Eusebius Pamphili—Compromising Bishop of Caesarea
MENTION of the Nicene Council of A.D. 325 at once calls to mind such names as Emperor Constantine, Arius and Athanasius. It should also cause us to think of Eusebiusa Pamphili, the bishop of Caesarea, for he also played a leading role at that Council, although for him it was a personal tragedy. The facts about him help to underscore the Scriptural and logical weakness of the Nicene Creed, produced at that Council, as well as serving as a warning to all Christians as to the penalty for compromising.
Eusebius was born between A.D. 260 and 270, some authorities disagreeing, others being uncertain; and he died in A.D. 339 or 340. He thus appears to have seen the light of day several years before Emperor Constantine, whose favorite he became, and to have survived the emperor by several years. His birthplace most likely was Palestine, where he spent his youth. Apparently his parents were able to give him a good education.
Greatly influencing Eusebius were the writings of Origen, peer of post-apostolic “fathers,” and his friendship with Pamphilus, so that Eusebius gave himself the surname Pamphili, that is, “the friend of Pamphilus.” Pamphilus was outstanding, even as Origen before him had been, because of the emphasis he placed on study of God’s Word at a time when more and more were turning to tradition and Greek philosophy.
In the first half of his life Eusebius witnessed the persecution and martyrdom of Christians at the instance of Diocletian; Pamphilus, his best friend, being among these martyrs. Why Eusebius escaped unscathed is not clear. Did he compromise or did influential connections spare him? One thing is certain, he kept visiting his brothers in prison, urging them to faithful endurance. Then in A.D. 315, two years after the death of Emperor Diocletian, Eusebius was made bishop of Caesarea, a post which he held for the rest of his life, some twenty-five years.
Eusebius wrote a number of works. For his Ecclesiastical History he is recognized as the pioneer of church historians. However, compared with eminent church historians since his day, not to say anything of Luke’s masterpiece, The Acts of the Apostles, Eusebius leaves much to be desired, both as regards accuracy and method of writing. His main value as historian is that he made use of material that otherwise would have been entirely lost. His history covers some 350 years, from about 30 B.C. to A.D. 324. Among his other writings are some very effective treatises refuting the arguments of pagans and a Life of Constantine; in which latter Eusebius cannot seem to say enough flattering things about the butcher that plowed through seas of blood to establish himself as the Roman emperor.
EUSEBIUS AND THE TRINITARIAN ISSUE
What interests us most, however, is the position Eusebius took in the trinitarian dispute that so rocked the church during the first quarter of the fourth century. At the Council of Nicea he occupied the place at the right hand of Emperor Constantine, who presided over the Council, and he made the opening oration on behalf of the 318 bishops assembled and in praise of the emperor who had convened the assembly.b Eusebius was fully in sympathy with Constantine’s purpose: to restore among professed Christians the unity that they manifested while being persecuted but that was now so sadly deteriorating under the sunny climate of Constantine’s protection. Eusebius proposed his own creed, which actually ignored all the issues involved. While the majority were in favor of it, they not seriously caring one way or the other, the extremists would not yield and in the end the trinitarians won out.
Toward which faction did Eusebius lean? Very obviously toward the Arians; his very compromise creed was a slap in the face of the trinitarians. In fact, he had taken the side of Arius years before on that very issue. Besides, the bone of contention was the Greek term homoousios, meaning “that the Son of God is of the same essence or substance with the Father,” a term which Eusebius studiously avoided. How he felt about the subject can be seen from the following quotations as recorded by his biographer Valesius:
“As not inquiring into truths which admit of investigation is indolence, so prying into others, where the scrutiny is inexpedient, is audacity. Into what truths ought we then to search? Those which we find recorded in the Scriptures. But what we do not find recorded there, let us not search after. For had knowledge of them been incumbent upon us, the Holy Spirit would doubtless have placed them there . . . Let not anything that is written be blotted out . . . Speak what is written and the strife will be abandoned.” Other quotations could be given of similar import.
Yet in spite of such convictions, what did Eusebius do at the Council of Nicea? He eventually subscribed to the Nicene Creed that featured the very homoousios to which he was so opposed. Did he do so because Athanasius had convinced him? or to please Constantine? or to escape the banishment and persecution that came upon Arius and the two bishops that refused to compromise?
While only God can read the heart, the subsequent facts all indicate that Eusebius subscribed to the Nicene Creed because of policy, not principle. As Valesius well observes, Eusebius remained the ardent friend of Arius and the bitter foe of Athanasius. Signing that creed obviously changed neither his heart nor his course of action—an act of expediency seldom, if ever, does.
Revealing also is the fact that Eusebius, in his Life of Constantine, while taking note of the Council of Nicea, entirely ignores the trinitarian controversy that raged in it. Why did he ignore the very heart and soul of that event? Why did he not even record any of his own speeches at the assembly regarding the nature of Christ? He pronounced it a success on the basis of its having agreed on when Easter should be celebrated! Was he thereby resorting to irony to show his contempt for the entire trinitarian business?
Perhaps, but it appears that more was involved, for in his Ecclesiastical History he entirely ignores that Council; which he could only do by stopping his history with the year A.D. 324. Why stop a history of the (professed) Christian religion just prior to the most important event of the history’s last two hundred years? Only one reason can be adduced: he was not proud of the part he played at that Council. So he left it to other historians to record its proceedings, including his own speeches and lengthy explanation as to why he subscribed to the Nicene Creed. While because of that fact trinitarians like to claim Eusebius Pamphili as their own, at heart he had not changed; Jerome was right in terming him an avowed champion of Arianism.
Eusebius was so highly esteemed by Constantine that he declared that Eusebius could be bishop of well-nigh the whole world. And the one who at last baptized Constantine, just before his death, was an intimate friend of Eusebius Pamphili, namely, Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had even stronger Arian sympathies and who only at the very end subscribed to the Nicene Creed. It is not inconceivable therefore that had Eusebius Pamphili been as ardent a champion for the Scriptural position as was Arius, had he had the courage of his convictions, the Council of Nicea might have decided against instead of for the trinity, especially since so many of the bishops present did not feel strongly on the subject.
But Eusebius Pamphili was more concerned with policy than with principle, with gaining the approval of Constantine than with gaining the approval of Jehovah God. He sacrificed truth for the sake of expediency. He must therefore take his place among such as Nicodemus, who dared to come to Jesus only under the cover of night, and with Joseph of Arimathea, “who was a disciple of Jesus but a secret one out of his fear of the Jews.”—John 3:1, 2; 19:38.
Truly the facts regarding Eusebius underscore the Scriptural and logical weakness of the Nicene Creed. And they leave no doubt that Eusebius secretly often regretted his compromise at the Council of Nicea, in which he serves as a warning to all Christians: The punishment of having to live with a guilty conscience should make us ever sensitive and alert to the danger of compromising.
a Eusebius was also the name of some forty contemporaries; in fact, during the first eight centuries 137 men in the church bore the name. It comes from a Greek root meaning “piety.”
b According to Eusebius himself there were only upward of 250 bishops present, out of the two thousand that were invited. Uncertain also is the exact date the assembly convened.