Part I - Early Origenist Controversies
Part II - Controversy between St. Jerome and Rufinus (400-402)
Part III - Origenism of the Sixth Century
Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254), the most eminent theologian of the early Christian era, has left a mixed legacy in the orthodox Christian world. On one hand, he is arguably the most highly accomplished apologist and exegete of the pre-Nicene era, whom Didymus the Blind fittingly called "the second teacher of the Church after the Apostles." Origen almost singlehandedly inaugurated the project of Christian philosophy, establishing his renowned school at Caesarea, and composing thousands of works that expounded and defended the faith. He laid the foundation of Christian apologetics in Contra Celsum, and his extensive Biblical commentaries were the first to compare Greek and Hebrew textual variants, while his allegorical method of interpretation resolved many exegetical difficulties. On the other hand, the person and works of Origen have fallen under grave ecclesiastical censure on several important occasions. In his own lifetime, he was expelled from the Alexandrian church, and 150 years after his death, several of his theological opinions were condemned as heretical by the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. Finally, in the sixth century he was condemned as a heretic by a synod of Greek bishops, with this sentence later ratified by the Pope and an ecumenical council. From that point onward, the entire Church, East and West, regarded Origen as condemned, though his influence on Christian scholarship persisted even among those who denounced him.
It is undoubtedly tragic that a man to whom Christendom owes so much should end with such an inglorious reputation in the ancient churches. In response to this apparent injustice, many Christians in recent centuries have sought to rehabilitate Origen or argue that he was never duly anathematized by the Catholic Church. This sentiment is understandable, considering the Alexandrian doctor's many merits, yet the facts compel us to admit that this would-be father of the Church truly was led astray from the bosom of ecclesiastical tradition on several important points into heterodox theological speculations, and that he was duly anathematized by the Church. Enemies of orthodox Christianity, seeking to undermine the Catholic faith or legitimize their own errors, have argued that Origen's condemned teachings represent true apostolic tradition. However, an honest examination of the facts, including Origen's own words, leads inexorably to the conclusion that his dubious doctrines were of his own invention, not what he had received from his teachers.
We will examine the change in fortune of Origen's reputation from the third century through the sixth, at first examining Origen's thought as perceived by those involved in controversies over his doctrines. We will identify the heresies held by so-called Origenists in the late fourth century, and see how the association of the name of Origen with Platonist heterodoxy brought in the highest ecclesiastical authorities to condemn the Alexandrian doctor in his person and in his works. We will closely examine the nature of this anathema and its motivation, and examine in depth the role St. Jerome played in the early Origenist controversies. Later, we will examine the fifteen anathemas against Origen issued by a synod of Greek bishops in 543, a judgment that was confirmed by the Pope and the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Finally, we will study the extent to which Origen himself is likely to have held the heterodox opinions known as Origenism, and whether his views were reflective of a broader patristic tradition in his time. In particular, we will scrutinize the doctrines of the pre-existence of the soul and of apokatastasis, the "restoration of all things," which admits a range of interpretation from orthodoxy to the error of universal salvation.
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1.1 Early Reputation of Origen
1.2 First Origenist Controversy (393-397)
1.3 Second Origenist Controversy (398-401)
1.3.1 St. Jerome's Letter to St. Pammachius and Oceanus (400)
1.3.2 Rufinus' Apology to the Pope (400)
1.3.3 Pope St. Anastasius' Letter to John of Jerusalem (401)
During his life, Origen was highly esteemed among eastern Christians as a bulwark against heresy, while his apologetic and exegetical works were widely acclaimed. This reputation for orthodoxy was for the most part well deserved, as the vast majority of Origen's teachings were indeed faithful to apostolic tradition, but among his two thousand works, there were several excursions into a more speculative theology. Most notable in this regard was the treatise Peri Archon ("On First Principles," or De Principiis in Latin), which on its face was plainly incompatible with the apostolic faith. The doctrine of this speculative work would posthumously undermine the reputation Origen had attained during his life. Origen was no stranger to controversy, having been banished and defrocked by the Church of Alexandria in 231, yet this was not for heresy, of which he was never formally accused in his lifetime.
Scarcely a half century after his death, Origen's successors at Caesarea found themselves defending their founder against the accusation of heterodoxy, by insisting that his speculative theology could be interpreted allegorically in a manner consistent with orthodox faith. The illustrious ecclesiastical historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340) completed the first such defense, his Apology for Origen in six books, shortly after the last years of Roman persecution. Eusebius claimed that the first five books were written during the persecution (303-312) with the help of St. Pamphilus the martyr (d. 309) while he was imprisoned. This claim of dual authorship is questionable, considering that St. Pamphilus had never written anything before in his life, having been content merely to transcribe and correct manuscripts when he headed the library at Caesarea which he founded. It is quite possible that Eusebius exaggerated the influence of Pamphilus in writing the Apology, as a tribute to his recently martyred mentor, or to add authority to the work.
