Book Review: The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis

apokatastasisTitle: The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena

Series: Supplements to Vigliae Christianae

Author: Ilaria L.E. Ramelli

Bibliographic info: xx + 826 pp. + 63 pp.

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

Christian universalism is a theological subject for which I have a particular interest. I wouldn’t call myself a universalist but–along with Moltmann, Rahner, Barth, Ellul, Balthasar, Bulgakov–I could definitely be said to have universalistic tendencies. So I was especially pleased to see that Ilaria Ramelli was publishing a massive examination on the doctrine of apokatastasis from the New Testament through to Eriugena (who lived during the ninth century).

Chapter One (pp. 1–221) begins by looking at the roots of the word ἀποκατάστασις, apokatastasis, and its cognates. The word refers to a restoration of something to a pristine state and, in the case of early Christian usage, a restoration to something entirely new – creatio nova. Ramelli begins this word study with a brief look at the origin of the word followed by a lengthy survey on the roots of the doctrine of apokatastasis. She covers a lot of ground in this chapter, from the antecedents to apokatastasis found in the Hebrew Bible (not just the Protestant canon but also that of the more inclusive LXX canon), the New Testament, the apostolic fathers, the early Christian apologists (e.g. Justin, Theophilus), some of the earlier church fathers (e.g. Clement of Alexandria), and a host of other early Christian literature (e.g. the Apocalypse of Peter). She also looks at ‘gnostic’ conceptions of apokatastasis and, of course, provides an extensive look at the granddaddy of all Christian universalists, Origen.

One feature of this chapter that I found particularly helpful was the discussion on the meaning of the terms αἰώνιος and ἀΐδιος, of which here are a couple snippets:

The adjective αἰώνιος in the Bible never means “eternal” unless it refers to God, who lends it the very notion of absolute eternity. In reference to life and death, it means “belonging to the future world.” It is remarkable that in the Bible only life in the other world is called ἀΐδιος, that is, “absolutely eternal”; this adjective in the Bible never refers to punishment, death, or fire in the other world, these are only called αἰώνια. (26)

Unlike αἰώνιος, ἀΐδιος belongs to the philosophical lexicon and means “eternal” in the strict sense. (27)

On the epistle of Jude she says:

In Jude 7, the fire that consumed Sodom is declared to be an example of the πῦρ αἰώνιον, that is, the fire in the world to come. This cannot mean “eternal fire,” given that the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah did not burn eternally, but it lasted only very little. The point is that it was not the fire of this world; rather, it was that of the other world, sent by God to destroy evil. This seems also to be the specific function of the fire in the next world, the πῦρ αἰώνιον that is announced in many passages of the NT. (32)

I’ve read a number of commentaries on Jude and it is surprising at how some authors all too easily assume that Jude 7 is referring to an eternal fiery punishment in hell (e.g. Gene Green’s volume on Jude and 2 Peter in the BECNT series, pp. 72-73).

Some English translations of the New Testament simply translate all occurrences of αἰώνιος and ἀΐδιος with the same term (usually “eternal”). However, as Ramelli has shown here and elsewhere, this is erroneous. So how did this equivalence between these two Greek terms come about? Perhaps this goes towards explaining why this happened:

The misunderstanding of αἰώνιος as “eternal” was facilitated by Latin translations of both αἰώνιος and ἀΐδιος with aeternus. This blurred the difference between these two crucial Greek terms and certainly played a role in the rejection of the doctrine of apokatastasis. (33)

What’s more, throughout the book Ramelli also discusses how the Christian writers under discussion actually used αἰώνιος and ἀΐδιος. This builds upon previous research she has published on the meaning of these words which can be found in Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts . For instance, John Chrysostom, who was “not a plain assertor of the apokatastasis doctrine”, reserves the use of ἀΐδιος for life with God and never with punishment, while αἰώνιος is used in reference to both.

