Phoebadius: The Early Church Figure You Probably Don’t Know

by Kate Hanch

Perichoresis Symbol of the Trinity (Source:

Perichoresis Symbol of the Trinity (Source:

In researching the development of the doctrine of perichoresis (the mutual indwelling of the three Trinitarian persons) last year for a class, I came across a name I had never heard of before: Phoebadius. Phoebadius was bishop of Agen in Gaul, and wrote a letter called Contras Arianos around 357 C.E. He was a contemporary to Hilary of Poitiers. Unfortunately, as of this date there is no book publishing the letter in English (as it was originally written in Latin), although I did find a translation from what appears to be part of a master’s work by Keith C. Wessel here.

Phoebadius is the first to come up with the phrase “community of divinity,”[1] or common divinity.  Phoebadius (d. ca. 392 C.E.) uses “community of divinity” as he writes against the Homoians, using Romans 11:36 as a proof.[2] The Homoians were a sect along the lines of Arianism that was eventually rejected as heretical because they refused to acknowledge the Father and Son’s similarity of essence. This belief led to an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father.[3]

This community of divinity remains focused upon the relationship between the Father and the Son. The community of divinity, while applied to the Father and the Son, could help theologians later on explain the concept of Trinitarian perichoresis. Phoebadius believes that the John 14’s Father-in-Son and Son-in-Father discourse allows for oneness. Further, he infers that the Third person, the Spirit, is a part of this community. It is essential to the structure of the Godhead.[4] The “community of divinity” could be established as a base by which the concept of perichoresis is formed.

Here are some lessons I learned about discovering a (new to me) early church figure:

1.     Learn the original languages. Knowledge of Latin would have helped me ascertain the reliability of Weedman’s and Wessel’s translations.

2.     Follow the footnotes. You never know what might turn up!

3.     Disciplines of biblical studies, theology, and church history are interconnected. The reason why perichoresis as a concept experienced a revival in the last 25 years is in part because theologians have turned to the early church sources for inspiration. These early church figures employed biblical texts to argue their points. As a student of theology, I have the responsibility of consulting biblical sources and documents from Christian history to form my perspective.

I don’t anticipate anyone naming their future child Phoebadius, but perhaps highlighting his letter may be helpful for those exploring the development of doctrine in the early church.

For more information on perichoresis, see for example Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: the Trinity and Christian Life, Reprint ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).

What new-to-you church figures have you discovered? How did you find them? What difficulties have you come across in your discovery?

[1] Mark Weedman, The Trinitarian Theology of Hilary of Poitiers, (Boston: Brill, 2007), 56.

[2] Ibid, 57. In Romans 11:36, Paul says “from him, in him, and with him.” 

[3] James Papandrea, Class Lecture, March 21, 2013, “Christology and Trinity in the Early Church”, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

[4] R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: the Arian Controversy 318-381 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 1988), 519.

26 thoughts on “Phoebadius: The Early Church Figure You Probably Don’t Know

  1. As a Catholic I have a huge Early Church Father tradition to draw on. At least half of what the Vatican calls “The Deposit of Faith” and what theologians call “Dogma” comes from these early writers. All of the extrabiblical capital-T Tradition comes from them; passed down through the ages surviving schisms, wars, collapsing empires and even greedy, evil men who used the offices the Church gave them to enrich themselves rather than teach.

    I am always impressed with the faith of such men- who often had to face persecution and heresy.

    One that I thought I knew, but didn’t, was St. Nicholas of Myra- the inspiration of our modern Santa Claus. I knew the pious legends about him- the three girls saved from slavery, the “children in a pickle” saved from the cannibal, the amazing acts of generosity from this middle eastern Bishop. But what I didn’t know was his involvement in the 1st Nicene Council- from which he was expelled for getting into a fistfight with Arius himself.

    I agree that the student of theology and Biblical studies MUST be a historian- and given the remoteness of the age, even a bit of a literary archeologist. It is said that history becomes myth within 500 years, and we have a history as Christians of 2000 years.

