THE FATE OF ORIGEN'S DOCTRINE OF UNIVERSAL RESTORATION
We have said, in a previous chapter, that the doctrine of Origen as to the universal restoration was not condemned and anathematized until the year 544, in the local council of Constantinople, more than three centuries after it was first published. A view of the steps by which the early state of freedom of opinion of which we have spoken was terminated, by the condemnation of Origen, will throw great light on the state of opinion on the question of retribution during those intervening centuries.
It may be assumed that, when an eminent religious teacher is at any time assailed, if he holds sentiments generally regarded as heretical and dangerous at that time, they will be made points of attack. Thus, at the present time the doctrine of universal Salvation in any form is regarded, in most or all American evangelical bodies, as a dangerous error. Now, if an eminent religious teacher holding this doctrine were to be made the subject of repeated attacks, is it possible that, while he was assailed on various other points of secondary moment, this, which is esteemed so great and so dangerous an error, would remain unnoticed? We know that it is impossible.
Let us make another assumption. If, during any centuries there were men of great eminence as scholars and divines, and celebrated for their elaborate and learned writings in defense of orthodoxy, is it possible that they would leave unnoticed and unassailed what they regarded as a great and dangerous error? For example, take such a man as Athanasius, the great father of Orthodoxy, renowned for his labored treatises against the Arians, is it to be supposed that he would leave any doctrine which he regarded as a great and dangerous error unassailed? Would he content himself with simply stating his own belief to the contrary? Would he not assail it by arguments as he did Arianism? Would he not seek to annihilate it by the full power of his intellect? Would he not lift up a voice of warning, loud and clear, against it?
A Third Test.
Let us make another supposition. Suppose, then, that a great ecumenical council were to be convened in behalf of orthodoxy, would any man who held to what was then regarded as a great and dangerous error be invited to it? Still more, would he be allowed to take the lead in it? Would they elect him as their representative in an extended visitation of the churches? If in the recent meeting of the Evangelical Alliance so eminent a Universalist as Dr. Ryder, of Chicago, or such a noted Universalist divine as Dr. Thayer, were not only gladly welcomed, but assigned leading parts in the services of the occasion, and one of them sent to England as a representative of the body, would it not be a fair and irresistible conclusion that Universalism was not regarded as a great and dangerous error?
Now, these are the tests to be applied to the Church before the sixth century to discover the real status of Universalism. It is not enough to find in Athanasius, or Chrystostom, and other eminent men, as we do, an occasional indication that they publicly professed to believe in eternal punishment. What we want to know is, how they regarded and treated those who held the opposite doctrine. What did they do to resist it and oppose its spread? If we apply these tests, we shall find that the feeling that now exists in evangelical bodies against this doctrine did not exist, and was not fully developed until in the sixth century. Let us now trace the course of events from the day of Origen till the day of the condemnation of his doctrine of restoration in the local council of Constantinople.
Origen Early Assailed.
It cannot be denied that Origen was the subject of attack from the time of the publication of his first theological treatise, the work on the first principles of theology. But we should not wonder at this. That work took a wide range. It spoke of god, of the Trinity, of the incarnation, of the person of Christ, of preexistence, of creation and the material world, of the body of Christ and of men, of the resurrection and the spiritual body, of the interpretation of Scripture, and other topics too numerous to mention. In particular he opposed the gross doctrines of the millennarians who taught the speedy advent of Christ to reign in a worldly kingdom that should destroy the Roman Empire. In short, his active mind pervaded the whole field of thought, and stimulated not only his generation, but all the great scholars of the following generations. He was above any mind of his age, and furnished material of thought for all the leading minds of coming ages. He was therefore widely open to attack, and might have been assailed on twenty points, or even more, without censuring his doctrine of final restoration. Such in fact was the case.
Assault of Demetrius.
