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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Liberius, Bishop of Rome

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Liberius (4) , ordained bp. of Rome May 22, 352 (Catalog. Liber. ), as successor to Julius I. The assassination of Constans (a.d. 350) and the subsequent defeat of Magnentius in 351 had left Constantius sole emperor. New charges against Athanasius were sent to the emperor and Julius the pope, and the latter dying before they reached him, the hearing of fell to his successor Liberius. These charges were that Athanasius had influenced Constans against Constantius, corresponded with Magnentius, used an unconsecrated church in Alexandria, and disregarded an imperial summons calling him to Rome (Athan. Apol. ad Constantium ). They were considered, together with an encyclic of 75 Egyptian bishops in behalf of Athanasius, by a council under Liberius at Rome in 352, and on this occasion the first charge of compliance with heresy is alleged against Liberius. Among the fragments of Hilary (Fragm. IV. ) there is a letter purporting to be addressed by Liberius to his "beloved brethren and fellow-bishops throughout the East," declaring that he agrees and communicates with them; and that Athanasius, having been summoned to Rome and refused to come, is out of communion with himself and the Roman church. Bower (Hist. of the Popes ), Tillemont (Vie de S. Athan. t. viii. art. 64, note 68), and Milman ( Lat. Christ. bk. i. c. 2), accept this letter as genuine. Baronius, the Benedictine editors of the works of Hilary, Hefele ( Conciliengesch. bk. v. § 73)—the last very positively—reject it as an Arian forgery; their principal, if not only, ground being the improbability of his writing it.

The death of Magnentius in the autumn of 353 left Constantius entirely free to follow his own heretical bent, when Liberius certainly stood forth as a fearless champion of the cause under imperial disfavour. He sent Vincentius of Capua, with Marcellus, another bp. of Campania, to the emperor, requesting him to call a council at Aquileia to settle the points at issue. Constantius being himself at Arles, summoned one there, which was attended in behalf of Liberius by legates. The main object of the leaders of the council, in which Valens and Ursacius took a prominent part, was to extort from the legates a renunciation of communion with Athanasius. After a fruitless attempt to obtain from the dominant party a simultaneous condemnation of Arius, the legates at length complied. Paulinus of Treves refused, and was consequently banished (Sulp. Sev. l. 2; Hilar. Libell. ad Const. ; id. in Fragm. ; Epp. Liber. ad Const. et Eus. ). Liberius, on hearing the result, wrote to Hosius of Cordova much distressed by the weakness of his messenger Vincentius, and to Caecilianus, bp. of Spoletum (Hilar. Fragm. VI. ).

