3.1 The Origenism of Evagrius Ponticus
3.2 Kephalaia Gnostica
3.3 The Ten Anathemas of 543
3.4 Origenism at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553)
3.5 The Fifteen Anathemas against Origenism
Despite the anathemas issued by the highest ecclesiastical authorities, there still remained bands of Origenist monks in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine throughout the fifth century. Having been denounced by the bishops, they no longer attempted to bring their doctrine to the cities, and taught Origenist theology only to those monks who were advanced in mystical knowledge (gnostike). In secret, they elaborated Origen's speculations into an overtly Neoplatonistic scheme, following the work of the fifth century Origenist Evagrius Ponticus. By the early sixth century, this more radical form of Origenism had spread among the monks of Palestine, where it would catch the attention of ecclesiastical authority, resulting in the final definitive campaign to condemn Origenism in all its forms.
The persistent appeal of Origenism to these monks of the desert lay in its emphasis on the spiritual at the expense of the corporeal. Christian monasticism had already stressed the importance of subordinating the flesh to the spirit, and many monks had become accustomed to regarding the flesh primarily as a source of temptation rather than of sanctification. Origenism, with its promise of restoring man to his original, purely spiritual nature, enabling union with God, must have seemed like a logical extension of existing asceticism, and gave a definite direction and purpose to monastic practices. This distortion of orthodox asceticism into a Neoplatonic spirituality can be seen in the work of Evagrius Ponticus.
Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) was a highly esteemed ascetic teacher and writer, who studied under St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Macarius of Egypt. His writings on the practical aspects of monastic life are of undoubted value, and have had wide influence in the East and the West. His list of eight evil thoughts (375 AD) was the precursor of the Seven Deadly Sins that have been a mainstay of Latin confessional works. He displayed acute psychological insight, and his works give evidence of a deep classical education. Evagrius had recourse to this learning in developing a formal system of thought that integrated monasticism and theology.
For Evagrius, the objective of monastic practice was to purge the soul of all passions as much as possible. A soul that is in a passionless state (apatheia) has its rational part unencumbered by distractions, and is free to pray and to love God, and to apprehend the good and rational principles (logoi) in all creatures. Asceticism made possible the contemplation of the natural world and of God, thereby allowing the perfection of the human mind.
In Evagrius' system, the ascetic practitioner (praktike) can hope to become a contemplative knower (gnostike) of the principles (logoi) of things. Following Plato, he holds that the highest part of a man's soul is the nous, which is the intuitive intellect. Apparently following Origen's theory of pre-existence, Evagrius says in his Kephalaia Gnostica that "the soul is the nous which, through negligence, has fallen from the Unity; and through its carelessness, has descended to the rank of the praktike." (S1 ms., III, 28) This is only the least of Evagrius' errors, as we shall see.
For most of modern history, the only extant manuscript tradition of the Kephalaia Gnostica available to scholars was an expurgated Syriac version (S1, cited above), which had removed many of the heterodox teachings of Evagrius. This changed in 1958, when the great scholar Antoine Guillamont published a French translation of a more authentic Syriac manuscript (S2), which revealed the full extent of Evagrius' errors. These writings give us a window into some of the "Origenist" beliefs that would be condemned in the sixth century.
The expurgated version (S1), long thought to be authentic, contains some Origenist errors, but in relatively mild form. In it we find doctrines such as the pre-existence of the soul and the descent of the nous from higher levels, mentioned above, as well as some obscure theological doctrines that seem to identify God the Father as a Monad, and Christ as His nous. He claims that in the beginning we were all united in the Monad, and that the Monad moved by the receptivity of the nous. (II, 22) The sun, moon and stars are each characterized as an intelligible nous, though this might be taken allegorically. Regarding the final judgment, Evagrius seems to deny or at least mitigate eternal punishment, when he says, "In the world to come, no one will escape the prison into which he will fall; because it is said: 'You will not depart from there, until that you pay the last penny,' that is a minimum suffering."
Using this obscure theology as a background, Evagrius argues for the importance of apatheia, the absence of passion, as a prerequisite for the contemplation of heavenly things, so that the soul in the state of praktike may rise to the status of a knower gnostike, and in the world to come, be restored again to unity with the Monad, freed from all things of the flesh. With good reason, St. Jerome called Evagrius an Origenist, recognizing the characteristic heterodoxy of regarding the flesh as a mere prison to be permanently abandoned, contrary to Christ's explicit promise of the resurrection of the body. As for Evagrius' doctrine of apatheia, St. Jerome makes it an object of his incisive wit, when he says that Evagrius "has published a book of maxims on apathy, or, as we should say, impassivity or imperturbability; a state in which the mind ceases to be agitated and - to speak simply - becomes either a stone or a God." (Letter cxxxxiii, 3, 415 AD)
To lend Patristic authority to his teaching, Evagrius cites a work he attributes to St. Sixtus the martyr. St. Jerome corrects this identification, saying that the work in question was written by a Pythagorean named Xystus. He says: "In this work the subject of perfection is discussed at length in the light of the Pythagorean doctrine which makes man equal with God and of one substance with Him."
The expurgated version of the Kephalaia Gnostica has little in the way of blatant heresy, though much that is hinted at obscurely. This manuscript tradition (S1) dates back to before the controversies of the sixth century, giving us prima facie evidence that the Origenists did in fact circulate adulterated versions of their source documents, in order to hide their esoteric doctrines from the mainstream Church. This would have to be the case, since the major patriarchates, including Rome itself, had already condemned Origenism in the fourth and fifth centuries.
For proof that Antoine Guillamont's version of the Kephalaia Gnostica (S2) is the more authentic version, the reader should refer to the extensive scholarly treatise by that author. For our purposes, it will suffice to note that direct quotations from the full version of the Kephalaia Gnostica are included in the famous anathemas against Origenism of 543. Evagrius' teaching was the most current incarnation of Origenism that was being taught in the sixth century; for that reason, he would condemned with his predecessors Origen and Didymus at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553). The sixth and seventh ecumenical synods explicitly confirm that the condemnations of Origen, Didymus and Evagrius occurred at the fifth council, as does the Lives of Cyril of Scythopolis, who was an eyewitness to that council.
