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 famous fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.” Over the past three 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. Justinian does not mention the Origenist debate in his letter announcing the council or in his letter that was read to the bishops at the formal opening of the council; nor do the acts of the council, as preserved in the Latin translation (the original Greek text having been lost), cite the fifteen anathemas. 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.”1
But the Fifth Ecumenical Council did condemn Origen, right? Yes. His name is included in the list of heretics denounced in 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.
The canon does not specify which of Origen’s teachings are condemned, nor do the acts record any discussion of them by the council fathers. Origen is simply included in a list of previously condemned heretics. This is where things get tricky. The others in the list were condemned by previous ecumenical councils and their heresies were well known; but those councils had never condemned Origen. Which teachings of Origen, therefore, did the bishops of the Fifth Council believe to be antithetical to the apostolic faith? We do not know—neither the canons nor the acts of the council tell us. This point needs to be stressed. We must not assume that because the council fathers condemned Origen by name they therefore intended to condemn his teaching on apokatastasis. The establishment of conciliar dogma requires more than guesswork and conjectural inference. F. Nutcombe Oxenham, 19th century Roman Catholic theologian and translator of Karl Josef von Hefele’s monumental A History of the Councils of the Church, succinctly states the historical problem and interpretive task:
Let me say to any who may consider it an important matter to be assured whether Origen was, or was not condemned, by some ancient Synod, two things—(1) That if it could be ever so conclusively proved that “Origen was condemned” by the Fifth Council, this would afford no evidence whatever that he was condemned on account of his doctrine of restitution, since he held a great many other doctrines much more open to blame than this one. And then (2) Supposing Origen’s doctrine of restitution had been “by itself condemned,” this would be no condemnation of the doctrine of restitution, as now held. e.g. by Mr. Jukes or by Dr Farrar [two 19th century exponents of universal savlation]; since their two doctrines of restitution are in many important points essentially different.2
But Origen’s teachings were condemned by earlier local synods, right? Yes, the most noteworthy being the Synod of Alexandria (399 or 400), convened by Patriarch Theophilus. Theophilus identifies the anathematized teachings of Origen in his Synodical Letter, his official account of the proceedings. He states that the synod condemned eight teachings supposedly found in the On First Principles, but Origen’s teaching on the restoration of all humanity to God is not named! The Synod of Alexandria was quickly followed by synods held in Jerusalem and Cyprus (under the leadership of St Epiphanius), each subscribing to Theophilus’s synodal. Once again, Origen’s teaching on apokatastasis is not named. Theophilus apparently also sent the synodal to Pope Anastasius I, who, in a letter to Bishop Simplicianus expresses his strong agreement with the condemnation of Origen. In 402 Epiphanius visited Constantinople to solicit endorsement of the Synodal Letter, but his request was denied. It may also be noted that in their writings on the errors of Origin, neither St Epiphanius nor St Jerome identify Origen’s universalist teaching as heterodox. This may come to a surprise until we recall that in the fourth and fifth centuries, St Gregory of Nyssa was never censured—or even criticized—for his evangelical assertion of universal salvation. Christians may have vigorously disagreed with each other about the question of everlasting damnation (St Augustine’s opinion is well known); but at no point did this disagreement rise to the level requiring dogmatic definition. John Wesley Hanson summarizes the early Church’s tolerance—and in some quarters, we would need to say “acceptance”—of the universalist view:
The state of opinion on the subject of universal salvation is shown by the fact that through Ignatius, Irenænus, Hippolytus and others wrote against the prevalent heresies of their times, Universalism is never named among them. 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. Besides, some of those who condemned his errors were Universalists, as the school of Antioch. And many who were opponents of Origenism were mentioned by Origen’s enemies with honor notwithstanding they were Universalists, as Clement of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa.3
Origen was a controversial figure. His teachings were often misunderstood and misrepresented, yet even many of those who objected to Origen’s teachings honored him for his sanctity and faithfulness under persecution. But all of this changed in the sixth century. Our story jumps to 543, almost 300 years after Origen’s death.
