Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was

This article has now been superseded by my article “Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?


When first presented with the universalist hope, many Orthodox and Roman Catholics imme­diately invoke the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.” Over the past two centuries, however, historians have seriously questioned whether these anathemas were ever officially promul­gated by II Con­stantinople. The council was convened by the Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of condemning the Three Chapters. Not only does Justinian not mention the Origenist debate in his letter that was read to the bishops at the formal opening of the council, but the acts of the council, as preserved in the Latin translation (the original Greek text having been lost), neither cite the fifteen anathemas nor record any discussion of them. Hence when church historian Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils in 1990, he did not include the anti-Origenist denunciations, offering the following expla­nation: “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” (I:106).

Who then wrote the anathemas and when? Over the past century different hypotheses have been advanced, but historians appear to have settled on the following scenario, first pro­posed by Wilhelm Diekamp in 1899 and still favored by modern scholars, as noted by Richard Price in his 2009 edition of The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553: the Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors composed the anathemas and then sub­mit­ted them to the bishops for “approval” before the great synod formally convened on 5 May 553. “The opening of the council was delayed by unavailing negotiations with Pope Vigilius,” Price wryly remarks; “condemning Origenism was one of the activities that filled the bish­ops’ time” (pp. 271-272). We do not know how long before the council this meeting took place nor who attended. Daniel Hombergen suggests March or April 553 as the most likely time (The Second Origenist Controversy, p. 307). One thing is clear—the Emperor wanted the anathemas cloaked with ecumenical authority. A decade earlier he had denounced the beliefs of Origen and ordered Patriarch Menas to convene the home synod and condemn the troublesome Alexandrian in nine pre-prepared anathemas. In his history of the period (composed between 560-566), Liberatus tells us that the 543 anathemas were subsequently sent to the patriarchs for their signatures: “On imperial orders it was signed by the patri­archs Menas, Zoilus of Alexandria, Ephraem of Antioch and Peter of Jerusalem, and finally by Pope Vigilius in Rome” (quoted by Alois Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, II/2:388). The 543 canons did not resolve the Origenist controversy in Palestine, and so Justinian determined to revisist the matter in 553. Grillmeier summarizes the now-standard historical assessment of the fifteen canons:

Because the condemnation of the Origenists [as contained in the fifteen anathemas] clearly belongs to the Council of 553, but cannot be placed after the opening of it on 5 May 553, an interim solution has to be sought. It consists in the fact that Emperor Justinian instructed the bishops to deal with the question of the Origenists, which, contrary to his expectation, had not been settled by his decree of 543. These bishops had already arrived months before the opening of the Council which was intended to be devoted to the question of the Three Chapters. This ‘synodal action’ took place on the level of a synodus endemousa and was not considered by the Emperor himself as a session of an ecumenical council. (II/2:403-404)

Grillmeier invites us to imagine the situation something like this: before the opening of the great council, Emperor Justinian summons the bishops then residing in the capital (the endemountes) to confirm his prepared condemnation of Origenist theology (see Justinian’s cover letter). The imperial convocation of a patriarchal endemousa to address ecclesial concerns was already a long-standing practice (see Lewis Patsavos, “The Synodal Structure of the Orthodox Church“). Originally, Grillmeier notes, the endemousa “had little to do with the episcopal throne, but in contrast more to do with the Emperor, who, depending upon the occasion, could for serious reasons summon together the bishops who were residing right there at the court” (II/2:5-6, n. 1). Given that the bishops who attended the pre-synod undoubtedly attended the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the anti-Origenist anathemas were understandably, perhaps inevitably (perhaps even by imperial design), associated with the latter. More recently, though, Price has conjectured that they were originally promulgated by II Constantinople but not included in the Latin translation of the Acts because the contro­versy was of little interest to the Western Churches (see his 2017 lecture “East and West at the Ecumenical Councils“). This seems a particularly weak argument, given that it was the papal legate Pelagius who had urged Justinian to condemn Origenism back in 543. Did the Latins suddenly lose interest? Whether Price’s hypothesis will prove persuasive to other historians remains to be seen. My money’s on Diekamp.

In the introduction to his translation of St Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Discourse, Ignatius Green asserts (1) that the fifteen anathemas, “signed beforehand at a preparatory council, … apparently won the approval of all five patriarchs at the time,” and (2) that the general council accepted the anathemas (p. 42). Regarding the first claim, Green references the council’s discussion of posthumous condemnations during the fifth session. Recall that the bishops were being asked by the Emperor to condemn three men (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibas of Edessa) who had died in communion with the catholic Church. Multiple examples of posthumous condemnations are noted as precedents, including that of Origen:

And we find indeed many others who were anathematized after death, including also Origen: if one goes back to the time of Theophilus of holy memory or even earlier, one will find him anathematized after death. This has been done even now in his regard by your holinesses and by Vigilius the most religious pope of Elder Rome. (Price, I;338; emphasis mine)

Green believes, as does Price, that the endemousa is being referenced in the last sentence, though the fifteen anathemas do not explicitly mention Origen. Be that as it may, the fact that the anathemas may have been mentioned in the synod’s discussions as an example of pseudononymous censure cannot be construed as a conferral of dogmatic authority upon them. Regarding the second claim, Green provides no evidence, nor am I aware of any, beyond the problematic testimony of Cyril Scythopolis (see below). It would be more accurate to say that the council fathers knew of the anathemas, given that some, many, most, or all of them (we do not know how many) had attended the endemousa and had presuma­bly expressed their assent. Whether they wholeheartedly approved of the anathemas, whether they believed that they were condemning all expressions of apokatastasis (including the formulation of St Gregory of Nyssa), or just signing off on the Emperor’s attempt to resolve the Origenist controversy in Palestine, we do not know. (Justinian was, like emperors before him, a tyrant and did not brook opposition well, as Pope Vigilius learned firsthand. When Justinian tells you to sign a document, you sign it—unless you are prepared for imprison­ment or exile.) Green contends that II Constantinople’s inclusion of  Origen in its list of heretics implicitly ratifies the anathemas submitted to the synodus endemousa; yet the claim is unprovable. The simple but decisive fact: the Second Council of Constantinople did not formally promulgate the fifteen anathemas. In her book A Larger Hope? Ilaria Ramelli notes that neither Vigilius, Pelagius I, Pelagius II, nor Gregory the Great mention Origenism or apokatastasis as having been discussed at the council. “So, it is uncertain,” she concludes, “that these anathemas should be considered conciliar (i.e., proceeding from a council)” (p. 173). The dogmatic status of the anti-Origenist anathemas remains a matter of dispute.

