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 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 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 nor 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? No and yes. No, in that it did not directly anathematize him. As St Gregory the Great would later observe, the general synod only anathematized one person—Theodore of Mopsuestia (Ep. 51). Yes, in that Origen is named alongside the 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 among the anathematized. This is where things get tricky. The others in the list were denounced, directly or indirectly, 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 and to which synod or synods were they appealing? We do not know—neither the canons nor the acts of the council tell us. This point needs to be stressed. We may not assume that because the council fathers condemned Origen by name they specifically 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 historian, 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 salvation]; 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 (A.D. 399 or 400), convened by Patriarch Theophilus. Theophilus identifies the anathematized teachings of Origen in his synodical epistle, i.e., official account of the proceedings. He states that the synod condemned eight teachings supposedly found in On First Principles, but Origen’s teaching on the restora­tion of all human beings to God is not named! The Synod of Alexandria was quickly followed by councils held in Jerusalem and Cyprus under the leadership of St Epiphanius, each subscribing to Theophilus’s synodal. Once again, final restoration is not named. Nor do Origen’s principal critics include the doctrine among his alleged errors. As Thomas Allin remarks: “Jerome, Theophilus, and Epiphanius literally scrape together every possible charge against Origen, but never allude to his teaching of the larger hope as heretical.”3

This may come as a surprise, until we recall that in the fourth and fifth centuries the great disciple of Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa, was never censured for his universalist convic­tions. Nor was Diodore of Tarsus. I mention Diodore because he was the founder of the Antiochian school of biblical interpretation and an opponent of Origen’s allegorical exegesis. Not all confessors of final reconciliation were followers of Origen! Diodore was present with Gregory at the First Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381), chaired by the hopeful universalist St Gregory Nazianzen. Immediately following the council Gregory Nyssen and Diodore were appointed by Emperor Theodosius as guardians of the Nicene faith. Fifty years earlier at the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), Eusebius of Caesarea and Marcellus of Ancyra, both universal­ists, played important roles in the ecumenical denunciation of Arianism. Christians in the early centuries may have disagreed with each other regarding ever­lasting damnation; but at no point did this disagreement rise to the level requiring dogmatic definition or excommuni­ca­­tion. Universalist bishops gathered in local and general synods right alongside their infernalist brothers, and neither anathematized the other.

Nor should we think that the universalists were always in the minority. In the Shorter Rules of St Basil, for example, we find a passage that asserts that “many [hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn: most?] human beings, by disregarding such weighty and solemn words and declarations of the Lord, award to themselves an end of [eternal] punishment in order that they may sin with greater bravado” (SR 267). The statement suggests that in the fourth century the universalist position enjoyed significant popularity among the faithful in Asia Minor, having been taught by universalist theologians such as St Gregory Thaumatugus, St Pamphilius, Methodius of Olympus (a vocal critic of Origen), Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellus of Ancyra, Diodore of Tarsus, St Macrina the Younger, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Gregory the Theologian. The same was no doubt the case in the province of Alexandria, home of universalists such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Theognotus, Pierius, St Dionysius of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, St Anthony the Great (and perhaps even St Athanasius). Even as late as A.D. 420 St Augustine numbers the opponents of eternal perdition in the Latin West as “indeed very many [immo quam plurimi: vast majority?]” (Enchiridion XXIX.112). John Wesley Hanson summarizes the early Church’s tolerance—and in some quarters, we would need to say acceptance—of the greater hope:

The state of opinion on the subject of universal salvation is shown by the fact that through Ignatius, Irenaeus, 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.4

Now let the reader recapitulate: (i) Origen during his life-time was never opposed for his Universalism; (2) after his death Methodius, about A. D. 300, attacked his views of the resurrection, creation and pre-existence, but said not a word against his Universalism; (3) ten years later Pamphilus and Eusebius (A. D. 310) defended him against nine charges that had been brought against his views, but his Universalism was not among them; (4) in 330 Marcellus of Ancyra, a Universalist, opposed him for his views of the Trinity, and (5) Eustathius for his teachings concerning the Witch of Endor, but limited their arraignment to those items; (6) in 376 Epiphanius assailed his heresies, but he did not name Universalism as among them, and in 394 he condemned Origen’s doctrine of the salvation of the Devil, but not of all mankind; (7) in 399 and 401, his views of Christ’s death to save the Devil were attacked by Epiphanius, Jerome and Theophilus, and his advocacy of the subordination of Christ to God was condemned, but not his teachings of man’s universal salvation; and (8) it was not till 544 and again in 553 that his enemies formulated attacks on that doctrine. . . . With the exception of Augustine, the doctrine which had been constantly advocated, often by the most eminent, did not evoke a frown of opposition from any eminent scholar or saint. . . .

There is no evidence whatever to show that it was not entirely allowable for five hundred years after Christ, to entertain the belief in universal salva­tion. Besides, the Council of Nice, A. D. 325, had, as an active member, Eusebius, Origen’s apologist, a pronounced Universalist; the Council of Constantino­ple, A. D. 381, had as active members the two Gregories, Nazianzus and Nyssa, the latter as outspoken a Universalist as Origen himself. The Council of Ephesus, A. D. 431, declared that Gregory Nyssen’s writings were the great bulwark against heresy. The fact that the doctrine was and had been for centuries prevalent, if not the prevailing sentiment, demonstrates that it must have been regarded as a Christian doctrine by the members of these great councils, or they would have fulminated against it.5

Origen was a controversial figure. His teachings were often misunderstood and misrep­re­­sented, yet many who objected to Origen’s teachings honored him for his sanctity and faithfulness under persecution. Most importantly for our purposes, Origen was not the inventor of apokatastasis, nor was he criticized for his doctrine of restitution. The greater hope indwelt the Christian heart long before the Adamantine gave it systematic expres­sion. But all of this changed in the sixth century. Our story jumps to A.D. 543, almost 300 years after Origen’s death.

Justinian, Origen, and the 543 Synod

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 A.D. 543 Jus­tinian sent an edict (unfortunately not translated into En­glish) to St Menas, Patriarch of Constantinople, commanding him to convene the home synod (synodus endemousa) and con­demn the troublesome Alexandrian. He appended ex­tracts from Ori­gen’s On First Principles (several of which may be spurious) and nine anathemas. Justinian also sent the edict and anath­emas to Pope Vigilius and the patri­archs of Alex­andria, Anti­och, and Jerusalem—each acknowledging their compliance. No more is heard about the nine anath­e­mas until the 13th cen­tury. Nikephoros Kallistos Xantho­poulos 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!6 Historians now believe this identi­fi­ca­tion to be mistaken, but the fact that one or more of the sources 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.7

Because of Justinian’s edict, the above anathemas are read as condemning Origen (which was clearly the Emperor’s intent), yet Origen’s name is not mentioned in the anath­emas themselves. This in itself is suggestive or at least raises a question. Unfortunately the 543 synodical acts are nonextant, so we are left only with our conjectures. 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 (despite Justinian’s irresponsible attempt to locate the heresies in On First Principles) but only of the 6th century “Origenist Origen.” By this time Origenism (at least in some of its variants) had morphed into an exotic religious-metaphysical project Origen would have neither recognized nor approved. Regardless Justinian was determined to dis­credit the Adaman­tine. Most importantly, the nine anathemas do not possess dogmatic authority: they represent only the views of the emperor. 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.”8 An imperial doctrinal pro­nounce­ment does not possess infallible authority in the Church catholic. Emperors and kings cannot define dogma.

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. Perhaps the synodical bishops joined in that intention, though we have no record of their discussions. Perhaps the patriarchs agreed, but history has not documented anything more than their subscription to the edict. Let us ask the decisive clarifying question: Did either Justinian or the synodical bishops believe they were con­demn­ing the universalist views of St Gregory of Nyssa? Bring forth the evidence—there is none. Anathema 9 was prompt­ed not by the abstract question of eternal damna­tion nor by dispassionate scholarly study of the theology of Origen but by the exotic formulations of the restora­tion of souls to their original disembod­ied state then being advanced by troublesome monks in Palestine. Anathema 9, in other words, is intrinsically linked to the condemnation of the preexistence of souls in anathema 1, which in turn is grounded in the metaphysics of sixth-century Origenism.

Oxenham reminds us that this condemnation 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.”9 This should caution us about universal­izing its authority, scope, and application. Historical context constrains us. The doctrinal authority of anathema 9, moreover, is compromised by Justinian’s clear intent to impose ever­lasting damnation on Church and empire for the sake of social order, political and ecclesial unity, and the favor of God.10 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, Church dogmas, and the laws of the imperium. But social utility is not a theological argument. God’s self-revelation in Christ as absolute Love will always subvert imperial theology and challenge the violence and power structures of the state. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. For this reason alone, emperors should not dictate doctrine. When they succeed in doing so, the Church must be free to go back and reassess.

