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Advanced Historical Theology - Western Theology, and Eastern Theology After Origen - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 6 – Advanced Historical Theology – Western Theology, and Eastern Theology After Origen

Western Theology in the Third Century

During the third century there was a marked difference between Alexandrine and Western Theology. It was the difference, as seen earlier, of practical theology verses speculative interests. The theological centers were Rome and North Africa respectively.

Hippolytus of Rome was respected among Roman Christians in the early third century. He was the unofficial “pope” of imperial capital in 212 A.D. where even Origen went to hear him preach. Zephyrinus succeeded Callistus in 217 A.D. and Hippolytus refused to acknowledge him. For the rest of his life there would be a rival with Zephyrinus about authority. Most of Hippolytus’ works are lost. However, there is sufficient material to draw up his theology. He did not believe that people should be forgiven for homicide, fornication, or apostasy. (Zephyrinus’ theology did forgive these people). He emphasized the divine unity of the Godhead to such a degree that there was no distinction between the three persons. He also succumbed to subordination where the Word depends on the Father. He does, however, retain the Christology of Tertullian which was orthodox in the union of the two natures.

Novatian was another Western theologian of whom little is known. He was involved in a schism that took place over the place of the lapsed in the church and rendered further schism to the church based on his views. In his work On the Trinity he develops a Christology that says Jesus Christ is human as well as divine, and the Son is separate from the Father though also divine like the Father. He writes against Sabellianism here demonstrating that the Son is rightfully distinct from the Father as a person, and proceeds from Him by generation. However, he so stresses this that Christ becomes less than the Father, and inferior to Him. The Spirit is also inferior to the Father, as well as inferior to the Son.

Cyprian of Carthage was the most remarkable of theologians at this time, in the African church. He was born to a wealthy pagan family and was not converted until forty years old. In 248 A.D. he was elected bishop of Carthage and his episcopacy lasted nine years. His writings are pastoral and very practical, and Tertullian influenced his theology. Persecution broke out and many Christians fled and hid, and many gave up their faith under duress. Cyprian believed that repentance for these people should be done with order, and that the bishops should allow them to repent if they desired. The problem of restoration again led to schism. Cyprian called a synod to think through this problem of restoration, and some sixty bishops attended. Those who refuse to do penance should not be forgiven, even on their deathbeds, those who purchased certificates should be admitted immediately, the fallen should do penance for the rest of their lives and would be restored to the communion of the church on their death bed or when they proved the true nature of their repentance in another persecution; finally, the fallen clergy should be deposed. Regarding schism, he said that its followers be excommunicated. In all these matters the council followed his lead.

Around Cyprian there also broke out a controversy on baptism, as to whether baptism administered by heretics were valid, or should the church rebaptize them? The issue was settled when they decided to rebaptize those who had been baptized by heretics since it was not Trinitarian.

Cyprian also wrote on the nature of the church. The church is the indispensable ark of salvation. There is no salvation outside the church, and no one can have God for his Father without having the church as his mother. Truth is the essential aspect of the church, and the unity of the church is of great importance in this truth. His ecclesiology is more Presbyterian than Episcopal. He did not believe one episcopate should rule, but that all episcopes should of equal nature and all are under the headship of Christ.

Eastern Theology After Origen

One of the characteristics of Eastern theology was Origen’s influence and his dominance of it over the third century. The main theological schools were factions of Origen’s thoughts during this period.

Paul of Samosota was elected bishop of Antioch in 260 A.D. He was the highest public official in Syria at the time. He was accused, though, of abusing his power, and seemed to be a “playboy” of sorts, and was also accused of not allowing songs to be sung to Christ in Church. Obviously he was seen as a heretic and this due to his monarchian tendencies that in turn birthed Dynamic Monarchianism. He attempted to establish a marked difference between the Father and the Son in such a manner that only the Father is God. The Son is not God, nor is the Word God. In Jesus Christ the wisdom of God dwelt, but this was no greater than that of Moses or any other prophet. This Word or Wisdom of God is the power of God, thus “Dynamic” coming from the Greek word “dunamis.” A council was held against him to determine whether what he taught should be condemned or not. It was condemned and he was told to depose his post, but did not. However, a second council in Nicea in 325 A.D. formed and it was here that the famous homoousia was termed, fully condemning Paul of Samosota’s doctrines.

Methodius of Olympus was a voice shouting out against the teaching of Origen, whom he believed to be in error on a great many issues. However, even Methodius was influenced by Origen in his use of Platonism. Methodius was opposed to Origen on four main fronts: the eternity of the world, the preexistence of the soul, spiritualistic eschatology, and allegorical exegesis.

After the death of Origen, his movement is couched in shadows. It is better to say that men were influenced by him than to say his followers then taught “such and such.” However, those most well known Origenists of the time was Gregory of Neocaesarea (also known as Gregory the Wonderworker for his alleged miracles), Dionysius of Alexandria (who taught that the Son was a created creature), and Lucian of Antioch (who had the largest influence of them all since he used Paul of Samosota’s theology to transmit the necessary influences of Origen to Arius who then, in turn, used Lucian’s theology to formulate one of the largest heresies in the church in denying that Christ was God).

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