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.

How Not to Read the Fathers

The Church Fathers (11th-century Kievan image)

As you know, I spend a certain amount of my time reading the Church Fathers and about the Church Fathers. And I hope that you do, too — or that you will soon! A few patterns of reading are, I believe, quite unhelpful. They are suspicion, the related habit of heresy-hunting, ‘they’re just like us’, and prooftexting. A fifth way is not necessarily unhelpful but could be dangerous, and that is independent, devotional reading.

Suspicion

As you know, I dislike suspicious readings of texts, as discussed earlier this year in relation to Perpetua. This is a form of reading that is hostile — the least respectable of all interpretations is always taken. For example, one of my Presbyterian students read Leo the Great’s third sermon on his accession and declared that it looks like Leo is worshipping Peter! The same student later said that St. Francis’ Rule of 1221, in calling for ‘obedience and reverence’ to Innocent III, was distracting people from Christ and directing them to worship the Pope. Sigh. This is the sort of hostile reading that certain kinds of Protestants engage in with anything that resembles a pope or papism.

A friend of mine has this trouble with his students at an unnamed evangelicaliberty university who are automatically opposed to anything that looks ascetic or includes celibacy because it looks like Roman Catholicism and doesn’t contribute to evangelism.

Be ready for things in the Fathers that look Roman Catholic. They’re there. But do not assume the worst possible reading of all. Please. It tires me.

Heresy-hunting

Heresy-hunting is like suspicion. I first learned of this at Phil Snyder’s now-defunct blog Hyperekperissou. In this framework, people read the earlier Fathers looking for later heresies. So Justin is accused of being a Monarchianist or Cassian of being a Monophysite or even a Pelagian (!). We cannot back-read later orthodoxy or heresy onto the earlier Fathers. I believe that this stems from conservative Protestants, probably evangelical, who wish to discredit all Christian history between St. John’s vision on Patmos and Martin Luther on the one hand, and liberal Protestants, probably Anglican (quite frankly), who wish to find a way to justify their own eccentricities and dress them up like ‘progresive’ orthodoxy.

You will inevitably find things in the Fathers that sound like heresy to you. Ask what heresy, why this guy looks like a heretic, and why he is still a Church Father if he has allegedly committed ‘heresy’.

They’re Just Like Us

I once read this series of Christian romance novels called ‘The Mark of the Lion.’ True story. Anyway, what I found remarkable there was that late first-century Christians, rather than looking like the Didache look a heckuvalot like 20th-century nonconformist/free church evangelicals. Like Baptists, in other words. This, of course, was probably derived from not reading the Fathers. More commonly, this looks like something another friend of mine encountered at another evangelical university where a student pulled out Clement of Alexandria and said, ‘Look, third-century Christians believed in justification by faith!’ It is most commonly done by Orthodox who claim that Luke was the first iconographer and have all their modern, Byzantine practices confirmed. This practice, even if not used polemically, completely ignores the historical context of the writers involved.

Ancient Christians are very much like us. They believe in Jesus, that faith in him will save us. They pray. They have the same Bible. But they are not us. They are different. Be thankful for the similarities, but be wary of imagining that you and Aphrahat the Persian are the same.

Prooftexting

This is another dangerous way of reading the Fathers. It is often used in anti-Orthodox and anti-Catholic polemics. Passages such as St. Epiphanius of Salamis tearing down images in his local church are used in arguments with other Christians to prove to them that they are not as much like the early Christians as they thought. Sometimes the argument from silence is, that no Ante-Nicene Father seems to pray to saints — ha ha! You Orthodox scum are hellbound idolaters! Or it is clear from the Didache that the fasts were not the 40-day long abstinence-fests of Roman Catholicism originally. Ha ha! You Papist pagans have corrupted your own Tradition!

This is very, very dangerous. For example, we have Christian images that pre-date Epiphanius. So not all early Christians were iconoclasts. And, although the earliest pray-er to saints I can positively affirm is St. Paulinus of Nola, the Martyrdom of Polycarp seems to include relics and a saint’s shrine; Polycarp died in 155, so he’s not exactly a latecomer to the Christian tradition. Furthermore, although 40-day long abstinences are a development in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, by Melito of Sardis’ (d. ca. 180) time there seems to already have come into existence proto-Lent.

For every prooftext you can draw from the Fathers to fight the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, they’ll find a way to defang it. All you’ll do is fight with fellow Christians and get nowhere.

Devotional Reading

Devotional readings of the Fathers are not inherently bad. This is when you read a passage or text from the ancient Church and say, ‘Wow, this really speaks to my situation.’ Or you say, ‘Hey, this helps with x, y, or z modern problem.’ Or something like that. This is not a bad way of reading. I do it. I even do it on this blog.

But we have to distinguish between what the Fathers may say today and what the Fathers meant. Sometimes they are the same thing. Sometimes they are not. To help you distinguish, most modern translations of the Fathers come with handy introductions. Some, such as certain volumes in the Ancient Christian Writers series, have commentary. There are also handy introductory books such as Routledge’s Early Church Fathers series. Resources like these can help us distinguish between what Leo the Great means to me as a 21st-century Christian facing all the challenges this world holds, and what Leo the Great meant as a fifth-century Christian facing all the different challenges his world held.

I hope you can avoid these kinds of readings. The Fathers, I believe, are best read on their own terms and for your own edification — not as fuel for the battles for Christian identity that have raged since before 1054.

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.