Orthodoxy & Universal Salvation: Are the Two Compatible?

For about the past year or so now, some corners of the Orthodox blogosphere has been consumed with this question. In my experience, most who have dealt with the issue have been quite hostile to the idea of apocatastasis or universal salvation. By universal salvation, I do not mean the denial of hell, but rather the belief that all people will be saved and that the experience of hell is temporary, not eternal. These critics of the doctrine go as far as to declare it inadmissible and heretical for Orthodox. Many universalists, meanwhile, have be wont to declare such critics as generic Orthodox converts still suffering from typical American Protestant fundamentalist rigor and so forth. Perhaps these universalists are right in their accusations – who knows. But it probably is not a very good rebuttal, given the fact that Orthodoxy in the USA already has enough of an image problem of being viewed as a series of ethnic enclaves and unwelcoming to outsiders or converts. It is not their intention to feed into that image, especially those universalists such as myself who are converts. But it probably does feed into that image anyways. In any case, what follows are smattering of quick, sometimes acrid and impolite rebuttals of those Orthodox infernalists who insist that we are heretics. They can disagree with us Orthodox universalists, as is permissible in Orthodoxy, but branding us heretics relies on faulty premises, faulty arguments, and faulty history. These are not intended to be full-detailed or full-throated counters to every point. Rather they are meant to simply be a starting place. I would only warn the reader that if the subject seems too deep or complicated for you, then it probably is. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you recognize it. Begin from there with patience.

Claim 1: The Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemned Origen and Universalism

My treatment of this claim is extremely short and the issue is more thoroughly addressed by Fr. Aiden Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy.

A complicated maybe to the first, no to the second. Many apologists make the mistake of simply reading too quickly through acta and canons of Constantinople (553). Was Origen condemned centuries after his death in 553? Maybe, but the story is complicated. According to Franz Diekamp, later corroborating evidence seems to suggest that Origen was condemned around this time. But the question precisely is, when and where was he condemned? The 15 canons drawn up against a form of Origenism – a broad term – were likely the result of a preconciliar session that began shortly before Constantinople (553) or the Fifth Ecumenical Council formally convened. The internal references within the acta of Constantinople (553) that reference Origen as condemned then are not to local synodal canons from Constantinople 543, but to the preconciliar session of 553 (Diekamp, pp. 82-115). This position has subsequently been endorsed by many other scholars (Hombergen, pp. 21fn2). If you read through the acta, you’ll find some occasional mentions of Origen in passing without any formal discussions of the matter paired with the 15 anti-Origenist canons. Origen does happen to be mentioned in the 12 official canons of the council (not to be confused with the 15 anti-Origenist canons). In the official Canon 11 (again, not part of the 15 anti-Origenist canons), specifically, Origen is condemned by name alongside others, but without reference to specific beliefs or writings. This discrepancy is unusual, as councils generally discuss what they condemn before proclaiming canons. On the issue of this specific form of Origenism, this regular process did not occur, which is partly why many modern scholars now regard the 15 canons as being formed before the ecumenical council began.

These references found against Origen throughout the acta then would seem to indicate some sort of post-facto approval during the formal council of the preconciliar session. However, this post-facto approval process is not officially recorded if it really happened. We do have some indication of what it might have looked like in a later 7th century sermon given by (?pseudo?)-Anastasius Sinaita. According to this source, Pope Vigilius agreed to St. Justinian’s condemnation of Origen by means of a letter (Pitra, pp. 264-265). The letter itself is now lost. Accordingly, (?pseudo?)-Anastasius says (I’m translating from the later Latin translation, not the Greek original, as I don’t read Greek):

But indeed the most holy Pope Vigilius of Rome by no means was present at that synod [that is during the preconciliar session], nor did he command his legates [to attend] it [during the preconciliar session]. But he adhered to the acts in it regarding all things. There were two causes for why there was the synod: First, indeed is on account of Origen Adamantius (indeed producing capitula which were ascribed to Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus – first touching upon the capitula themselves, then upon Origen himself by anathematization). And indeed on these things that the most holy Pope Vigilius of Rome had assented to, were written by argument, which Vigilius wrote to Justinian, and which are revealed in the synod and are extant in his action in the literary record.

(?pseudo?)-Anastasius Sinaita, 7th cent.

Some might object that these canons therefore are not technically part of the council and that Origen was not condemned. Regarding the issue of Origen’s condemnation, Richard Price in his translation and summary of the council does believe that Origen was condemned. He is quick to note that Canon 11 of the official canons mentions Origen, which he regards as authentic (Price, vol. 2, 2009, pp. 280). Price, however, relegates the 15 anti-Origenist canons to the appendix, summarizing the scholarship over the past century with more detail than what I have written above (Price, vol. 2, 2009, pp. 270-280). In his translation of the acta of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Norman P. Tanner goes further than Price by omitting the 15 anti-Origenist canons entirely, stating, “Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to the council” (Tanner, pp. 105-106). Notably, however, Tanner still holds the Canon 11 to have condemned Origen by name in his edition and translation (Tanner, pp. 119). Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, believes that even this mention of the official canon is a later interpolation, since St. Justinian does not mention Origen’s name his imperial edict, known as the Homonoia – the first draft of those anathema written by Justinian (Ramelli, 2013, pp. 737fn210; McGuckin, pp. 166). This is basically the position of Henri Crouzel, whom she cites, and whom is worth quoting in full in his conclusion to the said article:

In the anathemas against the Three Chapters which are the work of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, we find the name of Origen solely in the following of a list of heretics in [the official] Canon 11. And it is still necessary to remark that he [Origen] is not found in the corresponding list [id est Homonoia] drawn up under the name of Justinian under number 10. Origen is the last on the list, although the other names ought to be ranked by chronological order and that Origen is the most ancient [name]. What is the sense of this addition [of Origen]? Perhaps this is an allusion to the discussions which had taken place earlier about this subject? Does this permit one to say that by speaking a strict language of the canonical point of view that Origen ought to be considered as having been condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council which had followed from the month of May 553 at the assembly of bishops who had condemned the doctrine of the Origenists of the fifth century, the inheritors of Evagrius and of Stephen Bar Sudhaile, rather than that of Origen [himself]? No, on account of what these canonical texts themselves say and their significant differences with his [Origen’s] actual doctrines.

My translation from Henri Crouzel, “Les condamnations subies par Origène et sa doctrine,” in Origeniana septima: Origenes in den Auseinandersetzungen des 4. Jahrhunderts, edited by W. A. Bienert and U. Kühneweg (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999), pp. 315

So maybe Origen was condemned then or maybe not (I leave that matter to the reader), but this subject is quite separate from whether one regards the 15 anti-Origenist canons to be part of the Fifth Ecumenical Council in any serious sense. That these canons were written up before the council formally began is beyond doubt now. This process is highly unusual to say the least and no primary record exists of these 15 canons being accepted. What survives are second-hand reports in later accounts, such as the sermon above (again, for a full overview, see Diekamp, pp. 82-115). Internal evidence that is highly suggestive of the preconciliar thesis can be found in Session V.87 of the council, where it is detailed that Vigilius and many other bishops had denounced several people, including Origen (Price, vol. 1, pp. 337-338) – again without detail of specific doctrines. However one wishes to adjudicate this issue of their place in the Fifth Ecumenical Council I leave to the reader (Note: A more thorough and lengthy treatment of this issue can be found at Eclectic Orthodoxy).

Moving on, two questions immediately arise. First, the more important question, what do the 15 anti-Origen canons actually say? Second, less so importantly, were these condemned beliefs really Origen’s?

In answer to the first question, the most relevant canon to the subject at hand states the following:

1. If anyone advocates the mythical pre-existence of souls and the monstrous restoration that follows from this, let him be anathema.

Translation taken from Richard Price, The Acts of Constantinople 553, vol. 2, pp. 284

The specific form of universalism condemned here is the one that also advocates the pre-existence of souls. This position is not one advocated by any Orthodox universalist that I know today. Orthodox universalists merely believe that punishment is not eternal. Their belief does not flow from a belief in the pre-existence of souls. Orthodox infernalists will object that both beliefs listed in the canon are to be read as being condemned separately. However, the canon itself makes that reading impossible (Ware, DWSA, pdf. 4). To argue otherwise is absurd. Fr. Aiden Kimel bolsters this point even more in his reading of St. Justinian’s letter that was paired with these 15 anti-Origenist canons. St. Justinian’s letter accordingly places its concern on the combination of pre-existence of souls with universal salvation (Price, vol. 2, 2009, pp. 282-284; Kimel, Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?).

I have read some Orthodox bloggers objecting that this defense, that only a certain form of universalism was condemned, declaring it specious. They say something like, “It is ridiculous to expect a council to declare every form of universalism heretical. Earlier councils did not have to declare every form of Arianism as heretical.” I don’t find this objection all that convincing. First, I Nicaea (325) did indeed endorse the term homoousios, meaning of the same substance or consubstantial (consubstantialis). And while this term was eventually used later in the century, particularly at the Second Ecumenical Council, otherwise known as I Constantinople (381), as the standard of Orthodoxy, the exact meaning of this term was heavily debated between the time of Nicaea and that of Constantinople (For more on this matter, see: Barnes, pp. 47-67; Ayres, especially pp. 98-104; passim). In any case, while the meaning of homoousios took time to settle after Nicaea, the term homoousios later in the same century came to exclude many other theologies, which had been attributed the broad umbrella of Arianism under the term semi-Arianism (a controversial term). Semi-Arianism included many groups such as the homoians, anomoians, and the homoiousians (For more on the variants of Arianism and semi-Arianism, see: Elm, passim; Amann, pp. 1790-1796; Wiles, pp. 27-34; Ayres, in toto). The Nicene Creed came to preclude those forms of Arianism. Long story short, we see neither a general terminology or canon whose language would exclude all forms of universalism (rather only just one form), nor do we see a long drawn out and complicated battle against universalism in the aftermath, as one saw with Arianism. As such, this defense of universalism is not specious, rather the objection to the defense is specious because it relies on a fairly simplified history devoid of full or even general accuracy.

Now, in answer to the second question, I give an emphatic no. If one reads G. W. Butterworth’s translation of Origen’s On First Principles, they will find many unorthodox beliefs, such as the preexistence of souls, etc. But Butterworth’s translation of the text is based upon Paul Koetschau’s edition of Origen’s text. Koetschau’s edition contains extracts from those hostile to Origen, sometimes as though Origen actually said them. These extracts and fragments are in fact dubious imputations, often at the hands of hostile writers. Fr. John Behr’s recent edition and translation of On First Principles replaces Koetschau’s edition. The result of this new edition and translation is, in fact, an Origen free from these unorthodox beliefs so often imputed to him. This edition and translation has been universally praised by scholars as superior, long overdue, and more faithful to the true Origen (Kostopoulos; Edwards; Hart 2020). It is apparent then that the Fifth Ecumenical Council made a mistake in condemning Origen’s person – a separate issue, I must stress, from whether the 15 anti-Origenist canons correctly condemn a certain set of beliefs and whether those canons belong properly to the Fifth Ecumenical Council. To these latter issues, I leave the reader to decide. Orthodox are required to uphold the doctrinal content of the ecumenical councils (Ware, OC, pp. 196), not their historical claims.

