Gwynn, David M. The Eusebians: The Polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Construction of the ‘Arian Controversy’. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
This book is everything you expected a dissertation to be. It is a historical reconstruction of Athanasius’s writings that seeks to show when he began to speak of a “Eusebian party” that was the driving force behind the Arian controversy. (The Eusebians refer to Eusebius of Nicomedia and not to the church historian of the same name). As such, it is somewhat light on theology but it advances an interesting idea. Given that Arius was the heresiarch, Athanasius may have seen deeper forces involved. It isn’t simply that Arian-friendly emperors opposed Athanasius. It’s doubtful how committed to metaphysical Arianism they really were. There must have been something else, a network of bishops and clergy who promoted Athanasius and stood in his way.
The best way to approach this volume is to open the volume of Athanasius in the Schaff series. Look at the table of contents. Gwynn then analyses the possible dates when each was written and how that would determine whether Athanasius was operating with a Eusebian network in mind.
It is in the Epistula Encyclica “that we are able to identify all the essential elements of Athanasius’ construction of his opponents as ‘hoi peri Eusebion.’ Here, as throughout Athanasius’ works, the ‘Eusebians’ inspire persecution and violence, and are patrons of both secular power (Philagrius) and episcopal office (Gregory)” (Gwynn 53).
This book is about politics, not theology. True, in the ancient world the two couldn’t be separated. Notwithstanding, you won’t get detailed analyses of what Arians and Athanasians believed. The last chapter, however, does give a somewhat detailed account of what “the Eusebians” believed.
While Gwynn gives the impression that Athanasius routinely misinterpreted his opponents, Gwynn grudgingly admits that section 15 of De Synodis is an accurate account of Arius’s theology, which is: The Father was not always a Father, which means the Son is a creature (190ff). Moreover, Christ is God by participation and does not know the Father exactly, as only someone who has the essence can know that essence. The Son is called Word by name and not because he is the true word.
Gwynn says that pro-Athanasian scholars like Gregg and Groh ignore Arius’s distinction between seeing the Son as a creature vs. the Son as one of the creatures (Gwynn 197). I can’t understand how that distinction is relevant or even coherent.
Notwithstanding some of Gwynn’s nitpicking, he does highlight key distinctions that more moderate Arians made. Arians like Asterius or Eusebius could in fact say that the Son was ek tes ousias tou Patros. They simply said he was a product of the Father’s will. This is why Athanasius countered by saying the Son was the Father’s Will. The union “is not ontological and great emphasis is placed on the distinct identities of the individual hypostases of the Trinity” (226).
Gwynn makes a good point that Athanasius does not use homoousios as a construct in his early writings. This is important because some popular accounts of Nicea have Athanasius heroically championing the homoousion at the council. Nothing of the kind happened. Athanasius started consistently using it as a construct in De Decretis and De Synodis (230-231). It only appears once in three of the “authentic orations against the Arians.
In what could be confusing to the initial reader, Gwynn correctly notes, citing Torrance (1995, 206-212), that the terms ousia, physis, and hypostasis were initially synonymous. Using Torrance’s reading, hypostasis is ousia with an outward direction, whereas ousia refers to the internal relations.
It’s not that Gwynn rejects Athanasius’s account of the history. He sees it as a polemic and while it might be true, it can’t be trusted. That conclusion appears more than once. It makes for ironically somewhat tendentious reading. The book’s prohibitive price means that it will not replace more standard accounts of Nicea in the near future.