My friend Wan Wei Hsien (his blog: Torn Notebook) posted this icon to his Facebook about two months ago and it’s been on my mind since then. It really is the most interesting icon I’ve ever seen, and probably because Origen of Alexandria has for some time stood out to me as the most interesting figure of early Christianity.
Origen was the most prolific early Christian writer, by far the greatest theologian of those early years, a martyr for the Christian Faith, perhaps the single greatest influence on what would later become the Nicene Orthodoxy of the 4th century, and, in spite of that all, a condemned heretic, according to the decrees of an Ecumenical Council. What intrigues me even more are the circumstances surrounding the Council’s condemnation and the Council’s stated reason for condemning him.
By the time of the Second Council of Constantinople (the Fifth Ecumenical Council), held in 553, Origen had been dead for about 300 years. Why take so long to finally get around to condemning him? If he was indeed a heretic, why the long delay?
Then there is the question of why the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils were so inconsistent (read, perhaps: unfair) in their proclamations of such retroactive anathemas. The First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (the Second Ecumenical Council), held in 381, for instance, condemned the heresy of chiliasm (belief in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth prior to the Final Judgment), and yet seems to have found no need to condemn either St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 120-202) nor his disciple St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-236), both believers (and sainted Church Fathers) of an earlier age who had both been adherents of this now-condemned heresy. So why does Origen get an anathema 300 years after his death for something he certainly never knew during his lifetime would be declared heretical at that much later date?
In addition, many scholars of the last couple of centuries have put forward the triple theses that 1. Origen, because he was a martyr, may have been venerated as a saint during those intervening 300 years, 2. the writings which contain the ideas for which he was supposedly condemned may not have been written by him at all, and 3. even that the Council itself may not have actually condemned him, but that the anathemas we have against Origen which seem to come from the Council are not really from it at all! Some other scholars take a view a bit closer to the middle of the road and acknowledge that the anathemas were proclaimed by the Council, but not written by it nor possibly even reviewed by it, but simply endorsed in passing.
There also seems to be a movement in some quarters of Christianity today, drawing on the work of these scholars, to redeem Origen. While looking for the actual text of the anathemas for this post, I came across this statement at a Roman Catholic site which featured a translation of the statements of the Council:
Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council.
Origen’s redemption makes sense if this is the case. If he wasn’t condemned by this Ecumenical Council, then he was never anathematized by any Christian body with the power to do so infallibily. If the writings which contain the questionable doctrines were not actually written by him but by others in his name, he wasn’t a heretic. But he most certainly was a martyr, so … shall we call him St. Origen of Alexandria???
Well, not so fast; I’m not entirely convinced that the heretical writings in question, at least some of them, are not the work of Origen. And I think also that an important point of difference between Ss. Irenaeus and Hippolytus who were not condemned for their chiliasm of an earlier date versus Origen who was condemned for his speculations is that Origen’s beliefs are easily corrected with a clearheaded reading of the Holy Scriptures, whereas chiliasm is a bit more forgiveable in that sense. The Marcionites, for instance, never need an Ecumenical Council to condemn them, as they stood self-condemned due to their stark departure from Apostolic Tradition. Similarly, Origen took the love of allegory typical of the Alexandrian school just a little too far in some cases and ended up forgetting that the plain meaning of the text is just as important.
But an acknowledgement that Origen really was the author of heretical writings, whether those writings were actually condemned by an Ecumenical Council or not, leads to another intriguing set of questions; the icon above should give an indication of just what those questions are.
While most of Origen’s writings were entirely Orthodox and while most of his condemned ideas, such as the pre-existence of souls and the final annihilation of the material world, never got much wind behind them, one later-to-be-condemned belief in particular seems to have caught fire: the idea that we now call universalism, the belief that all (even, in Origen’s scheme, Satan himself) will eventually be saved.
All three of the Cappadocian Fathers, Ss. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus, those great 4th century defenders and formulators of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Orthodoxy, seem to have supported it. And it’s fairly certain that they did so under the influence of Origen’s writings. In fact, Ss. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus had created a compilation of Origen’s writings to be used in their monastery.
So, why weren’t they condemned along with him?
In fact, the possibility of an eventual universal reconciliation has its modern proponents amongst Orthodox hierarchs and theologians as well. I’m thinking here especially of Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) and Archbishop Hilarion (Alfayev).
