GENERAL COUNCILS ON FUTURE RETRIBUTION
It is well known that a peculiar authority is ascribed to the results of general or ecumenical councils. Any doctrine recognized by them as fundamental is ever after regarded as an essential part of the faith of the Church. Any doctrine condemned and anathematized by them is ever after stigmatized as a heresy.
It is, therefore, a question of considerable interest, Has the doctrine of universal restoration ever been thus condemned and anathematized? Not that we give to general councils any inspired authority to establish articles of faith, but because such decisions have ever exerted, and still do exert, great influence on hundreds of millions of professing Christians. In the Church of Rome, as well s in the Greek Church, the decisions of an ecumenical council are conclusive, and from them there is no appeal.
In a previous chapter we considered the expression of belief in the life of the world to come, in the Nicene and other ancient creeds, as an equivalent to the belief of aionian life, professed in the Apostles’ Creed, and which is translated “eternal life.”
It is a remarkable fact that this brief annunciation of belief in the life of the world to come is all that is found in any ecumenical creed, and that this relates to the future state of the righteous, and not at all to the retribution of the wicked. However important the questions as to eternal punishment or annihilation or universal restoration may be, they have found no place in the creed of any ecumenical council; so absorbingly did the questions of the Trinity and the person of Christ occupy the mind of the Church, and fix the standard of orthodoxy. But, though such are the facts, they are not in general so apprehended.
We have seen that in the local Council of Constantinople, in the year 544, Origen’s doctrine of universal restoration was for the first time condemned and anathematized. In addition to this, the impression has been general that it has been condemned by an ecumenical council also. It is not difficult to explain the origin of this impression. There was a general Council of Constantinople held in 553, nine years after the local council in 544; and, by a not uncommon species of pious fraud, the action of the local council has been ascribed to the ecumenical council, for the sake of giving to it greater authority. But the matter of fact is, that the doctrine of universal restoration was not condemned in that council, and has never been formally condemned in any ecumenical council whatever. It is no doubt true that in two or three general councils Origen was condemned, among other heretics, but his alleged errors were so numerous that a general condemnation of him as a heretic would not imply a specific condemnation of this particular doctrine, especially as in a number of local councils it was passed by, while many other Origenistic errors were condemned. But that it was not condemned at the general Council of Constantinople in 553 will be apparent from a consideration of the end for which that council was called, and from the nature of their action. It was called in opposition to the Nestorians, and not in opposition to Origen or his doctrines. This is plain from the nature of their results and their anathemas. These are all aimed at the Nestorian errors of Theodore of Mopsuestia and others.
One thing is very remarkable and conclusive as an evidence that the council did not intend to condemn the doctrine of universal restoration, namely, that though it was repeatedly avowed in the extracts from the writings of Theodore laid before the council, yet it was not specifically condemned, and no anathema was directed against it. The council devoted itself to the condemnation of the peculiar errors of Nestorianism.
A striking proof that the condemnation of Origen was no part of the intended original action of the council, but was afterward introduced by fraud, is found in the fact that in the letter of Justinian to the council the name of Origen does not occur in the list of the heretics whom the emperor called on them to condemn. Hence, when we find it in the list of heretics condemned by the council, there can be no doubt that it was fraudulently introduced by the same person who introduced the action of the local council, and who neglected to introduce the name of Origen into the list of Justinian. He did not complete his work of fraud, but exposed himself by not surveying the whole ground to be covered to make his fraudulent work complete.
Testimony of Historians.
This view of the action of the second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople is substantially sustained by the suffrages of the leading modern historians of the Church, such as Neander, Hagenbach, Gieseler, Mosheim, Dr. Schaff, etc. It is true that some of them ascribe the transfer of the doings of the local Council of Constantinople to the Ecumenical Council, to a mistake in confounding the two councils, and not to fraud. But the facts of the case, and the known usages of the age, lead us decidedly to the belief of a pious fraud, as we have stated. At all events, whether by mistake or by fraud, an action was imputed to the second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople which was never taken by them. So far were they from condemning the doctrine of universal restoration in Origen, that they did not even condemn it in Theodore of Mopsuestia, though it was clearly and repeatedly placed before their eyes in the extracts from his writings, which we have quoted in a former number.
Effects of False Belief.
Nevertheless, the fact that it was generally believed that Origen’s doctrine of universal restoration was condemned by this general council, exerted a great influence, in subsequent ages, in suppressing that doctrine. Neander says, “It had great influence in bringing about the later more general practice of treating Origen as a heretic, that a decree of this sort was ascribed to an ecumenical council” (vol. ii., p. 704).
We need not be surprised, therefore, if from this time, at least in the Latin and Greek Churches, the doctrine of universal restoration should generally disappear. The sixth century is generally regarded as the beginning of the dark ages, that extended to the sixteenth century. Barbarian invasions more and more arrested the progress of intellectual culture. Free thought was generally suppressed, and ecclesiastical authority was supreme.
For some centuries, as we have formerly stated, in the extreme East, beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, there was among the Nestorians more intellectual progress and extended missionary enterprise. This period extended from 762 to 1258. After this they suffered persecutions from the Tartars, and were almost exterminated by the merciless Tamerlane. Of him Rev. T. Laurie, in his history of the Nestorians, says: “It will give some idea of his ferocity to state that in 1380 he built up two thousand men alive, with mortar, in the form of a tower, who thus miserably perished. Seven years later, he piled up seventy thousand human heads in the public squares of Ispahan; and in 1401 ninety thousand in the city of Bagdad. Three years previous, he massacred one hundred thousand prisoners in his invasion of India, and in 1400 he buried alive four thousand Armenian horsemen, whom he had taken prisoners at Sivas. Such was the man whose fury seems to have put an end to the missionary activity of the Nestorians, while from many countries it blotted out their very name” (“Dr. Grant and the Mountain Nestorians,” p. 54).
