Revisiting (yet again!) the Fifth Ecumenical Council

I have spent the past five days revising my article “Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?” I originally wrote the article six years ago and have returned to it from time to time to revise, expand, and correct it in light of new reading on my part. I think I have devoured almost all the scholarship available in English on this topic. I say almost because I’m sure there is some journal article out there which I haven’t discovered yet. Unfortunately, my linguistic incompetence prevents me from reading important material written in other languages, both ancient and modern. This is one reason I have not sought to publish my article in an academic journal. I am very much aware of my scholarly limitations. And now that the piece is published online, no academic journal will touch it.

I am more persuaded than ever that the Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553) did not formally, officially, properly, explicitly address the twin questions of apokatastasis and the everlastingness of eschatological punish­ment. It wasn’t on the agenda; the synod had other fish to fry. Why is this important? Because when it comes to doctrinal claims allegedly based on the decisions of ecumenical councils, the conciliar decrees must enjoy dogmatic priority. We need to know exactly what the dogmatic definition says and does not say. Only then can we discuss its proper interpretation.

And this is where matters become difficult. For a millennium and a half Christians have believed and taught that apokatastasis was definitively repudiated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, yet the determinative primary source—namely, the acts (minutes) of the council—do not mention any discussion by the council fathers fathers on apokatastasis and damna­tion, nor do they cite any decrees on the question. One would think that would settle the matter, but for various reasons it has not.

History has also presented us with a set of anathemas, fifteen in number, that condemn teachings that can only be described as exotic. These teachings appear to have been taught by the sixth-century followers of Origen and Evagrius Ponticus. Contemporary historians believe the anathemas to be connected in some way to the Fifth Council—yet it needs to be noted that modern historians have not always believed this. Prior to the 20th century, many attributed them to the 543 Synod of Constantinople! (I bet no one told you that in catechism class.) In other words, because of the limitations and ambiguities of our primary and secon­dary sources, we are inescapably stuck with the fallible hypotheses, speculations, and judg­ments of historians. Who knows what they will opine in another century.

As you read (or reread) my essay, keep this one fact in mind: the acts of Constantinople II do not record any decrees addressing apokatastasis and the finality of damnation. That should keep you grounded in reality.

Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?

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2 Responses to Revisiting (yet again!) the Fifth Ecumenical Council

  1. In my opinion, I think you should add that Fr Andrew Louth has told you that the synodicon only holds as much as authority as the council that it quotes, and that other than the 7th council’s declarations, all the other anathemas await further ecumenical approval or revision. Hearing that was very helpful for me. So even if the condemnations DO touch on universalism, they are not absolutely binding on the conscience of an Orthodox Christian.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Unfortunately, the email in which Fr Andrew addressed the authority of the Synodikon was lost in a hard drive crash many years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

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