On Irenaeus, Ramelli states:

Irenaeus does not formulate a doctrine of universal salvation, nor a theory of universal apokatastasis. However, he does introduce elements that point to the doctrine of apokatastasis and very probably inspired those who formulated it after him, such as Clement and especially Origen. (106)

On Origen:

The notion of apokatastasis as deification–which will be developed most of all by Eriugena, as I shall point out in due course–is perfectly consistent with Origen’s idea that precisely participation in the three Persons of the Trinity will bring every rational creature to its restoration. (140)

Again on Origen:

The demons and Satan himself, as well as humans, will always maintain their free will, but they will be saved because the force of Christ’s cross is so great as to be sufficient to save even them. This salvation will take place, not automatically or necessarily, but through conversion, through a healing performed by Christ in his capacity as the supreme Physician… Not even the devil is incurable, because he too is a creature of God, and his Creator will be able to heal even him. (153)

Chapter Two (pp. 223–77) then looks at the first followers of Origen in Alexandria and the East, as well as his first detractors. Many Christian writers are discussed in this chapter, amongst which are Dionysius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Marcellus of Ancyra. The opponents of Origen that are discussed are Methodius (who actually endorsed Origen’s apokatastasis), Eusthathius of Antioch, Apollinaris of Laodicaea, and Theophilus of Alexandria. None of these detractors of Origen actually criticized Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis (e.g. Apollinaris disagreed with Origen on Christology and anthropology but not on apokatastasis), and Methodius actually endorsed Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis.

Ramelli states that Peter of Alexandria “is also likely to have embraced the doctrine of apokatastasis, even though we have no direct evidence of this” (275). Gregory Thaumaturgus was probably the one “who transmitted this doctrine [of apokatastasis] to Cappadocian Christianity” [i.e. Gregory of Nyssa, Macrina the Younger, Gregory Nazianzen, and Macrina the Elder] (277).

Chapter Three (pp. 279–658) goes on to examine the apokatastasis views of the apologists and followers of Origen, such as the Cappadocians, the Antiochenes, and fourth-century Latin Origenians. Some specific figures discussed in this chapter include Didymus the Blind (who, along with Gregory of Nyssa, included the fallen angels in the eventual restoration), Eusebius of Pamphilus (“a reticient supporter of apokatastasis”), Ephrem the Syrian (“not an explicit supporter of the doctrine of apokatastasis… [but] come[s] very close to a universalistic perspective”), Basil, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa (who is among “the closest and most brilliant followers of Origen”), Gregory of Nazianzus, Evagrius Ponticus (“heir of Origen and the Cappadocians”), Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Epiphanius, Theophilus, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, Ambrosiaster, Rufinus, Jerome, and more!

The following quote provides an apt summary of how Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis was viewed by later writers:

Epiphanius of Salamis, Theophilus of Alexandria, and Jerome (at least after his volte-face) were the main opponents of Origen–or better, of his thought or what was represented as his thought–in the crisis toward the end of the fourth century. … [A]mong the first explicit accusations levelled against Origen by these authors, even though some do deal with eschatological issues, none is directed against his apokatastasis doctrine, or at least none is against the eventual universal restoration of all humans. … They were well aware that Origen’s core doctrine was that of the eventual restoration of all human beings, but they did not criticise this (they limited themselves to counter the claim of the final salvation of the devil), very probably because, as Basil attests—I have shown this—, still at the end of the fourth century a great many Christians believed in the final apokatastasis of all humans. (577)

Chapter Four (pp. 659–815) then explores the era from Augustine to Eriugena, which includes the Latin, Greek, and Syriac receptions of Origen’s apokatastasis doctrine. Figures discussed here are Augustine, Pseudo Dionysius, John of Caesarea, Justinian, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac of Nineveh, John the Scot Eriugena, and more. On Origen’s supposed condemnation by “the Church” in the sixth century, Ramelli says:

The so-called “condemnation of Origen” by “the Church” in the sixth century probably never occurred proper, and even if it occurred it did so only as a result of a long series of misunderstandings, when the anthropological, eschatological, and psychological questions were no longer felt as open to investigation–as Origen and Nazianzen considered them–but dogmatically established. (724)

The volume finishes with a concluding chapter (pp.817–26). All in all, this is a fantastic study that clearly shows how prevalent a universalistic view really was amongst theologians of the first 1,000 years of Christianity. This study is the definitive treatment of apokatastasis in the first millennium of the church and I will no doubt be delving into this book in the future εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. There is much to be gleaned from within.

Of course, the price tag is way over on the expensive side of the spectrum, so if the subject-matter of this volume interests you then I heartily recommend you petition the acquisitions department at your local university/seminary library to purchase it.

Reason #78 Why I Dislike Evangelicalism

Fred Clark, blogger at Slacktivist, has recently posted an interesting piece about white-evangelical Christianity. This snippet sums up one of many problems I’ve come to have with Evangelicalism:

It is not progressive Christianity, but mainstream white evangelicalism that is “reluctant to talk about our enslavement to sin.” It is reluctant to do so because it is unable to do so. And it is unable to do so because it has, itself, become one of The Powers That Be — or, at least, it has become their faithful servant.