Claim 2: The Seventh Ecumenical Council Condemned Universalism via Conciliar Fundamentalism

The answer is an emphatic no. Admittedly, those who make this claim acknowledge that no canon from the councils condemn it. Rather they contest that it was condemned during the proceedings in passing. During Session 6 of II Nicaea (787) or the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Deacon Epiphanios of Catana replies to the various statements made at the iconoclastic Council of Hieria (754), as read by Bishop Gregory of Neocaesarea. The relevant passages are the following:

Bishop Gregory read out:

“If anyone does not acknowledge the resurrection of the dead, and the judgement and the requital to each according to desert through the just criteria of God, and that there is no end to punishment nor to the kingdom of heaven, which is the enjoyment of God – for the kingdom of heaven is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, according to the divine apostle – let him be anathema.”

Deacon Epiphanios read out:

“This is the rule of the leaders of our true faith, the holy apostles and inspired fathers. This is the confession of the catholic church and not of heretics. But what follows is their own, since it is chock-full of ignorance and stupidity, and buzzes as follows….”

Translation taken from Richard Price, The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, vol. 2, pp. 535-536.

The crucial problem with the infernalists’ claims about the importance of this statement lay in the fact that it is not a canon or doctrinal decree. It merely comes from the general proceedings of the council and lacks the universal signatures that official canons and doctrinal statements are given at ecumenical councils, including at II Nicaea. Some have argued that even statements made at ecumenical councils are doctrinally binding, invoking a belief in what can be called conciliar fundamentalism. The defenders of this doctrine in the Orthodox blogosphere have gone as far as to claim that it was the standard view of the time and is therefore just. Anyone who states otherwise, they say, is obviously guilty of the heresy of modernism. Hence, II Nicaea makes universalism in toto heretical. Not much can be said about this position or the accusations of modernism, except that it is rather self-serving and preposterous.

In any case, Price does note that this conciliar fundamentalism came to be a common enough belief in the sixth century that it posed serious problems for the Fifth Ecumenical Council in its condemnations of the Three Chapters – the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, some writings of Theodoret of Cyrus, and the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Mari the Persian – whose writings and/or persons were approved of or rehabilitated at the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Fourth Ecumenical Council. Price is also keen to note that this position was not prevalent in the preceding century and that St. Justinian himself deeply criticized it in his imperial edict On the Orthodox Faith (551) (Price, vol. 1, pp. 97-98). St. Justinian keenly notes:

However, those in search of the truth ought also to attend to the fact that often at councils some things are said by some of those found at them out of partiality or disagreement or ignorance, but no one attends to what is said individually by a few, but only to what is decreed by all by common consent; for if one were to choose to attend to such a disagreement in the way they [the conciliar fundamentalists] do, each council will be found refuting itself.

Translation taken from Price, The Acts of Constantinople 553, vol. 1, pp. 150-151.

As I have stated in an earlier post, this very position of conciliar fundamentalism was used to provoke the Aquileian Schism within the Orthodox Church, which was only resolved at the end of the seventh century. The irony should not be lost here – those who advocate eternal damnation on the basis of the Fifth and Seventh Ecumenical councils do so on a principle (conciliar fundamentalism) that was used to reject the very Fifth Ecumenical Council they so cherish.

Now, there has been an attempt to get around this embarrassing historical conundrum, known as the Aquileian Schism. In particular, it has been contested that Ibas’ letter to Mari was never actually approved at Chalcedon (451), and therefore its doctrinal condemnation at Constantinople (553) does not contradict a preceding ecumenical council. Hence, conciliar fundamentalism is saved. Here is the problem, it is dead wrong. Turning to Session 10 of the Council of Chalcedon, before the formal reinstatement of Ibas as bishop, many documents were reviewed concerning his case, including his letter to Mari (Mansi 6:242-250; Hefele, vol. 3, pp. 366-368), which would be condemned at Constantinople (553) in the next century. The acta detail the following by the papal legates:

The most reverend bishops, Paschasinus and Lucentius, as well as presbyter Bonifacius holding the place of the apostolic see [id est Rome], through Paschasinus said: “Having gathered together the documents, we acknowledge from the sentence of the most reverend bishops to have the most reverend Ibas shown as innocent. Indeed, having read his letter [to Mari], we acknowledge him to be orthodox.”

My translation from the Acts of Chalcedon, Mansi 6:262.

Now, these Orthodox bloggers (one specifically, but there is another who has in passing connected it to conciliar fundamentalism), who only read English and have no knowledge of classical languages, think that when the papal legate said, “his letter,” that it clearly must refer to another letter read which was from the clergy of Edessa coming to the defense of Ibas. They argue that in daily conversation saying his/her can be used in place of the plural their. Maybe it is possible in English – I certainly have not encountered this phenomenon. The fundamental problem with their argument here, however, is that the papal legates were probably speaking in Latin, and Latin does not permit this loose use of possessive pronouns – singular possessive pronouns are for singular people, while plural possessive pronouns are for plurals only. This rule only bends when the royal we is used, but the context here involves no kings, so this exception does not apply.

Now in their defense, Pope Vigilius makes this exact argument in his Second Constitutum (Price, vol. 2, 2009, pp. 256-258). Price and Hefele have both dismissed this argument from Vigilius as straining the natural reading of the passage, as directly contradicting what Vigilius had said in his First Constitutum, or that it was so daring that not even his allies, namely Bishop Facundus and Deacon Pelagius, made such an argument (Hefele, vol. 4, pp. 350-351; Price, vol. 2, 195-203; 219-220; 256fn75). For these reasons, I am firmly in agreement with Price and Hefele. I think Vigilius’ arguments from his Second Constitutum can be attributed to a sense of motivated reasoning, which his long record of flip-flopping bolsters (Note: for a brief summary of his flip-flopping record, see: Meyendorff, pp. 235-245).