Throughout most of the fourth century, Origen's speculative theology was generally neglected outside of Palestine, or else it was interpreted generously, to preserve the Alexandrian doctor's orthodoxy. The renown of Origen was such that even the scrupulously orthodox St. Athanasius allowed that the great doctor should be granted every benefit of the doubt when interpreting his seemingly heterodox writings. Origen could be excused as merely speculating erroneously without pretending to assert doctrine, at a time when the relevant doctrines had not yet been clearly defined. Alternatively, his doubtful teachings could be construed as expressing correct doctrine in ambiguous language that ought to be interpreted allegorically. Thus the reputation of Origen was preserved by Christian doctors, without accepting any heretical propositions.
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This comfortable resolution would be challenged at the end of the fourth century by St. Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, who identified clearly heretical doctrines in Origen's writings, and demanded that his supporters unambiguously renounce these doctrines. This confrontational posture would force defenders of Origen and their opponents to face squarely the question of exactly what Origen taught and what his followers believed regarding speculative theology. The bishops of Rome and Alexandria would be called upon to resolve the dispute, so for the first time the magisterium of the Church would pronounce on the orthodoxy of so-called Origenism.
The Origenist controversy began in the monasteries of Palestine, where Origen's work was interpreted in a radically Platonic sense, exalting the incorporeal while disparaging the flesh, and veering off into manifest heresy on several points, particularly regarding the Incarnation and Resurrection. In reaction to this denial of God Incarnate, other monks adopted an equally heretical notion called Anthropomorphism, ascribing a human form to God as God. St. Epiphanius, himself formerly a monk of Palestine, continued to claim pastoral responsibility for these monasteries, which were inhabited by foreigners, including the illustrious St. Jerome, who would eventually play a critical role in the controversy.
St. Jerome did not seek disputes, but in fact he had left Rome for Bethlehem so he could work in peace, far removed from ecclesiastical politics. After years of tranquility, his scholarly activity was rudely interrupted by the Origenist controversy, to which he was first exposed in early 393, when the monk Aterbius of Sceta accused Jerome and his friend Rufinus of Origenism. St. Jerome had in fact translated into Latin several exegetical works of Origen, who was poorly known in the West, but naturally he did not assent to any of Origen's overtly heretical speculative theology. He did not hesitate to denounce Origen, while Rufinus, by contrast, refused to comply, holding the customary position that Origen, generously interpreted, was orthodox.
The controversy escalated in September 393, when St. Epiphanius of Salamis was invited by John, bishop of Jerusalem, to give a sermon in the Church of the Anastasis (Resurrection). St. Epiphanius used the opportunity to anathematize Origen and those of his followers who held his heretical doctrines, which we will enumerate shortly. In his own sermon a few days later, John declined to directly address the question of Origenism, maintaining the ambiguous stance that was common to admirers of Origen at the time. Instead, he made a thinly-veiled attack on Epiphanius while denouncing the contrary heresy of Anthropomorphism. Epiphanius then left Jerusalem, evidently dissatisfied with John's refusal to condemn Origenism, and possibly incensed at being obliquely accused of Anthropomorphism.
The following year, St. Epiphanius ordained St. Jerome's brother and fellow monk Paulinian to the diaconate and the presbyterate at Bethlehem, despite the candidate's vehement protestations of his unworthiness. John of Jerusalem professed outrage at this act, which violated his canonical jurisdiction, and he forbade entry into the Church of the Nativity to anyone who supported this ordination. Although St. Epiphanius had been bishop of Salamis (then called Constantia) in Cyprus since 367, he continued to wield considerable influence over the monasteries in Palestine from which he came. Widely renowned for his austerity and charity toward the poor, he was greatly admired by the monastic community, and his word carried great weight. So great was his reputation for sanctity, that the Arian emperor Valens had spared him alone among anti-Arian bishops from persecution in 371. Thus, despite the canonical irregularity of the ordination of Paulinian, there was nothing too extraordinary about this revered saint conferring holy orders in a Palestinian monastic community. John was probably far more aggrieved at Epiphanius' stance on Origenism than any infringement of canonical jurisdiction, but we can still see here an early instance of jurisdictional conflict between the secular clergy and monastic orders, a distinction that would develop more fully in the West.
St. Epiphanius defended his action in a letter to John, professing he had intended no offense to the bishop's prerogatives, as John himself had previously sought to ordain Paulinian, but was unable to lay hands on the elusive monk. It was common at the time for humble monks to resist ordination, declaring themselves unworthy of such an honor. St. Epiphanius knew of many such cases in his own province, and was grateful when another bishop managed to apprehend and ordain overly scrupulous monks. The monastery in Bethlehem needed someone to administer the sacraments, since the monks Vincent and St. Jerome, though ordained to the presbyterate, had humbly renounced their right to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. St. Epiphanius denied a rumor that he had received a letter from John forbidding such ordinations, and warned against sowers of discord who misrepresented the actions of one bishop to another, thereby fomenting unnecessary conflict.