In any case, the fifteen anathemas were quickly attributed to the Council, particularly in the Eastern Church, as evidenced by Cyril of Scythopolis’s The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, composed sometime before his death in 558. Cyril relates that Abba Conon and others were sent from Palestine to Constantinople to petition the Emperor to intervene in the Origenist conflict, arriving in September 552. After hearing their report, Justinian “gave orders for there to be an ecumenical council…. When the fifth holy ecumenical council had assembled at Constantinople a common and universal anathema was directed against Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia and against the teaching of Evagrius and Didymus on pre-existence and a universal restoration, in the presence and with the approval of the four patriarchs.” Hombergen argues we should not take Cyril’s account at face value. Cyril was himself an anti-Origenist partisan. In the above quotation he claims that II Constantinople was con­vened to condemn Origenism, yet we know that Justinian summoned the bishops for the express purpose of condemning the Three Chapters, reiterated in his letter read to the Council Fathers. We also have good reasons to believe that the imperial summons was sent to the bishops before the delegation from Palestine had arrived in Constantinople. Cyril’s “representation of the facts,” comments Hombergen, “seriously contradicts the historical evidence” (p. 293). Was the monastic hagiographer simply misinformed about the events surrounding the council,

Or did Cyril perhaps need this inaccuracy for his claim that it was due to Conon’s libellus that Justinian convoked the Ecumenical Council? In fact, by shifting the date of the convocation as he did, Cyril could compose his account of a providential Origenist defeat by a “common and universal anathema”, pronounced at an ecumenical council through the agency of Sabas’ heir, without being forced to say too much about the painful (to Cyril and his party) Three Chapters affair. In reality, the Origenist coup in Jerusalem, followed by Conon’s action in Constantinople, was only a matter of minor importance. This local crisis was not the one that led to the Fifth Ecumenical Council. (p. 301)

Be that as it may, catholic Christendom came to believe that the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas had been promulgated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (for a brief summary of the evidence, see Green, pp. 42-46).

Let us therefore assume that the council did officially publish them. There still remains—and this is the crucial issue—the challenge of interpretation and application. Not all universal­isms are the same. Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement or the Incarna­tion, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the larger hope. The apokatas­tasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, differs in decisive ways from the sixth-century theories against which the anathemas were directed. The latter appear to have belonged to an esoteric metaphys­ical system cut loose from the Scriptures, as even a cursory reading reveals. The chasm between the two is enormous. Augustine Casiday suggests that we should think of the anti-Origenist canons as a rejection of this system as a whole, each denouncing one of its particulars (private email correspondence). Met Kallistos Ware made a similar point in 1998:

There is, however, considerable doubt whether these fifteen anathemas were in fact formally approved by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. They may have been endorsed by a lesser council, meeting in the early months of 553 shortly before the main council was convened, in which case they lack full ecumen­ical authority; yet, even so, the Fathers of the Fifth Council were well aware of these fifteen anathemas and had no intention of revoking or modifying them. Apart from that, however, the precise wording of the first anathema deserves to be carefully noted. It does not speak only about apocatastasis but links together two aspects of Origen’s theology: first, his speculations about the beginning, that is to say, about the preexistence of souls and the precos­mic fall; second, his teaching about the end, about universal salvation and the ultimate reconciliation of all things. Origen’s eschatology is seen as following directly from his protology, and both are rejected together.

That the first of the fifteen anathemas should condemn protology and eschatology in the same sentence is entirely understandable, for in Origen’s thinking the two form an integral unity. At the beginning, so he believed, there was a realm of logikoi or rational intellects (noes) existing prior to the creation of the material world as minds without a body. Originally all these logikoi were joined in perfect union with the Creator Logos. Then followed the precosmic fall. With the exception of one logikos (which became the human soul of Christ), all the other logikoi turned away from the Logos and became, depending on the gravity of their deviation, either angels or human beings or demons. In each case they were given bodies appropriate to the seriousness of their fall: light-weight and ethereal in the case of angels; dark and hideous in the case of demons; intermediate in the case of human beings. At the end, so Origen maintained, this process of fragmenta­tion will be reversed. All alike, whether angels, human beings, or demons, will be restored to unity with the Logos; the primal harmony of the total creation will be reinstated, and once more “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Origen’s view is in this way circular in character: the end will be as the beginning.

Now, as we have noted, the first of the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas is directed not simply against Origen’s teaching concerning universal reconciliation, but against his total understanding of salvation history—against his theory of preexistent souls, of a precosmic fall and a final apocatastasisseen as a single and undivided whole. Suppose, however, that we separate his eschatology from his protology; suppose that we abandon all speculations about the realm of eternal logikoi; suppose that we simply adhere to the standard Christian view whereby there is no preexistence of the soul, but each new person comes into being as an integral unity of soul and body, at or shortly after the moment of the conception of the embryo within the mother’s womb. In this way we could advance a doctrine of universal salvation—affirming this, not as a logical certainty (indeed, Origen never did that), but as a heartfelt aspiration, a visionary hope—which would avoid the circularity of Origen’s view and so would escape the condemnation of the anti-Origenist anathemas. (“Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All,” The Inner Kingdom, pp. 199-200 [emphasis mine]; also see Taylor Ross, “The Severity of Universal Salvation“)

Many scholars would now question Ware’s identification of the views of Origen with the views of the sixth-century Origenists. Brian E. Daley, for example, asserts that the denounced theses “represent a radicalized Evagrian Christology and cosmology, and a doctrine of apokatastasis that went far beyond the hopes of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. They envisage not only a spherical, ethereal risen body, but the complete abolition of material reality in the world to come, and the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos, so that even the humanity and the Kingdom of Christ will come to an end” (The Hope of the Early Church, p. 190). E. M. Harding agrees that the views of the sixth-century Origenists were rooted not in Origen himself but in the teachings of Evagrius Ponticus (“Origenist Crises,” in The Westminster Handbook to Origen, pp. 165-167). Augustine Casiday concurs, with an important qualification: just as there are crucial differences between Origen and sixth-century Origenism, so there are crucial differences between Evagrius and sixth-century Evagrianism (“Translation, Adaptations, and Controversies at St Sabas Monastery in the Sixth Century,” p. 11). Neither Origen nor Evagrius should be tarred by the speculative excesses of their “followers.”

In her magisterial monograph The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, Ilaria Ramelli argues that the fifteen anathemas do not touch the authentic teaching of Origen:


The so-called “condemnation of Origen” by “the Church” in the sixth century probably never occurred proper, and even if it oc­curred it did so only as a result of a long series of misunder­standings, when the anthropological, eschato­logical, and psy­chological questions were no longer felt as open to investigation—as Origen and still Nazianzen considered them—, but dogmat­ically established. The aforemen­tioned condem­nation was in fact a condem­nation, not at all of Origen, but rather of a late and exas­perated form of Origenism; moreover, it was mainly wanted by emperor Justinian—or better his counselors, given that he was not a theolo­gian—and only partially, or even not at all, ratified by ecclesiastical representatives.

This “condemnation” was triggered by the development of a radical kind of Origenism in the first half of the sixth century, especially in Palestine, in the monasteries of St. Saba, the “Great Laura” and “New Laura.” … Justinian received reports about the Origenistic doctrines and promoted a condem­­nation of this kind of Origenism, which he mistook for Origen’s own doctrine, at first in 543 CE.

