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The First Origenistic Controvers

In the East the leading theologians of the fourth century were educated
under the influence of Origenism; among these were Basil of Caesarea,
Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. In the West the feeling
regarding Origen was not so favorable, but the Western theologians, Jerome
and Rufinus, who were then living in Palestine, shared in the general
admiration of Origen. But a series of brief controversies broke out in
which the standing of Origen as an orthodox theologian was seriously
attacked, as well as the whole tendency for which he stood. The result was
a wide-spread condemnation of the spiritualizing teaching of the great
Alexandrian, and the rise of what might be called an anthropomorphic
traditionalism. The first of the three controversies took place in
Palestine, 395-399, and was occasioned by Epiphanius of Salamis, a zealous
opponent of heresy. He denounced Origen and induced Jerome to abandon
Origen; and Rufinus was soon in bitter enmity with Jerome. The second
controversy took place in Egypt about the same time, when a group of monks
in the Scetic desert, who were violently opposed to Origenism, compelled
Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria and an admirer of Origen, to abandon that
theologian and to side with them against the monks of the Nitrian desert,
who were Origenists, and to condemn Origen at a council at Alexandria,
399. The third controversy involved John Chrysostom, bishop of
Constantinople, who had protected four Nitrian monks who had fled to his
protection. Theophilus seized the opportunity and, with the assistance for
a time of Epiphanius, ultimately brought about the downfall of Chrysostom,
who died deposed and in exile, 404. No controversies of the ancient Church
are less attractive than the Origenistic, in which so much personal
rancor, selfish ambition, mean intrigue, and so little profound thought
were involved. The literature, therefore, is scanty.

Additional source material: Jerome, Ep. 86-99 (PNF); Rufinus and
Jerome, controversial writings bearing on Origenism in PNF, ser.
II. vol. III, pp. 417-541; Socrates, Hist. Ec., VI, 2-21;
Sozomen, Hist. Ec., VIII, 2-28.

(a) Basil, De Spiritu Sancto, 27. (MSG, 32:187.)

The force of unwritten tradition.

The following is the most important and authoritative statement of
the force of unwritten tradition in the Eastern Church. It is
referred to by John of Damascus in his defence of images (De Fide
Orthod., IV, 16), cf. 109. It is placed in the present
section as illustrating the principle of traditionalism which, in
a fanatical form, brought about the Origenistic controversies.

Of the beliefs and public teachings preserved in the Church, some we have
from written tradition, others we have received as delivered to us "in a
mystery" by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these have in
relation to true piety the same binding force. And these no one will
gainsay, at least no one who is versed even moderately in the institutions
of the Church. For were we to reject such customs as are unwritten as
having no great force, we should unintentionally injure the gospels in
their very vitals; or, rather, reduce our public definition to a mere name
and nothing more. For example, to take the first and most general
instance, who is there who has taught us in writing to sign with the cross
those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing
has taught us to turn to the East in our prayers? Which of the saints has
left us in writing the words at the invocation and at the displaying of
the bread in the eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is
well known, content with what the Apostle or the Gospel has recorded; but,
both before and after, we say other words as having great importance for
the mystery, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover, we
bless the water of baptism and the oil of chrism, and, besides this, him
who is baptized. From what writings? Is it not from the silent and
mystical tradition? What written word teaches the anointing of oil itself?
And whence is it that a man is baptized three times? And as to other
customs of baptism, from what Scripture comes the renunciation of Satan
and his angels? Does not this come from the unpublished and secret
teaching which our fathers guarded in silence, averse from curious
meddling and inquisitive investigation, having learned the lesson that the
reverence of the mysteries is best preserved in silence? How was it proper
to parade in public the teaching of those things which it was not
permitted the uninitiated to look at?

(b) Jerome, Preface to the Vulgate Translation of the New Testament.
(MSL, 29:557.)

Jerome's free critical attitude in his work in his earlier life.

