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Messalianism or anti-messalianism?
A Fresh Look at the 'Macarian' Problem

John Meyendorff, Kyriakon, Festschrift Johannes Quasten,
vol. II , Aschendorff, Münster, Westfalen, 1970, pp. 585- 590

In modern patristic scholarship rehabilitation of old time heretics is a more frequent exercise than posthumous condemnation of authors who won the respect of generations. Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius and even Arius are often being shown worthy of our admiration, and the sentence passed against them by early councils is attributed to either misunderstanding or to inappropriate vindictiveness of their ideological opponents. An opposite fate fell upon the corpus of writings attributed to the fourth century Egyptian ascetic known as " Macarius the Great": it was in the last decades the object of a doctrinal damnatio memoriae. The author - certainly different from St. Macarius himself - does not reveal his name. Like the Corpus Dionysiacum, the Macarian writings are a pseudepigraphon. Their influence, however, in both East and West, is almost as great as that of Pseudo-Dionysius. Generations of Greek spiritual leaders have recommended the writings of Macarius to their disciples and have made them a classic of Eastern Christian spirituality. In the West as well, the Spiritual Homilies were known in monastic circles. They were also singled out by John Wesley to be trans­lated into English as an early witness of Christian experience of the Holy Spirit (1).

However, since a short article by L. Villecourt, published in 1920 (2), a majority of patristic scholars accept the view that " Macarius" belonged to the "Messalian" sect. Since the monograph dedicated to the subject by H. Dorries (3), he is even more precisely identified as Symeon of Mesopotamia, mentioned by Theodoret among the leaders of Messalianism. The consensus favoring the "Messalian" interpretation of Macarius, however, was met with scepticism by some historians who view the Macarian texts in the wider context of Eastern Christian spirituality, where these historians often find, as commonly accepted, the ideas which Dorries and his school consider as characteristi­cally "Messalian". The " Messalian" theory was further shattered by the parallelism established by Werner Jaeger between the De institute Christiano of Gregory of Nyssa and the so-called "Great Letter" of Macarius (5).

It is not our intention in this brief essay to examine all the aspects of the " "Macarian" problem (6), but only to point out where - textually and theologically - the issue really lies. For it seems to us that too often sweeping judgments and firm convictions are expressed about Macarius without direct references to either textual evidence or theological problematics. The discussion of the textual evidence is greatly facilitated today by the recent critical editions of "Macarian" texts by E. Klostermann and H. Dorries (7), helpfully replacing and substantially enlarging the old edition by Johannes Picus (1559), which was reprinted in Migne after it had been improved by H. J. Floss.

The theological issue lies in the fact that the identification of Macarius with a "Messalian" author does imply a basic judgment upon the entire tradition of Eastern Christian spirituality. For indeed, if "Macarius" is a Messalian, this entire tradition is Messalian as well. This is recognized by Irenee Hausherr when he writes: »The great spiritual heresy of the Christian East is Messalianism (8). The problem is, in fact, parallel and, in some respects, identical with the issue of "semi-pelagianism", of which the monks of Eastern tradition, headed by John Cassian, were accused in the Augustinian West.

1. The textual evidence.

The main difficulty for a sure identification of "Macarius" as a Messalian lies in the fact that it is not easy to know exactly what "Messalianism" really means. With the probable exception of a Syrian work, known as Liber Graduum, no Messalian literature has been preserved and the major source of information about it is to be found in polemical writings of Orthodox authors.

The most detailed descriptions of the Messalian doctrines at our disposal are those of Timothy, a priest of Constantinople (sixth century), and of St. John of Damascus. They reflect previous condemnations of the sect by the council of Side, around 390, presided over by Amphilochius of Iconium, a disciple and friend of St. Basil. It is essentially on the basis of the lists of Messalian heresies found in Timothy and John of Damascus that Hermann Dorries thought he could identify some of the Macarian Homi­lies with the Messalian Asceticon (9).

