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Chapter 4: The Rising Controversy

Chapter 4
The Rising Controversy

 

Though Origen was one of the most influential theologians of the third and fourth century, it is only natural that he also had enemies who opposed various things that he had taught. And, indeed, whenever someone takes it upon himself to expound on a wide variety of biblical topics, there will always be some who are offended by each new topic that is treated.

In the book, How to be a Bishop without Being Religious, Charles Merrill Smith gives advice to Christian ministers to refrain from teaching doctrines, because this will only divide the people into factions and continually split the Church. This advice has been followed by many, resulting in greater unity at the expense of the knowledge of Scripture. By contrast, my advice is to develop both the fruit of the Spirit as well as biblical knowledge, for this is the true path toward unity without sacrificing truth. Angry and vindictive men must always impose unity by force, regardless of how much they teach; while Christ-like men attain unity through love, kindness, and humility.

The fourth century came to a close, and the great Universalists of the day died and were resting in peace. Unfortunately, a great many Christian bishops had spent too little time cultivating the fruits of the Spirit and too much time accumulating money and power. During most of the fourth century, the Arian controversy about whether or not Christ was a created being, brought about the practice of holding Church Councils to decide truth and heresy by the reasoning of the carnal mind. The "heretics" were treated as badly as the Roman Emperors had treated Christians in the heyday of its persecutions.

The opinion of the great Gregory Nazianzen, bishop of Constantinople, called "The Theologian," is recorded on page 178, 179 of Ballou’s The Ancient History of Universalism,

"He condemned the captiousness of the zealous bigots upon doctrinal points . . . The clergy of that day, he boldly, and it appears justly, represented as a body of men avaricious, quarrelsome, licentious, and in one word, unprincipled; and of the frequent councils which then disturbed the peace of the church, he declared that he was afraid of them, because he had never seen the end of one that was happy and pleasant, or that did not rather increase than diminish the evil."

This Gregory died in 390. The other Gregory, bishop of Nyassa (the brother of Basil), died in 394 or 395 near the age of sixty. Didymus the Blind, who had become blind at the age of five, yet rose to become the President of the great Catechetical School in Alexandria (which post Origen had also held a century earlier), also died in 395 near the age of ninety. Titus, bishop of Bostra had already died some time earlier.

There were new rising stars in the Church in those days. The learned, though bitterly vindictive Jerome, bishop of Bethlehem, was a great linguist and translator of letters and Scripture. John Crysostom, the orator bishop of Constantinople, lived until 407. And finally, in the West, Augustine converted to Christianity from Manicheanism in 388 and had soon been ordained bishop of Hippo, near Carthage in North Africa. He lived until 430.

With the expulsion of the Arians (the followers of Arius) in the fourth century, who had denied the Trinity, the Church now had the time to search out other heresies to conquer. Like the modern world wars, which start small and localized and then grow as each side gains supporters, the Universalist controversy started small as well in the year 391.

In that year Epiphanius, bishop of Cyprus, visited Jerusalem, where John was bishop. John was an admirer of Origen, but Epiphanius greatly opposed Origen's teaching. As a courtesy, John invited Epiphanius to address the Church in Jerusalem. Epiphanius, however, used the occasion to attack Origen and reproached John for allowing heresy in his midst. When this line of preaching continued, John sent his archdeacon in front of the whole church to request him to desist this attack. After the meeting, the heated discussions continued, centering mostly around Origen's belief that the resurrection was not bodily.

A couple of years later, Epiphanius again came to Jerusalem, but stayed at a monastery 20 miles to the West. At that time, Jerome's brother, Paulinianus, arrived at Bethlehem on business. Epiphanius ordered him to be seized, bound and gagged, and then ordained him a deacon by force--a practice not without precedent in those days.

Seeing that Epiphanius was out of his jurisdiction, this was offensive to John, who angrily complained of this breach of protocol. Recall that this was the same complaint made by the Alexandrian bishop when the bishops of Caesarea had ordained Origen. John threatened to write letters of complaint to all the Churches, and this news reached the ears of Epiphanius, who by this time had returned to Cyprus.

Epiphanius retorted that John's complaint was not really about this breach of protocol, but about the Origenist dispute. In 394 he published the first censure on Universalism that we have on record. Ballou writes of this on page 215,

"We have said that in this passage occurs the first censure which is to be found in all antiquity against the doctrine of Universalism. We must remark, however, that even here the censure falls, as the reader may perceive, not on the doctrine of the salvation of all mankind, but on that of the salvation of the devil."

Epiphanius sent his letter not only to John but also to the other bishops in Palestine, which served to divide them into opposing camps. The most important result, perhaps, was that Jerome of Bethlehem sided with Epiphanius, even though up to that time he had clearly taught the salvation of all mankind in his Commentary on Ephesians and in other works. Jerome, however, wanted to support the ordination of his brother, Paulinianus, who had been ordained by Epiphanius (by force). So he withdrew from the communion of John of Jerusalem and, in fact, translated Epiphanius' letter into Latin to increase its circulation.

This, in turn, caused an open breach with Jerome's long-time friend and scholar, Rufinus, with whom he had studied the works of Origen under the tutelage of Gregory Nazianzen in Constantinople, as well as under Didymus the Blind in Alexandria. Thus, the Orgenist war widened.

It was not long before the news of the war reached Alexandria. Isidorus, the elderly patron of Origen there soon entered the scene of battle with an encouraging letter to his brethren in Palestine. He then carried letters from his archbishop, Theophilus, to both John and Jerome. Two months later, Theophilus, himself went to Palestine to lend his weight to the dispute and extend his influence in Palestine.

Isidorus discovered that his old friends in Bethlehem had turned against Origen, and so he sided with John of Jerusalem. Yet most of the Origenist disputes at this time centered around the theologian's views on pre-existence, the Trinity, the resurrection body, and the salvation of the devil and his angels.

Meanwhile, Rufinus and Jerome reconciled their differences, pledging themselves to refrain from attacks upon each other. Then Rufinus sailed for Rome, where he published a Latin translation of Origen's Of Principles. He also took it upon himself to change or leave out certain of Origen's statements that he knew would be offensive, claiming later that these passages were added or corrupted by heretics.

But he did not stop there. He alluded to an unnamed "accomplished brother" (i.e., Jerome) who had also greatly admired Origen, and pointed out his inconsistency in that he was now slandering Origen. Of course, Jerome could not resist replying to that, and soon the breach was worse than it ever was, two great scholars in a public feud, each pointing out the other's inconsistencies.

More than anything, this breach between Jerome and Rufinus widened the local controversy to a full-scale war within the Christian Church.