The Apocatastasis Project (as if I have time on my hands to do this)

I have blogged about Origen (184/5–253/4, on his impact see here) and the concept of Apocatastasis before (here), in the context of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and the debate surrounding universalism. At the time, I was unaware of the use of the word apokatastasis by St. Peter in Acts 3:21, and I boldly declared regarding this theological doctrine, ‘No, it’s not in Scripture.’ My flawed research has been taken to task, for which I am grateful, and now I am going to be thorough, sort of for the fun of it.

First, the terms. When referring to the theological concept as espoused by Origen et al., I shall use the Latinised spelling Apocatastasis, capital A, no italics. When referring to the Greek lexical term, I shall use the Hellenised spelling apokatastasis, lower case a, italicised.

Second, the method/outline of this project on Apocatastasis. First, I shall discuss what doctrine it is that we are discussing, exactly. What is Apocatastasis? We shall investigate the teachings of Origen and Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) in particular; one of the questions we shall investigate is why their teachings of this name were condemned in the sixth century and suspect in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries. Two other illustrious Origenists shall be considered, the Cappadocian Fathers St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389/90) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (335–394, Saint of the Week here). We shall see to what extent their eschatological teachings and understanding of Judgement Day align with the “Origenist” teaching on Apocatastasis condemned in later years.

Once we have come to understand what the ancients understood theologically about Apocatastasis, we can consider modern writers and their contemplation of “universalism”. We shall look at Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Madeleine L’Engle (herself a reader of the Cappadocian Fathers), and George MacDonald (Saint of the Week here, discussion of his “universalism” here).

Met. Kallistos is a living Eastern Orthodox Bishop (website here) and patristics scholar who, like most Eastern Orthodox, could easily be considered “conservative”. Madeleine L’Engle was a popular Anglican author of the last half of the twentieth century (website here), most famous for her children’s/young adult novels such as A Wrinkle in Time. The only reason anyone has ever called her heretic is over the question of universal salvation; she is, nevertheless, very popular amongst Christians with a firm belief in eternal damnation. The third is George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Congregationalist pastor and novelist, the grand inspiration and “teacher” of popular “conservative” Anglican novelist, literary critic, and amateur theologian C S Lewis.

I have chosen these three because I believe they highlight different approaches to the question of universal salvation and Apocatastasis as well as pushing us to question the borders of orthodoxy, for all three are popular amongst conservative, orthodox believers, despite the unpopularity in such circles for theology of universal salvation (as we saw in the furor over Rob Bell).

We will then have set the stage for understanding this doctrine and how it has persisted to this day in differing guises. Having a clear understanding of Apocatastasis, we can then turn to the Scriptures and see whether or not Apocatastasis is in Scripture. This will be time to play with the writers of the Patristic, Mediaeval, and Reformation eras, part of the point of this blog.

We shall look at the occurrences of the word apokatastasis in Scripture, especially in Acts 3:21, but also in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the writers of the Apostolic and Patristic ages, including not only Sts. Peter and Paul, but also Origen (who composed a document called the hexapla that put various editions of the Septuagint in parallel columns with the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew) and the Cappadocians, as well as our friend Met. Kallistos.

Our interpretation shall at one level be lexical, giving the basic definition and nuances of the word bare of any text. Then we shall approach each text using the Talmudic exegetical method outlined by Weekend Fisher here. This approach is not entirely suited to the New Testament but will not be profitless. We shall also consider the ancient grammarians’ technique of textual interpretation that believes that the text interprets itself; taking holy Scripture as the entire text – something done early by the Fathers (as recounted by Lewis Ayres in a paper given at the University of Edinburgh in Autumn of 2010) – we shall consider what apokatastasis means both in its immediate context and in the rest of Scripture.

