The anathemas against Origen at the 2nd Council of Constantinople

I’m going through my filing cabinet, turning photocopies into PDF’s and throwing away the paper.  While doing so, I’m coming across all sorts of things that I haven’t seen for years.  One of these is some pages of Norman Tanner’s edition of the Decrees of the ecumenical councils (1990).  This is the sort of thing that I dearly wish was online.  But a note in the preface caught my eye:

Our purpose in editing the texts has been to present all the decrees of the councils and only the decrees. For this reason some very important texts have had to be omitted, for example the anathemas against Origen formerly attributed (erroneously) to Constantinople II, or the charges on which pope Honorius was condemned (as these relate to the acts, not the decrees, of Constantinople III), or the profession of faith of pope Hormisdas which was a condition of admittance required of the council fathers at Constantinople IV, but does not appear to have been formally approved by the council.

Now I was under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the Council of Constantinople held by Justinian had condemned Origenism, and perhaps anathematised Origen himself, depending on some text-critical questions.  To pronounce a man anathema 300 years after he died in the peace of the church, and died moreover from the effects of torture in confessing Christ, would be morally wrong of course.

Unfortunately I don’t have the relevant pages of Tanner, and I don’t know the facts.  Would someone better informed on this council than myself care to comment?


25 thoughts on “The anathemas against Origen at the 2nd Council of Constantinople

  1. Roger, I read your post with interest. I am in the process of writing a book about a subject that Origen taught, along with others in the early church – the idea that God will ultimately restore all of His creation to its original perfection. Anyway, I thought you might find the following section from my .ms interesting:

    “One legitimate question that immediately comes up in any discussion of Origen and his teaching is, “Wasn’t he condemned as a heretic, and his teaching about restoration declared a heresy by the Church centuries ago?” That is, indeed, an important question. Was Origen condemned as a heretic? Was his teaching about restoration officially declared a heresy by the Church centuries ago? The answer is a definite “Yes . . . and, No.”

    First, we should clarify what “heresy” in religious matters really is. What we usually mean when we use the term is that the “heretical” teaching is wrong teaching, but that is to use the word too loosely. A teaching may be wrong without being heresy. Historically, heresy has been something that the combined Church declared to be so at one of the general councils in the early centuries of its existence.

    Origen was, and is, a very controversial figure, and both he and his teaching about restoration were, at one point, condemned as heretical. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean he was a heretic, nor that his teaching on a specific matter was heretical.

    During his life and for the first couple of hundred years after his death, Origen’s reputation spread far and wide. He was considered one of the most important of the church fathers with his writings widely disseminated and used in the church. Then, three hundred years after he died, a church council in Constantinople condemned him as a heretic. It issued a list of 15 anathemas against what was considered “Origenist” teachings, although it is doubtful that much of what was condemned was actually taught by Origen, and many of his writings were completely destroyed.

    What happened to bring about such a tremendous change in attitude? Why did it take so long to get around to condemning him if he was, indeed, an impious heretic? Why did the council decide to not only declare his teaching in certain areas heresy, but also declare him personally a heretic – three hundred years after he was dead?! Why were others who held views similar to those of Origen never condemned? These are important, complex questions that many have tried to answer. The simple answer, and a factor that has played an important role in many significant events in history, is that politics entered the picture.

    Everyone agrees that Origen was a brilliant, energetic, and dedicated Christian leader whose positive impact on the development and teaching of the Christian Church was unmatched in his time. Everyone agrees that most of Origen’s writings were clearly accepted as orthodox. Everyone agrees that Origen’s personal life was exemplary, suffering persecution and even torture for his faith. Everyone agrees that some of his thoughts were speculative – he himself explained that some of his writings were investigations and discussions rather than fixed and certain decisions.

    The main areas of controversy involve whether or not what was condemned at the council in Constantinople was actually taught by Origen, whether or not the anathemas against him and his “teaching” were actually issued by an ecumenical council of the church, and whether or not one of the councils in question – the Fifth Ecumenical Council – was actually an official and authorized general Council of the Church, since it was not attended by the primary representative of the Western Church.