This preface is addressed to Bishop Damasus of Rome and is dated

You urge me to make a new work out of an old and, as it were, to sit in
judgment on the copies of the Scriptures already scattered throughout the
whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ among themselves, I am to decide
which of them agree with the Greek original. A pious labor, but a perilous
presumption; to judge others, myself to be judged of all; to change the
language of the aged, and to carry back the world already grown gray, back
to the beginnings of its infancy! Is there a man, learned or unlearned,
who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands and perceives that
what he reads differs from the flavor which once he tasted, break out
immediately into violent language and call me a forger and a profane
person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books or to
change or correct anything? I am consoled in two ways in bearing this
odium: in the first place, that you, the supreme bishop, command it to be
done; and secondly, even on the testimony of those reviling us, what
varies cannot be true. For if we put faith in the Latin texts, let them
tell us which; for there are almost as many texts as copies. But if the
truth is to be sought from many, why should we not go back to the original
Greek and correct the mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and
the blundering alterations of confident and ignorant men, and further, all
that has been added or altered by sleepy copyists? I am not discussing the
Old Testament, which was turned into Greek by the Seventy Elders, and has
reached us by a descent of three steps. I do not ask what Aquila and
Symmachus think, or why Theodotion takes a middle course between the
ancients and the moderns. I am willing to let that be a true translation
which had apostolic approval [i.e., the LXX]. I am now speaking of the
New Testament. This was undoubtedly composed in Greek, with the exception
of the work of the Apostle Matthew, who first published the gospel of
Christ in Judea and in Hebrew. This [i.e., the New Testament], as it is
in our language, is certainly marked by discrepancies, and the stream
flows in different channels; it must be sought in one fountainhead. I pass
over those manuscripts bearing the names of Lucian and Hesychius, which a
few contentious persons perversely support. It was not permitted these
writers to amend anything in the Old Testament after the labor of the
Seventy; and it was useless to make corrections in the New, for
translations of the Scriptures already made in the language of many
nations show that they are additions and false. Therefore this short
preface promises only the four gospels, of which the order is Matthew,
Mark, Luke, and John, revised by a comparison of the Greek manuscripts and
only of the ancient manuscripts. And that they might not depart far from
the Latin customarily read, I have used my pen with some restraint, so
that having corrected only the passages which seemed to change the
meaning, I have allowed the rest to remain as it was.

(c) Jerome, Ep. 7, ad Pammachium. (MSL, 23:376.)

The principal errors of Origen according to Jerome.

This is the most important work of Jerome in the controversy known
as the Origenistic controversy. Jerome attacks in this work John,
bishop of Jerusalem, and writes as a result of the work of
Epiphanius in Palestine three years before. The following were
addressed to John to reject, as a test of that bishop's orthodoxy.
See above, 43.

First, in the book it is said [I, 1:8]: "For as it is unfitting
to say that the Son can see the Father, so it is not meet to think that
the Holy Spirit can see the Son."

Secondly, that souls are bound in this body as in a prison; and that
before man was made in paradise they dwelt among rational creatures in the
heavens. Wherefore, afterward, to console itself, the soul says in the
Psalms, "Before I was humbled I went wrong," and "Return, my soul, unto
thy rest," and "Lead my soul out of prison," and similarly elsewhere.

Thirdly, that he says that both the devil and the demons will some time or
other repent and ultimately reign with the saints.

Fourthly, that he interprets the coats of skins, with which Adam and Eve
were clothed after their fall and ejection from paradise, to be human
bodies, and no doubt they were previously in paradise without flesh,
sinews, or bones.

Fifthly, he most openly denies the resurrection of the flesh, the bodily
structure, and the distinction of sexes by which we men are distinguished
from women, both in his explanation of the first psalm and in many other

Sixthly, he so allegorizes paradise as to destroy the truth of history,
understanding angels instead of trees, heavenly virtues instead of rivers;
and he overthrows all that is contained in the history of paradise by his
tropological interpretation.

Seventhly, he thinks that the waters which in the Scriptures are said to
be above the heavens are holy and supernal powers; while those which are
upon the earth and beneath the earth are, on the contrary, demoniacal

Eighthly, that the image and likeness of God, in which man was created,
was lost and was no longer in man after he was expelled from paradise.

(d) Anastasius, Ep. ad Simplicianum, in Jerome, Ep. 95 (MSL,

Condemnation of Origen by Anastasius, bishop of Rome, A. D. 400

To his lord and brother, Simplicianus, Anastasius.

It is felt right that a shepherd have great care and watchfulness over his
flock. In like manner, also, the careful watchman from his lofty tower
keeps a lookout day and night on behalf of the city. In the hour of
tempest and peril the prudent shipmaster suffers great distress of mind
lest by the tempest and the violent waves his vessel be dashed upon the
rocks. With similar feelings that reverend and honorable man Theophilus,
our brother and fellow-bishop, ceases not to watch over the things which
make for salvation, that God's people in the different churches may not by
reading Origen run into awful blasphemies.

