Origen’s Angelology

Posted: July 13, 2012 in King of kings

Whatever exists outside of God was created by Him: the Alexandrian catechist always defended this thesis most energetically against the pagan philosophers who admitted an uncreated matter (De Principiis II.1.5; “In Genes.”, I, 12, in Migne, XII, 48-9). But he believes that God created from eternity, for “it is absurd”, he says, “to imagine the nature of God inactive, or His goodness inefficacious, or His dominion without subjects” (De Principiis III.5.3). Consequently he is forced to admit a double infinite series of worlds before and after the present world.

(2) Original Equality of the Created Spirits.

“In the beginning all intellectual natures were created equal and alike, as God had no motive for creating them otherwise” (De Principiis II.9.6). Their present differences arise solely from their different use of the gift of free will. The spirits created good and happy grew tired of their happiness (op. cit., I, iii, 8), and, though carelessness, fell, some more some less (I, vi, 2). Hence the hierarchy of the angels; hence also the four categories of created intellects: angels, stars (supposing, as is probable, that they are animated, De Principiis I.7.3), men, and demons. But their rôles may be one day changed; for what free will has done, free will can undo, and the Trinity alone is essentially immutable in good.

(3) Essence and Raison d’Être of Matter

Matter exists only for the spiritual; if the spiritual did not need it, matter would not exist, for its finality is not in itself. But it seems to Origen – though he does not venture to declare so expressly – that created spirits even the most perfect cannot do without an extremely diluted and subtle matter which serves them as a vehicle and means of action (De Principiis II.2.1, I.6.4, etc.). Matter was, therefore, created simultaneously with the spiritual, although the spiritual is logically prior; and matter will never cease to be because the spiritual, however perfect, will always need it. But matter which is susceptible of indefinite transformations is adapted to the varying condition of the spirits. “When intended for the more imperfect spirits, it becomes solidified, thickens, and forms the bodies of this visible world. If it is serving higher intelligences, it shines with the brightness of the celestial bodies and serves as a garb for the angels of God, and the children of the Resurrection” (De Principiis II.2.2).

(4) Universality of the Redemption and the Final Restoration

Certain Scriptural texts, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:25-28, seem to extend to all rational beings the benefit of the Redemption, and Origen allows himself to be led also by the philosophical principle which he enunciates several times, without ever proving it, that the end is always like the beginning: “We think that the goodness of God, through the mediation of Christ, will bring all creatures to one and the same end” (De Principiis I.6.1-3). The universal restoration (apokatastasis) follows necessarily from these principles.

On the least reflection, it will be seen that these hypotheses, starting from contrary points of view, are irreconcilable: for the theory of a final restoration is diametrically opposed to the theory of successive indefinite trials. It would be easy to find in the writings of Origen a mass of texts contradicting these principles and destroying the resulting conclusions. He affirms, for instance, that the charity of the elect in heaven does not fail; in their case “the freedom of the will will be bound so that sin will be impossible” (In Roman., V, 10). So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil (De Principiis I.8.4), for malice has become natural to them, it is as a second nature in them (In Joann., xx, 19). Origen grew angry when accused of teaching the eternal salvation of the devil. But the hypotheses which he lays down here and there are none the less worthy of censure. What can be said in his defence, if it be not with St. Athanasius (De decretis Nic., 27), that we must not seek to find his real opinion in the works in which he discusses the arguments for and against doctrine as an intellectual exercise or amusement; or, with St. Jerome (Ad Pammach. Epist., XLVIII, 12), that it is one thing to dogmatize and another to enunciate hypothetical opinions which will be cleared up by discussion?

Origenist controversies

The discussions concerning Origen and his teaching are of a very singular and very complex character. They break out unexpectedly, at long intervals, and assume an immense importance quite unforeseen in their humble beginnings. They are complicated by so many personal disputes and so many questions foreign to the fundamental subject in controversy that a brief and rapid exposé of the polemics is difficult and well-nigh impossible. Finally they abate so suddenly that one is forced to conclude that the controversy was superficial and that Origen’s orthodoxy was not the sole point in dispute.