  2. P.S. Just reblogged this to a Neo-Pagan wiccan business on Facebook who were using the symbol for trinity for their business. Interesting how modern people can’t even get being pagan right.

  3. Thanks, Kate. I don’t have much to contribute as to a specific figure I can think of. But I wanted to comment, as a blogger myself who tries to get readers to respond, seldom with much success (tho I know people are viewing my posts).

    So I will comment in general: Your “lessons” are good ones, for all of us to pay attention to (although I’m not going to “backtrack” re. the learning the languages one, or even “keeping them up”, as in the case of Greek, but then, I’m not a “formal” student or teacher). I might add that one of the very hardest things, that we all need to constantly work on, is to NOT read theological, literary or other assumptions back into ancient texts. It’s impossible not to do it some, of course, but we need a constant re-checking so we are not assuming a theological (or hermeneutical) base that may not have been there for a given writer, especially writers of the Gospels. So hard, because we don’t really know who they were and what their social/religious milieu and background was… what influences they were drawing from in addition to the obvious ones, etc. I think that similarly goes for the early Fathers, tho I have to confess to reading them very little, directly (a lot ABOUT them).

  4. Howard, you are onto something when you say that we cannot ever completely understand the original intention of the authors. The multiplicity of perspectives we come with will always influence our interpretation of the texts. It’s always interesting to peruse the commentaries of Calvin, Chrysostom, and Luther, for example, and tease out their hermeneutical lenses, which are different from ours. The historical-critical method of interpretation is very important when interpreting a text, but it is not (nor it should be) the only interpretation. For example, Mercy Amba Oduyoye offers an African Womanist perspective when interpreting scripture. ( Jessica Parks highlights Oduyoye here: )

    Like you highlight, the need for self-reflexivity, humility, and lots of study is important!

  5. I agree with Kate here. As someone who begins with the historical-critical approach I would misguided if I thought that it was (1) the only way to read Scripture or (2) the so-called objective way to do so. As a citizen of the United States I can read these words from our Declaration of Independence as both witness to a historical event and an authority under which I live now: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If I limit myself to a literalist, or historical reading of this text, or if I restrict myself to the intention of the authors, then I may have some serious problems applying this to my life, esp. since the Founders didn’t recognize the Rights of the Native population, the slaves they kidnapped and imported from Africa, and their own wives and children to some degree. Yet we try to both (1) understand the text in its historical setting and (2) live under the authority of the “spirit” of the text, if you will. While the analogy isn’t perfect I do think there is something to say about the need to understand Scripture in its historical context while also trying to seek the Spirit of the text, if you will.

  6. As to your questions Kate, I think the most eye-opening experience for me was a class I took in my ThM program on the Greek Fathers. I was raised Oneness Pentecostal, and they have all sorts of misconceptions about the doctrine of the Trinity, so I’ve had to spend some time over the last decade seeking to rid myself of the misconceptions they handed to me while educating myself about what it is that the early Church taught when they called God “Trinity”. That class on the Greek Father dispelled many of my misconceptions. Names like Athanasius, Basil, and the Gregories became theological dialogue partners rather than what my low-Church traditions would have me think: archaic, outdated, ignorant of how to read Scripture. I found this to be incorrect and that there is something special, enlightening, and Pneumatic about how Patristic hermeneutics.

  7. I disagree with the post-modern mantra that we cannot ever completely understand the original intention of the author. When one’s family doctor tells us to take pills per day and not to drive heavy machinery” do we apply the same logic? We don’t! So why do we apply it with the bible, which is the supreme doctor’s words?

    Post modernism has convinced us that our own perspectives are more important the author’s intent. This is bunk. For example if we assume that the bible is the Word of God, aren’t we interested in its eternal, unchanging, true, and divine attributes, rather than its ephemeral, racial, gender-specific, profane ones?