The parallelism, almost verbal, of several quotations from the Asceticon, found in St. John of Damascus, with passages from the Homilies, are indeed striking. Here are three examples:

(I) John of Damascus (Kmosko, op. cit., pp. CCXXXI ff.)

(II) Macarius

Homn. 28, 19, PG 34, col. 708 A = ed. Dorries, Horn. 27, 19, p. 228 lines 277-279.

(I) 2. (The Messalians affirm that) ἡ φύσις τῶν ἀνθρώπων κοινωνική ἐστι τῶν πνευμάτων τῆς πονηρίας

( ΙΙ ) αὕτη ἡ φύσις κοινωνική ἐστι τῶν δαιμόνων καί τῶν πνευμάτων τῆς πονηρίας, ὁμοίως καί ἀγγέλων καί Πνεύματος ἁγίου

(I) 12. Ἡ ψυχή ἡ μή ἔχουσα τόν Χριστόν ἐν αἰσθήσει καί πάσῃ ἐνεργείᾳ οἰκητήριόν ἐστιν ἑρπετῶν καί ἰοβόλων θηρίων

( ΙΙ ) Hom. 43,7, col. 776 D - ed. Dorries, p. 289, lines 103-104: αὐτή ἡ καρδία... καί ἐκεῖ οἱ δράκοντες καί ἐκεῖ οἱ λέοντες, ἐκεῖ τά ἰοβόλα θηρία

( I ) 18. Ὅτι τοῖς εὐχομένοις δύναται φανεροῦσθαι ὁ Σωτήρ ἐν φωτί καί κατά τινα καιρόν εὑρεθῆναι ἄνθρωπον παρεστῶτα τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ καί προσηνέχθαι αὐτῷ τρεῖς ἄρτους δι ' ἐλαίου πεφυρμένους

( ΙΙ ) Hom. 8,3, col. 529 AC - ed. Dorries, p. 78, lines 26-28: ἄλλοτε πάλιν ἐν τῇ εὐχῇ, ὡς ἐν ἐκστάσει γέγονεν ὁ ἄνθρωπος, καί εὑρέθη εἰς θυσιαστήριον ἑστώς ἐν ἐκκλ ­ ησίᾳ, καί προσηνέχθησαν τῷ τοιούτῳ ἄρτοι τρεῖς δι ' ἐλαίου ἐζυμωμένοι

Such parallelisms are obviously inconceivable without Macarius having either used the Asceticon of the Messalians, or having been closely connected with circles where these expressions, considered by John of Damascus as characteristic of the sect, were widely used. The argument in favor of the Messalian character of the entire Macarian corpus would be strong if the description of Messalian doctrines given by the same John of Damascus and Timothy was not in quite obvious contradiction in other ways with the main emphasis of Macarius' thought.

The Messalians condemned manual labor (Tim. 13; John 17), fasting and asceticism (Tim. 9,17; John 17); scorned marriage, the Church's sacraments and hierarchy (John 17); considered good works, and in particular alms to the poor, as useless, since prayer alone brings salvation (Tim. 15; John 17). They professed Sabellian (Tim. 6) and Docetic (Tim. 8) tendencies, as well as curious beliefs about fire being creative (John 11). There is nothing of all that in Macarius, who, on the contrary, protested against these various deviations from monastic spirituality. For example, his condemnation of the monk who, under pretext of prayer, would neglect his other duties, in particular the care and service of his brothers, can and must be interpreted as a direct attack on Messalianism (10). The refusal to practice any manual labor was in fact the distinctive trait of Messalianism wherever it appeared (11).