But why blame Origen for teachings he never taught? Surely Justinian and his imperial theologians must have recognized the difference between the beliefs of Origen and the heretical beliefs of Palestinian Origenism. It appears they did not. Panayiotis Tzamalikos is scathingly blunt in his assessment of the depth of ignorance regarding the authentic theology of Origen among the anti-Origenists:

Justinian had no idea of who Origen was, or what he had taught. His advisors, abbot Gelasius and his band, had only an oblique knowledge of Origen’s doctrine, namely, a no longer extant fifth-century book by Antipatrus of Bostra, which was studied by the anti-Origenists of the Great Laura. All possible and impossible interpolations and extrapolations were laid at the door of Origen, probably based on hearsay by monks of the era, who styled themselves ‘Origenists’.11

St Antipatrus (or Antipater) lived in the mid-fifth century and wrote a lengthy refutation of the Apology for Ori­gen by St Pamphilus of Caesarea. His book was highly regarded by the fifth and sixth century opponents of Origen. After Gelasius of Isauria became abbot of the Great Laura of Mar Saba monas­tery in A.D. 537, he ordered it to be read to the monks. The sup­port­ers of Origen were incensed by what they heard and engaged in vigorous, and apparently disruptive, disputation. They were expelled from Great Laura and relocated to New Laura, joining there Nonnus and Leontius of Byzan­tium. Tzamalikos des­cribes Antipatrus’s monograph as the “black book” upon which the anti-Origenists relied for their attacks upon Origen:

The treatise by Antipatrus of Bostra was the ‘black book’ used by the anti-Origenist band. For all his hostility, Cyril’s testimony allows for the assumption that the Origen­ist monks were outraged at the read­ing of that trea­tise, presumably because this was not only an inimi­cal account, but also an inaccurate and dis­tort­ing story instilling outra­geous interpolations in Origen’s theology. Nevertheless, the book was put to ample use, and in c. 540 it was read in the churches of the East as an antidote to the widespread Origenism.12

In the early 540s anti-Origenists read extracts from Antipatrus’s book to Patriarch Ephraem of Antioch. Ephraim immediately convened a synod and anathema­tized the doctrines of Origen. In response the Origenist party, including Nonnus, Domi­tian, and Theodore Ascidas, pressed Patriarch Peter of Jerusalem to remove Ephraim from the diptychs; but this intervention only succeeded in convincing Peter to ask Gelasius and Sophronius, abbot of the monastery of Theodosius, to compose a libellus against Origen, which he in turn signed. The libellus was eventually shared with Pelagius, leading to the 543 Edict of Justinian. “It seems, therefore,” Tzamalikos concludes,

that the source of the hearsay about this legendary ‘Origenism’ was the distortion contrived by Antipatrus of Bostra in the fifth century. This was the guide and companion of the anti-Origenists of the Great Laura in their polemics. Justinian did not mention Antipatrus at all. He was advised by the libellus composed by Gelasius, the head of the Great Laura and Sophronius the Armenian, the head of the monastery of Theodosius the Coenobiarch, at the request of Patriarch Peter, in 542. Whether Antipatrus of Bostra was the sole culprit and source of a caricature of Origenism prevailing during the sixth century is not easy to determine. It is anyway clear that, in the years that followed, this parody produced various fruits: it was all too easy for anyone to style anything ‘teaching of Origen’, drawing on obscure or hardly expected sources.13

Tzamalikos conjectures that Antipatrus’ refutation is the source for the spurious citations attached to Justinian’s letter to Menas. No matter. “Origen” has now become the whipping boy for the ills of the empire. Any stick may be picked up to pummel him:

The problem of what Origenism meant in the sixth century is a real one. ‘Origen’ was simply a cloudy catchword used in order to either authorise or besmirch active people of the sixth-century dangerous and volatile world of imperial and ecclesiastical politics the world of all those plots, which made up the complex tangle of personal, political, and ecclesiastical relationships of the times. This is a dark period of palace intrigue, of concocting forg­er­ies, of cooking up devious attributions to authors deemed compromising the imperial hegemony, of whisperings in corridors and shadowy deals.14

At all events, it was convenient to attack Origen. In the sixth-century setting hardly anyone was aware of his theology, whereas his name was a symbol used to either praise or stigmatize occasional enemies, rather than a well-perused corpus of writings. Attacking the name of Origen was an alternative for declaring oneself prepared to endorse whatever Justinian set forward as the legitimate Christian doctrine. In other words, an attack on Origen by name was tantamount to declaring one’s allegiance to the imperial orthodoxy.15

In the world of Justinian, “Origen” no longer denotes the historical Origen: it functions as a cipher, collectively naming those who disturb civil and ecclesial peace with their contro­ver­sial teachings.

The Fifth Ecumenical Council and the Anathema Conundrum

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.16

Various hypotheses have been advanced to ac­count for these anathemas. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, many historians, including the two Catholic colossi Karl Joseph Hefele and Ignaz von Döllinger and the eminent Protestant scholar Johann K. L. Gieseler, con­­tend­ed that they should be attached to the A.D. 543 Synod of Con­stan­tin­ople. Hefele was insistent that the fifteen anathemas should not be assigned to the Fifth Coun­cil. Not only are they not mentioned in the con­ciliar acts; but Popes Vigilius, Pelagius, and Gregory the Great do not men­tion them, even though they speak at some length on the decrees of the council. “It is by no means probable,” concludes Hefele, “that this Fifth Ecumeni­cal Coun­cil occupied itself with Origen in particu­lar, or pronounced against him the fifteen condemna­tions of which we are speak­ing.”17 In 1899 Franz Diekamp offered an alte­rna­tive hypoth­esis which has been embraced by most modern schol­ars and may now be considered the standard view.18 In the Spring of 553, in response to an em­bassy from Palestine, the Emperor Justinian and his theolog­ical advi­sors composed the fifteen anath­emas and ordered the patriarch, St Euty­chius, to present them to the bishops then present in Constan­tin­ople. This meeting would have taken place before the great synod for­­mally opened on May 5th. “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.”19 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.20 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.21

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.22 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.”23 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. The anathemas were as much political as theological. The emperor hoped to quell the civil unrest in Palestine and restore peace between the monastic communities. Failure to assent to the anathemas would most likely have been viewed by Justinian as treason. Confronted with the command of the emperor, when is assent free and genuine? The spectre of Caesaropapism haunts the proceedings.

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 made possible by those who held the key to the archives.24

As one of my seminary professors liked to say, “Interesting, if true.” McGuckin’s proposal has the merit of reconciling the presumably undoctored Latin version of the acts with the conviction among post-6th century Greeks that the Fifth Council issued detailed canons against Origenism.

Price has recently resurrected the proposal of the 18th century historians Pietro and Giro­lamo Ballerini that the anathemas were officially promulgated by Con­stantinople II but not included in the Latin translation of the acts because the contro­versy was of little interest to Pope Vigilius and the Western Churches.25 This seems a particularly weak conjecture, given that it was the papal legate who had urged Justinian to condemn Origenism back in A.D. 543. Did the Latins suddenly lose interest? But most decisively, the conjecture im­plausibly assumes that the translators would have omitted the fifteen anathemas on their own authority. Price himself acknowledges that the Latin translation was likely com­posed shortly after the publication of the Greek text. The translators had every reason to be produce an accurate and complete rendering of the acta; indeed, it was their solemn obligation to do so. So how is it that no one in the first millennium, either in the East or the West, ever noticed this important discrepancy between the Greek and Latin texts? The simple, most probable, and obvious answer: there was no discrepancy to be noticed! The Fifth Council never formally addressed Ori­genism nor promulgated any special canons against it. Including Origen’s name in its list of heretics (canon 11) was deemed sufficient. Hence there is no need to speculatively posit the incom­plete status of the Latin acta. Whether Price’s hypothesis will prove persuasive to other historians remains to be seen. My money’s on Diekamp.

But the absence 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? It was the Latin version that was read to the bishops of the A.D. 649 Lateran Syn­od.26 In the fourth session Pope Martin commanded that the decrees of the five ecumenical councils should be read in order. When the notary came to the decrees of Constantinople II, he read the fourteen canons related to the Three Chapters and no others. The fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas were not read—they are not part of the Latin acta. Pope and bishops, therefore, heard the condemna­tion of Origen in canon 11, but they did not hear—and therefore did not receive—the fifteen anathemas. If the Latin Church never received them, 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 for 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.27 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 the person of Theodore of Mopsuestia, 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.28

Green believes, as does Price, that the bolded sentence refer­ences the endemousa. 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 sen­tence is referring to the pre-synod, it cannot be construed as a conferral of dogmatic authority upon its 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 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 or at least acquiescence. Whether they whole­heartedly approved of them, whether they believed that they were con­demning all formulations of apokatastasis (including St Gregory of Nyssa’s), 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 approve a document, whether by voice acclamation or signature, you do so—unless you are prepared for deposition, imprison­ment, torture, exile. The house arrest of Vigilius would have served as a vivid example of the conse­quen­ces of disobeying the emperor. (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 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 approved the fifteen anathemas. 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.”29 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.”30 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.31

In other words, while Cyril is an important secondary witness to the events in Constantinople, he’s not an impartial one. He and his sources have 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 specifically condemned by the council. There is an important difference, as Oxenham comments, “between condemning a man in general, and condemning certain opinions in particu­lar.”32 Note also that Cyril says that the council denounced Didymus and Evagrius Ponticus 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. Intentionally or unintentionally, Cyril has conflated the imperial condem­na­tions ratified by the home synod (and perhaps even the condemnations of the 543 Synod of Constantinople) and the Fifth Council’s blanket condemnation of Origen in its 11th canon. Secondary sources cannot be taken at face value; they must be critically assessed and weighed for their accuracy.