According to the 6th century historian Liberatus, the papal legate Pelagius journeyed to Egypt and Palestine in the early 540s. While in Jerusalem he met anti-Origenist monks who described to him the heresies of the Origenist monks and the conflicts they were generating, presented him an indictment (libellus) against the teachings of Origen, and prevailed upon him to present their indictment to the emperor. Upon his return to Constantinople, he did precisely that. In 543 Justinian sent an edict (unfortunately not translated into English) to St Menas, Patriarch of Constantinople, ordering him to convene the home synod (synodus endemousa) and condemn the troublesome Alexandrian. He appended extracts from Origen’s On First Principles and nine pre-prepared anathemas. Liberatus states that the synod confirmed the anathemas. Justinian also sent the edict and anathemas to Pope Vigilius and the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. No more is heard about the nine anathemas until the 13th century. Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos, Byzantine historian and poet, quotes them in his Ecclesiastical History, copied, he says, from a commentary (author and date unknown), and identifies them as official canons of the Fifth Ecumenical Council!4 Historians now believe this identification to be mistaken, but the fact that one or more of the commentaries Nikephoros had consulted make this error testifies to the confusion in the manuscript tradition. The reprobations read as follows:
1. If anyone says or holds that the souls of human beings pre-exist, as previously minds and holy powers, but that they reached satiety with divine contemplation and turned to what is worse and for this reason grew old in the love of God and are therefore called souls, and were made to descend into bodies as a punishment, let him be anathema.
2. If anyone says or holds that the Lord’s soul pre-existed and came into being united to God the word before the incarnation and birth from a virgin, let him be anathema.
3. If anyone holds or says that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was first formed in the womb of the holy Virgin and that afterwards both God the word and the soul, being pre-existent, were united to it, let him be anathema.
4. If anyone says or holds that the Word of God became like all the heavenly orders, becoming cherubim for the cherubim, seraphim for the seraphim, and becoming (in a word) like all the powers above, let him be anathema.
5. If anyone says or holds that at the resurrection the bodies of human beings will be raised spherical and does not profess that we shall be raised upright, let him be anathema.
6. If anyone says or holds that heaven, sun, moon, stars, and the waters above the heavens are ensouled and rational powers, let him be anathema.
7. If anyone says or holds that in the age to come Christ the Master will be crucified on behalf of demons as well as on behalf of human beings, let him be anathema.
8. If anyone says or holds that God’s power is finite and that he created [only] what he could grasp and comprehend, or that creation is coeternal with God, let him be anathema.
9. If anyone says or holds that the punishment of demons and impious human beings is temporary and that it will have an end at some time, and that there will be a restoration of demons and impious human beings, let him be anathema.5
Disentangling the authentic teachings of Origen from the sixth-century Origenist doctrines denounced in the anathemas is no easy task. Origen most certainly, for example, did not teach that at the eschaton Christ will be crucified anew for demons and humanity or that human beings will be raised in spherical shape or that God’s power is finite. But that is the crucial contextual point. The anathemas cannot be taken as condemnation of the positions of the real Origen but only of the 6th century “Origenist Origen.” By this time Origenism had morphed into an exotic religious-metaphysical project Origen would have neither recognized nor approved. Regardless Justinian was determined to discredit the Adamantine.
For our purposes, it is anathema 9 that interests us: “If anyone says or holds that the punishment of demons and impious human beings is temporary and that it will have an end at some time, and that there will be a restoration of demons and impious human beings, let him be anathema.” If abstracted from the nine canons as a whole and its 6th century context, it would seem to condemn every form of apokatastasis. Perhaps Justinian intended precisely that.6 Perhaps the synodical bishops joined in that intention, though we do not know, given the absence of any record of their discussions. Perhaps the patriarchs agreed, but history has not documented anything more than their formal reception of the edict. Assent to an imperial decree is not necessarily an ecclesial act, even though empire and Church are intertwined at this point in history. It is crucial to remember that this anathema was prompted, not by the abstract question of eternal damnation, but by the specific formulation of apokatastasis (i.e., the restoration of souls to their original disembodied state) then being advanced by the 6th century Origenists. Anathema 9, in other words, is intrinsically linked to the condemnation of the preexistence of souls in anathema 1 (see discussion below). In any case, the anathemas possess only limited if no authority for the Church today, given that they represent only the views of the emperor and (perhaps) the synodical bishops. As Richard Price explains: “As regards the canons of 543, they were issued as an imperial decree, and sent to the patriarchs (including the patriarch of Constantinople) not for their confirmation but for their circulation. Their authority was imperial rather than synodal.”7 Oxenham reminds us that anathema 9 is “the only decree purporting to come from any ancient council, general or local, in which the doctrine ‘that the punishment of the wicked will come to an end,’ is even mentioned.”8 Moreover, their authority is compromised by Justinian’s clear intent to impose them on Church and empire for the sake of social order and political unity (ditto for the fifteen anathemas discussed below). The fear that apokatastasis will encourage immorality and civil disorder enjoys a long history. The threat of everlasting suffering can be a powerful inducement to obedience to moral norms and imperial laws. But emperors should not dictate church doctrine. When they succeed in doing so, the Church must be free to go back and reassess.