St. Epiphanius did not wish to attack John of Jerusalem, nor even the person of Origen, but rather the teachings of Origen that threatened to corrupt the monastic communities dearest to him. "Origen has not lived in my day, nor has he robbed me. I have not conceived a dislike to him nor quarrelled with him because of an inheritance or of any worldly matter; but — to speak plainly — I grieve, and grieve bitterly, to see numbers of my brothers... deceived by his persuasive arguments...". In his letter to John (A.D. 394), St. Epiphanius identified the following heresies in Peri Archon:
- The Son cannot see the Father, and the Holy Spirit cannot see the Son.
- The souls of men were once angels in heaven, and having sinned in the upper world, they have been cast down into this, confined in bodies to pay the penalty for their former sins.
- Disciples are urged not to pray to ascend to heaven, lest, sinning worse in heaven than they had on earth, they should be hurled down to the world again.
- The devil will return to his former dignity and rise again to the kingdom of heaven.
- The coats of skins with which God clothed Adam and Eve after the Fall were actually their human bodies.
- Adam lost the image of God when he sinned.
- The waters above the firmament are heroic angels, and those below the firmament are demons.
The venerable saint can hardly be accused of excessive zeal in identifying these heresies, as they blatantly contradict the apostolic faith. While we may question whether Origen himself believed these errors, there were many Palestinian monks who did profess them to varying degrees, invoking the authority of Origen. The common theme in these heresies is an excessive devaluation of all that is corporeal, even when this is utterly contrary to Scripture. St. Epiphanius cites Scriptures plainly contradicting these doctrines, and shows the incoherence of interpreting these texts in a purely allegorical sense. For example, it is hardly tenable that Adam did not have a human body in paradise, when he referred to Eve as "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," and the Biblical narrator situates Eden with reference to geographically actual rivers.
In his critique of Origen, St. Epiphanius does not assert any personal speculation of his own as doctrine, but simply accepts commonly received teaching without adding anything. In this humility before divine truth, St. Epiphanius contrasts himself with the Origenists, "who presume at the peril of their soul to assert dogmatically whatever first comes into their head, and to dictate to God, whereas they ought either to pray to Him or to learn the truth from Him." While the Origenists vainly speculate as to what exactly was the image of God in which man was made, St. Epiphanius is content to admit that God has not revealed this, but we need only accept what has been revealed in both the Old and New Testaments, that man was made and continues to exist in the image of God. (cf Genesis 9:6, Wisdom 2:23, James 3:9, 1 Corinthians 11:7; also Vulgate Psalms 38:7) Opponents of Catholic orthodoxy have sought to portray Epiphanius and other saints as rigid enforcers of arbitrary novel doctrines, but we see that Epiphanius in fact exercises theological self-restraint, while faulting Origenists for inventing speculative doctrines that require contorted interpretations of Scripture.
St. Jerome was drawn into the dispute when he confidentially agreed to translate the letter of St. Epiphanius to John from Greek into Latin for a fellow monk. The translation was made public, and St. Jerome was mistakenly believed to have created new accusations against John, so the bishop sought to invoke the secular authority against him in return.
In truth, St. Jerome supported St. Epiphanius' position on the heterodoxy of Origenism, but he stopped short of accusing John of heresy. In 396, after John sent letters to Rome seeking ecclesiastical condemnation of Epiphanius, St. Jerome responded by writing to his Roman contacts, and even began to prepare a virulent tract against John. He abandoned this polemic before completing it, however, for the sake of peace, which was mediated by the bishop Theophilus of Alexandria. Jerome wrote to Theophilus in 397, professing his fidelity to the canons of the Church, yet remained concerned that "while you are waiting for the penitence of a few, your action is fostering the boldness of abandoned men and making their party stronger." Jerome recognized that not all of Origen's defenders were guilty of the gross Origenist heresies defined by Epiphanius, but he felt that leniency on this issue could embolden the heretics to teach Origenism as orthodoxy within the Church. Notwithstanding this concern, Jerome accepted reconciliation with John and Rufinus at the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem on Easter, 5 April 397.
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The peace did not last long, due to the subsequent indiscretions of Rufinus. At the behest of Macarius, a Roman ascetic in the monastery at Pinetum (near Terracina, 80 km south of Rome), Rufinus wrote a Latin translation of the first two books of Peri Archon during his stay at the monastery in 397. Acutely sensitive to the association of Origen with heresy, Rufinus took care to first translate into Latin Eusebius of Caesarea's defense of Origen, ascribing it to St. Pamphilus the Martyr. He then wrote a treatise accusing heretics of having adulterated the works of Origen, to dissociate Origen from Origenist heresies. Finally, in his preface to the translation of Peri Archon, Rufinus argued that Origen's work could be understood in an orthodox sense if it was liberally translated. In using this approach, he portrayed himself as continuing the work of St. Jerome:
He [Jerome] has rendered into Latin more than seventy of Origen's homiletical treatises, and a few also of his commentaries on the Apostle; and in these, wherever the Greek text presents a stumbling block, he has smoothed it down in his version and has so emended the language used that a Latin writer can find no word that is at variance with our faith.