Consider two more examples of the need to exercise critical assessment of the sources. Firstly, the decree of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681): as had become customary, the council fathers announced in the preface of the decree their acceptance of the previous ecumenical councils. After naming the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople I, Ephesus, and Chalecedon, they then named Constantinople II:

in addition to these, with the fifth holy synod, the latest of them, which was gathered here against Theodore of Mopsuestia, Origen, Didymus and Evagrius, and the writings of Theodoret against the twelve chapters of the renowned Cyril, and the letter said to have been written by Ibas to Mari the Persian.

The council fathers demonstrate their knowledge of the council’s condemnation of the Three Chapters. They also associate with the council a condemnation of Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius, yet we know (contra Cyril of Scythopolis) both that the Fifth Council was not convened to address the Origenist problem in Palestine and that it did not explicitly con­demn Didymus and Evagrius. Neither the Catholic nor Orthodox understanding of eccle­sial infallibility require us to affirm historical errors, even if published by an ecumenical council. And please note: no mention is made of apokatastasis. We may not infer from the above citation a dogmatic affirmation of eternal damnation: that question was not formally addressed by either the Fifth or Sixth Ecumenical Councils.

Secondly, 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.33

Either the good patriarch is reciting what he knows by hearsay or has read the wrong manuscript. If he had read the authentic acts of the council, he would have known that it 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 the synodical bishops did not formally comminate Evagrius and Didymus. 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.”34

The 6th century Byzantine historian Evagrius Scholasticus, writing four decades after Constantinople II, is the second witness always summoned into the box. Evagrius provides, so it is claimed, the strongest testimony for the traditional account that the fifteen anath­emas were promulgated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. He places the discussion of Origen and the Origenists within the council proceedings, coming after the discussion by the bishops of the propriety of pseudonymous condemnation and the ratification of the fourteen conciliar canons:

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. From all of these one can gather how Origen attempted to fill up the simplicity of apostolic doctrines with Hellenic and Manichaean tares. Accordingly a reply to Justinian was given by the Synod, after it had made acclamations against Origen and his companions in error. . . .

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.35

Evagrius records a discussion by the bishops of the Origenist heresies but of the fifteen anathemas he is silent. The fifth chapter that he quotes referring to Theodore Ascidas is not found in the famous fifteen.36 It is probable, therefore, that Evagrius is referring to a different document or collection of documents—quite likely the (nonextant) depositions passed on to Justinian by the Palestinian monastic delegation in 552 and in turn made available to the synod.37 But which synod? As noted by Michael Whitby, the translator of Evagrius’s Ecclesiastical History, Evagrius has confused the home synod and the general synod and has therefore mistakenly incorporated the proceedings of the former into the latter: “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.”38 Hombergen identifies several inaccuracies and errors 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.”39 Except for the obscure doctrine attributed to Theodore Ascidas, Evagrius does not provide any information about the teachings that the bishops may have dis­cussed; he does not mention apokatastasis or the question of ever­­lasting damnation. He does assert that Origen and his “companions in error” (presumably Didymus and Evagrius Ponticus) were condemned by the bishops by acclamation, but he does not specify their errors.40 And as far as the fifteen anathemas, perhaps Evagrius was acquainted with them, perhaps not. We can plausibly read them into the “between the lines” but less plausibly out of the lines.

We may 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 the specifics of Eutychius’ condemnation of Evagrius and Didymus, neither how nor 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.41

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! Victor’s testimony leads Hefele to speculate that Eutychius may in fact have been the origin of the false report that the Fifth Council condemned Didymus and Evagrius. We all know how news gets twisted through the retelling:

This points to the fact that the Patriarch Eutychius, after the holding of our Synod at which he presided, published an edict in his diocese, and therein made known the decrees of the fifth Council, at the same time pronounced anathema on Evagrius and Didymus, and also on Origen (perhaps renewed the decrees of the Synod under Mennas). If this was so, then Cyril [of Scy­tho­polis], living as a hermit in the remote Laura, might easily confound the edict of Eutychius following the fifth Synod with this, and so arrive at his conclu­sion respecting Origen.42

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. The descrip­tion leads one to suspect that at least one of his sources was acquainted with Justinian’s letter to the bishops 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 behoves Christ to be crucified also for the devils, and often to suffer in future ages for the spirits of wickedness who are in heavenly places.43

How is it that ancient scribes and historians could get things both so right and so wrong? Seventeenth century historians William Cave (Anglican) and Jean Garnier (Jesuit) con­jecture 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.”44 If we throw in the documents from the pre-synod, this might explain the confusions among so many (including Evagrius Scholasticus) 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.45 But as I look back at this sentence, I’m not sure if it’s accurate, given that the famous fifteen are, as far as I can discover, neither mentioned nor quoted during the first millennium, though one does find possible allusions to them. One might even 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.”

Apokatastasis and the Hermeneutics of Dogma

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 construal 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.46 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.47

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.48

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. “It is clear enough,” she writes, “that Origen was con­demned at the council mainly as a fig­ure who synopsized the sixth-century Isochristoi, who themselves were pre­dominantly following Evagrian themes and speculations”49 Casiday concurs, with an important caveat: just as there are significant differences between Origen and sixth-century Origenism, so there are important differ­ences between Evagrius and sixth-century Evagrian­ism.50 Neither Origen nor Evagrius should be tarred by the speculative excesses and innovations 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.51

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 his name in the coun­cil’s here­sio­log­ical list—much less that of the revered bishop of Nyssa, of 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.”52 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.'”53

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 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.54

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, Sergius Bulgakov, and David Bentley Hart. 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.55

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).

To condemn Origen “generally,” as the Fifth Council did in canon 11, is not to condemn him in all respects. The council named him a heretic, but which of his teachings did it have in mind? We do not know. We aren’t mind-readers. Ah, some say, they must have been thinking about the condemnation of Origen in the home synod a month or two earlier. Maybe, maybe not. But one does not establish irreformable dogma on the basis of maybes. The 5th Council did not officially make those anathemas its own. Moreover, if the council bishops were keen to condemn universal salvation, why then did they not condemn Theodore of Mopsuestia for teaching it? For these reasons, canon 11 is dogmatically useless to us today. It and the fifteen anathemas were politically important in the 6th century as a means to crush the Origenist movement in the Eastern Church; but they have little theological value today, since no one teaches what the sixth century Origenists apparently believed and taught—not even Origen taught what they taught!

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.56

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.57

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.”58 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.59

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 Synod of Trullo 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 suggests an acquaintance with the fifteen anathemas, though again we note the mistaken attribution of the threefold execration of “Origen, and Didymus, and Evagrius” to the Fifth Council. One might then maintain that when subsequent ecumenical councils confirmed II Constan­tin­ople as ecumenical, they implicitly confirmed the anathemas. So the Second Council of Nicaea: “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 either the 543 Synod of Constantinople or the Second Council of Constantinople 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 over a millennium.  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.60

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 must 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.

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?61

Amen. Amen. Amen.62

(Revised: 22 November 2022)


[1] Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, I:106.

[2] F. Nutombe Oxenham, What is the Truth as to Everlasting Punishment? (1882), p. 35. Though dated, this book is essential reading. The author discusses the principal first millennium sources for our knowledge of the Fifth Ecumenical Council with regards to its condemnation of Origen and its condemnation of apokatastasis. Herbert H. Jeaffreson, a contemporary of Oxenham, offers a similar judgment: “It is very uncertain whether the Fifth General Council condemned Origen at all; if it did, it is still more uncertain whether it condemned him for his doctrine of Restitution; if it condemned his doctrine of Restitution it does not follow that it condemned all hope of a final restoration of all men to obedience”  (Appendix to Our Catholic Inheritance in the Larger Hope (1888) by Alfred Gurney, p. 78. Also see F. W. Farrar discussion of the patristic period, Mercy and Judgment (1882), chaps. 9-12).

[3] Thomas Allin, Christ Triumphant (1905), p. 178. Allin was a learned scholar of the Church Fathers and a passionate confessor of the greater hope. I strongly commend this volume.

[4] John Wesley Hanson, Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years (1899), p. 150. As the title suggests, Hanson firmly believed that the larger hope was widely affirmed, and prayed, by Christians during the first five centuries of the Church. It was, as he states, “the prevailing doctrine.” This is a strong claim—perhaps too strong a claim. Even so, Universalism merits careful reading; but be sure to supplement, and correct, Hanson’s scholarship in light of the published works of Ilaria Ramelli (cited below).

[5] Ibid., pp. 289-290.

[6] Oxenham, p. 81. Following the lead of Nikephoros, more than a few pre-20th century historians (including E. B. Pusey) attributed the nine anathemas to Constantinople II, but recent scholarship supports their attribution to Justinian and the 543 Synod of Constantinople. See Price, II:271-272.

[7] 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.