The fact that the anathemas of the sixth century were directed primarily against the text of the Kephalaia Gnostica rather than Peri Archon (of which no direct quote appears in the anathemas) suggests that Evagrius' teaching is far more pertinent to understanding the issues involved in the sixth century Origenist controversies.
The Kephalaia Gnostica, for its part, is based on Origen's Peri Archon, which is why its doctrines were condemned as Origenist. We, however, will be careful to distinguish which doctrines belong to Evagrius alone and which are received from Origen. We will do this by first discussing the unexpurgated Kephalaia Gnostica and the resultant controversy and anathemas, followed by a detailed examination of Origen's Peri Archon, in the form that we have it.
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A thorough examination of the cosmology, theology and anthropology of the Kephalaia Gnostica is beyond the scope of our discussion, so we will only touch upon those aspects that could lead to charges of heterodox Origenism. We will make use of some of the commentary made by the Orthodox monk Fr. Theophanes (Constantine) of Mount Athos, in his online book The Orthodox Doctrine of the Person, which is the first volume of The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart. An appendix to this work's second volume includes an English translation of the Kephalaia Gnostica, following Guillamont's French version of the S2 manuscript.
Evagrius' theology began in the orthodox tradition of the Cappadocian Fathers. He was a lector under St. Basil the Great, and ordained as a deacon by St. Gregory Nazianzus. He attended the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. About a year later, he had a vision warning him to flee the worldly temptations of Constantinople. He became a monk at Jerusalem in 383, in the same monastery as Rufinus, and then moved to Egypt, where he learned the theology of Clement of Alexandria and Origen from Didymus the Blind.
As Fr. Theophanes observes, Evagrius followed the Cappadocian Fathers in saying that God's nature is not knowable, even analogically, through His creatures nor through the wisdom of creation. Yet Evagrius also held that contemplation may bring an intuitive knowledge or gnosis of the divine nature, though this does not amount to full intellectual comprehension. (The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart, Vol. I, ch. III, 4, 1) We should emphasize (as does Fr. Theophanes in a 2009 video interview with the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies - Cambridge) that Evagrius uses the term gnosis in an orthodox sense of intuitive knowledge provided by divine grace. This was the sense developed by Clement of Alexandria, in opposition to the heretical Egyptian Gnostics, who made gnosis the means of salvation, and even personified wisdom as a substantive aeon or spiritual power. For Evagrius as for Clement, gnosis is knowledge, distinct from the thing known, and higher spiritual gnosis is the gift of the Holy Spirit, not something to be attained by human effort or arcane ritual.
Evagrius' ascetical system is embedded in a Neoplatonistic cosmology, which may be briefly outlined as follows. God's first act, or more properly, an act outside of time, was the instantaneous creation of all noes (plural of nous, "mind"), by the "first natural contemplation," i.e., contemplation of the reasons or logoi of incorporeal natures. One of these noes would become the Christ, another would become the devil, while others would become angels, demons, and men. At first, all the noes lived in a state of gnosis, contemplating the Unity, which Evagrius apparently identifies with God the Father. The nous that would become the devil committed an act called the Movement, turning away from Unity and engendering ignorance. All the other noes, with the exception of the nous that would become Christ, followed the devil's nous in making the Movement, to varying degrees, thereby separating themselves from being with the Unity.
The single nous that did not participate in the Movement remained in full contemplation of the Unity, and was "anointed" with the gnosis of the Unity, on account of which he became Christ. This gnosis of the Unity is the Word of God; thus the Word of God is prior to Christ, not identical with him. After the Movement, God would thenceforth act only through Christ, the only nous which had the Word of God in him.
Through the "second natural contemplation," i.e., contemplation of the reasons or logoi of corporeal natures, Christ created bodies for all the other noes, and worlds appropriate to the natures of those bodies. The Evagrian system becomes obscure at this point, as it seems there are successions of bodies and worlds, as various noes become more or less separated from contemplation of the Unity. All the noes now have bodies, even angels and demons. The celestial powers have bodies of lights. The angels are constantly in contemplation, being oriented toward nous and the living element of fire. Men are in contemplation only some times, and are oriented toward animal desire (epithumia) and earth, while the demons reject all contemplation, and are oriented toward air and irascible appetite or thumos (e.g., hate). This assignment of bodies and worlds to the various noes is the first judgment.
In this life, rational beings are vivified by contemplation of corporeal and incorporeal natures. Thus we may come to know "the wisdom of God" in creation, but this is not the same as the "essential wisdom" or "essential gnosis" that is God Himself. The vision of God, or direct intuitive knowledge of the Deity, is different from mere intellectual knowledge about God. (V, 26) Evagrius did not pretend that we could attain the vision of God by our own efforts.
Although the Movement is the cause of vice, it also has given occasion for virtue. This is because the Movement led to names (i.e., formal essences) and modes of being, so the noes became individualized and differentiated. Names and modes can be causes of virtues, though virtue, unlike vice, has always existed. The angels are given spiritual bodies, while men are given ensouled bodies, called praktika bodies, since they make possible praktike, i.e., purification through ascetic practices.
Material beings (i.e., bodies and worlds) are incapable of gnosis. Noes, of their own nature, are intrinsically without body or place, yet by being bound to a body or world there may be said to be gnosis in that place. (I, 61-62) Rational beings (logikoi) have their existence determined by the Creator, but mortality depends on their will, whether they are joined to one or another body or world. (I, 63) Logikoi are alive insofar as they act according to their nature, and are dead when acting contrary to their nature. (I, 64)
The nous can be substantially changed or purified by contemplation of gnosis. Contemplating corporeal natures, the ascetic may, by God's grace, purify his mind sufficiently so that it is able to contemplate incorporeal beings. Knowledge of God needs the purest mind of all, and this is attained only by those to whom it is given by God's grace.
