Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (IV)

John, later named Chrysostom (“Golden Mouth”), was born in Antioch during the reign of emperor Constans which fell in the years 340-350.  He was trained in rhetoric by the renowned pagan Libanios.  In 371 John was appointed as an official reader in the Antioch church by bishop Meletios and having soon thereafter learned of plans for him to be ordained to the priesthood felt utterly unworthy and retreated to the Syrian mountainside where he resided as an ascetic monk from 372 to 376.  His life as a monk was cut short when, due to the affect of the extreme diet upon his health, he was forced to return to Antioch where he served as a reader until his ordination to the deaconate around 380.  John was ordained to the priesthood around 386 by Flavian who soon became bishop of Antioch.  He served as priest at the Golden Church for about ten years, making a lasting impression with his rhetorical skills, until he was secretly stolen away to Constantinople in October 397 to fill the recently abandoned chair of bishop.  Theophilos of Alexandria presided over John’s ordination to the bishopric; he had a somewhat sinister motive, however, originally desiring to have his own friend Isidore appointed; instead the praetorian prefect of the palace “convinced” Theophilos that John was the better candidate.  After gaining numerous enemies due to his harsh and swift reform efforts in his first year as bishop John developed lasting acquaintances which would later tie him to the Origenist camp:  Olympias, Melenia and Rufinus (translated Origen’s works into Latin), Palladius, Herakleides, etc. 

Continue reading “Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (IV)”

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Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (III)

The contest between Theophilos and John Chrysostom which began at John’s ordination now came to its climax.  The Long Brothers and the eighty fellow Nitrian monks with them had arrived in Constantinople in 400 and immediately prostrated themselves before John, recounting all of the horrendous acts performed against them by Theophilos.  John took two important steps:  he forbade the monks to speak publicly about their trials and he sent a personal letter to Theophilos begging that he receive them back into fellowship.

Please do me a courtesy – me, who am your son as well as your brother – and take these people back under your protection. [1]

When Theophilos received the letter from John he realized that the Nitrian monks were in a prime position to have him convicted before the Emperor.  Therefore Theophilos sent agents to Constantinople to stir up lies about the Long Brothers.  When the Nitrian monks learned of this move they submitted formal charges to John against Theophilos.  Upon receiving these charges John sent another letter to Theophilos to inform him of the predicament and that he could not convince the monks to leave the city.  Theophilos in turn sent a letter back to John advising him to mind his own business.

I think you are not unaware of the ordinance of the Nicene canons forbidding a bishop to adjudicate a case which falls outside his ecclesiastical area. If however you were unaware, now that you have been informed refrain from meddling with accusation brought against me.  If it were necessary for me to be put on trial, it would be before Egyptian judges and not before you, who live more than seventy-five days’ journey away. [2] Continue reading “Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (III)”

Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (II)

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!” Continue reading “Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (II)”

Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (I)

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). Continue reading “Historical Survey: Chrysostom and the Origenist Controversy (I)”