresy and sought Gregory's help -- Part 5

Gregory refused to go to the appointed town in Basil’s jurisdiction, becoming, in his words, “a fugitive.” At first, Gregory’s father tried to persuade him to be an active bishop of Sasima, then, when the father’s health declined, the father, himself a bishop, asked Gregory to become his auxiliary (Concerning His Own Life, ll. 464-482, p. 91).

For Basil’s part, we should understand the situation of the Christian Church. It was beset by various new heresies and heretics: Arians, Apollarians, Semi-Arians, Macedonians, Sabellians, a conflict between Meletius and Paulinus (both Catholic but one was a former Arian) for the patriarchy of Antioch (now known as Antakya, Turkey), and more. In a letter to Bishop (later St.) Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil wrote:

I suppose there is no one who feels such pain at the present condition…as your Grace; comparing, as you naturally must, the present with the past, and considering the difference between the two, and the certainty there is, if the evil proceeds at its present pace, that in a short time the Churches [of the various cities] will altogether lose their existing constitution. I have often thought to myself, “if the corruption of the Churches seems so sad to me, what must be the feelings of one who has witnessed their former stability and unanimity in the Faith…” (Newman, Historical Sketches, vol. 2, p. 40 [Letter 66])

In the case of Paulinus and Meletius, it turned out that Athanasius could not reconcile them “because he had already sided with one of the two.”

In further desperation, Basil wrote to bishops in Latin-speaking Italy and Gaul, far removed from the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire:

The danger is not confined to one Church; not two or three only have fallen in with this heavy tempest… [A man] whose blasphemies are the more shocking is more eligible for [the position of bishop]. Priestly gravity has perished; there are none left to feed the Lord’s flock with knowledge; ambitious men are ever spending, in purposes of self-indulgence and bribery, possessions which they hold in trust for the poor… The accurate observance of the canons is no more; there is no restraint upon sin. Unbelievers laugh at what they see, and the weak are unsettled; faith is doubtful, ignorance is poured over their souls… Sacred things are profaned; those of the laity who are sound in faith avoid the places of worship, as schools of impiety, and raise their hands in solitude with groans and tears to the Lord in heaven.

While, then, any Christians seen yet to be standing, hasten to us, our own brothers; yes, we beseech you. Stretch out your hands, and raise us from our knees, suffer not the half of the world [the Eastern Empire] to be swallowed up by error; nor faith to be extinguished in the countries from where it first shone forth… (Newman, pp. 43-44 [Letter 92])

Basil complained that, after 13 years of the Arian heresy, “the people have left their houses of prayer, and assemble in deserts; a pitiable sight, women and children, old men and others infirm, wretchedly faring in the open air amid the most profuse rains, and snowstorms, and winds, and frost of winter; and again in summer under a scorching sun (Newman, p. 46 [Letter 342]).

In another letter, he wrote:

There is a cry in the city, a cry in the country, in the roads, in the deserts… Joy and spiritual cheerfulness are no more; our feasts are turned into mourning; our houses of prayer are shut up; our altars deprived of the spiritual worship. No longer are there Christians assembling, teachers presiding, saving instructions, celebrations, hymns by night, or that blessed exultation of souls, which arises from communion and fellowship of spiritual gifts.

What’s more, he complained, it is the Arians who baptize, care for travelers and the sick, and celebrate the Liturgy, creating a bond with people that “in a little while, even though liberty be granted to us [Christians of the Nicene Creed], no hope will remain that they [the people], who are encompassed by so lasting a deceit, should be brought back again to the acknowledgement of the truth” (Newman, pp. 46-7 [Letter 243]).

Isn’t it clear that Basil needed help — from whomever he could get it? Basil saw Gregory as someone who wouldn’t fight, while Gregory saw Basil as too ambitious (Newman, p. 72).

In the next part, we’ll look at the death of Gregory’s sister, the death of Basil, Gregory as Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Synod of Constantinople I in 381.


[Ed. note: A link to Part 4:

A link to Part 6:]


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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