Having been informed, then, by the letter of the aforesaid, we inform your
holiness that just as we are set in the city of Rome, in which the prince
of the Apostles, the glorious Peter, founded the Church and then by his
faith strengthened it; to the end that no man contrary to the commandment
read these books which we have mentioned and the same we have condemned;
and with earnest prayers we have urged that the precepts of the
Evangelists which God and Christ have inspired the Evangelists to teach
ought not to be forsaken; but that is to be remembered which the venerable
Apostle Paul preached by way of warning: "If any one preach a gospel unto
you other than that which was preached unto you, let him be anathema"
[Gal. 1:8]. Holding fast, therefore, this precept, we have intimated that
everything written in days past by Origen that is contrary to our faith is
even by us rejected and condemned.

We have written these things to your holiness by the hand of the presbyter
Eusebius, who, being a man filled with a glowing faith and having the love
of the Lord, has shown me some blasphemous chapters at which we shuddered
and which we condemned, but if any other things have been put forth by
Origen, you should know that with their author they are alike condemned by
me. The Lord have you in safe-keeping, my lord and brother deservedly held
in honor.

(e) Rufinus, Preface to Translation of Origen's "De Principiis".
(MSL, 22:733 and also MSG, 11:111.)

In this preface Rufinus refers, without mentioning names, to
Jerome. Inasmuch as it was perfectly clear to whom the allusion
was made, as the translator and admirer of Origen, Jerome felt
himself personally attacked and retorted furiously upon Rufinus.

I know that a great many of the brethren, incited by their desire for a
knowledge of the Scriptures, have requested various men versed in Greek
letters to make Origen a Roman and give him to Latin ears. Among these was
our brother and associate [i.e., Jerome], who was so requested by Bishop
Damasus, when he translated the two homilies on the Song of Songs from
Greek into Latin, prefixed to the work a preface so full of beauty and so
magnificent that he awoke in every one the desire of reading Origen and of
eagerly examining his works, and he said that to the soul of that man the
words might well be applied, "The King has brought me into his chamber"
[Cant. 2:4], and he declared that Origen in his other books surpassed all
other men, but in this had surpassed himself. What he promised in his
preface is, indeed, that he would give to Roman ears not only these books
on the Song of Songs, but many others of Origen. But, as I perceive, he is
so pleased with his own style that he pursues an object bringing him more
glory, viz., to be the father of a book rather than a translator. I am
therefore following out a task begun by him and commended by him. In
translation, I follow as far as possible the method of my predecessors,
and especially of him whom I have already mentioned, who, after he had
translated into Latin above seventy of the books of Origen, which he
called Homilies, and also a certain number of the tomes written on the
Apostle [the Epistles of St. Paul], since a number of offensive passages
are to be found in the Greek, eliminated and purged, in his translation,
all of them, so that the Latin reader will find nothing in these which jar
on our faith. Him, therefore, we follow, not indeed with the power of his
eloquence, but as far as we can in his rules and methods: that is, taking
care not to promulgate those things which in the books of Origen are found
to be discrepant and contradictory one to the other. The cause of these
variations I have set forth fully in the apology which Pamphilus wrote for
the books of Origen, to which is appended a short treatise showing how
proofs which, as I judge, are quite clear in his books have in many cases
been falsified by heretical and evil-disposed persons.

(f) Augustine, Ep. 73, Ch. 8. (MSL, 33:249.)

The attempt of Augustine to bring about a reconciliation between
Rufinus and Jerome. Jerome had written some affectionate words to
Augustine to which he alludes in the beginning of the following

When, by these words, now not only yours but also mine, I am gladdened and
refreshed, and when I am comforted not a little by the desire of both of
us for mutual fellowship, which has been suspended and is not satisfied,
suddenly I am pierced through by the darts of keenest sorrow when I
consider that between you [i.e., Rufinus and Jerome] (to whom God
granted in fullest measure and for a long time that which both of us have
longed for, that in closest and most intimate fellowship you tasted
together the honey of Holy Scriptures) such a blight of bitterness has
broken out, when, where, and in whom it was not to be feared, since it has
befallen you at the very time when, unencumbered, having cast away secular
burdens, you were following the Lord, were living together in that land in
which the Lord walked with human feet, when He said, "Peace I leave with
you, My peace I give unto you"; being, moreover, men of mature age, whose
life was devoted to the study of the word of God. Truly, "man's life on
earth is a period of trial" [Job 7:1]. Alas, that I cannot meet you both
together, perchance that in agitation, grief, and fear I might cast myself
at your feet, weep till I could weep no more, and appeal as I love you,
first to each of you for his own sake, and then for the sake of those,
especially the weak, "for whom Christ died" [I Cor. 8:11], who to their
great peril look on you as on the stage of time, imploring you not to
scatter abroad, in writing, those things about each other which when
reconciled, you, who are now unwilling to be reconciled, could not then
destroy, and which when reconciled you would not dare to read lest you
should quarrel anew.