"Gnosis heals the nous; love, the thumos; and chastity, the epithumia." (III, 35) We are assisted by the intelligible stars, which are rational natures who illumine those in darkness. (III, 62) The soul is illumined by dispassion, and the nous by gnosis. (I, 81) Vice and ignorance, by contrast, oppose rational nature, and lead to a more fallen state. The souls of men are fallen from the order of angels, and may fall further to that of demons, through excess of thumos. (V, 11) On the other hand, those who divest themselves of passion will no longer receive images from the senses, and will inhabit a new world far from the sensible. (V, 12)
Although those with praktike bodies are "second by their genesis," they are "first by their sovereignty," since they will rule the world to come, while the angels rule only the current worlds. (I, 11) In the perfection of the nous, there will remain nothing of matter, and the unclothed nous will become "a seer of the Trinity." (III, 15)
In the final restoration of all things, all bodies and worlds will be destroyed, as the noes are perfected. Even names (i.e., formal essences) will be abolished, as the noes will return to unity in the vision of God. (II, 17) In the last judgment, demons and their followers will pay every penny for their evil, the punishment will not be eternal. Indeed, all the noes, even of the damned, will be purified and restored to their original undifferentiated unity. Then all will have the vision of God, yet there will be no end to ignorance, for the gnosis of God is unlimited.
We can easily see that there is serious heterodoxy in Evagrius' system, which attempts to synthesize Neoplatonism, Stoicism, Christianity, and some unique Alexandrian elements in an unwieldy, though delicately subtle system. He is not guilty of Gnosticism, as his notion of gnosis is perfectly orthodox, and he rejects pantheism, teaching that God is everywhere through His wisdom, but not as some part. (I, 43) He does not follow Pelagius in asserting that we can make ourselves dispassionate or attain knowledge of God through our own ascetic efforts, but insists always on the condition of God's grace. Still, in his doctrine of pre-existent undifferentiated noes, his Christology, and his eschatology, we find a departure from the religion of the Incarnate Word. Instead, we see a radical repudiation of corporeality, which is only superficially compatible with the doctrines of the Incarnation and the resurrection of the dead.
The anathemas against Origenism in the sixth century were targeted primarily against the doctrines of the Kephalaia Gnostica, sometimes quoted verbatim. We will compare the condemned theses with the teaching of Evagrius, before proceeding to determine how much of his cosmology and theology can be imputed to Origen.
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The so-called Origenists of the sixth century denied that God had created bodies, but instead held that bodies came into being as the result of the corruption of spiritual beings. Human beings were once creatures of pure intellect, but through sin and corruption they descended through successive levels of angelic nature, finally degrading into corporeal creatures. Even Christ himself, they claimed, underwent such a descent, not from sin, but out of humility. He assumed the nature of each level of the angelic hierarchy, thereby redeeming each of these orders, before finally assuming the nature of man. At the Last Judgment, man will be permanently freed from his bodily nature, and again become pure mind (nous).
The theology of the Origenists attempted to fit Christianity into Neoplatonist concepts. Christ was not properly the Divine Word (Logos), but only the Nous (Mind) having the form of God. Thus they denied that God truly took human nature, which is the central fact of Christian revelation. God was conceived as a Monad, as in Neoplatonism, a being of perfect simplicity who could not possibly suffer division or corruption in any way. Since God Himself could not take human flesh, He sent the Nous in His form, informed by His knowledge. This heretical distinction between God and Christ was motivated by the desire to impose a complete separation between the divine and the corporeal.
Contempt for the corporeal permeated the Neoplatonic thought that informed sixth-century Origenism. For monks already trained to despise carnal desires, such idealism might have great appeal. Overzealous asceticism appeared frequently in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt, where the characteristic heresies tended to downplay Christ's humanity and the importance of the flesh in the plan of salvation.
The problem of Origenism was first brought to Emperor Justinian's attention by St. Sabas, who had founded several semi-eremetic monasteries, called lauras (or lavras), in Palestine. In the year 531, the venerable hermit, then aged ninety-one, included in his petitions to the emperor a request to defend his monastery, the Great Laura of Jerusalem, from the Origenist abbot of the New Laura, named Nonnus. Justinian received St. Sabas with honor and granted all his petitions, but no effective action appears to have been taken against Origenism, and the saint died the following year.
In 536, Justinian became aware of the monks Theodore Askidas from the New Laura and Domition from the Origenist monastery of Martyros, when they came to a synod in Constantinople. In 537, on the recommendation of Papas Eusebius (d. 543), he made Theodore, a favorite of the Empress Theodora, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia and Domition the bishop of Ancyra. The new bishops neglected their cities and effectively became apologists for the Origenist monks in Palestine, though they never openly professed Origenism before the emperor. These fateful appointments breathed new life into Origenism, as the Origenists now had higher ecclesiastical support.
Meanwhile, doctrinal conflict within the Great Laura of Jerusalem escalated. At last, the Origenists were banished from the Great Laura in 539, and they retreated to the New Laura. Subsequently, the New Laura sent an army of monks with picks and crowbars to attack the Great Laura, but they were scattered by a storm. (J.A. Evans, Age of Justinian, p. 187.)
Independently of these events, the deacon Pelagius, acting as papal legate, visited Palestine in 540. Learning of the new Origenist controversy, Pelagius returned to Constantinople and persuaded the emperor to issue an edict (discussed at length below) condemning Origenism. The edict was approved by Pope Vigilius and sent to the patriarchs, for all the bishops to sign, acknowledging their adherence. Everyone signed, including Theodore Askidas, though this meant disgrace for Origen. It is widely believed by scholars that Theodore Askidas persuaded Justinian to condemn Theodore of Mospuestia and others (in the so-called Three Chapters) in retaliation against the anti-Origenists, particularly those at Rome and Jerusalem. [See our Commentary on the Second Council of Constantinople]
Pelagius further advised the emperor to convoke a synod of all the Greek bishops to condemn Origen, thereby undermining the putative patristic authority invoked by the heretics of the east. The patriarchate of Constantinople (and that of Antioch) had not yet formally pronounced against Origenism, though it was already widely accepted by most bishops that the doctrines of Peri Archon were heretical. Indeed, Justinian would find the Greek bishops eager and willing to anathematize Origen, needing no persuasion on his part.