[8] Richard Price, email message to Alvin Kimel, 9 September 2020. The great Church historian Karl Joseph von Hefele judiciously sidesteps the question of dogmatic authority of imperial pronouncements: “The question of ecclesiastical authority, as to whether the Emperor was entitled or not to issue an edict of this kind, belongs to another department. It seems to me that we have here before us one of those many and great, even if well-meant, Byzantine encroachments, which does not disappear even when we assume that the Emperor acted in agreement with Mennas and Pelagius” (History of the Councils of the Church, IV:240). In any case, Hefele confidently opines that the 543 synod did not formally approve Justinian’s nine anathemas but instead issued the fifteen anti-Origenist canons (IV:221-228).

[9] Oxenham, p. 117. It must also be observed that given that the synodical acts are not extant, we do not know with certainty that the bishops formally confirmed the nine anathemas, though it’s reasonable to assume they bowed to the wishes of the Emperor. I am unaware of any independent historical sources that document their confirmation—hence the willingness of so many pre-20th century historians to deny that they did.

[10] See extract from Justinian’s letter to Menas. Regarding Justinian’s understanding of the role of the emperor in promoting an Orthodox empire, see Price, I:8-41. Price comments: “The condemnation of Origen is evidence of an increasing narrowness of outlook, and is an indelible blot on the ecclesiastical policy of Justinian” (II:280). Cf. Istvan Perczel, “Clandestine Heresy and Politics in Sixth-Century Constantinople,” in New Themes, New Styles in the Eastern Mediterranean (2017): “In the years between 535 and 553, Justinian adopted a new conception of the orthodox Christian empire—apparently he tried to transform it to a land only inhabited by orthodox Christians and to eliminate all dissenting groups or religious formations from the folds of the empire” (p. 140).

[11] Panayiotis Tzamalikos, The Real Cassian Revisited: Monastic Life, Greek Paideia, and Origenism in the Sixth Century (2012), p. 259. The entirety of chap. 6 is necessary and illuminating reading. Also see Tzamalikos’s lengthy defense of the authentic views of Origen against the misconstruals of Origen by the 6th century anti-Origenists: Origen and Hellenism (2022). Tzamalikos conjectures that Justinian was not the true author of his 543 edict: “it was prepared for him by abbot Gelasius and the leaders of the Great Laura of Sabas, and the emperor just signed it, without even caring to change the distinctive colloquial language of it at some characteristic points” (p. 102).

[12] Tzamalikos, Real Cassian, p. 179.

[13] Ibid., p. 280.

[14] Ibid., p. 259. “Therefore, there is good reason to sustain that several tenets ascribed to Origen had nothing to do with the Alexandrian’s actual teaching. Whether consciously or not (as the case of Anastasius of Sinai shows), false attributions to Origen were the rule rather than the exception” (p. 283).

[15] Ibid., p. 299.

[16] Price, II:284-286.

[17] Quoted by Oxenham, p. 102; History of the Councils, §257. Johann Gieseler too was convinced that the 15 anathemas were to be attributed to the 543 Synod: “and from this σύνοδος ενδημούσα proceeded, without doubt, the fifteen canons against Origen.” A Textbook of Church History, trans. Samuel Davidson (1857), I:478, n. 10.

[18] Franz Diekamp, Die Origenistische Streitigkeiten In VI. Jh (1899)—alas, I do not read German. It should be noted that Jeaffreson appears to have anticipated Diekamp’s thesis by a decade. He hypothesizes that the 15 anathemas, which scholars of his time attributed either to the 543 synod or the 553 general council, were in fact promulgated by an undocumented home synod convened by Patriarch Eutychius in 552 or early 553 (pp. 73-76).

[19] Price, II:271-272.

[20] Daniel Hombergen, The Second Origenist Controversy, p. 307.

[21] Alois Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, II/2:403-404. For a reading of the Fifth Council that rejects the central theses presented in the present essay, see Georgi Maximov, “Will the Torments of Hades Have an End?” The Orthodox Word 56 (January-April 2020): 68-89. Maximov dismisses Diekamp’s proposal of a pre-synod:

Inasmuch as there is no analysis of the teaching of Origen in the acts of the Council that have been preserved, many modern researchers, following Diekamp, assume that the discussion of Origenism took place at the preliminary session of the Council, before its official opening. Basing themselves on this assumption, some have maintained that Origen was condemned, not by the Ecumenical Council, but by some private, “local” one. Such an opinion is expressed by [A. V.] Kartashev: “Actually, strictly formally, Origen was not condemned by the Ecumenical Council” [Vselenskie Sobory, p. 353]. This opinion is, to put it mildly, extravagant. (p. 76)

Maximov uncritically assumes that Evagrius Scholasticus’ account of the Fifth Council can be trusted in all respects. He goes so far as to claim that the council’s genuine anathemas against Origenism have been lost to history, despite the fact that the conciliar acta makes no mention of them. As far as the famous fifteen, Maximov tells us, their authorship and provenance are anybody’s guess: “Evagrius Scholasticus saw the decrees of the Fifth Ecumenical Council concerning Origen and quotes excerpts, and not one of them is contained in the document from the Vienna library” (pp. 78-79). The fifteen anathemas are thus left hanging without historical context. As noted above, many early historians assigned the fifteen to the 543 Synod of Constantinople. Since the publication of Diekamp’s Die origenistischen Streitigkeiten (1899), most historians have adopted his hypothesis that the fifteen were approved by an unrecorded 553 synodus endemousa. Some, like Price and Antoine Guillaumont, are still willing to entertain the possibility that they were approved by the bishops of the Fifth Council, despite the silence of the acts. To my knowledge, though, no respected scholar has suggested that the Fifth Council issued detailed but non-extant anti-Origenist anathemas.

Ironically, Maximov fails to see that his thesis of anathemas now lost to history in fact strengthens the case that apokatastasis was not condemned by Constantinople II, as will become clear in the course of the present essay. Contrary to the testimony of Evagrius (and contrary to the fantasies of Maximov), the council did not officially legislate dogmatic canons addressing the specific teachings of sixth-century Origenism. The acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council are historically determinative.

[22] Justinian’s cover letter may be found in Appendix I of Price’s book (II:282-284).

[23] Grillmeier, II/2:5-6, n. 1.

[24] John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity, p. 615.

[25] See Price’s 2017 lecture “East and West at the Ecumenical Councils.” Hefele dismisses the Ballerini hypothesis as arbitrary and lacking evidentiary support (Hefele, IV:296). Cf. Price’s earlier judgment:

There was once a protracted debate over whether the council of 553 issued a series of canons condemning Origenism. The acts contain no such canons and no discussion of Origenism and, since the numbering of the sessions is continuous and corresponds to that cited at the ecumenical council of 680–1, they appear to be complete. Moreover, the letter from Justinian that was read out at the opening of the council (Acts I. 7) makes no reference to the Origenist controversy; nor does the long summary of the work of the council read out at the beginning of the eighth session (Acts VIII. 4). (Acts, II:270)

[26] Oxenham, pp. 58-60, 91. Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius are also included in the Lateran Synod’s list of heretics (canon 18). As documented below, the mistaken claim that the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned Didymus and Evagrius can be traced back to the sixth century, despite the fact that neither are named in the authentic canons of the council. Nor does the inclusion of the three in the heresiological list tell us which of their teachings were judged heretical. What is the function of a heresiological list in a synodical decree?

[27] Ignatius Green, Introduction to St Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Discourse, p. 42.

[28] Price, I:338; emphasis mine.

[29] Cyril of Scythopolis, The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, pp. 207-208; emphasis mine.

[30] Hombergen, p. 293. Hombergen concludes: “I established beyond doubt that Cyril’s representation of the Second Origenist Controversy is seriously defective. Cyril is not a reliable historian who can be trusted uncritically” (p. 330). Price also questions Cyril’s reliability as a historian because of his misrepresentation of Leontius of Byzantium’s theological views (II:272-273).

[31] Hombergen, p. 301. On what the 6th century Origenists may actually have believed and taught, see Hombergen’s discussion in chap. 3.

[32] Oxenham, p. 46.

[33] The Seventh General Council, ed. John Mendham, p. 95. Oxenham comments on St Tarasius’s failure to mention the real work of the Constantinople II, namely, the condemnation of the Three Chapters, and asks:

Is it reasonable to suppose that if Tarasius had before him, or in his mind, the genuine acts of the Fifth Council, he would have wholly ignored the chief purpose and work of that Council, and would have recorded, as if it were the sole outcome of the Council, a condemnation, which (if it belonged to that Council at all) was admittedly a secondary matter, brought before the Council which had met for other business? Is it not much more reasonable to suppose that Tarasius had in mind the act of that Synod which was exclusively with Origen and his followers [viz., the 543 Synod of Constantinople], and that—having no special reason to inquire what was or was not done by the Fifth Council—he took these acts to belong to the Fifth Council, as others had done before, though in reality they were not the acts of that Council, but of another held a few years previously? (p. 68)

In its listing of the six preceding ecumenical councils, Nicaea II does not mention the Three Chapters and simply repeats Tarasius’s blunder.

[34] Oxenham, p. 38.

[35] Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. Michael Whitby, pp. 248-259.