(g) Socrates, Hist. Ec., VI, 15. (MSG, 67:708.)

The fall of Chrysostom.

Epiphanius had gone to Constantinople on the suggestion of
Theophilus, and there, in his zeal, had violated the canons of
ordination as generally received. In this case he had ordained
priests in the diocese of Chrysostom and without his permission.
Other troubles had arisen. On being called to account for his
conduct by Chrysostom, Epiphanius hastily left the city, and died
on the voyage back to his diocese, Salamis, in Cyprus.

When Epiphanius had gone John was informed by some person that the Empress
Eudoxia had set Epiphanius against him. Being of a fiery temperament and
of ready utterance, he soon after pronounced to the public an invective
against women in general. The people readily took this as uttered
indirectly against the Empress, and so the speech, laid hold of by
evil-disposed persons, was brought to the knowledge of those in authority.
At length the Empress, having been informed of it, immediately complained
to her husband of the insult offered her, saying that the insult offered
her was an insult to him. He therefore gave orders that Theophilus should
speedily convoke a synod against John; Severianus also co-operated in
promoting this, for he still retained his grudge [i.e., against
Chrysostom. See DCB, art. "Severianus, bishop of Gabala."]. No great
length of time, accordingly, intervened before Theophilus arrived, having
stirred up many bishops from different cities; but this, also, the summons
of the Emperor had commanded. Especially did they assemble who had one
cause or another of complaint against John, and there were present besides
those whom John had deposed, for John had deposed many bishops in Asia
when he went to Ephesus for the ordination of Heraclides. Accordingly they
all, by previous agreement, assembled at Chalcedon in Bithynia. Now none
of the clergy [i.e., of Constantinople] would go forth to meet
Theophilus or pay him the customary honors because he was openly known as
John's enemy. But the Alexandrian sailors--for it happened that at that
time the grain-transport ships were there--on meeting him, greeted him with
joyful acclamations. He excused himself from entering the church, and took
up his abode at one of the imperial mansions called "The Placidian." Then,
in consequence of this, many accusations began to be poured forth against
John, and no longer was there any mention of the books of Origen, but all
were intent on pressing a variety of absurd accusations. When these
preliminary matters were settled the bishops were convened in one of the
suburbs of Chalcedon, which is called "The Oak," and immediately cited
John to answer charges which were brought against him. And since John,
taking exception to those who cited him, on the ground that they were his
enemies, demanded a general council, without delay they repeated their
citation four times; and as he persisted in his refusal to answer, always
giving the same reply, they condemned him, and deposed him without giving
any other cause for his deposition than that he refused to obey when
summoned. This, being announced toward evening, incited the people to a
very great sedition, insomuch that they kept watch all night and would by
no means suffer him to be removed from the church, but cried out that the
charges against him ought to be determined by a larger assembly. A decree
of the Emperor, however, commanded that he should be immediately expelled
and sent into exile. When John knew this he voluntarily surrendered
himself about noon, unknown to the populace, on the third day after his
condemnation; for he dreaded any insurrectionary movement on his account,
and he was accordingly led away.

(h) Theophilus of Alexandria, Ep. ad Hieronymum, in Jerome, Ep. 113.
(MSL, 22:932.)

Theophilus on the fall of Chrysostom.

To the well-beloved and most loving brother Jerome, Theophilus sends
greeting in the Lord.

At the outset the verdict of truth satisfies but few; but the Lord,
speaking by the prophet, says, "My judgment goeth forth as the light," and
they who are surrounded with a horror of darkness do not with clear mind
perceive the nature of things, and they are covered with eternal shame and
know by their outcome that their efforts have been in vain. Wherefore we
also have always desired that John [Chrysostom], who for a time ruled the
church of Constantinople, might please God, and we have been unwilling to
accept as facts the cause of his ruin in which he behaved himself rashly.
But not to speak of his other misdeed, he has by taking the Origenists
into his confidences,(184) by advancing many of them to the priesthood,
and by this crime saddening with no slight grief that man of God,
Epiphanius, of blessed memory, who has shone throughout all the world a
bright star among bishops, deserved to hear the words, "Babylon is fallen,
is fallen."

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