The 543 imperial edict did not resolve the Origenist crisis in Palestine, and so in 553 Justinian decided to revisit the matter. And that brings us to the famous fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas, discovered in the late 17th century by Peter Lambeck, librarian of Vienna:
1. If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema.
2. If anyone says that the origin of all rational beings was incorporeal and material minds without any number or name, with the result that there was a henad of them all through identity of substance, power and operation and through their union with and knowledge of God the Word, but that they reached satiety with divine contemplation and turned to what is worse, according to what the drive to this in each one corresponded to, and that they took more subtle or denser bodies and were allotted names such that the powers above have different names just as they have different bodies, as a result of which they became and were named some cherubim, some seraphim, and others principalities, powers, dominations, thrones, angels, and whatever heavenly orders there are, let him be anathema.
3. If anyone says that the sun, the moon and the stars, belonging themselves to the same henad of rational beings, became what they are through turning to what is worse, let him be anathema.
4. If anyone says that the rational beings who grew cold in divine love were bound to our more dense bodies and were named human beings, while those who had reached the acme of evil were bound to cold and dark bodies and are and are called demons and spirits of wickedness, let him be anathema.
5. If anyone says that from the state of the angels and archangels originates that of the soul, and from that of the soul that of demons and human beings, and from that of human beings angels and demons originate again, and that each order of the heavenly powers is constituted either entirely from those below or those above or from both those above and those below, let him be anathema.
6. If anyone says that the genus of demons had a double origin, being compounded both from human souls and from more powerful spirits that descend to this, but that from the whole henad of rational beings one mind alone remained constant in divine love and contemplation, and that it became Christ and king of all rational beings and created the whole of corporeal nature, both heaven and earth, and what is intermediate, and that the universe came into being containing real elements that are older than its own existence, that is, the dry, the liquid, heat and cold, and also the form according to which it was fashioned, and that the all-holy and consubstantial Trinity did not fashion the universe as the cause of its creation but that mind, as they assert, existing before the universe as creator, gave being to the universe itself and made it created, let him be anathema.
7. If anyone says that Christ, described as existing in the form of God, united to God the Word even before all the ages, and as having emptied himself in the last days into what is human, took pity, as they assert, upon the multifarious fall of the beings in the same henad and, wishing to restore them, passed through everything and took on various bodies and received various names, becoming all things to all, among angels an angel, among powers a power, and among the other orders or genera of rational beings took on appropriately the form of each, and then like us partook of flesh and blood and became for human beings a human being, [if anyone says this] and does not profess that God the Word emptied himself and became a human being, let him be anathema.
8. If anyone says that God the Word, consubstantial with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, who was incarnate and became man, one of the holy Trinity, is not truly Christ but only catachrestically, on account of the mind which, as they assert, emptied itself, because it is united to God the Word and is truly called Christ, while the Word is called Christ because of this mind and this mind is called God because of the Word, let him be anathema.
9. If anyone says that it was not the Word of God, incarnate in flesh ensouled by a rational and intelligent soul, who descended into hell and the same ascended back to heaven, but rather the mind they mention, whom impiously they assert to have truly been made Christ through knowledge of the monad, let him be anathema.
10. If anyone says that the Lord’s body after the resurrection was ethereal and spherical in form, and that the same will be true of the other bodies after the resurrection, and that, with first the Lord himself shedding his own body and [then] all likewise, the nature of bodies will pass into non-existence, let him be anathema.
11. If anyone says that the coming judgment means the total destruction of bodies and that the end of the story will be an immaterial nature, and that thereafter nothing that is material will exist but only pure mind, let him be anathema.
12. If anyone says that the heavenly powers, all human beings, the devil, and the spirits of wickedness will be united to God the Word in just the same way as the mind they call Christ, which is in the form of God and emptied itself, as they assert, and that the kingdom of Christ will have an end, let him be anathema.
13. If anyone says that there will not be a single difference at all between Christ and other rational beings, neither in substance nor in knowledge nor in power over everything nor in operation, but that all will be at the right hand of God as Christ beside them will be, as indeed they were also in their mythical pre-existence, let him be anathema.
14. If anyone says that there will be one henad of all rational beings, when the hypostases and numbers are annihilated together with bodies, and that knowledge about rational beings will be accompanied by the destruction of the universes, the shedding of bodies, and the abolition of names, and there will be identity of knowledge as of hypostases, and that in this mythical restoration there will be only pure spirits, as there were in their nonsensical notion of pre-existence, let him be anathema.