There’s a hole in white evangelicalism’s understanding of sin, death, evil and spiritual bondage. … It’s the blind spot that allowed America’s first great theologian to write “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” before sitting down to a meal cooked by his slaves. Or the blind spot that allowed America’s first great revivalist to preach salvation from sin while simultaneously working to overturn the colony of Georgia’s ban on slavery.

In other words, white-evangelicalism pretty much doesn’t give a fuck about the problem of institutional, corporate sin. It turns a blind eye to our enslavement to the principalities and powers (e.g. racism, patriarchy, and nationalism are all good examples). But hey… it’s not like we worship a guy who was executed on the basis of bullshit charges that were drummed up simply because he railed against the moral, religious, and political authorities. Even if we did, that has nothing to do with structural and institutional forms of evil, right?!

It’s an interesting piece which has generated a lot of good comments, so head on over and give it a whirl.

Quick Book Review: Iesus Deus – The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God

jesusgodTitle: Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God

Author: M. David Litwa

Bibliographic info: 208 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy.

This book looks at how early Christians “imagined, constructed, and promoted Jesus as a deity in their literature from the first to the third centuries CE.” Litwa contends that the early Christians applied to Jesus various traits of divinity that were already prevalent in ancient Mediterranean culture. He says that “many other Christian writers–including those of the New Testament–consciously or unconsciously re-inscribed divine traits of Mediterranean gods and deified figures into their discourse concerning Jesus. The result was the discursive deification of Jesus Christ.”

Litwa provides a synchronic approach to this topic, focusing on specific texts as “individual ‘moments’ of Jesus’ deification in early Christian literature.” He surveys six ways in which Christians from the first century through to the third century utilized Mediterranean notions of deity to reveal the importance of Jesus. The moments that he looks at are Jesus’ conception,  childhood, benefactions, transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension.

The chapters of this book are:

  1. “Not through Semen, Surely”: Luke and Plutarch on Divine Birth
  2. “From Where Was this Child Born?”: Divine Children and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
  3. Deus est iuvare: Miracle, Morals, and Euergetism in Origen’s Contra Celsum
  4. “Light Was That Godhead”: Transfiguration as Epiphany
  5. “We Worship One who Rose from His Tomb”: Resurrection and Deification
  6. The Name Above Every Name: Jesus and Greco-Roman Theonymy

It is important to note that Litwa is not suggesting that the early Christian faith in Jesus’ divinity was the result of a process that evolved over time from more exposure to Greek culture. Instead, Litwa is simply showing how earliest Christianity wasn’t solely influenced by the Second Temple Jewish milieu out of which it was born, but that there was also some Hellenistic influence in there as well. By focusing upon several key events of Jesus’ life as depicted in the Gospels, Litwa wants to show how the authors of the Gospels employed language and forms that derive from the Greco-Roman concept of deification.

This is an engaging comparative study that sheds light on the evolution of early Christianity and shows how certain concepts associated with Jesus (e.g. divine birth) fit into the Hellenistic context of the ancient Mediterranean culture.


Great Book on the Eucharist


Yesterday I started and finished reading Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper by Brant Pitre (2011). This book was quite fascinating and it is rare that I come across a book that I can’t put down. I’ve never really studied the Lord’s Supper to any depth and–as my calling it the “Lord’s Supper” instead of the Eucharist may indicate–I’ve always held to a Zwinglian kind of view that sees it as a symbolic memorial (moreso out of default than anything). Pitre, however, has provided a very helpful study which goes a good way to revealing the real substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The author is himself a Catholic (as one may have guessed by the preface from Scott Hahn), but I didn’t find the book to be simply an apologetic just for the Catholic “Transubstantiation” view. Instead, Pitre’s elucidation of the Lord’s Supper in this book could perhaps be compatible for any Christian church that adopts some form of the “Real Presence” view (e.g. Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans), though maybe not the Reformed branch which seems to hold a spiritual presence of Christ but not one of substance. Keep in mind, though, that I have a pretty rudimentary knowledge of the different theologies of the Lord’s Supper, so maybe this book isn’t compatible with a non-Catholic Transubstantiation view.

There were a few minor questions that I had arise while reading the book, e.g., considering the emphasis placed upon the Gospel of John in Pitre’s argument, I find it curious as to why did the author of the Gospel neglected to include the actual institution of the Lord’s Supper at the last Passover.