    I would love to see (just once) a rationalization for why we need to force exegesis through someone’s particular lens. Recognizing that we each bring ‘a lens’ to the process is useful because it helps us to rid-ourselves of ‘the lens’ through normalizing a particular view against collective aggregate. However embracing a specific, contextualized view is exactly the right approach to take if we don’t wish to understand the eternal, unchanging, true, and divine qualities of the text, and instead wish to focus on humanity. Not only but it makes for a procedural nightmare with respect to textual criticism.

    On what basis is viewing the text through the eyes of an African Woman’s perspective valid? That African women exist is not sufficient ground for tainting the author’s intent with a readers particularities. [I’m not being glib here!] Chinese communists also exist; so does viewing the text through the eyes of a Chinese communist validate the exegesis, or construct true theologies? Arabic Islamicist also exist, so can we derive valid theologies from perspectives informed by Islam? There is not rational framework for including or excluding particular perspectives, so favouring one is arbitrary favouritism; hardly a good way to read ‘the Word of God’!

    However, the same is true of the European male perspectives; however just as with any other perspective the universally divine elements would have to be clearly (and convincingly) identified (meaning contrasted with culturally limiting views), but too rarely they are. Rather, people simply presuppose that European males are incapable of brighting up the universally divine elements of the text and so rational a need to augment exegesis with other humanistic perspectives.

    Now, of course, there will be some who refuse to engage the intellectual point being made above, and are simply comfortable with studying the readers eye, rather than the author’s hand, dismissing the point as reactionary, however failure to engage the point proves it as irrational. Does anyone wonder how we end up with the blind leading the blind?

  8. I’ve been researching the Cappadocians lately (Gregory Nyssen is my theological hero, Gregory Nazianzen is my psychological doppelganger). Someone who gets dropped through the cracks a lot is Basil and Nyssen’s sister Macrina the Younger, who deeply influenced the theologies of both Nyssen and Basil. David Gowler has been posting a series on Macrina over at his blog. I’d encourage you all to check it out:

    Part One:

    Part Two:

  9. ah Joshua, thanks for mentioning Macrina! Oftentimes, women greatly influence these early male theologians, and are theologians in their own right. Such as Macrina, as you mentioned, and Augustine’s mother Monica. Thanks for the references, I will check them out.

  10. @ Kate, Brian and @ everyone: Thanks for the comment, Kate. Brian, you put it well re. using the historical-critical method but not it alone… not stopping there. We DO need a “life of faith” and we all practice one of some kind or another, so it’s much better for it to be consciously integrated with and as consistent with our “historical-critical” understandings as possible. However, to get very far with this takes a LOT of knowledge and continued study.

    I’m sorry (to those who might object), but the kind of “Bible study” that is typical and I used to do (along with formal M.Div. and later PhD studies) as an Evangelical generally fails to get into this kind of critical examination and conscious integration or “reimagining”. I’m not sure how this gets improved very much, either within my (current) progressive circles or more conservative ones. (The issues differ but share a lot at root.) But one start I think would be for pastors and other leaders to at least offer, if not do a lot on Sun. mornings, some interesting guided studies that ARE historical-critical. They would be both “academic” and “applied” in reflecting on the implications of the study for how we want to jointly live “The Way” of Jesus and Christian faith. And the way the original “The Way” folks understood and lived it out need not be identical to the way we here and now seek to live it out.

  11. @ Brian,

    BTW, I meant to mention I like your constitution analogy a lot. Interestingly, I observe many of the stronger strict/original intent interpreters (at least those on radio) also DO fail to take adequate consideration of updated conditions… controls on possession of certain weaponry would be one key example.

  12. @Andrew–I would suggest reading Oduyoye’s work before evaluating it. She does offer some great insights. Of course, interpretation always involves the working of the Holy Spirit, as Brian suggests. Theology (as well as biblical interpretation), as my adviser reminds me, is a matter of life and death, which is why we need to consider what contributes (and inhibits) to the flourishing of life, which God creates and loves (Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut analogy is helpful here).

    @Howard Historical-critical studies can come from liberationist perspectives, and you are right that churches need to engage these readings. For example, Gay Byron explores the ancient Ethiopian kingdom, and how it connects to the world of the New Testament.

