Origen’s ἀποκατάστασις: The Question of Satanic Salvation

In this post I will explicate and critically assess Origen’s soteriological views, with a particular focus on his universalism, and the question of whether his understanding of ἀποκατάστασις (apocatastasis) really did entail that even the devil will be saved. It will be argued that Origen’s view of ἀποκατάστασις, once viewed through the lens of his understanding of his doctrine of free will, may not, in fact, entail a universalism which is far-reaching enough to include even the devil himself. Although there has emerged an academic consensus that Origen’s view does involve Satan’s salvation, I submit (and here argued) that whether or not the Devil is saved, for Origen, is to be regarded as a matter of legitimate academic controversy.

It is no exaggeration to say that Origen was perhaps the most highly revered and most innovative of Christian theologians during the whole of the ante-Nicene period. St. Vincent of Lerins, writing in the fifth century, in his Commonitory, notes:

“My belief is, that among many instances of this sort of trial which might be produced, there is not one to be compared with that of Origen, in whom there were many things so excellent, so unique, so admirable, that antecedently any one would readily deem that implicit faith was to be placed all his assertions.”[1]

St. Jerome allegedly said of him that he was “the greatest master of the church after the Apostles.”[2] Yet, the image of Origen as it exists in the religious imagination of Christians is a mixed one, with Martin Luther questioning “whether he was not “doomed to endless torment” for his impiety,”[3] and, of course, Theophilus of Alexandria condemning Origenism in the fifth century at the Synod of Alexandria.[4]

Although the Church did officially offer condemnations of ‘Origenism’ centuries after Origen had passed away, these condemnations do not strictly translate into condemnations of Origen himself, or even a condemnation of Origen’s own beliefs and teachings. The condemnation of a theologian’s teachings does not always entail that the theologian should be regarded as a heretic, as the famous example of St. Thomas Aquinas illustrates. After all, St. Thomas argued against the immaculate conception,[5] and the immaculate conception is today regarded as De Fide by Roman Catholics, but nobody concludes from this that St. Thomas is a heretic. Likewise the implication that condemnations of Origenism, even if they did properly identify views attributable to Origen himself, entail that Origen is a heretic simply can’t go through so easily.

Moreover, there are at least two reasons to be suspicious of the inference from ‘Origenism’ being heretical, to Origen’s being heretical. First, Origen’s name came to be associated with a number of movements and beliefs which Origen would not have identified or associated himself with. For example, the “Arians [had] claimed Origen for their party, followed by the Pelagians and the Nestorians,”[6] and this association of ‘Origenism’ with condemnable views (in the eyes of the Catholic establishment) led to the condemnation of what had become ‘Origenism.’ Origenism, in this way, had departed significantly from Origen himself, being hijacked by those parading themselves as his pupils, but whose views found no solid foundation in his writings.

The second reason this inference should be regarded with skepticism is that, for the most part the matters of which Origen treats had not yet been, in any manifest way, settled by ecclesiastical authority, and Origen may have offered some of his more eyebrow-raising suggestions as merely theologically permissible speculations. Thus, Origen may have put forward his most controversial ideas as mere speculative hypotheses, to be rejected if the authority of the Church should say otherwise. Scholars now widely acknowledge that much of Origen’s work suggests views which were “not intended by Origen to be any more than speculation.”[7] As Lisa R. Holliday rightly observes:

“Here, Origen offered his views on topics about which the church did not have clearly established doctrines. Working within these parameters, Origen speculated about such things as bodily resurrection, the fall, and methods of biblical interpretation. His aims were not to provide definitive answers, but to offer alternatives and possibilities.”[8]

If this is the right way to read Origen’s more provocative and innovative theses, then Origen can be acquitted entirely of the charge of heresy.

Nevertheless, there are elements in Origen’s thinking which give the appearance of being out of step with orthodox theology, such as when he says of baptism that “not all those who are baptized in water are forthwith bathed in the Holy Spirit.”[9] Although he clearly did have a sacramental view of Baptism (and even of Holy Orders), it is not difficult to see why his writings would have been “controversial, even during his own lifetime.”[10] The question of whether, or to what extent, these issues were considered to be settled matters of faith shall have to be left aside, to be investigated elsewhere,[11] in order to allow the focus of the present paper to be on his most controversial doctrine; namely, the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις.

Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating elements of Origen’s thinking is put on display in his doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις, which provides a view of soteriology, eschatology, and freedom. For Origen, “the apocatastasis is both an eschatological and a soteriological event.”[12] By this doctrine Origen is usually understood to imply the universal salvation of all souls, including the Devil’s, and a subscription to a cyclical view of time (or, at least, history) with indefinitely many future ‘falls’ from grace and returns/redemptions of all souls. Origen suggests that “an end or consummation would seem to be an indication of the perfection and completion of things.”[13] He elaborates as follows:

“The end of the world, then, and the final consummation, will take place when every one shall be subjected to punishment for his sins; a time which God alone knows, when He will bestow on each one what he deserves. We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued… What, then, is this “putting under” by which all things must be made subject to Christ? I am of opinion that it is this very subjection by which we also wish to be subject to Him, by which the apostles also were subject, and all the saints who have been followers of Christ.”[14]

Although universalism has been classically rejected by Christian theology, the official condemnation of the doctrine occurring “during the Second Council of Constantinople – the Fifth General Council of the Church- which Justinian convened in the year 553 [AD],”[15] it has come back in vogue in recent times. John Hick, for instance, has developed what he has called an Irenaean theodicy[16] (which may owe more to Origen than to Irenaeus), and although Origen doesn’t present the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις as a theodicy, there is a possible rapprochement to Origen in Hick’s programme. Hans Urs von Balthasar has developed and defended an ‘existential’ universalism,[17] and figures in the emergent church, like Rob Bell, have jumped onto the new universalist bandwagon.[18] This trend makes a careful examination of Origen’s theology all the more pertinent for contemporary theology.

Origen’s doctrine, of course, does not proceed from a theological or ideological vacuum. Indeed, there are some passages in scripture which catalyze, if not foreshadow or justify, the development of this doctrine, such as Acts 3:21, which mentions “the time of universal restoration [ἀποκατάστασις] that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”[19] Although “Origen’s was the name destined to be associated with “apocatastasis””[20] the doctrine, including “Satan’s possible restoration to grace… begins properly with St. Clement of Alexandria.”[21] In fact, Origen is far from the only figure to have (allegedly) entertained the speculative belief in universal salvation, as it was apparently shared by Didymus of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and even St. John Chrysostom.[22] Origen, it would seem, was not alone.

The scholar Ilaria L.E. Ramelli has also suggested that the roots of this doctrine can be found among many early Christian apocryphal writings with which Origen had some familiarity, including the so-called Apocalypses of Peter and Elijah, the Life of Adam and Eve, the Sibylline Oracles, and the Epistula Apostolorum.[23] Some of these texts may have even been considered, by Origen, to be either inspired or at least authoritative.[24]  The Apocalypse of Peter, in particular, contains an interesting passage which goes as follows:

“I shall grant to my summoned and elect all those whom they ask me to remove from punishment … And I shall grant them a beautiful baptism in salvation… in the Acherusian Lake, which is said to be in the Elysian valley, a sharing of justice and justification with my saints…”[25]

Thus the theological roots for the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις were already present in sources with which Origen was familiar and likely considered authoritative.

There is no question that the impetus was there for Origen to develop a doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις, but the question of whether Origen really believed or affirmed, even as a matter of speculation, that the Devil would also be redeemed is not so easily answered. Origen’s eschatological and soteriological framework seems to require it because it entails both that the Devil be capable of repentance, and that ‘every knee will bow,’ and God will become ‘all in all.’

At the same time, some scholars have insisted that Origen, who “mentions the devil mostly in passing, with little elaboration,”[26] would have indignantly protested against the charge that his doctrine bound him to the conclusion that the Devil would be saved;

“… there can be no question about whether or not Origen intended to propose salvation for the devil: he himself said that such a claim was madness. [Rufinus, Adult 6,8-14 (SC 464)].”[27]

How can one make sense of Origen’s (alleged) denial of Satan’s salvation in light of the premise of ἀποκατάστασις as he outlines it?

In order to establish to what extent Origen actually adopted the doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις as applied to Satan, one needs to turn to Origen’s writings themselves. The most important writing left by Origen which gives insight into his thinking on this questions is his infamous work Περί αρχών (pronounced Peri Archon), sometimes also referred to by its Latin title De Principiis, (both of which translate to ‘on first principles’). Some brief preliminary notes about the problems involved with interpreting this text should be mentioned.

