Of Embodied & Dis-embodied Souls

Because on we have begun to enter more and more on the territory of prayer as understood in Egyptian Monasticism – specifically that of Evagrius – we need to take a look at Origenism. In what follows below I will make an attempt to do so. Let’s begin!


Much has been made of Evagrius’ alleged Origenism. Two distinct controversies can be found that concern Origenism. One toward the end of the 4th century the other in the sixth century. Origen himself played no role whatsoever in either since had long since succumbed to consequences of being tortured for his faith sometime in the 3d century. Evagrius died shortly before the first controversy broke out, and was long dead by the time the second broke out. An uncomfortable fact ignored by most scholars (except Great Schema Monk Gabriel Bunge and Augustine Casiday). Neither Origen nor Evagrius personally played any part in the so-called Origenist Controversies yet both men have received the lion share of the blame for said controversies. The problem is now located in their teachings as judged by those who were entirely unfit to understand them.

So what is Origenism? To explain this phenomenon in a few sentences is a great challenge and I am not sure it can be done. I will, however, make an attempt. Origenism seems to be a doctrine used by Theophilus the Bishop of Alexandria to legitimize his ruthless burning, looting, and persecuting a large group of Egyptian Monks who had fallen out of favour with him. It is difficult to find out what precisely caused the initial rift between Theophilus and the Tall Brothers but it seems certain that there were differences with regard to ecclesial discipline and the proper use of ecclesial finances. From there accusations were hurled from the Tall Brothers to their Bishop and from the latter toward his former friends. Theophilus was a very skilled ecclesial lawyer and realized he could not make a legal case against the Tall Brothers. Yet he could not leave the Tall Brothers alone either since they could very well undermine his episcopal authority. To safeguard his authority Theophilus sought to take action against the Tall Brothers. No legal/canonical case could be made so his only resort was theology. If he could make accusations of heresy stick he could make a case and deal with the Tall Brothers once and for all. This he did. In fact he did it so successfully that even today Origen’s name is enough to invoke the specter of heresy.

The success of Theophilus’ anti-Origenist campaign can be seen at work toward the end of the 6th century when Emperor Justinian is using Origenism as a weapon to fight some monastic troublemakers of his day and age. The accusations are similar and Justinian’s two lists of anti-Origenist anathemas bear the fruits of Theophilus’ theological creativity. The first list of anathemas dates from 543 and the second list – erroneously attributed to the 5th Ecumenical Council – dates from 553. Justinian, like Theophilus, wrote letters exposing what he believes to be the heresy of Origen and he condenses them conveniently in the 15 Anathemas of 553. These anathemas were sent to the Bishops gathered in Constantinople to attend the Ecumenical Council which would soon open. Since these anathemas illegitimately found their way into the documents belonging to the 5th Ecumenical Council it is these that I will consider in a bit more detail. I am aware that 4th and 6th century Origenism are different but I do not think the distinction matters for the purpose of this article.

15 Anathemas

With the background provided above we are now better positioned to answer the question I posed earlier as to what Origenism is. Let’s begin with the anathemas:

