UNIVERSALISM IN THE EARLY CENTURIES
The Earliest Creeds
Teaching of the Twelve Apostles
An examination of the earliest Christian creeds and declarations of Christian opinion discloses the fact that no formula of Christian belief for several centuries after Christ contained anything incompatible with the broad faith of the Gospel--the universal redemption of mankind from sin. The earliest of all the documents pertaining to this subject is the "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles." 1 This work was discovered in manuscript in the library of the Holy Sepulchre, in Constantinopole, by Philotheos Bryennios, and published in 1875. It was bound with Chrysostom's "Synopsis of the Works of the Old Testament," the "Epistle of Barnabas," A.D. 70-120--two epistles of Clement, and less important works. The "Teaching" was quoted by Clement of Alexandria, by Eusebius and by Athanasius, so that it must have been recognized as early as A.D. 200. It was undoubtedly composed between A.D. 120 and 160. An American edition of the Greek text and an English translation were published in New York in 1884, with notes by Roswell D. Hitchcock and Francis Brown, professors in Union Theological Seminary, New York, from which we quote. It is entirely silent on the duration of punishment. It describes the two ways of life and death, in its sixteen chapters, and indicates the rewards and the penalties of the good way and of the evil way as any Universalist would do--as Origen and Basil did. God is thanked for giving spiritual food and drink and "aeonian life." The last chapter exhorts Christians to watch against the terrors and judgments that shall come "when the earth shall be given unto his (the world's deceiver's) hands. Then all created men shall come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and perish. But they that endure in their faith shall be saved from this curse. And then shall appear the signs of the truth; first, the sign of an opening in heaven; then the sign of the trumpet's sound; and, thirdly the resurrection from the dead, yet not of all, but as it hath been said: 'The Lord will come and all his saints with him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.'" This resurrection must be regarded as a moral one, as it is not "of all the dead," but of the saints only. There is not a whisper in this ancient document of endless punishment, and its testimony, therefore, is that that dogma was not in the second century regarded as a part of "the teaching of the apostles." When describing the endlessness of being it uses the word athanasias, but describes the glory of Christ, as do the Scriptures, as for ages (cis tous aionas). In Chapter 11 occurs this language: "Every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven" (the sin of an apostle asking money for his services); but that form of expression is clearly in accordance with the Scriptural method of adding force to an affirmative by a negative, and vice versa, as in the word (Matt. 18:22): "Not until seven times, but until seventy times seven." In fine, the "Teaching" shows throughout that the most ancient doctrine of the church, after the apostles, was in perfect harmony with universal salvation. Cyprian, A.D. 250, in a letter to his son Magnus, tells us that in addition to the baptismal formula converts were asked, "Dost thou believe in the remission of sins and eternal life through the holy church?"
The Apostles' Creed"The Apostles' Creed," so called, the oldest existing authorized declaration of Christian faith in the shape of a creed was probably in existence in various modified forms for a century or so before the beginning of the Fourth Century, when it took its present shape, possible between A.D. 250 and 350. It is first found in Rufinus, who wrote at the end of the Fourth and the beginning of the Fifth Century. No indirect reference is made to it before these dates by Justin Martyr, Clement, Origen, the historian Eusebius, or any of their contemporaries, all whom make declarations of Christian belief, nor is there any hint in preceding literature that any such document existed. Individual declarations of faith were made, however, quite unlike the pseudo Apostles' Creed, by Irenieus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Gregory Thaumaturgus, etc.
Hagenback2 assures us that it was "probably inspired of various confessions of faith used by the primitive church in the baptismal service. Mosheim declared: "All who have any knowledge of antiquity confess unanimously that the opinion (that the apostles composed the Apostles' Creed) is a mistake, and has no foundation. 3"
The clauses "the Holy Catholic Church," "the communion of Saints," "the forgiveness of sins," were added after A.D. 250. "He descended into hell" was later than the compilation of the original creed--as late as A.D. 359. The document is here given. The portion in Roman type was probably adopted in the earlier part or middle of the Second Century4 and was in Greek; the Italic portion was added later by the Roman Church, and was in Latin:
"I believe in God the Father Almighty (maker of heaven and earth) and it Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was (conceived) by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified (dead) and buried, (He descended into hell). The third day he arose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of (God) the Father (Almighty). From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy (Catholic) Church; (the communion of saints) the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; (and the life everlasting)5. Amen."
It will be seen that not a word is here uttered of the duration of punishment. The later form speaks of "aionian life," but does not refer to aionian death, or punishment. It is incredible that this declaration of faith, made at a time when the world was ignorant of what constituted the Christian belief, and which was made for the purpose of informing the world, should not convey a hint of so vital a doctrine as that of endless punishment, if at that time that dogma was a tenet of the church.
