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)”