Indeed Very Many: Universalism in the Early Church

Indeed Very Many: Universalism in the Early Church April 10, 2017


That position [Universalism] has consistently been held as heretical by the Church for two-thousand years … You can go back to Athanasius, you can go back to Augustine, you can go back to Huss, and Tyndale, and others.
— Mark Driscoll

While the doctrine of universal reconciliation has indeed been a minority position throughout most of Christian history–albeit not quite two-thousand years!–all one has to do is turn to Augustine, a clear non-Universalist, to see how it was once upon a time a rather popular doctrine. He, in the fifth century, rather dismissively writes:

It is quite in vain, then, that some–indeed very many–yield to merely human feelings and deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. They do not believe that such things will be. Not that they would go counter to divine Scripture—but, yielding to their own human feelings, they soften what seems harsh and give a milder emphasis to statements they believe are meant more to terrify than to express literal truth.
— Augustine, Enchiridion, sec. 112.

When Augustine described the Universalists as “indeed very many” (immo quam plurimi), what he meant is that they were a “vast majority” (Ramelli, Christian Doctrine, 11). That is what the Latin word plurimi, from the adjective plurimus, implies. And though Augustine himself didn’t affirm this doctrine (although he did in the beginning [Ibid.].), he at least recognized that Universalism, or the “theory of apokatastasis,” was quite an influential doctrine in his day and the centuries that preceded him.

A quick snapshot of the most influential early Christian Universalists, from Patristics scholar Ilaria Ramelli, certainly reinforces Augustine’s admission:

The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origin, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially) … Cassian, St. Issac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible.
— Ramelli, Christian Doctrine, 11.

A who’s who this impressive forces us to ask two questions. First, was it merely a yielding to human feelings that caused “indeed very many” to “deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned,” as Augustine suggests, or was it something else? Given the scholarship of the above list, I’d have to conclude that Augustine was levying an unfair charge against his Universalist interlocutors by suggesting this. Certainly their collective credentials deserve more respect! And second, has Universalism really been considered heretical by the Christian Church for her entire two-thousand year history, as Driscoll so emphatically states?

The simple truth is that no, Driscoll is not correct to suggest that Universalism has been heretical throughout the entirety of Christendom. Far from it, in fact, since the theory of apokatastasis wasn’t declared heretical until the sixth century, first by Justinian (a despotic Byzantine emperor) and then at the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. And even then, it wasn’t so much the eschatological conclusions of St. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and other Universalists that was the cause of doctrinal controversy, it was, as historian Morwenna Ludlow points out, Origen’s ideas about “the pre-existence of souls, their ‘fall’ into human bodies, and a spiritual resurrection” (Ludlow, “Universalism,” 195). To put it plainly, universal reconciliation was unfairly condemned because it was connected with these other contentious ideas.

The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds were written only a few hundred years earlier, and neither creedal statement precludes the possibility of the “restoration of all things” mentioned by the writer of Luke-Acts (Acts 3:21). The earliest Greek version of the Apostles’ Creed, for example, reads as follows:

I believe in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried. The third day he arose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of the Father. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Church, the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body. Amen.

The later Nicene Creed is not much different (although, in order to push back against the heretical teachings of Arius, it does add emphasis on the Son and Father being “of one substance”). But nothing in it precludes the possibility that all will be saved. It is not until the Athanasian Creed, in 500 CE, where the phrase “they that have done evil, into everlasting fire” is introduced in creedal form.

But if the possibility of eternal hellfire and damnation was such a looming threat, why was there no mention of it in the earliest Greek creedal statements? Why wasn’t the theory of apokatastasis put to rest early on, if the Bible was so clear? In Irenaeus’ lengthy second-century book entitled Against Heresies, for example, why wasn’t Universalism included?  Why weren’t theologians like Origin, Clement, and Gregory of Nyssa—the final editor of the Nicene Creed for goodness’ sake!—condemned outright for their belief in universal reconciliation? And how could they even come to such conclusions if true Church doctrine, ripe with hellfire, is as clear as Driscoll attempts to have us believe? Was it simply a matter, as Augustine puts it, of them yielding to human feelings? Was it something else, something malicious perhaps? Or, lo and behold, were they actually on to something, and therefore, should be paid attention to more closely than they are at the present?

Obviously I do believe that they were “on to something” and should be afforded more of our collective attention. One of the primary reasons, although not the only one, can be boiled down to matters of language.

