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Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (II)

April 2, 2008

Although Epiphanios had been writing against the teachings of Origen for quite some time the controversy came to a head when Theophilos of Alexandria issued his festal letter in 399.  Upon the arrival of the letter in Scete the Anthropomorphite monks were shocked with Theophilos’ discussion of the incorporeality of God.  These monks were simple-minded ascetics who had come from areas recently purged of paganism.  Evidently the idol worship of these monks had only taken a new form, the idol of God in the mind. “It [Origenism] was a dispute with a past, a past located historically in the conversion of native Egyptians from paganism (“idolatry”) to Christianity…”  In fact much of Evagrios’ thought can be seen as an attempt to cleanse the mind of idolatry.  Many of the more simple ascetics asserted that God was corporeal, having a human figure; therefore any discussion of God as incorporeal was a denial that man is in the image of God.  The question of whether man is in the image of God became the center of the controversy – the Anthropomorphites answering in the affirmative and the Origenists answering in the negative. 

The festal letter of Theophilos caused an uprising of Anthropomorphite monks who were threatening his life in the city of Alexandria.  Theophilos quickly changed his mind on the subject of God’s incorporeality during the turmoil to support the Anthropomorphites.  This was partly due to the advice of the monk Aphou who demonstrated to him that if humans do not truly image God then Christ cannot be truly present in the Eucharist (the corporeal bread cannot correspond to an incorporeal Christ), a proposal that no orthodox Christian could affirm.  After this volte-face on the part of Theophilos he began to seek the eradication of what he understood was Origenist heresy.  This desire to eliminate Origenism was one impetus for the excommunication of Isidore and the subsequent banishment of the “Long Brothers” (a nickname given in description of their tall stature).  Theophilos had at one time held Isidore and the Long Brothers (Dioskoros, Ammonios, Eusebios, and Euthymios) in high regard (nominating Isidore for bishop of Constantinople and appointing Dioskoros bishop of Hermopolis) until Isidore was accused of managing church funds behind his back.  Isidore, excommunicated, sought refuge with the Long Brothers (whom Theophilos had learned were avid supporters of Origen; also, Ammonios was a close friend of Evagrios) in their dwelling in the Nitrian desert.  Infuriated at the apparent betrayal by former friends, Theophilos enlisted his band of Anthropomorphite monk fighters to expel the Nitrian monks.  Apparently shortly after this, Ammonios confronted Theophilos in Alexandria about his violent actions, but Theophilos, recognizing him, seized him by the throat, punched him in the face and exclaimed, “Anathematize Origen, you heretic!”

Following this incident Theophilos assembled a synod and had the Long Brothers excommunicated and violently forced into banishment. Thereafter (400 AD) Theophilos wasted no time in his campaign against Origenism, sending a letter to Epiphanios boasting about the recent purging of the Nitrian monks and urging him to convene a council in Cyprus condemning Origenism.

Theophilos to his well-beloved lord, brother, and fellow-bishop Epiphanios … the church of Christ ‘not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing’ has with the sword of the gospel cut down the Origenist serpents crawling out of their caves, and has delivered from their deadly contagion the fruitful host of the monks of Nitria … it is your present duty to strengthen the hands of those who are in the field and to gather together to this end the bishops of your entire island.    

Epiphanios at once convened a synod of bishops who thereby condemned the teachings of Origen.  His general letter was sent to all of the bishops and to Jerome who records Epiphanios saying, “…the Lord has strengthened His servant Theophilos to plant His standard against Origen on the altar of the church of Alexandria…”  Theophilos in the same year (400) also convened a synod which condemned the teachings of Origen’s writings, specifically the Peri Archon (On First Principles).The results of these synods were sent via letter to all of the bishops of Palestine, Cyprus, and John Chrysostom (who, Theophilos had recently learned, had given refuge to the Long Brothers).


Ibid., 50. [His] approach to the Eucharist and prayer, to the doctrine of God and anthropology, all revolve around the quest to purge the human mind of ‘thoughts.'” Ibid., 75. J.N.D. Kelley, Golden Mouth:  The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1995), 194. Jerome, Letter XC, [Jerome, Letters and Selected Works, Vol. 6:  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (NPNF). Translated by W.H. Fremantle, et al.  Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994 [1893]), 184.] Jerome, Letter XCI, [NPNF, 184].

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