Thanks to this dubious endorsement, St. Jerome was drawn back into the controversy after the publication of Rufinus' work in 398, as he was now accused by anti-Origenists in Italy of being a defender of Origen and a falsifier of texts. St. Jerome would not only defend himself for translating Origen's orthodox homiletic works, but he proceeded to produce his own translation of Peri Archon, making plain the heterodox teachings that Rufinus, by his own confession in his preface, had softened or omitted.
As noted, Rufinus translated the earlier Apology for Origen (no longer extant) written by Eusebius of Caesarea, the famous historian of the Church. Eusebius had claimed that the first five of six books of his apology had been co-authored by his mentor St. Pamphilus during the last persecution before Constantine. Rufinus ascribed authorship of the first books solely to St. Pamphilus, to give greater authority to the work, as Eusebius was by then associated with the Arian heresy. St. Jerome took the opposite extreme, denying any co-authorship whatsoever by St. Pamphilus, noting that the saint had never composed any original writings while head of the school of Caesarea, having always been content to edit and proofread manuscripts. Nevertheless, it is likely that St. Pamphilus would have at least endorsed a defense of Origen, the founder of his school, though we have no means of knowing to what extent or in what way he would have defended the doctrines of Peri Archon, since, even if the Apology for Origen were still extant, we could not know which parts reflected the thought of St. Pamphilus rather than Eusebius.
St. Jerome, though offended by Rufinus' preface to Peri Archon, sought reconciliation with his old friend, but in this he was thwarted by some of his zealous anti-Origenist advocates. In 399, having received a copy of the preface, St. Jerome wrote to Rufinus:
You know best with what intention it was written; but even a fool can see how it must necessarily be understood. Covertly or rather openly I am the person aimed at... I make no charge against you, and, although injured, decline for my part to injure a friend... I prefer thus to expostulate with you as a friend rather than to give public vent to my indignation at the wrong I have suffered. I want you to see that when I am reconciled to anyone I become his sincere friend and do not — to borrow a figure from Plautus — while offering him bread with one hand, hold a stone in the other.
This letter was withheld by a friend of Jerome, the former Roman senator and now ascetic St. Pammachius, so that Rufinus never received it. Meanwhile, the opponents of Origenism in Italy petitioned Pope St. Siricius to condemn the doctrines of Peri Archon, but without success, as the pope died in 399.
The prime mover behind the Church's condemnation of Origen would be neither Jerome nor his supposed allies in Rome, but Theophilus of Alexandria, the same patriarch who had been the peacemaker in the first Origenist controversy. Satisfied as to the orthodoxy of men like John of Jerusalem, who defended the person of Origen and interpreted his writings in an orthodox way, Theophilus nonetheless recognized the real danger presented by monks in his own jurisdiction who took the doctrine of Peri Archon at face value. In 400, Theophilus summoned a council that condemned Origenism, and imposed orthodoxy on the monasteries of Nitria in the Egyptian desert. He persuaded Pope St. Anastasius to issue a similar condemnation in Rome that same year. In a letter to Simplicianus, bishop of Milan, the Pope explained his decision:
Being informed, then, by a letter of the aforesaid bishop [Theophilus], we inform your holiness that we in like manner who are set in the city of Rome in which the prince of the apostles, the glorious Peter, first founded the church and then by his faith strengthened it; to the end that no man may contrary to the commandment read these books [of Origen] which we have mentioned, have condemned the same; and have with earnest prayers urged the strict observance of the precepts which God and Christ have inspired the evangelists to teach. We have charged men to remember the words of the venerable apostle Paul, prophetic and full of warning: "If any than preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." [Galatians 1:8] Holding fast, therefore, this precept, we have intimated that everything written in days gone by Origen that is contrary to our faith is even by us rejected and condemned.
I send this letter to your holiness by the hand of the presbyter Eusebius [of Cremona], a man filled with a glowing faith and love for the Lord. He has shown to me some blasphemous chapters which made me shudder as I passed judgement on them. If Origen has put forth any other writings, you are to know that they and their author are alike condemned by me.
