The Fifth General Council
Constantine and Nicea, Origen's writings had continued to be popular among those seeking
clarification about the nature of Christ, the destiny of the soul and the manner of the
resurrection. Some of the more educated monks had taken Origen's ideas and were
using them in mystical practices with the aim of becoming one with God.
Toward the end of the fourth century,
orthodox theologians again began to attack Origen. Their chief areas of difficulty
with Origen's thought were his teachings on the nature of God and Christ, the resurrection
and the preexistence of the soul.
Their criticisms, which were often based on
ignorance and an inadequate understanding, found an audience in high places and led to the
Church's rejection of Origenism and reincarnation. The Church's need to appeal to
the uneducated masses prevailed over Origen's coolheaded logic.
The bishop of Cyprus, Epiphanius, claimed
that Origen denied the resurrection of the flesh. However, as scholar Jon Dechow has
demonstrated, Epiphanius neither understood nor dealt with Origen's ideas.
Nevertheless, he was able to convince the Church that Origen's ideas were incompatible
with the merging literalist theology. On the basis of Ephiphanius' writings,
Origenism would be finally condemned a century and a half later.
Jerome believed that resurrection bodies
would be flesh and blood, complete with genitals - which, however, would not be used in
the hereafter. But Origenists believed the resurrection bodies would be
The Origenist controversy spread to
monasteries in the Egyptian desert, especially at Nitria, home to about five thousand
monks. There were two kinds of monks in Egypt - the simple and uneducated, who
composed the majority, and the Origenists, an educated minority.
The controversy solidified around the
question of whether God had a body that could be seen and touched. The simple monks
believed that he did. But the Origenists thought that God was invisible and
transcendent. The simple monks could not fathom Origen's mystical speculations on
the nature of God.
In 399, Bishop Theophilus wrote a letter
defending the Origenist position. At this, the simple monks flocked to Alexandria,
rioting in the streets and even threatening to kill Theophilus.
The bishop quickly reversed himself, telling
the monks that he could now see that God did indeed have a body: "In seeing you, I
behold the face of God." Theophilus' sudden switch was the catalyst for a
series of events that led to the condemnation of Origen and the burning of the Nitrian
Under Theodosius, Christians, who had been
persecuted for so many years, now became the persecutors. God made in man's image
proved to be an intolerant one. The orthodox Christians practiced sanctions and
violence against all heretics (including Gnostics and Origenists), pagans and Jews.
In this climate, it became dangerous to profess the ideas of innate divinity and the
pursuit of union with God.
It may have been during the reign of
Theodosius that the Gnostic Nag Hammadi manuscripts were buried - perhaps by Origenist
monks. For while the Origenist monks were not openly Gnostic, they would have been
sympathetic to the Gnostic viewpoint and may have hidden the books after they became too
hot to handle.
The Origenist monks of the desert did not
accept Bishop Theophilus' condemnations. They continued to practice their beliefs in
Palestine into the sixth century until a series of events drove Origenism underground for
Justinian (ruled 527 - 565) was the most able
emperor since Constantine - and the most active in meddling with Christian theology.
Justinian issued edicts that he expected the Church to rubber-stamp, appointed bishops and
even imprisoned the pope.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire at the
end of the fifth century, Constantinople remained the capital of the Eastern, or
Byzantine, Empire. The story of how Origenism ultimately came to be rejected
involves the kind of labyrithine power plays that the imperial court became famous for.
Around 543, Justinian seems to have taken the
side of the anti-Origenists since he issued an edict condemning ten principles of
Origenism, including preexistence. It declared "anathema to Origen ... and to
whomsoever there is who thinks thus." In other words, Origen and anyone who
believes in these propositions would be eternally damned. A local council at
Constantinople ratified the edict, which all bishops were required to sign.
In 553, Justinian convoked the Fifth General
Council of the Church to discuss the controversy over the so-called "Three
Chapters". These were writings of three theologians whose views bordered on the
heretical. Justinian wanted the writings to be condemned and he expected the council
to oblige him.
He had been trying to coerce the pope into
agreeing with him since 545. He had essentially arrested the pope in Rome and
brought him to Constantinople, where he held him for four years. When the pope
escaped and later refused to attend the council, Justinian went ahead and convened it
This council produced fourteen new anathemas
against the authors of the Three Chapters and other Christian theologians. The
eleventh anathema included Origen's name in a list of heretics.
The first anathema reads: "If anyone
asserts the fabulous preexistence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration
which follows from it: let him be anathema." ("Restoration" means
the return of the soul to union with God. Origenists believed that this took place
through a path of reincarnation.) It would seem that the death blow had been struck
against Origenism and reincarnation in Christianity.
After the council, the Origenist monks were
expelled from their Palestinian monastery, some bishops were deposed and once again
Origen's writings were destroyed. The anti-Origenist monks had won. The
emperor had come down firmly on their side.
In theory, it would seem that the missing
papal approval of the anathemas leaves a doctrinal loophole for the belief in
reincarnation among all Christians today. But since the Church accepted the
anathemas in practice, the result of the council was to end belief in reincarnation in
In any case, the argument is moot.
Sooner or later the Church probably would have forbade the beliefs. When the Church
codified its denial of the divine origin of the soul (at Nicea in 325), it started a chain
reaction that led directly to the curse on Origen.
Church councils notwithstanding, mystics in
the Church continued to practice divinization. They followed Origen's ideas, still
seeking union with God.
But the Christian mystics were continually
dogged by charges of heresy. At the same time as the Church was rejecting reincarnation,
it was accepting original sin, a doctrine that made it even more difficult for mystics to
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