The Fifth Council
The Fifth Ecumenical Council took place in Constantinople in 553 AD, and is also known as the Second Council of Constantinople. The Second General Council of Constantinople, of 165 bishops under Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian I, condemned the errors of Origen and certain writings (The Three Chapters) of Theodoret, of Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia and of Ibas, Bishop of Edessa; it further confirmed the first four general councils, especially that of Chalcedon whose authority was contested by some heretics.
After Constantine and Nicaea, Origen's writings had continued to be
popular among those seeking clarification about the nature of Christ,
the destiny of the soul and the manner of the resurrection. Some of the
more educated monks had taken Origen's ideas and were using them in
mystical practices with the aim of becoming one with God.
Toward the end of the fourth century, orthodox theologians again began to attack Origen. Their chief areas of difficulty with Origen's thought were his teachings on the nature of God and Christ, the resurrection and the preexistence of the soul.
Their criticisms, which were often based on ignorance and an inadequate understanding, found an audience in high places and led to the Church's rejection of Origenism and reincarnation. The Church's need to appeal to the uneducated masses prevailed over Origen's coolheaded logic.
The bishop of Cyprus, Epiphanius, claimed that Origen denied the resurrection of the flesh. However, as scholar Jon Dechow has demonstrated, Epiphanius neither understood nor dealt with Origen's ideas. Nevertheless, he was able to convince the Church that Origen's ideas were incompatible with the merging literalist theology. On the basis of Ephiphanius' writings, Origenism would be finally condemned a century and a half later.
Jerome believed that resurrection bodies would be flesh and blood, complete with genitals - which, however, would not be used in the hereafter. But Origenists believed the resurrection bodies would be spiritual.
The Origenist controversy spread to monasteries in the Egyptian desert, especially at Nitria, home to about five thousand monks. There were two kinds of monks in Egypt - the simple and uneducated, who composed the majority, and the Origenists, an educated minority.
The controversy solidified around the question of whether God had a body that could be seen and touched. The simple monks believed that he did. But the Origenists thought that God was invisible and transcendent. The simple monks could not fathom Origen's mystical speculations on the nature of God.
In 399 A.D., Bishop Theophilus wrote a letter defending the Origenist position. At this, the simple monks flocked to Alexandria, rioting in the streets and even threatening to kill Theophilus.
The bishop quickly reversed himself, telling the monks that he could now see that God did indeed have a body: "In seeing you, I behold the face of God." Theophilus' sudden switch was the catalyst for a series of events that led to the condemnation of Origen and the burning of the Nitrian monastery.
Under Theodosius, Christians, who had been persecuted for so many years, now became the persecutors. God made in man's image proved to be an intolerant one. The orthodox Christians practiced sanctions and violence against all heretics (including Gnostics and Origenists), pagans and Jews. In this climate, it became dangerous to profess the ideas of innate divinity and the pursuit of union with God.
It may have been during the reign of Theodosius that the Gnostic Nag Hammadi manuscripts were buried - perhaps by Origenist monks. For while the Origenist monks were not openly Gnostic, they would have been sympathetic to the Gnostic viewpoint and may have hidden the books after they became too hot to handle.
The Origenist monks of the desert did not accept Bishop Theophilus' condemnations. They continued to practice their beliefs in Palestine into the sixth century until a series of events drove Origenism underground for good.
Justinian (ruled 527 - 565 A.D.) was the most able emperor since Constantine - and the most active in meddling with Christian theology. Justinian issued edicts that he expected the Church to rubber-stamp, appointed bishops and even imprisoned the pope.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire at the end of the fifth century, Constantinople remained the capital of the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire. The story of how Origenism ultimately came to be rejected involves the kind of labyrinthine power plays that the imperial court became famous for.
Around 543 A.D., Justinian seems to have taken the side of the anti-Origenists since he issued an edict condemning ten principles of Origenism, including preexistence. It declared "anathema to Origen ... and to whomsoever there is who thinks thus." In other words, Origen and anyone who believes in these propositions would be eternally damned. A local council at Constantinople ratified the edict, which all bishops were required to sign.
In 553 A.D., Justinian convoked the Fifth General Council of the Church to discuss the controversy over the so-called "Three Chapters." These were writings of three theologians whose views bordered on the heretical. Justinian wanted the writings to be condemned and he expected the council to oblige him.
He had been trying to coerce the pope into agreeing with him since 545 A.D. He had essentially arrested the pope in Rome and brought him to Constantinople, where he held him for four years. When the pope escaped and later refused to attend the council, Justinian went ahead and convened it without him.
This council produced fourteen new anathemas against the authors of the Three Chapters and other Christian theologians. The eleventh anathema included Origen's name in a list of heretics.
The first anathema reads: "If anyone asserts the fabulous preexistence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema." ("Restoration" means the return of the soul to union with God. Origenists believed that this took place through a path of reincarnation.) It would seem that the death blow had been struck against Origenism and reincarnation in Christianity.
After the council, the Origenist monks were expelled from their Palestinian monastery, some bishops were deposed and once again Origen's writings were destroyed. The anti-Origenist monks had won. The emperor had come down firmly on their side.
In theory, it would seem that the missing papal approval of the anathemas leaves a doctrinal loophole for the belief in reincarnation among all Christians today. But since the Church accepted the anathemas in practice, the result of the council was to end belief in reincarnation in orthodox Christianity.
In any case, the argument is moot. Sooner or later the Church probably would have forbade the beliefs. When the Church codified its denial of the divine origin of the soul (at Nicaea in 325 A.D.), it started a chain reaction that led directly to the curse on Origen.
Church councils notwithstanding, mystics in the Church continued to practice divinization. They followed Origen's ideas, still seeking union with God.
But the Christian mystics were continually dogged by charges of heresy. At the same time as the Church was rejecting reincarnation, it was accepting original sin, a doctrine that made it even more difficult for mystics to practice.