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The Phantom Heresy: Did the Council of Ephesus (431) Condemn Chiliasm?

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One popular Catholic apologetic resource states, “As far as the millennium goes, we [Catholics] tend to agree with Augustine and, derivatively, with the amillennialists… . In the 1940s the Holy Office judged that premillennialism ‘cannot safely be taught,’ though the Church has not dogmatically defined this issue.”1 On the other hand, one writer commenting on the history of millennial thought notes, “Following Augustine, the Church had long believed that the reign of the saints foretold by Revelation was already in operation through its own good offices, and shown little enthusiasm for the idea that Christ would return imminently to set up an earthly kingdom: indeed, the Council of Ephesus declared such a belief heretical in 431.”2 The problem here should be immediately evident. Did the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 condemn Chiliasm as heresy or not? Surely, the truth of the matter must lie somewhere between “the Church has not dogmatically defined this issue” and “the Council of Ephesus declared such a belief heretical.”

The Phantom Heresy: Two Traditions

The student of the history of millennialism will soon learn that two separate traditions regarding this issue are currently being propounded. The oldest tradition of writers on the history of millennialism appears to be ignorant of any alleged condemnation of Chiliasm in any official and dogmatic capacity in early Christian history.3 Any mention of an official condemnation at the Council of Ephesus is conspicuously missing from what appear to be otherwise thorough works on the history of millennialism.4 Although D. T. Taylor suggests that Pope Damasus “formally denounced Chiliasm” at Rome in A.D. 373, he refers to no condemnation by the third ecumenical council.5 Likewise, D. H. Kromminga makes no mention of the alleged condemnation in his standard work on millennialism, but rather describes a “gradual subsidence of chiliasm in the ancient church,” and writes, “Of suppressive efforts against chiliasm no trace appears.”6 C. Cooper notes, “From the third to the fifth centuries Chiliasm was vigorously fought and ruthlessly put down, although it was not officially declared a heresy. It was all really rather awkward, because previously nearly everybody of note had been a Chiliast… . Between Chiliasm and the charge of heresy stands the canonization of Justin the Martyr and Irenaeus.”7 In another work on the history of millenarianism, under a subsection entitled “The Church Turns Against Millenarians,” Michael St. Clair makes no indication of any condemnation at the Council of Ephesus.8 Finally, Frederic J. Baumgartner appears to be in utter ignorance of any official condemnation at Ephesus when he writes, “The solution to millennial anxiety offered by Augustine of Hippo quickly became the accepted one for Latin Christianity, while by 400, for the Greek Church, more concerned with disputes over Christ’s nature, the absence of Donatism reduced the sense of millennial urgency.”9

On the other hand, a newer tradition, since the late 1950s, alleges that the third ecumenical council of Ephesus did, in fact condemn millennialism in some fashion. Norman Cohn writes, “This [view of Augustine] at once became orthodox doctrine, and so definitively that in 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned belief in the Millennium as a superstitious aberration.”10 Similarly, Robert Clouse states, “This doctrine [of Augustine] was so fully accepted that at the Council of Ephesus in 431, belief in the millennium was condemned as superstition.”11 Peter Toon, progressing in tone from condemnation as simply a “superstitious aberration” to nearly a charge of heresy, writes, “This teaching [of Augustine] soon became accepted as orthodoxy and has in general been so regarded in both Catholic and Protestant Churches ever since the Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned belief in a literal, future millennium as superstition” and “[T]he Council of Ephesus in 431 accepted amillennialism as orthodox eschatological teaching.”12 By 2001 Andrew Bradstock claims, “[T]he Council of Ephesus declared such a belief [that Christ would return imminently to set up an earthly kingdom] heretical in 431.”13

Chasing the Heresy Down the Hole

A perusal of works on the history of the ecumenical councils and the Council of Ephesus in particular reveals that a condemnation of Chiliasm is far from obvious and certainly not in the category of common knowledge, as would be, say, the condemnation of Arius at Nicea.14 In fact, a reading of the primary sources available on the Council of Ephesus reveals little more than the Nestorian controversies and its ecclesiastical effects.15

Moreover, when one attempts to start with the various secondary sources that make mention of a condemnation of Chiliasm by the Council of Ephesus and work backwards to the primary source, one is disappointed by what is ultimately found. In 2001, Stanley Grenz and John R. Franke refer to “the condemnation of premillennialism at the Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E.”16 Although they cite no primary or secondary source for this statement in particular,17 the authors do rely on other secondary sources in this chapter that make the same claim: Peter Toon’s “Introduction” to Puritans, the Millennium and the Future of Israel18 and Stan Grenz’s Millennial Maze.19 In the same year, Andrew Bradstock claims that the Council of Ephesus declared Chiliasm “heretical.”20

