American Catholic Press
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by Father Joseph Jungmann, S.J.
The fourth century is marked in Church history not only by the victory of the Church and the influx of the pagan masses, which now more or less quickly turned towards Christianity, but also by the disputes which raged within the Church in regard to christological dogmas, disputes which were set loose by the rise of Arianism. These disputes attained special intensity and fierceness in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. They led to divisions in parishes and to the expulsion of many bishops. They even entered the very sanctuaries of the churches, where they led not merely to the setting up of formulas, of professions of the faith, one against the other. In many churches they influenced the prayers themselves and caused polemical changes to be made in them in this or that sense. We must remember, of course, that these disputes concerned a matter of vital importance to the Church's life, the very person of Christ our Lord.
By taking up and expanding the train of thought of Origen and of Lucian of Samosata, Arius had arrived at the position that the Son is less that the Father. Although possessing divine dignity he is not from all eternity. He is a creature of the Father, made in time, hence subordinate to the Father. The doctrine caused tremendous reverberations. On the one hand, many hailed it, since it seemed that thereby the obscure mystery of the divine persons in the one divinity could be brought into harmony with the postulates of human reason. And at the same time, it was flatly contradicted and opposed by many, because it was manifest that it denied traditional doctrine. At the Council of Nicaea, in 325, this doctrine was condemned. But it was not subdued; the whole century was still filled with this dispute. Even in the following centuries, the argument was carried on in one form or another. It is, of course, quite obvious that the decision about Arian doctrine was of importance in the question of how prayer, and especially liturgical prayer, was to be organized. May the Son be honored and adored just like the Father? What position was Christ to occupy in the prayer? This question became all the more acute because the liturgical traditions of previous centuries contained formulas that seemed to favor the Arian point of view.
Liturgical prayer was addressed to God at first without relating it to any particular speculation; religion is worship of God, and prayer is the raising of the soul to God. Further, in thinking of the mystery of the Trinity, God was called Father; in prayer he was addressed as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was quite correct; we can even say that if in prayer we address God as the prime fountain of all beings, then the Person who is thereby addressed is always the Father1 . But even during the first centuries the point was insisted on that in liturgical prayer not merely was the name of God or of the Father to be mentioned, but also in such prayer the fundamental fact of the Christian order of salvation was to be expressed.Why do we appear before God with confidence? We appear before God with confidence only because Christ our Lord is with us and is leading us to the throne of God. Hence in liturgical prayer mention must be made also of Christ through whom we have "access" to the Father (Eph. 2:18).
Thus already in St. Paul, at least in two passages where he speaks of prayer or is himself praying, we find the phrase inserted: per Christum. "First I give thanks to my God, through Jesus Christ, for all of you" (Rom. 1:8). "To God who alone is wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever and ever" (Rom. 1:20); this manifestly means: the faithful, with the Amen, voice their consent to the prayer which has been offered to God through Christ. And it is not only St. Paul who uses this formula; it is also found in St. Peter (I Pet. 2:5) when he is exhorting the faithful to offer spiritual sacrifices, which are agreeable to God through Jesus Christ; or (in the same Epistle, 4:11) when he wishes God to be glorified by the faithful through Jesus Christ. The idea was, therefore, common in the primitive Church even from the beginning.
What exactly is meant when the Christian congregation offers prayer "through Christ"? This formula makes clear not only that Christ has redeemed us by the historical fact of his passion and death, but also that he continues to be our mediator with the Father. After his sojourn here on earth, he did not divest himself of his human nature, but as man entered into the Father's glory. He is still one of us, the first born of new humanity, the head of the holy Church. And so he is with the Father "always living to make intercession for us" (Hebr. 7:25). When we pray, therefore, we do not pray alone; but our prayer reverberates as it were in his holy soul. Thus through him, fortified, sanctified and ennobled through him, fortified, sanctified and ennobled through his prayer, our prayer reaches the heavenly Father.