The problem of dualism, i. e., the ontological coexistence of grace and the forces of evil in the soul, is another Messalian heresy inherited from Manicheism and noted by the Orthodox polemicists (John 1, 2, 3, 13; Tim. 1). The struggle between good and evil in the heart of man after baptism is indeed a frequent theme in Macarius, but, as Louis Bouyer points out, the latter « in no way considers this condition as being normal; for him, while grace always finds sin present ahead of it in the spiritual man, it never ceases to fight against it » (12). In fact, all the Macarian texts quoted by Dorries, as imply­ing ontological dualism of good and evil in the soul, are only developments of the Pauline theme of the "old" and the "new" Adam: both dynamically coexist in man as long as he does not yet participate in the eschatological plenitude.

Finally, an area where the thought of « Macarius » and that of the Messalians is indeed in open contrast is the issue of the sacraments and, in particular, baptism. All sources confirm that, for the Messalians, baptism conferred neither purification nor incorruptibility and was in consequence »useless« (John 4, 5, 6, 17; Tim. 2, 3, 12). This anti-sacramentalism of the Messalians must have made them popular among those Christian monks of the fourth century who found the essential inspiration of religious life in personal asceticism and organized themselves away from the Christian ecclesia- the sacramental community of the city, headed by the bishop. The temptation of breaking entirely with the institutional and sacramental Church was, in fact, the major temptation of early monasticism as a whole. The other great fourth century ideologist of monasticism Evagrius Ponticus, would never even think of mentioning baptism as a real means of grace, and there would hardly be any place for the sacraments in his conception of « pure prayer ».

« Macarius », on this point, stands in obvious and radical contrast to both Evagrius and the Messalians. His numerous references to the grace of baptism, as well as to the reality of eucharistic communion, especially if one understands these references in the context of discussions which were taking place with the Messalians on this precise issue, must be understood as direct polemics against the sect.

The divine Spirit, the Comforter, given to the Apostles and through them to the one and true Church of God, bestowed, from the hour of baptism according to the ana­logy of faith, accompanies in various and diverse ways each man who came to baptism with a pure faith.« Comparing the spiritual birth of baptism with ordinary human birth, which leads to growth and development, he continues: " In the same manner, when one is born from above (John 3,3) from water and the Spirit, one does not remain for ever in the infancy of spiritual age, but one progresses and grows in a daily fight and effort, using much patience in the struggle against the adversary" (13). The Messalians must have objected against sacramentalism, understanding it as magic: Macarius opposes to the Messalian anti-baptismal polemics a dynamic concept of the sacraments, which implies human free response and human effort. Thus the following passage of Macarius is also to be understood in an apologetic anti-Messalian context: "If you say that through the coming of Christ sin was condemned and that, after baptism, evil cannot spread in the heart, you ignore the fact that, since the coming of the Lord up to now, many baptised people devised evil..." (14) u. But the sin of the baptised does not make baptism itself "useless" because Christian life is dynamic progress, and not a static gift: "Since the coming of Christ, men are progressing through the power of baptism, towards the origi­nal stature of Adam and become the masters of demons and passions" (15).

This last passage obviously eliminates the possibility of ontological dualism, and recognizes in baptism the basis for Christian life and development. In the context of other passages directly referring not only to baptism, but also to the eucharist (16), the true aim and significance of the Macarian writings are clearly revealed to provide the monastic movement with an alternative to Messalianism, by assuming some of the Messalian vocabulary and ideas, replacing them in a sacramental and biblical context, and thus changing their original meaning.

The parallelism established by Werner Jaeger between the "Great Letter" of Macarius and the De Instituto Christiano of St. Gregory of Nyssa confirms this character and this intention of the Macarian Corpus and replaces it in the monastic circles of Eastern Asia Minor, where it probably originated. St. Basil, the codifier of monastic rules, as well as his disciples and friends, Gregory of Nyssa and Amphilochius of Iconium, had to face in Asia Minor perverted forms of Christian asceticism. The origins of the monastic movement in the region is connected with the name of Eustathius of Sebaste, whom St. Basil venerated as his teacher (17), but whose other disciples despised marriage and rejected the sacraments and the Church. There are undoubtedly close connections between these "Eustathians" and the "Messalians".