Bradstock himself relies on an earlier secondary source, that of Richard Kyle, who writes in 1998, “In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned as superstition the belief in a literal millennium.”21 Kyle apparently relies on Paul Boyer’s work of 1992 in which he asserts, “With the condemnation of millennialism by the Council of Ephesus in 431, Augustine’s views became orthodoxy.”22 Boyer relies on Peter Toon (“Introduction,” 1970) as his own secondary source for this assertion.

Stanley Grenz, in his popular and influential work, The Millennial Maze, appears to rely upon both Peter Toon’s 1970 work and an earlier book by Norman Cohn (1957) when he writes that at Ephesus the church “condemned as superstition the belief in a literal, future thousand-year reign on the earth.”23

In 1977, in his introduction to a widely-read book on the subject of the millennium, Robert G. Clouse states, “His [Augustine’s] teaching was so fully accepted that at the Council of Ephesus in 431, belief in the millennium was condemned as superstitious.”24 For this statement Clouse relies upon Peter Toon (“Introduction,” 1970).

Although several authors above relied on Peter Toon’s assertion in 1970 that “the Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned belief in a literal, future millennium as superstition,”25 Toon himself relied upon the original 1957 edition of a work by Norman Cohn entitled The Pursuit of the Millennium, in which he wrote, “This [view of Augustine] at once became orthodox doctrine, and so definitively that in 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned belief in the Millennium as a superstitious aberration.”26 It is this same 1957 first edition that Robert Clouse relied upon in a 1968 article in which he states in similar terms, “This doctrine [of Augustine] was so fully accepted that at the Council of Ephesus in 431, belief in the millennium was condemned as superstition.”27

Norman Cohn’s 1957 and 1961 editions of his Pursuit of the Millennium both contain this same assertion.28 In those books, Cohn refers to a 1904 work in French by Léon Gry. In Gry’s work on the history of millennialism, he writes regarding the eventual unfavorable opinion towards Chiliasm: “On ne parlat pas autrement au Concile d’Ephèse de 431.”29 In a footnote at this point, he explains, “Au Concile d’Ephèse, les Orientaux posèrent cette question à saint Cyrille: «Num iterum erit secundum revolutionem et naturae consequentiam dispensationis opus, juxta deliramenta, fabulosique mille annorum infausti Apollinarii dogmata?»” Gry thus uses the original Latin quotation to illustrate the attitude toward the notion of a thousand year reign among the Eastern bishops, not bothering to inform indicate what Cyril’s answer to the question was.30 He is not asserting that the Council at large was making an official condemnation of the doctrine. Cohn apparently realizes this by the time he publishes in 1970 the revised and expanded edition of his Pursuit, for the reference to the condemnation at the Council of Ephesus is conspicuously missing.31

Finally, what of the Latin source quoted by Gry in his footnote? This original source is not easy to track down,32 but an examination of the context in which the passage is found reveals that the question posed by the Eastern bishops to Cyril is not indicative of any sort of official condemnation of Chiliasm at the Council of Ephesus. In fact, the context of the question as well as the failure of Cyril to even respond to the matter of Chiliasm makes this clear.33 Yet it was not Gry’s contention that Ephesus officially condemned Chiliasm. Rather, he was demonstrating the attitude of the Eastern bishops concerning the concept of the earthly millennium in the early fifth century. This is likely why it appears that Cohn’s misunderstanding or mistranslation of the comments by Gry was subsequently—though quietly and justifiably—corrected by him in his later edition.

As can be seen from the reconstruction of the history of the claim that the Council of Ephesus condemned Chiliasm in 431, the original source records no such condemnation, anathema, decree, or declaration. Cohn appears to have misunderstood or mistranslated his source in Gry (or failed to check Labbe directly!) and made the false assertion in his 1957 and 1961 editions of The Pursuit of the Millennium, but, apparently being corrected of his error, removed the statement from his 1970 edition. However, by then it was too late, for already others who had relied on the earlier editions were doomed to repeat the error without consulting either Gry or, more importantly, Labbe. Having been made by able scholars with a far-reaching influence in popular volumes, this error has now reproduced itself at the popular level with no hope for restraint.34

Implications and Conclusion

The purpose of this article was twofold. First, by tracing the error to its source, I have attempted to counter the assertion that the Council of Ephesus condemned Chiliasm in A.D. 431. In light of the conclusions of this article, any continued assertion of this nature must satisfy a weighty burden of proof with reference to primary source evidence. Given the plentitude of untranslated, unedited, or perhaps even presently non-extant material on this subject, the case will of course never be finally closed. Nevertheless the burden of proof has been re-shifted to those who maintain an official ecumenical condemnation of Chiliasm.