15. If anyone says that the mode of life of the minds will be identical to that earlier one when they had not yet descended or fallen, with the result that the beginning is identical to the end and the end is the measure of the beginning, let him be anathema.9
Various hypotheses have been advanced to account for these anathemas. In the 18th and 19th centuries many historians, including Hefele and Oxenham, contended that they should be attached to the 543 Synod of Constantinople. But in 1899 Wilhelm Diekamp offered an alternative hypothesis, which has been embraced by most modern scholars and may now be considered the standard view: in the Spring of 553, in response to an embassy from Palestine, the Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors composed the fifteen anathemas, with introductory letter, and submitted them to the bishops then residing in Constantinople for their “approval” before the great synod formally convened on May 5th, under the leadership of St Eutychius. “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.”10 We do not know how long before the council this assembly took place nor who attended. Daniel Hombergen suggests March or April 553 as the most likely time.11 Alois Grillmeier summarizes the now-standard historical assessment of the fifteen canons:
Because the condemnation of the Origenists [i.e., 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.12
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 condemnation of Origenist theology.13 The convocation of a patriarchal endemousa to address ecclesial and political concerns was already a long-standing practice. 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.”14 Given that the bishops who attended the home synod undoubtedly attended the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the anti-Origenist anathemas were understandably, perhaps inevitably, associated with the latter. As with the synod of 543, we must not rush to identify the endemousal ratification of the imperial anathemas as an ecclesial or dogmatic act. Failure to assent to the anathemas would most likely have been viewed by Justinian as an expression of treason and rebellion. Confronted with the wishes and absolute power of the Emperor, when is assent free and genuine assent? The spectre of Caesaropapism haunts the proceedings. And given that the acts of this gathering are no longer extant, we are not in a position to even speculate about the ecclesial status of the fifteen anathemas.
In his history of the first-millennium Church, John Anthony McGuckin proposes a bit of palace intrigue to explain how the anathemas so quickly became linked to the 553 Council:
In the early part of this great synod, when Pope Vigilius had been summoned to the capital but refused to appear at the sessions, a letter (homonoia) seems to have been issued by the emperor’s personal cabinet to the assembled bishops denouncing the Isochristoi who were being led astray by Origen. Fifteen objectionable items were drawn up, a list of things to be anathematized. Peculiarly, the anathemata are all taken from the works of Evagrius of Pontus. The anathemata did not get themselves attached to the official acts of the council of 553, but to strengthen the legal case against the Origenist “disturbers of the peace” the anathemata were quietly added to the synodal acts at a later date and have consequently been received as conciliar records from the end of the sixth century onward, a sleight of hand possible by those who held the key to the archives.15
Price has recently hypothesized that the anathemas were originally promulgated by Constantinople II but not included in the Latin translation of the Acts because the controversy was of little interest to the Western Churches.16 This seems a particularly weak conjecture, 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.
But the omission of the fifteen canons in the Latin version of the acts of Constantinople II raises an intriguing question. When the Latin patriarchate received Constantinople II as a general council of the Church, did it do so in the form of the original Greek text or the Latin translation? According to Oxenham, it was the Latin version that was read to the bishops of the 649 Lateran Synod.17 The bishops surely assumed they were hearing the complete acts, not a truncated version. They therefore heard the condemnation of Origin in canon 11, but they did not hear—and therefore did not accept—the fifteen anathemas. If the Latin Church never received the fifteen anathemas, and if reception by the entire Church, represented by the five patriarchates, is necessary for the establishment of dogma, how can they be said to possess dogmatic authority within the Church catholic?
Ignatius Green contends (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.18 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.19
Green believes, as does Price, that the endemousa is being referenced in the last sentence. Sounds plausible—yet the fifteen anathemas do not mention Origen, and are directed, as we shall see below, against beliefs held not by Origen but by Evagrius. In any case, even if the bolded sentence is referring to the pre-synod, it cannot be construed as a conferral of dogmatic authority upon the anathemas. That would have required an official act, of which there is none. Regarding the second claim, Green provides no evidence, nor am I aware of any. The acts of the council do not mention the fifteen anathemas. It would be more accurate to say that the council fathers most likely 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 them, 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, torture, exile. (That Justinian is celebrated as a saint within the Orthodox Church witnesses to the tremendous mercy of our God and gives hope to us all. It might even be considered as a proleptic manifestation of apokatastasis!) Green contends that II Constantinople’s insertion of Origen’s name in its list of heretics implicitly ratifies the anathemas submitted to the synodus endemousa; yet the claim is dubious and unprovable—it is mere assertion on Green’s part. Conjecture, guesses, and speculative inferences will not suffice. We do not have access to the hidden intentions of the council fathers. The simple but decisive fact: the Second Council of Constantinople did not formally promulgate the fifteen anathemas. That it did not do so must determine our evaluation of their dogmatic authority.