The Pope invokes his apostolic authority to condemn everything in Origen that is contrary to the faith. As a prudential measure, he goes so far as to condemn all the writings of Origen and his person, so offensive were the blasphemies of Peri Archon to the pontiff. Pope Anastasius' judgment was informed by the manuscript of Rufinus' translation of Peri Archon presented to him by St. Eusebius of Cremona, a companion of St. Jerome and abbot of Bethlehem. St. Eusebius was responsible for bringing a copy of Rufinus' manuscript to St. Jerome. Several years earlier, he had asked Jerome to translate the letter of St. Epiphanius to John into Latin, only to have the manuscript stolen (as related in Letter #57 of St. Jerome), resulting in the first Origenist controversy.
It has long been customary, even among orthodox writers, to ascribe the anti-Origenist actions of Theophilus, St. Anastasius, St. Eusebius, and St. Jerome to personal animus. Rather than slander these saints, especially the Latins who had no vested interest in the controversies of the East, a far more parsimonious conclusion is that they all read Peri Archon at face value. Even Rufinus' toned down translation could not conceal the blatant heterodoxy of Origen's bizarre doctrines. Those who would defend Origen must insist that his strange teachings were intended allegorically, when in fact Origen makes clear that he believes in the truth of his doctrine (though perhaps not with dogmatic certitude), and he thinks rather that the Scriptural prooftexts against his theories ought to be interpreted allegorically.
As for Theophilus of Alexandria, his opposition to Origen was limited to the heresies of Peri Archon. The historian Socrates relates that the bishop continued to read the other works of Origen years after the controversy ended. Indeed, Theophilus was tolerant enough to consecrate the philosopher Synesius as bishop of Cyrene in 410, notwithstanding his professed neo-Platonist views regarding the soul and the resurrection of the body. Theophilus' firm stance against the Origenist monks was probably motivated in part by their brazen assertions of political and economic influence. While his use of physical force against the monasteries may seem harsh to modern eyes, it must be understood that in those days the monks of Egypt, strange as it sounds, often banded together in large numbers armed with clubs, using physical coercion or intimidation to influence ecclesiastical politics. In this context, it was only reasonable for the patriarch to resort to the use of force against these monastic militias.
The leaders of the Nitrian monks, the four so-called "Tall Brothers" who were formerly supported by Theophilus, now appealed to the emperor Arcadius against the Alexandrian bishop. Summoned to Constantinople in 402, Theophilus was forced to apologize to the Tall Brothers for his persecution of their order, with St. John Chrysostom and the emperor presiding. After returning to Alexandria, Theophilus asked St. Epiphanius to test Chrysostom's position on Origenism, but the wise Epiphanius would not let himself be exploited in this personal quarrel. In 403, Theophilus made outrageous allegations against Chrysostom, so that the emperor deposed him, but the saintly bishop was restored by popular acclamation. The following year, when the empress Eudoxia sought a pretext to exile Chrysostom, Theophilus wrote that he should be exiled for having re-entered his see, supposedly uncanonically. St. Jerome participated in the Alexandrian conflict only by translating letters as requested by Theophilus. In distant Rome, by contrast, his person would play a more prominent role.
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St. Jerome had received news from Italy through his friends, including St. Pammachius and Oceanus, who told him of Rufinus' translation of Peri Archon and the confusion it had caused.
These contain many things which disturb our poor wits and which appear to us to be uncatholic. We suspect also that with a view of clearing the author many passages of his books have been removed which had they been left would have plainly proved the irreligious character of his teaching. ... We ask you to publish in your own language the abovementioned book of Origen exactly as it was brought out by the author himself; and we desire you to make evident the interpolations which his defender has introduced. You will also confute and overthrow all statements in the sheets which we have sent to your holiness that are ignorantly made or contradict the Catholic faith. The writer in the preface to his work has, with much subtlety but without mentioning your holiness's name, implied that he has done no more than complete a work which you had yourself promised, thus indirectly suggesting that you agree with him. Remove then the suspicions men cannot help feeling and confute your assailant; for, if you ignore his implications, people will say that you admit their truth. (St. Jerome's Letters, lxxxiii, 1; AD 399-400)
With this heavily slanted introduction to the matter, it would be understandable if St. Jerome responded to Rufinus with a vigorous counterattack. In fact, as we showed previously, he instead attempted to reconcile with his old friend, but the letter was never delivered. St. Jerome at this point was not interested in attacking Rufinus, but he wished only to deny that he had ever endorsed any of Origen's heterodox writings, as Rufinus seemed to imply.
St. Jerome, in his letter of reply to Pammachius and Oceanus (AD 400), defends his previous use of Origen's works, noting that he had never praised any of his heretical doctrines, but only what was orthodox in his Biblical commentaries. As evidence that his wariness of Origen was no recent development, Jerome notes that, in his commentary on Isaiah written twenty years earlier, he replaced Origen's blasphemous interpretation of "two seraphim" representing the Son and Holy Spirit with the symbol of two testaments.