First Origenist Crisis

It broke out in the deserts of Egypt, raged in Palestine, and ended at Constantinople with the condemnation of St. Chrysostom (392-404). During the second half of the fourth century the monks of Nitria professed an exaggerated enthusiasm for Origen, whilst the neighbouring brethren of Sceta, as a result of an unwarranted reaction and an excessive fear of allegorism, fell into Anthropomorphism. These doctrinal discussions gradually invaded the monasteries of Palestine, which were under the care of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, who, convinced of the dangers of Origenism, had combatted it in his works and was determined to prevent its spread and to extirpate it completely. Having gone to Jerusalem in 394, he preached vehemently against Origen’s errors, in presence of the bishop of that city, John, who was deemed an Origenist. John in turn spoke against Anthropomorphism, directing his discourse so clearly against Epiphanius that no on could be mistaken. Another incident soon helped to embitter the dispute. Epiphanius had raised Paulinian, brother of St. Jerome, to the priesthood in a place subject to the See of Jerusalem. John complained bitterly of this violation of his rights, and the reply of Epiphanius was not of a nature to appease him.

Two new combatants were now ready to enter the lists. From the time when Jerome and Rufinus settled, one at Bethlehem and the other at Mt. Olivet, they had lived in brotherly friendship. Both admired, imitated, and translated Origen, and were on most amicable terms with their bishop, when in 392 Aterbius, a monk of Sceta, came to Jerusalem and accused them of both of Origenism. St. Jerome, very sensitive to the question of orthodoxy, was much hurt by the insinuation of Aterbius and two years later sided with St. Epiphanius, whose reply to John of Jerusalem he translated into Latin. Rufinus learnt, it is not known how, of this translation, which was not intended for the public, and Jerome suspected him of having obtained it by fraud. A reconciliation was effected sometime later, but it was not lasting. In 397 Rufinus, then at Rome, had translated Origen’s “De principiis” into Latin, and in his preface followed the example of St. Jerome, whose dithyrambic eulogy addressed to the Alexandrian catechist he remembered. The solitary of Bethlehem, grievously hurt at this action, wrote to his friends to refute the perfidious implication of Rufinus, denounced Origen’s errors to Pope Anastasius, tried to win the Patriarch of Alexandria over to the anti-Origenist cause, and began a discussion with Rufinus, marked with great bitterness on both sides.

Until 400 Theophilus of Alexandria was an acknowledged Origenist. His confident was Isidore, a former monk of Nitria, and his friends, “the Tall Brothers”, the accredited leaders of the Origenist party. He had supported John of Jerusalem against St. Epiphanius, whose Anthropomorphism he denounced to Pope Siricius. Suddenly he changed his views, exactly why was never known. It is said that the monks of Sceta, displeased with his paschal letter of 399, forcibly invaded his episcopal residence and threatened him with death if he did not chant the palinody. What is certain is that he had quarreled with St. Isidore over money matters and with “the Tall Brothers”, who blamed his avarice and his worldliness. As Isidore and “the Tall Brothers” had retired to Constantinople, where Chrysostom extended his hospitality to them and interceded for them, without, however, admitting them to communion till the censures pronounced against them had been raised, the irascible Patriarch of Alexandria determined on this plan: to suppress Origenism everywhere, and under this pretext ruin Chrysostom, whom he hated and envied. For four years he was mercilessly active: he condemned Origen’s books at the Council of Alexandria (400), with an armed band he expelled the monks from Nitria, he wrote to the bishops of Cyprus and Palestine to win them over to his anti-Origenist crusade, issued paschal letters in 401, 402, and 404 against Origen’s doctrine, and sent a missive to Pope Anastasius asking for the condemnation of Origenism. He was successful beyond his hopes; the bishops of Cyprus accepted his invitation. Those of Palestine, assembled at Jerusalem, condemned the errors pointed out to them, adding that they were not taught amongst them. Anastasius, while declaring that Origen was entirely unknown to him, condemned the propositions extracted from his books. St. Jerome undertook to translate into Latin the various elucubrations of the patriarch, even his virulent diatribe against Chrysostom. St. Epiphanius, preceding Theophilus to Constantinople, treated St. Chrysostom as temerarious, and almost heretical, until the day the truth began to dawn on him, and suspecting that he might have been deceived, he suddenly left Constantinople and died at sea before arriving at Salamis.