The text itself has been transmitted down to us primarily through Rufinus of Aquileia’s Latin translation, and not in the original Greek. Furthermore, Rufinus not only “admittedly altered the text,”[28] possibly in an attempt to “make [Origen] more palatable to Latin theologians,”[29] (an observation which has led most scholars to presume that his insistence that Origen never taught ‘satanic-salvation’ is nothing short of a brazen lie) but also “made many subtle changes”[30] and “overlooked the technical terminology that Origen employed.”[31] The overall effect has not only been to obscure the text’s clarity on finer soteriological and eschatological points, but to fuel the suspicion that the text as we have received it presents “potential inconsistencies.”[32] Thus;

“(De principis), the work in which he deals with “apocatastasis,” survives largely in the inadequate translation of Rufinus of Aquileia, who elected to alter a number of Origen’s controversial views in an attempt to make him more palatable to Latin theologians.”[33]

Perhaps the most significant problem, however, is that Origen never makes an explicit and unambiguous statement about the salvation of the devil. Furthermore, De Principiis, is also riddled with ambiguities and lends itself easily to alternative interpretations. Prior to the sixth chapter of Book I, where he fleshes out his doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις in some detail (as has already been seen), he also says things which, on their face, seem to contradict universalism. For instance;

“It is recorded that God spoke thus, as of undeserving men and sinners: “My Spirit shall not abide with those men for ever, because they are flesh.” By which, it is clearly shown that the Spirit of God is taken away from all who are unworthy…”[34]


“will take up His dwelling, not in all men, nor in those who are flesh, but in those whose land has been renewed.” [35]

In order to evaluate the consistency of Origen’s position, it is necessary to explore, briefly, Origen’s view of freedom. Although he is writing against a backdrop of multiple and evolving philosophical traditions ranging from Stoicism to Aristotelianism, Origen actually develops a philosophically novel account of freedom. This account begins with the distinction of two key philosophical terms; first αὐτεξούσιον, which is, for Origen, “an imperfect reflection of God’s power,”[36] and signifies merely the innate, raw ability to choose arbitrarily, and second ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν, which is “an extension of αὐτεξούσιον”[37] and signifies the power to move oneself toward an end (whether good or evil) in response to choosing to (αὐτεξούσιον).

Although one can never lose one’s αὐτεξούσιον, one’s ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν can be helped or hindered with respect to its ability to recognize and move one toward the good on the basis of a habitual acquisition of virtues and/or vices. As one chooses to act in a morally virtuous way, one’s αὐτεξούσιον with respect to the good remains the same, but one’s ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν changes. In short, αὐτεξούσιον refers to the ability to choose in principle, and ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν refers to the ability to act in fact (or, alternatively, it refers to the facility with which one can act virtuously). Thus “Origen’s view of volition is a process: man has the power (αὐτεξούσιον) to choose actions based on whether they are virtuous or not and [then] act accordingly (ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν).”[38]

It is with this two-tiered view of freedom in mind that one can, despite the accusations that his system either entails or allows for the salvation of the devil, make sense of Origen’s protestations to the contrary. Origen, in fact, draws a parallel between Satan and Christ;

“In the PArch there are two instances of souls that are unique in that they do not follow the cycle of progression and regression, but remain in a fixed position. The souls of Christ and Satan, though polar opposites, do not fit into the schema Origen establishes for all other beings.”[39]

Although the Devil is looked upon as evil, and perhaps even the most evil thing in all creation, it is worth noting that, like Augustine after him, Origen maintains that “evil, in and of itself, does not have a substantial reality… [and] Origen defines it as the absence of good.”[40] The devil, therefore, is clearly not essentially or substantially evil, on Origen’s view, but is evil by reason of his own exercise of free will. Since all souls (i.e., intellectual beings) pre-exist their (re-)incarnation, and, on Origen’s view, have a freedom of the will, some have inevitably turned further away from God than others, and the intellects which fell furthest from God are “powers, demons and lastly, the devil.”[41] In fact, Origen maintains that to claim that Satan is evil by his very nature, and acts according to the compulsion of his essence qua evil being, would “remove the responsibility for evil.”[42] Satan could not, therefore, be justly punished at all, or held in contempt of any kind, and these conclusions were rejected by Origen.

If Satan was not evil by nature, however, then it seems as though Satan would have to have αὐτεξούσιον in principle. This is probably the right way to understand how Origen intended to qualify the belief that Satan could be redeemed. In fact, Origen draws an analogy from Christ himself, whom he says has “the ability [to sin], but not the desire to choose evil.”[43] Just as Christ had the αὐτεξούσιον to sin, but did not have the ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν to sin, so Origen may have thought that Satan had the αὐτεξούσιον to humble himself before God and accept redemption, but did not and would not in fact have the ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν to do so. Thus, one can see clearly how to make sense of Origen’s claims that he did not accept Satan’s salvation in fact, and yet accepted Satan’s possible salvation. How, though, could this be made consistent with Origen’s blanket statement that God will be all in all? I think the most plausible answer has to be that the way in which God brings Satan into subjugation to himself is qualitatively different, for Origen, than the way God brings any other being into subjugation.