I have made a collection of his books, I admit; but because I know everything that he has written I do not follow his errors. I speak as a Christian to Christians: believe one who has tried him. His doctrines are poisonous, they are unknown to the Holy Scriptures, nay more, they do them violence. I have read Origen, I repeat, I have read him; and if it is a crime to read him, I admit my guilt... (St. Jerome's Letters, lxxxiv, 3; AD 400)
St. Jerome allows that orthodox Christians may read Origen, as long as they hold only what is good in him, rejecting his speculative theology. "I have praised the commentator but not the theologian, the man of intellect but not the believer, the philosopher but not the apostle." He cites his commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Ephesians as evidence of his opposition to Origen's theology, and notes that St. Cyprian regarded Tertullian as his master, yet emphatically rejected the Montanist heresy into which Tertullian lapsed. (Though Jerome does not make this argument, we might regard St. Pamphilus' admiration of Origen as similarly qualified.)
St. Jerome explains the difficulty of exposing the Origenists, due to their Neoplatonic practice of withholding esoteric doctrines from the uninitiated. They will profess formulae of Christian orthodoxy with their lips, but assign esoteric Platonic meanings to them. They have secret rites and mysteries (by one account, the monks of Nitria attempted to force Theophilus to practice such a rite, causing him to turn against the Origenists), and will deny this with false oaths, yet they hesitate to provide their signatures, and they keep their writings hidden. They will also plead, "I cannot condemn what no one else has condemned," or, "No decision was arrived at on the point by the Fathers." Against these defenses, St. Jerome remarks that the Council of Nicaea, in condemning Arianism, condemned all heretics who denied that the Son is of the same substance of the Father, including Origen.
As for the Origenists' professed belief in the resurrection of the body, St. Jerome observes that they use the ambiguous term "body" so the orthodox think they mean flesh, when in fact they believe only in a spiritual resurrection of celestial "bodies." Some of them will pretend that they do believe in the resurrection of "flesh," yet ridicule the notion that this entails the restoration of concrete organs. As St. Jerome remarks, "They scorn to rise again with the flesh and bones wherewith even Christ rose." This Sadduceean denial of true bodily resurrection is in stark contradiction with the apostolic faith, though it remains to be seen whether Origen himself held this opinion.
St. Jerome explains that he praised Origen only for what was good in his work, following St. Paul's wise admonition to examine all things, holding fast only to what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21) The Apostle's advice was widely practiced, as Christians extracted what was good even from pagan writers, lest they should forsake their intellectual heritage. Jerome says of Origen, "I should still find his talent attractive, but that some people have been attracted by his impiety." It is no longer prudent to praise Origen even for what is good in him, since too many are now praising his errors. Thus Jerome desists from praising Origen, lest he should seem to lend authority to his heresies.
According to St. Jerome, the particular heresies held by Origen himself include: speaking of men's souls as fallen from heaven, distorting the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh, and asserting a "restitution of all things," where angels and demons, the just and the wicked, all share the same fate. We will later examine Peri Archon in detail, in order to determine Origen's exact position on these matters.
St. Jerome continues to praise Origen for his personal morals, his great learning and zeal for Scripture, virtues so great that one ought to look away from his faults. Many other great men erred on matters of faith, but not even an angel or the Apostle, as St. Paul says, (Galatians 1:8) should be believed when speaking contrary to the faith. Jerome singles out Origen for condemnation only insofar as others treat him as though his authority gave weight to his heterodox teachings. "Take away your exaggerated love for him, and I am ready to take away the greatness of my dislike."
As evidence that Origen himself held heretical opinions, St. Jerome invokes the testimony of Eusebius of Caesarea, whose Apology for Origen acknowledges the substance of the controversial statements in Origen's writings. Though Eusebius attempted to explain these statements favorably, his testimony suffices to establish that these were not later insertions by heretics. Indeed, it would be extraordinary if Origen's countless works were systematically falsified throughout Christendom, with the original versions preserved nowhere. Origen himself, in his letters, professed remorse for having held erroneous opinions, and confessed that some of his speculative theology was not intended for public circulation.
St. Jerome rejects the idea that St. Pamphilus authored the first part of Eusebius' Apology for Origen. This is an all too convenient attribution of authorship, which is not verifiable since there are no other works of St. Pamphilus with which to compare. It would be strange that the saint, who had abstained from original writing his entire life, should choose as his first and only work to defend some of the most controversial doctrines of his predecessor. The very notion of an apology, as St. Jerome notes, implies that the theses defended had already been attacked, so St. Pamphilus would be defending doubtful doctrine after a lifetime of literary silence on orthodox matters.
