- Archetypal Heresy. Arianism through the Centuries
The veteran theological historian Maurice Wiles begins his contribution on his very first page, when he criticizes church authorities who have called the Nicene Creed “the sufficient statement of the Christian faith” by insisting that “its fulfillment of such a role is inevitably problematic.” After all, it attempts to answer a fourth-century conflict, hard to assess, between Arius and his critics. Originating how? why? using what traditions and interpretations? how conditioned historically?
He next provides a thoroughly modern reinterpretation, citing the conservative authority H. M. Gwatkin (9) but refuting him for the next 26 pages. Wiles rejects the picture of Arius and Arians presented by Athanasius and treats them with much more sympathy. Here much has to do with the starting point. If you begin with the fourth century or later you are likely to deny any claim of Arius to “orthodoxy,” whereas if you go from New Testament variety through Origen [End Page 319] you will find him more attractive. (A minor point: Wiles  mentions Arius’ “eight attributes” of God and prints seven, but the situation may be more complicated: Athanasius On Synods, c. 16, lists fifteen, including two more “philosophical” and even two [just and good] that are anti-Marcionite.)
A brief chapter on “the End of Arianism” inquires into “the Latin West” (see now N. McLynn, “From Palladius to Maximinus: Passing the Arian Torch,” JECS 4 : 477–93) and “Gothic Christianity,” “clearly a faith of a strongly social character” (47; like its rivals). It seemed to revive in Socinianism, but this was hardly Arian.
The heart of Wiles’s book lies in a hundred pages on “the Rise and Fall of British Arianism,” a chapter anticipated by the frontispiece, a portrait of William Whiston’s “lean and angular face” from Clare College, Cambridge. Whiston shared the anti-trinitarian views of John Locke and Isaac Newton, but did not hesitate to state them in public. He was removed from his mathematical professorship at Cambridge in 1710 “and was unable to secure gainful employment again for the remaining forty-two years of his life” (95). Wiles points out that his basic target was simply the so-called Athanasian Creed, which he once described on one occasion as “the most heretical creed now extant in the world.” Only at the age of eighty did he stop receiving the communion from those who “performed this ritual cursing of Christianity” (104).
Some American variations to a largely British theme can be supplied. Later Episcopalians were (inadvertently) influenced by Whiston. His volumes on Primitive Christianity Reviv’d (1711) included “the Apostolical Constitutions” and their authenticity, as well as “the primitive faith concerning the Trinity and incarnation.” The Constitutions contained the eucharistic prayers of the apostolic church, and Whiston went on with “the liturgy of the Church of England reduc’d nearer to the primitive standard.” This provoked a reply by Richard Smalbroke, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield (1714): The pretended authority of the Clementine constitutions confuted. Nevertheless, when Thomas Rattray, bishop of Brechin in Scotland, prepared his Ancient Liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem (1744), he “corrected” the Liturgy of St. James by the liturgy of the Constitutions and strongly influenced The Cormmunion-Office for the use of the [Episcopal] Church of Scotland (1764). In turn this influenced early American Episcopalian liturgists (see J. Dowden, The Scottish Communion Office 1764 [Oxford, 1922], 99–105, emphasizing “primitive”). Fruitful errors?
Another of Wiles’s characters with an American connection was the scholar and minister Nathaniel Lardner (1684–1768). His major study, The Credibility of the Gospel History, takes up seven volumes in the 1838 edition of his Works. His “large collection of ancient Jewish and heathen testimonies” even presents the fragments of Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian. Lardner, constantly in correspondence with American friends, sent his volumes to Charles Chauncy (1705–87), minister of the First Church in Boston and opponent of revivalism (I once found it in a Boston bookstore). Thus from both Whiston and Lardner we see American emanations not just theological but...