How plausible is this reading of Origen? There is already reason for being suspicious of Rufinus’ protestations against the accusation that Origen taught the salvation of the devil, given his treatment of Origen’s works and his motivation for making Origen palatable. However, this suspicion cannot definitively settle the matter of whether Origen did, or did not, believe in the Devil’s redemption. I can imagine somebody suggesting that, since Origen’s predecessor (as leader of the Catechetical school of Alexandria) Clement of Alexandria believed in the salvation of the devil, Origen plausibly did as well, but it is a mistake to put it past Origen to be original and innovative. It is entirely possible that Origen was introduced to the doctrine through the influence of Clement, but that he then transformed it in an interesting way. Moreover, considering the lack of clear textual evidence committing Origen to the Devil’s salvation, and some of his comments (which preclude the salvation of Christ, for instance – for one cannot be saved if one is never lost) mentioned earlier, it should be regarded as an open question whether Origen really did believe in a universalism so far-reaching that it included the devil.

In conclusion, we have seen that although Origen’s doctrine of ἀποκατάστασις was developed in a milieu which may have encouraged and/or excused his application of universal salvation to Satan, his doctrine of free will, combined with the other considerations raised in this article, lend significant support to the hypothesis that he found a way to secure belief in the possibility of Satan’s salvation, but rejected its actuality. He could have made sense of this precisely by appealing to his categories of αὐτεξούσιον and ἐφʹ ᾑμῖν.

[1] St. Vincent of Lerins, “Commonitory,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11. ed. by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. by C.A. Heurtley, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3506.htm

[2] Fred Gladstone Bratton, “Origen, The First Christian Liberal,” in Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 141.

[3] Fred Gladstone Bratton, “Origen, The First Christian Liberal,” in Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 141.

[4] Chrysostom Baur, “Theophilus” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 14. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), accessed 29 Jan. 2016 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14625b.htm.

[5] (ST III, q.27, a.1-2).

[6] Fred Gladstone Bratton, “Origen, The First Christian Liberal,” in Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 141.

[7] Celia E. Rabinowitz, “Personal and Cosmic Salvation in Origen,” in Vigiliae Christianae (1984): 319.

[8] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 1.

[9] Homilies; on Numbers III:I. taken from Fred Gladstone Bratton, “Origen, The First Christian Liberal,” in Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 140.

[10] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 1.

[11] I wrote another paper examining Origen’s ecclesiology and how it connects with his distinction between settled matters of faith and matters which have been left open (where speculation is welcome and legitimate).

[12] Celia E. Rabinowitz, “Personal and Cosmic Salvation in Origen,” in Vigiliae Christianae (1984): 321.

[13] Origen, De Principiis, Ch. VI, Paragraph 1

[14] Origen, De Principiis, Ch. VI, Paragraph 1

[15] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 469.

[16] Hick, John. “Evil and the God of Love.” (1966).

[17] Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Dare We Hope: “that All Men be Saved”?; With, A Short Discourse on Hell. Ignatius Press, 1988.

[18] Bell, Rob. “Love Wins: A Book AboutHeaven, Hell, and the Fate ofEvery Person Who Ever Lived.” (2011).

[19] NRSV Acts 3:21

[20] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 467.

[21] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 467.

[22] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 469-70.

[23] Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “Origen, Bardaiṣan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation,” in Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 02 (2009): 136.

[24] Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “Origen, Bardaiṣan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation,” in Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 02 (2009): 138-9.

[25] See Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “Origen, Bardaiṣan, and the Origin of Universal Salvation,” in Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 02 (2009): 140.

[26] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 3.

[27] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 3.

[28] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 4.

[29] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 468.

[30] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 4.

[31] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 4.

[32] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 4.

[33] Constantinos A. Patrides, “The Salvation of Satan,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 468.

[34] Origen, De Principiis, Book I, Ch. III, Paragraph 7.

[35] Origen, De Principiis, Book I, Ch. III, Paragraph 7.

[36] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 13.

[37] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 12.

[38] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 14.

[39] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 17.

[40] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 16.

[41] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 16.

[42] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 16.

[43] Lisa R. Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 18.


