The Writings of Eusebius.
§1. Eusebius as a Writer
Eusebius was one of the most voluminous writers of antiquity, and his labors covered almost every field of theological learning. In the words of Lightfoot he was “historian, apologist, topographer, exegete, critic, preacher, dogmatic writer, in turn.” It is as an historian that he is best known, but the importance of his historical writings should not cause us to overlook, as modern scholars have been prone to do, his invaluable productions in other departments. Lightfoot passes a very just judgment upon the importance of his works in the following words: “If the permanent utility of an authors labors may be taken as a test of literary excellence, Eusebius will hold a very high place indeed. The Ecclesiastical History is absolutely unique and indispensable. The Chronicle is the vast storehouse of information relating to the ancient monarchies of the world. The Preparation and Demonstration are the most important contributions to theology in their own province. Even the minor works, such as the Martyrs of Palestine, the Life of Constantine, the Questions addressed to Stephanus and to Marinus, and others, would leave an irreparable blank, if they were obliterated. And the same permanent value attaches also to his more technical treatises. The Canons and Sections have never yet been superseded for their particular purpose. The Topography of Palestine is the most important contribution to our knowledge in its own department. In short, no ancient ecclesiastical writer has laid posterity under heavier obligations.”
If we look in Eusebius works for evidences of brilliant genius we shall be disappointed. He did not possess a great creative mind like Origens or Augustines. His claim to greatness rests upon his vast erudition and his sterling sense. His powers of acquisition were remarkable and his diligence in study unwearied. He had at his command undoubtedly more acquired material than any man of his age, and he possessed that true literary and historical instinct which enabled him to select from his vast stores of knowledge those things which it was most worth his while to tell to the world. His writings therefore remain valuable while the works of many others, perhaps no less richly equipped than himself for the mission of adding to the sum of human knowledge, are entirely forgotten. He thus had the ability to do more than acquire; he had the ability to impart to others the very best of that which he acquired, and to make it useful to them. There is not in his writings the brilliancy which we find in some others, there is not the same sparkle and freshness of new and suggestive thought, there is not the same impress of an overmastering individuality which transforms everything it touches. There is, however, a true and solid merit which marks his works almost without exception, and raises them above the commonplace. His exegesis is superior to that of most of his contemporaries, and his apologetics is marked by fairness of statement, breadth of treatment, and instinctive appreciation of the difference between the important and the unimportant points under discussion, which give to his apologetic works a p. 27 permanent value. His wide acquaintance, too, with other systems than his own, and with the products of Pagan as well as Christian thought, enabled him to see things in their proper relations and to furnish a treatment of the great themes of Christianity adapted to the wants of those who had looked beyond the confines of a single school. At the same time it must be acknowledged that he was not always equal to the grand opportunities which his acquaintance with the works and lives of other men and other peoples opened before him. He does not always reveal the possession of that high quality of genius which is able to interpret the most various forces and to discover the higher principles of unity which alone make them intelligible; indeed, he often loses himself completely in a wilderness of thoughts and notions which have come to him from other men and other ages, and the result is dire confusion.
We shall be disappointed, too, if we seek in the works of Eusebius for evidences of a refined literary taste, or for any of the charms which attach to the writings of a great master of composition. His style is, as a rule, involved and obscure, often painfully rambling and incoherent. This quality is due in large part to the desultoriness of his thinking. He did not often enough clearly define and draw the boundaries of his subject before beginning to write upon it. He apparently did much of his thinking after he had taken pen in hand, and did not subject what he had thus produced to a sufficiently careful revision, if to any revision at all. Thoughts and suggestions poured in upon him while he was writing; and he was not always able to resist the temptation to insert them as they came, often to the utter perversion of his train of thought, and to the ruin of the coherency and perspicuity of his style. It must be acknowledged, too, that his literary taste was, on the whole, decidedly vicious. Whenever a flight of eloquence is attempted by him, as it is altogether too often, his style becomes hopelessly turgid and pretentious. At such times his skill in mixing metaphors is something astounding (compare, for instance, H. E. II. 14). On the other hand, his works contain not a few passages of real beauty. This is especially true of his Martyrs of Palestine, where his enthusiastic admiration for and deep sympathy with the heroes of the faith cause him often to forget himself and to describe their sufferings in language of genuine fire or pathos. At times, too, when he has a sharply defined and absorbing aim in mind, and when the subject with which he is dealing does not seem to him to demand rhetorical adornment, he is simple and direct enough in his language, showing in such cases that his commonly defective style is not so much the consequence of an inadequate command of the Greek tongue as of desultory thinking and vicious literary taste.
But while we find much to criticise in Eusebius writings, we ought not to fail to give him due credit for the conscientiousness and faithfulness with which he did his work. He wrote often, it is true, too rapidly for the good of his style, and he did not always revise his works as carefully as he should have done; but we seldom detect undue haste in the collection of materials or carelessness and negligence in the use of them. He seems to have felt constantly the responsibilities which rested upon him as a scholar and writer, and to have done his best to meet those responsibilities. It is impossible to avoid contrasting him in this respect with the most learned man of the ancient Latin Church, St. Jerome. The haste and carelessness with which the latter composed his De Viris Illustribus, and with which he translated and continued Eusebius Chronicle, remain an everlasting disgrace to him. An examination of those and of some others of Jeromes works must tend to raise Eusebius greatly in our esteem. He was at least conscientious and honest in his work, and never allowed himself to palm off ignorance as knowledge, or to deceive his readers by sophistries, misstatements, and pure inventions. He aimed to put the reader into possession of the knowledge which he had himself acquired, but was always conscientious enough to stop there, and not attempt to make fancy play the rôle of fact.
One other point, which was mentioned some pages back, and to which Lightfoot calls particular attention, should be referred to here, because of its bearing upon the character of Eusebius writings. He was, above all things, an apologist; and the apologetic aim governed both the selection of his subjects and method of his treatment. He composed none of his works with a p. 28 purely scientific aim. He thought always of the practical result to be attained, and his selection of material and his choice of method were governed by that. And yet we must recognize the fact that this aim was never narrowing in its effects. He took a broad view of apologetics, and in his lofty conception of the Christian religion he believed that every field of knowledge might be laid under tribute to it. He was bold enough to be confident that history, philosophy, and science all contribute to our understanding and appreciation of divine truth; and so history and philosophy and science were studied and handled by him freely and fearlessly. He did not feel the need of distorting truth of any kind because it might work injury to the religion which he professed. On the contrary, he had a sublime faith which led him to believe that all truth must have its place and its mission, and that the cause of Christianity will be benefited by its discovery and diffusion. As an apologist, therefore, all fields of knowledge had an interest for him; and he was saved that pettiness of mind and narrowness of outlook which are sometimes characteristic of those who write with a purely practical motive.