Cyril of Scythopolis is always the first witness summoned to support the traditional view that the Fifth Ecumenical Council formally promulgated the fifteen anathemas, and for good reason. His book The Lives of the Monks of Palestine was composed sometime before his death in 558, only five years after the council. 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.”20 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.”21 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.22
In other words, while Cyril is an important witness to the events in Constantinople, he’s not an impartial one. He has skin in the game. So what exactly does he say about the Fifth Council’s condemnation of Origen? He states that a single anathema (“common and universal”) was issued by the council. This would be an odd (albeit not impossible) way to speak if he were referring to the fifteen anathemas, but it makes perfect sense if he were referring to the inclusion of Origen’s name in the list of heretics (canon 11). In that case, Cyril’s testimony does not support the argument that apokatastasis was condemned by the council. There is a difference, as Oxenham comments, “between condemning a man in general, and condemning certain opinions in particular.“23 Note also that Cyril says that the council denounced Didymus and Evagrius for their affirmation of the preexistence of souls and the universal restoration, yet our surviving records do not mention either the home synod or II Constantinople as having done so. Secondary sources cannot be taken at face value; they must be critically assessed and weighed for their accuracy. Another example on the need of critical assessment: at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, an epistle of Patriarch Tarasius of Constantinople was read to the council fathers. In it Tarasius expresses his agreement with the six preceding general councils. Here is what he has has to say about II Constantinople:
With the fifth, I also agree, which as a sword of the Spirit, cut off the lawless heresies, which prevailed from ancient times, and openly exposed those who originated them, Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius—which heresies I also reject as strange and deceitful babblings.24
Clearly the good patriarch is simply reciting what he knows by hearsay. If he had read the authentic acts of the council, he would have known that the council was principally concerned with the Three Chapters, but of this he makes no mention nor of the heresies that were actually condemned. He would also have known that Evagrius and Didymus were never explicitly condemned by the council itself. Regardless, it had become part of conciliar lore that “Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius” had been denounced by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. “All later writers, who assert that Origen was condemned by the Fifth Council,” Oxenham explains, “always relate that Didymus and Evagrius were condemned at the same time and together with Origen; but Origen’s name stands alone in this eleventh Canon, and no mention is made of Didymus or Evagrius.”25
The 6th century Byzantine historian Evagrius Scholasticus, writing four decades after Constantinople II, is the second witness who is always summoned into the box. He provides the strongest testimony for the traditional account, given that he appears to be aware of the anathemas (maybe). Evagrius places the discussion of Origen and the Origenists within the council proceedings, coming after the discussion by the bishops of the propriety of pseudononymous condemnation:
And after other things they expounded fourteen chapters concerning the correct and blameless faith. And thus did these matters proceed. But when depositions against the doctrines of Origen, who is also called Adamantine, and those who follow his impiety and error, were submitted by the monks Eulogius, Conon, Cyriacus and Pancratius, Justinian asked the assembled Synod concerning these matters, after attaching both a copy of the deposition and the missives to Vigilius the correct and blameless faith concerning these things….
To this they also attached the chapters which revealed what those who hold the doctrines of Origen were taught to profess, both their agreements as well as their disagreements, and their many-sided error. Among these there is a fifth chapter for the blasphemies of individual members of the so-called New Lavra, which ran thus: ‘Theodore Ascidas the Cappadocian said: ”If now the apostles and martyrs accomplish miracles and are held in the same honour, if in the restoration they are not equal to Christ, what sort of restoration is there for them?”’ Many other blasphemies of Didymus, Evagrius and Theodore were also reported by them, since they had collected relevant material with great diligence.26
I added a parenthetical “maybe” to my statement that Evagrius was acquainted with the fifteen anathemas. In fact, the fifth chapter that he quotes is not to be found in the famous fifteen. It’s possible, therefore, that he is referring to a different document altogether. It’s also clear that Evagrius has conflated the home synod and general synod, as noted by the translator, Michael Whitby: “These proceedings concerning Origen are not included among the incomplete acta of the Fifth Council; they preceded the Council … and were not regarded as a formal part of proceedings.”27 Hombergen identifies several mistakes in Evagrius’ account of the council but offers this exculpation: “Evagrius depended not only on the documents he had at his disposal, but also, as it seems, on existing contradictory traditions concerning the issue of the Council.”28
At this point we might also reference the testimony of Bishop Victor of Tunnuna (died c. 569), who wrote a contemporaneous year-by-year chronicle. For the year 553 he states that Justinian convened a synod in Constantinople, during which the Three Chapters were condemned. He mentions neither the condemnation of Origen nor the promulgation of the fifteen anathemas. However, for the year 565 he writes that “Justinian sent into exile Eutychius, Bishop of Constantinople, the condemner of the Three Chapters and of Evagrius, the eremite deacon, and of Didymus, monk and confessor of Alexandria.” Unfortunately, he does not provide any information as to the specifics of Eutychius’ condemnation of Evagrius and Didymus, neither how or when. Oxenham comments:
We are certainly not at liberty to cite this passing allusion as a proof that Victor held Evagrius and Didymus to have been condemned at the same time as “The Three Chapters,” i.e. by the Fifth Council, since in his own record of that council he makes no mention of their condemnation. Of Origen, be it observed, he says nothing at all in either Chronicle.29
Curious and curiouser. One is tempted to assign Eutychius’ condemnation of Evagrius and Didymus to the pre-synod, even though they are named neither in Justinian’s introductory letter nor in the anathemas. Even more curious is the failure to mention Origen at all.