Bettis, Joseph Dabney. “A Critique of the Doctrine of Universal Salvation.” Religious Studies 6, no. 04 (1970): 329-344.

Bratton, Fred Gladstone. “Origen, The First Christian Liberal.” Journal of Bible and Religion (1940): 137-141.

Hick, John. “Freedom and the Irenaean Theodicy Again.” The Journal of Theological Studies (1970): 419-422.

Holliday, Lisa R. “Will Satan Be Saved? Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon.” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1 (2009): 1-23.

Jackson, B. Darrell. “Sources of Origen’s doctrine of freedom.” Church History (1966): 13-23.

Patrides, Constantinos A. “The salvation of Satan.” Journal of the History of Ideas (1967): 467-478.

Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. “Origen, Bardaiṣan, and the origin of universal salvation.” Harvard Theological Review 102, no. 02 (2009): 135-168.

Rabinowitz, Celia E. “Personal and Cosmic Salvation in Origen.” Vigiliae Christianae (1984): 319-329.

Scott, Mark SM. “Suffering and Soul‐Making: Rethinking John Hick’s Theodicy.” The Journal of Religion 90, no. 3 (2010): 313-334.

Spinka, Matthew. “Berdyaev and Origen: A Comparison.” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 16, no. 01 (1947): 3-21.

Surlis, Paul. “Heaven, Hell and Zero Tolerance: Continuing the Discussion.” The Furrow (2004): 367-370.


Islam and the Trinity

There is a quote popularly (and falsely) attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo which runs as follows:

“If you deny the trinity you lose your soul, if you try to explain the trinity you shall lose your mind,”

Of course Augustine never said this (in fact, the earliest reference I can find to anybody saying it is in the mid 20th century,[1] and even this does not contain these words verbatim). Many well meaning Muslims, in engaging with Christians, have used this quotation (falsely attributing it to Augustine) when discussing the doctrine of the Trinity. Since I’m reviewing the doctrine for my upcoming exams, I thought I might take a moment to write a short post about why adopting this rhetoric is imprudent on the part of Muslims who wish to object responsibly to Christianity. Most Muslims disbelieve in the Trinity for two complementary reasons: (1) the doctrine is (allegedly) incompatible with monotheism (or, at least, those who believe it commit shirk), and (2) the Qur’an and sacred sources for Islamic doctrine (allegedly) explicitly reject, and/or are implicitly incompatible with, the doctrine of the Trinity. I do not think that either reason can stand up to serious scrutiny.

The first thing to note, in defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, is that it is not flatly contradictory. Christians are careful to distinguish the predicates ‘being’ (or ‘essence’ or ‘nature’) and ‘person,’ and consistently affirm that God is one being, while being three persons. This distinction alone is enough to guarantee the narrowly-logical possibility of the doctrine (as opposed to the broadly-logical or ‘metaphysical’ possibility). To put it somewhat formally, ∼(Bx⊃∼Tx) where B stands for ‘is one being’ and T stands for ‘is three persons.’ There is no strict contradiction in affirming that x is multiple beings and one person, or in affirming that x is one being and one person, or in affirming that x is one being and multiple persons. In order to argue that the latter claim is metaphysically impossible one must do a bit more work than merely expressing one’s incredulity; it will, in fact, have to be established that ‘if x is one being, then x is at most one person.’ It is, however, hard to see how to establish this, and it is not philosophically impressive to merely appeal to raw intuitions (that’s not to say it’s philosophically illegitimate, but just that it isn’t likely to persuade Christians).

Can the Christian do any better than appealing to her intuitions, or, perhaps, eschewing some of her intuitions in the interest of preserving her faith? I think so. In fact, in order to support the metaphysical possibility of the Trinity the Christian can appeal to its conceptual possibility. In other words, in order to provide respectable grounds for affirming the metaphysical possibility of the doctrine of the Trinity it plausibly suffices to demonstrate its conceptual possibility, which will, in turn, be satisfied just in case there is a logically possible world in which a single being is more than one person. This, however, is trivially easy; some social Trinitarians, like William Lane Craig, use the example of Cerberus[2] (the three headed dog from Greek mythology standing guard at the gates of the underworld – or, for Harry Potter fans, Hagrid’s pet ‘Fluffy’ guarding the entrance to the world underneath Hogwarts). Clearly Cerberus exists in a logically possible world, and if his three centers of consciousness can (logically possibly) qualify as persons then Cerberus’ conceptual possibility is enough to justify inferring the metaphysical possibility of a single tri-personal being. I am not here endorsing Craig’s (or anyone’s) social trinitarianism, but borrowing his illustration to make a point about the conceptual possibility of the doctrine of the Trinity, which lends support to the belief that the doctrine is metaphysically possible.