Subsequently (a.d. 354), most of the Western bishops having, under fear or pressure, expressed agreement with the East, Lucifer, bp. of Cagliari, being then in Rome, was, at his own suggestion, sent by Liberius to the emperor, to demand another council. The result was a council at Milan in the beginning of 355, attended by 300 Western bishops and but few Easterns. In spite of the bold remonstrances of Eusebius of Vercelli, Lucifer, Dionysius of Milan, and others, the condemnation of Athanasius was decreed, and required to be signed by all under pain of banishment. The pope's three legates were among the few who refused and were condemned to exile (see Sulp. Sev. l. 2; Athan. Hist. Arian. ad Monachos ). Liberius at Rome still stood firm. He wrote to Eusebius (ap. Act. Eus.) congratulating him on his steadfastness, and sent an encyclic ( ib. et Hilar. Fragm. VI. ) to all the exiled confessors, encouraging them, and expressing his expectation of soon suffering like them. The emperor failed to turn him by threats or bribes. Finally Leontius, the prefect of Rome, was ordered to apprehend him and he was taken to Milan (see Athan. op. cit. c. 35 seq.). Theodoret (l. ii. c. 13) recounts in detail his interview with the emperor there. "I have sent for you," said Constantius, "the bishop of my city, that you may repudiate the madness of Athanasius, whom the whole world has condemned." Liberius continued to insist that the condemnation had not been that of a fair and free council, or in the presence of the accused, and that those who condemned him had been actuated by fear or regard to the emperor's gifts and favour. Liberius having warned the emperor against making use of bishops, whose time ought to be devoted to spiritual matters, for the avenging of his own enmities, the latter finally cut short the discussion by saying, "There is only one thing to be done. I will that you embrace the communion of the churches, and so return to Rome. Consult peace, then, and subscribe, that you may be restored to your see." "I have already," Liberius replied, "bidden farewell to the brethren at Rome; for I account observance of the ecclesiastical law of more importance than residence at Rome." "I give you three days," the emperor said, "to make up your mind: unless within that time you comply, you must be prepared to go where I may send you." Liberius answered, "Three days or three months will make no difference with me: wherefore send me where you please." Two days having been allowed him for consideration, he was banished to Beroea in Thrace (a.d. 355). The emperor sent him, on his departure, 500 pieces of gold, which he refused, saying, "Go and tell him who sent me this gold to give it to his flatterers and players, who are always in want because of their insatiable cupidity, ever desiring riches and never satisfied. As for us, Christ, Who is in all things like unto the Father, supports us, and gives us all things needful." To the empress, who sent him the like sum, he sent word that she might give it to the emperor, who would want it for his military expeditions; and that, if he needed it not, he might give it to Maxentius (the Arian bp. of Milan) and Epictetus, who would be glad of it. Eusebius the eunuch also offered him money, to whom he said, "Thou hast pillaged the churches of the whole world, and dost thou now bring alms to me as a condemned pauper? Depart first, and become thyself a Christian." His banishment was followed by a general triumph of the Arian party. In Alexandria Athanasius was superseded by George of Cappadocia, the orthodox there cruelly persecuted, and Athanasius compelled eventually to take refuge among the hermits and coenobites of Egypt. In Gaul, in spite of the fearless protest of Hilary of Poictiers, the orthodox were persecuted and banished, and there also heresy triumphed. With regard to Rome, we find traces of two conflicting stories, one gathered from the practically unanimous testimony of contemporary or ancient writers of repute, some of whom have been our authorities so far—viz. Athanasius ( Hist. Asian. ad Monach. 75), Jerome ( Chron. in. ann. Abram. mccclx.), Rufinus ( H. E. x. 22), Socrates ( H. E. ii. 37), Sozomen ( H. E. iv. 8, 11), Theodoret ( H. E. ii. 14), together with Marcellinus and Faustus; two contemporary Luciferian presbyters of Rome, in the preface to their Libellus Precum, addressed to the emperors Valentinian, Theodosius, and Arcadius, during the pontificate of Damasus, the successor of Liberius. The other, in conflict therewith, is in the Pontifical and the Acts of Martyrs. From the former authorities we learn that immediately after the exile of Liberius all the clergy, including the deacon FELIX (archdeacon according to Marcellinus and Faustus), swore before the people to accept no other bishop while Liberius lived. The populace, who appear throughout strongly on his side, debarred the Arians from the churches, so that the election of a successor, on which the emperor was determined, had to be made in the imperial palace. The deacon Felix was there chosen and consecrated, three of the emperor's eunuchs representing the people on the occasion, and three heretical bishops, Epictetus of Centumellae, Acacius of Caesarea, and Basilius of Ancyra being the consecrators. It seems probable that a considerable party among the clergy at least concurred in this consecration. Marcellinus and Faustus say that the clergy ordained him, while the people refused to take part; and Jerome states that after the intrusion of Felix by the Arians very many of the clerical order perjured themselves by supporting him. Felix appears to have been himself orthodox, no distinct charge of heresy being alleged by his accusers; only that of connivance with his own unlawful election by Arians in defiance of his oath, and of communicating with them. Two years after the exile of Liberius (a.d. 357), Constantius went to Rome, and Theodoret tells us that the wives of the magistrates and nobles waited on the emperor, beseeching him to have pity on the city bereaved of its shepherd and exposed to the snares of wolves. Constantius was so far moved as to consent to the return of Liberius on condition of his presiding over the church jointly with Felix. When the emperor's order was read publicly in the circus, there burst forth the unanimous cry, "one God, one Christ, one bishop!" There appears to have been some delay before the actual return of Liberius, who was required to satisfy the emperor by renouncing orthodoxy and Athanasius. This he was now, in strange contrast to his former firmness, but too ready to do. It appears that bp. Fortunatian of Aquileia had been employed by the Eusebians to persuade him (Hieron. Catal. Script. 97), and that Demophilus of Beroea had personally urged him to comply ( Ep. Liber. ad Orient. Episc. ap. Hilar. Fragm. VI. ). Hilary (Fragm. VI. ) gives letters written by Liberius from Beroea at this time. One is to the Eastern bishops and presbyters; from which we give extracts, with Hilary's parenthetical comments: "I do not defend Athanasius: but because my predecessor Julius had received him, I was afraid of being accounted a prevaricator. Having learnt, however, that you had justly condemned him, I soon gave assent to your judgment, and sent a letter to that effect by bp. Fortunatian of Aquileia, to the emperor. Wherefore Athanasius being removed from the communion of us all (I will not even receive his letters), I say that I have peace and communion with you and with all the Eastern bishops. That you may be assured of my good faith in thus writing, know that my lord and brother Demophilus has deigned in his benevolence to expound to me the true Catholic faith which was treated, expounded, and received at Sirmium by many brethren and fellow-bishops of ours. (This is the Arian perfidy:—This I have noted, not the apostate:—the following are the words of Liberius. ) This I have received with a willing mind (I say anathema to thee, Liberius, and thy companions ), and in no respect contradict; I have given my assent, I follow and hold it. (Once more, and a third time, anathema to thee, prevaricator Liberius! ) Seeing that you now perceive me to be in agreement with you in all things, I have thought it right to beseech your holinesses to deign by your common counsel and efforts to labour for my release from exile and my restoration to the see divinely entrusted to me." Another is to Ursacius, Valens, and Germinius, begging their good offices, and excusing his apparent delay in writing, as above, to the Oriental bishops. Before sending that letter he had already, he says, condemned Athanasius, as the whole presbytery of Rome could testify, to whom he seems to have previously sent letters intended for the emperor's eye. He concludes, "You should know, .most dear brethren, by this letter, written with a plain and simple mind, that I have peace with all of you, bishops of the Catholic church. And I desire you to make known to our brethren and fellow-bishops Epictetus and Auxentius that with them I have peace and ecclesiastical communion. Whoever may dissent from this our peace and concord, let him know that he is separated from our communion." In giving this letter, Hilary again expresses his indignation in a note: "Anathema, I say to thee, prevaricator, together with the Arians." A third is to Vincentius of Capua, the bishop whose defection at Milan he had once so much deplored. In this he announces that he had given up his contention for Athanasius, and had written to say so to the Oriental bishops, and requests Vincentius to assemble the bishops of Campania and get them to join in an address to the emperor, "that I may be delivered from my great sadness." He concludes, "God keep thee safe, brother. We have peace with all the Eastern bishops, and I with you. I have absolved myself to God; see you to it: if you have the will to fail me in my banishment, God will be judge between me and you."