Prior to the synod, as noted, Justinian issued an edict, which was really an extended theological argument for the condemnation of Origen. In this learned treatise, the emperor (or perhaps an ecclesiastical author such as Pelagius) accused Origen of heretically maintaining that "the Father is greater than the Son, and the Son greater than the Holy Ghost: That the Son could not behold the Father, nor the Spirit the Son: That the Son and the Spirit are creatures, and that the Son is related to the Father as we to the Son.” The treatise proceeds to examine errors such as the pre-existence of souls and the apokatastasis, opposing them with proof-texts from various Church fathers, including Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, who rejected Origen's errors, as had the illustrious pillars of the faith, St. Basil, St. Cyril, and St. Athanasius.
Justinian's letter advised Mennas, Patriarch of Constantinople, to convene a synod to condemn Origen. Appended to the letter were twenty-four heretical propositions from Peri Archon, as well as the following ten anathemas:
1. Whoever says or thinks that human souls pre-existed, that is that they had previously been spirits and holy powers, but that, satiated with the vision of God, they had turned to evil, and in this way the divine love in them had grown cold, and they had therefore become souls (psuchan), and had been condemned to punishment in bodies, shall be anathema.
2. If anyone says or thinks that the soul of the Lord pre-existed and was united with God the Word before the Incarnation and Conception of the Virgin, let him be anathema.
3. If anyone says or thinks that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was first formed in the womb of the holy Virgin, and that afterwards there was united with it God the Word and the pre-existing soul, let him be anathema.
4. If anyone says or thinks that the Word of God became like to all heavenly orders, so that for the cherubim He was a cherub, for the seraphim a seraph; in short, like all superior powers, let him be anathema.
5. If anyone says or thinks that, at the resurrection, human bodies will rise in spherical form and unlike our present form, let him be anathema.
6. If anyone says that the heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the waters that are above the heavens, have souls, and are reasonable beings, let him be anathema.
7. If anyone says or thinks that Christ the Lord in a future time will be crucified for demons as He was for men, let him be anathema.
8. If anyone says or thinks that the power of God is limited, and that He created as much as He was able to compass, let him be anathema.
9. If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (apokatastasis) will take place, let him be anathema.
10. Anathema to Origen and to everyone who teaches and maintains the like doctrine.
This letter was addressed to the synod convened in Constantinople, and was distributed to all the patriarchs of the Church, together with the synodal acts. All of the patriarchs, including Pope Vigilius, gave their assent.
We can recognize some doctrines of Evagrius Ponticus in these anathemas. Only the grosser errors are condemned, which is why even Origenist sympathizers might sign on to these anathemas in good conscience, though bristling at the denunciation of Origen.
The first anathema describes Evagrius' doctrine of pre-existence, except that Evagrius says that noes, not souls, pre-existed. The fallen noes were then given souls and bodies as part of their degraded state. The edict rightly recognizes heresy in the idea that having a body is a punishment, and that the human mind existed before it became a soul with a body. We will examine early Christian teaching on pre-existence in more detail when discussing Peri Archon.
The second anathema condemns the doctrine that Christ's soul existed before the Incarnation. An Evagrian Origenist might assent to this anathema, since Evagrius held only that Christ's nous pre-existed, not necessarily his human soul. Yet Evagrius did maintain that Christ's nous was infused with the Word of God, implying a distinction between the Word and that which received it. This is effectively a hypostatic union prior to the Incarnation, which is heretical.
The third anathema condemns an idea obliquely indicated in Evagrius (see Fr. Theophanes' discussion, Vol. 1, Chapter III-12), that the Annunciation proclaimed the descent of Christ's nous, already in an angelic body, into a human body. (VI, 77) In this view, there is no proper Incarnation; rather, a mindless human body is created, which will receive an already existing mind (nous) infused with the Word of God.
The thesis condemned by the fourth anathema is not found in the Kephalaia Gnostica, but it is easily inferred from the Evagrian system. We are told that Christ previously had an angelic body, (IV, 41) and that he will restore every order of rational being to gnosis of the Unity. It is only congruent with the Evagrian doctrine of successive descents that Christ should, at various points in time, adopt the nature of each heavenly order, before taking on the nature of man. We should not be surprised, then, if various sixth-century Origenists actually held such a doctrine.
There is no mention in the Kephalaia Gnostica of human bodies taking a spherical form at the resurrection. Evagrius does teach that we will take on spiritual bodies (VI, 58), which for him means the immaterial bodies such as angels possess. He also says, "The resurrection of the body is the passage from the bad quality to the superior quality." (V, 19) Since the sphere was then regarded as the most perfect corporeal form, it is not surprising if many Origenists inferred that human bodies would become spherical, much like the celestial bodies that were regarded as glorious rational beings. We do know from Evagrius that even the spiritual bodies will eventually be discarded, as the noes are restored to their primitive unclothed state.
The sixth anathema condemns the idea that the celestial bodies are rational beings, a belief that was certainly held by Evagrius. (III, 62) It may be argued that there is nothing in the Christian faith that explicitly contradicts this doctrine. Yet Christianity presupposes a rejection of idolatry, which is to ascribe divine power to corporeal creatures. Although the Origenists did not think the stars were gods, their ascription of rational natures to the stars easily lent itself to idolatrous attitudes, and would logically legitimize the judicial astrology long condemned by the Church.
The idea that Christ would be crucified for demons is not found in Evagrius, but again we can see how that might have been inferred by Origenists. "The death of Christ is the mysterious operation which restores to eternal life those who have hoped in him in this life." (VI, 42) Recall that for Evagrius, death and life have various meanings according to the nature of each rational being. For all the orders to be restored to the highest eternal life, contemplation of Unity, it would be necessary for Christ to "die" according to each order. This includes the order of demons, since Evagrius teaches that absolutely all the noes will be restored.
The Origenists almost certainly did not teach that the power of God is limited, but such limitation is implied by their belief that God created all possible noes.
