Universalism: St Maximus and the Condemnation of John Italus

In the ongoing scholarly debate about universalism and its rejection in medieval Christianity, two figures loom large. There is little doubt the doctrine arises in Origen and is argued against extensively by St Augustine (especially in his works De Gestis Pelagii and City of God). This dispute comes to a head at the Council of Constantinople in 543 where St Justinian, professing St Augustine to be a Doctor of the Church, proposes a set of thirteen anathemas against Origen, including Apokatastasis:

If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration (ἀποκατάστασις) will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema. – Liber Contra Origen, Anathema IX

Defenders of universalism are quick to point out that St Justinian’s anathemas were not adopted by the council without editing, including the removal of the above condemnation. Indeed, the condemnation of Origen at Constantinople was muted. It has long been the contention of this blog, especially that of Perry Robinson, that the most direct attack on Origenism came in the form of St Maximus the Confessor against the monothelites. And while do not intend in this post to defend this view, I think it is important to consider another important event on the topic of Origenism, St Maximus and Apokatastasis.

The controversy comes in the condemnation of John Italus in the 11th century. Anna Komnene describes this dispute as follows:

[John Italus] was generally supposed to be very learned and he undoubtedly was far cleverer than all others in expounding that most wonderful philosophic system, the Peripatetic, and especially the dialectics of it. But for other branches of literature he had not a very good head, for he stumbled over grammar and had never tasted the nectar of rhetoric …

[John] then was the acknowledged master of all philosophy and the youth flocked to him. (For he expounded to them the doctrines of Plato and Proclus, and of the two philosophers, Porphyry and Iamblichus, but especially the rules of Aristotle) …

I remember the Empress, my mother, when breakfast was already on the table, carrying a book in her hands and poring over the writings of the didactic Fathers, especially those of the philosopher and martyr Maximus. For she was not so much interested in the physical disputations as in those about the dogmas, because she wished to gain true wisdom. …

Those who were inclined to learning (and they were but few and had not passed beyond the vestibule of Aristotelian philosophy) [Alexios I Komnenos] did not cease from encouraging but bade them prefer the study of the sacred writings to Greek literature. He found Italus throwing everything into confusion and leading many astray … But Italus was unable to hide his own ignorance, and there he vomited forth doctrines quite foreign to the church’s … and the heretical doctrines taught by Italus were summarized in eleven chapters and dispatched to the Emperor… [In] his later years he changed his opinions and repented of the error into which he had been led. Furthermore, he denied a belief in metempsychosis and retracted his insulting words about the holy icons of the saints; he also remodelled his teaching about “ideas” so as to make it conform to orthodoxy, and it was quite evident that he condemned himself for having formerly strayed from the straight path.

– Alexiad V.VIII-IX

The condemnation on universalism comes in the eleven chapters mentioned above, which have been included in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, a significant canonical text for Orthodox Christians:

To them who accept and transmit the vain Greek teachings that there is a pre-existence of souls and teach that all things were not produced and did not come into existence out of non-being, that there is an end to the torment or a restoration again of creation and of human affairs, meaning by such teachings that the Kingdom of the Heavens is entirely perishable and fleeting, whereas the Kingdom is eternal and indissoluble as Christ our God Himself taught and delivered to us, and as we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Scripture, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting to them who by such teachings both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others: Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!

– Contra John Italus, Chapter 10, Synodikon of Orthodoxy


  1. A year ago I took part in a discussion on this blog about the doctrine of transubstantiation. I tried to support the doctrine as orthodox, however, since then, I have developed some doubts about the complete orthodoxy of that doctrine. I would like to say that Mr Nathaniel’s thoughtful remarks played an important role to this reconsideration.


  2. ioannis, to be fair, I’m not completely sure I reject transubstantiation. I’m just not sure I like how it is formulated. It is definitely an open subject for Orthodox Christians. But we should tread carefully.


  3. Nathan,

    Would you tend (tentatively) to think the Orthodox view is more like a Lutheran view, or a third thing from either?


  4. Wouldn’t it be fair to say the Orthodox “view” is that neither the RC nor the Lutheran formulae can be accepted as such within their own particular philosophical paradigms and that the nature of the change in the Eucharist is not possible to define using such human philosophical categories? It is simply a mystery and a spiritual reality to be accepted.


  5. Karen, I’m not sure the Lutheran view disagrees that the nature of the change is not possible to define using human philosophical categories. The Lutheran position is basically that the bread and wine “are” the body and blood of Christ, because Christ said they were. The “in, with and under” formulation may be what you are thinking of, and I suppose I could see that this could be incompatible with Orthodox understanding depending on what that understanding is (does the bread and wine remain bread and wine and also become the body and blood, etc.). But I would definitely say we’re closer to the Lutheran understanding than the Roman Catholic understanding, since both Orthodox and Lutherans are content to let the mechanics of it remain a mystery.

    Having said that, much like we Orthodox, Lutherans do not all agree on what the proper understanding is, so there is room for varying views. I’m simply recounting my understanding from the Lutheran Confessions from back when I was a Lutheran, which comports with what most Lutherans I have spoken with on the subject believe as well.


  6. I imagine that the only part of the Synodikon quoted above that one might imagine is a condemnation of universalism is the affirmation that “the torment is unending.” However, that does not entail that anyone has actually been given over to unending torment.


  7. Do we need an entailment or just implication? It certainly seems implied. Plenty of other sources indicate there will be denizens in hell. Not to mention the fact that even an empty hell leaves the problem unsolved. if God could send people there, but it just doesn’t end up that way, then God is good contingently. That leaves the problem in place.


  8. Father Lev, I believe it is important to note that the “unendingness” of the torment is tied to the eternality of the Kingdom. A particular understanding of the state of torment is being implied here. The result of which is that the whole canon applies to universalism.


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