No sufficient grounds exist for doubting the genuineness of the fragment of Hilary which contains these letters, or of the letters themselves. It is resolutely denied by Hefele (Conciliengeschichte, Bd. v. § 81) and by the Jesuit Stilting in the work of the Bollandists ( Acts SS. Sept. t. vi. on Liberius), but their arguments are weak, resting chiefly on alleged historical difficulties and on the style of the letters. All the great Protestant critics accept them; and among the Roman Catholics Natalis Alexander, Tillemont, Fleury, Dupin, Ceillier, Montfaucon, Constant, and Möhler. Dr. Döllinger does the same. Dr. Newman also ( Arians of the Fourth Century ) quotes them without any note of suspicion. Baronius accepts the letters to the Eastern bishops and to Vincentius, but rejects that to Valens and Ursacius, though only on the ground of its implied statement that Athanasius had been excommunicated by the Roman church. A refutation of Hefele's arguments is contained in P. le Page Renouf's Condemnation of Pope Honorius (Longmans, 1868), from which an extract, bearing on the subject, is given in Appendix to the Eng. trans. of Hefele's work (Clark, Edin. 1876). Even if the fragment of Hilary could be shewn to be spurious, the general fact of the fall of Liberius would remain indisputable, being attested by Athanasius ( Hist. Arian. 41; Apol. contr. Arian. 89), Hilary ( contra Const. Imp. 11), Sozomen (iv. 15), and Jerome ( Chron. et de Vir. Illustr. 97). It was never questioned till comparatively recent times, when a few papal partisans—especially Stilting ( loc. cit. ), Franz Anton Zaccaria (Dissert. de Commentitio Liberii lapsu ), Professor Palma (Praelect. Histor. Eccles. t. i. pt. ii. Romae, 1838)—have taken up his defence, relying primarily on the silence of Theodoret, Socrates, and Sulpicius Severus on his fall. Others, as Hefele, endeavour to extenuate its extent and culpability.