Once it has been established that the Trinity does not strictly and logically entail tri-theism (or anything else logically incompatible with monotheism), Christians can justify their belief in the doctrine’s truth on a number of grounds. They can appeal to arguments for thinking that Christianity is true, or that the revelation in the Bible is trustworthy, and reasons like that. This is a tactic to which the Muslim should, I think, be sympathetic; after all, if the Qur’an taught the doctrine of the Trinity Muslims would (probably) faithfully believe it, precisely because they trust God, and they trust that the Qur’an is a reliable source of revelation. Thus, even if Christians are wrong about the Trinity, Muslims should be able to sympathize with their reasons for accepting that the Trinity is true.

Christians can go further than this, however, and follow the example of Tertullian in affirming that “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est” (roughly: “it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd”[3]). The idea here is that the doctrine of the Trinity is prima facie absurd, and it is absurd in precisely the way we would never expect of a man-made religious doctrine. Man-made religions are naturally made to be palatable to their original audiences (thus, to use Mormonism as an example, it is not very surprising that Mormonism democratizes divinity by distributing it among indefinitely many of us given that Mormonism came from a time and place where democracy was highly regarded). Christianity, coming from the bosom of first-century Judaism, and deeply acquainted with the world of Hellenistic philosophy since its nascency, had no impetus for manufacturing such a jarring doctrine, and plenty of impetus for rejecting it. There was, in fact, an incredible amount of pressure for the Church to reform her view, and many ways of explaining the Trinity have cropped up which looked philosophically consistent (eg. Sabellianism, Patripassianism, Adoptionism, etc.), but were nevertheless deemed heretical. Christianity’s insistence upon this counter-intuitive doctrine, especially while it regarded human reason as highly valuable, is extremely difficult to explain on the assumption that Christianity was (or became) a man-made credo. Moreover, Christians often argue that we should expect God’s nature, being so radically far removed from our own (or the nature of any created thing with which we are acquainted), to be hard or impossible for us to fully grasp (see Surah 23:92). We ought to expect God’s nature to be paradoxical, but not contradictory – and this balance is nowhere better achieved than in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the kind of thing anyone would have made up, it is precisely the kind of thing man naturally wants to break into comprehensible bits – and this is precisely what should have happened on the assumption that Christianity has evolved without the oversight of the Holy Spirit. The Christian can find, in these considerations, a solid basis on which to sensibly say credo quia absurdum.

The Christian could add to these reasons by appealing to epistemological accounts of warrant which might justify belief in the Trinity on the basis of its being properly basic, or they might try to give some a priori or a posteriori arguments for the Trinity (such as I’ve done elsewhere).[4] However, let’s not belabour this point – suffice it to say that Christians have some grounds for their belief in the Trinity to which Muslims ought to be sympathetic, regardless of whether they find those grounds entirely acceptable. Clearly belief in the Trinity is not incompatible with a commitment to monotheism; the Trinity does not entail the negation of monotheism, and belief in the Trinity does not psychologically commit one either to denying or failing to affirm monotheism.

Is it true that the Qur’an (or Hadith, or Sunnah) explicitly reject the Trinity? Not quite. Typically, the following passages are cited:

“They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them.” (Surah 5:73, trans. Yusufali)

“Allah has not taken any son, nor has there ever been with Him any deity. [If there had been], then each deity would have taken what it created, and some of them would have sought to overcome others. Exalted is Allah above what they describe [concerning Him].” (Surah 23:91)

“People of the Book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word, directed to Mary, a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity’—stop, that is better for you—God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust.” (Surah 4:171).

“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.” (Surah 112:1-4).

It is imperative to keep in mind that while the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are joined at the hip in Christian theology, neither doctrine strictly logically implies the other. The Trinity could be true while the incarnation false, and vice-versa. Therefore, verses attacking the doctrine of the incarnation can be set to one side. Nevertheless, it still looks pretty damning for the doctrine of the Trinity, but here is a surprising reason to think it isn’t as bad as it appears; in Surah Al-Ma’idah we find the following passage:

“And behold! Allah will say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah’?”…” (Surah 5:116)