So why aren’t they being anathematized too?
The answer, I think, lies in the approach. As Archbishop Hilarion wrote of St. Gregory Nazianzus:
‘Restoration of all’ is an object of hope rather than a dogma of faith. He rejects neither the idea of eternal Hell, nor the idea of universal salvation: both concepts remain for him with a big question mark. Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, Gregory asks: ‘Is it that all will later encounter God?’, and leaves this question unanswered.
In the end, the difference between an anathema and a canonization could come down to the difference between a question mark and a period. Origen ended his sentences with periods (and a few exclamation points) about universal restoration. Ss. Basil, Gregory, and Gregory, and the modern Orthodox theologians who follow in their footsteps, on the other hand, end their sentences with question marks.
Another important point in this regard is that, after reading several times through the famous 15 anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (?) against Origen, I don’t see in the anathemas an excommunication of those who hold to universal reconcilation itself, but of those who hold to the rather complex theology of Origen which results in a supporting a rather extreme form of universal reconciliation (this reconcilation including even the evil one and being purely spiritual in nature, as all material will be ultimately annihilated, according to Origen’s scheme).
That said, though, the last of the nine anathemas issued against Origen by the Emperor St. Justinian at the same Council leave little wiggle room on the issue:
If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.
I can think of a few ways that one could get around the wording here, but not many that adhere to the spirit and don’t simply circumvent letter.
David Bentley Hart, in his book The Story of Christianity, has pointed out that much of the theological speculation and adventurism that characterized first 300 years of Christianity largely died out once the age of the Ecumenical Councils began. As the Ecumenical Councils defined dogma and heresy with increasing detail, many of the topics that seemed ripe for exploration in early Christian thought, such as the nature of the Trinity and the person of Christ, largely dried up, becoming out-of-bounds territory for anyone who didn’t want to draw the ire of the Church. I think, though, that there is still a certain amount of theological exploration to be had for those theologians and philosophers who are tactful enough to theologize and philosophize as if they were playing Jeopardy, answering questions with questions and never with statements. Perhaps that’s why the question-mark theology pioneered by the Cappadocian Fathers is so popular amongst Orthodox theologians of the later periods and even of today: it’s safe; you can’t condemn a man for just asking a question — can you?
I think I’ve found the answers to some of the questions that revolve around Origen, but there are still a lot of questions I haven’t been able to find the answer to, and which we may never be able to answer in this lifetime. Were the anathemas really issued by the Fifth Ecumenical Council? Just how much of those heretical writings can really be attributed to Origen? Was he really venerated as a saint for 300 years before being declared a heretic? How did a man sometimes called “the Father of the Fathers” come to be labeled as a heretic anyway? I’d also be very interested to know what basis the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East, neither of which officially recognizes the Second Council of Constantinople as an Ecumenical Council, use to reject his teachings and refuse him veneration. Perhaps some of you might know the answer to that question.
The question I most want answer is why? I’m not sure I fully comprehend the point of an anathema — an ecclesiastical curse (you might say excommunication plus) — being applied posthumously to an individual. I can see the point in condemning the ideas, that is, to prevent others from picking them up later. I’m not so sure I can see the point in condemning a man who can’t defend himself or recant his previous statements.
I have little doubt that Origen’s condemnation at the Fifth Ecumenical Council was influenced, in some measure, by the anti-Alexandrian feelings floating in the air amongst the other Patriarchates after the Coptic Church’s rejection of the Council of Chalcedon (the Fourth Ecumenical Council, by the reckoning of most Christians) in 451, and the subsequent break in communion between the Copts and the rest of Christendom. What better way to spite the Alexandrian Church than to condemn their most famous and heralded theologian as a heretic?
I don’t think that a simple low-blow was the only motivation though. I wonder what the Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council thought they were accomplishing by anathematizing Origen — if they thought that it somehow affected his eternal state, or if it was simply an extra measure against his ideas, that condemning the man was the natural extension of condemning his theology. Perhaps the New International Version’s (in)famous (mis)translation of St. Paul’s use of the word “anathema” in Galatians 1:8-9 as “let him be eternally condemned” wasn’t so off the mark? If anyone knows more about the use of the word and its intended purpose, I’d love to hear it.
But, for now, I think I will have to follow the lead of the illustrious men I named above and end with a question mark: ?