He was first assailed by his bishop, Demetrius of Alexandria, who first deposed and then excommunicated him on the ground of ecclesiastical irregularities, in making himself a eunuch from a false construction of Christ’s words in Matt. xix. 12, and afterward being ordained a presbyter in Palestine, without leave from his bishop. But Jerome expressly says that he was condemned “not on account of any new doctrines, nor on account of any heresy, as mad dogs now pretend,” but from jealousy of the glory of his eloquence and knowledge. But the Bishops of Palestine, Phoenicia, Arabia, and Achaia, refused to acknowledge his deposition and excommunication, and he founded a new theological school at Cesarea, which became illustrious and powerful. This was about 232.
He also suffered by misrepresentation. Of him Gieseler says: “Even in the lifetime of Origen his peculiar notions were as often opposed as approved; so that he found it necessary by a public confession of faith to attempt to remove the unfavorable impressions made not so much by his theology, as by the exaggerations and misrepresentations of common report.”
Assault of Methodius.
After his death, about 250, he was first openly assailed, in three treatises by Methodius, Bishop of Olympus, and afterward of Tyre. This was near 300. If, now, the doctrine of universal restoration was then regarded as a dangerous error, we should expect to find it in one of these treatises. Was it so? Did Methodius lift up a voice of warning against it? No. Against what errors, then, did he inveigh? Errors as to the resurrection, and his theory of creation, preexistence, etc., and his views of the witch of Endor. In Alexandria, also, Peter the bishop opposed the doctrine of preexistence.
New Assaults And A Vindication.
When the Trinitarian controversy came on, all of Origen’s writings were scrutinized as to their bearing on the controversy, and some assailed him as favoring heretical views. So great was the excitement against him on this and other grounds that, about 310, Pamphilus and Eusebius wrote a labored vindication of him. Of this all but the first book is lost, but fortunately this contains all the charges against him that his defenders could find. These were nine in number. How, then, was the assault conducted at that time? Did the assailants include the doctrine of universal restoration among his errors? No; it is not even alluded to. But some did charge him with denying all future retribution. And it deserves particular notice that, in refuting this charge, his defenders adduced passages proving clearly that he did hold to future retribution, but proving just as clearly that he regarded it as limited, and remedial, and to terminate in universal restoration. Had this been then regarded as a dangerous error, would his defenders thus have given it needless publicity? In the year 330 Marcellus of Aneyra, himself a Universalist, opposed some of Origen’s views on the Trinity. Eustathius also opposed his view of the witch of Endor.
Assault of Epiphantius.
Pass on now to the year 376, and his great enemy, Epiphanius, the assailant of all heresies and heretics, leads a crusade against Origen. In his “Panarion” he professedly exposes the heresies of Origen. How is it now? Has universal restoration become a heresy yet? Not at all. We have carefully examined his book, and cannot find it. It is not till about 394, in his letter to John of Jerusalem, that he calls in question any part of the doctrine of universal restoration. Even then it is not the doctrine of the salvation of all men, but of the salvation of the devil, that he condemns.
In the final crisis of condemnation, A.D. 399 and 400, in which Epiphanius, Jerome, and Theophilus of Egypt, combine their forces, Origen is condemned in a synod; but even then the doctrine of the universal salvation of the race is not condemned, but the doctrine of Christ’s death for the salvation of the devil. Still, since there was at that time a general and indefinite condemnation of Origen and his works and readers, it tended to suppress Origenism in all its forms. Nevertheless, through the fifth century he had many followers, especially in Palestine.
At last, in the sixth century, under the influence of a quarrel in Palestine between the followers of Origen and his enemies, the Emperor Justinian was brought into the conflict. The opponents of Origen indoctrinated him in the controversy, and furnished him with arguments and extracts; and the emperor, ambitious to shine as a theologian as well as a legislator and a statesman, wrote an elaborate letter to Mennas, the Archbishop of Constantinople, in which he professes to refute at length the errors of Origen, and the doctrine of universal restoration, in its full form, was, for the first time, included among them, and was condemned with an imperial anathema with the rest. The archbishop being thus furnished by the emperor with theological arguments, and with the requisite anathemas, assembled an obedient council at Constantinople, and carried out the mandates of the emperor, in 544. This council was not an ecumenical council, but an imperial synod of the bishops in and about Constantinople.