The Council that is usually cited as that which “condemned Origen” is the fifth ecumenical council, the second Constantinopolitan Council, in 553 CE…. The anathemas, fifteen in number, were already prepared before the opening of the council. Here, Origen is considered to be the inspirer of the so-called Isochristoi. This was the position of the Sabaite opponents of Origen, summarised by Cyril of Scythopolis who maintained that the Council issued a definitive anathema against Origen, Theodore, Evagrius, and Didymus concerning the preexistence of souls and apokatastasis, thus ratifying Sabas’ position (V. Sab. 90). One of these previously formulated anathemas, which only waited to be ratified by the Council, was against the apokatastasis doctrine: “If anyone supports the monstrous doctrine of apokatastasis [τὴν τερατώδη ἀποκατάστασιν], be it anathema.” Other anathemas concern the “pre-existence of souls,” their union with bodies only after their fall, and the denial of the resurrection of the body. These doctrines have nothing to do with Origen; in fact, Origen is not the object of any authentic anathema. And Vigilius’s documents, which were finally emanated by a council that was not wanted by him, most remarkably do not even contain Origen’s name. (pp. 724-726, 736-737; also see Ramelli, “Christian Soteriology and Christian Platonism,” and John R. Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology“)

Ramelli demonstrates that Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors misunderstood and misrepresented the authentic views of Origen on universal reconciliation, ensoulment, the resurrection body, and a host of other subjects; but the damage was done. Origen was named a heresiarch and his theology identified with the bizarre views of his sixth century “disciples.” However we judge their dogmatic status, the anti-Origenist anathemas should not be interpreted as condemning the universalist position of Origen himself—despite the inclusion of Origen’s name in the council’s heresiological list—much less that of the revered bishop of Nyssa, to whom the bishops of the Fifth Ecumenical Council approvingly refer on several occasions in the acts and whom the Seventh Ecumenical Council named “the Father of Fathers.”

Ware’s key point stands: the sixth century condemnation of apokatastasis does not apply to construals similar to those of St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian. Consider the first anathema: “If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema.” Note the intrinsic connection between the pre-existence of souls and the universal restoration: the latter necessarily flows from the former, as further explained in anathema fourteen, which speaks of the eschato­logical annihilation of hypostases and bodies and the restoration to a state of pure spirit, akin to the original state of pre-existence. As Ramelli puts it: “It is a doctrine of apokatastasis embedded within that of the transmigration of souls that was condemned by Justinian’s Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), not Origen’s own doctrine of apokatastasis” (A Larger Hope?, p. 171). Neither Gregory of Nyssa nor Isaac of Nineveh advocate the preexistence of souls (nor Origen, if Ramelli’s reading is sustained). Their presentations of the universalist hope are grounded solely upon God’s infinite love and the power of purgative suffering to bring enlightenment to the damned. The fifteen anathemas, therefore, condemn neither the soteriological universalism of patristic saints like Gregory and Isaac nor of modern theologians such as Sergius Bulgakov, Kallistos Ware, Alexandre Turincev, Andrew Klager, Brad Jersak, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Wacław Hryniewicz, Taylor Ross, and David Bentley Hart. As J. W. Hanson writes in his classic (albeit dated) survey of the Fathers of the first five centuries: “The theory here condemned is not that of universal salvation, but the ‘fabulous pre-existence of souls, and the monstrous restitution that results from it'” (Universalism, p. 285).

We simply cannot take a dogmatic definition or conciliar anathema and make it apply to whatever views we disapprove. We must interpret it within its historical, cultural, and theological context. Not to do so would be a kind of conciliar fundamentalism, akin to someone who rips a commandment from the book of Leviticus and then insists that it remains obligatory upon Gentile Christians today. Similar hermeneutical considerations obtain when evaluating the dogmatic authority and application of the eleventh-century Byzantine condemnation of the eccentric views of John Italus, repeated in the 1583 version of the Synodikon. The historical exegesis of dogmatic statements is essential to our con­structive employment of these statements in our theological reflection and is mandatory for the proper distinguishment of orthodoxy and heresy.

The universalist hope is, of course, a minority view within Orthodoxy, but being a minority view does not make it heretical. The fact that Orthodox bishops and priests have long taught a doctrine of eternal perdition does not mean that the matter is definitively closed; it does not mean that the Church may not reexamine its popular teaching in light of Holy Scripture, the Fathers, and deeper theological reflection. Sergius Bulgakov accurately describes the dogmatic status of the doctrine of everlasting hell within Orthodoxy:

The Church has not yet established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology, if we do not count the brief testimony of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the second coming (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”), as well as concerning the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. These dogmas of the faith, attested to by the Creed and based on the express promises of the Lord, have not, all the same, been developed by theology. They are considered to be self-evident for the dogmatic consciousness, although that is not, in reality, the case. All the rest, referring to various aspects of eschatology, has not been defined dogmati­cally; it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.

If it is maintained that the absence of an ecclesial definition is compensated by the existence of a firm ecclesial tradition, patristic and other, one must call such an assertion inaccurate or even completely erroneous. Aside from the fact that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition. Instead, we have at least two completely different variants: on the one hand, a doctrine originating in Origen and stabilized in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa and his tacit and open followers; and, on the other hand, a widespread doctrine that has had many adherents but none equal in power of theological thought to those mentioned above. (Perhaps in this group we can put Augustine, the greatest teacher of the Western Church, but the originality of his worldview sets him apart in general, especially for Eastern theology.) As regards both particular patristic doctrines and the systematization of biblical texts, an inquiry that would precede dogmatization has yet to be carried out.

Given such a situation, it would be erroneous to maintain that the dogmatic doctrine expounded in the scholastic manuals represents the authoritative and obligatory dogmas of the Church, and to demand subordination to them as such. In response to such a demand it is necessary to established decisively and definitively that this is an exaggeration and a misunder­standing. The doctrine expounded in the manuals can by no means be accepted without inquiry and verification. It only expresses the opinion of the majority, corresponding to the current status of theological thought on this subject, not more. Characteristic of a specific period of the past, this doctrine is losing its authority more and more at the present time and at the very least requires revision. There is insufficient justification to accept theological opinions as the dogmatic definitions of the Church, especially when these opinions are proper to only one type of thought. Eschatological theology remains open to inquiry even at the present time. (The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 379-380)

We now arrive at the most “accursed” question of eschatology, that of the eternal torments of sinners. Those who understand eternity as temporal infinity (i.e., theologians of all confessions) attempt to affirm the infinite, or “eternity,” of the torments of hell in all manner of ways—apologetically, patristically, exegetically. They attempt to prove the justice of the infinite duration of punishment even for temporal sins and the conformity of this punishment with God’s wisdom and love. A whole theodicy of eternal torments is thus constructed. Of the great mass of judgments of this kind, of special interest are the opinions of Origen and especially St. Gregory of Nyssa, who are virtually the only ecclesiastical writers (besides Augustine with his rigorism) who made questions of eschatology an object of special inquiry. The Church has not issued a precise determi­nation on this issue, although the doctrine of scholastic theology attempts to pass itself off as such a determi­nation. But, actually, this doctrine only expresses the “opinion” of one of the two tendencies that have opposed each other and continue to oppose each other in theology. Even the definitions that condemn Origenism, which previously had been attributed to the fifth ecumenical council, have been shown by recent historical inquiry not to originate in this council. Even if they had so originated, they would still require interpretation and very careful commentary. (p. 482; also see “The Dogmatic Status of Apokatastasis“)

Met Hilarion Alfeyev categorically asserts: “There is also an Orthodox understanding of the apokatastasis, as well as a notion of the non-eternity of hell. Neither has ever been con­demned by the Church and both are deeply rooted in the experience of the Paschal mystery of Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness” (The Mystery of Faith, p. 271—but see the postscript below). Paul Evdokimov concurs:

The general view of eternal torment is only a textbook opinion, simplistic theology (of the penitential sort) which neglects the depth of texts such as John 3.17 and 12.47. Can we really believe that, alongside the eternity of the Kingdom of God, God has provided another eternity of hell? Surely, this would amount to a failure in the divine plan, even a partial victory of evil? Now, St Paul, in 1 Cor. 15.55, states quite the opposite. St Augustine did indeed oppose the more generous interpretations of the tender mercies of God, but that was out of a concern to avoid libertinism and sentimentality; besides, fear would not only be useless in pedagogical argument today, but would make Christianity dangerously like Islam. A healthy trembling before holy things keeps the world from becoming bland, but real fear is driven out by perfect love (1 John 4.18)….

