#3 Eusebius of Caesarea: 50 Figures in Church History that You Need to Know
By Ricky Njoto
In this article, we’re going to look at a 4th century figure called Eusebius of Caesarea (260–340), the ‘father of church history’. During the 4th century, however, a lot of important events happened, and a lot of big names appeared. And so, here we’re going to look at Eusebius as a historian as we as considering the history that surrounded him.
- Not much is known about the early years of Eusebius’s life. There was probably a biography written about him by his successor, but like 99% of historical documents everywhere, that document is lost to us. What we know for certain is that Eusebius was baptised in Caesarea when Emperor Diocletian was persecuting Christians (remember Diocletian from our last article?).
- Eusebius was educated by a Christian named Pamphilus in the teaching of Origen of Alexandria. Origen was another important figure from the 3rd century, and his theology incorporated much of Greek philosophy. This will become important later.
- In 303 AD. came what is called the ‘great persecution’ by Diocletian. Both Eusebius and Pamphilus were captured. Pamphilus was then killed.
- The Emperor Constantine rose in power pretty soon afterwards, however. And because of a bizarre vision that he claimed came from God (Google it!), he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD., which allowed Christianity to be a legal religion. Constantine liked Eusebius because of his prominence as an author.
- A controversy happened during Eusebius’s life. Someone called Arius from Alexandria went around teaching that ‘there was a time when the Son was not’. Basically, for Arius, God the Son wasn’t actually equal as God the Father. He even said that the Son was somehow created by the Father as the firstborn of creation. We now call this teaching Arianism.
- A lot of the other church leaders and churches disagreed with this, however. A conflict arose, and Constantine called the first ecumenical (meaning: gathering of all churches) council in 325 AD.; the Council of Nicaea. Many bishops turned up, opposing Arius, including the famous St. Nicholas of Myra (Santa Claus!).
- Remember Eusebius’s schooling? He was educated in the teaching of Origen of Alexandria! Because of his Greek philosophy, Origen was also criticised for teaching the kind of Trinitarian doctrine that was hierarchical (that is, the Father is higher than the Son, who is higher than the Spirit). Eusebius was invited to present at Nicaea. Eusebius himself disagreed with Arius, but he held a doctrine that was suspiciously close to Arianism because of Origen. Also, Eusebius wanted to keep peace between the churches, and therefore, without directly supporting Arius, he went against those who opposed Arius for starting the conflict.
- When the Council of Nicaea ended, the Nicene Creed was established, which says that the Son is ‘God from God’ and ‘equal with the Father’. Arius was banished from the church. Arianism was condemned as a heresy. But was this a win for the Nicene theologians? Not so much. Soon, Arianism would return, and the Emperor himself became Arian.
- During this return of Arianism, Eusebius openly criticised the anti-Arian theologians for breaking the peace. His strongest opponent was another theologian called Athanasius (we will meet him in the next article). Athanasius was concerned for this return of Arianism. He was basically thinking, ‘An ecumenical council came up with a creed, how come that no one is following it?’ So, he brought his cause to the Emperor in Constantinople. The Emperor supported Eusebius, so Athanasius was condemned and exiled! How does this drama continue? We will see in the next article.
- Although many modern theologians suspect that Eusebius was kind of Arian, he’s indispensable from the history of the church because of his very important works. He wrote Life of Constantine and a few other works. His greatest work is, of course, the Church History, a 10-volume collection of what happened during the first 3 centuries of the church’s history. When he wrote this, he was the first to ever do it, making his works indispensable.
Ricky Njoto is a pastor of Church on the Corner, an English congregation of Camberwell Methodist Church, Melbourne.