[36] Hefele’s comment on Evagrius’ reference to Theodore Askidas is to the point:

This proposition is not to be found among the fifteen anathemas, there is not even anything that recalls it, which proves that this passage of Evagrius has no feature in common with any of the fifteen anathemas; besides, he does not allude in any way to this number fifteen. (Quoted by Oxenham, p. 103; History of the Councils, §257)

Hefele notes that the 17th century French scholar Henri Valois (Henricus Valesius) believed that Scholasticus “confounded the conclusions of the Synod of Constantinople held under Mennas (in 543, or else according to the opinion of Valois in 538), with those of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and we are inclined to think him in the right, as other ancient documents, for example, the acts of the Synod of Constantinople, which was held in 536, have equally through error, been attributed to the Fifth Ecumenical Council” (quoted by Oxenham, p. 103; History of the Councils, §257). Gieseler opines that both Cyril Scythopolis and Evagrius confounded the condemnation of Origen, attributed to the Fifth Council, with the 543 Synod convened by Menas (Church History, I:480, n. 23).

[37] “Evagrius treats the anti-Origenist libellus presented to Justinian by a group of Palestinian monks, a letter of Vigilius on the same subject, and a relatio which the synod made to Justinian, extracts from which are given by Evagrius (188,24 – 189,16). To these acta, says Evagrius (189,17-20), was appended a list of Origenist errors, suitably refuted. The fifth chapter contained the teaching of Theodore Ascidas. None of these documents appears in the acta of the council of 553; the proceedings belong, as Diekamp has shown, to a preliminary meeting of the oecumenical council.” Pauline Allen, Evagrius Scholasticus, the Church Historian, p. 204.

[38] Whitby, p. 248, n. 131. Early historians such as Cave, Valois, Garnerius, and Hefele suggested that in his study of the manuscripts, Scholasticus mistakenly confused documents from the 543 and 553 synods.

[39] Hombergen, p. 304, n. 236. Cf. Hefele, IV:221-225.

[40] Responding to Edward Pusey’s reference to Evagrius Scholasticus in support of the thesis that the Fifth Council condemned apokatastasis, Oxenham writes:

I will, however, add further that supposing all the conciliar proceedings, here related by Evagrius and quoted by Dr Pusey, did belong to the Fifth Council, even then this witness of Evagrius would be of little worth for Dr Pusey’s purpose. He says certainly that there were general “acclamations made against Origen and those who went astray like him.” He says that Didymus, Evagrius, and Theodorus were condemned as well as Origen. No doubt they were. That Origen was on several occasions condemned for many of his opinions, no one disputes: but Evagrius says nothing about Origen being here condemned for the opinion that future punishment will not be endless–he says nothing about such an opinion having been condemned or considered; and as to the “nine specific anathemas,” which Dr Pusey attributes to the Fifth Council, one of which condemns this opinion, Evagrius does not seem to have heard of them. He mentions the fourteen Canons, which undoubtedly are the genuine canons of this Council; but about these other “nine” he is entirely silent. (pp. 49-50)

[41] Oxenham, p. 54

[42] Hefele, IV:297.

[43] Quoted by Oxenham, p. 80.

[44] Oxenham, pp. 94-99.

[45] For a brief summary of the evidence, see Green, pp. 42-46; cf. Oxenham, pp. 44-84.

[46] Augustine Cassiday, email message to Alvin Kimel, 24 January 2015.

[47] Kallistos Ware, “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.”

[48] Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, p. 190.

[49] E. M. Harding, “Origenist Crises,” in The Westminster Handbook to Origen, p. 166. For an irenic Orthodox attempt to rehabilitate Origen, see Mario Baghos, “The Conflicting Portrayals of Origen in the Byzantine Tradition,” Phronema 30 (2015): 69-104; also Serafim Seppälä, “Anathematized Church Fathers,” RES 11 (1/2019), 10-28.

[50] Augustine Casiday, “Translation, Adaptations, and Controversies at St Sabas Monastery in the Sixth Century,” p. 11. Also see the Eastern Christian Books interview with Casiday.

[51] Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, pp. 724-726, 736-737; also see Ramelli, “Christian Soteriology and Christian Platonism,” Vigiliae Christianae 61 (2007): 313-356, and John R. Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology,” 54 Theological Studies (1993): 617-640. In the quoted passage Ramelli writes that “The so-called ‘condemnation of Origen’ by ‘the Church’ in the sixth century probably never occurred proper.” Here she echoes a long-standing view of many historians (but not Hefele and Price) that Origen’s name was interpolated into canon 11 shortly after the adjourn­ment of the Fifth Council. This question is still debated today, but the thesis of this essay does not hinge upon it. Lacking competence to even entertain an opinion, I have adopted Price’s position that Origen’s name properly belongs to canon 11.

[52] Ilaria Ramelli, A Larger Hope?, p. 171. In his introduction to Origen: On First Principles, John Behr confirms that Origen did not teach the preexistence of souls (I:lxiii-lxv, lxxx-lxxxviii). Panayiotis Tzamalikos debunks the accusation that Origen taught the prexistence and transmigration of souls in his recent book Guilty of Genius: Origen and the Theory of Transmigration (2022).

[53] Hanson, chap. 21.

[54] Price, II:282-284. For an ingenious reconstruction of what the Isochrists taught on apokatastasis, see Istvan Perczel, “Universal Salvation as an Antidote to Apocalyptic Expectations,” in Apocalypticism and Eschatology in Late Antiquity (2017), pp. 125-161.

[55] Oxenham, pp. 118-119.

[56] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 379-380.

[57] Bulgakov, p. 482; also see “Orthodoxy, Dogma, and the Neuralgic Question of Doctrinal Development” and “Dogma, Damnation, and the Eucatastrophe of the Jesus Story.”

[58] Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith (2002), p. 271. In Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church (2012), 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.

[59] Paul Evdokimov, Orthodoxy, p. 338.

[60] Avery Dulles, “Dogma as an Ecumenical Problem,” Theological Studies 29.3 (1968): 400; also see Francis Sullivan, Creative Fidelity (2003).

[61] Oxenham, pp. 119-120.

[62] 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. 😎

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32 Responses to Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?

  1. Tom says:

    Does “Apokatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” still exist or does this replace it?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It does indeed exist, Tom. But I’m not going to tell you where. That’s what the search function is for. 😛


      • Tom says:

        Asking me to venture out to the ‘Horizon of the Unknown’ (that so-called ‘Search Function’) is an unloving subjugation of me suffering and to conditions that stir up anxiety. If you’re a truly beneficent blogger, you would provide a pain-free, cost-free, blissful pathway to that other post! 😛


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Theosis is hard work, Dr Tom. If you can’t hack it, then get used to inescapable torment in the dark web–worms eating your eyeballs, fire consuming but never consuming your flesh, no delete button.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. joel in ga says:

    Puzzling indeed about Met. Alfeyev. He made St Isaac accessible to us all.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Becoming a high-ranking bishop changes a person …

      Liked by 2 people

      • Grant says:

        Worth remembering that St Isaac himself abdicated from the role of bishop due to administrative/political pressures and the conflict they presented to the spiritual life and living without compromise to the Gospel, the bishop’s mitre can be a poisoned chalice.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. MarysDowry says:

    Fr Aidan, what do you make of those who say that these anathemas were recieved at the 6th ecumenical council?

    Also, what do you make of the synodal letter of Sophronius, it seems to be rather explicit in its condemnation of universalists and Origen.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mary, it just so happens that I have saved St Sophronius’ Synodal Letter here on Eclectic Orthodoxy. Apparently my iPad won’t let me copy the relevant passage, but it’s easy enough to find, so do take a look. We must bring to bear the same critical stance as I have done with other testimonies to the Fifth Council. Did the person have access to accurate information about the Council, i.e., has he read the genuine decrees and acts of the council or spoken to someone who was present at the council and witnessed its discussions and decisions; or is he simply passing on second- and third-hand information? It’s as simple as that. So what does he tell us: he tells us that the Council first condemned Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius, and then condemned Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and the letter of Ibas. He at least gets the council right with regards to the Three Chapters controversy; but he gets the council wrong with regards to Didymus and Evagrius. They are mentioned neither in the acts of the council nor in the 15 anathemas. There is no historical record of their condemnation. Remember: Sophronius was not present at the council. He is not an eye-witness. We have no reason to believe that he actually read the _authentic_ acts of the council. Hence his testimony has little to no historical value. Like Evagrius Scholasticus before him, he appears to have conflated the home synod with the great synod. The fact that the 6th council received his Synodal Letter is not an authentication of its historical accuracy in every respect. It is simply an acknowledgement of his orthodox bona fides–nothing more! And let’s also remember: if the point of this exercise is to establish the dogmatic status of the 15 anathemas, those anathemas do NOT condemn the kind of biblical-patristic universalism, as represented by St Gregory of Nyssa, St Isaac the Syrian, Sergius Bulgakov, and David B. Hart. Hence it really doesn’t matter if those anathemas were passed by the Fifth Council or not. They are simply irrelevant for our present situation. Oxenham is very good about this. You can download his book from archive.org: https://archive.org/details/whatistruthasto00pusegoog.

