Eusebius​—“The Father of Church History”?

IN THE year 325 C.E., Roman Emperor Constantine summoned all bishops to Nicaea. His objective: to settle the much debated issue of God’s relationship to his Son. Among those present was the man regarded the most learned of his age, Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius had studied the Scriptures diligently and had been a defender of Christian monotheism.

At the Council of Nicaea, “Constantine himself presided,” relates The Encyclopædia Britannica, “actively guiding the discussions, and personally proposed . . . the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council, ‘of one substance with the Father’ . . . Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination.” Was Eusebius among the exceptions? What lesson can we learn from the stand that he took? Let us look at the background of Eusebius​—his credentials and undertakings.

His Noteworthy Writings

Likely, Eusebius was born in Palestine about 260 C.E. At an early age, he associated himself with Pamphilus, an overseer of the church in Caesarea. Joining the theological school of Pamphilus, Eusebius became an earnest student. He made diligent use of Pamphilus’ magnificent library. Eusebius devoted himself to his studies, especially to the study of the Bible. He also became a devoted friend of Pamphilus, later referring to himself as “Eusebius of Pamphilus.”

Concerning his aspirations, Eusebius stated: “It is my purpose to write an account of the successions of the holy Apostles as well as of the times which have elapsed from the day of our Saviour to our own; to relate how many and important events are said to have occurred in the history of the church; and to mention those who have governed and presided over the church in the most prominent parishes, and those who in each generation have proclaimed the divine word either orally or in writing.”

Eusebius is remembered for his highly regarded work entitled History of the Christian Church. His ten volumes published about 324 C.E. are considered the most important ecclesiastical history dating from antiquity. As a result of this accomplishment, Eusebius became known as the father of church history.

Beyond Church History, Eusebius penned Chronicle, in two volumes. The first volume was an epitome of universal history. In  the fourth century, it became the standard text for referencing world chronology. The second volume exhibited dates of historical events. Using parallel columns, Eusebius displayed the succession of the royalty of different nations.

Eusebius wrote two other historical works, entitled Martyrs of Palestine and Life of Constantine. The former spans the years 303-10 C.E. and discusses martyrs of that period. Eusebius would have been an eyewitness of these events. The latter work, published as a set of four books after the death of Emperor Constantine in 337 C.E., contained valuable historical details. Rather than a straightforward history, it is largely a eulogy.

The apologetic works of Eusebius include a reply to Hierocles​—a contemporary Roman governor. When Hierocles wrote against the Christians, Eusebius responded in defense. Moreover, in support of the divine authorship of the Scriptures, he wrote 35 books, considered to be the most important and elaborate effort of its kind. The first 15 of these endeavor to justify the Christian acceptance of the sacred writings of the Hebrews. The other 20 offer proof that Christians are right in going beyond the Jewish precepts and adopting new principles and practices. Together, these books present a comprehensive defense of Christianity as understood by Eusebius.

Eusebius lived for some 80 years (c.260-c.340 C.E.), becoming one of the most prolific writers of antiquity. His writings encompass the events of the first three centuries to the time of Emperor Constantine. In the latter part of his life, his work as a writer was coupled with his activities as bishop of Caesarea. Though best known as a historian, Eusebius was also an apologist, topographer, preacher, critic, and exegetical writer.

His Twofold Motive

Why did Eusebius embark upon such unprecedented huge projects? The answer lies in his belief that he was living in a time of transition into a new age. He felt that great events had occurred during generations past and a written record was needed for posterity.

Eusebius had an additional purpose​—that of an apologist. He believed that Christianity was of divine origin. But some were fighting against this idea. Eusebius wrote: “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 proclaiming themselves discoverers of knowledge, falsely so called, have like fierce wolves unmercifully devastated the flock of Christ.”

Did Eusebius consider himself a Christian? Apparently he did, for he referred to Christ as “our Saviour.” He stated: “It is my intention . . . to recount the misfortunes which immediately came on the whole Jewish nation in consequence of their plots against our Saviour, and to record the ways and times in which the divine word has been attacked by the Gentiles, and to describe the character of those who at various periods have contended for it in the face of blood and tortures, as well as the confessions which have been made in our own day, and the gracious and kindly succour which our Saviour has accorded them all.”

 His Extensive Research

The number of books Eusebius personally read and referenced is enormous. It is only through Eusebius’ writings that many prominent individuals of the first three centuries of the Common Era have been revealed. Useful accounts shedding light on important movements surface in his writings alone. They are from sources of knowledge no longer accessible.

In gathering material, Eusebius was diligent and thorough. He seems to have carefully endeavored to discriminate between trustworthy and untrustworthy reports. Yet, his work is not flawless. At times, he misinterprets and even misunderstands men and their actions. In chronology, he is sometimes inaccurate. Eusebius also lacked artistic skill of presentation. Regardless of evident deficiencies, however, his many works are regarded as a priceless treasury.

A Lover of Truth?

Eusebius was concerned about the unsettled issue of how the Father and the Son were related. Did the Father exist before the Son, as Eusebius believed? Or did the Father and Son coexist? “If they co-exist,” he asked, “how will the Father be Father and the Son be Son?” He even supported his belief with Scriptural references, citing John 14:28, which says that ‘the Father is greater than Jesus,’ and John 17:3, where Jesus is referred to as the one “sent forth” by the only true God. Alluding to Colossians 1:15 and John 1:1, Eusebius argued that the Logos, or the Word, is “the image of the invisible God”​—God’s Son.

Amazingly, though, at the closing of the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius gave his support to the opposing view. Contrary to his Scriptural stand that God and Christ were not coexisting equals, he went along with the emperor.

A Lesson to Be Learned

Why did Eusebius cave in at the Council of Nicaea and support an unscriptural doctrine? Did he have political objectives in mind? Why did he attend the council in the first place? Although all the bishops were summoned, only a fraction​—300—​actually attended. Was Eusebius perhaps concerned about preserving his social status? And why did Emperor Constantine regard him very highly? Eusebius sat at the right hand of the emperor at the council.

Apparently Eusebius ignored Jesus’ requirement that His followers be “no part of the world.” (John 17:16; 18:36) “Adulteresses, do you not know that the friendship with the world is enmity with God?” asked the disciple James. (James 4:4) And how appropriate is Paul’s admonition: “Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers”! (2 Corinthians 6:14) May we remain separate from the world as we “worship [the Father] with spirit and truth.”​—John 4:24.

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Fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea

[Credit Line]

Scala/Art Resource, NY

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Courtesy of Special Collections Library, University of Michigan