We jump back and ahead seven centuries to Nikephoros. In addition to providing us with the nine anti-Origenist anathemas, which he attributed to the Fifth Council, Nikephoros also provides a description of the heresies purportedly repudiated by the Council. This description leads one to suspect that at least one of his sources was acquainted with the letter of Justinian and the fifteen anathemas:
The soul existed before the body, and it may have committed sins in heaven. And also that the heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the water which are above the heavens are animated, and are, as it were, reasonable powers. Besides that, in the resurrection the bodies of men will be raised in a round and orbicular form, and that the torments of all impious men, and of the devils themselves, will have an end, and that the wicked and devils shall be restored to their former order. Moreover, that it behooves Christ to be crucified also the the devils, and often to suffer in future ages for the spirits of wickedness who are in heavenly places.30
How is it that ancient historians could get things both so right and so wrong? The Jesuit historian Garnerius (18th or 19th century?) conjectured that the documents from the three synods under Menas and the general synod under Eutychius were collected together in one codex identified by the name “Fifth Synod.”31 If we throw in the documents from the pre-synod, this might explain the confusions among the ancient historians and others regarding which synods did what and when.
Be that as it may, catholic Christendom came to believe that the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas had been promulgated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council.32 But as I look back at this sentence, I’m not sure if it’s quite accurate, given that the fifteen canons are, as far as I can discover, neither specifically mentioned nor quoted during the first millennium. One might argue that they had been forgotten by ecclesiastical writers. What was remembered and passed down in the tradition was that Constantinople II had condemned Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius and all their “mythical speculations.”
Argumenti causa—let us assume, contrary to the weighty evidence presented above, that the council did officially publish the fifteen anathemas. 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 theory against which the anathemas were directed. The latter belongs 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.33 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 apocatastasis—seen 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.34
Most 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.35
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.36 Casiday concurs, with an important caveat: just as there are crucial differences between Origen and sixth-century Origenism, so there are crucial differences between Evagrius and sixth-century Evagrianism.37 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 speak to the authentic teachings 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.38
Ramelli demonstrates that Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors misunderstood and misrepresented the 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 home synod condemnation of apokatastasis does not apply to construals similar to those of St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian. Consider canon 1: “If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema.” The content of the “monstrous restoration” is then unpacked in canons 10-15. Note the intrinsic connection between the preexistence of souls and the universal restoration: the latter necessarily flows from the former, as clearly explained in canon 14, 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 preexistence. 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.”39 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 Hanson writes: “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.'”40
But we need not rely exclusively upon the assessment of modern scholars. I summon into the box Justinian himself. His letter to the bishops clearly states his principal theological concerns and the intent of the anathemas, which I quote in full:
Our zeal was and is to protect from disturbance the holy, catholic and apostolic church of God and to condemn whatever springs up in any way that is contrary to the orthodox faith. Since therefore it has become known to us that there are indeed some monks at Jerusalem who follow Pythagoras, Plato, Origen the Adamantine and their impiety and error and teach accordingly, we have thought it necessary to take thought and carry out an investigation concerning them, lest through their pagan and Manichaean deceit they utterly destroy many. For, to mention a few things out of many, they assert that there were minds without any number or name, with the result that there was a henad of all the rational beings through identity of substance and operation and through power and their union with and knowledge of God the Word, and that when they reached satiety with divine love and contemplation, corresponding to the turning of each to what is worse, they clothed themselves with more subtle or denser bodies and were allotted names, and that this is the origin of the existence of the heavenly and ministering powers. Moreover, [they assert] that the sun, the moon and the stars, belonging themselves to the same henad of rational beings, became what they are through turning to what is worse, while the rational beings who for the greater part grew cold in divine love were named souls and were decked in our more dense bodies, and those who had reached the acme of evil were bound to cold and dark bodies and became and are named demons; and that from the state of the angels originates that of the soul, and from that of the soul that of demons and human beings, and from the whole henad of rational beings one mind alone remained undeviating and constant in divine love and contemplation, and it became Christ and King and a human being; and that there will be a total destruction of bodies with the Lord himself first shedding his own body and [then] of all the others; and that all will be raised again to the same henad and become minds (as they were in their pre-existence), when indeed the devil himself and the other demons are restored to the same henad, and when impious and godless human beings will be with godly and inspired men and the heavenly powers and will enjoy the same union with God that Christ too enjoys, just as in their pre-existence, with the result that there will be no difference at all between Christ and the remaining rational beings, neither in substance nor in knowledge nor in power nor in operation. For Pythagoras said that the origin of everything was the monad; and again Pythagoras and Plato, after asserting there is a whole company of bodiless souls, say that those who fall into some sin or other are made to descend into bodies as a punishment. Plato in consequence called the body a fetter and a tomb, since the soul is (as it were) fettered and buried in it.
