When first presented with the universalist hope, many Orthodox and Roman Catholics immediately invoke the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.” Over the past two centuries, however, historians have seriously questioned whether these anathemas were ever officially promulgated by II Constantinople. The council was convened by the Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of condemning the Three Chapters. Not only does Justinian not mention the apokatastasis debate in his letter to the council bishops, but the Acts of the council neither cite the fifteen anathemas nor record any discussion of them. Hence when church historian Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils in 1990, he did not include the anti-Origenist denunciations, offering the following explanation: “Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council” (I:106).
Who then wrote the anathemas and when? Over the past century different hypotheses have been advanced, but historians appear to have settled on the following scenario, first proposed by Wilhelm Diekamp in 1899 and more recently advanced by Richard Price: the Emperor Justinian and his theological advisors composed the anathemas and then submitted them to the bishops for “approval” before the council formally convened on 5 May 553. We do not know how long before the council this meeting took place (hours? days? weeks? months?) nor who attended nor whether there was any actual discussion of the anathemas. One thing is clear—the Emperor wanted the anathemas cloaked with conciliar authority. A decade earlier he had denounced apokatastasis in an epistle to Patriarch Menas. Regardless of the origin of the 15 anathemas, we may confidently affirm that the Fifth Ecumenical Council did not formally publish them. The burden of historical proof now lies with those who maintain that the Council Fathers officially and authoritatively promulgated the anti-Origenist anathemas.
But let’s hypothetically assume that the Council did publish the fifteen anathemas. There would still remain the challenge of interpretation. Not all universalisms are the same. Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement or the Incarnation, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the universalist hope. The apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, differs in critical ways from the sixth-century theories against which the anathemas were directed. The latter appear to have belonged to an esoteric metaphysical system set loose from the Scriptures, as even a cursory reading reveals. The chasm between the two is enormous. Scholar Augustine Casiday suggests that we need to think of the anti-Origenist anathemas as the rejection of this system as a whole, each anathema denouncing one of its particulars (private email correspondence). Met Kallistos Ware made a similar point in 1998: