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Origen and his successors--Part 2

Nov 28, 2011

Origen died in 253 A.D., having been cruelly tortured for two years in a Roman prison for refusing to deny Jesus Christ. For the next 150 years he was revered and admired as one of the great saints of God.

But then in the year 400 an event occurred in Alexandria that changed the course of church history. The Bishop of Alexandria at the time was a man named Theophilus. Church historians call him an "unprincipled man" having a "base mind" and not hesitating to make false accusations in order to further his political career.

One day Theophilus wrote a treatise, defending Origen's belief that God was a Spirit and did not have a corporeal body. His view came directly from Jesus' words in John 4:24,

"God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and Truth."

There was, however, a powerful group of monks in Egypt known as "Scetic" monks. They violently disagreed with Theophilus and actually set out to murder him for his doctrinal view. Out of fear, Theophilus suddenly proclaimed his agreement with the monks and agreed to condemn the works of Origen on account of his belief that God was a Spirit.

Isidorus, the superintendent of the almshouse for the church in Alexandria, declined to change his view to conform to Theophilus' new belief. Further, Isidorus was one of many who greatly admired Origen, for he was one of the revered saints of the Alexandrian church.

About this time, a wealthy widow donated a large sum of money to Isidorus, under the condition that he would not tell Theophilus about this donation. She knew that if Theophilus would misuse the money, and she wanted it to be spent on clothing for poor women rather than lofty building projects. Of course, it was hard to hide such a donation when so many poor women began to receive such provision from the almshouse.

Theophilus heard about this donation and flew into a rage. He banished Isidorus by raising false accusations against him (as was his custom). Isidorus fled and found refuge among the Nitrian monks, whose beliefs had long followed those of Origen. A group of about 300 of these monks refused to submit to the new theological view of the bishop. So Theophilus flew into a rage and sent armed men to burn their monasteries and kill or torture those who refused to deliver Isidorus into his hands to be tortured into submission. This caused great indignation among the Christians in Alexandria, who revered these monks as holy men.

Eighty of these monks escaped north to Scythopolis, about 70 miles north of Jerusalem. From there they made their way further north to Constantinople, where they appealed to the great bishop, John Chrysostom for justice. When John heard of their plight, he was horrified at the murderous actions of Theophilus. He summoned Theophilus to Constantinople in order to conduct a full investigation and hearing.

Theophilus then hastily called together a synod of a few loyal bishops and condemned Origen as a heretic. The synod forbade anyone to read Origen's works, not because of his views on the salvation of all, but mainly for his view that God was a Spirit and did not have a physical body.

Theophilus, though, was crafty enough to send his men to Constantinople ahead of his arrival, where they were able to obtain royal help from the Emperor and his wife. It seems that earlier John had dared to criticize them for misconduct and sin. Their resentment found satisfaction in helping Theophilus to depose John from his position as Bishop. John was banished and forced to travel to remote towns until he finally died of hardship in 407.

Church historians have written detailed histories of about this appalling chapter in church history. John was truly a man of integrity in his personal life. He did not deserve the treatment that he received in his day, though later the church found it necessary to restore him to greatness. Meanwhile, however, the faction condemning Origen won the day, and Theophilus wrote letters to the other bishops to gain support for his position. Hosea Ballou writes on page 230 of his book, The Ancient History of Universalism,

"Great were the mutual congratulations of Theophilus, Epiphanius, and Jerome, on these decisive measures. They informed each other, in their bombastic letters, that the snake of Origenism was now severed and disembowelled by the evangelical sword, that the host of Amalek was destroyed, and the banner of the cross erected on the altars of the Alexandrian church. Theophilus sent letters to Rome, to Cyprus, and to Constantinople, proclaiming his late measures, and exhorting the respective bishops to follow his example.

"Accordingly, Anastasius, the new Pope, who had succeeded Siricius at Rome, readily gratified the numerous partisons of Jerome in that city by issuing a decree [400 A.D.] which was received through all the West, condemning the works of Origen; and Epiphanius soon afterwards convened a synod of his bishops in Cyprus, and procured from them a like sentence."

Jerome, the Bishop of Bethlehem, was probably one of the most influential scholars of his time. Though his scholarship was unquestioned, his bad temper and his ready willingness to defame and attack anyone who disagreed with him was well known to this day. Though he had admired Origen earlier, he changed his views when his opponents sided with Origen. According to church historian, Hans von Campenhausen, Jerome "lost all feeling of decency and veracity" (The Fathers of the Latin Church, p. 178).

Anyone who seriously studies the history of the Origenist controversy knows that the wolves in sheep's clothing were not the Origenists, but their opponents. Historians are universally agreed upon this clear fact of history.

Even so, another 150 years went by before the Fifth General Council in 553 A.D. found it necessary to condemn Origen again. This was a small council of just 148 bishops, but even then, Origen was not condemned for his views on the salvation of all men. Strangely enough, the same Council praised Gregory of Nyassa, though he clearly believed in the salvation of all mankind in the end. This is the Gregory who was later given the title "Father of Fathers" in the Seventh General Council in 787 A.D.

This is the Gregory whose sermon on 1 Cor. 15:28 I quoted in Appendix 3 of my book, Creation's Jubilee. In part, Gregory wrote:

"So I begin by asking what is the truth that the divine apostle intends to convey in this passage? It is this. In due course evil will pass over into non-existence; it will disappear utterly from the realm of existence. Divine and uncompounded goodness will encompass within itself every rational nature; no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God. The evil that is now present in everything will be consumed like a base metal melted by the purifying fire. Then everything which derives from God will be as it was in the beginning before it had ever received an admixture of evil."

What kind of character did Gregory possess? Robert Payne describes him in The Fathers of the Eastern Church, p. 168,

"Of the three Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nyassa is the one closest to us, the least proud, the most subtle, the one most committed to the magnificence of man. That strange, simple, happy, unhappy, intelligent, and God-tormented man was possessed by angels.... It was left to Gregory of Nyassa to be the man enchanted with Christ."

This is the final part of a series titled "Origen and his Successors." To view all parts, click the link below.

Origen and his Successors

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Dr. Stephen Jones

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