While the earlier writings of Evagrios, containing his collection of instructions from the fathers of the Egyptian desert, are generally traditional, his theology was not. We must caution the reader that Evagrios fell into very severe heresies, for which he was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Countil in A.D.553i. Evagrios is neither a saint nor a father of the Church. He was a philosopher who strayed far from Christianity in his later years.
In later centuries, there had been some question about the extent of the heresies of Evagrios. These questions were resolved by the 1952ii rediscovery of Evagrios' magnum opus, the Gnostic Chapters (Kephaliaia Gnostica) in its original Greek form. Previously, the only known versions were the untrustworthy expurgated Syriac and Armenian translations. With the rediscovery of the uncontaminated Greek edition of the Chapters by the French scholars Antoine and Claire Guillamont, the theological position of Evagrios of Pontos was clarified. The renowned historian Hans urs von Blathasar spoke for most scholars when he said, "Evagrios was more Origenist than Origen himself."
Little is known about the life of Evagrios. He was born in Ivora, Pontus (near the Black Sea), c. 345. He was ordained a deacon by St. Gregory the Theologian, whom he credits with exposing him to philosophy. It was to the Cappadocians that he owed his acquaintance with the ascetical writings of Origin, particularly through their edition of the Philokalia which contained several of the Alexandrian treatises. It was also to them, especially St. Gregory the Theologian, that he owes the Orthodoxy of his Epistula Fidei (381). Evagrios also seems active on the side of the Church during the 2nd Ecumenical Council.
After an affair with a married woman in Constantinople, he fled the city for Jerusalem where he met Patriarch John, Rufinus of Aquileia, Melany the Elder and Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria, all of whom were champions of Origenism. From these individuals he acquired a more proficient knowledge of Origen.
His new friends persuaded Evagrios to take up residence at the great monastery of Kellia in Nitria, Egypt, thirty miles southwest of Alexandria (384). It was largely populated with illiterate monks, several of whom lectured him on the dangers of his great learning. By now he had completely converted to Origenism. He seems also to have met there St. Makarios of Egypt and Makarios of Skete. Less than two decades later, Theophilos repudiated his former Origenism and turned against those monks who continued to espouse it. By then Evagrios was already dead (398).
Evagrios was the first early writer to systematize the teachings of monastic authorities known as "the desert fathers". Despite the repeated and well founded attacks upon his writings for their Origenism and thus Platonism, they produced elements of a spirituality that spread throughout the East and into the West, via St. John Cassian; and from him to St. Benedict of Nursia. Evagrios' earlier and more traditional spiritual insights found their way into major ascetical works of the Orthodox Church, such as the Ladder of St. John of Sinai, the Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac of Nineveh, and the Discourses of Saint Symeon the New Theologian.
At the same time, it is clear that none of these fathers adopted his Origenistic doctrine of God in which the Son or Logos is subordinated to the Father. Nor did they believe that history circles upon itself, recovering all that exists to begin a new age. The ages recycle age after age. This is simply a restating of Origen's apokatastasis or "the restitution of all things." Finally, all of the Fathers, including the Cappadocians rejected the body-soul dualism, which is prominent in Evagrios' Gnostica Kephalaia. He seems to have acquired this anthropology through the study of Origen and Clement of Alexandria; and perhaps, from his contemporary, Didymus the Blind (313-398), who was also a devotee of Origenism/Platonism. The soul/body dualism espoused by Evagrios in his later writings (ones now being endorsed by many of the monastics on Mt. Athos) amount to sheer Gnosticism. This doctrine and the teaching based upon it have been repeatedly condemned by the holy fathers of the Church and by Ecumenical Councils. Nevertheless, these unsober monastics refuse to accept the judgment of the Orthodox Church, and follow their own self-willed path into the heresies of Evarianism, Origenism, other forms of neo-Platonism and sheer Gnosticism.
The fourth century fathers must have been aware of the spread of Origenism through Evagrios and Didymus. Accusations were brought against them by St. Epiphanios of Salamis (Constantia) during his sojourn in Jerusalem in 394. He observed that the monks of Egypt and those of the Nitrian desert were infected with the Origenist heresies which Epiphanios had already condemned in his Panarion in 374 and Ancoratus in 379iii. Criticism of Origenism also fell from the pen of Jerome, who was living in Bethlehem in the early 400s. In various festal epistles and Synodal Letters, Theophilus of Alexandria ( ) extended Jerome's condemnations to include Origen's notion that Christ's reign will come to an end, that the Lord would be crucified again, and that the devil will be restored to glory and reign with Christ, and that the resurrected body will be subject to corruption and final annihilation.