It deserves notice that, up to this time in the Greek Church, there had been no attempt made by eminent men to refute universal restoration. Let us look back over this long period, and ask who are the great men who distinguished themselves as opponents of the doctrine of universal restoration, as they did against the Arian heresy? Did Athanasius so distinguish himself, or Gregory of Nazianzum, or Basil the Great, or Gregory of Nyssa, or Cyril of Jerusalem, or Ambrose, or Hilary, or Chrysostom? As a matter of fact, there is no treatise of any kind by any leading mind, such as Edwards against Chauncey in modern times, or the orations of Athanasius against the Arians. The only apparent exception to this remark is Augustine, in the Latin Church; but even he treated the subject superficially, and not with the thoroughness with which he treated the Pelagian heresy. In particular, he does not meet the argument of Origen and his followers from 1 Cor. xv. 28, which is a kind of corner-stone to their system. Nor does Justinian touch the argument from these and other similar passages.
Beyond all doubt, however, Augustine led the way in that style of reasoning on the subject which now prevails in the orthodox world.
First Council of Constantinople.
Let us now turn to the first great Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, A.D. 381, in which the doctrine of the Trinity was completed by a decree as to the Holy Spirit; and the scale was turned toward the permanent triumph of Orthodox Trinitarianism. Who is the great intellectual leader of this council after the resignation of Gregory of Nazianzum? Neander says, “Gregory of Nyssa seems now, by the superiority of his well-trained intellect, to have acquired special influence over the doctrinal transactions of the council.” Dr. Schaff also says, “The council intrusted [sic] to him, as ‘one of the pillars of Catholic orthodoxy,’ a tour of visitation to Arabia and Jerusalem, where disturbances had broken out which threatened a schism” (vol. ii., p. 906). But who was this so-honored Gregory of Nyssa? He was a second Origen in his views of free-agency and universal restoration, and that openly and with elaborate and oft-repeated arguments. This doctrine underlies and colors his whole system. Nor is this the only case.
Testimony of Historians.
Neander says of the Oriental or Greek Church that “many respectable church teachers stood forth, without injuring their reputation for orthodoxy, as advocates of universal restoration.” He mentions in particular, besides Gregory of Nyssa, Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Gieseler says: “Gregory of Nyssa and Didymus were known as Origenists, and many others held to single points of Origen’s creed without being, therefore attacked. The belief in the unalienable power of amendment in all intelligent beings, and the limited duration of future punishment, was so general even in the West, and among the opponents of Origen, that it seemed entirely independent of his system, to which doubtless its origin must be traced” (vol. i., p. 212). Augustine himself says, “Some, nay rather, multitudes, do not believe in the eternal punishment of the condemned” (Enchirid., 112). Deoderlein says, after giving the condemning decree of Justinian, “That was not the belief of all, and, in proportion as any one was eminent in learning in Christian antiquity, the more did he cherish and defend the hope of the termination of future torments” (Theol., ii., 199).
But at last the time came when the final Origenistic controversies, and the condemnation of Origen by Justinian and his council, caused this belief to be regarded as something decidedly heretical.
Thus it appears, by applying penetrating tests to history, that the modern orthodox views as to the doctrine of eternal punishment, as opposed to final restoration, were not fully developed and established till the middle of the sixth century, and that, then, they were not established by thorough argument, but by imperial authority.
It is also a striking fact that, while Origen lies under a load of odium as a heretic, Gregory of Nyssa, who taught the doctrine of the restoration of all things more fully even than Origen, has been canonized, and stands high on the roll of eminent saints, even in the orthodox Roman Catholic Church.
FORWARD>> (Next Chapter: THE SCHOOL OF AFRICA AND AIONIOS )