Second, this article has illustrated a methodological problem to which all researchers and writers are prone. The temptation is always great to “trust” a secondary source when we believe that author to be quoting a primary source accurately, or to have done the right work in the primary sources to authorize a claim, or to simply have enough expertise in a particular area of study to be free from gross inaccuracies. I may add that all of us have likely succumbed to this temptation at times, especially under the pressure of deadlines. However, if proper methods of source verification are not followed, it is wisest to simply leave out the minor point that has not been corroborated. I suspect, though, that the phantom condemnation of Chiliasm at Ephesus is not an isolated occurrence, but that our fields of research may be riddled with similar shortcuts leading to unwitting inaccuracies and errors.

Yet few errors of scholarship are as literally damning as the alleged condemnation of Chiliasm at the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431. For the growing number of evangelicals who take seriously the authority of the Tradition of the church, its rule of faith, and the expression of these in especially the first four ecumenical councils,35 an assertion that one of those councils has condemned a particular doctrine is a serious and sobering charge. Naturally, one may be tempted to consider whether the proliferation of the unwarranted assertion of an early ecumenical condemnation of Chiliasm is sometimes motivated by a present-day anti-premillennialism that unconsciously wishes the early church had universally condemned Chiliasm after all.

Nay, it seems both ancient and contemporary orthodoxy will still need to make room for premillennialists.

1 Available online at, accessed April 4, 2002. The pronouncement by the Holy Office referred to therein occurred in July of 1944 in answer to the following question: “Quid sentiendum de systemate Millenarismi mitigati, docentis scilicet Christum Dominum ante finale iudicium, sive praevia sive non praevia plurium iustorum resurrectione, visibiliter in hanc terram regnandi causa esse venturum?” The response to the question, confirmed by Pope Pius XII, was short and direct: “Systema Millenarismi mitigati tuto doceri non posse,” i.e., “A mild millennial system is not able to be taught safely” (Henricus Denzinger, ed., Enchiridion Symbolorum: Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, 36th emended ed., ed. Adolfus Schönmetzer [Freiburg: Herder, 1976], 759). What is meant by “mitigated” or “mild” millennialism and by the qualifier “safely” renders the official answer ambiguous.

2 Andrew Bradstock, “Millenarianism in the Reformation and the English Revolution,” in Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco, ed. Stephen Hunt (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001), 77

3 Indeed, apart from isolated papal or magisterial opinions as in note 1 above, the first “official” and “dogmatic” condemnation of Chiliasm appears to be that of the Lutheran Augsburg confession of 1530, when the notion of an earthly kingdom was condemned in the following terms: “They condemn others also, who now scatter Jewish opinions, that, before the resurrection of the dead, the godly shall occupy the kingdom of the world, the wicked being every where suppressed” (Damnant et alios, qui nunc spargunt Judaicas opiniones, quod ante resurrectionem mortuorum pii regnum mundi occupaturi sint, ubique oppressis impiis). Original Latin and English translation are taken from Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom with A History and Critical Notes, vol. 3, The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, 4th ed. rev. and enlarged, Bibliotheca Symbolica Ecclesiae Universalis (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 18. Following suit, Bullinger’s Second Helvetic (Swiss) Confession of 1566 condemns “Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth” (Damnamus praeterea Judaica somnia, quod ante judicii diem aureum in terries sit futuram seculum, et pii regna mundi occupaturi, oppressis suis hostibus impiis) (Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3: 257).

4 Cf. Brian E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

5 D. T. Taylor, The Voice of the Church on the Coming and Kingdom of the Redeemer; or, A History of the Doctrine of the Reign of Christ on Earth, rev. and ed. H. L. Hastings (Peace Dale, RI: H. L. Hastings, 1855), 115.

6 D. H. Kromminga, The Millennium in the Church: Studies in the History of Christian Chiliasm (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1945), 102, 113.

7 C. Cooper, “Chiliasm and the Chiliasts,” Reformed Theological Review 29 (1970): 12.

8 Michael J. St. Clair, Millenarian Movements in Historical Context (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 85-87.