The Fifth Ecumenical Council did not occupy itself with the duration of the torments of hell. The Emperor Justinian (who for a while resembled Jonah, who was righteously angry because the wicked escaped punishment) pre­sented his personal teaching to the Patriarch Menas in 543. The Patriarch used it to elaborate some arguments against neo-Origenism. Pope Vigilius confirmed them. By mistake, they have been attributed to the Fifth Ecu­menical Council itself, but the teaching was only a personal opinion, and the contradictory teaching of St Gregory of Nyssa has never been condemned. The question remains open, the answer depending perhaps on human charity. St Anthony’s explanation is one of the most profound: apocatas­tasis, the salvation of all, is not a doctrine, but a prayer for the salvation of all except me, for whom alone hell exists. (Orthodoxy, p. 338)

One might claim, I suppose, that it really doesn’t matter whether the Fifth Ecumenical Council formally approved the anti-Origenist anathemas. The Church subsequently came to believe that it had, and that’s what really counts. Consider the declaration of the Quinisext Synod in 692:

Also we recognize as inspired by the Spirit the pious voices of the one hundred and sixty-five God-bearing fathers who assembled in this imperial city in the time of our Emperor Justinian of blessed memory, and we teach them to those who come after us; for these synodically anathematized and execrated Theodore of Mopsuestia (the teacher of Nestorius), and Origen, and Didymus, and Evagrius, all of whom reintroduced feigned Greek myths, and brought back again the circlings of certain bodies and souls, and deranged turnings [or transmigrations] to the wanderings or dreamings of their minds, and impiously insulting the resurrection of the dead. (Canon 1)

Though it does not explicitly mention apokatastasis, the canon evidences the then-held belief that the fifteen anathemas were promulgated by II Constantinople. One might then maintain that when subsequent ecumenical councils confirmed II Constantinople as ecumenical, they implicitly confirmed the fifteen anathemas. Thus, for example, II Nicaea: “We anathematize the mythical speculations of Origen, Evagrius and Didymus, as did the fifth synod, that assembled at Constantinople.” The acts of the council also report that during the first session the following passage from the life of St Sabbas (presumably by Cyril of Scythopolis) was read to the assembly by Cosmas: “At the fifth holy General Council held at Constantinople, Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia, together with the speculations of Evagrius and Didymus concerning the pre-existence and restitution of all things, were all subjected to one common and Catholic anathema all the four Patriarchs being present and consistent thereto.” Hence it is clear that by A.D. 787 the wider Church had accepted the attribution of the fifteen anathemas to the Second Council of Constantinople.

Perhaps we might call this the “as if” theory of dogmatic reception: the Church has received the anti-Origienist anathemas as if they had been officially promulgated by an ecumenical council and as if they condemned the universalist views of Origen, St Gregory Nyssen, and St Isaac the Syrian. Rejection of apokatastasis, after all, has been the standard teaching of Latin and Eastern Christianity for almost a millennium and a half. Doesn’t that qualify as ecumen­ical dogma, even if initially based upon a historical blunder? If we believe hard and long enough that an ecumenical council has dogmatically condemned all forms of universal salvation, then surely it must have. “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” as the saying goes. But while one might expect an old-school Roman Catholic to argue in such a fashion, no doubt invoking papal authority and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, it seems odd for an Eastern Christian to take this route. It pre­sumes a magisterial authoritarianism alien to the Orthodox spirit, as if the Church could or would impose universally binding dogmatic formulations, without consideration of their historical origin and theological substance. Even many Roman Catholic theologians now reject such a legalistic approach to dogma:

The notion that there could be doctrines immune to historical limitations and capable of being imposed by the sheer weight of extrinsic authority reflects the nonhistorical and juridical type of thinking prevalent in the Church of the Counter Reformation. The roots of this mentality may be traced to Greek intellectualism and Roman legalism. More proximately, the absolutistic view of dogma reflects the characteristics of Catholic theology in a rationalistic era. To ward off naturalistic rationalism, orthodox theology adopted a supernaturalistic rationalism in which revelation was conceived as a divinely imparted system of universal and timeless truths entrusted to the Church as teacher. (Avery Dulles, “Dogma as an Ecumenical Problem,” Theological Studies 29.3 [1968]: 400; also see Francis Sullivan, Creative Fidelity)

Unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, contemporary Orthodox theologians have hardly begun to address the prerequisites of doctrinal irreformability or the hermeneutics of dogma (Bulgakov’s “Dogma and Dogmatic Theology” being a notable exception). How and when does a doctrinal teaching achieve irreformable dogmatic status? Does it need to be formally defined by an ecumenical council? How long does it take for a doctrine to be properly received, and what are the criteria for reception? May the Church revisit either a dogmatic definition or a long-standing doctrine for compelling theological, historical, and pastoral reasons? Ask Orthodox theologians these and other related questions and one will received multiple, and often contradictory, answers. Hence we should not be surprised when internet apologists, parish priests, and even respected theologians who should know better dismiss the hope of universal salvation with the mere wave of a dogmatic hand. “The Fifth Ecumenical Council settled that long ago,” some tell us. “The Synodikon has infallibly anathematized the universalist hope,” others pontificate. But dogma is too important to be so superficially treated. And the universalist hope is too important to be so cavalierly and hastily dismissed. Substantive and important arguments have been raised against the traditional doctrine of everlasting damnation. They can only be addressed head-on, not dismissed by lazy appeals to authority. And if these arguments should prove compelling, then the question of apokatastasis must also be reopened, for nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake.

* * *

Postscript: In his recent book Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, Met Hilarion appears to have moved toward a more traditional view of eternal damnation. He repeatedly appeals to the (alleged) dogmatic rejection of apokatastasis by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. This uncritical invocation of a questionable anathema severely undermines his presentation. Surely a theologian of Hilarion’s caliber is well aware of the historical debate regarding the attribution of the fifteen anathemas to II Constantinople, yet he makes no reference to this debate. Hilarion also assumes that the anathema against apokatas­­tasis accurately speaks to the authentic views of Origen; nor does he convincingly explain why the Council Fathers, if they intended to anathematize all forms of apokatas­tasis, did not include St Gregory of Nyssa’s name among the condemned. I am at a loss to explain the Metropolitan’s poor scholarship at this point.