The Council of Gangra (around 341) condemned the Eustathians, while the Messa­lians were anathematized at the council of Side (around 390). Among the monks of Eastern Asia Minor there was therefore, in the fourth century, a continuous tradition of ascetic extremism. But while Councils like Gangra and Side issued formal condem­nations of these extreme groups, the major spokesmen of orthodox "erudite" monasti­cism-Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and "Macarius" - were attempting to channel monastic spirituality away from the sectarian danger into the mainstream of Christian tradition.

Thus, as it has recently been shown (18), many passages from the Rules of St. Basil can be interpreted as reflecting some of the attitudes of the Eustathians condemned in Gangra. This coincidence cannot be explained simply by the fact that Gangra was a council of Arian bishops presided over by Eusebius of Nicomedia and that Basil con­sciously challenged its authority. He certainly would not have subscribed to formal rejection of marriage, and he was not the man to challenge, in principle, the authority of the episcopate. But he also adopted a positive approach to the monastic movement as such, and this implied, around 360 when he was writing his Rules, an integration of elements and attitudes which were common to orthodox and to Messalian (or "Eustathian") monks. Internal evidence does not permit to draw any substantial distinction between St. Basil the Great and the anonymous author of the Macarian writings in their attitude towards Messalianism (19).

If J. Gribomont is right in considering the De Instituto Christiano of St. Gregory of Nyssa as inspired by the »Great Letter« of Macarius (against Werner Jaeger who stood for the reverse), the acceptance of the latter in Basilian circles as a respectable spokes­man of monastic spirituality is also clearly demonstrated. J. Gribomont's vestigial adherence to the Villecourt-Dorries identification of Macarius with Symeon of Mesopotamia leads him to consider Gregory's treatise as a »correction« of Macarius (20). He does not show, however, the points on which this "correction" took place. Between Gregory and Macarius the difference lies mainly in general metaphysical presupposi­tions, and Gregory's dependence, on this point, upon Origen and, possibly, Evagrius does not give him, from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy, any substantial advan­tage over Macarius.

In fact, early Christian monasticism was exposed to the two temptations of "Messalianism" and platonic intellectualism. Both implied anti-social individualism, rejection of the Church as a sacramental institution, and flight from responsibility in the »visible« world. But they were opposed to each other in their understanding of man: naive materialism, on the one hand, and intellectual spiritualism, on the other, were both inadequate for a balanced Christian spirituality. Confronted with these temptations, the Cappadocian fathers started a long process of integration, without succeeding fully at the first try, but defining the general direction which will later become in the East the accepted pattern. "Macarius" also stands at the very heart of this process: his explicit sacramentalism, his conception of man as a single psycho-somatic whole, his obvious insight into the most authentic neo-testamental concepts of christology and pneumatology contributed greatly to prevent the monastic movement from slipping into sectarian individualism.

Disagreeing in their understanding of man, the Origenistic and the "Messalian" options coincide in their affirmation that communion with God - the goal of Christian existence - does not destroy freedom to choose and that the gift of the Spirit is propor­tionate to man's free effort to meet God's grace. Later Greek patristic tradition, having integrated the thought of both Macarius and Evagrius, will always take for granted this free and dynamic relationship between human nature and divine grace - a rela­tionship best expressed by the term συνεργία, "cooperation" between God and man in the conscious act of man's personal salvation. That this concept was understood as "semi-Pelagianism" in the West is a well-known fact. I wonder whether the same implicit fear of "Pelagianism" is not the psychological impulse which leads contemporary theo­logians and historians to read "Messalianism" into works of "Macarius" and, through him, into the whole tradition which he represents. The definition of Messalianism as, in essence, a form of Pelagianism, has been frequently made (21). But would it not be more fruitful to interpret the spiritual authors of the Christian East without judging them by the categories of the post-Augustinian Latin West, which were certainly not adequate for the understanding of such writings as Pseudo-Macarius?