  1. If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert that the monstrous restoration (apokatastasis) that follows from it, let him be anathema.
  2. If anyone shall say that the creation of all reasonable things includes only intelligences, without knowledge and altogether immaterial … but that no longer desiring the sight of God they gave themselves over to worse things, each one following his own inclinations, and that they have taken bodies more or less subtle … let him be anathema.
  3. If anyone shall say that the sun, the moon, and the stars are also reasonable beings, and have only become what they are because they have turned to evil, let him be anathema.
  4. If anyone shall say that the reasonable creatures in whom the divine love has grown cold have been hidden in gross bodies such as ours and have been called men, while those who have attained the lowest degree of wickedness have shared cold and obscure bodies and are become and called demons and evil spirits: let him be anathema.
  5. If anyone shall say that a psychic condition has come from an angelic state. and moreover that a demoniac and a human condition has come from a psychic condition, and that from a human state they may become again angels and demons … let him be anathema.
  6. If anyone shall say that there is a twofold race of demons, of which the one includes the souls of men and the other the suprior spirits who fell to this … and that the most holy and consubstantial Trinity did not create the world, but that it was created by the working intelligence (Nous demiourgos) which is more ancient than the world … let him be anathema.
  7. If anyone shall say that Christ … had … pity upon the divers falls which had appeared in the spirits united in the same unity (of which he himself is part), and that to restore them he passed through divers classes, had different bodies and … finally has taken flesh and blood like ours … let him be anathema.
  8. If anyone shall [presume to say] that God the Word … is so only in an inaccurate manner, and because of the abasement, as they call it, of the intelligence … let him be anathema.
  9. If anyone shall say that it was not the Divine Logos … [who] descended into heaven, but shall pretend that it is the Nous which has done this, that Nous of which they say (in an impious fashion) he is Christ properly so called, and that he is become so by knowledge of the Monad; let him be anathema.
  10. If anyone shall say that after the resurrection the body of the Lord was ethereal, having the form of a sphere, and that such shall be the bodies of all after the resurrection … let him be anathema.
  11. If anyone shall say that the future judgment signifies the destruction of the body and that the end of the story will be an immaterial nature … let him be anathema.
  12. If anyone shall say that the heavenly Powers and all men and the devil and evil spirits are united with the Word of God in all respects … and that the Kingdom of Christ shall have an end: let him be anathema.
  13. if anyone shall say that Christ is in no wise different from all other reasonable beings … but that all will be placed at the right hand of God … as also they were in the feigned pre-existence of all things: let him be anathema.
  14. If anyone shall say that all reasonable beings will one day be united in one, when the hypostases as well as the numbers and the bodies have disapeared … moreover that in this pretended apokatastasis, spirit only will continue to exist, as it was in the feigned pre-existence; let him be anathema.
  15. If anyone shall say that the life of spirits shall be like to the life which was in the beginning while as yet the spirits had not come down or fallen, so that the end and the beginning shall be alike, and that the end shall be the true measure of the beginning: let him be anathema.

These anathemas seem to be deeply concerned about the “feigned pre-existence” and the other propositions condemned seem to follow from or be closely related to it. Much scholarly work has been done on these anathemas and how they relate to Origen. It has become clear that most of these propositions are not to be found in any of Origen’s writings. In fact the very premise – the feigned pre-existence – is a doctrine not held by Origen but in fact declared impossible by him. To Origen only the Trinity can exists without a body. To be bodiless is an attribute exclusive to God. Creatures, all of them and by necessity, are embodied. Origen never conceives of naked souls or disembodied spirits not in the beginning and not in the end. This can be clearly seen in Peri Archon (On First Principles) as well Origen’s other extant works.

It is crucial that at this point it is clearly understood that if Origen did not teach the preexistence of which he is here accused then the Christological problem addresses in the anathemas does not occur. There is no preexistent Christ-Nous to become incarnate instead of the very Word of God doing so. To Origen, as for Evagrius, it is precisely the Word of God which becomes incarnate. The proposition that the resurrection body is denied permanence is also vacuous. Both Origen and Evagrius assert the continued existence of the body. What kind of body is of course the question. It seems to me that Ilaria Ramelli has convincingly argued that this is a real, corporeal, body but divested of mortality. In other words: a body that is not flesh and blood but a real, material, body nonetheless. This is a luminous or glorious body and is the spiritual body St. Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15. This body is subjected to mortality because of sin, and it is this body that will rise and continue eternally. The destruction of bodies (doing away of numbers etc.) is nothing other than the shedding of flesh and blood. Mortality is done away with and immortality is gained. Corruption is removed and incorruption is put on precisely as St. Paul had taught.

The issues that are involved in Origenism all seem to be in the realm of Physike which is the first stage of mature knowledge in the Christian understanding of spiritual growth. St. Paul had warned that meat not be given to babies in Christ who are in need of milk and cannot handle meat. It seems to me that meat has become available to those not able to handle it and it has been terribly misunderstood and has spun wildly out of control. This is precisely why meat is not to be given to the immature. Exactly what was misunderstood will become clear later. It is important at this point to realise that physike or natural contemplation is not to be undertaken by those who have not yet built a strong foundation in a living relationship with Jesus Christ. This is done first and foremost by an active sacramental life and by reading the Scriptures under guidance of the Church (the Catholic Catechism is an excellent resource here). Once such a stability has been achieved can the hard work of contemplation begin. Contemplation begins – oddly enough – with praktike because here we learn to recognize who we are, who are tempters are, and how we can overcome our tempters and our own sinful inclinations. This is necessary if we are to – ever – begin the work of contemplation.

Fr. Gregory Wassen

In re-reading this article I realize that I have in fact not succeeded in doing justice to the subject. I will re-visit this issue in another post.


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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