      The same considerations apply to the 6th Council testimony about the 5th Council. What is the point of citing the five councils? To locate the present council within the stream of the conciliar tradition. “Hey, we are an orthodox council just like they are. We accept their decisions, etc.” So what does the 6th council tell us about the 5th council? Here again we see that the council fathers have mistakenly conflated the pre-synod with the actual synod. They say that Justinian gathered the council to condemn Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius; but we know this is mistaken. Justinian convened the council to address the Three Chapters–period. Justinian’s letters to the bishops are clear about that and is confirmed by the acts. The only way to get around this is to argue that we do not possess the complete acts, in which case we do not know, with any degree of certainty, what the Fifth Council did or did not do about Origen. At that point all we have are speculations. Remember: historians in the 19th century believed that the 15 anathemas were promulgated by the 443 Synod. Why think they were wrong? Again, Oxenham is helpful here, even though he is pre-Diekamp.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      To condemn Origen “generally” is not to condemn him in all respects. The Fifth Council named him a heretic. Okay, but which of his teachings did it have in mind? We don’t know. We aren’t mind-readers. Ahh, they must have been thinking about the condemnation of Origen in the home synod a month or so earlier. Maybe, maybe not. But one does not establish irreformable dogma on the basis of maybes. The 5th Council did not make officially make those anathemas its own. That’s why canon 11 of the Fifth Council is dogmatically useless to us today. The fifteen anathemas were politically important in the 6th century as a means to crush the Origenist movement in Palestine; but they have little theological value today, since no one teaches what the 6th century Origenists apparently believed and taught–not even Origen taught what they taught!

      So why are people working so desperately hard to find a way to say, “The question of universal salvation was decided by an ecumenical synod long ago.” Because of course they want to cut short the debate without having to consider the arguments. But they are grasping at conciliar straws. Bottomline: the Fifth Ecumenical Council did not advance a dogmatic definition on the eternality of hell or the reconciliation of all human beings in Jesus Christ at the end of time. It simply didn’t.


      • MarysDowry says:

        Thank you Father for your insights.

        As someone who is not intimately knowledgable of what is and isn’t binding on an Orthodox lay person, I was under the impression that the synodal letter held some kind of authority due to its acceptance. If you have the time would you be able to explain a little of how this works? (or point me towards some good resources)

        Its very difficult to maneuver within these conversations as there doesn’t seem to be an easily accessible way for someone like me to figure out what is and isn’t authoritatively binding.

        I’ve read your other blog posts on this topic and they’ve been very helpful at deciphering the folk-lore from the actual evidence. It saddens me that so much of supposed ‘holy tradition’ is so easily swayed by rumour and hearsay.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It just occurred to me that you may have in mind this passage from the acts of Nicaea II:

      Gregory: ‘If anyone does not confess the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment, and the worthy retribution to everyone for the purpose of recompense on account of the just consideration of God, and that there will neither be a limit of supplication nor a limit of the kingdom of heaven – that is, of the clarifying of God (for indeed the Kingdom of Heaven is not food and drink, but justice, peace, and delight in the Holy Spirit according to the divine apostle), let them be anathema.’

      Epiphanius: ‘This first part is of the true faith, namely of the holy apostles and of the esteemed fathers. This is the confession of the holy universal church and not of the heretics. But what follows is of their own, because it is full with indiscipline and inerudition, while they thus roar about.’

      Gregory is reading here from the definitions of the iconoclastic Synod of Hieria, which identified itself as the “7th Ecumenical Council.” Epiphanius’ job is to offer an orthodox opinion about each definition.

      The first point to be made is that this is merely a historical and descriptive report of the proceedings of the council. In response to the above-quoted definition, Epiphanius gives his opinion that it is orthodox. No doubt many or even perhaps all of the bishops would have agreed with him, but that is neither here nor there. There is no dogmatic definition here. The council is not addressing the question of everlasting damnation. That was not its purpose. It was summoned to address the issue of the veneration of icons. If are looking for a dogmatic definition, we must look to the councils’s decrees and canons.

      To treat Epiphanius’ approval of the definition as possessing dogmatic authority in fact proves too much. My guess is that you have heard from many Orthodox (and probably from your priest) that, unlike the Catholics, we do not believe and teach that God retributively punishes the damned. Rather, the damned bring their suffering upon themselves by rejecting God’s love in the eschatological moment when they are confronted and surrounded by the uncreated energies (the river of fire model of hell). If we treat the Hieria definition as stating binding Orthodox truth, then the now popular Orthodox view of hell is heretical. We can’t have it both ways.

      But as I said, there is no dogmatic definition here. What we learn from this exchange between Gregory and Epiphanius is that both iconoclasts and iconodules believed in everlasting retributive punishment. Is this view binding on us today? Absolutely not.

      As I mention in my article, Orthodox theology has hardly begun to seriously reflect on the criteria for binding dogmatic statements and how we should interpret them. Internet Orthodox often do not know what they are talking about. They pontificate about everything and end up with a doctrine of infallibility that is far more extensive and far-reaching than anything even the most traditional Catholic might dream of.


  4. John H says:

    Father Aidan:

    Thanks for the detailed analysis of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. I have one additional issue to raise. For an ecumenical council to be valid, isn’t it necessary for the free consent of each Patriarch to be obtained? We know that Vigilius’s “consent” was obtained via the sharp edge of Justinian’s sword. So does not such assent under duress in fact nullify the Acts of the entire Council? And if the Acts of the Fifth Council are doctrinal nullities, doesn’t that make any purported ratification of its “Acts” by subsequent Councils or Saints little more than the fruit of the poisonous tree??


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question, John. While Catholicism has a fairly standard view regarding view about what makes a particular synod ecumenical and what makes a dogmatic statement infallible, Orthodoxy really does not. As far as I can, there are several theories out there claiming to be the Orthodox view. Confirmation by the five patriarchs is one such theory.

      The question is raise about the freedom of the 5th Council is important. As you point out, Pope Vigilius was coerced into approving the decisions of the council. Heck, one might argue that all the bishops were coerced, to one degree or another. After all, the Emperor desperately wanted the condemnation of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and the letter of Ibas in order to bring the monophysites back into the fold and reunite the Empire. Given who Justinian had already proven himself to be–he was responsible for the killing of 30,000 Nika rioters–how likely was it that he was not going to get his way?

      Does that mean we need to put an asterisk next to “Constantinople II”? Heck if I know. But it does raise a question for us today. I’m certainly not going to say that it is not a genuine ecumenical council, yet it was the creature of Justinian in a major way. If U.S. Senators can’t stand up to President Trump, how likely was it that a bunch of bishops could stand up to Emperor Justinian? Most of us lack the courage of the martyrs and confessors.


  5. Jeremy Klein says:

    Father Aidan,

    I have lately become quite confused about whether I can consider myself a Christian or not. Last time I posted, I noted I was a Catholic who was very sympathetic to universalism. However, now, having considered it more, I don’t know if I can consider myself a Catholic in good standing. For, it is clear to me that Catholicism has always promoted an eternal Hell which all outside of the Church go to (i.e., Pope Eugene IV’s ex-cathedra statement about this). I have been told that I will go to Hell so many times by Catholics that I cannot, in all good charity, believe the faith compatible with universalism.

    Orthodoxy is certainly a better story than Catholicism in this regard, but something intellectually doesn’t make sense to me. Why would Christ allow for his Church to nearly unanimously teach such a sad doctrine as an eternal Hell for so long? I know that universalism isn’t a heresy, but this still bothers me quite significantly. I’ve thought of becoming Anglican, too, but I still don’t know for sure whether there are arguments for Christianity in particular over other religions that discuss the eternal reality behind our world. I’ve been looking a lot into Taoism lately, too. For, I believe that there must be a deeper reality than the material world, but I do not know for sure that it’s Christ anymore. By no means do I think that the Christ is some evil figure misleading the world. In fact, properly understood as you and St. Isaac convey the Christian faith, I love Christianity. However, I don’t know if I can believe it so strongly anymore. What do you think, Father?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jeremy, you raise a valid question: “Why would Christ allow for his Church to nearly unanimously teach such a sad doctrine as an eternal Hell for so long?” I don’t know. But why think that that 1500 years is very long. As far as we know, we stand right now in the early days of the Church. Every doctrine, and every heresy, has its season. It may well be that it has taken the Church this long to grasp the God’s love is truly unconditional (one can find plenty of citations in the Fathers that might suggest otherwise) and to think upon its implications for the doctrine of everlasting perdition. It may be that we were philosophically and theologically and spiritually incapable of correcting the traditional teaching of damnation until this moment. One can find plenty of 2nd and 3rd century Church Fathers who appear to have taught a subordinationist (and thus heretical) view of the Trinity. Is Jesus really divine as the Father is divine? Is he really ontologically equal with the Father? It wasn’t until the 4th century that the Church came to see that the apostolic confession of the Lordship of Jesus required a metaphysical revolution–and the homooousion was a revolution! We live inescapably in history. Doctrine develops, in fits and starts and often quite painfully.

      Do not give up on Christ and the gospel! Keep praying, my brother.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jeremy Klein says:

        It makes me a bit sad that I didn’t think of a response like this before. I was a staunch traditionalist for over a year, and the consensus being that it’s the end times has tainted my understanding of the world! I just assumed that this was the end of time. But, yes, it’s true that this could be towards the beginning of the Church’s lifespan. We simply don’t know yet.