  13. @Howard: I’d say fundamentalists of all stripes—conservatives and critics—often share the presumption that the influence and impact of the text is static and completely conditioned by authorial intent. Authorial intent matters, absolutely, but to return to my analogy of the Declaration we must ask the question, “What is the role of authorial intent when a document becomes authoritative for a community?” I know many critics of Christianity who will blast us for continuing to seek meaning from Genesis 1, or from the Catholic Epistles when say the authorship of the Petrine Epistles are seriously doubted, but who never stop to ask themselves if there are any documents that influence their lives the same way. For example, what does an atheist American do with the language of “…created equal…by their creator…”? Do the renounce their citizenship or do they seek to get to the gist of the message they share w. other Americans? I’d presume the second option is preferred. Similarly we Christians must seek to do this at times with Scripture, which is where I think we can take a page from Patristic hermeneutics.

  14. @Kate: Thank you for that qualification. I wouldn’t want to come across as denying the possibility of historical-critical work from perspectives other than the stereotypical, Eurocentric, so-called “objective” historicist approach.

  15. @Kate, while I appreciate your suggestion to read Oduyoye’s work (and I have no doubt she has great insights). However it wasn’t Oduyoye’s work I was questioning; rather it was the post-modern presuppositions evident in this post. Jumping from the position that we can never completely understand the original intention of the author, to the suggestion we should see the Gospel through the eyes of an African women misses the point that this conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise, and the conclusion itself leads us away from understanding God by having us fixate instead on things which don’t matter (such as our human differences). I will make an effort to better discover Oduyoye, but not because she is a black women, but because she might exhibit insight: however, I will be judging her insight on its own merit, not qualifying it on her gender or race).

    @Brian, you note that it may be misguided when this methodological approach (historical-critical approach) is seen to be: “(1) the only way to read Scripture or (2) the so-called objective way to do so.“. I assume a deep respect for the problems presented by historiography offer up this insight, and I certainly agree with your point (1). However, is your point (2) really so clear-cut?

    Teasing apart the issue of so-called objectivity in history, or in biblical studies, or what-have-you, would you agree this is really an epistemological problem? If so, the ‘chickens’ of scepticism of the enlightenment have come home to roost as post-modernism which really questions the idea of objectivity itself (as seen in some of Kates statements).

    This is not itself a problem – since questioning anything for the sake of learning is good. What is a problem is when a question (such as ‘Can we objectively know something from the past?‘) becomes a statement that cannot be questioned (such as “… we can never completely understand the original intention of the author!“). When I read that particular statement by Kate, it was in my past, since she had written it before I read it, and yet I’m fairly confident my grasp of her intention in stating that – is understood!

    So it begs a number of questions; is there any so-called objective way(s) to understand scripture?; Is is possible to objectively know either the past or the objective intent of the bible’s author in any sense?; if there are ways to understand the objective intent of the bible, or the past, is there some criteria by which we determine which ways are more (or less) fruitful compared to others?

    You’ve argued in the past that I’ve falsely assumed you to be a radical post-modernist; and though I have held you accountable for your own words, actually feel you to be remarkably balanced. So would you not agree that the historical-critical method is one of many methods we use to achieve objectivity, but ultimately limited in-and-of itself? (It is only one experience – of the elephant, not the elephant)?

  16. I missed your comment above to Kate about denying the possibility of historical-critical work …

  17. @ Brian, good points. I like the extension of use of the constitution q. And for me, even as I take Gen. 1 to not be “special revelation” or “inspired” in the way most traditional X’ns have meant that, I believe it reveals important information, and more than just symbolic. Yet I will be cautious, as I am with the Gospels, based on my knowledge of how “mythological” explanations of origins and other important dynamics tend to work for a given people or humanity in general. And to me, “myth” in the academic sense speaks more of “truth” than it does of untruth. And as to “authorial intent” (per Andrew and others), we indeed ARE limited, but I feel pretty safe in the educated guess that the ancient author(s) knew their readers would NOT take Gen. 1 nearly as literally as about 40+% of modern Americans apparently do.