This mode of prayer is found in all the remnants of the liturgy preserved to us from the era of the primitive Church. We are not now referring to such turns of thought as are found in the Didaché, wherein thanks is rendered to God "for the life and knowledge which you have revealed to us through Jesus your Son"; for here there is question not of the ascent of our prayers through Christ but of the descent of God's gifts through him. Similar expressions are found in our present-day prayers. But even the prayers of the Didaché end with doxology, a note of praise by which the prayer is sent heavenward through Christ to God: "For yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever."
In the account of Polycarp's martyrdom which the Smyrna community sent to the other churches, we find quoted the beautiful prayer which the holy bishop recited as he stood tied to the stake. After thanking Almighty God for the grace of martyrdom, he concludes in a loud triumphant voice, as though he were concluding a solemn liturgical prayer:2 "For this and for all benefit, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen." Thus we see that already in the first and second century, especially in the doxology with which prayers were concluded, the thought was expressed that our prayer and our glorification ascend to God through Christ.
As the liturgy of the primitive Church continued to develop, so this type of prayer and especially the doxology developed also. The wording already included a mention of the goal of our prayer (God) and of the mediator of our prayer (Christ); now expression must be given also to the earthly sphere from which our prayer arises. This earthly sphere from which our prayer ascends is the community of the redeemed, the holy Church. In Hippolytus of Rome, therefore, we find the doxology at the end of his prayers in this form: "That we may praise and glorify you through your child Jesus Christ [thus far this is also the form of glorification previously customary.] through whom glory and honor is unto you, the Father and the son with the Holy Spirit [this seems to be a more personal addition of Hippolytus; but now the continuation] in your holy Church (in sancta ecclesia tua), now and in eternity." Wherever in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, the solemn form of the final doxology recurs, there is always this addition, "in your holy Church". This formula, by the way, is found once also in St. Paul, with the same wording, in Eph. 3:21: "To whom be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus." However, in later texts the same idea is more generally presented in another form. What is the reason that the Church is able to glorify God worthily? It is the Holy Spirit dwelling in her; the Holy Spirit helps her to pray. Our Lord himself said the Father is seeking such adorers as adore him in the "spirit" and in truth. So the Holy Spirit is included in the prayer formula and especially in the doxology. This is formulated in the following words; "We praise you through Christ in the Holy Spirit."
This wording we find, for example, in Origen. Origen wrote a special book about prayer, referring not only to liturgical but above all to private prayer. He recommends that we conclude the prayer by "praising the Father of the universe through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit." The prayers contained in the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions are regularly constructed in this manner. This mode of praying was apparently well received also because of its expression of the mystery of the Trinity: We praise the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The expression was made even more proportionate by putting the "Son" instead of Christ: We praise the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. The "Son" used in this connection was intended to signify, as it is evident, the Son in so far as he has become man; but it was possible also to obscure the humanity of Christ by emphasizing the divine Sonship.
As already mentioned, we possess in the Euchologion of Serapion a collection of Egyptian liturgical prayers from the middle of the fourth century. In this Euchologion the doxology already has this form, but it is frequently developed by stressing the divine nature in Christ. The author seems to delight in such phrases as: "Your only begotten Jesus Christ, through whom there is glory and honor to you in the Holy Spirit in eternity." Or sometimes the name "Jesus Christ" is left out and the prayer simply says: "Your only Begotten One". So it is in the prayer of the breaking of the bread: ". . . make us wise, God of mercy, through the participation in the body and blood; for through your only Begotten One there is to you glory and honor in the Holy Spirit now and in all eternity" (n.14).
Now here was a possible starting point for Arianism. Arianism held, as mentioned, the doctrine that the Son is inferior to the Father, that, therefore, he is "subordinate" to the Father; Arianism is, therefore, also called Subordinationism. The Fathers like Athanasius, Basil, and other champions of Catholic doctrine are, therefore, forced to defend the real and complete divinity of the Son, his unity in essence with the Father: consubstantialis Patri, as the council of Nicaea defined it and as we today still say in the Creed. A string of passages from Sacred Scriptures could be brought forward in evidence, together with the Church's tradition, to support this doctrine. The Arians, however, cited other passages, where the lowliness of the God-man is referred to; and they could point to the liturgical prayer, to the doxologies, everywhere customary in that time in the Catholic Church, which read: Gloria Patri per Filium in Spiritu Sancto. The Catholics themselves, so they said, grant that the Son is less that the Father, because they address their prayer to the Father through the Son, hence they consider him as in some sort of intermediary stage below the Father.
