There are two main theories concerning the fifth ecumenical council and its “alleged” condemnation of apocatastasis and Origen:

  1. Origen and/or apocatastasis was never explicitly condemned.
  2. Origen and apocatastasis were condemned and the fifteen Origenist anathemas were implicitly part of the council.

Origen and apocatastasis were never condemned. The first view is hard to get a finger on, because it is a chameleon. There is no single view of apocatastasis: Origen’s? Evagrius’? Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s? Pseduo-Isaac the Syrian’s? It would seem that to those espousing such a view that no condemnation could ever be “explicit” enough. Alura of Shameless Orthodoxy, for example, writes that:

This would be like someone saying to Saint Athanasius there was no “blanket condemnation” of Arianism, to Saint Justinian there was no “blanket condemnation” of Nestorianism, or to Saint Maximus the Confessor there was no “blanket condemnation” of Miaphysitism. Its a logical fallacy I’d like to call “an appeal to endless specificity.”

An appeal to endless specificity presupposes a post-modernist uncertainty of knowledge–that we can never really know what is true. Unless a statement is so unequivocal that it cannot be understood in any other way, there is no way to convince such a person. However, could anything be stated unequivocal enough? Ironically, due to historical examples of Arius asserting he was not an Arian and Nestorius asserting he was not a Nestorian, it appears the Church has condemned the idea (though only implicitly) that people can constantly recast their beliefs and the meanings of their words. But that’s enough on this topic for now.

Father Kimel, another who doubts that the fifth ecumenical council condemned apocatastasis, made a similar statement:

  • “[A] condemnation of a person by name, without specification of specific teachings, is dogmatically useless.”

This is problematic for the same reason as the above–it disregards “common knowledge” that the Origenist anathemas–specifically those in 543 AD and 553 AD* condemn Origenist apocostasis in as much detail as, what was thought to be, possible and that the council minutes were appended with these anathemas so that the consciousness of the Orthodox Church over centuries dictated that the fifth ecumenical council condemned apocatastasis and Origenism. Since the 7th century until the 19th century, the minutes always included the anathemas in 553 AD. The idea that apocatastasis was not condemned is admittedly a new idea by Father Kimel’s admission–just look at what he named his article. The fact that his thesis is new is proof enough that it is wrong.

*By way of review, in 543 AD Justinian had a list of 10 anathemas that condemned Origen which was signed onto by the Patriarchs, including Pope Vigilius. The ninth anathema condemned universalism as it condemned those who taught that “the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end” and the tenth condemned Origen in his person. The 553 AD anathemas were more specific, generally condemning Origenist ideas as explicated by a writer named Evagrius in the forth century, but also in more than a few places condemns apocatastasis and in its introduction condemns Origen by name.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to convince the likes of Father Kimel, because they refuse to take the historical evidence at its word. By his own admission in the aformentioned comment, he writes, “We don’t even know how many of the council bishops had even read Origen’s actual writings.” He also writes elsewhere that because the council fathers did not understand Origen, or what they were condemning, somehow the condemnation is not real. This is not even a logical fallacy, but simply “making stuff up”–how does Father Kimel know what as many as 165 bishops had in their heads? Its an empty accusation that anyone can throw at anyone else. It would be equivalent of the Arians accusing Athanasius of not really understanding Arianism and so invalidating his opposition to Arius and his followers.

For this reason, I have no desire to actually convince those with the first position in mind–because they admittedly, whether they know it or not, refuse to be convinced by the evidence. At least David Bentley Hart, in his travesty of a “book,” admitted that much.

Constantinople II did include the 15 anathemas. I want to focus on the second position–because I in fact contradicted it in my book review when I claimed the fifth ecumenical council was referencing the 543 AD anathemas. As follows is not exactly a correction, though certainly an elaboration on the topic. Let’s start with the common assertion that the fifth ecumenical council included the 553 AD anathemas and referred to them in their minutes.

There are many varying interpretations of the fifth council, but I assert here that the simplest explanation is probably best. Claudius Ptolemy allegedly said, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.” The Bibilical teaching is equivalent, though it essentially is a negation: “a fool’s voice is known by his many words” (Ecc 5:3 [LXX Ecc 5:2]). The point is, when interpreting a historical question, the simplest explanation with the least guessing is best.

The problem is that the historical data we have leads to no simple historical conclusion pertaining to the 553 AD anathemas, other than that apocatastasis (though not every possible formulation of the doctrine) and Origen in his person were certainly condemned–of this there can be no doubt.