The ninth anathema does not condemn all forms of the doctrine of apokatastasis, but only those forms that indicate a merely temporary punishment for the demons and the damned. It is practically certain that Evagrius regarded the torment of hell as temporary, though he clothed his eschatological doctrine in obscure terms. In the final restoration, all contingencies or "modes" will be abolished, which means everything will be restored to Unity without separation. (I, 17; II, 17) "The end of praktike and of torment is the heritage of the saints; but that which is opposed to the first is the cause of the second, and the end of this is the heritage of those who are opposed." (I, 18) Opposing ascetic discipline (praktike) leads to the torment of hell, yet even those in opposition will inherit an end to torment. This idea of total restoration was not original to Evagrius, but can be found in Origen and other Alexandrian fathers.
The tenth anathema condemns the person of Origen and all who teach his heretical doctrines. The implication is that the doctrines of the first nine anathemas are attributable to Origen. In fact, not all of these doctrines were explicitly held by Origen, but they were ultimately grounded in the cosmology he first developed, so it is necessary for the synod to strip him of any patristic authority. This undoubtedly was the most difficult anathema for the Origenists to give their assent, and likely led to the retributive condemnation of the "Three Chapters," leading to a needless ecclesiastical controversy.
It is doubtful, to say the least, whether the Origenist bishops were sincere in their acceptance of these anathemas. They might have rationalized their assent following the teaching of Evagrius: "It is sometimes necessary to feign ignorance, because those who ask are not worthy of hearing. And you will be truthful because you are bound to a body and because you do not now have a complete knowledge of things." (The Gnostic, 23)
The synod of Greek bishops convened in 543 accepted the anathemas in Justinian's letter, and joined the emperor in condemning the person of Origen and Origenist doctrines. Some of these condemned doctrines were foreign to the thought of Origen, and reflected only the peculiar theology of sixth-century Origenists. Nonetheless, several of the doctrines were indeed authentic to Origen, so the synod duly anathematized both the person and the heretical works of the famous exegete.
Defenders of Origen have sought to characterize the acts of this Greek synod as merely local measures, not reflecting the judgment of the universal Church. While this certainly was not an ecumenical council, it is not necessary to convene one every time a heretic is to be anathematized by the Catholic Church. The synod's acts were ratified by the head of the Church, Pope Vigilius, who was not under any political pressure from the emperor, since in fact his own legate had motivated this course of action in the first place. Rome had already passed judgment against Origen in 400, and again in 494. Vigilius and Pelagius, strenuous advocates of papal primacy, sought to ensure that the Greeks all formally assented to this judgment. A Greek council had the further advantage of being able to examine Origen's work in the original Greek, and to identify in precise detail the doctrines to be condemned.
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By assenting to the ten anathemas of 543, Theodore Askidas and Domitian were able to maintain their influence in the imperial court, likely persuading Justinian to convene an ecumenical council against the "Three Chapters" of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and Ibas. This controversy dominated the discussions of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the second at Constantinople, held in 553.
In the eleventh anathema of the Council's acts, we find the name of Origen among "heretics who have already been condemned" [emphasis added] by the Catholic Church. There was probably not much discussion of Origenism at this council, nor ought there have been, since Origen had already been condemned by the entire Church. It is not necessary to summon an ecumenical council to excommunicate a heretic, as countless examples from Marcion to Luther demonstrate. The judgment against Origen in 543 was reaffirmed by the ecumenical council of 553, though it was not the special business of that council. Similarly, Apollinarius and Macedonius are named in the eleventh anathema of this Council, though they were not condemned in their persons by any previous general council. It would hardly be congruent with the authority of an ecumenical council if it identified heretics who were not really heretics. This ecumenical Council goes so far as to anathematize anyone who would defend these heretics, including Origen.
When Pope Vigilius finally ratified this general council (his hesitation not being over Origen, whom he had already condemned ten years earlier, but over the "Three Chapters"), he solidified the ecumenical character of its sentences, including its sentence against Origen. It is true that Pope Vigilius' statement ratifying the Council does not mention Origen, but neither does it mention the other named heretics, such as Arius and Nestorius. It is unsurprising that no comment, positive or negative, is made by the Pope, since the eleventh anathema of the Council was an uncontroversial list of heretics already condemned by the whole Church, East and West. No one presumed to defend Origen for centuries afterward.
We cannot escape the conclusion that Origen was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in his person and in his works. This condemnation was solemnly verified in an ecumenical council, and even if the Pope did not specifically mention this anathema in his ratification statement (though he has no obligation to do so in order to ratify the entire Council), it is clear from his past actions that he would not object in the slightest to the condemnation of Origen. In fact, he had formally endorsed this explicit position in the past, so there is no reason to regard Pope Vigilius' ratification of the Council as partial, somehow excluding the condemnation of Origen.
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There is no indication that Origenism was ever discussed in detail during the eight sessions of the Fifth Ecumenical Council proper. Prior to the opening of the council on 5 May, however, the assembled bishops were asked by the emperor to address a specific form of Origenism, denounced in fifteen anathemas appended to the imperial letter. The bishops assented to these anathemas, and even Theodore Askidas recanted the condemned doctrines. [Franz von Diekamp, "Die origenistischen Streitigkeiten in sechsten Jahrhundert" (Münster: Aschendorff, 1899)] This further accounts for why Origen is described as "already condemned" in the Fifth Ecumenical Council proper.
Later writers have frequently fallen into one of two errors regarding the fifteen anathemas. One is to attribute them to the Fifth Ecumenical Council, when in fact they were confirmed by the assembled bishops prior to the Council's opening. The other is to ascribe them to the synod of 543, as a clarified response to Justinian's ten proposed anathemas. This view, though it is held by authors as illustrious as Hefele, is at odds with the fact that the anathemas are in the context of an imperial edict, and thus could not be a response to Justinian's own decree. Some scholars object that the bishops assembled in 553 would not have denounced Origen, since Theodore Askidas, a prominent leader and initiator of the synod, was himself an Origenist. This objection is rendered null by the fact that Theodore had already denounced Origen at the emperor's command in 543, so there is no reason he would refuse to do so again if asked.