It was not difficult to answer this. Without doubt there are numerous passages in the Bible in which it can be seen the God-man stands below the Father. But this is precisely because he is the God-man; as man he is a created being, as man he subordinates himself to the Father's will, as man he prays just as he suffers and dies as man. And this is the meaning also of the per Christum or the per Filium of the liturgy: as man he is our Savior and High Priest, as man also he is now our mediator with the Father.
We can, however, understand that these differentiations could not prevent a certain uneasiness from arising among the Christian people. People were troubled and uncertain. The Catholic party therefore, began dropping the old doxology, not because it had been erroneous, but because it could be misunderstood and, as a matter of fact, was misunderstood. Therefore as a rule they no longer prayed (if we may reduce the various formulas into one scheme): Gloria Patri per Filium in Spiritu Sancto, but Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
The dispute was particularly fierce in the Greek-speaking regions. Here the formula, as a rule, was so worded that at the end of a prayer the name of Christ was mentioned with the following phrase appended: δι ου σοι η δοξα εν αγιω πνενματι . This was now replaced by μεθ ου η δοξα δου αγιω πνενματι. Thus even the mention of the Holy Spirit was given a different wording, for soon after the Council of Nicea the dispute over the person of the Logos was quite logically carried over also to the person of the Holy Spirit. The wording “in the Holy Spirit” was also misinterpreted in such a way that the Holy Spirit was taken as some impersonal force, hence that he was not a divine person.
This doctrine, too, was condemned by several synods and finally by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 390. And in this sense, we still say in the Creed of the Mass the words: Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum (He too is Kyrios) . . . qui cum. . . Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur (He too is to receive all adoration and glory together with the Father and the Son.) This simul-adoration was also expressed in the doxology with the formula: Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto or correspondingly in the Greek: μετα του Τιου, ουν Αγιω Πνευματι.
In Caesaria, during the episcopate of St. Basil, the Arians were bent on causing trouble; and here too they appealed to the doxologies. Then one day Basil started using beside the old doxology “through the Son in the Holy Spirit” (δια—εν also the new one: “(to the Father be honor) with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” (μετα—συν). A storm was the consequence. The adversaries accused the bishop of using texts which were not merely foreign and novel but which contradicted one another. Then, in the year 375, Basil wrote the work De Spiritu Sancto in which be thoroughly expounds the meaning of both the old and the new formula. In the older formula, prominence is given the voluntary abasement by which the Son descended down to us, becoming our Savior and Shepherd; therefore we can pray through him. And in it, too, the Holy Spirit is pictured, so to say, as the place where we can adore God; therefore we can pray in him. The new formula, on the other hand, expresses rather the adoration we owe equally to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; and it harmonizes with the words with which we are baptized, "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
But the cause of orthodoxy was by no means won. Other bishops were hazy themselves as to how they should decide; or they themselves were inclined towards the heresy; or they did not have the courage to oppose it outright. In Antioch, the great capital of Syria, the conflict of opinions raged most fiercely. Bishop Leontius did not want to incur the displeasure of any party, so when he had to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in his cathedral, he was at a loss which doxology he should use at the end of the prayer. He had recourse to the expedient of singing the words in question so softly and indistinctly, that even those standing next to him could only catch the last words “from ages to ages.” That kind of evasion was no solution for the problem, Bishop Leontius himself was well aware. It is reported of him, in this connection, that he pointed to his white hair saying: “After this snow has melted away, there will still remain a lot of mud.” This was about 350.
But by the end of the century, the dispute in the East had been settled with regard both to the dogmatic and the liturgical aspects of the question. The emperors at Byzantium no longer protected Arianism, as had the Emperors Constantius and Valens; and so the Arian bishops were obliged to retire. After that, Arianism no longer mattered in the East. It was only in the West that it survived, through the Teutonic tribes which had embraced a Christianity tinged with the Arian heresy.