In the letter to the Eastern bishops Liberius speaks of having already accepted the exposition of the faith agreed upon "by many brethren and fellow-bishops" at Sirmium. It is a little uncertain what confession is here meant. There had been two noted synods of Sirmium and both had issued expositions of doctrine. The first in 351, assembled by the Eusebians, adopted a confession which asserted against Photinus and Marcellus of Ancyra the pre-existent divinity of the Son before His human birth and, but for its omission of the term consubstantial, was not heretical. Hilary of Poictiers ( de Syn. 38 sqq.) allows it to be orthodox. Baronius and the Benedictine editors of Hilary (with whom agrees Dr. Döllinger in his Papst-fabeln des Mittelalters ) maintain that this was the creed accepted by Liberius at Beroea. The formula of the second Sirmian synod, assembled in 357 by Constantius at the instance of the Anomaeans, prohibited both the definitions, homoousios and homoiousios , as being beyond the language of Scripture, and declared the Father to be in honour, dignity, and majesty greater than the Son, and, by implication, that the Father alone may be defined as without beginning, invisible, immortal, impassible. The doctrine expressed was essentially that of the Homoeans, though the phrase "like-unto the Father," from which they got their name, was not yet adopted. This may have been the creed accepted by Liberius at Beroea. His credit is not much saved by supposing it to have been the former one, since his letters are sufficient evidence of his pliability. Whichever it was, his acceptance was not enough to satisfy the emperor, who, having gone from Rome to Sirmium, summoned him thither, where he was required to sign a new formula, apparently prepared for the occasion. This was, according to Sozomen, concocted from three sources: first, the creed of the old Antiochene council of 269, in which the term consubstantial, alleged to be used heretically so as to compromise the Son's Personality by Paul of Samosta, was condemned; secondly, one of the creeds issued by the Eusebian council at Antioch in 341, which omitted that term; and thirdly, the first Sirmian creed, above described. Sozomen adds that he signed also a condemnation of those who denied the Son to be like the Father according to substance and in all respects. When Liberius is said by some writers to have been summoned from Beroea to the third synod of Sirmium, and to have signed the third Sirmian confession, we must not understand those sometimes so called, viz. of May 359 (when a distinctly Homoean formula, prepared by bp. Mark of Arethusa, was subscribed), but the compilation above described.

Liberius was now allowed to return to Rome. Felix was compelled by the populace to retire from the city after tumults and bloodshed. Attempting afterwards to obtain a church beyond the Tiber, he was again expelled.