Then about the coming judgement and retribution of souls he says again, ‘The soul of one who has been a lover of boys and lived guilelessly with philosophy is set free in a third thousand-year cycle, and having thereby grown wings is released and departs in the thousandth year, while as for the others, when they end this life, some will enter the places of punishment under the earth and pay the reckoning and penalty, while others, raised by justice into a place in heaven, will lead a life worthy of how they have lived.’ It is easy to realize the absurdity of this account; for who taught him the cycles of thousands of years, and that after the elapse of a thousand years each of the souls then departs to its own place? As for what is said incidentally, it would be unsuitable for the utterly licentious, let alone such a philosopher; for to those who had achieved pure philosophy he united the dissolute and lovers of boys and declared that both would enjoy the same rewards. So Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus and their followers, who agreed that souls are immortal, declared that they exist prior to bodies and that there is a great company of souls, of which those that transgress descend into bodies and that there is a great company of souls, of which those that transgress descend into bodies, as I said above, the vindictive and wicked into leopards, the ravenous into wolves, the the treacherous into foxes, and those made after women into horses. But the Church, following the divine scriptures, affirms that the soul is created together with the body, not first one and the other later, according to the insanity of Origen.
On account of these wicked and destructive doctrines, or rather ravings, we bid you most sacred ones to assemble together, read the appended exposition attentively, and condemn and anathematize each of these articles together with the impious Origen and all those who hold or have held these beliefs till death.41
Justinian speaks of pagan teachings, of henads, of the preexistence and transmigration of souls and of their final absorption into Christ, and so forth. This is not the apokatastasis taught by St Gregory of Nyssa or Sergius Bulgakov. Apples and oranges!
But perhaps in speaking of apokatastasis I have confused matters. Let me rephrase the question before us: Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council reject the belief that punishments of hell (whether understood as the infliction of retributive suffering or self-chosen alienation from the divine presence and love) will be temporary? The question can only be answered with a resounding no!
In fine, that although there is ample evidence that Origen and many of his opinions were on several occasions condemned by local Synods, there is absolutely no reliable historical evidence that the doctrine of the finality of future punishment was ever condemned either by the Fifth General Council, or by any of the other councils, whose records have been confounded with it. No one has ever pretended that any other General Council condemned this doctrine, although it is simple matter of history that the doctrine was rife through the period during which the first four General Councils were held, and that no one of them took any notice of it.42
The fifteen anathemas reject the necessary restoration of pre-existent souls, but they do not address the simple claim that in his love God will bring to an end the sufferings of the damned. Nor do they address the belief that God will eschatologically reconcile all humanity to himself in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:28).
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, as if it is at all relevant to the present universalist debate. 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.43
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.44
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.”45 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.46
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 text arguably echoes the fifteen anathemas. One might then maintain that when subsequent ecumenical councils confirmed II Constantinople as ecumenical, they implicitly confirmed the anathemas. Similarly for Nicaea II: “We anathematize the mythical speculations of Origen, Evagrius and Didymus, as did the fifth synod, that assembled at Constantinople.” Yet were the bishops actually acquainted with the acts of the Fifth Council or the fifteen anathemas of the pre-synod? I presume few if any had read the relevant texts of Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius. Come to think of it, how many of the bishops who attended the Fifth Council had seriously studied Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius?
