General Audience June 6, 2007
Pope Benedict XVI met with 30,000 people in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on June 13. He offered his reflections on Eusebius (c. 275-339), who was a bishop of Caesarea in Palestine during the fourth century. Eusebius was the Church’s first historian and his 10-volume history of the Church provides important insights into the early years of Christianity to this day. Moreover, his theological, exegetical and historical writings reflect the rich Christian culture of his time, which spanned the period of the last persecutions, the peace of the Church under Constantine, and the controversies surrounding the Council of Nicaea.
In the history of early Christianity, the distinction between its first three centuries and the centuries following the Council of Nicaea in 325 — the first ecumenical council — is fundamental.
Constantine’s so-called “turning point” and the peace within the Church that resulted served almost like a “hinge” between these two periods, as did Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. Eusebius was the most qualified spokesman for Christian culture during his time in a variety of contexts, ranging from theology to exegesis and from history to scholarship.
Eusebius is especially known as the first historian of Christianity, but he was also the early Church’s greatest philologist.Contributions
Upon fleeing Alexandria, Origen took refuge in Caesarea — where Eusebius was born around the year 260 — and founded a school and a huge library. Several decades later, Eusebius, as a young man, received his formation from these very books. In 325, as bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius played a leading role in the Council of Nicaea. There, he subscribed to the Creed and affirmed that the Son of God is fully divine, which the Council of Nicaea defined as “one in substance” with the Father (homooúsios tõ Patrí). It is practically the same Creed we recite even today on Sundays during the sacred liturgy.
A sincere admirer of Constantine, who brought peace to the Church, Eusebius held him in high esteem and high regard. He praised the emperor in his written works and in his official speeches, which he delivered on the 20th and 30th anniversaries of his ascent to the throne and after his death in 337. Two or three years later, Eusebius also died.
A tireless scholar, Eusebius took it upon himself to reflect on and take stock of the three centuries of Christianity — three centuries lived under persecution — in his numerous works, consulting, for the most part, the Christian and pagan sources that had been preserved in the great library of Caesarea.
Despite the objective merit of his apologetic, exegetical and doctrinal works, Eusebius’ long-lasting fame is associated to this day first and foremost with his 10-volume Ecclesiastical History. He was the first to write a history of the Church, which remains a pivotal work to this day, thanks to the sources that Eusebius has put at our disposal for posterity.
His history has preserved numerous events, figures and literary works of the early Church from certain oblivion. For this reason, his work is a primary source for getting to know the first centuries of Christianity.Eusebius’ Goals
We might ask what were his intentions and his plan in writing this new work. At the beginning of the first volume, Eusebius lists the arguments that he intends to address in his work: “It is my purpose to write an account of the succession of the holy apostles, as well as of the times which have elapsed from the days of Our Savior to our own; to relate the many important events that have occurred in the history of the Church; to mention those who have governed and presided over the Church in its most prominent dioceses, and those who in each generation have proclaimed God’s word either orally or in writing. It is my purpose also to give the names and number and times of those who, through love of innovation, have run into the greatest errors and have become promoters of what they falsely call knowledge, and have unmercifully devoured the flock of Christ like fierce wolves … and to record the ways and the times in which the Gentiles have attacked God’s word and to describe the greatness of those who at various periods have defended it, enduring the test of blood and torture, as well as the confessions which have been made in our own days, and finally the mercy and goodness that Our Savior has afforded us all” (1,1,1-2).
Eusebius, therefore, covers various topics: apostolic succession as the backbone of the Church, the spread of the Gospel message as well as some errors, and, later, the persecutions of the pagans and the great testimonies that have remained a shining light throughout history.
In the midst of all this, the mercy and the goodness of Our Savior shine forth. Thus, Eusebius ushered in the historical study of the Church. His account covers the period up to the year 324, the year in which Constantine, after defeating Licinius, was proclaimed the sole Roman emperor. This is the year that preceded the great Council of Nicaea, which later offered a “summa” of everything the Church had learned — doctrinally, morally and even legally — over those 300 years.Centered on Christ
The quote we just mentioned from the first volume of the Ecclesiastical History contains a repetition that is surely intentional.
Three times in just a few sentences, Christ’s title of “savior” comes up, and explicit reference is made to “his mercy” and “his goodness.” Because of this, we are able to capture Eusebius’ fundamental perspective on the study of history.
His history is a history that is centered on Christ, in which the mystery of God’s love for man is progressively revealed. With genuine awe, Eusebius recognizes that “of all men who have ever existed on the earth, he alone is proclaimed and confessed as Christ (that is, as Messiah and Savior of the World), and that both Greeks and barbarians remember him by this name, and even today his disciples, scattered throughout the world, honor him as king, admire him as more than a prophet, and glorify him as the true and only high priest of God. And beside all this, as the pre-existing Word of God who existed before all times, he has received from the Father the honor of being worthy of veneration and is worshipped as God. But most wonderful of all is the fact that we, who have consecrated ourselves to him, honor him not only with our voices and with the sound of our words, but also with the complete readiness of our souls, so that we choose to give testimony unto him rather than to preserve our own lives” (1,3,19-20).
Thus, another characteristic that is constant throughout the ancient study of the history of the Church is immediately striking — the “moral intent” that pervades the account. Historical analysis is never an end unto itself; it was never created merely to know the past. Rather, it points decisively toward conversion and to an authentic witness of Christian life on the part of the faithful. It is a guide for us today.Eusebius’ Challenge
Eusebius addresses a spirited appeal to believers in every age regarding the way in which they face the events of history and, particularly, of the Church. He challenges us too: What is our attitude vis-à-vis the vicissitudes that the Church faces? Is it the attitude of someone whose interest is merely curiosity, perhaps seeking out at any cost what is scandalous and sensational? Or is it an attitude full of love and open to mystery, the attitude of those who — because of faith — know that they can discover in the history of the Church signs of God’s love and the great work of salvation he has accomplished?
If this is our attitude, we cannot help but feel inspired to offer a more consistent and generous response to a more Christian witness to life in order to leave a sign of God’s love for future generations, as well.
An eminent scholar of the Fathers of the Church, Cardinal Jean Daniélou, has tirelessly reiterated that “there is a mystery.” He goes on to say: “There is a hidden component in history. … The mystery is that of God’s works that, in time, constitute authentic reality hidden behind appearances. … But God creates this history for man, he does not create it without him. To contemplate merely God’s ‘great works’ would mean seeing only one aspect of things. Man’s response stands before these things” (Saggio sul misterio della storia, Brescia 1963, p. 182).
After the passing of so many centuries, Eusebius of Caesarea invites believers even today — invites us — to stand in awe and contemplate God’s great work for the salvation of mankind.
With this same vigor, he invites us to a conversion in our lives. Indeed, as we stand before a God who has loved us so much, we cannot remain unaffected.
Love requires that our entire life be oriented towards imitating the one we love. Let us do all we can to leave a clear imprint of God’s love in our lives.