        Yes, I completely agree that we need to reject the eternal nature of Hell. It’s simply incoherent with a good God and the sacrifice of Christ. Whenever I’ve talked to people about this from my community (more like on pretty conservative SSPX forums), they’ve told me things that are simply incoherent. The classical dogmas sound quite convincing when they’re stated- for example, our soul has an infinite aspect, God always gives us the sufficient graces and knowledge of him to avoid sin, an offense to God is infinite because he is infinite… but none of them really get to the core of the issue. If anyone understood God as the highest good, then they would never sin, for the goods of sin would always be lesser than God himself. They would therefore always will God, freely. The only way, logically, for a person to not will what is ontologically good is for them to be ignorant, deluded, or in some way severed from the ultimate good. But ignorance of even an infinite crime must sever the infiniteness of the crime because it lowers the level to which the person involved was culpable for the crime. It cannot be truly infinite because the person would not have done it without an external force blinding their sights. To say that the crime would be infinite still would be to say that a naturally psychotic man who is also a devout Christian has committed an infinite crime if he kills his mom as a result of hallucinations, but this is clearly false. (Sorry for ranting, Father, I’m new to this and feel like I need to keep repeating the arguments for universalism to prevent me from falling back into the cult-like traditionalism I used to practice. :P)

        It’s still possible, I think, that Hell is eternal and that all non-Catholics go there. But, if that’s the case, then I think that Karl Rahner’s idea of the Anonymous Christian is true to such an extent that no one will actually end up there. I don’t think it’s coherent to believe otherwise.

        One more question for now, Father: do you think that we’ll ever see a united Church again? I want the Eastern and Western churches to unite so terribly and declare universalism to be a dogma. It’s a fantasy in the highest regards, but it would simply be a beautiful thing. I would like to keep being Catholic- though definitely not the hyper-conservative kind I was before, a brand of Catholicism that honestly has my highest contempt- but I also love many of the Orthodox saints. I was listening to a video on St. Paisios today, and his story is simply so beautiful. Fittingly, he very much embodies the Tao with his simplicity and obedience. I love him, and will probably start to pray to him! Might even get myself an icon of him. 🙂

        If the Churches do unite, though, I think there may be some divine significance to the way it seems to be going. Rome certainly severed from the East pretty significantly before the schism, but it appears to also be them making the greater effort to unite since Vatican II, and having the greater number of progressive theologians with thinkers like Balthasar perhaps even reviving universalism in the 20th century. There’s some beautiful symmetry in that, and I pray that we can have an even better, unified Catholic Church soon. Pope Francis dropping the Vicar of Christ title is a great sign. God bless!


    • Grant says:

      I’ll add a few thoughts to your post Mr Klein, the first and most immediate is that anyone telling you you are going to Hell are talking nonsense and being idiots, so pity them, pray for them, forgive them their foolish and misguided zeal, and otherwise pay them no mind. It really doesn’t matter how many tell you something is definitely so, it doesn’t make it true, St Maximus said as much if asked I think if even the pope of Rome assented to the heresy he was facing, he responded that then he alone would be the Church. Basically, even if a majority in the Church, or lets just restrict it to Catholicism, or even within that, Roman Catholicism, either now or through most of that tradition favoured a view and operated within an interpretive matrix in which universal salvation is assumed as heretical doesn’t make it so, or make those counter views and lights you find, even in the Latin tradition heretical views on the subject or wrong.

      I would say when either Orthodox or Catholic, or the Oriental Churches, you cannot be bound to the letter of what a particular person or persons said at particular time and place, say a council or a pope’s statement on a matter. After-all just as Scripture is not the ancient writings on their own, but rather how that is read by and in the Church, in the inspired encounter of reader(s) in their reading within the Eucharistic Life and Tradition of the Church that makes it Scripture, as it becomes a continuing, unfolding and dynamic and inexhaustible revelation of Christ through the inspired readings (which are themselves not closed, but are always alive by the Spirit to engaged and inspire anew) even more so to me councils and other pronouncements. For it is not the councils and such themselves that are infallible (assuming that such has that weight given to it), it is the theological truth, the revelation of Christ that is, the events and persons are that place in time when a particular truth is reflected from, but it is not a closed-off fossilized period, with the truth being a rule written on stone to just be accepted as it was said with nothing more to say or reveal. Instead, their are a nexus in dialogue and reception continually within the Church, in which what is being revealed is to be engaged and understood anew, with ever more insights to be revealed. And while due weight and respect must be given to the understanding and thought of those speaking and involved in the event, their cannot I believe be final and binding, otherwise we end up an a extended version of biblical fundamentalism (in this case a conciliar and papal fundamentalism).

      For example I tend to view historically none of the Gospels would directly speak of final punishment in the ‘hell’ passages but most directly refer to Jerusalem’s coming destruction, but that doesn’t make readings that came soon that sees and interprets them referring to final judgement as primarily invalid. The Church seeing a further implication from these in their readings might perceive further depths then truth then their initial authors would perceive, even if I would rather some readings would be disregarded 🙂 , the Gospels as Scripture are far more than the authors intended, and even their own theological biases and assumptions and so on, are not binding on the truth they reveal.

      So this is even more so with councils and the like, the Holy Spirit does not override assumptions, biases and views and sociopolitical and cultural-ideological frameworks and matrix that people operated and saw and understood things in (the Father has already mentioned subordinatism as an example above, or for that matter the place of images, or the Theotokos and so on and so on). They as we, see through a glass darkly, and they are seeing something true, even Dogmatically binding, yet they are seeing it through their own finite, fallen and limited understanding, inspired yes but through the lenses they have, bound by all the assumptions and philosophical and theological understanding, constraints and baggage they bring (so say they operate within a Augustinian and post Justinian framework in which universal salvation is already assumed to be false, they would be saying this reflected truth through that perception of reality), that is through a glass darkly as St Paul says.

      And thus we must engage creatively and anew with the truth these events reflect, to interpret anew within the life of the Church, and sometimes if we have just reason that in a new or different context or from our standpoint to depart from the interpretative understanding of those from who we are seeing this truth reflected from, we have reason to do so. This could be because we might be operating in a very different cultural and philosophical culture that means that truth needs to be re-interpreted into the different system and understanding, even if this seems at odds with how that truth was first expressed so that it’s real truth can still be understood and perhaps understood even more deeply. Or it can be because something else, more fundamental truth either in what is being revealed and/or the more fundamental truths Christians confess that are non-nonnegotiable no matter what cultural-philosophical context they are expressed in gives cause to question and those earlier assumptions and re-interpret what is revealed due to this (again see the rejection of subordination and the re-interpretation of what was said accordingly). And in this case I would say the points raised in That All Shall Be Saved are just such a justification, and we have seen in this blog a few Catholics responding in this manner, for example Justin Coyle but a number of others, and of course many from Eastern and Oriental Orthodox and other Oriental traditions as well as Anglicans and various Protestants.

      To be bound just to the letter as I said is to become just extended versions of biblical fundamentalists.

      As for why God allows such errors to remain, will we are all in error, even when we see something right we only know in part and will be to some extent incomplete or in error, and we will have much we are all wring about, but if we Christians are right about Christ, death is defeated and therefore there is not some closed of point for us to have to get all our ducks into a row before the final curtain falls, that curtain has been cut, and both we, and those who loved centuries and millennia ago are ever being drawn into fuller understanding of the Truth, as are all people. The freedom in our world has allowed and allows us to reach and grasp towards that truth and love, stumbling and faltering, even as He supports us, but gives us space to do so, and so there are so many different belief systems and ideologies in which Christianity has ever, even today, been in the minority not the majority, while it is the largest religious belief system, most people in the world aren’t Christians. But God doesn’t straight override our perceptions like that all at once, but is drawing us into Him as we can understanding and lovingly bringing us to live more and more in His Truth which is our and all truth, and in His salvation. He works within to as gently as possible remove us from our illusions and chains, rather than immediately rush the burning light of clarity upon us, only rarely does that fall now as it did with St Paul, though in time to save us from destruction that light and clarity will increasingly come throughout our existence to bring us into joy and freedom. But as a result we shouldn’t be worried or dismayed at Christians misunderstanding truths down through the centuries, or our own or our fellow Christian’s misunderstandings or mistakes, the disciples Christ choice didn’t often understand, and this continued post Resurrection and Pentecost and so it ever continues until the age to come, when we will know Him as He is, and see clearly and not through a window darkly.

      In the end, don’t be to concerned with the views of your fellow parishioners on this point, most will probably in any Christian community that is more ‘orthodox’ leaning be mostly against universal salvation at this time, but rather be rooted in the hopefully loving and Christ-directed communion and in the Eucharist (though if the environment is more broadly toxic as sometimes happens you might need to leave for your own well-being, particularly if people are telling you you are going to hell, that doesn’t sound like a healthy place to be spiritually or mentally).

