We have taken the age of Origen (A.D. 185-253) as a point of vision from which to survey the course of opinion as to the doctrine of retribution. It was the age of the first development of scientific theology, and of the extensive establishment of theological schools. In this age began the extended movement in behalf of the doctrine of universal restoration, which continued until the sixth century in two forms, that of the Alexandrian and that of the Antiochian school. Origen is on the dividing line between this movement and that of the school of Asia Minor, which can be traced back to the apostle John, and in which Melito of Sardis, and Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, were the most celebrated teachers. Irenaeus taught the annihilation of the wicked, agreeing in this with Justin Martyr. But this movement was interrupted by Origen and his successors, and for centuries the doctrine of universal restoration took its place, so far as the doctrine of eternal punishment was not held. The only exception to this statement is found in Arnobius, who wrote a little after Origen, and taught the doctrine of annihilation. We propose to give an account of the leading theological schools that were developed in this age, and of the influence exerted by them on the great question of future retribution.

But, before doing this, it is indispensable to take a more particular view of Origen himself, for he stands in relations to the whole Church such as are sustained by no other one of the early Church teachers.

Great Facts.

Two great facts stand out on the page of ecclesiastical history: One, that the first system of Christian theology was composed and issued by Origen in the year 230 after Christ, of which a fundamental and essential element was the doctrine of the universal restoration of all fallen beings to their original holiness, and union with God.

The second is, that, after the lapse of a little more than three centuries, in the year 544, this doctrine was for the first time condemned and anathematized as heretical. This was done, not in a general council, but in a local council called by the Patriarch Mennas at Constantinople, by the order of Justinian.

During all this long interval, the opinions of Origen and his various writings were an element of power in the whole Christian world. For a long time he stood high as the greatest luminary of the Christian world. He gave an impulse to the leading spirits of subsequent ages, and was honored by them as their greatest benefactor. At last, after all his pupils were dead, in the remote age of Justinian he was anathematized as a heretic of the worst kind. The same also was done with respect to Theodore of Mopsuestia, of the Antiochian school, who held the doctrine of universal restitution on a different basis. This, too, was done long after he was dead, in the year 553. From and after this point the doctrine of future eternal punishment reigned with undisputed sway during the Middle Ages that preceded the Reformation.

Origen and His Age.

To prepare the way for our history, we propose to set forth the character of Origen and his age, and also of the age in which he was condemned.

The time of Origen was a great turning-point of opinion on a practical question that lay at the foundation of all theological and social development. Before him, the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity was not expected. It was generally believed that it was to be destroyed by the coming of Christ, and that his millennial reign was to follow. Origen first developed the idea of the conversion of the empire to Christianity, exposed the chiliastic illusions, and, with wide-reaching views, undertook to prepare Christianity for its future destinies.

The great facts of Christianity had been proclaimed and recorded in the gospels, and the canon of the New Testament had been substantially completed.

The assaults of the Gnostics on the Old Testament were, to a great extent, on rational and moral grounds. For example, the conduct of God, in hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and then punishing him for hardness of heart, was assailed by them as unjust, and unworthy of the true God of the universe. Many of the assaults of Celsus were of a like kind, and had not been fully answered. In particular, he had assailed, as unworthy of God, the doctrine of eternal punishment in unquenchable fire.

Origen at Alexandria.

At Alexandria also, his native place, and the seat of the great Catechetical School, in which he was a teacher, there was a great concourse of pagan philosophers, Gnostics, and other heretics, to be encountered and refuted, or to be converted. Origen was in fact instrumental in the conversion of many, especially of Ambrose, a wealthy nobleman of Alexandria, once a Gnostic, but ever after his zealous patron and supporter.

Founder of Scientific Theology.

It ought not to surprise us that, under such a pressure on all sides, Origen felt the need of rising above the mere detail of facts, and of developing some fundamental principles out of which might spring some system of the universe which could be defended on rational and moral grounds. This was his object in his work on the fundamental principles of Christianity (Peri Archon), which was the first system of Christian theology ever issued.