Regarding the Latin, it clearly says, “eius epistola,” or “his letter.” It cannot be read under any conditions whatsoever as “their letter” as in “the clergy of Edessa’s letter.” If was to be understood as “their letter,” it would have to have been written as “eorum epistola.” This grammatical point is further bolstered by Deacon Pelagius, soon-to-be Pope Pelagius I of Rome, who argued that the letter in question was Ibas’ letter to Mari and that the papal legates had approved it (Pelagius I, pp. 57). Bishop Facundus of Hermiane also confirms that the letter approved was Ibas’ letter to Mari (Facundus, PL 67:0629-0633B; IV.1). The chief allies and affiliates of the papacy are stating that they approved the letter a century before at Chalcedon, even though now a century later such an approval makes their lives more difficult! Vigilius’ late reading is strained. This point is further bolstered by the fact that in the previous sentence, “Having gathered together the documents, we acknowledge from the sentence of the most reverend bishops to have the most reverend Ibas shown as innocent,” the papal legates are acknowledging bishops of Berytus in the plural. Switching to the singular for another plural subject makes no sense. If they wanted to denote the letter from the Edessene clergy, they would have said, “the letter of the clerics (epistola clericorum).” The letter of the clerics of Edessa is referred to as the “letter of the clerics of Edessa” by Ibas himself. He never characterizes it as “his letter” (Mansi 6:250-255). In short, the letter approved at Chalcedon was the letter written to Mari.

One could argue that papal legates approving the letter does not mean that the council approved the letter. Ah, but herein lies the beauty of that concession – it is the exact argument that St. Justinian made in his On the Orthodox Faith quoted above, and would necessitate abandoning a belief in conciliar fundamentalism.

So what are we left with from this statement given by Deacon Epiphanios at II Nicaea? We are left with a lone deacon affirming a bland statement originally given at a heretical iconoclastic council (Hieria) that declared a belief in eternal hell. Okay. No universalist would claim that a belief in eternal hell is not a part of Orthodox tradition. We acknowledge many Orthodox believe in eternal hell and can do so while being Orthodox. At the same time, however, Orthodox tradition is a fairly wide tent and includes us universalists as well. In any case, Epiphanios’ statement is not binding. It isn’t a canon or a doctrinal decree. Therefore, while historically informative, on the question of binding authority upon all Orthodox Christians, his statement is most certainly not binding – nothing more than a popcorn fart of a curiosity. Let me reiterate, Orthodox Christians are required to uphold the doctrinal decrees of ecumenical councils, nothing more (Ware, OC, pp. 196).

Claim 3: The Orthodox Liturgy Condemns Universal Salvation and Proclaims Eternal Damnation

Undoubtedly, there are portions of the Orthodox liturgy that proclaim eternal damnation. I won’t go through and list them all. However, I will focus on one that is trudged out usually in support for the infernalists’ claims that belief in universalism is incompatible with Orthodoxy – the Synodikon. The Synodikon is read aloud during the Sunday of Orthodoxy in every present-day Orthodox Church. It is often, in my experience, abbreviated when read aloud. It was first formed in the aftermath of the end of Second Iconoclasm in 843 and was first formed at the local level, although over the course of the centuries it has become common practice in all Orthodox churches. According to the Serbian Orthodox Church’s English language website, the Synodikon itself has been modified considerably, often according to local concerns. For example, some Orthodox churches condemn ecumenism as heresy, which is clearly not something most Orthodox churches believe (Ware, OC, pp. 315; Porumb). A modification over the centuries that infernalists often cite is one of eleven condemnations of John Italos from the 11th century. Clucas Lowell, in his study of John Italos, has argued that surviving documents seem to acquit Italos from many of the charges of heresy (Lowell, passim.). In any case, Italos’ innocence or guilt is besides the point of concern here. The relevant passage of the Synodikon is the following (for critical text edition of the Greek, see: Gouillard, pp. 60-61):

To them who accept and transmit the vain Greek teachings that there is a pre-existence of souls and teach that all things were not produced and did not come into existence out of non-being, that there is an end to the torment or a restoration again of creation and of human affairs, meaning by such teachings that the Kingdom of the Heavens is entirely perishable and fleeting, whereas the Kingdom is eternal and indissoluble as Christ our God Himself taught and delivered to us, and as we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Scripture, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting to them who by such teachings both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others,

Anathema (3)

Text taken from John Sanidopoulos, Mystagogy Resource Center

Here I reiterate the argument I made for Claim 1 regarding Canon 1 of the 15 anti-Origenist canons – what is being condemned is an entire system of thought, a form of universalism that includes the beliefs of the preexistence of souls, the temporality of heaven, etc. Most of these beliefs no Orthodox universalist today would endorse.

Now the infernalists are keen to harp on the last few lines that declare a belief in eternal hell. It would be interesting for someone to dissect the Greek, particularly on these last few lines, in nitty gritty detail, but I am incapable of doing that.

