Irenaeus and the Condemnation of John Italus

In my previous post we surveyed the history of the condemnation of universalism in John Italus and in particular the role of St Maximus looming large behind the Orthodox articulation. Yet, St Maximus isn’t the only figure influencing this late medieval condemnation. To discover our second influencer we need to return to the condemnation:

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

The key point of the condemnation is that the Kingdom is eternal and that therefore the punishment will be eternal. Although there may not be any direct influence on this much later condemnation, if we turn back the clock nearly 900 years to the late 2nd century, we find that St Irenaeus has something quite similar. This quote, from The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (a recently discovered text), highlights precisely the assertion made in the Synodikon. He says:

For hereby the Son of God is proclaimed both as being born and also as eternal King. But they shall wish that they had been burned with fire (is said) of those who believe not on Him, and who have done to Him all that they have done: for they shall say in the judgment, How much better that we had been burned with fire before the Son of God was born, than that, when He was born, we should not have believed on Him. Because for those who died before Christ appeared there is hope that in the judgment of the Risen One they may obtain salvation, even such as feared God and died in righteousness and had in them the Spirit of God, as the patriarchs and prophets and righteous men. But for those who after Christ’s appearing believed not on Him, there is a vengeance without pardon in the judgment.

– The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 56

At first glance, the two thoughts (eternal Kingdom and eternal punishment) may not appear directly related in this quote. To discover the direct relation we must turn to the middle sentences. Irenaeus posits a temporary torment for those who died before the advent of the Christ (“… burned with fire before the Son of God was born”). Yet this temporary torment ceases after the advent. That is to say that the birth of Christ ushers in a new eternal Kingdom by which the temporal punishment is made eternal.


  1. Nathaniel, I have a few questions about the passage.

    1. Do you think it can be read as saying that people merely wished they were burned with fire, as opposed to saying they actually were?

    2. Assuming they were burned, what is the nature of this post-mortem punishment?

    3. What kind of change do you take the Advent to effect? Are you talking about some ontological change in the human condition from temporal punishment to eternal?

    Why not just read it as increased accountability after the Advent? This would fit with the fact that Jesus is probably saying (Matthew 11:20-24) that Capernum etc. will wish that they had been burned with fire before the Son of God was born (burned in this life like Sodom and Gomorrah) rather than receive eternal punishment.


  2. 1. In the pre-incarnation case, this is possible. But it seems more likely he is talking of a real burning. He seems to have in mind, in this whole passage, something similar to Hebrews 11:39-40.

    2. Irenaeus is enigmatic here, I’m not sure we know.

    3. Again, Irenaeus is unclear. He simply mentions it as if it is a point of fact. This style of mention is very important to historians because it represents a conclusion that an author esteems to be self-evident.

    In general I think it *is* about increased accountability after the Advent. Before Christ, any punishment received (hypothetically or realistically) is temporal and has at least the hope of resurrection. After Christ, punishment is eternal precisely because Christ is the eternal King. While this reference is largely off the cuff for Irenaeus, it would come to be a prominent feature in Athanasius: all are raised (righteous and unrighteous) by virtue of the incarnation. All Irenaeus leaves us with are riddles; but important riddles nonetheless.


  3. There is an interesting series on St. Isaac the Syrian in which there is some discussion of the nuances in their own historical context of the official conciliar anathemas on the various schemes of “apokatastasis” proposed during the period of the first Millennium over at


  4. Nathaniel,

    1. Do you take him to be saying that the Saints of the old covenant (and perhaps righteous Gentiles) were burned like this? That seems to be what the passage would suggest if you take the burning to be actual: that the old covenant saints only got pardoned because they were burned.

    3. It’s not clear to me that an accountability-connection would really support the claim that hell must be eternal because Christ is eternal king. It doesn’t make the eternality of Christ’s reign the cause of the eternality of the punishment. Instead, it seems like if the cause of the eternal punishment is increased accountability, then this (a) fits best with the pre-Advent burning as hypothetical and (b) leaves open the possibility that the eternality of the kingdom can be disconnected from the eternality of the punishment.


  5. The passage just says (in essence) “the eternal king has arrived and we now have an eternal judgement.” I don’t think we can read too much into the rest of it. Perhaps what is implied here is a descent into Hades. But this is certainly not mentioned explicitly.


  6. Karen, I’m an avid reader of Fr Aiden’s blog. I agree completely that the decision to enter eternal punishment is entirely ours. In no sense should the above post be interpreted to understand God as vindictive or vengeful. Even though Irenaeus appears to use such language, I believe he does so metaphorically. What I wish to do simply is to point out that the condemnation of universalism in John Italus is intimately tied to our understanding of Trinitarian development which will begin in Irenaeus and develop through Maximus. That hell is eternal is not a function of a spiteful God, but is rather a function of our Christological Anthropology.