With regard to the liturgy, the result in the East was the transition to the new anti-heretical and anti-Arian doxology. This was either employed in the form in which it had been evolved in the dispute against the heretics: “Glory be to the Father with Christ together with the Holy Spirit” (This form became dominant especially in the region of Antioch.), or a form was used in which both the old and the new were combined: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom and with whom be to you glory together with the Holy Spirit” (This form prevailed in Alexandria, hence in Egypt.) Yet a third form arose in the East. It became dominant around Byzantium, although it probably came from Syria. This form is modeled after the words of baptism in accord with our Lord’s command in Matth. 28: 19. In it the three divine persons are simply mentioned one next to the other. Thus at the end of many prayers in the Byzantine Liturgy we find: “For you are a good and benevolent God, and to you we send up glorification, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto ages of ages.” This same solution was connected with the psalmody, and the Western Church borrowed the formula as we use it at present: Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
From what we have said, it can easily be seen how deeply the Church’s life was shaken by her dispute with Arianism, especially in the East. It even appears that not only were some words of the prayers altered but also that the whole religious mentality of the people was deeply affected by this change, at least in the Eastern Church. For stress was now placed not on what unites us to God (Christ as one of us in his human nature, Christ as our brother), but on what separates us from God (God’s infinite majesty). The doxology is not the only point in the liturgy where the effect of the dispute with Arianism became apparent. It was merely an issue where the reaction had been greatest. But the reaction is visible also in the calendar of feasts; only it is here much more calm and moderate. However, the war of defense against heresy in this case was not so much the cause but much rather the occasion and additional incentive to a further development.
This is particularly the case with regard to the two new feasts of Christ which arose during the fourth century both in the East and in the West: in the former the feast of Epiphany, in the latter Christmas. Of both feasts we have already spoken at some length. We cannot establish with certainty whether either or both were in existence before the beginning of the christological dispute. In any case, it was the zeal to defend Christ’s divinity and greatness which helped towards the speedy dissemination of both feasts, so that the Eastern feast was even adopted in the West and vice versa, although both actually had the same theme. In both instances, the theme was the Lord’s coming into the world, the Incarnation. But just as a ruler’s coming is the occasion for welcoming him and for praising his greatness, so these feasts presented the occasion for praising the greatness of him who came to us under the cloak of human nature. Especially in the feast of Epiphany can we notice this tendency, for the Introit of the Mass starts with the words: Ecce advenit dominator Dominus. ["Behold, the Lord, the ruler, is coming."] It is to be noted that, in the Roman liturgy, the entire feast of Epiphany still keeps something of its primitive Eastern significance, so that it seems as though the principal mystery it has in view is actually the first manifestation of the Word made flesh.
But in the East the enrichment of the festive calendar did not stop there. While celebrating the birthday of a great son, it is almost a matter of course to honor also the mother. The worship of Christ, the Son of God become man, implies and compels a veneration of her who was the instrument of his Incarnation. A particular impulse toward such a move was supplied in the fifth century by the struggle against the Nestorian heresy which followed a course similar to that taken by Arianism a century earlier. Nestorius, who became Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, faced with the problem of explaining the union of the divine nature with the human in Christ, reduced that union to one of the moral order. He asserted that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, and Jesus were two distinct persons, two individuals united in the moral person called Christ. His heterodoxy was unmasked when one of his priests openly preached against calling Mary “Mother of God”(θεοτοκος). The Catholic rejoinder was an increased devotion to Mary. The whole of the East arose to atone for the indignity to the Mother of God. St. Epiphanius had already warned against treating the Mother of God as a goddess and his admonition continued to restrain the faithful from giving to Mary the adoration that belongs to God alone. But this warning was not meant to restrain the faithful from celebrating with increasing solemnity the glories of her who was Mother of God and Mother of human beings. Churches were built in her honor, just as previously churches had been built over the tombs of the martyrs to honor the memory of these heroes of the faith. It was in a basilica of the Mother of God that St. Cyril of Alexandria preached before the Fathers assembled for the Council of Ephesus what some regard as the greatest Marian sermon in the whole of antiquity.