The two great foundations of this system were preexistence and universal restoration. Without preexistence he could not explain and defend the state of things in this world in accordance with the benevolence and the justice of God. Without universal restitution he could not bring the system to a final issue worthy of God.

He based his whole system on a real and not nominal free agency, which could never be lost. On this basis he defended God’s dealings with Pharaoh with a keenness and sagacity that have not bee exceeded since his day.

He considered, also, the attributes and relations of the three persons of the Trinity, and their action in the general system.

It deserves notice how deeply imbedded in his scheme is the doctrine of universal restoration. Without it the whole system falls to pieces.

Other topics, as to eternal creation, and future systems, were included, and also as to the resurrection. Kurtz, in view of his labors in this department, says that, notwithstanding his errors are rejected, he is justly honored as “the founder of scientific theology.”

But this was but a small part of the work undertaken and executed by him.

Other Labors of Origen.

The whole science of textual criticism, of commentary, and exposition, and homiletical application, was as yet undeveloped. Origen entered this wide field, and labored with an energy and learning that stimulated, excited, and instructed, the whole Christian world.

Of him Dr. Schaff says: “Origen was the greatest scholar of his age, and the most learned and genial of all the ante-Nicene fathers. Even heathens and heretics admired or feared his brilliant talents. His knowledge embraced all departments of the philology, philosophy, and theology, of his day. With this he united profound and fertile thought, keen penetration, and glowing imagination. As a true divine, he consecrated all his studies by prayer, and turned them according to his best convictions to the service of truth and piety.”

Those who recall the impulse communicated to Biblical studies in this country by Prof. Stuart, can form some conception of the still greater work effected by Origen in his Hexapla, his commentaries, homilies and notes, and reply to Celsus.

Of him Dr. Schaff says again: “He may be called, in many respects, the Schleiermacher of the Greek Church. He was a guide from the heathen philosophy, and the heretical gnosis, to the Christian faith. He exerted an immeasurable influence in stimulating the development of the Catholic theology, and forming the great Nicene fathers, Athanasius, Basil, the two Gregories, Hilary and Ambrose, who, consequently, in spite of all his deviations, set great value on his services.”

Moral Character of His Age.

Notice now the moral peculiarities of this and the preceding ages. Lecky, after a careful survey of the history of morals in the Roman Empire, says: “There can be little doubt that for nearly two hundred years after its establishment in Europe, the Christian community exhibited a moral purity which, if it has been equaled, has never for any long period been surpassed. Completely separated from the Roman world that was around them, abstaining alike from political life, from appeals to the tribunals, and from military occupations; looking forward to the immediate advent of their Master, and the destruction of the empire in which they dwelt, and animated by all the fervor of a young religion, the Christians found within themselves a whole order of ideas and feelings, sufficiently powerful to guard them from the contamination of their age.”

At this time, too, there was no intervention of imperial despotism in religious questions, no ecumenical councils called by imperial authority, and the only valid appeal was to Scripture and to reason. It was during the close of this age, and before the imperial age was developed, that Origen lived and wrote.

Piety of Origen.


And it is conceded by all that he was as eminent for piety and for a truly Christian spirit as any saint of any age.

Of him the dispassionate and judicial Mosheim says, while faithfully exposing what he deems his errors: “Origen possessed every excellence that can adorn the Christian character; uncommon piety from his very childhood; astonishing devotedness to that most holy religion which he professed; unequaled perseverance in labors and toils for the advancement of the Christian cause; untiring zeal for the Church and for the extension of Christianity; an elevation of soul which placed him above all ordinary desires or fears; a most permanent contempt of wealth, honor, pleasures, and of death itself; the purest trust in the Lord Jesus; for whose sake, when he was old and oppressed with ills of every kind, he patiently and perseveringly endured the severest sufferings. It is not strange, therefore, that he was held in so high estimation, both while he lived and after death. Certainly if any man deserves to stand first in the catalogue of saints and martyrs and to be annually held up as an example to Christians, this is the man, for, except the apostles of Jesus Christ and their companions, I know of no one, among all those enrolled and honored as saints, who excelled him in virtue and holiness” (“Historical Commentary on Christianity before Constantine,” vol. ii., p. 149).