Here is the fundamental objection and problem with the infernalists’ arguments on this point regarding the Synodikon, however – the Synodikon is a relatively open liturgical document and just isn’t as authoritative as either the scriptures or the ecumenical councils. As I have personally testified and as the Serbian Orthodox Church has stated, the Synodikon is subject to numerous abbreviations or additions depending on locale. As mentioned above, for example, ecumenism is condemned as a heresy in some Orthodox churches’ versions of the Synodikon, despite most Orthodox engaging precisely in that very enterprise (Ware, OC, pp. 315). I myself have never heard the anathema above read aloud during any service. And this does not seem to be an experience limited to myself. According to Ivan Biliarsky and Radu G. Paun, a seventeenth-century edition of the Synodikon in the Romanian Orthodox Church does not contain the condemnations of Italos at all, nor does the printed Slavic edition from 1627 (Biliarsky and Paun, pp. 401fn36).

What does one make of these variations and omissions? Here it is useful to turn to what Jean Gouillard says in his critical Greek edition:

When we arrive at [the manuscript traditions] of C and P, we distinguish there at first glance an invariable cycle of additions, ranging from Gerontios to Barlaam and Akindynos, and – in passing through John Italos, Nil, Eustratios – the controversy of the sacrifice of Christ and that of the Pater maior me est (the Father is greater than I) with its new developments. These grand themes relate to the right of collection – that their inscription is certified by external sources or only by the constancy of the manuscript tradition. This constancy is compatible, furthermore, with a certain freedom of usage, under the form of omissions or of abridgements, as well as adaptations.

My translation from Jean Gouillard, “Le synodikon de l’orthodoxie: édition et commentaire,” Travaux et mémoires 2 (1967): pp. 38-39.

This reasoning would explain then the various omissions and abridgments mentioned above. But then one is left with the crucial question: if the Synodikon is selectively read everywhere, can one really claim that it speaks for Orthodoxy with the same force as say the Nicene Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, which are not abbreviated? I would answer no. Infernalists claim that the 11th Anathema against Italos is read aloud every Sunday of Orthodoxy, yet it has been established in the long historical record and in the present day, that such is simply not the case. Furthermore, many editions and transmissions of the Synodikon do not even record Italos’ anathemas. Moreover, this position confirms what Metropolitan Kalistos Ware states on the various levels of authority contained within Orthodox tradition. As he states:

Among the various elements of Tradition, a unique preeminence belongs to the Bible, to the Creed, to the doctrinal definitions of the Ecumenical Councils: these things the Orthodox accept as something absolute and unchanging, something which cannot be cancelled or revised. The other parts of Tradition do not have quite the same authority.

Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity, pp. 191.

Hitherto unmentioned is the fact that much of the Orthodox liturgy carries with it universalist themes. Christopher Howell over at Eclectic Orthodoxy demonstrates this phenomenon quite well in the liturgy, while also pointing towards other Orthodox scholars who have carried out similar studies. I will not attempt to recapitulate the details here. I encourage everyone to read the article as a starting point on the issue of the liturgy. If infernalists want to claim the liturgy as holding the same level of scriptures or the ecumenical councils, then they will have to explain away every single universalist message contained within the liturgy, of which, as Howell demonstrates, is quite a lot.

Claim 4: The Council of Jerusalem/Bethlehem 1672 Condemns Universalism

The general context of the pan-Orthodox council of Jerusalem (1672) is that the Patriarch Cyril Lucarius of Constantinople stood accused of adopting Calvinist views and publishing them (Note: For a full account, see: Kitromilides, pp. 193-202). The point of the council then was to refute the errors and heresies of Cyril through the Confession of Dositheos of Jerusalem. Decrees III, XVI, and XVII all proclaim some belief in an eternal hell during their refutations of various Calvinist doctrines (Robertson, pp. 114-116; 139-150).

One problem with using Jerusalem (1672) to bolster the infernalists’ condemnation of universalism is the fact that Jerusalem was not refuting universalism, it was refuting Calvinism, which no one with any knowledge would mistake as holding a universalist position in any of its forms. So affirming eternal damnation for the purposes of refuting Calvinism is not surprising, because as any Orthodox universalist would note, belief in eternal damnation is an acceptable Orthodox position, just not the only position.

The biggest problem with using Jerusalem (1672), however, is the fact that it just isn’t as authoritative as the ecumenical councils or other important elements of Orthodox tradition. Ware again singles out Jerusalem (1672) stating, “The decrees of Jassy or Jerusalem do not stand on the same level as the Nicene Creed…” (Ware, OC, pp. 191). He documents this lower standing of Jerusalem’s authority elsewhere in present-day Orthodox practice. For example, Ware notes that the Russian Orthodox Church was uncomfortable with some of the scholastic language of the council and therefore modified it in their translation (Ware, OC, pp. 277). Decree XVI, for instance, proclaims the belief that dead unbaptized babies burn in hell forever. This position is emphatically not Orthodox (Ware, OC, pp. 218). Paschalis M. Kitromilides’ conclusions on the council are instructive:

After Peter Moghila’s 1640 confession, which, on account of its Latin sources, verged dangerously on Catholicism, the patriarch of Jerusalem Dositheos (1669-1707) produced another confession answering Cyril’s confession point by point. But to do this Dositheos drew heavily on Latin sources and went a long way in the direction of a Catholic theology on fundamental doctrinal questions.

Paschalis M. Kitromilides, “Orthodoxy and the West: Reformation to Enlightenment,” pp. 201.

While Jerusalem (1672) is important in Orthodox history, it is not infallible and not as authoritative as the ecumenical councils or scriptures. Orthodox are not required to adhere to every single one of its proclamations, even if it was intended (which it was not) to preclude universalism.