Nevertheless, despite any minor quibbles I had with the book’s argument, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic. Now I am gonna go read Sergius Bulgakov’s The Holy Grail and the Eucharist.

Book Review: Jesus, Gospel Tradition, and Paul in the Context of Greco-Roman Antiquity

jesusgospeltraditionsTitle: Jesus, Gospel Tradition and Paul in the Context of Jewish and Greco-Roman Antiquity: Collected Essays III

Series: WUNT 303

Author: David E. Aune

Bibliographic info: xii, 549 pp., 63 pp.

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

David Aune has been a Professor at the University of Notre Dame since 1999 to the present (and held a few other teaching positions prior to that). This is the second collection of Bovon’s studies, with the first volume being Apocalypticism, Prophecy and Magic in Early Christianity: Collected Essays (2006). While this earlier collection of Aune’s work consisted on twenty studies originally published between 1981-2006, this current volume contains twenty-two studies focused on the Gospels, Jesus traditions, Acts, Paul, and the Pauline epistles (originally published between 1981-2006). This review will provide a brief summary of each chapter.

The first study was one of the most interesting ones of the volume. It is on the meaning of Εὐαγγέλιου in the inscriptions of the canonical Gospels. Aune begins by providing a lexical overview, the use of euangelion in Paul, Mark, and second century Christianity (the Didache, Ignatius’ epistles, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and 2 Clement). Then the study delves into into the Gospel subscriptions and inscriptions, and the development of the fourfold Gospel canon.

The second study looks at genre theory and the genre-function of Mark and Matthew. Aune examines the paratextual features of the Gospels (e.g. subscriptions, superscriptions, and incipit) as these provide important clues for determining how the authors and recipients of the texts understood them. Aune concludes that Mark is a parody of ancient biography and Matthew is a transformation of Mark. He says that “Mark is an episodic text based on linking earlier oral and written gospel tradition into a relatively large-scale narrative that functions as a complex genre with an ideological function”, and that, “The genre of Mark was transformed by Matthew (unaware of its parodic character) by the addition of features more typical of Graeco-Roman biography that had been avoided by Mark.” (55).

The third study discusses the forgiveness petition in the Lord’s prayer in Matt. 6:12, Luke 11:4a, and Did. 8:2, with each of these extent versions of the Lord’s prayer being said to have “emerged from the practice of private prayer in particular Christian circles where they were shaped over a number of years” (59). The fourth study then tackles the Lord’s prayer in relation to the concept of apocalyptic.

The fifth study looks at the logion of “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38b/Matt. 26:41b), with the question hoping to be answered being whether this dominical proverb reflect the ipsissima vox jesu? Aune explores the relation between the Markan version and the hortatory saying which precedes it (“keep awake and pray, that you do not enter into temptation”). He concludes that, “It is like that the paraenetic character of the dominical proverb in Mark 14:38 and Matt 26:41 did not belong to the earliest stratum of the pre-Markan passion narrative, but was added when the passion narrative was formulated for use in a liturgical context in the early church.” This study also includes an examination of pneuma and sarx in Pauline thought, with the question being raised of where the religio-cultural context for this anthropological duality comes from. Is it found in Hebrew Bible or is it more of a Greek thing? Or a syncretistic combination of both?

The sixth and seventh studies both examine the Gospel of Luke. The former looks at Luke 1:1-14 and whether it is a historical or scientific Prooimion; the latter looks at Luke 20:34-36 and asks the question of whether it is a  “gnosticized” logion of Jesus. Aune’s hypothesis is that Luke 20:34b-36 is derived from another source rather than extensive redaction of Mark.

The eighth study looks at dualism in the Gospel of John and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is followed in the ninth study with a look at Christian beginnings and cognitive dissonance theory. This chapter includes an interesting discussion on the failed prophecy in the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement, a widespread messianic movement of Orthodox Hasidic Jews, where even after the death of Rebbe, many still thought he was the messiah. Here Aune demonstrates how cognitive dissonance theory “is capable of explaining the sequence of events associated with the beginnings of Christianity, particularly with regard to the fact that Christianity ‘went public’ so soon after the crucifixion of Jesus” (179).

The tenth study assesses the historical value of the apocryphal Jesus traditions. And the eleventh study is on Jesus and Cynics in first century Palestine, with the question being asked: did Jesus “consciously pattern his behaviour and his teaching under the influence of cynics?” (288). Aune interacts with Gerald Downing, a scholar who has presented perhaps the most focused case for the affirmative to this question. Aune, however, finds several issues “which make such a comparison extremely difficult”, but nevertheless notes that “the formal similarities between the anecdotes or chreiai attributed to Jesus and the Cynics are striking and deserve detailed study” (218).