  7. I think that we must take note of two states of hell and punishment. At present, and from Adam, hell is a temporary state and as such it is possible for those there to be raised out. The resurrection of Christ did exactly this for the righteous. It is possible for sinners in hell now to be redeemed by the prayers of the saints and the Church. However, at the last Day, the Day of Judgement, all time and space is consumed in eternity going beyond time and space and in that state there is no change of the righteous abode nor that of the sinner so they remain in either eternal life or eternal punishment/death. We cannot speak of eternal life without death also being eternal. One does not remain in a state of temporality while the other doesn’t. Christ being the eternal king is what establishes the eternality of the last Judgement/Day and now that He has been manifest and the resurrection has proved that eternity, we are much more liable if we reject Him than those before Him who had no clear manifestation of the possibility of eternal life and freedom from the life trapped in time and death. See Hebrews 6.


  8. Thanks, Nathaniel. I am not a student or teacher of theological history. It simply seemed significant to me, if it is true, that the version of universalism advanced by St. Isaac (and St. Gregory of Nyssa and, I have read, St. Gregory Nanzianzus) is apparently not that which any Council of Bishops rejected. Even in the extract above, John Italus mentions the “pre-existence of souls” which was not espoused by any of those Fathers. With regard to the writings of individual Fathers, they don’t carry the same weight necessarily as that of a Council that takes into account the consensus of the Holy Spirit’s leading of the whole Church. On a certain level, I understand the logic of what is being said by St. Irenaeus and John Italus. On the other hand, from another angle, it doesn’t necessarily follow. What I mean is that it’s clear Christ’s Kingdom being eternal is intrinsic to Who Christ is as God. Punishment, it would seem, in Orthodox understanding (especially following St. Isaac) is intrinsic not to Christ’s eternity, but to sin. My question is can a person’s sin ever have the same kind of eternity as God? I have commented over at Fr. Aidan’s blog that sin, by its very definition, strikes me as being a self-limiting condition.

    Just for the record, I don’t believe that even if hell’s torment is eternal it means that God is actively meting out punishment or is vengeful or vindictive. That concern was put to rest permanently when I became Orthodox. 🙂


  9. Karen,

    While punishment is intrinsic to sin, it is not about sin in itself rather the consequence of sin, which is not accepting God as all in all, and not being united to God and with each other. There is and must be a last Day when time ends because it began and God will then be all in all eternally, which is not everlasting time and change. If we are not freely ready and willing for this to happen at that Day then we exclude ourselves from the communion of eternal life and are left with eternal death. It is not punishment for particular sins per se but the state of the soul regarding its free reception of God in everything that is the issue. The severity of the death will depend on the level of unrepentant sin but no matter how bad a particular sin is, if repentance is true then there is no punishment for this because it no longer affects the state of the soul. The final bond of eternal love and peace for the saints totally overcomes all temporal wrongs in themselves that may have been inflicted between the saints and all sin ceases in eternity.


  10. Thank you, Father. May God grant each to come to repentance before that Day by the prayers of the Holy Theotokos and all the Saints!


  11. Karen, upon further scrutiny I don’t believe either of the Gregory’s actually taught universalism. Nevertheless, even if they did, it is wrapped up in the Origenist problem resolved by St Maximus the confessor. Similarly, St Isaac of Syria does not represent theological canon on this topic in any way. While certain people flock towards his writings on this topic, one must keep in mind that he lived and died in communion with a church that rejected four of the (at least) seven ecumenical councils. I’m not dismissing his saintliness, but I respectfully *do* think his notion of universalism is condemned. Universalism is utterly refuted by St Maximus’ articulation of the gnomic will.

    I do, however, think you are correct in questioning God as the origin of punishment for sin. St Athanasius uses this precise metaphor of punishment exactly to talk about what we do to ourselves when we sin. The punishment of sin (its “wages” to use the language of St Paul) is entirely self-afflicted.

    The key is, I think, the hardening of Pharoah’s heart. This is precisely how we can begin to approach St Maximus. We are quickened to righteousness or unrighteousness by the degree to which we “kick against the pricks.”


  12. Thanks, Nathaniel. I look forward to someday have the opportunity to delve first-hand in some depth into primary sources on these issues, since relying on secondary source interpretation seems inconclusive to me. Some Priests/scholars interpret the Fathers and Councils in one way and others in a different way. For a couple of examples, there are those who treat St. Isaac as fully Orthodox in his theology (and certainly in the sense of his “phronema”) and regard his actual communion in the Nestorian Church as an accident of the history and geography of that point in time. Since, he is officially a Saint (and, from what I understand, an unusually universally esteemed/beloved one at that), within the Orthodox Church, this view obviously carries some weight with me. As another example, I can’t remember where I read this now, but I did once hear/read that some interpret St. Maximus himself as espousing a form of universalism. Of course, in the sense that Orthodox believe that the effects of the redemption and Resurrection of Christ extends not just to the “elect” but to all of humanity (and all of creation)–though for the unrepentant this will be a resurrection of judgment–it could be said that Orthodoxy teaches universalism in this sense. It may be only this sense in which it was meant of St. Maximus as well that he teaches universal “salvation.”

    In any case, I appreciate your engagement of the subject with me. I suspect that even if the upcoming (Lord willing!) pan-Orthodox Council deals with this issue, it will still be left somewhat ambiguous if the work of such as Met. Hilarion (Alfeyev) is any indication. I could be wrong, but that’s my speculation. I’m left wondering if the subject is conclusively answerable this side of eternity and whether it has not been left that way by design by our Creator and Redeemer Himself (Who alone fully understands the needs of every human heart).


Comments are closed.