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  • Doctrine and Power: Theological Controversy and Christian Leadership in the Later Roman Empire by Carlos R. Galvão-Sobrinho
  • Geoffrey D. Dunn
Carlos R. Galvão-Sobrinho
Doctrine and Power: Theological Controversy and Christian Leadership in the Later Roman Empire
Transformation of the Classical Heritage 51
Oakland: University of California Press, 2013
Pp. 328. $75.00.

This volume by Galvão-Sobrinho, a transformed doctoral dissertation, seeks to address the question of why the Arian controversy in the fourth century was so divisive. The argument here is that the imperial imperative for unity and uniformity not only gave squabbling bishops a new avenue through which to try and silence their opposition (exacerbating rather than diminishing conflict), but led to growing dissent and willingness to engage in controversy. There was an increasingly confrontational posture as church leaders saw not only points of theology but their own authority under threat. In fact, the Arian controversy created a new style and form of the exercise of episcopal power as leaders sought to engage in the dispute. The thesis advanced here is that the debate about the definition of God led bishops to prove their legitimacy through group action and the mobilization of support within both ecclesial and civic communities in ways previously unimagined and that had permanent consequences.

The volume in divided into two parts, with the Council of Nicaea in 325 being the turning point. It begins with an overview of previous theological debate in the third century before turning to consider how church leaders compromised and used collective bargaining to reach compromise and minimize tension, because doctrinal precision seemed to have been beyond them. An overview of Arianism is provided in the Chapter Three before an examination of the ways in which the general Christian population was drawn into it by bishops both in Alexandria (Chapter Four) and beyond (Chapter Five), ultimately involving the emperor who demanded a resolution (Chapter Six).

The second half of the volume considers the failures of Nicaea to resolve the theological debate and the new episcopal tactics employed, especially by Athanasius. The author’s question remains: Why did the losing side at Nicaea not admit defeat? While the pages are full of comprehensive and lucid detail about what happened during the remaining years of Constantine (Chapter Seven) and his sons (Chapter Eight), this fundamental question is not addressed as much as I was expecting. What was at stake was control of the church, but why did the [End Page 139] losers at Nicaea think that the theological solution could be overturned? In the time of Constantine’s sons, there was the fact that imperial opinion was divided, but what had encouraged Arians to continue during the last twelve years of Constantine’s rule? In other words, while we can see that Nicaea was the first example of imperial involvement in the settling of ecclesiastical disputes, our understanding of why that was the case (as opposed to how that was the case) is not advanced significantly. What is put forward is that the new status of the church, with its access to wealth, status, and privilege, made the fight worth fighting beyond the supposed solution arrived at with Nicaea. With such high stakes, compromise was no longer an option, and we find a greater episcopal willingness to use coercion and violence to win.

The volume ends with several appendices to flesh out the historical detail. It is lavishly supplied with endnotes and an extensive bibliography. Even though I have some sense of frustration that the root cause of Nicaea’s significance as a council that saw new constructions of episcopal power is not explored as fully as possible, it is nevertheless an engaging and thought-provoking examination of one of the pivotal episodes in the history of Christianity. A reader coming to the Arian controversy for the first time and even the reader familiar with the theological debate will be introduced to the all too human dynamics of power rivalries in a fresh and engaging manner.

Geoffrey D. Dunn
University of Pretoria


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pp. 139-140
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