In St. Jerome's day, St. Pamphilus' supposed defense of Origen was also circulated as a separate treatise distinct from Eusebius' Apology. Jerome notes that this treatise contained the first thousand lines of the sixth book of Eusebius' Apology, the book for which Eusebius claimed sole authorship. As further evidence against the document's authenticity, it tries to show that Origen accepted the Nicene council, though it was not held in Origen's lifetime, and Eusebius had repeatedly invoked Origen as an authority defending the Arian position. Clearly, this treatise, now lost, was a later work using some of Eusebius' text. Still, it remains possible that St. Pamphilus co-authored or endorsed at least part of Eusebius' original Apology. Apparently accounting for this possibility, Jerome observes that even if St. Pamphilus had defended Origen, his martyrdom would have served to efface his sin, so he may nonetheless be counted among the saints.
Many later commentators, including orthodox Catholics, have judged St. Jerome harshly for his seemingly caustic, belligerent attitude in this controversy. Such criticisms do not adequately take into account the difficult situation into which the scholarly monk was forced. Jerome was well aware that his reputation would suffer if he defended himself by attacking Origen.
I would sooner, indeed, risk my reputation than my faith. My friends have placed me in the awkward dilemma that if I say nothing I shall be held guilty, and if I offer a defence I shall be accounted an enemy. Both alternatives are hard; but of the two I will choose that which is the least so. A quarrel can be made up, but blasphemy can find no forgiveness.
If modern sensibility has little tolerance for theological quarrels, it may be because it is much too sanguine regarding blasphemy.
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Rufinus' letter to Pope St. Anastasius, written in 400, is often titled his Apology, for he defends himself in it. This letter should not be confused with the Apology in two books he wrote in that same year, defending his interpretation of Origen. Rufinus presently felt obligated to clear himself of any charge of heresy, as St. Pammachius and the widow Marcella were summoning witnesses in Rome to testify about the heresies of Origen. In his letter of defense, Rufinus emphasized his role as a mere translator, rather than a defender of Origenist doctrine. This apology was at least partially successful, as Pope Anastasius, while condemning Origen, did not pass judgment against Rufinus.
In the opening of his letter to the Pope, Rufinus acknowledges that the controversy is in "Your Holiness' jurisdiction on matters of faith," in clear deference to papal authority. He explains that he is unable to present himself in person, on account of being weak from his journey to Aquileia, where he visited his family for the first time in thirty years. He trusts that the Pope will not condemn a man in absentia, as that would be contrary to Church principles, and foreign to the mind of the pontiff, "which I regard as a holy place, as a kind of divine sanctuary which does not admit any evil thing." This exalted view of the successor of Peter surpasses even what is required of modern Catholics, and shows us that the recognized authority of the Pope was grounded not so much in his legal jurisdiction (which was restricted to the West), but in his sanctity and orthodoxy, which were guaranteed by God.
Rufinus makes a profession of faith, distinguishing his orthodox belief from Origenist heresies. In particular, he affirms "that the Trinity is of one nature and godhead, of one and the same power and substance; so that between the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost there is no diversity at all, except that the one is the Father, the second the Son, and the third the Holy Ghost." With this profession, he denies any subordination of persons. Regarding the Incarnation and the Resurrection, he confesses that the Son of God took on "our natural human flesh and soul," and "that the flesh in which he rose was that same flesh which had been laid in the sepulchre; and that in this same flesh, together with the soul, he ascended into heaven after his resurrection." Similarly...
...as to the resurrection of our own flesh, I believe that it will be in its integrity and perfection; it will be this very flesh in which we now live. We do not hold, as is slanderously reported by some men, that another flesh will rise instead of this; but this very flesh, without the loss of a single member, without the cutting off of any single part of the body; none whatever of all its properties will be absent except its corruptibility.
Following this clear affirmation of the resurrection of the flesh, Rufinus distances himself from the Origenist belief in a restoration of all things to a common fate, instead professing that men are rewarded "according to their works," so that those who do the works of the devil will share eternal fire with him and his angels. Rufinus adds, "If then any one denies that the devil is to be subjected to the eternal fires, may he have his part with him in the eternal fire, so that he may know by experience the fact which he now denies."
So far, Rufinus' defense is quite different from that of modern apologists for Origen who wish to cast doubt on articles of orthodox faith. Rufinus was in full agreement with his adversaries that Christian orthodoxy demands belief in the equality of persons in the Holy Trinity, the real human nature of the Son of God, the literal resurrection of the flesh, and eternal fire for the devil and his followers among angels and men. These points of doctrine were not in dispute, but the question was whether opinions to the contrary could be imputed to Origen or Rufinus.
Regarding the pre-existence of souls, Rufinus professes ignorance on this matter, and merely summarizes the different opinions of others, while holding as certain only that God is the creator of human souls. The range of opinion starts with Tertullian and Lactantius, who speculated that the soul, together with the body, was generated by means of the human seed. Others supposed that God specially creates a new soul to infuse into each body generated in the womb, while still others believed "that the souls were all made long ago, when God made all things of nothing, and that all that he now does is to plant out each soul in its body as it seems good to him." Rufinus ascribes the last opinion to Origen, among other Greeks, implicitly regarding it as within the realm of acceptable belief, without explicitly espousing it. He simply professes that he has found these various opinions in books, but personally remains "in ignorance on the subject, except so far as this, that the Church delivers it as an article of faith that God is the creator of souls as well as of bodies." The implication that the Church had not dogmatically defined a theory of the creation of the soul is correct. However, Origen did more than assert the possibility of a pre-existing soul, but included an entire speculative theology regarding the prior state of the human soul, falling afoul of orthodoxy on several points, as we shall see later.