Defender of Free Inquiry.

One thing deserves special notice. The influence of Origen was always exerted by, and in favor of, free investigation and argument; and in a number of cases he effected what has rarely been done – he convinced errorists by kind personal argument so thoroughly that they renounced their errors and returned to the truth.

Rejects Material Fire.

Before we come to the age of Justinian, in which Origen and his doctrine of restoration were finally condemned, one thing more should be made exceedingly prominent. It is that Origen utterly rejected the idea of punishment by literal fire. He taught that there would be punishment, intense, fearful, and long-continued, but that it would be by intellectual and moral forces, adapted as a final result to reform the sinner. He thus never passed out of the region of intellectual philosophy and moral influence into the region of brute force.

Age of Justinian.

Let us now pass from the age of Origen to that of Justinian. It may be thus briefly characterized: It was an age in which all free inquiry was utterly proscribed, in which all questions were settled by authority, and in which unreasoning credulity, falsely called faith, was regarded as the crowning Christian grace. It was an age in which the keys of heaven and hell were in the hands of the hierarchy through the exclusive power to administer the sacraments, and to admit or exclude from the Church. It was an age in which the fires of hell were held to be material, and thus not dependent for their punitive power on moral character, but meet instruments of despotic force. In the hands of the clergy the doctrine of eternal punishment had thus become an instrument of degrading terrorism, to extort money or to enforce the belief of doctrines at war with the most sacred moral convictions implanted by God in the human mind. It was an age, too, in which the moral degeneracy of the Church had reached an extreme point of degradation.

Moreover, the manner in which Origen and Theodore were condemned and stigmatized as heretics was in keeping with the character of the age, as a simple narrative of the course of events in the councils would clearly prove.

Had we time we could easily confirm all these statements by abundant testimony. But two witnesses must suffice. We shall refer to Dr. Schaff and to Mr. Lecky.

Dr. Schaff.

Dr. Schaff tells us that, even before the days of Justinian, all free inquiry had been destroyed by the results of the assaults on Origen of Epiphanius, and others. Of these he says: “They show the progress of orthodoxy under the twofold aspect of earnest zeal for the pure faith, and a narrow-minded intolerance toward all free speculation. The condemnation of Origen was a death-blow to theological science in the Greek Church, and left it to stiffen gradually into a mechanical traditionalism and formalism” (vol. ii., p. 698).

Mr. Lecky.

In the days of Justinian, old Rome had fallen before the barbarians, and the centre of the Roman Empire was in Byzantium. Lecky, after a careful survey of the pagan empire, says of this Christian Byzantine Empire: “The universal verdict of history is, that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. Though very cruel and very sensual, there have been times when cruelty assumed more ruthless, and sensuality more extravagant aspects; but there has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all the forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet mean may be so emphatically applied. The Byzantine Empire was eminently the age of treachery. Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous. Without patriotism, without the fruition or desire of liberty, after the first paroxysms of religious agitation, without genius or intellectual activity; slaves, and willing slaves, both in their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety [sic], or some rivalry in the chariot-races, stimulated them into frantic riots.” It will be remembered that, at this time, in this Christian empire, the Church and the state were essentially one. Of this period, and of the Catholic period of the middle ages, he says: “Credulity being taught as a virtue, and all conclusions dictated by authority, a deadly torpor sank upon the human mind, which for many centuries almost suspended its action, and which was only broken by the scrutinizing, innovating, and freethinking habits that accompanied the rise of the industrial republics in Italy” (vol. ii., p. 16).

The Interval.

Between the age of Origen and this degraded age in which he was condemned and stigmatized, and in which future eternal punishment was developed in its worst and most despotic and debasing form, there is a wide interval of time, as well as a wide range of moral influence.

During this period there was the action of theological schools, as well as of prominent leaders in the Church, with reference to this doctrine of universal restoration.

We are now prepared to take a general view of these theological schools and of their action on this great question.



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