(This article is an updated and revised version of an article published under same title on 18 May 2015. Last revision: 6 February 2020.)

This entry was posted in Eschatology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was

  1. Alura says:

    Two questions, if I may be so greedy: First, does not the Quinisext Council’s Canon I not further prove Met. Ware’s point that the fifteen anathemas should be viewed together and that the condemnation is dependent upon also holding in belief both the pre-existence of souls in conjunction with a belief in universal salvation? For sure, it is over a century later, but it looks like, from just reading this one canon from Trullo, that the concern was with an entire system of thought, not the idea of universal salvation itself.

    Two, I am quite interested in Ilaria Ramelli’s The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis and I hope to get around to it sometime towards the end of this year. Unfortunately, I have no way of previewing its contents before I finally get around to it. Seeing that it has Eriugena in the subtitle, I was wondering if you could perhaps at all elaborate on the extent of materials from Latin Christianity that she covers, since you have read the book yourself? Sadly I have no knowledge of Greek, but rather only Latin, so I get excited anytime I hear about universalism being present in first millennium Latin Christian texts because then I can read the primary source myself. Aside from Eriugena, the only other instance that I am aware of is what is reported by St. Boniface of Mainz, who claims in a letter to the pope of Rome that he sending him a cleric who preaching to the newly converted on frontier that their pagan ancestors will be in heaven. He is sending him to Rome, of course, because Boniface despises the idea. Unfortunately we don’t have the words of this priest himself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Alura, fortunately Ramelli has recently published a shorter, and dramatically LESS EXPENSIVE, book on the history of apokatastasis in the Church: A Larger Hope? It’s well worth acquring!

    I just sent you an email. Let me know if you received it.


  3. Fr. John Behr’s translation of On First Principles lends a good deal of weight to Ramelli’s reading of Origen. It does not appear that he construes the “pre-existence of souls” as typically portrayed. As I work through Behr’s translation, I am struck with how truly challenging Origen is, and I can see how many misunderstood him. He ventures a lot of ideas that he doesn’t necessarily hold to, and I can see how these get attributed as his actual thought even though his later arguments clearly indicate that they are not. The Origen in Behr’s translation looks very little like the heretic he is commonly painted as.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Brian Stephen says:

    Regarding Met Hilarion Alfeyev: It has long bothered me that he did such an about-face in “Volume II” of his Orthodox Christianity series. One can only suppose that he either a) Received pressure from somewhere higher than him that he needed to tow the “official line” as a rep. of the Russian Church. Or b) he had a change of mind which I have a hard time believing given his other works, like Christ: the Conquerer or Hell or his wonderful book on St. Isaac.


    “The Spiritual World of St. Issac” (published in 2000)- Here is where he lays out St. Isaac’s explicitly case for apokatastasis and one can only imagine that Alfeyev agrees with St. Isaac

    “Christ: The Conquerer of Hell” – (2009) – This wonderful book seems to definitely support his earlier work on St. Isaac.

    “The Mystery of the Faith” (2011) – Here Allfeyev seems to definitely be on the same track of supporting St. Isaac’s view.

    “Orthodox Christianity: Volume II” (2012) – Here Alfeyev touts the standard “eternal hell” doctrine, oddly in contradiction to what he has written previously. Perhaps he was just trying to present what the majority view is since it’s more of a dogmatic book written not to include his opinion???

    At any rate, given the timeline of his work, I can only imagine that my earlier option a is the correct answer, but of course, I know nothing and Alfeyev had already done the “damage” with the first three mentioned books in my mind that towing the line in the forth did not sway me into being an infernalist as DBH puts it.

    One can only hope that more reputable theologians and layman will write eloquently about apokatastasis in the coming future. Fr. Al… your turn!!!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I think you may be right that Alfeyev presented the standard view in Orthodox Christianity because the series is intended for seminary instruction. At least that is what someone who knows Alfeyev told me. I did not mention that possibility in my article, because there’s no way for me to confirm that.


  5. “Whether they wholeheartedly approved of the anathemas, whether they believed that they were condemning all expressions of apokatastasis, or whether they believed that the canons represented nothing more than an imperial attempt to resolve the Origenist controversy in Palestine, goes beyond the evidence available to us.”

    Good news to the author of this blog post! We can settle this issue decisively. 🙂

    Constantinople II’s minutes:

    If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, with their impious writings, and all the other heretics condemned and anathematized by the holy catholic and apostolic church and by the aforesaid holy four councils, and those who held or hold tenets like those of the aforesaid heretics and persisted {or persist} in the same impiety till death, let him be anathema (Session VIII, 5:11, p. 123-124).

    There it is. Clear, irrefutable evidence that Origen was anathematized by name by the final session of the council, his “impious writings” includes what was “anathematized by the holy catholic and apostolic church,” which is clearly speaking of past condemnations. Obviously, this must include either both the 9 and 14 anathemas, or just the 9 anathemas. Nevertheless, being that the ninth anathema of the 543 council clearly condemns universalism, what we have is proof that Origen and universalism was condemned by ecumenical authority.

    Whatever the merits of apokatatasis as a doctrine, Fr Price is correct that it and Origen were clearly condemned–being that he translated the council, I am sure this section did not escape his notice.

    God bless,


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fortunately a condemnation of a person by name, without specification of specific teachings, is dogmatically useless. We don’t even know how many of the council bishops had even read Origen’s actual writings. There’s are significant differences between Origen’s teachings and the teachings of 6th century Origenists.


      • Father,

        Humor me with an answer to the following question, if you may. Being the passage says Origen and his impious writings were already condemned–when were they condemned in your honest opinion? 553? 543? Or completely unknown?

        Being we know that the man Origen himself was condemned by name in Session 8, your point in the last sentence does not appear to be applicable.

        As for how many Bishops read Origen, this is not quite relevant as we have a list of all the council fathers signing onto the 8th session.

        So, I think the real question is not whether Origen was condemned (he was), but when was Origen first condemned in the mind of the council fathers, being that they refer to it in the past tense? Can you answer me this? I think the only way one can say the condemnation is dogmatically useless is by having an answer to this question.

        God bless,


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Craig, let’s take a look specifically at canon 11, which you quote. The relevant portion is this: “If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, with their impious writings …” The next clause “and all the other heretics condemned and anathematized by the holy catholic and apostolic church and by the aforesaid holy four councils” clearly refers to individuals other than the above-named individuals condemned by the Church, most notably by the previous four ecumenical councils. I deny your interpretation that this clause somehow intends either the nine or the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas.

          You write: “As for how many Bishops read Origen, this is not quite relevant as we have a list of all the council fathers signing onto the 8th session.”

          Actually, it is relevant when it comes to judging the authority and force of the anathema. Are we talking about an informed judgment or an ignorant judgment made under pressure from the Emperor?

          “So, I think the real question is not whether Origen was condemned (he was), but when was Origen first condemned in the mind of the council fathers, being that they refer to it in the past tense?”

          They don’t refer to Origen in the past tense. The past tense refers to “all the other heretics” beyond the seven already named.