The twelfth and thirteenth studies are both on oral tradition, with the former being a (long) prolegomena to the study of oral tradition in the Hellenistic world, and the latter looking at oral tradition in relation to the aphorisms of Jesus. Here the function, morphology, types, and forms of the aphorisms are identified, and the chapter concludes with an eighteen page appendix that catalogs the aphorisms of Jesus.

So far all the essays have directly related to the study of Jesus traditions. The fourteenth study, which discusses Jesus traditions and the Pauline letters, provides a bridge to the second part of the book that contains eight studies on Pauline studies.

The fifteenth and sixteenth studies both examine Pauline anthropology. The first looks at two Pauline models of persons: (1) an irrational behavior model (drawn from popular Hellenistic thought); and (2) an apocalyptic macrocosm-microcosm model (that has analogies in early Judaism). The second of these two studies looks at the anthropological duality in the eschatology of 2 Cor. 4:16-5:10.

The seventeenth study is on the human nature and ethics of Hellenistic philosophical traditions and Paul. The eighteenth study tackles the judgment seat of Christ in 2 Cor. 5:10 (also discussing Rom. 14:10, 2:1-3:8, and 1 Cor 6:1-11 along the way). This is followed in the nineteenth study by a look at Paul, ritual purity, and the ritual baths south of the temple mount (see e.g. Acts 21:15-27). The twentieth study is on Romans as a logos protripikos, followed by the twenty-first study which is on recent readings of Paul relating to justification by faith. And, finally, the twenty-second study provides us with a study on Gal. 3:28 and the problem of equality in church and society. Aune says: “In the long history of Pauline interpretation in the church, it is remarkable how frequently in the last century and a half that the ideology of gender hierarchy has obscured and downplayed the role of Phoebe the deacon and patron of Paul (Rom 16:1-2), or turned Junia, the apostle, into a male figure (Rom 16:7).”

All in all, this volume is an impressive series of studies on Jesus and Pauline traditions that ably shows how the author has furthered the study of the New Testament and early Christianity.

Quick Book Review: The Gospel of John and Christian Origins

gospeljohnoriginsTitle: The Gospel of John and Christian Origins

Author: John Ashton

Bibliographic info: 208 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy.

The author of this fine volume, John Ashton, has written a couple of studies on the fourth Gospel, including Understanding the Fourth Gospel (Oxford University Press, 1991; 2nd ed. 2007) and Studying John: Approaches to the Fourth Gospel (Oxford University Press, 1998).

The chapters in this book are:

  1. Moses
    Excursus I: The Gospel Genre
  2. Consciousness of Genre
  3. Chief Priests and Pharisees
  4. The Essenes
    Excurcus II: The Johannine Community
  5. The Situation of the Gospel
  6. The Apocalyptic Background
    Excursus III: The Changing Gospel
  7. The Mission of the Prophet
    Excursus IV: The Prologue: God’s Plan for Humankind
  8. Human or Divine?
  9. The Johannine Christ

In this book Ashton emphasizes how the fourth Gospel’s accentuates revelation of the now glorified Christ and that, in fact, “the Gospel represents a deliberate decision to supplant Moses and to replace him with Jesus, thereby substituting one revelation, and indeed one religion, for another.”

The four excursuses set out to show that “the Gospels are not to be thought of simply as Lives of Christ”“that the Gospel of John was not written as a continuous composition over a short stretch of time but went through at least two editions”, “that it was composed by a member of a particular community for the benefit of his fellow members”, and that “the main theme of the Prologue is not creation (as is generally assumed), but God’s plan for humankind.”

I particularly liked the fifth chapter in which Ashton approaches the Gospel of John from a historical perspective, examining the circumstances surrounding the Gospel’s composition and the Johannine community. The seventh and eight chapters deal with John’s adaptation of Jewish traditions, specifically in regards of Jesus fulfilling the prediction of a Moses-like prophet (ch. 7) and the Jewish traditions of Wisdom and the Son of Man (ch. 8). The final chapter sums it all up by comparing John to the Synoptics. Johannine scholarship is one of the areas of NT studies that I am least familiar with, but this was definitely a useful book that helped shed some light on the Gospel’s making and meaning.


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