Having thus sought to understand the question and passages at hand in their own right, we shall turn to our forebears in the faith. What do they say about the passage? For the Acts passage, we shall look at St. John Chrysostom, the Venerable Bede, and others, relying in part on IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture because life is short and I don’t necessarily have time to scour the library for resources. The relevant Medieval commentators shall be considered as well as the famous Reformation commentators Calvin and Luther. From these considerations, we shall sound out the mind of the Great Tradition as to what St. Peter envisages when he refers to apokatastasis.

My hypothesis is that St. Peter’s apokatastasis, his “restoration”, will be similar to St. Irenaeus’ anakephalaiōsis, his “recapitulation.” If so, we shall move the discussion of Apocatastasis into a discussion of Recapitulation and what exactly the difference is. By so doing, we shall re-cover the ground concerning Origen/Origenism, the doctrine of Apocatastasis, and the modern adherents to related ideas.

Having done all of this, we will be able to make conclusions about Apocatastasis and whether it is in Scripture, and whether, if not in Scripture, it is compatible with Scripture. By so doing, we shall see what all the fuss was about in the old disputes and what the fuss is about in the new disputes, and we shall get to try out the older ways of reading the Bible advocated on this website. It will be Classic Christianity in action.

It will also take up a lot of posts; I have thus created a new category called “Apocatastasis Project” to be able to check them out quickly.



Icon of the Last Judgement: note the bishops going to Hell (on the right)

Thanks to Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, universalism is big news these days. Everyone and their dog is chiming in on universalism and Rob Bell. Including, it would seem, me.

Many of us seem to think that universalism is some sort of nineteenth-century liberal idea. In some of its manifestations it is, of course. In others, it is older, while in others it is newer. But the idea that everyone, somehow, gets saved in the end is old, and antiquity is no guarantee for whether an idea is mainstream or orthodox, as Kevin DeYoung points out in his review of Love Wins:

Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.

My thoughts on the subject are primarily concerned with Origen at present.* Origen’s doctrine of ‘universalism’ is called apocatastasis. This is the belief that at the end of all things, all souls will be reunited with God. Origen does not rule out the possibility that among these souls we may find the Devil. No one is beyond the long arm of God’s great, saving grace for Origen.

David at Pious Fabrications points out that others whom we deem quite orthodox — Met. Kallistos and St. Gregory of Nyssa,** to take two big examples — believe in apocatastasis. It is not, then, this belief alone that gets one into a lot of hot, heretical water. In the blog post, David argues that the big difference between Origen and these others is the firmness of his belief on this point. Everyone is saved. Period. Kallistos et al, on the other hand, leave it open. Everyone is saved? It’s a question, a hope, but not stated as a dogma for all to believe. Thus, while the Church may condemn Gregory of Nyssa’s belief in apocatastasis, she will not condemn him.

I think there’s also the fact that Origen is one of the great Neoplatonists of the third century to consider. His system involves a type of salvation that the revelation does not present unto us — we are all restored to union with God as disembodied souls that do nothing but contemplate Him and have no distinctive individuality. Origen, then, is more than a case of damnation by punctuation. Origen has an entire system of cosmology, large portions of which are incompatible with Scripture. This is the ultimate cause of his anathematisation at the separate sessions led by Justinian and the bishops at the Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical) in 553.

Ultimately, the Church cannot affirm apocatastasis and other forms of universalism because either they  run counter to Scripture and are pieces of speculation or they involve bad hermeneutics. As DeYoung’s excessively long review, cited above, shows us, Love Wins involves bad hermeneutics.

Still, ought we not at least to hope for apocatastasis? Maybe, in the end, God will redeem everyone. No, it’s not in Scripture. What we find in Scripture regarding those who die outside of the Faith is varied and largely unpleasant. Nevertheless, to hope for the salvation of all is not an un-Christian hope, even if one finds the possibility unlikely, even if one thinks that it ought not to be preached loudly from pulpits or ensconced as dogma.

*George MacDonald will hopefully be the subject of a later post, if all goes according to plan.

**He lists all three Cappadocian Fathers, but I haven’t heard elsewhere of Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian believing this. Until I have corroborated it, I can’t print it.