          • Father, permit me to with all due respect disagree with what you have asserted here. You write:

            If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, with their impious writings …” The next clause “and all the other heretics condemned and anathematized by the holy catholic and apostolic church and by the aforesaid holy four councils” clearly refers to individuals other than the above-named individuals condemned by the Church, most notably by the previous four ecumenical councils.

            I earnestly question your interpretation here. You are claiming the passage quoted above only cites the writings of heretics condemned by the four ecumenical councils–but this is clearly not the case. Nicea only condemned Arius. Constantinople I condemned Eunomius, Macedonius, and Apollinarius (as inferred by Canons 1 and 7.) Nestorius was condemned by Ephesus. Eutyches by Chalcedon.

            Which ecumenical council condemned Origen, by the logic of the above passage? Obviously none, he fell under the anathematization of “the holy catholic and apostolic church.” Which is why I asked you, when did this occur? Answering when answers the whole question.

            Which ecumenical council condemned Dioscorus? Obviously Chalcedon. Yet, he is unnamed. The verbiage allows for his condemnation, however, due to it saying “all other heretics.” Which ecumenical council condemned Peter the Fuller? Obviously none. Yet, the verbiage also allows for his condemnation, as it states “all other heretics” that were anathematized by the Church (i.e. the Formula of Hormisdas in this case.)

            So, you are interpreting the passage not as a blanket condemnation, when it clearly is a blanket condemnatiom of acknowledged heretics. In simple terms, it is clearly stating, “we condemn and anathematize Origen, Eunomius, Arius, etc.–plus every other heretic we did not bother naming–that has been condemned by an ecumenical council and by the Church at large in other instances (i.e. Donatus, Paul of Samosata, Marcion, etc.).”

            I would like to re-ask, if you do not mind, if you can posit when the condemnation of Origen occurred, being that he was named by the condemnation.

            Father, you write:

            Actually, it is relevant when it comes to judging the authority and force of the anathema. Are we talking about an informed judgment or an ignorant judgment made under pressure from the Emperor?

            Actually, it is not relevant. Because the Orthodox Church does not question the fifth ecumenical council. It was accepted by the sixth and seventh ecumenical councils. 
            The sentence of the fifth ecumenical council states, “We confessed that we held to be condemned and anathematized all those who had been previously condemned and anathematized by the catholic church and by the aforesaid four councils.” This means the sentence of the council accepts the eight session’s condemnation, as it literally quotes it on this point, and by extension even Pope Vigilius affirms the eigth’s session’s condemnation, because he affirms the sentence in his own decretal.

            Furthermore, we also have the second council of Nicea reaffirming the understanding the Origen was already condemned in its own sentence:

            “With whom we also anathematise the fables of Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus in accordance with the fifth General Council assembled at Constantinople” (Session VII).

            Further, in the first session of Nicea II, it explicitly rejects apokatastasis in passing when reading the life of father sabbas in the affirmative:

            Cosmas the Deacon and Chamberlain reads from the Life of our holy Father Sabbas: At the fifth holy General Council held at Constantinople, Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia, together with the speculations of Evagrius and Didymus concerning the pre-existence and restitution of all things, were all subjected to one common and Catholic anathema all the four Patriarchs being present and consistent thereto.

            The first session, also states as fact the condemnation of the person of Origen without equivocation:

            After which followed the Fifth Ecumenical Council of one hundred and sixty Fathers which was assembled in the Royal City and guided by the Holy Spirit confirmed the four Councils which preceded it and in pursuance of their orthodox decisions anathematised Nestorius, Eutyches, and Theodore of Mopsuestia with his blasphemies and moreover it anathematised Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus and their fabulous and heathen mystifications, together with the epistle said to be sent from Ibas to Maris of Persia and the writings of Theodoret against the twelve orthodox chapters of St Cyril. 

            Father, you are a priest. Is it not more morally safe for me, a layman, to presume that the approx. 160 bishops of session eight and the council sentence in Constaninople II were earnest enough is their signing onto Origen’s condemnation and affirming whatever writings that were being referred to were condemned as well, being that we have another ecumenical council explicitly affirming that the fifth ecumenical council condemned Origen and his writings?

            The position you appear to be are asking me to take is fundamentally Protestant. You appear to be telling me that I am not to accept the general consensus of the Orthodox Church that Origen is condemned. Nor am I to accept that the seventh ecumenical council says the fifth ecumenical council condemned Origen. Nor am I to accept what the fifth ecumenical council explicitly affirms about itself. I am to accept my own private interpretation of the intent of the council fathers on that point, and if I myself deem their intent was corrupt in some manner, then I can disregard (1) the general consensus of the Orthodox Church, (2) the seventh ecumenical council, and (3) the fifth ecumenical council. 
            Father, this is not morally safe. The individual must be safeguarded by the repeated consensus of the Church.

            Further, if I were to employ an “interpretation by intent” epistemology, where does that leave us with the Council of Ephesus, where Cyril of Alexandria used bribery and (probably) violence to get his way–and even held the council without the whole delegation of Antioch arriving? Where does that leave Chalcedon, where the Bishops rejected making a definition pertaining the two natures of Christ during the second session (if I recall correctly), and the emperor through his representatives literally forced the council to create a new definition–is the definition  of Chalcedon now up for rejection?

            I will reiterate, what is being posited here is both historically unsound, being that legitimate historians (such as Father Price) would take the fifth ecumenical council (and seventh for that matter) at their word–and it is morally unsafe, as it throws into doubt almost all Orthodox teaching outside of the Scriptures.

            Father, elsewhere you write that the fifth council does not “refer to Origen in the past tense.” I must sincerely question this reading.
            To requote session 8: “If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, with their impious writings, and all the other heretics condemned and anathematized…”
            Father, are you honestly positing that the fifth council was not lumping Origen together with Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Nestorius, and Eutyches? Norman Tanner’s translation will not save us from the obvious. What do they all have in common, Father? They are all previously condemned heretics as the sentence itself explicitly states. This is why the Three Chapters and their authors are not mentioned here, because they have not been “condemned and anathematized” previous to the fifth council. This is why I will reiterate my question: when was Origen’s past condemnation, that the fifth council takes for granted? I thought I was polite in asking you to answer this. Maybe I was not polite enough and for that I apologize. Putting that behind us, can you humor me, a mere layman, with an answer?

            Lastly, you ask Father:

            Precisely when Origen’s universalism began to come under ecclesiastical censure I do not know. 543? Are you acquainted with any synods before 543 that condemned apokatastasis?

            Let me ask you. Was Jerome’s, Epiphanius’, Theophilus’, and etcetera’s condemnation perceived as churchwide? Which, in your opinion, would have been the first that could have at least claimed such authority? You appear to posit 543’s synod. I would agree. The ninth anathema therein explicitly condemns universalism. And so, we settle the question. Universalism is condemned, Origen is condemned, the fifth ecumenical council accepts the 543 anathemas (and probably adds the 553 ones to it), and the seventh ecumenical council rejects both Origen and apokatastasis again.

            All of this makes me wonder, why the debate?