Claim 5: The Consensus of the Fathers (consensus patrum) Precludes Universalism

Some Orthodox bloggers have argued that since the majority of the Church Fathers taught eternal damnation, then so too must all Orthodox Christians believe in eternal damnation. They invoke the principle known as the consensus of the fathers, or consensus patrum. The first problem with this claim is that, as well-demonstrated by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, far more Church Fathers than is usually recognized believed in universal salvation, many having very big names, such as Sts. Gregory of Nyssa or John Cassian (See: Ramelli 2013; Ramelli 2019). So on that front, it is not so easy to dismiss them.

More importantly, however, is the fact that these Orthodox bloggers don’t understand how complex or disputed consensus patrum actually is. As one scholar eloquently summarizes the various positions before reaching their own conclusions:

Another question is what the most important theological questions are. It is generally agreed that the mind of the Church is expressed in the dogmatic definitions and in the canon of Scripture. However, not all important questions are defined as dogmas, and there is no unanimous opinion for their solution. There are secondary questions which are still very important: in cosmology (appearance of the human being, of death), anthropology (what is the image of God, dichotomous or trichotomous model of human nature, time of creation of the human soul), ecclesiology (borders of the Church), in sacramentology (validity of the sacraments outside of the Church), eschatology (the second coming of Christ, eternity of punishment), christology (whether human nature of Christ was damaged), biblical criticism, etc.

The principle of consensus patrum does not seem to work in solving these questions. Some respond that they do not directly influence our salvation. The consensus patrum concerns mainly those questions which influence salvation. If we deny this principle we will put in doubt not only the Tradition of the Fathers and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, but also the status of Scripture itself.

Some say that an alternative is new Ecumenical Councils which will define dogmas and react to new questions.

Some deny that the quantitative criterion should be applied to solving theological questions (agreement of a majority of the Church Fathers). The majority can be wrong. Truth is truth, no matter who expresses it—one person or many. Others say that the Holy Spirit who brings unity in the Body of Christ lets the truth be known to many believers….

The consensus patrum was one of the procedures of the Ecumenical Councils, and was used to define the canon of scriptural books. It is not a dogma, but the means for defining the dogmatic teaching. However, one should not dogmatise the opinions and teachings of the Fathers, since they are not infallible and legally binding. The teaching of the Church is partly contained in one Father and partly in another. If the Fathers made mistakes, it does not refute the validity of consensus patrum as a principle.  Astonishing evidence of a religious truth is visible in the unity of spiritual experience and the unity of teaching based on this experience….

Thus, the principle of consensus patrum served as a method for distinguishing truth from heresy during the Ecumenical Councils. It helped to clarify the truth concerning the salvation of humankind. The teaching of the Fathers on other, non-dogmatic and non-soteriological questions can be described as a “symphony” of voices.

Yulia Rozumna and Mina Soliman, “The Consensus patrum: What is it?,” Orthodoxy in Dialogue

Consensus patrum, then, was only a means, not the means to an end. And invocation of a democratic version of consensus patrum is by no means accepted. More importantly, however, consensus patrum was never designed to answer questions secondary importance, such as the eternity of punishment or universal salvation. Consensus patrum was designed to answer questions that immediately influence our salvation. For example, why was Arianism so dangerous? Because it proclaimed essentially that God did not become man. And as St. Athanasius said, “What has not be assumed cannot be redeemed.” An ecumenical council, along with invocation of consensus patrum, were used to address this matter. It is incumbent upon infernalists who wish to declare universalism as an unacceptable heresy to explain how belief in a temporary hell and eventual salvation of all somehow impairs theosis in a manner similar to denying the full divinity of Christ. Only then would the invocation of consensus patrum make any sense.

Claim 6: The Scriptures Teach Against Universalism

The scriptures are vast and originally in languages I have no knowledge of – Hebrew and Greek. I myself generally prefer to read the Latin Vulgate, although I know it contains translation errors and I recognize its limitations. I cannot hope to adequately address this argument here. The most I can do is to direct people to read David Bentley Hart’s treatment of the scriptures in both his translation of the New Testament and in his book That All Shall Be Saved (Hart, 2017; Hart 2019). In these texts, Hart discusses in detail the logic of the scriptures, how words generally translated as eternal, etc. are much broader or different in their meaning, and how these other meanings actually make more sense in the context of any given verse (See my review for a summary). Another good resource is the bibliography assembled by Fr. Aiden Kimel at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Just run a word search for Bible and you will find many good resources that will address your scriptural concerns.

Claim 7: Many Universalists Make Use of Reason & Philosophy, but Philosophy Must Give Way to Revelation

I’ve already addressed this claim in an earlier blog post. I won’t do much to recapitulate its contents here. In brief, my position is the same as that of St. Augustine of Hippo and others. Of course, all Christians must accept revelation and authority and practice holy living. Indeed, most Christians may only go through life doing just that, living the faith by authority alone. However, the ideal is to pursue reason and thus explain that accepted authority and revelation in accordance with reason. In such a quest, one must be on guard against false reason, which only has the appearance of reason. In this way, no one can simply pull the revelation card and ignore serious philosophical arguments. Christianity is true philosophy, not a form of fideism. (Note: Another good article to read on the place of reason in Christianity is Mark Chenoweth’s at Eclectic Orthodoxy).


My conclusion to this long essay or blog post is this: belief in universal salvation is entirely compatible with Orthodoxy. No objection stands. Orthodox infernalists should be content to disagree with our position, but branding us heretics is a bridge too far.