It is well known how Theophilus, having been called by the emperor to explain his conduct towards Isidore and “the Tall Brothers”, cleverly succeeded by his machinations in changing the rôles. Instead of being the accused, he became the accuser, and summoned Chrysostom to appear before the conciliabule of the Oak (ad Quercum), at which Chrysostom was condemned. As soon as the vengeance of Theophilus was satiated nothing more was heard of Origenism. The Patriarch of Alexandria began to read Origen, pretending that he could cull the roses from among the thorns. He became reconciled with “the Tall Brothers” without asking them to retract. Hardly had the personal quarrels abated when the spectre of Origenism vanished.

Second Origenistic Crisis

In 514 certain heterodox doctrines of a very singular character had already spread among the monks of Jerusalem and its environs. Possibly the seeds of the dispute may have been sown by Stephen Bar-Sudaili, a troublesome monk expelled from Edessa, who joined to an Origenism of his own brand certain clearly pantheistic views. Plotting and intriguing continued for about thirty years, the monks suspected of Origenism being in turn expelled from their monasteries, then readmitted, only to be driven out anew. Their leaders and protectors were Nonnus, who till his death in 547 kept the party together, Theodore Askidas and Domitian who had won the favour of the emperor and were named bishops, one to the See of Ancyra in Galatia, the other to that of Caesarea in Cappadocia, though they continued to reside at court (537). In these circumstances a report against Origenism was addressed to Justinian, by whom and on what occasion it is not known, for the two accounts that have come down to us are at variance (Cyrillus of Scythopolis, “Vita Sabae”; and Liberatus, “Breviarium”, xxiii). At all events, the emperor then wrote his “Liber adversus Origenem”, containing in addition to an exposé of the reasons for condemning it twenty-four censurable texts taken from the “De principiis”, and lastly ten propositions to be anathematized. Justinian ordered the patriarch Mennas to call together all the bishops present in Constantinople and make them subscribe to these anathemas. This was the local synod (synodos endemousa) of 543. A copy of the imperial edict had been addressed to the other patriarchs, including Pope Vigilius, and all gave their adhesion to it. In the case of Vigilius especially we have the testimony of Liberatus (Breviar., xxiii) and Cassiodorus (Institutiones, 1).

It had been expected that Domitian and Theodore Askidas, by their refusal to condemn Origenism, would fall into disfavour at Court; but they signed whatever they were asked to sign and remained more powerful than ever. Askidas even took revenge by persuading the emperor to have Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was deemed the sworn enemy of Origen, condemned (Liberatus, “Breviar.”, xxiv; Facundas of Hermianus, “Defensio trium capitul.”, I, ii; Evagrius, “Hist.”, IV, xxxviii). Justinian’s new edict, which is not extant, resulted in the assembling of the fifth ecumenical council, in which Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ibas, and Theodoretus were condemned (553).

Were Origen and Origenism anathematized? Many learned writers believe so; an equal number deny that they were condemned; most modern authorities are either undecided or reply with reservations. Relying on the most recent studies on the question it may be held that:

  1. It is certain that the fifth general council was convoked      exclusively to deal with the affair of the Three Chapters, and that neither Origen nor Origenism were the      cause of it.
  2. It is certain that the council opened on 5 May, 553, in spite      of the protestations of Pope Vigilius, who though at Constantinople refused to attend      it, and that in the eight conciliary sessions (from 5 May to 2 June), the      Acts of which we possess, only the question of the Three Chapters is treated.
  3. Finally it is certain that only the Acts concerning the affair of the Three Chapters were submitted to the pope for his approval, which was given on 8 December,      553, and 23 February, 554.
  4. It is a fact that      Popes Vigilius, Pelagius I (556-61), Pelagius II (579-90), Gregory the Great (590-604), in      treating of the fifth council deal only with the Three Chapters, make no mention of Origenism, and speak as if      they did not know of its condemnation.
  5. It must be admitted      that before the opening of the council, which had been delayed by the      resistance of the pope, the bishops already assembled at Constantinople had to      consider, by order of the emperor, a form of Origenism that had      practically nothing in common with Origen, but which was held, we know, by one of the Origenist parties in Palestine.      The arguments in corroboration of this hypothesis may be found in Dickamp      (op. cit., 66-141).
  6. The bishops certainly subscribed to the fifteen anathemas proposed by the emperor (ibid., 90-96); and      admitted Origenist, Theodore of Scythopolis, was forced to retract (ibid., 125-129); but      there is no proof that the approbation of the pope, who was at that time protesting against the      convocation of the council, was asked.
  7. It is easy to      understand how this extra-conciliary sentence was mistaken at a later period      for a decree of the actual ecumenical council.



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