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Chapter III -- 2

Since below we will refer to Peri Archon, the work of Origen which is the ultimate source of many of Evagrius Pontikos’ cosmological doctrines, it behoves us to say a few words about Origen, Peri Archon and the Fifth Ecumenical Synod.

Origen (c.185–253) was an Alexandrine Christian who succeeded Clement of Alexandria to the headship of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. He later studied under the pagan philosopher, Ammonius Saccas (fl. 240), where one of his fellow students was Plotinus (205–270), the founder of Neoplatonism and author of the Enneads.[1] While not the inventor of the method of allegorical interpretation of Scripture—St Paul uses it in his epistles and Clement, following Philo of Alexandria (fl. 20 bc–40 ad), precedes Origen in its use—Origen was much given to the use of the method; however, he himself treated the allegorical interpretation of Scripture as coexisting with the literal interpretation, except in those cases where the passage of Scripture did not in his view accept a literal interpretation, that is, except in those cases where a literal interpretation would be nonsensical, impossible or absurd.

One of Origen’s works was Peri Archon, a systematic discussion of cosmology from, as he himself thought, a Christian point of view. As we shall see, many of Evagrius’ cosmological ideas ultimately derive from Peri Archon.

By the time of Evagrius Pontikos in the Egyptian desert at the end of the Fourth Century, Origenism—an interpretation of Scripture based on Origen’s cosmology—had become a serious movement among the monks, and there arose, in a historical evolution which need not concern us here,[2] a reaction which ultimately led to the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod in 553. Origen, Didymus the Blind and Evagrius Pontikos were anathematized by name and the fifteen doctrinal Anathemas were proclaimed that we shall discuss in detail in Section 11, below.

In proceedings of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod unconnected to Origenism, Vigilios, the Pope of Rome, was deposed, and this has led to a certain reserve on the part of Roman Catholic historians and theologians concerning the ecumenicity—the validity, the authoritativeness—of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod.

For example, concerning the Fifth Ecumenical Synod we read the following in Catholicism, a book to which we shall refer in the next chapter:

…The council never won acceptance in the West, nor did it achieve the union Justinian hoped for in the East. The pope did eventually approve it, but the doctrinal scope of that approval is not entirely clear. It seems to have been restricted to the three canons which were directly concerned with the [Nestorian] Three Chapters of Theodoret, Ibas, and Theodore. To the extent that the council has any longer term doctrinal significance for the [Roman] Catholic faith, its importance may consist simply in its reaffirmation of the earlier condemnations of Nestorianism. Otherwise, it is not an exceptionally bright moment in the conciliar history of the [Roman Catholic] Church.[3]

An indication of the standing among Roman Catholic theologians of the condemnations by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod of Origenism, and of Origen, Didymus the Blind and Evagrius Pontikos, can be found in Catholicism’s treatment of Origenism: having to treat of anthropology, the author invokes not the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod but the earlier Anathemas of ‘[t]he provincial Council of Constantinople (543), which condemned certain positions associated with followers of Origen, namely, that the human body is a degrading place of exile to which preexisting souls have been consigned’.[4]

A further indication can be found in Cardinal Henri de Lubac’s study of Origen, Histoire et Esprit, L’intelligence de l’Écriture d’après Origène,[5] where the author refers to ‘the list of fifteen anathemas [against Origenism] prepared by the Fathers of the Council of 553 outside their official sittings’[6] and quotes Diekamp as follows:

Neither the work of the local council of 543 nor even the extra-conciliar work of the [Fifth] Ecumenical Council of 553 has been transformed into a definition of faith properly so-called by the mere fact of a papal sanction, the very reality of which remains enveloped in obscurity.[7]

On the basis of this doubt among Roman Catholic scholars which began in the Nineteenth Century concerning the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod against Origenism, there developed a ‘revisionist’ trend in Roman Catholic Evagrian scholarship in the late Twentieth Century which seeks to present an Evagrius who was never condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod or else condemned unjustly: an Evagrius, the proper interpretation of whose works frees him from the charges contained in the Anathemas and who perhaps is even a saint, just as he is in the Monophysite and Nestorian Churches.[8] Scholars espousing such theories work largely within the Benedictine Order of the Roman Catholic Church.[9]

For a member of the Orthodox Church, however, such an approach to Evagrius founders on the ecclesiological dimension of the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod. For even if one were to argue that the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod against Origenism never happened, or happened outside the official sittings of the Synod, or were in error, or did not include or intend Evagrius, the Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Synods, as we shall see when we discuss the Anathemas in detail in Section 11, below, explicitly reaffirm the doctrinal condemnations of Origenism and the personal condemnations of Origen, Didymus the Blind and Evagrius by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod as having occurred. The Orthodox Church accepts the seven Ecumenical Synods.

As Orthodox, we are obliged to accept the Fifth Ecumenical Synod in its entirety. We are obliged to accept the validity of the condemnations of Origen, Didymus the Blind and Evagrius Pontikos, and of the condemnations of the doctrinal positions presented in the fifteen Anathemas against Origenism. We do not have the liberty of the Roman Catholic theologian to wave them aside.

It might further be noted that although doubt has been cast on the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod against Origenism by scholars in the Roman Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church itself has never officially repudiated those Anathemas.

Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church has never officially listed Evagrius Pontikos as a saint. In this, see the Roman Martyrology, the official list of saints of the Roman Catholic Church.[10]

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[1] Plotinus.

[2] The reader might refer to Guillaumont for details.

[3] Catholicism p. 478.

[4] Catholicism p. 152.

[5] De Lubac.

[6] Ibid. p. 39.

[7] Ibid. fn. 149; our translation of Cardinal de Lubac’s text.

[8] While the Syrian Churches have been aware of the version intégrale (S2) of the Kephalaia Gnostica for years, they have preserved the saintedness of Evagrius by treating that version as inauthentic, as the result of tampering by heretics with the true text of Evagrius, and by treating the version commune (S1) as the true text of Evagrius. They have never taken the position that the version intégrale (S2) is authentic but susceptible of an interpretation which would—in the context of their own theology, surely—be orthodox.

[9] For a survey article sympathetic to the ‘revisionist’ school, see Casiday.

[10] Martyrology


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