As follows is a comprehensive treatment of the topic:

We know from Session V, Par 87 of Constantinople II that it was considered a settled fact that the Church had already condemned Origen and his doctrines. Further, it adds the curious detail that Pope Vigilius and “your holinesses” had already condemned Origen:

And we find indeed many others who were anathematized after death, including also Origen: if one goes back to the time of Theophilus of holy memory or even earlier, one will find him anathematized after death. This has been done even now in his regard by your holinesses and by Vigilius the most religious pope of Elder Rome.

One historian counts five previous condemnations of Origen preceding Theophilus’. Obviously, these condemnations are cited as precedent and are approved of. It should be noted that these five previous condemnations may have not touched upon apocatastasis specifically, as Theophilus did not in his council (see section 6). Nevertheless, it should be reiterated that the 543 AD and 553 AD anathemas did.

Let’s zero in on the statement: “even now in his regard by your holinesses and by Vigilius.” This can only refer to one of two things. Either there was a recent set of anathemas that members of the council ascribed to or there was a condemnation that was “recent” in some other sense–such as the 543 AD anathemas. Simply taking the words at face value, the 553 AD anathemas are likely being referenced.

The anathema in verse 11 of Session VIII of the same council likewise condemns Origen and his writings. This is important, because it addresses the whole issue of this “debate” between the universalists and the orthodox–if the 553 AD anathemas are being referred to, there can be no doubt that apocatastasis is declared heretical. If the 543 AD anathemas are referred to, there can be no doubt that both apocatastasis and universalism in general are declared to be heresies, as the ninth anathema absolutely disallows for both.

This may surprise people, though it should not. “Luminaries” (cf. 2 Cor 11:14) such as David Bentley Hart, who’s PHD should be lit on fire and has zero business calling himself a scholar, asserts that, “[S]ince the late nineteenth century various scholars have convincingly established that neither Origen nor ‘Origenism’ was ever the subject of any condemnation pronounced by the ‘holy fathers’ in 553.”

It is obvious that he never read the fifth council, nor did the “scholars” he cite.

In any event, there can be zero doubt that Origen was anathematized. So, let’s never pretend ever again that an ecumenical council “never condemned Origen.” The passage in Session VIII reads as follows:

If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, with their impious writings, and all the other heretics condemned and anathematized by the holy catholic and apostolic church and by the aforesaid holy four councils, and those who held or hold tenets like those of the aforesaid heretics and persisted or persist in the same impiety till death, let him be anathema (v. 11).

Our earliest historical sources all concur that the fifth ecumenical council condemned Origen via the fifteen anathemas. The earliest source we have that interprets the council for us, and thereby the above passage, is the Life of Saint Sabas. It is dated at 558 AD at the very latest, which means it was written within five years of the council.

When the fifth holy ecumenical council had assembled at Constantinople a common and universal anathema was directed against Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia and against the teaching of Evagrius and Didymus on pre-existence and a universal restoration [lit. “restitution of all things” or “apocatastasis”], in the presence and with the approval of the four patriarchs (Life of Sabas, quoted from Vol 2 of Price’s Constantinople II, p. 270).

The second earliest source we have was written approximately 593-594 AD: Evagrius Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History. This is written forty years after the council. The following is what Evagrius records for us:

Justinian asked the assembled synod concerning these matters, after attaching both a copy of the deposition and the missives to Vigilius concerning these things…Accordingly a reply to Justinian was given by the synod, after it had made acclamations against Origen and his companions in error (Ibid., p. 271).

According to Price, further retellings of the event in the seventh century follow that of Evagrius Scholasticus.

What may we conclude from the preceding? It seems that “even now in his regard by your holinesses and by Vigilius” is a reference to the participants of the fifth council signing onto the fifteen anathemas as every single historical source we have tells us. Pope Vigilius, probably before the council acted, in some way consented to the same after receiving “a copy of the deposition and the missives” written by Justinian. If so, this means I was in error in asserting that the 11th verse is an explicit reference to the 543 AD anathemas.

A case for the 543 AD anathemas to be referenced by Constantinople II. In what way did Vigilius consent to the 553 AD anathemas? I am going to make the case that it was probably his ascription to the 543 AD anathemas that is being referred to. Further, in consequence, I think it is most likely that the council fathers would have viewed the 543 AD anathemas as authoritative. We have the following reasons:

First, Session V indicates that the council approved of Theophilus’ anathemas, which is in keeping with the ecumenical councils affirming churchwide as well as local condemnations, such as that of Valentinus. For example, Chalcedonian and Constantinople II fathers took for granted that past condemnations of Valentinus were binding (Chalcedon: Session 1, v. 164, v. 551; Constantinople II: Session V, v. 64; Pope Vigilius’ First Constitutum, v. 228) even without a prior ecumenical council weighing in on the issue. If the Church condemned a heresy somewhere in a local council or simply it was understood to be condemned by the consciousness of the Church, it was treated as authoritative. It is in some ways analogous to a local saint canonization. Therefore, all previous condemnations would have been approved as consistent with the Church’s historic condemnation of Origen (as Session V posits). I admit this argument is a stretch, but not so far of a stretch to be irrelevant.