It was in connection with the building of such churches to honor the
Mother of God that two of the earliest Marian feasts took their origin.
A church was built at Gethsemane, on the road between Jerusalem and
Bethlehem, where pious belief placed the grave of Mary. This church
was consecrated on the fifteenth of August; and from this festival
of dedication, it seems, was evolved what later became the feast of
the Dormitio, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. This
feast was celebrated already before the year 500; it was extended to
the whole Eastern Empire by the Emperor Maurice (+ 602).
Two other feasts of Eastern origin are linked with the Christmas cycle: the Annunciation (nine months before Christmas) and the Purification (forty days after). Both of these feasts are basically feasts of the Lord. February 2 is still styled by the Greeks Hypapante (Τπαπαντη), that is, occursus Domini, the manifestation of the Word in human flesh to the aged Simeon. Its origin is probably to be sought in Jerusalem; here it was being celebrated about the year 400 when Aetheria pilgrimaged to the Holy Land. March 25 was also called Annuntiatio Domini or Conceptio Christi. 3
These are the four great feasts of our Lady that originated in the East in the period between the fourth and sixth centuries, outgrowths, as we have seen, of the great christological conflicts against Arius and Nestorius. It was not until much later, after the time of Gregory the Great, that they were brought to the West, when countless priests and monks fled the pressure of the Islamic invasions and settled in Italy and Gaul.
We have to mention still another liturgical fact more or less connected with the reaction against Arianism, namely, the decrease in the reception of Holy Communion. It is a fact that during the fourth century there was a sharp drop in the reception of Communion, especially in the East. St. Ambrose, while attacking those in his own Church who communicated only once or twice a year, makes a pointed reference to this sad state of things: quemadmodum Graeci in Oriente facere consuerunt.4 ["as the Greeks in the East are used to doing"] About the same time, Chrysostorn gives vent to a similar complaint that few venture to approach the altar: 5 “In vain do we stand before the altar; there is no one to partake.” But it is Chrysostom himself who makes us aware of a trend in Eastern piety that might in some way account for this decline. Even before him, St. Basil the Great and other Greek Fathers had been using a language calculated to inspire awe and fear in the recipient. The pertinent chapter in Basil’s Shorter Rule is captioned “With what fear . . . we ought to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.”6 Chrysostom speaks about “the terrible sacrifice,” about the “shuddering hour” when the mysteries are accomplished, and about the “terrible and awesome table.” Those who approach the table of the Lord may do so only with fear and trembling.7 Is it any wonder that the ordinary faithful, conscious of the pressures of their daily occupations, conscious too of their unworthiness before the divine majesty, lost courage?
This manner of expression is obviously related to the situation in
the field of christology. In the struggle with Arianism and Nestorianism,
a struggle was waged over the essential divinity of Christ. The eyes
of Church leaders were focused upon the point in danger, the divinity
of Christ. They laid less and less stress on the human aspects of Christ’s
personality, on his relationship to us as friend and brother. For it
was his divinity that had to be defended, and so the emphasis was on
the rights that he exercises, his might as the judge of the living
and the dead. Singular proof that there is a direct link between the
opposition to Arianism and the peculiarly awesome attitude toward the
Eucharist is furnished by the
So we must conclude that the struggle with heresy, though ultimately victorious, yet led in many points to losses. The conflict left its mark not only on the liturgy, especially in the East, but also on the peculiar character of Eastern piety. This was probably unavoidable. But it is, and will always be, the task of the Church to do everything it can to restore equilibrium after the period of battle is over.
1. Rahner, Karl , “Theos in the New Testament
,” Theological Investigations , I (1961), 71-148.
(From the The Early Liturgy , University of Notre Dame Press,
1959, pp. 188-198), This article was first presented in a lecture
at Notre Dame in 1949. The text has been updated as of 2007.