Although the fifteen anathemas are not part of the acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, their content gives the substance of the Origenist doctrine that was mentioned as already condemned by the Catholic Church in the eleventh anathema of that Council. Seeing that the ecumenical synod decreed that no Catholic Christian should refuse to anathematize Origen, persisting in this error unto death, we should examine the fifteen anathemas that show the substance of what has been condemned. It is important to recall that in judging persons and works, the Church judges the external forum only. When condemning a work as heretical, the Church does not make judgments about the author's intent, but only the objective meaning of the text as it is written, using the ordinary meanings of the words used. When condemning a person as a heretic, the Church judges only the external actions of the person and their effects on the faith of others, not the internal disposition of the heretic, known only to God, and according to which the person will be finally judged. Excommunication is not a definitive statement about the personal salvation or damnation of the named heretic. By assenting to the anathemas against Origen, Catholics need only acknowledge that the doctrines in Peri Archon, as they are written, are objectively heretical, and that Origen really did publish these writings. This does not exclude the possibility that Origen may have had more innocent intentions, but the Church condemned Origen in order to divest sixth century Origenists of a putative authority for their blatantly heretical application of Origen's writings.
Unfortunately, later commentators confused the acts of the 543 synod with those of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and as more recent scholarship clarified the distinction between these, it has been supposed by some that Origen was not truly condemned by the Council, since the fifteen anathemas were not among the Council's acts. This analysis ignores the fact that a general council is not necessary to condemn heresy, as well as the fact that the Fifth Ecumenical Council was putting its authority behind a sentence already decreed twice: first in 543, and again just prior to the Council.
The fifteen anathemas are directed more precisely at Palestinian Origenism, often quoting directly from the Kephalaia Gnostica. Justinian's ten anathemas of 543, by contrast, were more generic, and seem to have been drawn more from Peri Archon. Still, we can see from the ordering of the fifteen that they closely follow the themes first set forth in the ten anathemas of 543, only describing the doctrines with more precision. This perhaps was to catch those Origenists who assented the edict of 543 only because the condemned doctrines did not exactly match what Evagrius taught. The fifteen anathemas, then, are designed to leave no room for clandestine Origenism.
Since the anathemas of 553 focused less on the original work of Origen, and more on the doctrine of later Origenists, we will show direct comparisons with the Kephalaia Gnostica (following the notes of Fr. Theophanes, op. cit. Ch. III-45). The anathemas are as follows:
1. If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration (apokatastasis) which follows from it, let him be anathema.
2. If anyone says that the creation of rational beings (logikon) has arisen from merely incorporeal and immaterial spirits (noes) without number and name, so that there occurred a henad (i.e., a unity) of all of these in the likeness of being, power, and energy, as by their (like) unity with the Word of God, and (their like) knowledge of Him; but that they had become satiated with the vision of God, and had turned to that which was worse, everyone according to the nature of his inclination, and had assumed bodies, finer or grosser, and received names, whilst, among these powers there was a difference both of names and of bodies; so that some would be and be named some cherubim, others seraphim, others principalities, powers, dominions, and thrones, and angels, and however many heavenly orders there may belet him be anathema.
3. If anyone says that the sun, the moon, and the stars belong to that henad of rational beings, and through their turning to the worse have become what they are, let him be anathema.
4. If anyone says that spiritual beings, in whom divine love grows cold, are covered in grosser bodies like ours and called men, whilst others who reached the summit of evil had received cold and dark bodies, and are called now demons and evil spirits, let him be anathema.
5. If anyone says that, as of angels and archangels souls are made, and from souls demons and men, so from men again angels and demons come; and every class of the heavenly powers consists either altogether of that which is above or that which is below, or from both togetherlet him be anathema.
6. If anyone maintains that there is a twofold race of demons, the one consisting of human souls, the other of higher, but so deeply fallen spirits, and that of the whole number of rational beings only one Spirit remained unaltered in the divine love and vision, and that this one became Christ, and King of all rational beings, and created all bodily things, the heaven and the earth, and whatever is between them; and whoever says that the world has come into existence, since it has elements in itself which are older than itself, and which consist for themselvesnamely, the dry, the moist, the warm, and the cold, and the pattern according to which it (the world) is madeand that not all the holy and consubstantial Trinity, but the nous demiourgos, who is older than the world, and gave it its being, has constituted it by making it become (i.e. made it out of those elements)let him be anathema.
7. If anyone says that Christof whom it is said that He appeared in the form of God, and before all times was united with God the Word, and was in these last days humbled to our humanitydid, as they say, compassionate the manifold ruin of that unity of Spirits (to which He also belonged), and in order to bring them back, passed through all orders, took different bodies and received different names, became all to all, among angels an angel, among powers a power, received among the different orders of rational beings a corresponding form, then received flesh and blood like us, and became a man for menwhoever says this, and does not confess that God the Word humbled Himself and became man, let him be anathema.
8. If anyone does not confess that God the Word, who is of one substance with the Father and the Holy Ghost, and was incarnate and made manone of the Trinityis Christ in the proper sense, but (maintains) that He (the Word) was named Christ only by abuse on account of the Nous (created Spirit) which humbled itself; that this was united with God the Word and is Christ in the proper sense; and that the Word, on account of this union with this Nous is called Christ, and that He, the Nous, for that reason, is called God whoever maintains this, let him be anathema.
9. If anyone maintains that it was not the Word of God made flesh by assumption of a flesh animated by the psuche logike and noera , who went down into Hades and again returned into heaven, but says that this was done by the so-called (by them) Nous, of whom they impiously assert that He is Christ in the proper sense, and has become so through knowledge of the Unitylet him be anathema.
10. If anyone maintains that the body of the Lord, after the resurrection, is ethereal and spherical in form, and that the other resurrection bodies will be so also, and that after Christ laid aside His true bodyand so with all other menthe corporal nature passes into nothing, let him be anathema.