    The anathemas against Origen occurred during the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I who ruled from AD 527-565. Justinian was a strong leader whose ambition was to restore the Roman Empire to its original glory. He saw himself as both priest and king, making him in his own eyes the supreme head on earth of the Church as well as the State. In his religious as well as his secular administration he did not tolerate dissent, as can be seen by his pronouncement that the emperor’s will was law. Justinian sought to stamp out heresy in his empire, but at the end actually lapsed into a form of heresy himself.

    Two series of anathemas were issued against Origen and Origenist teaching in the sixth century at the insistence of Justinian. The first was composed of nine articles that he included in a letter to the patriarch Menas in Constantinople in AD 543. These were apparently ratified by a local council of the church in that city in 544. The second was a list of 15 articles supposedly issued by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in that same city in AD 553. This general council was resisted by the Roman Pope Vigilius who did not even attend, although he was in the city of Constantinople at the time. One of the judgments Justinian pushed for was against teaching about restoration.

    Historically, the scholarly community has been divided over the issue of Origen’s condemnation. Some capable scholars have held that the 15 anathemas were, indeed, issued by the general Council in 553, and Origen and his teaching about restoration are heretical. Others with equally strong credentials have suggested that there was confusion between the two councils – both held in Constantinople within a nine year time span – and that the 15 anathemas were actually issued by the local council in 544. If this is the case, Origen and a distorted view of his belief in Ultimate Restoration were condemned at a local council, but they were specifically not taken up by the larger and more important general ecumenical council that met nine years later.

    Recent scholarship has suggested that the anathemas may have been issued by the assembled bishops of the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, but prior to the actual opening of the convention. If this is true, it would again be the case that the condemnation does not have the clear status of a decision of an ecumenical council. In addition to this, there is the very legitimate question regarding whether or not the Council was official, since it was opposed by the primary representative of the Western Church who did not attend.

    What is certain is that the Fifth Ecumenical Council was called exclusively to deal with a totally separate issue, and that nothing whatever is said about Origen or Origenism in the call of the council nor in any of the letters written in connection with it. It is also certain that the council was called by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I rather than the Church leadership because of the resistance of Pope Vigilius who refused to attend it, and that the official record of the council has no mention of the anathemas. Finally, it is certain that the only articles that Pope Vigilius later agreed to have no mention of the anathemas against Origen or his teaching.

    Historian Philip Schaff and others consider the condemnation of Origen the result of “vehement and petty personal quarrels . . . and a narrow-minded intolerance towards all free speculation” which brought no gain to the development of church doctrine, but had a chilling effect on theological discussion from that point on.

    While Origen’s integrity has been challenged throughout the centuries, it should be emphasized that his whole theology was rooted in Scripture and focused on the creative and saving power of Christ. He saw in Him a Being stronger than every sin, and whose divine power will ultimately heal all so that the final end of all things will include the destruction of evil.”

  2. I don’t believe that an individual can validly be anathematised three centuries after he died a confessor’s death. All Byzantine synods seem to me to be a mixture of politics and theology.

  3. Roger, I would certainly agree with you.

    By the way, I am trying to get a primary source for some statements by Thomas of Mopsuestia. He was quoted by Edward Beecher in History of Opinions on the Spiritual Doctrine of Retribution, D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1878, pp. 222-224 as saying,

    “God knew that men would sin in all ways, but permitted this result to come to pass, knowing that it would ultimately be for their advantage. For since God created man when he did not exist, and made him ruler of so extended a system, and offered so great
    blessings for his enjoyment, it was impossible that he should have not prevented the entrance of sin, if he had not known that it would be ultimately for his advantage. . . . Therefore God divided the creation into two states, the present and the future. In the latter he will bring ALL to immortality and immutability. In the former he gives us over to death and mutability.”