Second, Justinian held Constantinople II with no hope of reconciling the miaphysites in the near future. This suggests (according to Father Price) that the council was merely held to cloak with Churchwide authority* what Justinian already declared to be church policy (since 544 AD Justinian was requiring bishops to condemn the three chapters). Hence, being that Justinian penned the 543 AD anathemas only shortly before his own condemnation of the three chapters, it is extremely unlikely that the council fathers acting at his behest would have referred to Origen’s condemnation as a given without taking for granted that the 543 AD condemnations were also in view.

*It has been suggested by Father Price that the political purpose of Constantinople II was to cow the western churches. This is why Pope Vigilius’ capitulation was so important. The fifth ecumenical council proved to be successful in achieving this goal.

Lastly, but most importantly, it is extremely unlikely (though not impossible) that Pope Vigilius would have condemned Origen in 553 AD, prior to the fifth session. Why? One just needs to simply read the torturously written First Constitutim, issued in the May of the same year. Long story short, Vigilius painstakingly interprets every single passage of the three chapters, gives an interpretation and condemnation completely in accordance with the council fathers, and then refuses to condemn the chapters and reiterates his excommunications against the council fathers (who were excommunicated before the council). Why: Here is one passage which sums it up for us:

…that our fathers…preserved unharmed the persons of priests who had died in the
peace of the church, and that, as we said above, the same was defined canonically by decrees of the apostolic see, namely that no one is permitted to
pronounce any new judgement on the persons of the deceased but that they
are to be left exactly as the last day found each one (First Constitutum, v. 219).

Vigilius absolutely refused to condemn people after they die and is emphatic on this point. Being that Pope Vigilius was essentially being tortured and starved into submission, it seems unthinkable that he would have publicly opposed the council at the 11th hour on no grounds other than not condemning people after they die–only to have done such merely weeks before.

This means the simplest explanation is that the council in Session V was referring to Pope Vigilius “recent” 543 AD condemnation of Origen. According to Price, “In 543 Vigilius signed Justinian’s edict condemning Origen, who had
no friends in the west” (Vol 1, p. 43). Liberatus of Carthage (a contemporary) confirms this, as does Cassiodorus (another contemporary.)

Granted, we cannot discount the possibility that Vigilius simply contradicted himself very publicly in a matter of weeks on a huge issue. However, I think anyone who has actually read the First Constitutim, which was called by one Roman Catholic interpreter one of the finest pieces of theological writings in the early church (which is saying much because Vigilius is not a saint), would conclude that Vigilius is far too careful of a theological thinker to have pulled an embarrassing 180 degree turn, without some sort of explanatiion (like he did in his Second Constitutim) in such a short period of time. He must have anticipated that signing onto the 553 AD anathemas and condemning Origen would have undercut the very premise he had for opposing the council–a council that he was not actively working with and whose members were already all excommunicated.

So, what are we to make of Session V’s claim that Vigilius’ anathematization of Origen was “recent?” We can only speculate, though I think the preceding makes it impossible that he had signed onto the 553 AD anathemas before the First Constitutim. It is possible that Justinian sent the 553 AD anathemas to Vigilius (as the early historians state) and he took a lack of reply or some sort of acquiescent non-committal reply as approval of the anathemas. Or, Vigilius’ earlier acceptance of the 543 AD anathemas was posed to the council in the place of a Vigilius’ non-reply. Ultimately, we do not know. In either event, the fact that Vigilius had about 10 years earlier signed onto the 543 AD anathemas is the only factual event that makes any subsequent speculation work.

What are we to make of Pseudo-Anastasius’ letter between Vigilius and Justinian that allegedly showed the 553 AD anathemas were explicitly condemned by Vigilius? If I have the same Pseudo-Anastasius in mind, he is a source centuries later and he cites potential forgeries which have details that are incorrect (such as the “Donation of Pepin”). That, in addition to the fact we already know that he is a deceiver not writing under his own name, renders his account suspect to say the least.

Conclusion. From the preceding, one may conclude that Origen and apocatastasis were condemned by the fifth ecumenical council, as was taken for granted by all contemporary sources and the seventh council itself. It is not “obvious,” as I claimed previously, that the 543 AD anathemas are specifically invoked by the council. The historical evidence is that the 553 AD anathemas were viewed as containing the authority of the fifth council. Nevertheless, the case has been made that one may infer that the 543 AD anathemas were likewise considered authoritative by the same council.