Let me explain.

Whereas “hellfire” theologians like Augustine primarily spoke Latin, folks like Origen, Clement, and later, Gregory of Nyssa, spoke Greek. This means there is a direct linguistic and even philosophic path from the Greek New Testament—heavily influenced by the Apostle Paul—to these earliest theologians. Historian J.W. Hanson reminds us:

The greatest of all Christian apologists and exegetes, and the first man in Christendom since Paul, was a distinct Universalist. He [Origen] could not have misunderstood or misrepresented the teachings of his Master. The language of the New Testament was his mother tongue. He derived the teachings of Christ from Christ himself in a direct line through his teacher Clement; and he placed the defense of Christianity on Universalistic grounds.
— Hanson, Univeralism, 133.

In contrast, the same cannot be said of St. Augustine. He despised the Greek language (Augustine, Confessions, 15). In fact, he went so far as to say that while he loved Latin, he out and out hated Greek (Ibid., 17). And so, compared to his Greek-speaking predecessors, when it came to translating or interpreting New Testament Greek, Augustine was a bit out of his league and made some vital errors. Hanson makes the following point:

It is anomalous in the history of criticism that generations of scholars should take their cue in a matter of Greek definition from one who admits that he had “learned almost nothing of Greek,” and  was “not competent to read and understand” the language, and reject the position held by those who were born Greeks! That such a man should contradict and subvert the teachings of such men as Clement, Origen, the Gregories and others whose mother-tongue was Greek, is passing strange.
— Hanson, Universalism, 274.

Let’s take a look at an example, one that is even relevant when thinking about Universalism, the damned, and all that jazz. I’ll begin by again turning to Hanson:

Augustine assumed and insisted that the words defining the duration of punishment, in the New Testament, teach its endlessness, and the claim set up by Augustine is the one still held by advocates of “the dying belief,” that aeternus in the Latin, and aionios in the original Greek, mean interminable duration.
— Hanson, Universalism, 273.

But is this true? Is it true that aeternus and aionios are synonymous, and that both have a quantitative context of time-everlasting? Well, no, according the Greek-speaking biblical scholar William Barclay:

To take the word aionios, when it refers to blessings and punishment, to mean lasting forever is to oversimplify, and indeed to misunderstand, the word altogether. It means far more than that. It means that that which the faithful will receive and that which the unfaithful will suffer is that which it befits God’s nature and character to bestow and to inflict—and beyond that we who are men cannot go, except to remember that that nature and character are holy love.
— Barclay, New Testament Words, 37.

So, in other words, to think of aionios in a quantitative manner—in the same way one may think of the Latin “equivalent” aeternus—rather than qualitatively, rather than in the context of God’s eternal loving nature, would be to set one’s self up to make a fatal error. And the Western Church, with Augustine (and Tertullian before him) at the forefront, has made this fatal error, which has led to a misunderstanding of the vitally important doctrine of God’s posthumous restorative chastisement.

None of this is to diminish what Augustine has done for the church, or to say that he wasn’t a brilliant theologian. Of course not! But Christian theology didn’t begin with him nor is he the ultimate authority on what “sound doctrine” looks like. Gregory of Nyssa, the “Augustine of the East,” for example, had much to say about solid theology, including his vision for the ultimate fate of humanity. So did Origen, and Clement, and Didymus the Blind, and many others—indeed very many! It’s a pity we don’t remember that more often, and a pity our Christian faith leaders either fail to recognize this, or fail to accurately report it. The Church deserves better. She deserves an accurate and robust historical snapshot, not one papered over by half-truths and out and out lies.




Works Cited

Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

———. Confessions and Enchiridion. Translated and edited by Albert C. Outler. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955.

Barclay, William. New Testament Words. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1964.

Hanson, J.W. Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years. Boston and Chicago: Universalist, 1899.

Ludlow, Morwenna. “Universalism in the History of Christianity.” In Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate. Edited by Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

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


Photo via Unsplash.

Matthew DistefanoAbout Matthew Distefano
Matthew Distefano is the author of All Set Free: How God is Revealed in Jesus and Why That is Really Good News, From the Blood of Abel: Humanity’s Root Causes of Violence and the Bible’s Theological-Anthropological Solution and the newly-released A Journey with Two Mystics: Conversations between a Girardian and a Wattsian. He is also a Regular Contributor for The Raven ReView and You can find him on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

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