  18. Continuation of recent @ Brian comment: In other words, I think we tend to “dumb down” ancient peoples too much often… failing to perceive their level of sophistication on many matters… and not just scriptural writers.

  19. One way of thinking about the “authorial intent” debate is the understanding that while we can never get inside the head of the original author—yes, it is impossible, even the most gifted communicators are still misread and misunderstood—we can still gain insight into how the author intended a work to be received by his or her audience. For instance, we can never know the mind of the author of Luke, but we CAN observe (via rhetorical devices, literary craftwork, etc.) the effect a particular piece of writing may have had on an ancient audience. In the same way, we need to study the work of Womanist (in addition to Communist, atheist, liberationist, Queer, post-colonialist, anarchist, mystic, et al) readers, as it gives us insight into the impact the author’s work has on contemporary audiences of differing backgrounds.

    Just my two cents.

  20. @ Joshua Paul, I agree… this “one step removed” analysis of readers and/or their reactions and responses can get us a bit closer. Along that line, it is important to note, in some depth, how the NT authors use or speak of Jesus using “OT” scripture and/or apocryphal lit. – generally not in the way we tend to in modern times, or even in early “orthodoxy”. There are good scholarly works on this, as you know, but to my knowledge, not much that is “popular level” or has become widely read by non-scholars. And pastors, if they read this lit., seem to seldom pass along much of it to their congregations.

  21. @Joshua, while I agree with your response, and appreciate its insight, would you go as far as to claim that because we cannot understand the author’s ‘intent’, we cannot understand the author?

    Sorting out the distinction is important because it is related to what preconditions are necessary to achieve objectivity. While we cannot experience the blind-man’s elephant ear as the blind-man did, we can still take his experience by way of communication and reconstruct the elephant in a meaningful way.

  22. @Howard: I’d agree. I don’t think the ancients would know what to do with our attempts to read say Genesis 1 through a scientific paradigm. They’d think we’re missing the point and I’d agree!

    @Joshua: Those are helpful clarifications.

  23. Apparently the evolution of our comment thread is an unstated answer to Kate’s third question: “What difficulties have you come across in your discovery?”

    We aren’t quite sure what to do with Patristic hermeneutics! :)

  24. @Andrew, I would argue that while it is possible to observe contextual/rhetorical clues in the text that hint at a possible intended audience, it is still impossible to know the mind of the author. And—let’s face it—just because the author INTENDED it to be read a certain way does not mean that it was received as intended, even by the author’s earliest audience. If I make a reference to the TV show “Rev.” at my church, some people are going to get it and some people aren’t, because not everyone is familiar with the same cultural elements as me. In fact, those who didn’t get my reference might be pretty darn confused about what I mean.

    I’m a fan of the Shannon-Weaver communication model, which does a good job of showing all the potential problems with encoding, transmitting, receiving, and decoding a given piece of communication:

  25. @Joshua Paul Smith – I agree, however I think the problem here is that people (specifically post-modernists) assume that an imperfect medium of communication can’t communicate perfectly. It’s true we cannot know what was in an author’s mind, and some will mistake what is being communicated regardless of intent, but that does not mean it is impossible for the author to convey objective knowledge perfectly.

    We’re using an imperfect medium (on this blog) to communicate without information loss). The internet, an imperfect medium (which loses packets, drops them, or NULL routes them), was specifically designed to deliver packets without information loss. The internet, in some sense, is self-correcting, and so is hermeneutics. Failure to recognize this leads to a conclusion that an author cannot be understood. How are hermeneutics self correcting? See [II Peter 1:20-21].

    With Brian’s comment – my interest in the patristics is cursory and marginal, though based in interest. This because of [1 Cor 1-3] summarized in [1 Cor 3:5-7] “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

    The cult of personality is as destructive inside Christianity as it is outside. That said I was impressed with Kate’s Phoebadius. However to pursue greater objectivity I would actually like to read Arius’ own words (which no longer exists). All we really get of Arius is the caricature presented by his enemies.

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