            Are we going to have absolute epistemic certainty about something that occurred 1500 years ago? Probably not. But, we don’t have the minutes of Nicea I or Constantinople I and we generally accept, via their canons, what the conclusions of the councils were. I see actually far more evidence for Origen’s condemnation, simply because we have so much more detail.

            Father, let me ask you an honest, but personal question. Do you think you have an agenda? Why are you fighting so tenaciously against an issue which appears, historically speaking, is firmly settled?

            Also, permit me to ask this in earnestness, Father. Have you read the fourth, fifth, and seventh ecumenical councils in their entirety, in English? (I ask this, because I am not aware of the other councils being available in their entirety in English.) It appears to me you have read what scholars said about the councils, but not the councils themselves. Perhaps I am wrong, but if you have not, it is understandable why it may appear to be “news to you” that the seventh council offers us an interpretation of the fifth council, reiterates Origen’s anathemitzation, and that the fifth council explicitly anathematizes Origen. 

            I am honestly beginning to suspect that many of the scholars have zeroed in on sessions of councils, but have not done the dirty work of slogging all the way through them. If we trust their conclusions based upon incomplete research, then we are following them into error.

            May God bless you,

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Craig, I must say that you are the most respectful commentator we’ve had here for the past seven years. 🙂

            I think you are pushing a grammatical point excessively hard. You are claiming that because Origen has been thrown into a list of previously condemned people that therefore the council fathers had a specific synodical condemnation in mind for Origen also. Maybe they did, maybe not. Maybe, as you suggest, they had in mind the 15 anathemas. Maybe they believe that he had died an apostate. Maybe they believed he had been condemned in the past by bishops or synods, without knowing the particulars. We would need a lot more data to support your own reading. The key point, I think, is that in response to the anti-Origenist controversy in Palestine, the bishops added Origen (whom Justinian at least blamed for the mess) to a list of known heretics. The inclusion of Origen, I suggest, has little to do with Origen himself but everything to do with the 6th century Origenist controversy in Palestine.

            Please note that this anathema has not been perfectly obeyed by the theologians of the Church. The writings of Origen (as do those of Evagrius, often under a different name) continue to be read and studied. Most theologians and historians today recognize Origen as the biblical and theological giant upon whose shoulders we all stand. This certainly does not mean that we must agree with everything that he wrote; but it does mean that we must show him the respect and honor that he deserves, despite the inclusion of his name in the 11th canon. There’s no reason to follow Justinian here. We don’t burn books.

            And perhaps more to the point: the inclusion of Origen in this list of heretics is irrelevant to the consideration of apokatastasis today. Re-read the anathema and then ask yourself this question: Did the council fathers believe they were also condemning St Gregory of Nyssa?

            Liked by 1 person

          • Father, thank you for your kind reply. Please pardon me if I continue to quibble, because you continued asking me questions. Also, so it helps me understand where you are on at your end, can you clarify the following questions for me if you may?

            What past condemnation is the fifth ecumenical council citing, in your honest opinion?

            Have you read the fourth, fifth, and seventh ecumenical councils in their entirety?

            Upon reflection, would you say you have an “agenda” of sorts? I ask, because my interest in replying here is chiefly historical and I am feeling that you are requiring a burden of proof historically speaking that would be impossibly high. I am a history major back in the day, so I look at this issue of ancient history in terms of “plausibility.” Is it plausible that the council fathers intended to condemn Origen in his person and universalism more generally? I think it is certainly several degrees more plausible than it is not. Can you not admit that and, if not, why? Is there a certain perspective you feel is more important to expound than chiefly addressing this issue chiefly from its historical merits?

            Thank you for bearing with me with the preceding, but I think it is very important for both me and onlookers here.

            As for your reply more specifically, you assert that I am “pushing a grammatical point excessively hard.” I honestly disagree, and being that not only the translator of the minutes (Price) concurs with me, and more importantly, the seventh ecumenical council does as well. Price observes the issue of Origen’s condemnation was not even considered controversial during the fifth council. I concur with Price. In fact, Benignus bishop of Heraclea takes it as a given, stating during the fifth session that “we find indeed many others who were anathematized after death, including also Origen” (v. 87).

            To be perfectly honest, I think that if anyone is pushing the grammar, I am sad to say it has to be you–we have so much consistency internally within the fifth council and recognition of such from the fathers of a future council where the historical position I am expounding is the default. It is the contrarians that have the burden of proof, not those reiterating the traditional teaching of the Church and the explicit teaching of the seventh council on what the fifth council taught. Simply saying that the default position is not unequivocally supported enough by the source material simply does not cut it, historically speaking. We have certainly hit the threshold of high plausibility that Origen was condemned. With him, we see apokatastasis as clearly one of the teachings that was condemned by extensions during the eighth session (and explicitly cited as heresy in the seventh council.)

            The reason I keep pushing of this is simply this is the topic of discussion. Look at the title of your article! Do we have proof that ecumenical councils condemned Origen and apokatastasis. Yes! And, in fact, extremely compelling historical proof. Simply responding the grammar is not convincing enough to everyone is besides the point. If one concedes my position is grammatically possible, and all the council fathers and other council’s fathers concur, and the eminent translator of the councils concurs–well, then, I think that settles it historically.

            I would love the opportunity to speak this out with you, if you want to quibble on finer points, but in a reply I do not want us to miss the forest from the trees. So, forgive my frankness.

            Later on, you point out “that this anathema,” but specifically which anathema you have in mind I am not sure, “has not been perfectly obeyed by the theologians of the Church.” To this, I respond, that is not terribly important to the question at hand. I think the goal posts are being moved, perhaps unintentionally. Your question in the title of your article, and its whole pretext, is whether an ecumenical council condemned Origen and apokatastasis. I have shown the answer is yes, and in fact, at least two different ecumenical councils have. I am presently unaware of the entirety of the sixth council being in English, so I cannot comment on the sixth.

            You also write that “the inclusion of Origen in this list of heretics is irrelevant to the consideration of apokatastasis today.”

            I reply again, this is moving the goal posts. I am addressing a historical question. Further, I can affirm that the Church affirmed the nine anathemas (the ninth rejects universal salvation) and apokatastasis more generally (it is named as condemned in the seventh council). Whether every single aspect of apokatastasis was condemned is beyond the purview of the question I am personally trying to settle. All I can say is they name it, condemn it, they name universal salvation, they condemn it, they name Origen the man, they condemn him. All of these things I can affirm as a matter of historical fact.

            Lastly, you write. “Did the council fathers believe they were also condemning St Gregory of Nyssa?” I am sure you guessed my response is that the goal posts are moved yet again. However, I will still give you a private opinion. Saint Gregory of Nyssa is mentioned in the council as one of the doctors of the Church who’s writings were affirmed as such: “we accept everything written and taught by them on the orthodox faith.” They also affirm Augustine in the same words. I suppose, the proviso is “everything written…on the Orthodox faith.” Obviously, if Gregory is sincerely an Origenist, they would not affirm him on that point (just like I doubt they would affirm Augustine’s transducianism.)

