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.

4 responses

  1. Does Ramelli deal with the concept that love does not compel? (1 Cor 13:5) I’d love to know how that interacts with ἀποκατάστασις. Perhaps the defender of ἀποκατάστασις could claim that God’s πραΰτης/χρηστότης/ἐπιεικής ultimately turns all to God?

    • No, I don’t remember Ramelli ever mentioning that verse. From what I have read from universalist or universalist-leaning writers, they would say that God’s goodness will ultimately draw everyone to him by their own free will and without compulsion (i.e. against their will).

      • Well, I suppose one would expect them to say that much. However, to merely claim “no compulsion” is not a full argument; they would need to provide an account which makes it clear there probably are no internal contradictions in their position.

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