This verse puts all of the other verses into sharper historical and theological perspective. It is the only place in the Qur’an where the doctrine of the trinity being condemned is actually outlined. Oddly, this doctrine looks nothing like the Catholic/orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in which Christians believe. One hypothesis invoked to explain this oddity appeals to the heretical beliefs of the Collyridians.[5] What we know about the Collyridians isn’t extensive, and comes exclusively from Epiphanius of Salamis. We do, however, know that they worshipped (rather than merely venerated) Mary, treating her as a goddess, and that they were chiefly located in the Arabian Peninsula. Although there is controversy about whether the group existed at the time of Muhammad (though we do know it existed in the 4th and 5th centuries), some have speculated that Muhammad became acquainted with their belief in the deity of Mary (either through immediate acquaintance, or through oral (or written) traditions he may have come in contact with). We do know that Muhammad had some familiarity with other gnostic groups and/or traditions (as evidenced, for instance, in the examples of the parallels between Surah 3:46-49, Surah 19:28-34, Surah 5:110, the Arabic ‘Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,’ and the ‘Gospel of Thomas the Israelite’[6]), so it is entirely possible that Muhammad was exposed to the Collyridian doctrine and, under its influence, misunderstood the doctrine of the trinity.

If the Collyridian worship of Mary is what led to this confusion in the Qur’an (i.e., that the trinity consists of ‘God, Jesus and Mary’) then the statements in the Qur’an condemning the trinity it refers to come nowhere near offering a condemnation for the authentically Christian doctrine. In fact, whatever led to the confusion, the trinity being imagined in the pages of the Qur’an is obviously nothing like the Christian doctrine. First, God cannot be part of the Trinity, for the whole Trinity is God. Second Mary is nowhere ever considered part of the Trinity in Catholic/orthodox doctrine, nor has she ever been at any time. So even if the Collyridian heretics aren’t to blame, the Qur’an’s view of the trinity is not even in the same neighborhood as the Christian doctrine.

Although some sources have argued that something like the doctrine of the Trinity is implied in the Qur’an (e.g., because Allah constantly uses the first person plural attributing a plurality to himself, and for other reasons),[7] I do not think that these arguments are very good. However, I do think that their very existence helps to reinforce the more general point that the Qur’an is not strictly opposed to the (Catholic) doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, even if the Qur’an doesn’t commit Muslims to anything like the Trinity, nothing about it is incompatible with the doctrine – indeed, strictly speaking, Islam and the (genuine) doctrine of the Trinity could both be true.

Finally, the Qur’an continually distinguishes Christians from polytheists, but this is difficult to make any sense of if the doctrine of the Trinity implies tri-theism. Christians are never even referred to as Mushrik or mušrikūn (مشركون)(those who commit the sin of Shirk) in the Qur’an. The Qur’an itself, therefore, assumes that Christians (people of the book, or ′Ahl al-Kitāb) are monotheists even though they believe in the Trinity, and thus that their form of Trinitarianism (even if wrong) is not, when properly understood, logically incompatible with monotheism.

Recall that Surah al-Ankabut says: “Do no argue with the people of the Book except in what is better… and say we believed in what was sent down to us and to you, and our God and your God is the same, is one” (Surah 29:46). Thus, the Christian doctrine of God (as trinity) is not so at odds with the teaching of Muhammad that he couldn’t declare the Christian God and the Muslim God to be the very same. Either the final words ‘is one’ mean ‘are both identical’ or it literally means that the Christian God ‘is [essentially] one,’ either of which vindicates (or excuses) the Trinitarian doctrine. Even on the assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity is wrong, if even the Qur’an excuses this belief, so too should Muslims.

In conclusion, taking all these points into consideration I think it is reasonable to maintain that Muslims ought to be more sympathetic towards the Christian belief in the Trinity than they typically are.

[1] Harold Lindsell and Charles J. Woodbridge, A Handbook of Christian Truth, (Westwood, NJ: F. H. Revell, 1953), pp. 51-52. I owe this reference to: http://scriptoriumdaily.com/who-said-the-trinity-try-to-understand-it-and-youll-lose-your-mind/

[2] William Lane Craig, “Toward a Tenable Social Trinitarianism,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 98.

