Catholic Encyclopedia
Church Fathers
Classics Library
Church Documents
Prayer Requests
Ray of Hope
Social Doctrine

A History Of The Church In Seven Books by Socrates

SOCRATES, our historian, was a native of Constantinople; for he himself states that he was born and educated in that city, and that for this reason he has detailed principally events which occurred there. In his youth his philological studies were prosecuted under the direction of the grammarians Helladius and Ammonius, both of whom were idolaters; who having withdrawn from Alexandria about this time, had taken up their abode at Constantinople. The reasons which induced them to migrate from Alexandria, are thus explained by Socrates himself. the Pagan temples had been pulled down, by the zeal and exertion of Theophilus bishop of that city, Helladius and Ammonius (one of whom had been a priest of Jupiter at Alexandria, and the other of Simius), grieved at the contempt which was cast upon their gods, quitted the scene of what they considered sacrilege, and retired to Constantinople. These transactions took place during the consulship of Tamasius and Promotus, according to the “Chronicon” of Marcellinus, which was the eleventh year of the Emperor Theodosius. It would therefore appear that Socrates was born about the commencement of his reign, inasmuch as boys were generally placed under the tuition of grammarians at ten years of age: but some date his birth in the year 380. He afterwards studied rhetoric under Troïlus, a celebrated teacher of philosophy and eloquence at Constantinople. This however is rather inferred from his frequent and honourable mention of Troïlus, than from any direct statement of the fact. He speaks of Side in Pamphilia as the country of Troïlus, and names Eusebius, and the bishops Silvanus and Alabius, as among the number of his distinguished pupils; and finally declares that the Prætorian præfect Anthemius, who during the minority of Theodosius guided the administration, was greatly influenced by his counsels: to which he adds this eulogy of him: “Who in addition to his philosophical attainments, was not inferior to Anthemius in political sagacity.” On these grounds therefore it is concluded that Troïlus taught Socrates rhetoric.

Our author’s first appearance in public life was in the Forum at Constantinople, as a special pleader: it was from this circumstance that the cognomen “Scholasticus” was applied to him; which indeed was the general appellation for advocates on their leaving the schools of the rhetoricians to devote themselves to the duties of their profession. When at length he resigned his legal practice, his attention was directed to the compilation of a “History of the Church,” in seven books, from the year 309 where Eusebius ends, to the year 445; in which he has displayed singular judgment, and accurate as well as laborious research. He has carefully marked the periods of remarkable events, by giving the Consulates and Olympiads; and has invested his matter with authority by having drawn his information from the most authentic sources to which he could obtain access, such as public records, pastoral and episcopal letters, acts of Synods, and the works of other ecclesiastical writers. In the composition of his “History,” he has studiously adopted and maintained simplicity and plainness of style, to the rigorous exclusion of all oratorical ornament, in order that he might be the more readily understood by all classes of persons, as he himself declares at the commencement of his first and third books.

His first two books were originally composed on the entire credit of Rufinus; but having afterwards discovered, from the works of Athanasius, that the principal circumstances of the persecution, which that noble defender of the divinity of Christ suffered, had been omitted, he subsequently amended them.

He however confounds Maximian with Maximin, which is surprising, considering that he chiefly lived at Constantinople. He errs also in stating that five bishops were condemned in the council of Nice for refusing to approve the confession of faith there made; for a letter of the council shows that there were but two, viz. Theonas and Secundus. Theognis and Eusebius were indeed exiled by command of the Emperor Constantine; but it was at another time, and for a different reason than that assigned by Socrates, as Jerome and Philostorgus testify. His allusion to the council of Sirmium is full of obscurity; and he was evidently under the mistake of supposing that the three confessions there promulgated at three several councils, were set forth on one and the same occasion.

Socrates, moreover, in speaking of the council held at Antioch by the Arians in the year 341, seems to attach too much of authority to the usage which early prevailed of inviting the bishop of Rome to all ecclesiastical conventions in the West. As if he believed there was a law which forbad any decision in the church without that prelate’s sanction. But Julius himself, who was neither ignorant of his privileges, nor disposed to relinquish any right which pertained to his see, far from pretending to pre-eminence among his brethren, disclaimed everything beyond the courtesy of being invited to attend, and being consulted in common with the other bishops of Italy. And although the primacy of that episcopate was recognised, both before and after the council of Nice, a preference of judgment in the first instance was neither claimed nor allowed, as the example of the council of Antioch, where Paul of Samosata was condemned without the participation of Dionysius bishop of Rome, clearly shews. In fact the language of the bishops of Italy to those of the East, complaining of their decision in the case of Maximus and Nectarius without allowing them to take cognizance of the affair, puts the matter in a very distinct light: “Non prœrogativam vindicamus examinis,” said they, “sed consortium tamen debuit esse communis arbitrii.”