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As Rufinus professed to have the faith that was taught at Jerusalem, Pope St. Anastasius took care that in condemning Origen he did not also condemn the Church in Jerusalem. Writing to the bishop John of Jerusalem in 401, the Pope explained his judgment regarding Origen and Rufinus. As it was not clear to the Pope whether the translator wished to approve or condemn the heretical doctrines of Origen, he referred the conscience of Rufinus to divine judgment, and his conduct to the judgment of his bishop John. The Pope apparently believed that Rufinus' conduct might betray his true opinion on Origen's teaching. This suggests that the Pope was not altogether convinced by Rufinus' defense, where he professed orthodox doctrine, yet did not state what he believed to be the doctrine of Origen.
In any case I beg you to be assured of this, that he is so completely separate from all part or lot with us, that I neither know nor wish to know either what he is doing or where he is living. I have only to add that it is for him to consider where he may obtain absolution.
While the Pope neither condemned nor exonerated Rufinus, his judgment against Origen was more severe. He admitted that he did not know nor care to know who Origen was or how he may have expressed himself, having only read parts of his work in translation. Still, the Pope found that it was Origen's object to dissolve the Apostolic faith through tortuous paths of thought, judging from the effect of his work upon readers in Rome, who were cast in a "mist of blindness." The Pope did not distinguish between material and formal heresy. For him, the effect of reading Origen sufficed to establish the works as heretical, following the common legal presumption that an offender intends his effect. The Pope's condemnation of Origen really amounts to an accusation of material heresy, and cannot be taken as a judgment that Origen was a formal heretic (obstinately and publicly proclaiming heterodox belief), a question with which he was not concerned.
Although Origen's personal culpability was not addressed, the Pope unambiguously condemned the doctrines of Origen's work, "which defile the Church, subvert its well-tried moral system, offend the ears of bystanders, and spread quarrels, anger, and dissension." He quotes these words from his letter to St. Venerius, the new bishop of Milan, as his formal sentence against Origenism:
Whence, then, he who translated the work has gained and preserves this assurance of innocence I am not greatly troubled to know: it fills me with no vain alarm. I certainly shall omit nothing which may enable me to guard the faith of the Gospel amongst my own people, and to warn, as far as in me lies, those who form part of my body, in whatever part of the world they live, not to allow any translation of profane authors to creep in and spring up amongst them, which will seek to unsettle the mind of devout men by spreading its own darkness among them. Moreover, I cannot pass over in silence an event which has given me great pleasure, the decree issued by our Emperors, by which every one who serves God is warned against the reading of Origen, and all who are convicted of reading his impious works are condemned by the imperial judgment.
Declaring his universal jurisdiction in matters of guarding the faith, the Pope forbids the translation of "profane authors," regardless of the translator's intent, when the effect is to spread falsehood among the devout. In addition, both Roman emperors (Honorius and Arcadius) decreed condemnation against those who read Origen's works, in confirmation of the Pope's judgment.
In the year 400, Origen was condemned by the Roman pontiff, the bishop of Alexandria, and a council at Jerusalem. (A council at Cyprus followed suit in 401.) With three of the great patriarchates rendering judgment against Origenist heresies, any relevant doctrinal questions were considered settled.
Nonetheless, the controversy did not end for St. Jerome, as he still sought to defend himself over his former praise of Origen. It was not until the spring of 402 that he learned of Rufinus' Apology in two books, to which he responded in three defenses that are collectively known as the Apology against Rufinus (402). In the last of these defenses, Jerome writes: "We once were zealous in our praise of Origen; let us be equally zealous in condemning him now that he is condemned by the whole world." Origen's posthumous reversal of fortune did not result from a sudden change in Catholic doctrine, but from a new public focus on his speculative theology, which had been hitherto ignored or downplayed by orthodox writers. We will later see that Origen's controversial doctrines were his own innovations, and foreign to the mainstream Christian tradition of his day.
Before St. Jerome wrote his Apology against Rufinus, Origen had already been condemned by the highest ecclesiastical and civil authorities of the East and West - three patriarchates and two emperors. It is clearly erroneous to blame Origen's fate on this polemic; on the contrary, the severe tone of the Apology against Rufinus is best understood in light of the already universal condemnation of Origenism, and the fact that Rufinus went out of his way to link St. Jerome to this recognized heresy.
Continue to Part II
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