Clearly, Vladimir Lossky was correct when he wrote, "With Origen, Hellenism attempts to creep into the Church."iv That his disciple Evagrios of Pontos was guilty of the same mischief (and sometimes more), a brief examination of his theology, cosmology and anthropology will demonstrate.v
Evagrios abandoned the Orthodoxy of his youth and adopted the cosmogonic-cosmological speculations of Origen. According to Origen, God undertook the creation of the world (cosmogony) by means of the divine Logos. God can have no relationship with matter. God the Father is "the true God," and the Son is the divine logos who is "second God." God the Father alone is Divinity in His own right (autotheos), "the absolute Good" (aplos agathos) and, therefore, transcends the Son.vi In like manner, the Holy Spirit, he asserts, is inferior to the Father and the Son.
Origen insisted that God had no direct contact with matter. He fashioned things indirectly through the Logos. He built the physical world according to divine Ideas or "eternal Archetypes or Forms which composed His Wisdom (see Platon's noetos kosmos). He gave it universal order (cosmology). This theory, Origen took from Philon of Alexandria, who borrowed it from Platon. These Ideas or "Ideal Forms," were models for everything that the Logos made. Inasmuch as God cannot change, He cannot start and stop. Therefore, He could not begin to create the world. He was always "Creator," always "Father" Who always had a Son Who was always creating the world. He formed two worlds — the spiritual and, later, the physical world. These opinions formed the background of Evargios' own doctrines of God, Christ, salvation, the nature of man and his destiny. Unfortunately, Evagrios did not learn from St. Gregory the Theologian, "Attack Platon's Idea and the transmigration of the soul."vii There is no greater proof of his transformation into severe heresy than his Kephalaia Gnostica. For example, like Origen, Evagrios held that God contained the Henad (or, Unity) constituting an ensemble of rational beings (logikoi, or noes as Origen called them). They were pure intellect whose sole purpose was to contemplate or gaze upon God.
Inexplicably these spirits or rational beings looked away from the contemplation of the Eternal Wisdom and the primitive Henad was shattered. This event not only ruptured the unity between God and the created intelligences, but it destroyed the circle of unity and equality which they shared. They fell from the spiritual realm, cooling as it were, becoming "souls" (psychi) and falling into bodies appropriate to their sin (Deph. Gnos. 1, 4, 50, 54). At the same time, the body and soul were not attached, but the fallen logikos formed a duality with the material body that imprisoned it (Kephalaia Gnostica. I, 48). Under these conditions God, who had formerly been their benign Creator, now became a Judge and Governor" (Kephalaia Gnostica. VI, 20).
Not without mercy, God gave the fallen intelligences (men, angels and demons) the opportunity for liberation. While men and angels were inclined to welcome God's generosity, the demons were not. In fact, the latter are determined to prevent men from achieving salvation and recovering the image of God which they had lost with the primordial fall. In order to save man, God sent the Logos to dwell in the visible world, assuming the unfallen spirit of Jesus. In this way, "the spirit of Jesus was united by a supreme participation of the Son of God," wrote Origen.viii As Evagrius expresses it, He is not "co-natural with the Trinity"; or more concisely, He is, as the Word, "co-natural with the Father, because He is also essential knowledge" (Kephalaia Gnostica. VI 39). Some church historians describe his christology as Nestorian, because Evagrios recognizes no necessary link between Christ's "divine" and "human" natures (cf. Kephalaia Gnostica. VI, 16).
Both Origen and Evagrius ignore the traditional understanding of Col.1:18: "And He is the head of the body, the church: Who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might be preeminent." Saint Paul's reference is to the Lord's Resurrection. He is the first person to be resurrected in the flesh, certain proof of the bodily resurrection of men; but in particular the saved will become as He, deified and glorious. Evagrios insists, "In the last judgment of the righteous, it is not the transformation of the bodies that will be made manifest, rather it will make known their destruction" (Kephalaia Gnostica. II:77). Salvation, which is immortality, is for Evagrios escape from the body. Hence, the Cross is the death of the "old man," "cancellation of the Divine sentence", "return to life" (VI:39). There might seem little that is objectionable in these opinions, until we read the words, "the resurrection of the soul" (Kephalaia Gnostica. V:22), that is, the liberation of the logikos or noes from the natural body into a spiritual body, which he says is the first thing that Jesus did after His Death and Resurrection (Kephalaia Gnostica. IV, 24; V, 10).