The result of all these causes has been that although for some centuries the doctrine of final restoration was widely prevalent in the early Church, yet it disappeared about the sixth century in the Latin and Greek Churches, and has not reappeared in the leading modern Evangelical Churches.
It is also true that, in the Romish Church, as well as in the Greek, the doctrine of future eternal punishment is clearly taught. This, at least, is true of the authorized catechisms in use in these churches.
The doctrine of universal restoration, in the Nestorian churches, disappeared by a nearly universal extermination of those churches. During the dark ages it was held by now and then an individual like John Scotus Erigena. The Roman Church also has accused the Albigenses and some other sects of holding this doctrine.
But since the Reformation, as all are aware, it has extensively revived in Europe and America. In Europe, very many evangelical men, eminent for learning and for Christian character, have advocated the doctrine. In this country it has not been generally connected with the evangelical system.
We have thus traced our history to the sixth century, and given an outline of the course of belief from that century to the present time. We shall not at present enter further into the details of the history, but shall suspend our narrative with a view of the doctrine in the eighth century, as set forth by John of Damascus.
John of Damascus.
He represents the orthodoxy of the Greek Church after the council of Justinian had condemned universal restoration, and was a believer in future eternal punishment. His use of the words aion and aionios, as a writer of Greek, will be found interesting and instructive.
Of his leading theological work, “An Accurate Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” Neander says that it is “the most important doctrinal text-book of the Greek Church.” He was the most eminent man of his century in theology and philosophy, and is revered as a saint in the Latin as well as in the Greek Church. He aimed not at originality, but at a clear exposition of the established orthodox system.
His system closes with these words: “We shall rise from our graves, our spirits shall be united to our bodies, and we shall stand before the tremendous judgment-seat of Christ, and there the devil, and antichrist, his man of sin and also all impenitent and flagitious men, shall be given over to the aionian fire, a fire not material as ours, but one which God understands. But they who have done good shall shine forth as the sun with the angels unto aionian life, with our Lord Jesus Christ, seeing him always, and being seen, and enjoying an endless joy from him, praising him with the Father and the Holy Spirit to endless ages of ages.”
Aion and Aionios.
In what sense he uses the word aionian we can ascertain from other parts of his work. In book ii., chapter i., he has a full and labored discussion of aion, which I will translate. In the first place we are to notice that he regards aion as always a designation of a period of time, and not of a material world. He also speaks of God as the maker of the ages (aions), giving a time-sense to passages like Heb. i. 2, “By whom also he made the (worlds) ages.” Of God he says, “He made the aions who was before the aions, to whom David said from aion to aion thou art, and the apostle by whom also he made the aions.” How God can create ages, he does not say.
After this introduction, he enters upon a full exposition of the senses of the word aion. He says: “We should know that the word aion has many significations. For, 1. The life of every man is called aion; 2. Again, the period of one thousand years is called aion; 3. Again, the whole duration or life of this world is called aion; 4. The endless life after the resurrection is called the aion to come.”
In another place he says: “There are reckoned seven aions of this world (each one thousand years), that is, from the creation of heaven and earth until the common consummation and the resurrection of men. For the death of each one is an individual close; but the common and universal close and consummation is when the resurrection of all shall occur. But the eighth aion is the aion to come.”
Again he says: “There are aions of aions. Since the seven aions of this present world include many aions or lives of men, and that great aion of the world includes them all, and the present aion and the aion to come is called the aion of the aion, the expressions aionian life (i.e., life of the world to come), and aionian punishment (i.e., punishment of the world to come), disclose the endlessness of the coming aion.” Hence the idea of eternity is not in the word aionios, but is derived from the endlessness of the aion which it designates. For he had previously stated that the coming age is to be endless. Thus, as in Olympiodorus, when the periods spoken of are limited, aionios is used to denote a limited duration, as opposed to endless ages, so, here, when the coming age is by assumption endless, aionios receives a corresponding force. That the coming aion will be endless, he proceeds to show. He assumes the statement (Rev. xxii. 5), “there shall be no night there,” and says that “after the resurrection time shall not be numbered by days and nights, for there shall be to the righteous one day without night, the Sun of righteousness shining above them, but to sinners a dark and endless night. To designate the idea endless, he does not here use aionios, but aperantos.
An Endless Aion.
He also applies aion to denote the undivided temporal movement and interval of such an endless world. He says: “That which is not time nor any part of time measured by the motion and course of the sun, or composed of a succession of days and nights, but that temporal movement and interval which extends alongside of eternal things, is called aion. For what time is to those under time, that is this aion to eternal things.” Of this aion he says: “In this aspect there is one aion with reference to which God is called aionios and proaionios (before the aion), for he made the aion. For God alone being without beginning is the maker of all aions, and of all things that exist.”
According to this, no aion denotes an absolute eternity, for God exists above them all, and is the maker of them. We think that in these speculations John has wandered beyond the sphere of comprehensible thought. But one thing is plain, that aion never by itself denotes eternity any more than does our word age, and that to impart to it this idea the age must be extended forever by supposition or definition. It is equally evident that aionios has not in itself the idea of eternity, and acquires it only when it relates to an age which by definition and assumption is eternal.
What precedes concludes the history essentially as published in the Christian Union. I have carefully considered all criticisms, and believe my positions to be impregnable.
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