Ancient Christians of Cyprus: Epiphanios of Salamis (and Hilarion)

Epiphanios of Salamis

Epiphanios was born in Palestine in the year 310 and died in Cyprus in 403. He thus lived through one of the most famous theological controversies of all time, living long enough to see it come to an end within the borders of the Roman Empire — the Arian Controversy. We shall look at the so-called ‘Arians’ tomorrow night, but in short, the main lines of demarcation were between those who affirmed the full, complete divinity of Jesus Christ as well as the divinity of the Holy Spirit, including Athanasios of Alexandria and Epiphanios, and, on the ‘Arian’ side, those who denied the divinity of Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit in varying degrees and ways of expression.

Epiphanios is one of the cohort of the earliest monastic practitioners—men and women who chose to devote their lives solely to prayer, acts of charity, and life in the desert, whether alone or in community. He spent many years living amongst the monks of Egypt, who are traditionally considered the first monks (something I, personally, question). Whilst there, his status as a ‘heresy-hunter’ already emerged, for he found himself being tempted by a group of Gnostics at one occasion, and later on had a monk driven out for heresy.

This attitude of battle against the heretics would persist throughout the rest of his life, as a monk in Palestine, and then as a bishop in Cyprus, whither he was invited by the local church to take up the episcopacy of Salamis in 367. As a bishop, he continued to lead a life of spiritual discipline and prayer as well as engaging in the role of heresy-hunter and protector of orthodoxy even more rigorously. He undoubtedly gained himself enemies for his polemic regarding heresy, but the holiness of his life and orthodoxy of his teaching made him a well-honoured figure amongst those who agreed with him, and even the Arian emperor Valens dared not interfere with Epiphanios’ activity.

If we are to believe Epiphanios’ biographer, when he came to this island where he became Metropolitan, or head bishop, he found Gnostic Valentinians as well as Ophites, Sabellians or Modalists, Nicolaitans, followers of Simon Magus, Basilidians, and Carpocratians.[1] Whether these groups were all actually represented or not, who can say?

Certainly by 403 when Epiphanios died, they were not, due to his efforts both as a bishop as well a concerned citizen requesting the Emperor’s aid against these heretics; this extermination of heresy in Cyprus during this period would also have been due to the various rulings against them in the Roman Empire of which we know during the reign of Theodosios I in 380, 381, and 386.[2]

Epiphanios’ most famous work is the Panarion, a heresiology of 80 heresies where he describes and refutes them, including extracts from their own adherents. An earlier yet important work is his Ankoratos, an English translation of which is to be published by Young Kim, who is here tonight. This work is important because it shows that Epiphanios was not simply concerned with tearing down his opponents, the more popular portrayal of the man, but also with building up fellow-believers, answering their requests for teaching and help, and providing them with his own explanations of the biblical understanding the Church had of the Trinity.

Given his positioning as an author after the death of the great theologian Athanasios, Epiphanios is one of our important writers for the later stages of the Arian controversy. And he lived here in Cyprus.

The lessons from the life of Epiphanios are that there is something to be said for stick-to-itiveness. It is highly unpopular to be a heresy hunter today, and possibly with good reason. Yet is there not something to be said for standing up against the false teachings of the age, whether they are new ideas altogether, or re-inventions of old falsehoods?

I do not say that we should go and hunt the heretics and false teachers. But we should not fear them, either. We should we willing to stand up against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons or the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and say that this is not the biblical Christianity handed down to us from the Apostles. This, combined with a holy life, is what made Epiphanios famous.

The final Ancient Cypriot Christian I discussed last week was St. Hilarion, and the gist of what I said I have already said on this blog a couple of years ago. Enjoy!


[1] Polybius, Life of St. Epiphanius 59.

[2] See Theodosian Code 16.1.2, 3, 4.

Ancient Christians of Cyprus: Spyridon

Spyridon
Saint Spyridon — You can tell him from his beehive hat (My photo from St Sozomenos’ Church, Galata, Cyprus). Also, he is my WordPress avatar.

After Barnabas, the Church of Cyprus slips into the mists of unreliability. Cyprus re-enters reliable history in 325 at the Council of Nikaia. In different records for this council, 12 or 14 bishops from Cyprus are recorded as having been present. They all seem to have supported the teaching that Jesus is fully God, homoousios with the Father—a debate we will look at more closely tomorrow.

Two of them were singled out by fourth-century historians as being men of special holiness: Spyridon (two posts on him here and here) and Paphnutios. I want to focus on Spyridon. You will have undoubtedly seen his name on various churches on the island. You may probably have even heard the story how, at the Council of Nikaia he stood up and performed a miracle with a tile to prove that three things could be one. This miracle is not attested in any of our early sources for the events of the council, and I am disinclined to believe it.

Our two earliest records for the life of Spyridon are two ecclesiastical historians, Socrates and Sozomenos. They were both active in the first half of the 400s, so over 75 years after Nikaia. Socrates gives us the more sober account of this man’s life:

With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon.

Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed.

Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.[1]

There is no necessity for us to believe these miracles. However, since we do believe in a mighty God who can do anything, I see no real reason as a Christian to doubt them. I have read a lot of church histories and saints’ lives, and when I combine these with the stories I have heard from today’s missionaries — whether in the jungles of South America or the jungles of London — I am inclined to accept that, whether these particular miracles are true, God was at work in these sorts of ways in the ancient Church.

Besides these miracles and others, Sozomenos gives us some other indicators of the character of Spyridon. For example:

It was a custom with this Spyridon to give a certain portion of his fruits to the poor, and to lend another portion to those who wished it as a gratuity; but neither in giving nor taking back did he ever himself distribute or receive: he merely pointed out the storehouse, and told those who resorted to him to take as much as they needed, or to restore what they had borrowed.[2]

Sozomenos also tells us that Spyridon was hospitable to strangers and travellers and careful in administering his role as a bishop. What I find most encouraging about the story of Spyridon is its reminder that personal holiness and wisdom from God are what matter most in our ministers.

I am working on a PhD in church history. No doubt some people think this will make me uniquely qualified to be a pastor. I disagree—it will make uniquely qualified to be a university lecturer, but what have those skills to do with leading God’s people in the face of wisdom and strong character? Thus, our last glimpses of the Cypriot church before Konstantinos are of a hierarchy that is open to any believing Christian who has wisdom and good character.


[1] Socrates, Ecclesiastical History Book 1.12, NPNF2, Vol. 2.

[2] Sozomenos, Ecclesiastical History Book 1, Chapter 11, NPNF Vol 2.

Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

Pictured to the left is a giant icon of St. Mary “the Virgin” placed at the entrance to the Old City in Nicosia, Cyprus.  Framing this image of the Mother of Our Lord are the words, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, which I like to translate as, “Supersaint Mother of God, save us.”  This sort of behaviour on the part of the Church of Cyprus is the sort of thing that led one young Chinese man with whom I led Bible studies to say that the major religions of the world were Buddhism, people who believe the Bible, Islamists (his word, not mine), and people who worship Mary.  It is also the sort of thing that makes me more, not less, comfortable with my Protestantism.

What bothers me with that icon is not that it exists at all — I see no reason why one ought not to put up a giant icon of St. Mary if one so wishes.  I would rather it be one of the glorious icons of the crucifixion or resurrection, but, hey, that’s why I’m a Prot.  Nor am I bothered by the word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, usually translated as “Mother of God.”  I think that word is very important in our understanding of Who Jesus Is.  I am bothered by the words “soson imas” — save us.  Now, the devout, informed Orthodox will tell that it doesn’t mean the same thing as when they say “Kyrie Khriste, soson imas“, but the words are still the same.

Most Protestants, however, would have been stopped short at the word Theotokos, if not by Iperayia.  It is impious, they will fervently tell you, to call Mary the “Mother of God.”  Did the creator of the starry height have a mother?  Was the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be begotten of a woman?  Dare we to say that God, whom we all know to be the uncaused cause thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, was begotten of a human being within time?  Would it not be better to say that Mary was “Christotokos”?

Thank you for showing up, Nestorius.  Of course, in real life, if you were named Nestorius and were saying those same things in the late 420’s in Constantinople, your sermon would have been shouted down somewhere around the word “impious”, and an angry mob would cry out for your deposition (in a mere twenty years, such angry mobs are calling out for blood, so Nestorius got it easy).

Question:  Is Jesus Christ fully God?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Seeing as how He is fully God, is He therefore creator of the starry height, the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be, the uncaused cause?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Does Jesus Christ have a mother?

Answer:  Yes.

And you will say, “I know all this.  But Christ Our Lord was born of Mary only of His human nature, not of His divine nature.  As God, He was/is/is being/will be eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds.”

Indeed, God the Son only partook of the Blessed Virgin for His human nature.  To say that she in any way imparted divinity unto Him is blasphemy.  However, was the child born to her God?  Yes, yes He was.  And this is the scandal of the Incarnation.

You see, by limiting the role of Mary as Jesus’ mother to Christotokos, we limit His Incarnation.  We confuse the question.  There are and have been many heretics running about, some of whom imagine that divinity only came upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan or in the Transfiguration.  There were and are others who believe that He grew into being God’s son and that he was just a dude upon whom the Logos of God descended.  Others seem to think that He was/is St. Michael the Archangel.  Others think He was just another one of God’s spirit babies up in heaven and that He lived a pure, spotless life but is not identical in substance with God.

Yet St. John of Damascus teaches us that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father as well as of God the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was born, God was a man.

The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus.  He was, by nature, God.  He is, by nature, God.  The child whom St. Mary carried in her womb was God.  He took from her His humanity and became consubstantial with us thereby.  He already had His divinity, already was consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Since God the Creator of the Universe was born as a child, she who bore Him in her womb is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.  It is a safeguard for the full divinity of Christ, a safeguard for the Incarnation.  It is not a point of Mariology but a point of Christology.