9 Frederic J. Baumgartner, Longing for the End: A History of Millennialism in Western Civilization (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 47.

10 Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and Its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 14

11 Robert Clouse, “The Apocalyptic Interpretation of Thomas Brightman and Joseph Mede,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 11 (1968): 182.

12 Peter Toon, “Introduction,” in Puritans, the Millennium and the Future of Israel: Puritan Eschatology 1600 to 1660 (Cambridge, MA: James Clarke, 1970), 14, 17.

13 Bradstock, “Millenarianism in the Reformation,” 77.

14 Cf. Adhemar d’Alles, Le dogma d’Éphèse (Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne, 1931); Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology, Theology and Life Series, no. 21 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987).

15 More thorough translations of the primary texts include James Chrystal, ed. and trans., The Third World Council, That Is, The Third Council of the Whole Christian World, East and West, Which Was Held A.D. 431 at Ephesus in Asia, 3 vols., Authoritative Christianity (Jersey City, NJ: James Chrystal, 1895); and A. J. Festugi, Les Actes des Conciles d’Éphèse (431) et Chalcédoine (451): Première traduction française, Textes Dossiers Documents, ed. Charles Kannengiesser (Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne, 1982).

16 Stanley Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 242.

17 The authors appear to present the statement as if it were common knowledge.

18 Toon, “Introduction,” 14, 17

19 Stanley J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 44.

20 Bradstock, “Millenarianism in the Reformation,” 77.

21 Richard Kyle, The Last Days are Here Again: A History of the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 39.

22 Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, Studies in Cultural History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 49.

23 Stanley J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 44

24 Robert G. Clouse, “Introduction,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 9.

25 Toon, “Introduction,” 14, 17.

26 Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), 14.

27 Clouse, “The Apocalyptic Interpretation,” 182.

28 Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and Its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements, 2d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 14

29 Léon Gry, Le Millénarisme dans ses origenes et son développement (Paris: A. Picard, 1904), 106-107

30 Those familiar with the proceedings at Ephesus will immediately realize the problems with reading Gry and concluding that he is referring to an official condemnation of Chiliasm. Most Eastern bishops were at odds with Cyril throughout the whole council and were not reconciled until after the proceedings. Any question posed to Cyril by the Eastern bishops would not have been to establish the dogmatic and universally-binding opinion on the matter.

31 Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. and exp. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 29. Any excision from an “expanded” edition ought to attract attention, though it did not seem to have had much of an effect on those who have continued to repeat the allegation of the 431 condemnation based on the 1957 or 1961 editions.

32 I must at this point extend tremendous gratitude to Amanda Saville of the Queens College Library in Oxford, U.K. and my longtime friend and sometimes research assistant, Jason Lina, as well as the staff at Southern Methodist University’s Bridwell Library for their gracious assistance in my pursuit of the original Latin volumes containing the passage cited by Gry. This work would have been impossible to complete without their assistance.

33 Philippe Labbe and Gabriel Cossart, ed., Sacrosancta concilia ad regiam editionem exacta, 16 vols. (Lutetiae Parisiorum: Societatis typographicae Librorum Ecclesiasticorum jussu Regis constitutae, 1671-72), 3: col. 834-37. The questions posed to Cyril in challenge of his third anathema focused on the divine and human natures of Christ. I will quote the passage at length here to set forth the Eastern bishops’ barrage of questions preceding the final question excerpted by Gry: “Quomodo igitur, quasi oblitus suorum verborum, ad unam hypostasin cogit, naturas confundens, naturalem divinam unitionem nominans? Et quis unquam admittet naturalem divinam unitionem in sacramento dispensationis? Si enim naturalis unitio, ubi gratia? Ubi divinum sacramentum? Naturae enim, ut edocti sumus, semel ab ordinante Deo ordinatae, necessariis consequentiis serviunt. Num etiam iterum erit secundum revolutionem & naturae consequentiam dispensationis opus juxta deliramenta, fabulosaque mille annorum infausti Apollinarii dogmata?” In Cyril’s defense of the Anathema against the Eastern bishops’ objection, he makes no mention of Apollinarius’s Chiliasm, focusing his discussion entirely on the Christological issues at hand. Certainly, there was no official condemnation of Chiliasm in this passage and the opinions of Eastern bishops especially held no authority at the synod.

34 An examination of both professional and amateur internet web sites will reveal the pervasiveness of the assertion. For just a sampling, see; http://;;;; Allen Stowasser.htm.

35 Cf., for example, D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) for a contemporary expression of this movement.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come), History