      But ultimately, you must follow what your conscious and reason tell you, and follow the Truth as you understand it, you cannot go wrong following the Truth, as you remain faithful to that and to love it will lead you home. And don’t worry or fear about what people say about things, they don’t judge you ultimately, trust in God’s love and mercy which triumphs over such judgment and any errors, now and forever.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Mark Chenoweth says:

    Thank you Fr. Aidan great little update that every Orthodox or Catholic should read and reread.

    I think it’s very telling that we don’t find ANYTHING like anathema 9 of 543 in the alleged 553 condemnations. I think this is VERY strong evidence that the council explicitly avoided addressing the eternity of hell. Certainly Justinian wanted this anathema! But it’s nowhere to be found. I can imagine some bishops saying, “but how can we condemn the temporality of hell when Gregory if Nyssa, and many other Fathers did not believe hell was eternal?” The anathema was probably on the table and rejected.

    As far as the belief that the 553 anathemas shouldn’t be attributed to the 5th ec. Council, I’d need to read more on this to come to any firm conclusion. In my blog on Maximus, Jordan Daniel Wood said he thinks they WERE promulgated by the council:

    “All to say just this: Maximus is very keen to avoid the pitfalls of Neo-Evagrianism (condemned at Constantinople II–as Guillaumont’s work still proves, in my view) even as he retains and radicalizes other so-called “Origenist” intuitions. So his understanding of “analogy” and “identity” and even the “body of Christ” very much responds to all this.“

    Similarly, the genius polyglot Istvan Perczel thinks he has an airtight argument that it was condemned in one of the sessions of the ecumenical council.

    Unfortunately, that’s all I can say at the moment, since I’ve only seen Perczel’s REFERENCES to his argument, and not the argument itself. https://ceu.academia.edu/Istv%C3%A1nPerczel
    (As a sidenote, everything Perczel writes on Origenism AFTER 553 is gold.)

    That being said, pretty sure all these scholars, especially Perzel and obviously Wood, agree that Nyssen’s universalism was NOT condemned in the 553 anathemas.

    As one criticism, I do think the argument that a council shouldn’t be given weight because there was political pressure behind it runs the risk of deligimizing almost every ecumenical council, but I’d like to see more on what you or others have to say about this. I know that Catholics use a similar argument regarding some of the past Popes’ doctrinal errors, i.e. that that they did so under pressure, and so the infallibility of the Pope is not in jeopardy. Interesting.

    The fact that there WAS political pressure to condemn universalism by Justinian and it DIDN’T happen seems to be more evidence that the council SHOULD be given some weight.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Alas my linguistic limitations! All scholarly works that have not been translated into English are unavailable to me. I’ll have to rely on you, Mark, to do that research for me. Needless to say, historians have been discussing the question of what Constantinople II did and did not do for 3 centuries. There’s a lot to read! Good luck. 😉

      The bottomline, though, is that the Latin translation of the Acts does not record the adoption of the 15 anathemas. So the only way to attach them to the council is to argue that the account of their adoption was omitted (for whatever reasons). As far as I know, the 15 anathemas were unknown in the Latin Church until the 17th century! It’s a very interesting historical puzzle and probably unsolvable unless someone discovers the Greek version of the council acts.

      The burden of evidence, I think, really lies with those who claim that the 15 anathemas were promulgated by the Fifth Council. And since we are talking about dogma and the binding of the Orthodox conscience, the bar of historical probability should be set very high. If I were going to defend the traditional position, I would forget about the Fifth Ecumenical Council and simply go with an Orthodox version of the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I fully understand the dangers involved in playing the imperial card, but I do not know how to avoid those dangers, other than by pretending that imperial coercion was never a factor. I think we have to take it one case at a time.


  7. Mark Chenoweth says:

    “Istvan Perczel thinks he has an airtight argument that it was condemned in one of the sessions of the ecumenical council.”
    Sorry, by “it,” I mean tthat he thinks the fifteen anathemas were promulgated BY the council, not that Nyssen’s universalism was condemned.


  8. Coming from a Protestant perspective, I do very much appreciate the efforts to place the pronouncements (and alleged pronouncements) of the councils in their historical context. I am also sympathetic to the effort to locate authoritative dogma. However, I also find the necessity for modern Orthodox and Catholic universalists (along with those who rightly seek to reassess and rehabilitate Origen) to be somewhat baffling. Protestantism, for all of its eccentricities and blatant errors, has made two vital contributions to the history of Christian dogma – councils can err and doctrine can be reformed.

    Now, I realize this is a more complex problem for Orthodox and Catholic Christians who wish to remain faithful to their tradition and who wish to honor, in general, the authority of the Church that grants some stability to what Christians are obliged to believe. However, at what point can we simply say that an Ecumenical Council erred in some matters while the most important substance of their pronouncements were correct? The de facto practice and self-understanding of all but the most staunch traditionalists already intimates a break with certain elements of the past and a willingness to reassess dogma in light of further reflection.

    What seems obvious to me might well be outrageous to others – the machinations of Justinian made messes that continue to this day and have made the question of authority all the more tangled. Church Authority, after all, inasmuch as it obliges us to confess the indefensible places erstwhile rational Christians into a state of hermeneutical gymnastics to either defend these dogmas or to remove themselves from their weight by reinterpretation. We are no longer a Church welded to the imperatives of empire, that simply isn’t how authority is practiced in any Christian communion in our day? But, because the likelihood of another ecumenical council that might reunite the fragmented Church under a common confession seems to be far off, perhaps this is where the Protestant witness continues to be vital to the Church; namely the witness of dissent or the ability to dissent.


  9. Mark Chenoweth says:

    I’m not sure your understanding of the authority of an ecumenical council is totally at odds with an Orthodox understanding. For example, Fr John Erickson, a very well-known canon lawyer in the Orthodox Church writes that infallibility does not mean that “councils and council Fathers cannot be mistaken concerning matters of fact or inconsistent in their terminology.” Fr John H. Erickson, “Anathema: An Obstacle to Reunion?,” in The Dialogue Between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Ed. Christine Chaillot (Volos, Volos Academy Publications, 2016), 201.

    A matter of fact (if Origenism was NOT condemned at the fifth council) would be the quinisext and seventh council’s condemnation of Origenism. There was no discussion of Origenism, it was just stating what it assumed was an historical fact: that Origenism was already condemned in the fifth council. Essentially, they were saying, “we say whatever they said.” No theological discussion here.

    However, and this is where I think Orthodoxy differs from extreme Protestantism, is that, as you say, we must accept the substance or essence of what the councils were trying to argue. Therefore, William Lane Craig’s statement that the Church erred when it condemned monothelitism is accusing the Church of being wrong in the essence of what it said, not just mistaken in matters of historical fact or inconsistent in its terminology. There isn’t any Orthodox I know that could agree with Craig, and this is one of the reasons I eventually converted to Orthodoxy.

    No earnest Christian wants to be considered a heretic. But we Protestants recognize Scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith (the Reformation principle of sola scriptura). Therefore, we bring even the statements of Ecumenical Councils before the bar of Scripture. While one disagrees with the promulgations of an Ecumenical Council only with great hesitancy, nonetheless, since we do not regard these as invested with divine authority, we are open to the possibility that they have erred in places. It seems to me that in condemning Monotheletism as incompatible with Christian belief the Church did overstep its bounds.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mark, if you have a pdf of the Erickson article, please send it to me. TIA.


    • Mark,

      Thanks for the helpful comment. My background is in the Magisterial Reformation tradition (Presbyterian, Lord have mercy!), so the anti-creedal impulse in much of contemporary Protestantism is highly troublesome to me as well.

      It is of some comfort as you (and Fr. Al) have argued, that there is essentially no uninterpreted creed or council. The development and reform of doctrine would be all but impossible otherwise. I realize that maintaining that councils can err can crack open Pandora’s box, it certainly has among Protestants who progressively have abandoned anything closely resembling the Christianity of the Fathers (and the living tradition that flows from them). However, I don’t think this instinct is totally without merit. The expectation of infallibility (however construed) places a huge burden on a tradition to ensconce the past in such a way that it makes future reforms difficult. The great modern exception being Vatican II.

      Perhaps there is room for an ecumenical effort to capture and distill the substance of the Ecumenical Councils in such a way that opens the door for further Christian unity. However, given the polarization in Christianity today I am not sure if that time is near. The question of apokatastasis might, as some have speculated, mark a further parting of the ways. But what the future shifts might be is impossible to say.

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  11. Jeff says:

    Price goes over some of these historical questions in volume 2 , starting page 270…,
    Acts of the council


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jeff, is there something in Price that I overlooked or should have discussed in the article?


      • Jeff says:

        Price writes “There was once a protracted debate over whether the council of 553 issued a series of canons condemning Origenism.1 The acts contain no such canons and no discussion of Origenism and, since the numbering of the sessions is continuous and corresponds to that cited at the ecumenical council of 680–1,2 they appear to be complete. Moreover, the letter from Justinian that was read out at the opening of the council (Acts I. 7) makes no reference to the Origenist controversy; nor does the long summary of the work of the council read out at the beginning of the eighth session (Acts VIII. 4).

        , then proceeds to the historical evidence of reviews of the synod and depositions , etc., …, it’s a few pages, with notes to follow up ….,, I think you wrote a similar article years ago , but might of missed some of Price’s points

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