    Also, he was quoted by Hosea Ballou 2nd, in Universalism, From the Time of the Apostles to the Fifth General Council, Universalist Publishing House, Boston, 1885, pp. 244-245 as saying,

    “The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard Him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of His grace. For He never would have said, ‘until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing,’ [Mat. 5:26] unless we can be released from suffering after having suffered adequately for sin; nor would He have said, ‘he shall be beaten with many stripes,’ [Luke 12:47] and again, ‘he shall be beaten with few stripes,’ [vs. 48] unless the punishment to be endured for sin will have an end.”

    If you could shed any light on this, I would appreciate it.

    God bless.

  4. I’d love to look into this. Aren’t there Greek texts of his works in the Patrologia Graeca? But I’m really tied up at the moment.

    That’s where I would look, tho; get the PG, look through the Latin text, and look in the footnotes for those biblical references. A bit tedious, but hardly impossible.

  5. Roger, In my first note, I mentioned that I was writing a book about ultimate restoration – a belief held by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and others in the ancient church. I wanted to ask if I could quote you in the book – one of the comments you made in response to my post would fit in very well. The paragraph I would like to add would read,

    “Historian Philip Schaff and others consider the condemnation of Origen the result of “vehement and petty personal quarrels . . . and a narrow-minded intolerance towards all free speculation” which brought no gain to the development of church doctrine, but had a chilling effect on theological discussion from that point on. Contemporary patrristics scholar, Roger Pearse, has commented, “To pronounce a man anathema 300 years after he died in the peace of the church, and died moreover from the effects of torture in confessing Christ, would be morally wrong of course.”

    By the way, I looked back at my source for the comments of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodorus. Hosea Ballou 2nd noted the comment by Diodorus as from Assemani Bibliotheca Orientalis, tom. iii., part i., p. (either 324 or 824, it was hard to read), and Theodore from Assemani Bibliotheca Orientalis, tom. iii., par. i., p. 323. Beecher said his comment for Theodore was from Book V of De Cretura. Since each of them were familiar with several ancient languages, they may have translated it themselves. Any thoughts you would have on this would be appreciated.

    Anyway, thank you for your input so far. I am very grateful. If you would prefer to email me instead of posting a response on your blog, please feel free to do so. God bless.

  6. Well, I’m not a scholar but an interested amateur, but you may certainly quote me. I doubt my opinion has much weight, tho!

    Assemani’s Bibliotheca Orientalis is a combination of Syriac text and Latin translation, extracts from oriental Christian literature. At that time, his texts were often unpublished. I imagine Beecher etc translated from the Latin. I don’t know if the BO is online yet.

  7. Roger, Thank you. Would you like anything different than “scholar” – patristics translator, or something else? If so, I will change it. However, you seem to be a scholar in the true sense, and your comment was well stated. God bless.

  8. George, your comments are actually very interesting. I’d like to track down this material by Theodore of Mopsuestia. I’m sorry if my replies have been brief — I am horribly over-stretched right now.

    To attack this, we need to look at the BO, I think. Question is how to get access to it. It’s old, as you appreciate. Heh… I have PDF’s of three vols of it, I discover. I don’t know where those came from, whether off the web or not. It doesn’t seem to be on Google Books or Quality seems good. I didn’t know I had it. Hmmm…

  9. By the way, I looked back at my source for the comments of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodorus. Hosea Ballou 2nd noted the comment by Diodorus as from Assemani Bibliotheca Orientalis, tom. iii., part i., p. (either 324 or 824, it was hard to read), and Theodore from Assemani Bibliotheca Orientalis, tom. iii., par. i., p. 323.

    Theodore is definitely on p.323. Assemani seems to be going through the catalogue of Syriac writers by Ebed-Jesu, adding extracts as he does. Both 323 and 324 mention Diodorus and Theodore. (It can’t be 824 – the book doesn’t go much above 700). Let me see if I can make these pages visible to you…

  10. By “De cretura” you mean “De creatura”. This work appears in Migne, Patrologia graeca, volume LXVI (=66), column 633f., or thereabouts.