11. If anyone says that the future judgment brings the annihilation of the body, and that the end of the story is the immaterial phusis, and that in future there will be nothing material, but only mere spirit, let him be anathema.
12. If anyone says that the heavenly powers and all men and the devil and evil spirits unite themselves with the Word of God in precisely the same manner as does that Nous whom they call Christ, and who bears the form of God, and, as they say, humbled Himself; and whoever maintains that the kingdom of Christ will have an endlet him be anathema.
13. If anyone says that Christ (that Nous) is not at all different from the other rational beings, and that neither in substance, nor in respect of knowledge, nor in power and energy, exceeds all others, but that all will stand at the right hand of God, like the so-called (by them) Christ, let him be anathema.
14. If anyone maintains that one day all rational beings will again form a unit, when the individuals and the numbers are removed with the bodies; and that the destruction of the worlds and the laying aside of the bodies will follow upon the knowledge of rational things, and that the abandonment of names and an identity of knowledge and person will result; further, at the fabled apokatastasis only spirits alone will remain, as it was in the reigned pre-existencelet him be anathema.
15. If anyone says that the life of spirits will then be like the earlier life when they had not yet descended and fallen, so that the beginning and the end will be like each other, and the end the measure for the beginning, let him be anathema.
According to the historian Evagrius Scholasticus, quotations from the Origenists indicating adherence to these heresies were appended to the anathemas. Among these was a quotation from Theodore Askidas, saying, "If the Apostles and Martyrs at the present time work miracles, and are already so highly honoured, unless they shall be equal with Christ in the restitution of things, in what respect is there a restitution for them?" The writings of Didymus the Blind and Evagrius Ponticus were also quoted. Only the work of the latter is still extant, so we will presently focus on comparing his teaching with that condemned.
The first anathema condemns the doctrines of pre-existent souls and apokatastasis, which are mirror images of the same error. The idea that all rational beings are descended from noes contemplating the Unity leads to the complementary error that restoring creation means a return to this noetic state. Note that the first anathema does not condemn all forms of apokatastasis, but only the Evagrian eschatology, which is further described in subsequent anathemas.
The second anathema displays a lucid understanding of Evagrius' difficult system. It condemns the idea that all noes were first created as a henad or unity, without any distinction in number or name. It also condemns the idea that noes before the Movement all participated equally in gnosis of the Word of God. Evagrius is obscure on this point, but seems to imply that the nous that would become Christ had no privileged relationship with the Word of God prior to his anointing.(IV, 18) In any event, the Evagrian system clearly depicts a descent from the noetic henad to lower states with spiritual and corporeal bodies. The different kinds of bodies were assigned in accordance with how far inclined toward evil each nous had become. (cf., per Fr. Theophanes, Kephalaia Gnostica III, 22; I, 49; I, 50; III, 45; VI, 75; II, 66; II, 76; II, 14; VI, 78; VI, 80; I, 63) This system is clearly heretical, both because it asserts that angels, men, and demons were once all of the same nature, and also because it depicts our corporeality as a sort of punishment for evil.
The third anathema condemns the Evagrian doctrine, also found in Origen, that the stars are rational beings. (I, 63; VI, 88; III, 37; III, 84, IV 29, III 62) The drafters of this decree made the logical inference that the stars, being rational creatures, must also have been part of the primordial henad, and therefore descended to their present state as a result of their deviation toward evil. Yet this is contrary to Genesis, which says the sun, moon and stars were good in their creation. (Gen. 1:18)
The fourth anathema describes the Evagrian "first judgment" for men and demons, assigning them gross bodies. This is heretical not only because of its supposition that men formerly had higher natures before taking on flesh, but also in its attribution of "cold and dark bodies" to demons. While there is nothing in Christian faith that prescribes a specific demonology, the demons had always been regarded as intrinsically spiritual beings, though capable sometimes of taking bodily form. The Origenists were forced into the contrarian belief that demons have gross bodies, only because of their moral cosmology which associated corporeality with evil.
The fifth anathema cites two parts of the Kephalaia Gnostica verbatim. "From the order of the angels and from the order of archangels comes the order of souls; from that of souls (comes) that of demons and that of men; and from that of men will come anew angels and demons." (V, 11) This describes the successive descent from the angelic orders to men and demons, followed by future ascents and descents. The idea that men become angels or demons by pursuing gnosis or ignorance is plainly opposed to Christian doctrine, which teaches that men are altogether different in nature from angels and demons, and that we will be raised to eternal life or damned to hell as men. Evagrius, by contrast, teaches that all of the various kinds of rational nature are but temporary states. "Each order (tagma) of the heavenly powers has been constituted either completely from superiors or completely from inferiors or from superiors and inferiors." (II, 78) These ascents and descents will continue until the final restoration, when all will be restored to noetic contemplation in Unity. The idea that the angelic and human natures are merely temporary conditions, which will not partake of eternal life, is plainly contrary to the promises of Christ.
Evagrius allowed that demons could be former angels or former men (V, 11), so the sixth anathema condemns the doctrine of a "twofold" race of demons. Also denounced is the doctrine that the single rational being which remained unshaken in its love of God became Christ. This Evagrian teaching would make Christ (or rather, his nous) no different in kind from other noes before the Movement.
Evagrius does not explicitly state that the worlds were made from pre-existing elements, but this is at least implied. (III, 23) At any rate, the sixth anathema finds fault with the Evagrian mode of creation, which is by the nous which is Christ through the second natural contemplation. Christian doctrine holds that the world was created by the Holy Trinity, and the writers of the anathema rightly consider that the nous who becomes Christ is not the same as the Word of God, though the Word of God is in him. Indeed, according to the anathema, the Origenists called this nous a demiurge (demiourgikos).
The seventh anathema condemns the Origenist interpretation of the Incarnation, which would make Christ take on human nature out of pity for those of us who have fallen from the henad to this state of separation and corporeality, as though our individuality and carnality were flaws to be repaired. Evagrius did not openly state that Christ had similarly assumed all the various angelic natures, but this teaching is veiled: "There is only one of these who has acquired common names with the others." (II, 24; cf. VI, 33) Elsewhere, Evagrius states that Christ previously had an angelic body. (IV, 41) The Origenists thought that Christ took on various types of bodies in various worlds before finally taking on human nature in our world. The anathema condemns not only this doctrine of successive natures in Christ, but also the idea that the subject of the Incarnation is this nous, rather than the Word of God Himself.
