Learning and credulity are seldom attendants upon the same man through a long life, but they were united in the service of Epiphanius. Born about A. D. 310, in Palestine, he was a student from his youth, and acquired a considerable command of languages and of pious learning. He became devoted to an ascetic life from an early residence in Egypt, and continued in this habit after returning to Palestine, becoming finally president of a monastery. In 367 he was nominated Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus. His zeal was not limited to the defense of the orthodox faith; he must needs root out, so far as he was able, every heresy. In this interest it was that he wrote the work against heresies by which he is now best known. Had this been his only method of opposing error, he might have been remembered by the Church with no other than a kindly regard; but he had conceived such a dislike to Origen, and all who advocated any of his doctrines, that he entered into a virulent quarrel upon this subject, first with John of Jerusalem and then with Chrysostom. In the latter affair, which occurred toward the close of his life, the old man allowed himself to be made a tool by Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, who, jealous of the Bishop of Constantinople, had craftily affixed the red rag of heresy to him and sent the credulous saint stamping and roaring into the very precincts of the imperial court. Coming to Constantinople, Epiphanius was very bitter, and eager to denounce Chrysostom in his own church; but, upon further conference with certain Origenistic monks from Egypt, he found that he was quarreling with good men in the interests of a selfish prelate, and sadly he set out for his home. He died, as it is supposed, before reaching Salamis, about A. D. 402.
His works are characterized by strange crudities of beliefs, no father having given currency to more improbable and absurd legends. We have from him, besides his work against heresies, and an abridgment of the same, "The Anchoratus," or an epitome of the Christian faith, a treatise on Scripture weights and measures, and two letters to John of Jerusalem.
This chief work of Epiphanius is a treatise after the order of the works of Irenseus, Hippolytus; and Tertullian against heresies. It is divided into three books, which are subdivided into sections. The general division of the heresies is into those which sprang up before Christ and those appearing since. Among the former he names the various philosophical schools of the Greeks, and the several sects of the Jews. The earlier heresies of the second class are such as had been treated by the above-named writers of the third century. Of the later ones considered, the most important are those of the Sabellians, the Arians, the semi-Arians, the Pneumatomachians, the Aetians (extreme Arians), and the Apollinarians. Another was the heresy of the Aerians, who, contrary to the usage of the Church, held that there is no difference between bishops and presbyters, both being of the same order and dignity; that the celebration of Easter is a Jewish superstition; that prayers and offerings should not be made for the dead, and that fixed fasts should not be prescribed to Christians. Two others were the errors respectively of the Antidicomarianites who held that Mary had other children after the birth of Christ, and of the Callyridians, who worshiped the Virgin with divine honors. This book has been the subject of no little controversy, treating as it does of doctrines and usages in which the two great branches of the Church differ. The following extracts upon various of these points will be more satisfactory than any attempted definition of Epiphanius's opinions.
On Prayers for the Dead.
"As regards our custom of commemorating the dead, what can be more useful and more reasonable? It is primarily to persuade those who are present that the souls of the dead are living, and that they are not annihilated; secondly, to make it apparent that we have a good hope for those who are dead. Moreover, the prayers serve not alone the living; they are of still more advantage to the dead, although they do not efface all their faults, but are useful for the expiation of some of those which they have committed in this world. We make mention of sinners and of the righteous: of the first, to implore the divine mercy in their behalf; of the righteous, of fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, bishops, anchorites, and all Christians, to distinguish between Jesus Christ and all creatures, and to learn to render to him the worship which is due to him alone, being persuaded that we ought not to make mortal men equal to the Lord, however just and holy they may be." — Haer. 75.
On Repentance after Death.
"But there is no profit of piety or of penitence after death. For Lazarus there does not go to the rich man, neither the rich man to Lazarus. Nor does Abraham send the poor man or point out to him a labor that he may afterward grow rich. Nor does the rich man accomplish what he had proposed, although he appeals to the piety of Abraham with abundant prayers. The garners are sealed, and the time is filled up; the contest is ended, the stadium is empty, the crowns are distributed, the athletes have disposed themselves to rest. And those who have not striven in the contest have no longer the opportunity, and those who have been conquered have been rejected. For all things are complete and perfect when we go out from this life." — Haer. 59.
On the Several Orders of the Clergy.
"Or how can a presbyter be called equal to a bishop? Truly some excessive boldness or ambition has deceived this Aerius. For that he may deceive as well himself as his hearers, he makes this objection: The apostle writes of presbyters and deacons [i.e., as embracing the entire clergy], not of bishops. Also, addressing a bishop, he says, ' Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which thou receivedst through the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.' Then in another place [he says] 'bishops and deacons,' so that bishop seems to be the same as presbyter. But this man being surely ignorant of the lineage of the truth, and not versed in its more recondite history, does not understand that the apostle, while the teaching of Christian truth was yet recent, wrote according to the circumstances; for when now bishops had been constituted, he wrote to bishops and deacons. For frequently the apostles were not able to administer all things. And the work was indeed, at the first, intrusted to presbyters and deacons, by both of whom ecclesiastical affairs are truly able to be administered. Wherefore, when as yet no one appeared worthy of the episcopate, no one was made a bishop in that place. Yet when necessity required, and there was no lack of those who were worthy of the episcopate, then bishops were constituted. But where there was not a great multitude, none could be found who might be made presbyters; wherefore they were limited to a bishop only. Still, there can be no bishop without a deacon. Wherefore, the apostle took care that, for the giving of thanks, deacons should be present with the bishop. Therefore while as yet the Church could not be completed in all its functions, during that time a status arose suited to the several places. Nor, indeed, is there anything which, from its beginning, has been complete in all its parts; but as time passes, with all its opportunities, the arrival at perfection at last occurs." — Haer. 75.
On the Use of Images in Churches.
On a visit to Palestine, Epiphanius's zeal against error had led him to a violent act, of which he speaks as follows: "When I entered into the church of a village of Palestine called Anablatha, I found there a curtain hanging over the door whereon was painted an image like that of Jesus Christ or some saint — for I do not remember whose picture it was. But seeing in the church of Christ the image of a man, contrary to the authority of holy Scripture, I tore it down and gave order to the church-warden to bury some dead body in this curtain, and when they answered me in a murmuring way that if I would tear this curtain I should give them another, I promised to do it, and now I perform my promise." — Letter to John of Jerusalem.
Go to the Tables of Contents of The Post-Nicene Greek Fathers
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