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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§133. The Orgenistic Controversy in Palestine. Epiphanius, Rufinus, and Jerome, a.d. 394–399.


Between the Arian and the Nestorian controversies and in indirect connection with the former, come the vehement and petty personal quarrels over the orthodoxy of Origen, which brought no gain, indeed, to the development of the church doctrine, yet which have a bearing upon the history of theology, as showing the progress of orthodoxy under the twofold aspect of earnest zeal for the pure faith, and a narrow-minded intolerance towards all free speculation. The condemnation of Origen was a death blow to theological science in the Greek church, and left it to stiffen gradually into a mechanical traditionalism and formalism. We shall confine ourselves, if possible, to the points of general interest, and omit the extremely insipid and humiliating details of personal invective and calumny.

It is the privilege of great pioneering minds to set a mass of other minds in motion, to awaken passionate sympathy and antipathy, and to act with stimulating and moulding power even upon after generations. Their very errors are often more useful than the merely traditional orthodoxy of unthinking men, because they come from an honest search after truth, and provoke new investigation. One of these minds was Origen, the most learned and able divine of the ante-Nicene period, the Plato or the Schleiermacher of the Greek church. During his life-time his peculiar, and for the most part Platonizing, views already aroused contradiction, and to the advanced orthodoxy of a later time they could not but appear as dangerous heresies. Methodius of Tyre († 311) first attacked his doctrines of the creation and the resurrection; while Paulphilus († 309), from his prison, wrote an apology for Origen, which Eusebius afterwards completed. His name was drawn into the Arian controversies, and used and abused by both parties for their own ends. The question of the orthodoxy of the great departed became in this way a vital issue of the day, and rose in interest with the growing zeal for pure doctrine and the growing horror of all heresy.

Upon this question three parties arose: free, progressive disciples, blind adherents, and blind opponents.15261526   Similar parties have arisen with reference to Luther, Schleiermacher, and other great theologians and philosophers.

1. The true, independent followers of Origen drew from his writings much instruction and quickening, without committing themselves to his words, and, advancing with the demands of the time, attained a clearer knowledge of the specific doctrines of Christianity than Origen himself, without thereby losing esteem for his memory and his eminent services. Such men were Pamphilus, Eusebius of Caesarea, Didymus of Alexandria, and in a wider sense Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzum, and Gregory of Nyssa; and among the Latin fathers, Hilary, and at first Jerome, who afterwards joined the opponents. Gregory of Nyssa, and perhaps also Didymus, even adhered to Origen’s doctrine of the final salvation of all created intelligences.

2. The blind and slavish followers, incapable of comprehending the free spirit of Origen, clave to the letter, held all his immature and erratic views, laid greater stress on them than Origen himself, and pressed them to extremes. Such mechanical fidelity to a master is always apostasy to his spirit, which tends towards continual growth in knowledge. To this class belonged the Egyptian monks in the Nitrian mountains; four in particular: Dioscurus, Ammonius, Eusebius, and Enthymius, who are known by the name of the “tall brethren,”15271527   Ἀδελφοὶ μακροί, on account of their bodily size. and were very learned.

3. The opponents of Origen, some from ignorance, others from narrowness and want of discrimination, shunned his speculations as a source of the most dangerous heresies, and in him condemned at the same time all free theological discussion, without which no progress in knowledge is possible, and without which even the Nicene dogma would never have come into existence. To these belonged a class of Egyptian monks in the Scetic desert, with Pachomius at their head, who, in opposition to the mysticism and spiritualism of the Origenistic monks of Nitria, urged grossly sensuous views of divine things, so as to receive the name of Anthropomorphites. The Roman church, in which Origen was scarcely known by name before the Arian disputes, shared in a general way the strong prejudice against him as an unsound and dangerous writer.

The leader in the crusade against the bones of Origen was the bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (Constantia) in Cyprus († 403), an honest, well-meaning, and by his contemporaries highly respected, but violent, coarse, contracted, and bigoted monastic saint and heresy hunter. He had inherited from the monks in the deserts of Egypt an ardent hatred of Origen as an arch-heretic, and for this hatred he gave documentary justification from the numerous writings of Origen in his Panarion, or chest of antidotes for eighty heresies, in which he branded him as the father of Arianism and many other errors.15281528   Haeer. 64. Compare also his Epistle to bishop John of Jerusalem, written 394 and translated by Jeromeinto Latin (Ep. 51, ed. Vallarsi), where he enumerates eight heresies of Origen relating to the trinity, the doctrine of man, of angels, of the world, and the last things. Not content with this, he also endeavored by journeying and oral discourse to destroy everywhere the influence of the long departed teacher of Alexandria, and considered himself as doing God and the church the greatest service thereby.

With this object the aged bishop journeyed in 394 to Palestine, where Origen was still held in the highest consideration, especially with John, bishop of Jerusalem, and with the learned monks Rufinus and Jerome, the former of whom was at that time in Jerusalem and the latter in Bethlehem. He delivered a blustering sermon in Jerusalem, excited laughter, and vehemently demanded the condemnation of Origen. John and Rufinus resisted; but Jerome, who had previously considered Origen the greatest church teacher after the apostles, and had learned much from his exegetical writings, without adopting his doctrinal errors, yielded to a solicitude for the fame of his own orthodoxy, passed over to the opposition, broke off church fellowship with John, and involved himself in a most violent literary contest with his former friend Rufinus; which belongs to the chronique scandaleuse of theology. The schism was terminated indeed by the mediation of the patriarch Theophilus in 397, but the dispute broke out afresh. Jerome condemned in Origen particularly his doctrine of pre-existence, of the final conversion of the devils, and of demons, and his spiritualistic sublimation of the resurrection of the body; while Rufinus, having returned to the West (398), translated several works of Origen into Latin, and accommodated them to orthodox taste. Both were in fact equally zealous to defend themselves against the charge of Origenism, and to fasten it upon each other, and this not by a critical analysis and calm investigation of the teachings of Origen, but by personal denunciations and miserable invectives.15291529   2 Comp. the description of their conduct by Zöckler, Hieronymus, p. 396 ff.

Rufinus was cited before pope Anastasius (398–402), who condemned Origen in a Roman synod; but he sent a satisfactory defense and found an asylum in Aquileia. He enjoyed the esteem of such men as Paulinus of Nola and Augustine, and died in Sicily (410).



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