The eighth anathema closely follows the text of the Kephalaia Gnostica, even quoting a part verbatim. Evagrius taught that "Christ is not the Word in the beginning," since he identified Christ"the anointed"as a created nous, while that with which he was anointed is an "intelligible unction," the Word of God, which is the "spiritual gnosis of the Holy Unity." Accordingly, Evagrius says, "...that one on account of this one is the Christ, and this one on account of that one is God" (IV, 18), which the anathema quotes verbatim. In other words, the Word of God is said to be Christ only by virtue of inhering in the nous that is properly Christ, and the nous is said to be God only by virtue of the Word of God that inheres in him. The anathema condemns this formulation, as it denies any substantial identity between the Word and Christ, and between Christ and God.
Evagrius says that only Christ, not the Word of God, descended to Sheol and ascended to Heaven. (IV, 80) His objection appears to be that only a "gross body" (i.e., a non-spiritual body) could make such a descent, but such bodies are "not susceptible of gnosis, and God is known." Thus the Word of God, which is the gnosis of the Unity, could not have descended into Sheol. This error further denies that Christ is truly the Word Incarnate, so it is condemned in the ninth anathema.
Evagrius does not clearly indicate that Christ took on an ethereal body after the Resurrection, though he does say, "The ‘first-born from among the dead’ is he who has been resurrected from among the dead, and the first has assumed a spiritual body." (IV, 24) From elsewhere in the Kephalaia Gnostica, we gather that "spiritual body" refers to the subtle, immaterial bodies of heavenly beings, not true flesh. This is a denial of the resurrection of the flesh. Evagrius nowhere mentions that spiritual bodies are spherical, but as noted previously, the notion that spheres were perfect corporeal forms was widely current. The tenth anathema's depiction of men taking spiritual bodies after the Resurrection, followed by Christ removing his spiritual body, and then men leaving their spiritual bodies, is entirely consistent with the Evagrian scheme of a successive restoration toward a purely noetic state. (VI, 34)
The eleventh anathema condemns the Evagrian doctrine that all bodies will be destroyed at the last judgment, so that there is nothing left that is material. (III, 66, 68) There will remain only the naked nous in contemplation of the Unity. (III, 15) In Evagrius' view, Christ does not so much redeem human nature as liberate us from it.
As a consequence of the preceding error, it follows that there will be an end to the kingdom of Christ, no less than all other worlds, for even spiritual bodies must pass away, until there is nothing but the noetic henad. Since Evagrius says that the naked nous is a seer of the Trinity (III, 15), and that the perfect nous "can easily receive the essential gnosis" (III, 12), which is God, it seems to follow that all the perfected noes will be in gnostic union with God no less than the nous of Christ. Evagrius hints as much (VI, 34), and the teaching is condemned by the twelfth anathema. In such a doctrine, even men and demons will be made equal to Christ in relation to the Word of God, which is the gnosis of the Unity.
The thirteenth anathema condemns the view that all will be equal to Christ in standing at the right hand of God, as none of the noes exceed each other "in substance, nor in respect of knowledge, nor in power and energy". The quotation from Theodore Askidas cited by Evagrius Scholasticus shows that Theodore believed the saints would be made equal to Christ. Otherwise, he says, how could they be said to be restored to something greater than what they already are, seeing that they now work miracles? The orthodox answer is that the saints will be restored by reunion with their flesh, which will now be glorified and utterly obedient to the spirit, so in that sense they are spiritual bodies. This response would be utterly unacceptable to Theodore, for whom corporeality was a degradation, not an exaltation. Since he is unable to see any eternal value in the restoration of the flesh, he is led to invent a new error by making the saints equal to Christ. Evagrius Ponticus does not explicitly teach this doctrine, though it is implied by his noetic henad. Clearly, this belief denies the eternity of the flesh redeemed by Christ, and would make eternal life a purely bodiless experience, while the Incarnate Word would be no longer Incarnate, as even Christ's flesh would pass away.
The fourteenth anathema specifies exactly what is "monstrous" about the apokatastasis condemned in the first. In the Evagrian system, all rational beings will be a single henad, with the substantial persons (hypostases) and numbers being destroyed no less than the bodies. All worlds will be destroyed, and there will not even be names (i.e., essential forms) of things, but instead there will be an identity of gnosis and of persons. This is basically a mental union, as all the various minds are fused together in a monstrous unity, just as they supposedly did when they were pre-existent. The Kephalaia Gnostica (II, 17) is quoted by this anathema verbatim.
The monstrous union of the noetic henad is considered to be a restoration only because of the Evagrian doctrine that this was the primitive state of all minds. Evagrius, in turn, gathered this belief from Origen and the Neoplatonists, which is why Origen is really at the root of the Evagrian system. The anathemas of 543 and 553 open by condemning the doctrine of pre-existent souls, not so much to discard the idea in general, but rather to target the specific kind of pre-existence articulated by Origen and his successors. This idea that all minds were in a bodiless union with God informs the rest of Origenism, leading them to reconceive the Christian apokatastasis into the mirror image of this Neoplatonist monad.
It is hardly deniable that the doctrines denounced by the fifteen anathemas are objectively heterodox, regardless of whether the anathemas pertain to an ecumenical council. At any rate, the same bishops who approved the anathemas also conducted the Fifth Ecumenical Council, which condemned Origen. The anathemas, then give us insight into what the bishops of the Council understood by Origenism.
It remains for us to investigate whether the doctrines described in the fifteen anathemas of 553 and the ten anathemas of 543 can be found in Origen's Peri Archon, and whether such doctrines could have already been recognized as heresy in the third century. This will help decide the question of whether Origen was personally guilty of the heresy that bears his name.
Continue to Part IV
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