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The Recognition of Universal Reconciliation - Part 3

By David Sielaff, August 2008

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NOTE: This is part 3 of a three-part Breaking News. This NEW part 3 supplements the other two parts written by Dr. Ernest Martin in 1982. This section provides new information about the extent of belief in universal reconciliation in the Early Church and post-Nicene Church era. A bibliography for this section is at the end.

Belief in Universal Reconciliation was widespread in the early centuries of the Christian church. While it is impossible to provide statistics as to the extent of the belief, interesting information can be obtained from those writers who discussed the topic in various ways.

Augustus Neander wrote regarding universal reconciliation,

“The doctrine of eternal punishment continued, ... to be dominant in the creed of the church. Yet, in the Oriental church, ... there was greater freedom and latitude of development, many respectable church-teachers still stood forth without injuring their reputation for orthodoxy, as advocates of the opposite doctrine.”

• Neander, General History, p. 737

Origen

Origen (c.185 C.E.) strongly believed in and promoted universal reconciliation, yet he was widely honored by later church leaders. Basil (the “Great,” bishop of Caesarea) and Gregory of Nazianzus (bishop of Constantinople), were close students of, promoted and published Origen’s works in the 4th century throughout the Roman Empire (Young, From Nicaea to Chacedon, pp. 94, 100). Socrates, the historian, writing about c.439 C.E. noted that “The fame of Origen was very great and widespread throughout the whole world at that time” (Socrates, “Ecclesiastical History” 4:26).

Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa (bishop of Nyssa), was even stronger in his promotion of universal reconciliation than Origen. He never received any hint of “official” criticism for those beliefs. Neander says that the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nissa and Gregory of Nazianzus),

“... were all trained under the influence of Origen. He prompted them to the study of classical antiquity, to make use of their classical culture for the development of Christian doctrine, and led them to greater freedom of thought and moderation in controversies.”

• Neander, General History, p. 262

To sum up their views of universal reconciliation, Gregory of Nyssa held strongly to the view, Gregory of Nazianzus was favorable to the concept, but noncommittal, and Basil of Caesarea was opposed to the view, but not antagonistic to it (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p.483). Gregory of Nyssa’s strongest statements on universal reconciliation were published in 380 C.E., shortly after his brother Basil’s death in 379 C.E., but also before Gregory’s participation in the Council at Constantinople in 381 C.E. No objections to his beliefs were made at the council or in any of his contemporaries writings.

Rufinus and Jerome were monastics, historians, theologians and translators of Greek texts into Latin. They operated competing scriptoriums, the ancient equivalent of publishing houses. In their writings, both acknowledge that for several years they were instructed personally by Gregory of Nyssa at Constantinople (see “Rufinus Apology in Defense of Himself,” 1:42, and Jerome “The Letters of St. Jerome,” #50, and “Against Jovianus,” 1:13). Clearly both knew about Gregory’s beliefs in universal reconciliation, because Gregory’s views were well-publicized. In none of their correspondence, which was extensive, was there any condemnation by Rufinus or Jerome against believers in universal reconciliation.

Gregory of Nazianzus

This church leader wrote a very mild statement about those who held a view different than his own belief, which was that the fire of judgment,

“... is eternal for the wicked. For all these belong to the destroying power; though some may prefer even in this place to take a more merciful view of this fire, worthily of Him that chastises.”

• Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration on Baptism, NPNF, p. 373

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