Select Bibliography and Suggested Reading

É. Amann, “Semi-Ariens,” in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 14, 2 (Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ané, 1941), pp. 1790-1796

Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Michel René Barnes, “The Fourth Century as Trinitarian Doctrine,” in Christian Origins: Theology, Rhetoric and Community, edited by Lewis Ayres and Gareth Jones (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 47-67

John Behr, trans., Origen: On First Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Ivan Biliarsky and Radu G. Paun, “La version roumaine du synodikon de l’orthodoxie (Bazau, 1700) et les combats pour la ‘juste foi’ à la fin du xvii siècle,” Cahiers du monde russe 58, no. 3 (2017): 395-434

Mark Chenoweth, “The Deep Patristic Roots of Hart’s Universalism: A Response to Fr Lawrence Farley,” Eclectic Orthodoxy (February 2, 2021)

Henri Crouzel, “Les condamnations subies par Origène et sa doctrine,” in Origeniana septima: Origenes in den Auseinandersetzungen des 4. Jahrhunderts, edited by W. A. Bienert and U. Kühneweg (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999), pp. 311-315

Franz Diekamp, Die origenistichen Streitigkeiten im sechsten Jahrhundert und das fünfte allgemeine Concil (Münster, 1899)

M. J. Edwards, “Review: Origen: On First Principles,” Journal of Theological Studies 70 (2019): 402-405

Susanna Elm, Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome (Berkley: University of California Press, 2012)

Facundus of Hermiane, Pro defensione trium capitulorum, PL 67:0527-0852C

Jean Gouillard, “Le synodikon de l’orthodoxie: édition et commentaire,” Travaux et mémoires 2 (1967): 1-313

David Bentley Hart, trans., The New Testament (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017)

David Bentley Hart, “Review: Origen. On First Principles,” Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies 3, no. 1 (2020): 103-107

David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019)

Karl Joseph von Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church: From the Original Documents, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: 1883)

Karl Joseph von Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church: From the Original Documents, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: 1895)

Daniël Hombergen, The Second Origenist Controversy: A New Perspective on Cyril of Scythopolis’ Monastic Biographies as Historical Sources for Sixth-Century Origenism (Rome, 2001)

Christopher Howell, “The Path Upward: Liturgy, Universalism, and George Seferis,” Eclectic Orthodoxy (August 25, 2020)

Aiden Kimel, “Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?” Eclectic Orthodoxy (May 31, 2020)

Aiden Kimel, “Readings in Universalism,” Eclectic Orthodoxy (Constantly updated)

Paschalis M. Kitromilides, “Orthodoxy and the West: Reformation to Enlightenment,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 5, edited by Michael Angold (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 187-209

Zachary L. Kostopoulos, “Review: Origen: On First Principles,” Vigiliae christianae 73, no. 1 (2019): 112-114

Clucas Lowell, The Trial of John Italos and the Crisis of Intellectual Values in Byzantium in the Eleventh Century (Munich: 1981)

Giovanni Domenico Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, vol. 6 (Florence: 1762)

John Anthony McGuckin, ed., The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)

John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church AD 450-680 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989)

Robin A. Parry, A Larger Hope?, vol. 2 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019)

Pope Pelagius I, In defensione trium capitulorum, edited by Robert Devreese (Vatican City: 1932)

Jean-Baptiste Pitra, ed., “De haeresibus,” in Iuris Ecclesiastici Graecorum Historia et Monumenta, volume 2 (Rome, 1868), pp. 257-271

Razvan Porumb, “Is Ecumenism Orthodox?” Orthodoxy in Dialogue (October 9, 2019)

Richard Price, trans., The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553 with Related Texts on the Three Chapters Controversy, vols. 1-2 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009)

Richard Price, trans., The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), vol. 2 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018)

Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden: Brill, 2013)

Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope?, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019)

J. Robertson, trans., The Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Jerusalem (New York: Ames Press, 1969)

Yulia Rozumna and Mina Soliman, “The Consensus patrum: What is it?,” Orthodoxy in Dialogue (January 6, 2018)

Norman P. Tanner, trans., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990)

Henry Wace et al., “Ibas,” in A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century AD (London: 1911), pp. 504-507

Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?: Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa and St Issac the Syrian,” Clarion (February 3, 2015), pp. 1-12

Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, New Edition (New York: Penguin, 2015)

Maurice Wiles, Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)

About Alura

I just do my thing.
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19 Responses to Orthodoxy & Universal Salvation: Are the Two Compatible?

  1. Pingback: Orthodoxy & Universalism: A Cordial Response to a Critic | Shameless Orthodoxy

  2. For what it is worth, I did respond to this article in a way which I think is irenic and helps those who want to see both sides of the story. I did it on Youtube so that the tone of my voice can be heard. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=px4XaG9qDyw


  3. Greg says:

    This is quite good.

    The quality (and capability) of some of the bloggers you have noted is insanely low, which raises a deeper problem than bad reasoning vis a vis eschatology – how much damage is being done in the name of Orthodoxy in online theology in general? Much like social media, its possible for any uniquely unqualified personality to present themselves as an expert. The results may look like something that can be ignored, but the reality is that most readers will not have the ability to discern the good from the bad – esp. if the blog carries a name and tone indicating that it is expounding authoritatively accepted Orthodox theology.


    • Alura says:

      Good question. A number of these blogs in question actually have some Orthodox priests, deacons, and even abbots comment from time to time and almost certainly send them emails too with praises. At least according to one of these bloggers, Craig Truglia, their priest approves of their blogging. Maybe that is true. I think an unfamiliarity with any given intricacies runs through even clergy. Nothing wrong with that really. They have a myriad of other concerns and can only familiarize themselves with so much. It doesn’t help that a lot of the expertise on a number of these theological and historical issues is scattered across many languages. This piece alone took knowledge of four (and could benefit greatly from Greek), and it isn’t even my field. There is probably much that I missed, scattered about in other languages. The fractious nature of American Orthodoxy concerning who has what jurisdictions probably does not help either with it comes to blogging and social media discipline.