The Oldest Credal StatementThe oldest credal statement by the Church of Rome says that Christ "shall come to judge the quick and the dead," and announces belief in the resurrection of the body. The oldest of the Greek constitutions declares belief in the "resurrection of the flesh, remission of sins, and the aionian life." And the Alexandrian statement speaks of "the life," but there is not a word of everlasting death or punishment in any of them. And this is all that the most ancient creeds contain on the subject.6
In an earlier form of the Apostle's Creed, Irenæus, A.D. 180, says that the judge, at the final judgment, will cast the wicked into aionian fire. It is supposed that he used the word aionian, for the Greek in which he wrote has perished, and the Latin translation reads, "ignem aeternum."
As Origen uses the same word, and expressly says it denotes limited duration, Irenæus's testimony does not help the doctrine of endless punishment, nor can it be quoted to reinforce that of universal salvation. Dr. Beecher thinks that Irenæus taught "a final restitution of all things to unity and order by the annihilation of all the finally impenitent"7 --a pseudo-Universalism.
Tertullian's BeliefEven Tertullian, born about A.D. 160, though his personal belief was fearfully partialistic, could not assert that his pagan-born doctrine was generally accepted by Christians, and when he formed a creed for general acceptance he entirely omitted his gruesome theology. It will be seen that Tertullian's creed like that of Irenæus is one of the earlier forms of the so-called Apostles' Creed: 8 " We believe in only one God, omnipotent, maker of the world, and his son Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised from the dead the third day, received into the heavens, now sitting at the right hand of the Father, and who shall come to judge the living and the dead, through the resurrection of the flesh." Tertullian did not put his private belief into his creed, and at that time he had not discovered that worst of dogmas relating to man, total depravity. If fact, he states the opposite. He says: "There is a portion of God in the soul. In the worst there is something good, and in the best something bad." Neander says that Tertullian "held original goodness to be permanent."
The Nicene CreedThe next oldest creed, the first declaration authorized by a consensus of the whole church, was the Nicene, A.D. 325; completed in 381 at Constantinopole. Its sole reference to the future world is in these words: "I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world (æon) to come." It does not contain a syllable referring to endless punishment, though the doctrine was then professed by a portion of the church, and was insisted upon by some, though it was not generally enough held to be stated as the average belief.
So dominant was the influence of the Greek fathers, who had learned Christianity in their native tongue, in the language in which it was announced, and so little had Tertullian's cruel ideas prevailed, that it was not even attempted to make the horrid sentiment a part of the creed of the church. Moreover, Gregory Nazianzen presided over the council in Constantinople, in which the Nicean creed was finally shaped--the Niceo-Constantinopolitan creed--and as he was a Universalist, and as the clause, "I believe in the life of the world to come," was added by Gregory of Nyssa, an "unflinching advocate of extreme Universalism, and the very flower of orthodoxy," it must be apparent that the consensus of Christian sentiment was not yet anti-Universalistic.
General Sentiment in the Fourth CenturyThis the general sentiment in the church from 325 A.D. to 381 A.D. demanded that the life beyond the grave must be stated, and as there is no hint of the existence of a world of torment, how can the conclusion be escaped that Christian faith did not then include the thought of endless woe? Would a council, composed even in part of believers in endless torment, permit a Universalist to preside, and another to shape its creed, and not even attempt to give expression to that idea? Is not the Nicene creed a witness, in what it does not say, to the broader faith that must have been the religion of the century that adopted it?
It is historical (See Socrates's Ecclesiastical History) that the four great General Councils held in the first four centuries--those at Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon--gave expression to no condemnation of universal restoration, though, as will be shown, the doctrine had been prevalent all along.
In the Nicene creed adopted A.D. 325, by three hundred and twenty to two hundred and eighteen bishops, the only reference to the future world is where it is said that Christ "will come again to judge the living and the dead." This is the original form, subsequently changed. A.D. 341 the assembled bishops at Antioch made a declaration of faith in which these words occur: "The Lord Jesus Christ will come again with glory and power to judge the living and the dead." A.D. 346 the bishops presented a declaration to the Emperor Constans affirming that Jesus Christ "shall come at the consummation of the ages, to judge the living and the dead, and render to every one according to his works." The synod at Rimini, A.D. 359, affirmed that Christ "descended into the lower parts of the earth, and disposed matters there, at the sight of whom the door-keepers trembled--and at the last day he will come in his Father's glory to render to every one according to his deeds." This declaration opens the gates of mercy by recognizing the proclamation of the Gospel to the dead, and, as it was believed that when Christ preached in Hades the doors were opened and all those in ward were released, the words recited at Rimini that he "disposed matters there," are very significant.
The Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds, printed in one, will exhibit the nature of the changes made at Constantinople, and will show that the "life to come" and not the post-mortem woe of sinners, was the chief though with the early Christians. (The Nicene is here printed in Roman type, and the Constantinopolitan in Italic.)
The Niceo-Constantinopolitan Creed"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of (heaven and earth, and) all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds,) only begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father; God of God, Light of Light, very God of Very God, begotten not made; being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, [transposed to the beginning] the things in heaven and things in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down (from heaven) and was incarnate (of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary) and made man (and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate), and suffered (and was buried), and rose again the third day (according to the Scriptures), who ascended into heaven (and sitteth on the right hand of the Father) and cometh again (in glory) to judge quick and dead (of whose kingdom there shall be no end). And in the Holy Ghost, (the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son, together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the prophets; in one holy Catholic, Apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.)" 9
This last clause was not in the original Nicene creed, but was added in the Constantinopolitan. The literal rendering of the Greek is "the life of the age about to come."