Two ways have been resorted to of excusing, in some degree, the compliance of Liberius. One, taken by Baronius and Hefele, is that the formulae he subscribed were capable of being understood in an orthodox sense, and so subscribed by him, though otherwise intended by the emperor: that "Liberius renounced the formula ὁμοουσιος , not because he had fallen from orthodoxy, but because he had been made to believe that formula to be the cloak of Sabellianism and Photinism" (Hefele). Baronius, however, condemns him so far as to say that his envy of Felix and his longing for the adulation to which he had been used at Rome led to his weakness. The other way is that of Bellarmine, who acknowledges his external but denies his internal assent to heresy: a view which saves his infallibility at the expense of his morality. The facts remain that in his letters from Beroea he proclaimed his renunciation of Athanasius and his entire agreement and communion with the Easterns, and that at Sirmium he signed a confession drawn up by semi-Arians, which was intended to express rejection of the orthodoxy for which he had once contended. Athanasius, Sozomen, Hilary, and Jerome all allude to his temporary compliance with heresy in some form as a known and undoubted fact. Athanasius, however, unlike Hilary, speaks of it with noble tolerance. He says, "But they (i.e. certain great bishops] not only supported me with arguments, but also endured exile; among them being Liberius of Rome. For, if he did not endure the affliction of his exile to the end, nevertheless he remained in banishment for two years, knowing the conspiracy against me" ( Apol. contra Arian. 89). Again, "Moreover Liberius, having been banished, after two years gave way, and under fear of threatened death subscribed. But even this proves only their [ i.e. the Arians'] violence, and his hatred of heresy; for he supported me as long as he had free choice" ( Hist. Arian. ad Monach. 41). Once in possession of his see and surrounded by his orthodox supporters, Liberius appears to have resumed his old position of resolute orthodoxy. In 359 were held the two councils at Ariminum in the West and Seleucia in the East, resulting in the almost universal acceptance for a time of the Homoean formula, which Constantius was now persuaded to force upon the church in the hope of reconciling disputants. This called forth the famous expression of Jerome ( Dial. adv. Lucifer. 19), "The whole world groaned, and wondered to find itself Arian." Liberius was not present at Ariminum, nor is there any reason to suppose that he assented to the now dominant confession. Jerome's language is rhetorical, and, on the other hand, Theodoret ( H. E. ii. 22) gives a letter from a synod of Italian and Gallican bishops held at Rome under pope Damasus, stating that the Ariminian formula had the assent neither of the bp. of Rome, whose judgment was beyond all others to be expected, nor of Vincentius, nor of others besides.

The death of Constantius (a.d. 361) and the accession of Julian the Apostate having left the orthodox free from direct persecution, Athanasius returned once more in triumph to Alexandria (a.d. 362). In the council, famous for its reassertion of orthodoxy, then held at Alexandria, Liberius seems to have taken no prominent part. The glory of restoring orthodoxy and peace to the church is mainly due, not to the bp. of Rome, but to Athanasius, Eusebius of Vercelli, and Hilary of Poictiers.

Liberius comes next under notice in the last year of his episcopate, and during the reign of Valentinian and Valens, who became, at the beginning of 364, emperors of the West and East respectively, Valentinian being a Catholic, Valens an extreme and persecuting Arian. His persecutions extending to the semi-Arians as well as to the orthodox, caused the former to incline to union with the latter and to the position that the difference between them was one rather of words than of doctrine. They came about this time to be called Macedonians, and now turned to the Western emperor and the Roman bishop for support in their distress, sending three bishops as a deputation to Valentinian and Liberius, with instructions to communicate with the church of Rome and to accept the term "consubstantial." Valentinian was absent in Gaul, but Liberius received them (a.d. 366). At first he rejected their overtures because of their implication in heresy. They replied that they had now repented, and had already acknowledged the Son to be in all things like unto the Father, and that this expression meant the same as "consubstantial." He required a written confession of their faith. They gave him one, in which they referred to the letters brought by them from the Eastern bishops to him and the other Western bishops; anathematized Arius, the Sabellians, Patripassians, Marcionists, Photinians, Marcellianists, and the followers of Paul of Samosata; condemned the creed of Ariminum as entirely repugnant to the Nicene faith; and declared their entire assent to the Nicene creed. They concluded by saying that if any one had any charge against them, they were willing it should be heard before such orthodox bishops as Liberius might approve. Liberius now admitted them to communion, and dismissed them with letters, in the name of himself and the other Western bishops, to the bishops of the East who had sent the embassy.

Liberius died in the autumn of 366 (Marcell. and Faust.), having thus had a notable opportunity of atoning by his latest official act for his previous vacillation.

His extant writings are the letters referred to above. There is also a discourse of his given by St. Ambrose (de Virginibus, lib. iii. c. i) as having been delivered when Marcellina (the sister of Ambrose, to whom he addresses his treatise) made her profession of virginity. The discourse is interesting as containing the earliest known allusion to the keeping of the Christmas festival, while the way in which Ambrose introduces it shews the estimation in which Liberius was held, notwithstanding his temporary fall.


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Liberius, Bishop of Rome'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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