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Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (I)

March 27, 2008

Dialogues concerning the persons and nature of the Godhead were the hot topics of controversy during the early centuries of the church.  These discussions had sensitized Christian laymen and clergy alike to the use of God-language. The council of Nicaea (325) and the council of Constantinople (381) had both condemned Arianism, whose followers refused to affirm that Christ is homoousios (same essence) with the Father.  However, the problem with Arianism (or Homoianism) had not ceased by the end of the fourth century.  The level of precision at which people were comfortable speaking about God changed between these two councils, as can be seen through the writings of Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa.  Where Athanasius affirms that when we name the “Father” we “name nothing as if about him, but signify his essence itself” Gregory of Nyssa states, “…the Divine Essence is ineffable and incomprehensible:  for it is plain that the title of Father does not present to us the Essence, but only indicates the relation to the Son.” After Constantinople I theologians made the three hypostases rather than the one essence their starting point in doctrinal discussions.  Further, the Cappadocian fathers had all affirmed that God, who is one essence three persons, cannot be depicted by anything in the created realm, whether human or nonhuman.  The Cappadocian doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God was influential to one student of Gregory Nazianzen, whose writings sparked a major controversy amongst the Nitrian monks in the Egyptian desert near Alexandria in 399.

If the Origenist controversy can be traced back to the teachings of one man (other than Origen) there is much evidence which points to Evagrios Pontikos (345-399). Although Epiphanios of Cyprus wrote against the teachings of Origen in 374 the controversy itself did not fully develop until the 390s when the published works of Evagrios began to be read by Egyptian monks.  Evagrios studied the Sacred Scriptures under the tutelage of Gregory Nazianzen at Constantinople around 381 until he was forced to leave seeking refuge in the Jerusalem monasteries of Malinia and Rufinas of Aquileia.  Sometime later he moved to Scetis where he lived with the philosopher-monks in the desert of Nitria (south-west of the Nile Delta).  Many of Evagrios’ ideas would soon become the center of controversy:  God cannot be defined or spoken of with human words (“Let what is inexplicable be worshipped in silence.”), number must be excluded from the Godhead, the divine is free from quality, the image of God is no longer available to man, thoughts are inherently sinful (thoughts of God are sinful), the physical ceremony of the Eucharist is defective, etc.  There is much evidence that the Origenism which Epiphanios, Theophilos of Alexandria, and Jerome fought against at the turn of the fifth century was the extreme version propounded by Evagrios.    

Elizabeth Clark notes the interconnectivity of certain leading church figures during the late fourth century.  In her book The Origenist Controversy:  The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate she draws a direct line from the radical teachings of Evagrios to those of Pelagius and Juliun of Eclenum.  This was more than a group of clergymen who read the same books.  Rather, it was a tight social group made up of friends and enemies living within a few days journey of one another.  Unfortunately John Chrysostom (bishop of Constantinople) found himself within this net of friendships.  It is unfortunate that he later became guilty by association – Theophilos of Alexandria used this association to justify his brutal tactics toward Chrysostom, who found himself in exile before the whole thing ended.   

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