The first Christians, it will be seen, said in their creeds, "I believe in the æonian life;" later, they modified the phrase "æonian life," to "the life of the coming æon," showing that the phrases are equivalent. But not a word of endless punishment. "The life of the age to come" was the first Christian creed, and later, Origen himself declares his belief in æonian punishment, and in æonian life beyond. How, then, could æonian punishment have been regarded as endless?
The differences of opinion that existed among the early Christians are easily accounted for, when we remember that they had been Jews or Heathens, who had brought from their previous religious associations all sorts of ideas, and were disposed to retain them and reconcile them with their new religion. Faith in Christ, and the acceptance of his teachings, could not at once eradicate the old opinions, which, in some cases, remained long, and caused honest Christians to differ from each other. As will be shown, while the Sibylline Oracles predisposed some of the fathers of Universalism, Philo gave others a tendency to the doctrine of annihilation, and Enoch to endless punishment.
Statements of the Early CouncilsThus the credal declarations of the Christian church for almost four hundred years are entirely void of the gruesome doctrine with which they afterwards blazed for more than a thousand years. The early creeds contain no hint of it, and no whisper of condemnation of the doctrine of universal restoration as taught by Clement, Origen, the Gregories, Basil the Great, and multitudes besides. Discussions and declarations on the Trinity, and contests over homoousion (Of the same substance, nature, or essence) and homoiousion (of like substance) engrossed the energy of disputants, and filled libraries with volumes, but the doctrine of the great fathers remained unchallenged. Neither the Concilium Nicæum, A.D. 325, nor the Concilium Constantinopolitanum, A.D. 381, nor the Concilium Chalcedonenese, A.D. 451, muttered a syllable of the doctrine of man's final woe. The reluctance of all the ancient formularies of faith concerning endless punishment at the same time that the great fathers were proclaiming universal salvation, as appeared later on in these pages, is strong evidence that the former doctrine was not then accepted. It is apparent that the early Christian church did not dogmatize on man's final destiny. It was engrossed in getting established among men the great truth of God's universal Fatherhood, as revealed in the incarnation, "God in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself." Some taught endless punishment for a portion of mankind; others, the annihilation of the wicked; others had no definite opinion on human destiny; but the larger part, especially from Clement of Alexandria on for three hundred years, taught universal salvation. It is insupposable that endless punishment was a doctrine of the early church, when it is seen that not one of the early creeds embodied it" 11
Chapter 2--Early Christianity, A Cheerful Religion - Contents
Spirit of the Word - Covenant Eschatology - Introductory Note - New Stuff
2 Text-book of Christian Doctrine: Gieseler's Text Book: Neander.
3 Murdoch's Mosheim Inst., Eccl. Hist.
4 Bunsen's Hippolytus and His Age.
5 Aionian, the original of "everlasting."
6 The Apostles' Creed at first omitted the Fatherhood of God, and in its later forms did not mention God's love for men, his reign, repentance, or the new life. Athanase Coquerel the Younger, First Hist. Transformations of Christianity, page 208.
7 History, Doct. Fut. Ret., pp. 108-205.
8 See Lamson's Church of the First Three Centuries.
9 Hort's Two Dissertations, pp. 106, 138-147.
11 The germ of all the earlier declarations of faith had been formulated even before A.D. 150. The reader can here consult the original Greek of the earliest declaration of faith as given in Harnack's Outlines of the History of Dogma, Funk & Wagnall's edition of 1893 pp. 44,45:
Chapter 2--Early Christianity, A Cheerful Religion - Contents
Spirit of the Word - Covenant Eschatology - Introductory Note - New Stuff
Chapter 1 - The Earliest Creeds
Chapter 2 - Early Christianity-A Cheerful Religion
Chapter 3 - Origin of Endless Punishment
Chapter 4 - Doctrines of Mitigation and Reserve
Chapter 5 - Two Kindred Topics
Chapter 6 - The Apostles' Immediate Successors
Chapter 7 - The Gnostic Sects
Chapter 8 - The Sibylline Oracles
Chapter 9 - Pantaenus and Clement
Chapter 10 - Origen
Chapter 11 - Origen-Continued
Chapter 12 - The Eulogists of Origen
Chapter 13 - A Third Century Group
Chapter 14 - Minor Authorities
Chapter 15 - Gregory Nazianzen
Chapter 16 - Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Nestorians
Chapter 17 - A Notable Family
Chapter 18 - Additional Authorities
Chapter 19 - The Deterioration of Christian Thought
Chapter 20 - Augustine--Deterioration Continued
Chapter 21 - Unsuccessful Attempts to Suppress Universalism
Chapter 22 - The Eclipse of Universalism
Chapter 23 - Summary of Conclusions