      All that being said, I don’t see any sort of real solution besides banning catechumens on pain of discipline from blogging for the first 5 years post-chrismation. It wouldn’t fix everything, but it would probably help (although it would come at some sort of cost too, since even bad bloggers yield gold sometimes). I started blogging after about 1.5 years post-chrismation, and 5 years from start of inquiry. I made a number of mistakes and probably am still making some. You don’t see a lot of cradle Orthodox blogging, and when they do, they are usually in a graduate program or have published scholarship already or have been priests for decades – in short, people with some mixture of deep historical, theological, and spiritual discipline. The fact of the matter is that blogging for these new converts, and I speak from own experience, serves more as a tool for clarifying one’s own mind than it is for outreach. Many bloggers should content themselves with a notepad. And if they do start blogging, they probably shouldn’t start with apologetics. Something more simple and spiritual is probably better. Many of these suggestions would have excluded me from blogging when I did. Fair enough.


  4. Regarding Claim 6 and your discussion of the different words translated into English as ‘eternal’ or ‘hell’, I refer the reader to multiple works by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, including “A Larger Hope” (volume 1), “The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis”, and “Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts”. Of course Fr. Aiden Kimel and David Bentley Hart discuss much the same. I refer, in particular, to David Bentley Hart’s translation “The New Testament” and “That All May Be Saved.”


  5. One of the last remaining issues I had concerning universalism was the 7th Ecumenical Council. Yours was the first piece I’ve read addressing the issue. (I note I’ve read some Ilaria Ramelli, but not her entire corpus.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Herb Garfield says:

    Big Ideas in a Shrinking World – is a song. that I flash on much these days. I aspire with the Puritan and the prophetic in my personal inclination only it is become difficult to attain. This is a timely article soon after President Joe Biden’s inaugural address promulgating the democratic [impossible] dream – AKA Universal Brotherhood & Global Religion, the most feared thing of all


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy and commented:
    There’s a lot of excellent info here on the dogmatic status of eternal damnation in Orthodoxy. It well complements my article on the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The author also refutes some of the silly arguments recently advanced by Orthodox popes (oops, I mean bloggers). I so wish folks would address the theological and philosophical issues, rather than trying to stop debate by invoking some “pseudo-dogma” of doctrinal infallibility.


  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Alura, a minor challenge. With Nicaea it was unclear precisely what the homoousion meant and which Trinitarian formulations it excluded. Eusebius of Casarea, e.g., certainly believed that his position was permitted. Michel Barnes discusses this in his essay “The Fourth Century as Trinitarian Canon.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alura says:

      Thank you Fr. I will be sure to read through it soon and make the appropriate changes.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Lewis Ayres, ‘Nicaea and Its Legacy,’ is also a helpful read on the topic.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Alura says:

          Thank you Fr for the recommendations. I think I made the appropriate or fair changes. If anything still sticks out, please let me know and I will get to it when I can.

          I went ahead and read in full Barnes’ article. Due to time constraints, as I was only able to write this post during my own break in writing on another subject that is work related (and the break is fast approaching its end), I was unable to read in full Ayres’ book. I was only able to peruse it in what I must admit was a cursory fashion. I hope one day to read it more thoroughly or cover to cover even. I provided some references to it in my blog post, nonetheless. The fourth century is far from my specialty and is quite early for me, so again, my many thanks for the references and corrections.

          On a separate note, I had originally neglected to include the interpolation thesis regarding official Canon 11 of II Constantinople, which is advocated by both Crouzel and Ramelli. I have gone in and made those additions to the piece and made changes from saying that yes Origen was officially condemned to maybe he was officially condemned. I neither favor nor disfavor the interpolation thesis – either opinion is serious and respectable as far as I can tell – but I consider the debate on that precise point somewhat inconsequential to universalism’s place in Orthodoxy as a whole.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Well done, Alura!

    Regarding the Synodikon, years ago I wrote Fr Andrew Louth and asked him about its dogmatic authority. He replied that in itself it is not an instrument of dogmatic authority. The authority of the anathemas derive from the authority of the respective synods that originally promulgated the anathemas–no more, no less. The anathemas of a local synod do not magically gain ecumenical or universal authority by being included in the Synodikon. Fr Andrew’s judgment here is good enough for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bravo! I admit, I haven’t read everything thoroughly, but thank you for your translations, and your section on the Synodicon was excellent. It answered some lingering questions I had about it. However, if you do care about dialogue, and avoiding any grandstanding, can I persuade you to put replace the Donkey Kong meme with something else? It may turn off any more traditionally minded individual with an open mind looking for the truth. Imho, it also detracts from all the very serious academic work you’ve put into this, and makes it appear a little juvenile.

    Thanks again for all your hard work. Very much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alura says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I’ve removed it, as what you say is true. It is difficult not to be a little self-indulgent when one becomes frustrated.

      I do care about dialogue, but I’ve grown increasingly pessimistic about its quality and character on this subject. There are notable exceptions to be sure, even on the internet. At least on the internet (which isn’t the best place admittedly), many who have opposed this idea vocally are often the same ones who declare that most of the church has been infiltrated by modernists and always denote the term modern scholars with scare quotes. I find this very hypocritical since they depend on these same scholars’ translations. I also find it somewhat blasphemous to write off most of the Orthodox Church as heretical. It is difficult, if not pointless, to talk to these people because they have already dedicated themselves to anti-intellectualism, which for me at this point precludes genuine dialogue.

      If this piece convinces people on the other side of the issue of either the permissibility of universalism or of universalism itself, I’d be happy. As I was writing, I had more in mind people who were on the fence about either issue, rather than those who have already decided.


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