  11. Col 634B (on the same page as above) is the passage from Beecher. (Also available here).

    The heading is Eiusdem ex quinto libro, quod sciens Deus expedire hominibus peccatum, hoc fieri disposuit.

    The fragment starts: “Nam sciebat quidem quod peccabunt omnimodo (continuing down to) eis hoc cognosceret.”

    Then he marks some dots. But nothing in the rest of that fragment seems to correspond to “Therefore God divided the creation into two states, the present and the future. In the latter he will bring ALL to immortality and immutability. In the former he gives us over to death and mutability”. Hmmm…

    Ah, I see it. It’s actually in the first fragment on the same page, col. 633A (also from the fifth book of the same work): “ideo in duos status divisit Deus creaturam, praesentem et futuram;” and continues to “interim nos dimittans”. It’s a little naughty of Dr B. to run these together in reverse order.

  12. Roger, That is great! Thank you for tracking these down. See, you really are a “scholar!” By the way, if you would like to read what I have written about the early church fathers regarding restoration, let me know an email address to send you a copy of that part of the .ms. I am very grateful for your help. God bless.

  13. Roger, Your comment about “naughty” by changing the order of the comments was correct. However, as I looked again at what Dr. Beecher said, it was NOT him who reversed the order, but me! He quotes each of the sections separately, and I had written them down in the order in which they appeared in the book. However, he did not quote them together. They were each supporting different points he was making. So, it was MY mistake, not Dr. Beecher. Sorry! But, thanks for pointing that out. I will change that in my .ms.

  14. Gentlemen Sarris and Pearse,
    THANK YOU, for a very enlightening discussion on Origen I have ALWAYS felt that he was not understood, and was truly one of the most enlightened of the earliest teachers.
    Mr. Sarris, I would appreciate knowing when (And If) your manuscript mentioned above is published, as I feel it would be very instructive personally, as well as historically.
    Thank You

  15. Conshana,
    Thank you for your encouragement. After being turned down by 17 publishers, I decided to make some major revisions to my manuscript to make it more readable and engaging for a broader audience. I went back to some of the publishers, and 3 have decided to proceed to the “next step” — which is to bring it before their editorial colleagues. That is where things are right now. I’m hopeful that one of the three will decide to accept the book for publication. When that happens, I will note it on my website –
    God bless,

  16. Came across your blog when I was looking to see whether The Council of Constantinople 543AD had declared Origen an heretic. I am definitely not a scholar like yourself and Mr. Pearce,but it has been brought to my attention that our modern Bibles being translated from the Latin and not from the Hebrew and Greek, and this is the reason for much of the Roman Catholicism which is now a part of all denominations today. I really believe that God wants Christians to worship Him and draw near to Him in Spirit and in Truth in these days because the time for the return of Christ is very near and the Apostle Paul warned of a great apostacy before that day would come. I have had a lot of difficulty with the teaching of eternal punishment for the wicked, as it does not give God the glory, and the Majesty of being the One who is above all things, the One who is in ultimate control of everything, righteous and just, yet compassionate and good to all. I would be very interested to read your book when it is published. Thank you, kind regards.

  17. Margaret,
    Thank you for your note. The publishers I mentioned in the last comment all said “No” — primarily because they don’t want to alienate their constituents or their other authors by publishing something ultimate restoration. Not sure what the next step will be. Self-publishing is definitely an option. God bless.

  18. Thank you all for your search of truth, last words of our Lord to Pilate. In fact, I read more than once, that Justinian wanted to humiliate the Alexandrines by condemning Origen, which was done in a local synod, and presented to the 553 counsel to give it the councel stamp. My search originally was about his own Arbitrator John Philoponus, the first dean of the neo-Platonic academy of Alexandria, who gave Justinian the philosophical support, with which he closed the Athenian academy. While John Philoponus sided by the miaphysites (Cyril/ Severus). J.Philoponus, was in the same way condemned as monophysite and tri-theist a century later. In 1990 V. Rev. Thomas Torrance, got his anthemas removed by the Ecumenical Orthodox Church .

Leave a Reply