            Nevertheless, any discussion on apokatastasis needs to be on the merits of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. However, for historical reasons, we must be careful in asserting the fifth council is teaching something that it is not. We live in a time and place where the newspapers regularly lie, the schools expound propaganda, doctors are more concerned with avoiding lawsuits than curing patients, and overall we are dealing with an anti-truth climate. So, we cannot twist history just because we do not like what it teaches. In fact, we must embrace what we do not like–so we can more greatly appreciate what is the truth.

            The truth should challenge us.

            God bless,

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Hi again, Craig. Yes, you are absolutely right. I do have an agenda. Specifically, I want folks to understand that the appeal to the 5th Ecumenical Council’s (alleged) condemnation of apokatastasis is more complicated and debatable than folks often realize.

            It should matter–for purposes of dogma–whether the council formally condemned apokatastasis. An anathema approved by a pre-synodical meeting of bishops is not the same as an anathema formally promulgated by an ecumenical council and therefore does not carry the same, if any, dogmatic authority. This is generally recognized by Catholic theologians, but Orthodox theologians simply haven’t given the matter much thought. I suppose they haven’t needed to (at least until very recently), but as a result a binding Orthodox understanding of dogmatic statements does not exist, no matter what some people say. Unlike Catholics, the Orthodox do not have an official magisterium to which they may appeal to definitively resolve their disagreements.

            It should matter–for purposes of dogma–whether the bishops who ratified (rubber-stamped?) Justinian’s 15 anathemas intended to condemn all versions of apokatastasis or simply the version (falsely attributed to Origen) then flourishing in monastic quarters in 6th century Palestine. Dogmatic definitions and anathemas are typically delivered under the pressure of controversy. They do not drop from heaven as divine doctrinal pronouncements. Their range, authority, and truth can only be determined by subsequent theological reflection and debate. In other words, interpretation is unavoidable and always necessary. It may well be the case that every bishop attending Constantinople II believed in eternal damnation, but that alone does not determine the dogmatic significance of the 15 anathemas.

            I agree with you that “Origen” was condemned by Constantinople II. I put quote marks around the name, because it’s not at all clear how many of the bishops were well acquainted with his writings or knew much about him and his work. Price notes, e.g., that “it was widely believed in the sixth century that he [Origen] had died either excommunicate or even as an apostate” (I:280), but we know this was not in fact the historical case. So what the heck does the inclusion of Origen’s name in a list of heretics really mean? My guess: it was a political-symbolic way for the bishops (at Justinian’s behest) to show their support for the anti-Origenist faction in Palestine. Nothing more needs or should be read into it. It certainly does not tell us which teachings of the real Origen were supposedly proscribed. I imagine that the bishops believed that Origen believed and taught all the stuff condemned by the 15 anathemas; but as Daley, Ramelli, and others have demonstrated, Origen’s authentic teachings are significantly differently than those of the 6th century Origenists. In any case, as Price reminds us, “The acts contain … no discussion of Origenism” (II:270). That silence alone speaks volumes. The bishops weren’t there to talk about Origen. They were there to debate the Three Chapters.

            So what is my agenda in this article? Hmm. I guess it’s this: to cut off fundamentalist appeals to the 15 anathemas and make room within Orthodoxy for theological discussion and debate of the versions of apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, St Isaac the Syrian, Sergius Bulgakov, and David Bentley Hart. Orthodoxy will never really know whether a genuine Orthodox understanding of apokatastasis is possible as long as people continue to improperly invoke Constantinople II as a way to prematurely stop analysis and debate.


          • Sure is a relief to be a Protestant and thus not required to care what Imperial Councils said at all. Paul said All will be Saved, that’s all I need to know.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Consider also Norman Tanner’s translation of canon 11:

          If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their heretical books, and also all other heretics who have already been condemned and anathematized by the holy, catholic and apostolic church and by the four holy synods which have already been mentioned, and also all those who have thought or now think in the same way as the aforesaid heretics and who persist in their error even to death: let him be anathema.

          I suggest that this translation also supports my reading of the canon.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          In his book on the history of universalism during the first 500 years of the Church, J. W. Hanson remarks:

          “Some of the alleged errors of Origen were condemned, but his doctrine of universal salvation, never. Methodius, who wrote A.D. 300; Pamphilus and Eusebius, A.D. 310; Eustathius, A.D. 380; Epiphanius, A.D. 376 and 394; Theophilus, A.D. 400-404, and Jerome, A.D. 400; all give lists of Origen’s errors, but none name his Universalism among them.”
          “For a hundred and fifty years, A.D. 250 to 400, though Origen and his heresies on many points are frequently attacked and condemned, there is scarcely a whisper on record against his Universalism.”

          Fr John Behr confirmed the reliability of this judgment in a recent email exchange.

          Precisely when Origen’s universalism began to come under ecclesiastical censure I do not know. 543? Are you acquainted with any synods before 543 that condemned apokatastasis?


    • The 543 Council was chiefly about condemning the Pre-existence of Souls which by that time was equally conflated with the term Apokatastais, which is why I don’t like that word, I just say Universal Salvation.


  6. Regardless of these Origen issues St Isaac the Syrian would be a heretic to adherent of the Fifth Ecumenical Council because he belonged to a Church that revered Theodore of Mopsuesta.

    To me follows of Constantiple II are Justinianity.


    • Andrew says:

      For as in Justinian all of Adam are united to a death like Caesar’s, so also in Christ all shall be made alive to the Kingdom of God [the one with power].

      Unless the seed of the ecumenical Church dies it cannot bear much fruit.

      I can’t figure out why anybody cares whether the 5th council did or did not condemn an apokatastasis like Gregory’s. The damage was clearly done.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. John H says:

    Father, sorry to say that most of this doctrinal dispute over the meaning of Constantinople II strikes me as being a red herring. Assume the worst, that the Council did condemn all forms of Universalism. What then? Orthodox believers are in the same boat as Roman Catholics, ostensibly saddled with doctrine that unequivocally rejects the universalist hope. But, as Justin Coyle pointed out in his review of Hart’s book, that doctrine itself is subject to interpretation. A reasonable interpretation is that eternal damnation refers to the destruction of the shadow self that every human being who enters the Devastation is prisoner of: the man of flesh who may never inherit the Kiingdom of God. Once our true selves, the Maximian logoi, are freed from the false self, they can freely enter into the fullness of God’s fellowship. Eternal Hell then becomes a necessary step in the purgative process that leads all souls to heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Marty says:

    Why the addition of the “maybe?”
    Is their a concise summary as to the reason/s for adding the maybe that you can share?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      When I originally wrote the article, I wanted a click-bait title: hence the emphatic statement. Now that the article is well-known (it even gets footnoted), the click-bait title is not needed, so I thought I’d make it a bit more accurate. Historical claims are always probabilistic and open to interpretation–hence the “maybe”. Does that make sense?


      • Marty says:

        Yes. Thank you.
        Maybe consider adding that explanation at the very beginning. I certainly could be a minority in this, but it seems like the “maybe” is bait for automatic dismissal for the very folks that need to enter this conversation the most?

        That said, I get that truth is not dependent on our certainty.
        Thanks Fr Aidan.


  9. Pingback: Apocatastasis’ Condemnation During the Council of Constantinople II – Orthodox Christian Theology

Comments are closed.