[3] Tertullian, De Carne Christi, chapter 5. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0315.htm

[4] See: https://tylerjourneauxgraham.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/three-trinitarian-theses/

[5] See: https://www.ewtn.com/library/HOMELIBR/COLLYRID.TXT, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collyridianism

[6] See: http://www.answering-islam.org/Quran/Sources/cradle.html

[7] See http://www.the-good-way.com/eng/books/7830/format-xml,

Brief Reflections on the Condemnations of 1277

Among the 219 condemnations issued in 1277[1] at the Université de Paris, we find the following one:

“91. That there has already been an infinite number of revolutions of the heaven, which it is impossible for the created intellect but not for the first cause to comprehend”[2]

This is extremely interesting, for it appears to endorse a key controversial premise of the Kalam cosmological argument with which such thinkers as St. Thomas Aquinas disagreed; namely, that the universe cannot have an infinitely long history. While Aquinas believed in creatio ex nihilo a finite amount of time ago, he thought this to be an article of faith which reason, left to its own devices, could never strictly establish.

However, Aquinas cannot be accused of committing himself to this condemned article, for (i) the article only condemns the proposition that there have been (and not that there ‘could have been’) infinitely many revolutions of the heavens, and(/or) (ii), more precisely, that there has been an infinite number of revolutions which (a) is impossible for the created intellect to comprehend, and (b) is not impossible for the first cause to comprehend. Thus, if one maintained that there were an infinite number of revolutions which the created intellect could possibly comprehend one could have avoided the charge of being committed to the view condemned in the 91st article of condemnations issued in 1277 (in letter if not in spirit).

Article 191 comes closer to posing a problem for Aquinas (or, since he passed away in 1274, for his reputation and doctrines):

“191. That the natural philosopher has to deny absolutely the newness of the world because he bases himself on natural causes and natural reasons, whereas the faithful can deny the eternity of the world because he bases himself on supernatural causes.”[3]

Yet even this fails to proscribe Aquinas’ doctrine, for Aquinas allowed the philosopher to believe in the newness of the world by arguing that no argument could demonstrate the impossibility of such a position, even if no argument could establish its truth. Interestingly, at least some of Thomas Aquinas’ own doctrines were thought to conflict with at least some of the condemnations issued on the list (I do not know which ones), and the Church apparently annulled these after this was discovered.[4]

Also interesting, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

“…hence it was that the theologians of Paris declared erroneous the opinion maintaining that God Himself could not give the entire universe a rectilinear motion, as the universe would then leave a vacuum behind it, and also declared false the notion that God could not create several worlds.”[5]

So, it was declared that God could have created multiple worlds, and it was also implied that God could have created an aether (or any physical analogue which would account for absolute motion). This has interesting implications for the intersection of Catholic theology and the philosophy of physics, implying that even if the Einsteinian or Minkowskian interpretations of relativity are correct (insofar as they dispense with the aether), something like the neo-Lorentzian interpretation could have been correct (i.e., is correct in some logically possible world). I’m not sure about this because if we accept that the neo-Lorentzian interpretation of relativity logically entails an A-theory of time then Catholicism (or, at least, this list of condemnations) commits me (and others) to the view that there is at least one logically possible world in which the A-theory is true, so it better not turn out that the A-theory conflicts logically with doctrines like God’s simplicity or immutability (for those properties are not contingent). Maybe there’s some way to wiggle out of this, but I’m not very confident of any of the attempts to do so with which I have become familiar (e.g., can there really be an aether without a preferred reference frame?).

It is worth noting that I’m not entirely sure how much authority these condemnations carry. After all, some of them were annulled, which indicates to me that they clearly didn’t require the assent of faith, nor is it reasonable to assume that they required religious assent (which is an extension of the assent of faith). Indeed, these condemnations were not issued with full papal authority, but issued instead by the (at the time) Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, and issued on his own authority (and not Pope John XXI’s). It is true that Tempier was instructed by the Pope to investigate the matter of controversies rocking the world of academic theology at the time, and that those whose teaching was found to be condemned by any of the articles were excommunicated – but these amount to mere practices. They are possible (and harsh) configurations of canon law with no direct and perspicuous implications for Catholic dogma.

That concludes my register of thoughts and initial reactions to this list of condemnations, only recently made known to me. I will conclude, somewhat self-deprecatingly, with the first two condemned articles, just as a reminder to myself (and others like me):

 “1. That there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy.
2. That the only wise men in the world are the philosophers.”[6]

[1] According to the preface translated here: http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/blackwell-proofs/MP_C22.pdf these condemnations were issued in 1276. Is it possible I’m confusing one list of condemnations with a different list?

[2] http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/blackwell-proofs/MP_C22.pdf

[3] http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/blackwell-proofs/MP_C22.pdf

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condemnations_of_1210%E2%80%931277#Condemnation_of_1277

[5] Pierre Duhem, “History of Physics,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 12., (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), accessed June 20, 2016. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12047a.htm

[6] http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/blackwell-proofs/MP_C22.pdf