Alone of all the intelligences, Christ was faithful in His contemplation of the Divine. He, the healer and educator, shows men — or more precisely, the logikoi — the way back to their original innocence. It was against this background that Evagrios describes the ascetical and mystical processes (praktike); the struggle against the devil, control of the imagination, warfare against the eight passions (pride, hate, anger, lust, etc.), the acquisition of dispassion (apatheia), reaching beyond the physical world with spiritual knowledge of gnosis. The logikos or superior element of the self (with its "spiritual body"), having been enlightened by the knowledge (gnosis) of God, the supreme Intelligence, escaping the world and the apokatastasis returns to the primordial unity (the Henad).
Evagrios, like Origen, is certain that intellectual beings enjoy free will; and it is on the strength of this conviction that he postulated the retention of free will after death, that the human soul exercises its freedom for the good. It is the condition of the soul's escape from the body and its incessant transmigration to other bodies (metempsychosis or reincarnation). Salvation, in this heretical version, is not resurrection with the body, but from the body," as Plotinus said. The desire of the saved is return to that union with God whereby they may eternally contemplate His Wisdom. For Evagrios that involves "the timeless transformation of the bodiless (asomaton) (Kephalaia Gnostica. II, 87). He sometimes speaks of a "spiritual body," but it has nothing in common with the "glorified body" upon which St Paul discourses (1Cor.15).
Evagrios follows Origen in interpretation of the Scriptures by allegory. The true meaning of its content is spiritual. Not unlike Christ, the sacred books have a literal (physical) and invisible (spiritual) dimension. Obviously, the latter is what deserves our attention. It is the inner meaning of the New and Old Testaments where the truth is found. It takes the "gnostic" — the dispassionate and enlightened man (usually the monk) — to penetrate their mysteries. For example, the Christ who appeared on Jacob's ladder represents the natural contemplation which leads to unity. The ladder is the means by which the soul transcends the world (Kephalaia Gnostica. IV, 43).
Most Orthodox would not argue with Evagrios' ascetic philosophy but none would agree with its Platonic/Origenist presuppositions. Taking his contempt for anything material, it is understandable that he has little to say about the Holy Mysteries. He makes a few vague references to "eating bread" and "drinking of the chalice", as well as a few allusions to baptismal water, but he never convinces us that his teachings about the Eucharist and Baptism conforms to the understanding of the Church, certainly not in his Kephalaia Gnostica. We are not persuaded, as also in the case of Origen, that he views them as central to our salvation.
In this connection, to, he has little to say about grace. He is much like Origen in this regard. In the Kephalaia Gnostica, he mentions grace but thrice (I, 4,45; II, 6), and that in relation to gnosis His doctrine seems not unlike the doctrine of Pelagius, who thinks of grace as providing only a push, a direction. Evagrios, as the Gnostic heretics of the first and second centuries, is an elitist. Gnosis is a gift to the privileged few. He seems to lift the Christian "gnostic" above the Church. There is good reason that Evagrios of Pontus was condemned by an Ecumenical Council of the Church. The tragedy is that many of our modern monastics and those "eastern rite Episcopalians" in the Orthodox Church do not take seriously the decisions of the holy fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council.
iOn account of the Council's declaration against Origin and the Origenists, Evagrios is not listed in the Great Horologion or any of the Menaia of the Church. There is no icon of him, no temples honouring him, no liturgical Canons to him, no male taking his name. See also C.J. Hefele's A History of the Councils of the Church: 451-680 (vol. 4). Trans. by W.R. Clark. Edinburgh, 1898, pp. 215-230.
iiThe Nestorian and Armenian Churches commemorate Evagrios as a saint (11 February). That his biography appears in the most recent issue of Butler's Lives of the Saints is the result of an editorial error.
iiiHe was indebted to St. Methodios of Olympos for much of his arguments in this work.
ivThe Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, trans. by The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. London, 1957, p.32.
vWhile David Bundy, in his introduction to his 1990 translation of the Kephalaia Gnostica insists, on p. 175, that Evagrios' "intellectual roots were in the tradition of Origen, especially as mediated by the Cappadocians, Melania the Elder and Rufinus", this is hardly tenable, and we cannot accept it. The Cappadocians cannot possible have been the source of his doctrine. St. Gregory of Nyssa is sometimes accused of traits of Origenism, particularly with espousing the apokatastasis (the Hellenic idea of cosmic repetition: the endless recycling of the creation). In fact, St. Gregory never espoused that theory. In any case, one could not accept that the supposed Origenisms in this holy father's works were authentic. As Danielou points out, many of St. Gregory's writings were doctored by Origenists in Alexandria in the seventh century. (See J. Danielou, "L'Apocatastasie chez Saint Gregoire de Nysse," Recherche Science religieuse, XXX (1940), pp.328-347)
viCommentary on John, II:16-33; Contra Celsus V:39; The Principles I, I, 13.
viiTheological Orations I:9.
viiiContra Celsus VI:47
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