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. Perhaps we’ll even throw in the work of the Spirit to seal the deal. 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 content. 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.47
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 theological, historical, and pastoral reasons? Ask Orthodox theologians these and related questions, and one will receive multiple, and 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 cogent 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.48
I conclude with this eloquent plea from Nutcombe Oxenham:
This question, whether the doctrine of never-ending sin and never-ending torments is true, or false, can not be decided on mere historical grounds. Whatever may have been the prevalent opinion in the Christian Church in early or in later ages; whatever may have been the teaching of this or that illustrious theologian in ancient days, or in our own day; whatever may have been the decrees of ancient councils, local or even general; whatever may be the apparent, literal meaning of any text of Scripture; whatever may have been the interpretation with more or less authority assigned to it; whatever may be the evidence which the most honest, laborious, and impartial historical inquiry may supply on any or all of these points, still there remain one question to be asked of vastly greater importance than all these, namely this, What is the moral aspect of this doctrine, which now claims to be de fide in the Christian Church? Is it in keeping with the general scope and tenor of the teaching of Christ and His apostles, or is it in violent contrast? is it in harmony with the revealed character of God? or is it painfully and shockingly discordant? Is it agreeable with those great and unquestionable “everlasting” principles of justice, or mercy, and of love, which must ever be the discriminating and the final test of the truth or the falsehood of any doctrine which claims to be from God? or is it utterly and defiantly subversive of all those principles?49
Amen. Amen. Amen.50
(Revised: 16 September 2020)
 Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, I:106.
 F. Nutombe Oxenham, What is the Truth as to Everlasting Punishment?, p. 35.
 John Wesley Hanson, Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years, chap. 11.
 Oxenham, p. 81.
 The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553, trans. Richard Price, II:281. Also see Alois Grillmeier’s discussion of Justinian’s 543 edict against Origen in Christ in Christian Tradition, II/2:389-402.
 See extract from Justinian’s letter to Menas.
 Richard Price, email message to Alvin Kimel, 9 September 2020.
 Oxenham, p. 117.
 Price, II:284-286.
 pp. 271-272.
 Daniel Hombergen, The Second Origenist Controversy, p. 307.
 Alois Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, II/2:403-404.
 See Justinian’s cover letter.
 Grillmeier, II/2:5-6, n. 1.
 John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity, p. 615.
 See Price’s 2017 lecture “East and West at the Ecumenical Councils.”
 Oxenham, pp. 58-60.
 Ignatius Green, Introduction to St Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Discourse, p. 42.
 Price, I:338; emphasis mine.
 Cyril of Scythopolis, The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, pp. 207-208; emphasis mine.
 Hombergen, p. 293.
 Hombergen, p. 301.
 Oxenham, p. 46.
 The Seventh General Council, ed. John Mendham, p. 95.
 Oxenham, p. 38.
 Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. Michael Whitby, pp. 248-259.
 p. 248, n. 131.
 Hombergen, p. 304, n. 236. Cf. Karl Joseph von Hefele, History of the Councils of the Church, IV:221-225.
 Oxenham, p. 54
 Quoted by Oxenham, p. 80.
 Oxenham, pp. 97-98.
 For a brief summary of the evidence, see Green, pp. 42-46; cf. Oxenham, pp. 44-84.
 Augustine Cassiday, email message to Alvin Kimel, 24 January 2015.
 Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, p. 190.
 E. M. Harding, “Origenist Crises,” in The Westminster Handbook to Origen, pp. 165-167.
 Augustine Casiday, “Translation, Adaptations, and Controversies at St Sabas Monastery in the Sixth Century,” p. 11.
 Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, pp. 724-726, 736-737; also see Ramelli, “Christian Soteriology and Christian Platonism,” and John R. Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology.”
 Ilaria Ramelli, A Larger Hope?, p. 171. The claim that Origen did not teach the preexistence of souls is confirmed by John Behr in his introduction to Origen: On First Principles, I:lxiii-lxv, lxxx-lxxxviii.
 Hanson, chap. 21.
 Price, II:282-284.
 Oxenham, pp. 118-119.
 Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 379-380.
 Bulgakov, p. 482; also see “Dogma, Damnation, and the Eucatastrophe of the Jesus Story.”
 Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith, p. 271. 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.
 Paul Evdokimov, Orthodoxy, p. 338.
 Oxenham, pp. 119-120.
 This article is a substantially revised and much expanded version of an article that was first published under the title “Apokatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” on 18 May 2015. I welcome all criticisms and suggestions. I anticipate future updates and revisons, as new scholarship and information is brought to my attention. And please remember: I’m a blogger, dammit, not a historian. 🙂