I enjoy good theology, and as of late, I have become a ‘fan’ of Marcellus of Ancyra, so for a time, I will post from time to tome concerning his doctrine and an exegesis of some of his writings, surviving in fragments. For those of you who do not want to participate, I will try to alert you to this study in the title. I understood fully that some do not like talking about dead men and perhaps dead ideas, and frankly, that is fine – however, I do, so please allow me this chance to study a forgotten dead man who withstood the Arians and lost many friends during his lifetime. Remember, his miahypostatic theology was considered orthodox at the beginning of the fourth century, but by the end, even his long time friend and ally, Athanasius, had abandoned it and him in favor of a compromise with the dyohypostatic theology of the Arians.
In the beginning of the fourth century the Arians found a theologian to carry on their propaganda in Asterius the Sophist. Nothing of his work remains, except fragments, but we know that he was a student of Lucian of Antioch and had several works attributed to him. If you remember, the Arians believed in a multi-personal Godhead, and did not hesitate from using the plurality of number when speaking about the Godhead. This was considered heretical by the Westerners, as well as some of the East such as Athanasius and Marcellus of Ancyra. While we have a collection of Athanasius’ work, we have shreds of fragments, usually by his detractors (such as Eusebius of Caesaria), of Marcellus’ writings.
Marcellus did not shy away from theological controversy, going to far as to present his book against Asterius to the Emperor Constantine – which later decreed that all copies of that book were to be burned. In the book, which Eusebius of Caesaria describes as a work “to proclaim the one God”, we find a general overview of Marcellus’ thoughts and theology, from soteriological to eschatological. It remains, unlike Athanasius and others, consistent throughout his life time, with only minor refinements. Before we proceed to Marcellus’ doctrine, we have to understand that like most of those that come on the the wrong side of history, his words are preserved through the pens of his opponents. We can grasp details; however, we have to remember, some things may be considered propaganda.
A. The Position that Marcellus Opposes
His work was written to persuade someone, perhaps the Emperor, against the teachings of Asterius and the Arians. He considered their idea of a ‘begotten Word’, a second God, as a vile addition to the doctrine of the Church. He considered as the most dangerous principles of this new doctrine of the Arians that the number ‘two’ or ‘three’ could be predicated of the Godhead. The Arians assigned names to the Rule of Faith, and because of the assigned names of ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’ then each must refer to one in the Godhead, and for Marcellus, this flew in the face of his strict Christian monotheism.
Now I will begin with the letter that he wrote and refute each point of false teaching. He wrote that he believes in the Father, the Almighty God, and in his Son, the only-begotten God, our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, he says that he learned this type of piety from the Divine Scriptures. And when he says this, I totally accept what he says, for this manner of piety is common among all of us, that we believe in the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But when, although not totally dismissing his divine power, through some artful speculation he makes the Father more human when calling him Father, and the Son likewise when calling him Son, at that point I can no longer praise such speculations without running into danger. For it now happens that the heresy concocted by them has spread through such speculation, which I clearly and readily intend to show from his words. For he said, The Father must truly be considered a father, and the Son a son, and the Holy Spirit likewise.
Marcellus’ opponents held that there were two essences (this was before the debate concerning the nature of the holy Spirit), or hypostaseis – persons, powers, natures, objects, or Gods. The Arians would constantly use symphonia to describe the harmony of will shared between the Father and the Son. This doctrine, as promoted by Asterius, carried with it the corollary that since there cannot be two first principles, than the Son must be subordinate because the Son came from the Father. This gave the Arius party the tag of considering Christ a creature, although He was the first-born of all creation. This was one of the main reasons why Athanasius and his Bishop Alexander first called the Council together which would later result in the Nicene Creed.
In brief, Marcellus opposes the plurality of number in the Godhead (this is important to distinguish as opposing the Father, Son and Spirit of Sabellius). He understood his opponents to mean that the Word/Son was actually a second God, a creature, begotten; because of this, he only used the word ‘begotten’ to refer to the Son and never to the Word. Further, he separates in his theology, which is rather linear, the Preincarnate Word and the Incarnated Son of God, which Marcellus labels, Life, Way, Day, Door, Bread, and Resurrection. For Marcellus, the Incarnation is a decisive turning point in the history of salvation and it figures into his every aspect of this theology. When God’s Word became Man, Marcellus sees a new dynamic and bases entire theology on that Event.
Let me remind you of the things Asterius has written commending what Eusebius has incorrectly written, so that you may know that he clearly shrinks from the earlier promise. For he has written in his very own words, The main point of the letter is to show that it was the plan of the Father to bring about the birth of the Son, and that the offspring of God was not produced by fleshly passion, which the wisest of the fathers showed in their personal writings, guarding themselves against the wickedness of heretics. Yet, certain fleshly and sensual people speak falsely about God as bearing a child, making their proposals into fact. (Vinzent 2, Klostermann 34, Rettb. 29)