With regard to his religious sentiments, Cardinal Baronius in his “Annals,” and Philip Labbæus in his book “De Scriptoribus Ecclesiasticis,” assert that Socrates was of the Novatian sect. Nicephorus also expresses the same opinion in the preface to his “Ecclesiastical History:” his words are, “Socrates had indeed the appellation Catharus, (i. e. pure,) but his principles were not so.” It must not be understood from this that his cognomen was Catharus, but simply that he was a Novatian; for the Novatians were accustomed to designate themselves Cathari, as the eighth canon of the Nicene council informs us. The same writer (book xi. chap. 14) speaks thus of him: “Socrates (who from this passage clearly owns that he was not opposed to the doctrines of the Novatians) says that these things were related to him by a certain old man,” &c. But the reasons why Socrates was by very many considered a Novatian, are neither few nor slight. For in the first place he carefully enumerates the series of Novatian prelates who governed their church at Constantinople from the times of Constantine, noticing also the Consulates in which they severally died. In the next place he passes the highest encomiums on each of them, especially Agelius and Sisinnius, Chrysanthus and Paul, and even avers that by the prayers of the latter a miracle was performed at Constantinople. In short he enters into all things relating to the sect of the Novatians with so much interest and fidelity, as to seem at least extremely favourable to them. Yet if any one will candidly examine the subject, he will find no conclusive evidence of his having himself been a Novatian. For with equal diligence he enumerates the Arian prelates who had the administration of their church at Constantinople: he is not however on that account said to have been an Arian. In fact he has entered as fully into all the circumstances connected with the Arians, Eunomians, and Macedonians at Constantinople, as with the Novatians. He has accounted for this in book iv. chap. 24: where he states that his object more particularly was to record those things which took place at Constantinople; as well because he himself resided in that city, in which he had been born and educated, as that the transactions there were of greater importance, and more worthy of record. But if any one should object that the Arian bishops are less commended by Socrates than those of the Novatians, the ready answer is—that the former were in every respect inferior to the latter; for the Novatian church was not only sound in doctrines, but at that time abounded with the most eminent clergy. It must notwithstanding be confessed that our author generally favours the Novatians: as when he numbers the founder of that sect among the martyrs; says that the Novatians were attached to the catholics by the strongest affection, and united with them in public prayer; and commends the discourse of Sisinnius in reprobation of the expression of Chrysostom, “Even if thou hast repented a thousand times, approach.” But it is one thing to favour the Novatians, and another to be a Novatian. Socrates might have been favourable to them, either from being on terms of familiar intercourse with the most distinguished among them, or because he approved of their discipline and abstinence: for we may gather from his writings that he was rather disposed to austerity of habit. Still had he identified himself with that body, he surely would not (book ii. chap. 38) have distinctly called the catholics τοὺς τῆς ἐκκλησίας, those of the church, and opposed them to the Novatians, thereby acknowledging the Novatians to be without the pale of the church. Moreover (book vi. chap. 20 and 23), he classes the Novatians among the heretics, with Arians, Macedonians, and Eunomians; while he styles the church simply and absolutely the catholic church, so discriminating it from the churches of the various sects. Again he censures in no ambiguous terms the abolition of a Penitentiary Presbyter, on the recommendation of Nectarius: for by this means, he observes, licence was given to transgressors, since there was no one whose duty it was to reprove them—which is not the language of a Novatian; for that sect did not admit of repentance after baptism, as Socrates himself testifies. Theodore Lector, who lived in the same city, and almost at the same period as Socrates, viz:—in the reign of Anastasius, in an epistle prefixed to his Ecclesiastical History, denominates Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret, ἄνδρας θεοφιλεῖς, men beloved of God. Finally, Peter Halloxius, in his notes on the life of Irenæus (page 664), vindicates him from the charge of Baronius, who wrote (A.D. 159) thus respecting him:—“These things Socrates the Novatian, he himself also celebrating the passover with the Jews on the 14th day of the month,” &c. For he remarks that, “whereas Socrates is called a Novatian, it may be understood in two senses: in one that he sometimes favoured the Novatians, which Bellarminus also affirms in his treatise ‘De Scriptoribus Ecclesiasticis’ (A.D. 440); in the other that he had adopted their heretical opinions. But in the chapter referred to he clearly shows that he is neither a Novatian, nor favourable to their views: on the contrary he censures them, and exposes their dissensions and vices in the character of an enemy rather than a friend, or perhaps that which most became him as an historian, neither, but simply a narrator of truth.”

But while we are bound to exonerate him from actual identification with a sect whom he himself (book vi. chap. 20 and 23) reckons among the schismatics, we cannot so easily justify all that he has advanced respecting the Novatians; for he seems misinformed as to the state of their schism and errors. Moreover he confounds Novatian, a presbyter of the Roman church, who really first broke the unity of the church, with Novatus, a person that was either among the presbytery, or as some say was bishop of Africa, and who merely favoured that division, but was not the author of it. Cyprian, from his personal knowledge of the latter, represents him as “an unruly spirit, the enemy of peace, fond of novelties, of insatiable avarice, and inflated with insufferable pride.” He further accuses him of having cast the seeds of discord among the faithful of Carthage, of having robbed the widows and orphans, and of having appropriated to his own use the property of the church and of the poor which had been deposited in his hands. He also charges him with having suffered his father to die of hunger, and then neglected to give him the honour of sepulture, with other gross enormities. And finally, he adds that apprehending the deposition and excommunication he had merited, he anticipated his condemnation by flight, and going to Rome, joined himself to Novatian, and committed there greater crimes than he had been guilty of at Carthage. One would not wonder so much that Socrates has not distinguished these two men, since other Greek authors have not done so, who had little need of information on Oriental affairs; had not Eusebius in book vi. of his History inserted a letter of Cornelius containing a description of the occasion of the separation of the Novatians, so very unlike his own. This difference can only be attributed to the too great readiness with which he listened to one of these heretics at Constantinople; who so artfully disguised the circumstances connected with the origin of the schism, as to lead him to suspect the credibility of Cornelius, as of an interested party. It is under the influence of the same principle, without doubt, that he sometimes passes such extravagant encomiums on the exterior austerity of their conduct, and the apparent sanctity of their life.

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com