Is universalism heresy?—Robin Parry

Now onto the third area of debate and this is one that does interest me. In the sixth century, there was a big ecumenical council where leaders from across the Church around the world got together and decided on various issues. If you are of the stream of Christianity that thinks that ecumenical councils are important—and I am, I think they really matter—one of the issues with this particular council is that there is an appendix. The document councils—which were all about who was Jesus—tacked onto the end an appendix with a list of curses against… Well, it didn’t say who it’s against but they are often called the curses against Origen, even though they didn’t name him. It anathematizes or curses those who believe in this hideous doctrine of Apocatastasis. The reason this is important—and it’s particularly important if you’re a Catholic or Orthodox Christian—is if an ecumenical council declared universalism to be a heresy, then it is a heresy and that’s that, that kind of kills it there. So it does matter and there is debate among patristic scholars about this.

The majority view—and we can’t know for sure as we weren’t there—is that the appendix was not part of the actual council itself. It was the Emperor Justinian—who really hated universalism—who called the council. There was lots of controversy about the council. For example, the Pope wouldn’t go but he had to be there for it to count so they went and got soldiers and dragged him along but he refused to open up the council, which is what the Pope was meant to do. Anyway, Justinian was really determined to get through his anti-universalist thing. Before the council started, lots of bishops are getting there early (they arrived like months early because they’re coming from all over the world and the planes were rubbish in those days!) so Justinian calls them together and they kind of ratify these anathemas, these curses. Because Justinian wants to give it the aura of a sort of consensus view of the ecumenical Church, he sort-of tacks it on to the end of the council’s document. Now, if that is the case, then it has a really peculiar status. It doesn’t have the status of an ecumenical council because it wasn’t part of the proceedings of the council—so strictly speaking it’s not heresy—and yet it does kind of carry some of the momentum of that council.

There’s another debate related to this and this is more within Orthodox Christianity. Even if it’s true that this isn’t part of the proceedings of the council and that universalism wasn’t declared heresy, then the debate is, “But mate, lots of people came to think that it was and so doesn’t that make it so?” There is actually a genuine debate among some scholars as to whether that would make it so. I don’t think it would, I don’t think that would be right at all but anyway that’s me.

The other question is this, “What exactly was condemned in the council?” Was it universalism per se that was condemned or was it a particular species of universalism? I argue and lots of folk are starting to argue now (not because of me by the way, it’s a coincidence, it’s not that all these patristic scholars have read me and went, “Flip, why didn’t we think of that!”) So they think—and I’m agreeing with them because they’re clever—that actually it’s not universalism as an abstract idea, it’s universalism as connected to a whole bunch of other ideas as part of a network or system of beliefs that was very problematic. Maybe you think I’m going on about this too much but it does really matter for a lot of Christians as to whether universalism is technically a heresy, which is why I’m saying a little bit more about it.

The background to this is that Origen’s ideas had been developed in the centuries after him. He was around in the third century and the council was in the sixth century. By that time—particularly in certain monasteries in Palestine—Origen’s ideas have been developed, sometimes in quite quirky ways, ways that were tied in with pre-existence of souls and reincarnation and a whole bunch of other stuff. What was condemned in those anathemas or those curses is that whole system, that network. The monstrous doctrine of Apocatastasis and the restoration of demons and all that, that is condemned is the doctrine as connected into that whole network. If you read them, you’ll see some of those connections. Which means that, in fact, universalism as such is not condemned, just that particular species of universalism. Which is why, for instance, Gregory of Nyssa is never condemned, in fact, he is called the “father of the fathers.” He is one of the architects of Christian orthodoxy and is highly esteemed by those who are within Catholicism and Orthodoxy. He’s a Saint, even though he was an overt universalist because he didn’t believe in the pre-existence of souls and all this kind of stuff that was condemned.

All of this is to say, there is an ongoing debate about that and it matters because it ties into the whole question of whether universalism is heresy. I’m of the view that it’s not, or I would be in trouble—maybe not with God, who knows, maybe with God, I wouldn’t want to be in trouble with God.


My transcript above is from the video below—edited slightly for readability. See Robin’s Hope & Hell videos for more transcripts. An excellent article that goes into more depth is Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was.

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