Ss. Barsanuphius and John on Universalism

origen1A brother asked the holy Old Man, Abba Barsanuphius, saying: “Father, I do not know how I came upon the books of Origen and Didymus, as well as the Gnostic Chapters of Evagrius and the writing of his disciples. These books say… that the future hell must have an end and that human beings, angels, and demons can return to the state they first enjoyed as naked intellects, something they call apokatastasis… Therefore, my soul is afflicted, falling into doubt as to whether these things are true are not. Master, I entreat you to show me the truth so that I may hold to this and not perish. For nothing is said about these things in sacred Scripture. As Origen himself affirms in his Commentary on the Letter to Titus (Fragments in PG 14.1303-1306), this is neither of the Apostles nor of the Church… Evagrius, too, bears witness to this in his Gnostic Chapters, that no one has spoken of these things, nor has the Spirit Itself explained them. For in his sixty-fourth chapter of the second century of his Gnostic Chapters, he writes: ‘On the former, no one has spoken to us; on the latter, only the one on Mt. Horeb has explained to us.’… That there is no apokatastasis or end to hell, the Lord Himself revealed to us in the Gospel, saying: ‘These will go away into eternal punishment (Mt. 25:46); and again: ‘Where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.’ (Mk. 9:48) Therefore, master, how could these people expound such teachings, when the Apostles have not passed them down to us and the Holy Spirit has not explained them to us, as they themselves bear witness and the Gospels contradict? Be merciful, then, with my weakness, since you are a father of compassion, and show me clearly what these doctrines are about.”

Response by St. Barsanuphius the Great ca. 6th cent.

The heavens tremble over the preoccupations of human beings. The earth shakes over how people want to scrutinize the incomprehensible. These are the doctrines of the [heathen] Greeks; they are the vain talk of people who claim to be something (cf. Acts 5:6)… Avoid these things, brother, so that their word may not be established in your heart. They dry tears, blind the heart, and quite simply destroy those who pay any attention to them. Do not dwell on them; do not study them; for they are filled with bitterness and produce fruit unto death. As for knowledge about things to come, do not be deceived. Whatever you sow here, you will reap there (cf. Gal. 6:7-8). It is not possible for anyone to make progress after leaving this place. God will not labor to recreate the soul after anyone’s death… Brother, here is the place for labor; there is the place for reward. Here is the place of struggle; there is the place for crowns. Brother, if you want to be saved, do not preoccupy yourself with these things. For I bear witness before God that you have fallen into a pit of the devil and into ultimate death. Therefore, avoid these things and follow in the footsteps of the fathers. Acquire humility and obedience for yourself, as well as mourning, ascetic discipline, poverty, not reckoning yourself as anything, and other such virtues, which you will find in their Sayings and in the Lives. Bear “fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8); and do not pay any attention to me, who talk but do not practice. (Letter 600)

The same brother asked the same question to the Other Old Man, Abba John.

Response by St. John the Prophet of Gaza ca. 6th cent.

Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is unspiritual and demonic. (cf. Jas. 3:1-5) This teaching is from the devil, leading to eternal hell those who pay attention to it. Anyone who is preoccupied with this teaching becomes a heretic; anyone who believes in it has deviated from the truth; anyone who adheres to it is alienated from God’s way. The workers of Christ, however, are not like this; the disciples of Christ have not taught this. Those who accept the word of truth do not accept such teachings. Brother, quickly detach yourself from these. Do not burn your heart with the fire of the devil. Do not sow thorns on your soil instead of grain; do not receive death instead of life. In short, do not receive the devil instead of Christ. Do not delay in these, and you will be saved like Lot from Sodom (cf. Gen. 19:15-29), through the prayers of the Saints. Amen. (Letter 601)

The same brother asked the same Old Man: “Should we not, then, read even the works of Evagrius?”

Response by St. John the Prophet.

Do not accept such doctrines from his works; but go ahead and read, if you like, those works that are beneficial for the soul, according to the parable about the net in the Gospel. For it is written: “They placed the good into baskets, but threw out the bad” (Mt. 13:48). You, too, should do the same. (Letter 602)

Question from the same person… “in regard to the subject of apokatastasis, the holy Gregory of Nyssa himself clearly speaks about it, but not in the manner in which they say he does, namely: ‘When hell ceases, humanity will return to its original condition, namely, that of pure intellects’; rather, he does in fact say that hell will cease and assume an end. (On the Soul and on the Resurrection, PG 46.108) Therefore, father, tell us why such a person does not speak correctly, as befits a holy person who has been counted worthy of speaking for the Holy Spirit. For some of the fathers and teachers even disagree about Paradise, saying that is not material but spiritual. And on other chapters of Scripture, one finds disagreements among some of them. So clarify this for us, master, we implore you, in order that we may be illumined by you and give glory to God, and so that we may not doubt our holy Fathers.”

Response by St. Barsanuphius

May all the fathers who have pleased God, the saints and the righteous and genuine servants of God pray for me. Do not think that, because they were saints, they were able actually to comprehend all the depths of God. For the Apostle says: “We know only in part.” (1 Cor. 13:9) And again: “To one is given through the Spirit such and such, and not all of these gifts to one and the same person; but to one person it was given in this way, to another in that way, and al of these gists are activated by one in the same Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:4-11). Knowing then, that the [mysteries] of God are incomprehensible, the Apostle cried out: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and how inscrutable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?” (Rom. 11:33-34), and so forth. Applying themselves, therefore, to becoming teachers of their own accord, or else obliged by others to come to this point, they achieved great progress, sometimes even surpassing their own teachers. Moreover, they were assured about the truth in developing new doctrines, while at the same time remaining faithful to the traditions of their teachers.

In this way, there are also some [brothers] here who have received certain  doctrines from their teachers, which are not, however, correct. For after achieving progress and themselves becoming spiritual teachers, nevertheless, they did not pray to God about their teachers, in order to learn whether what they said was spoken through the Holy Spirit. Rather, trusting that their teachers possessed wisdom and knowledge, they did not in fact bother to discern their teachings. And so the teachings of their teachers became mingled with their own teachings, and they spoke sometimes from the doctrines learned from their masters, while at other times from the brilliance of their own intellect. Thus, even the words of their teachers were ascribed to their name. For while they received these words from others, they progressed and improved more than their teachers, and they spoke through the Holy Spirit; that is to say, they were assured by the Spirit and spoke from the doctrines of their teachers who proceeded them, but they did not actually examine these words in order to discern whether they needed to be assured by God through supplication and prayer in regard to their truth. So the teachings [of the two] were mingled together. Thus, since it was they who spoke the words, it was to their names that they were ultimately ascribed. Therefore, when you hear that one of them received from the Holy Spirit whatever he speaks, then this is clear assurance that we ought to trust him. When, however, this person speaks on those matters, it does not seem that he refers to the same kind of assurance, but rather to the teachings and tradition of those who preceded him. In this way, while paying attention to their knowledge and wisdom, nonetheless, they did not ask God about these matters, as to whether or not they are true.

There then! You have heard all my foolishness. So be calm, and commit yourselves to God, ceasing from such idle talk and paying attention to your passions, about which you will be asked to give account on the Day of Judgment. For you will not be asked about these matters, why you do not understand them or why you have not learned them. Therefore, weep and mourn. Follow in the footsteps of our fathers, of Poemen and all the other like him, and “run in such a way that you may win” (1 Cor. 9:24) in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be the glory to the ages. Amen. (Letter 604)

 

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