(1) John Wesley, A Christian Library, I, Bristol, 1749; on Wesley's use of and admiration for Macarius, see Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley, New York, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 9, note 26, and pp. 274-275.

(2) "La date et l'origine des homélies spirituelles attribuées à Macaire », in Comptes-rendus de I'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1920, pp. 250-258; the identification of the author of the Spiritual Homilies, as a Messalian author, Symeon, was, however, pro­posed already in the eighteenth century by the Greek monk, Neophytos Kavsokalivites, (cf. B. S. Psevtogas, " Ή γνησιότης τών συγγραμμάτων Μακαρίου " in Θεολογικον Συμπόσιον in honor of P. Khrestou, Thessaloniki, 1967, pp. 191-214.

(3) Symeon von Mesopotamien. Die Uberlieferung der Messalianischen Makarios-Schriften, Texte u. Unter-suchungen, 95, 1, Leipzig, 1941.

(4) W. Volker, »Neue Urkunden des Messalianismus?« in Theologische Literaturzeitung, 68, 1943, pp. 129-136; L. Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, New York, Desclee, 1963, pp. 370-380.

(5) Two rediscovered works of Ancient Christian Literature: Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius, Leiden, Brill, 1954.

(6) For the very rich Western European and American bibliography of the subject see J. Quasten, Patrology, III, Westminster, Md., Newman Press, pp. 165-166; there are also several important Russian studies on Macarius, including A Bronzov, Prep. Makary Egipetsky, I, St. Petersburg, 1899; I. V. Popov, "Misticheskoe opravdanie asketizma v tvoreniakh prep. Makaria Egipetskago" in Bogoslovsky Vestnik, Moscow, 1904, III, pp. 537-565; 1905, I, pp. 27-59; II, pp. 237-278; B. A. Turaev, "Efiopskoe asketicheskoe poslanie, pripisyvaemoeprep. Makariu Egipetskomu", in Khristiansky Vostok, IV, Petrograd, 1916, pp. 141— 154; Kiprian Kern, £olotoi vek sviatootecheskoi pis'men-nosti (Chapter »Macariana«), Paris, 1967, pp. 150-177, etc.

(7)Neue Homilien des Makarius/Symeon, herausgegeben von Erich Klostermann und Heinz Berthold, Texte und Untersuchungen, 12, Berlin, 1961; Die 50 Geistlichen Homilien des Makarios, herausgegeben und erlautert von Hermann Dorries, Erich Klostermann, Matthias Kroeger, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 1964.

(8)L'erreur fontamentale et la logique du messalianisme" in Orientalia Christiana Periodica, I, 1935, p. 328.

(9) Symeon v. Mesopotamien, pp. 425-450. All the neces­sary texts are conveniently gathered together by M. Kmosko, in his introduction to the text of the Liber Graduum in Patrologia Syriaca, 3, Paris, 1926.

(10) Epistula magna, ed., W. Jaeger, Two rediscovered works, p. 282; cf. also p. 288 (interpretation of the Gospel story of Martha and Mary).

(11)Cf., for instance G. Folliet, " Des moines euchites
a Carthage en 400-401". in Studia Patristica 2, Texte
und Untersuchungen, 65, 1957, pp. 386-399.

(12) Op. cit., p. 379.

(13) Epistula magna, ed. cit., p. 236.

(14) Hom. 15,15, ed. Dorries, pp. 135-136 (PG 34, col. 384 D- 385 A).

(15) Hom. I in Neue Homilien, ed. cit., p. 3.

(16)For example, Hom. 13 in H. Dorries, ed. cit.,
pp. 120-121 (= Hom. 14,4, in PG 34, col. 572 CD).

(17)On the influence of Eustathius on Basil, see Amand
de Mendietta, L'ascèse monastique de saint Basile. Essai
Maredsous, 1948, pp. 52-61.

(18)J. Gribomont, "Le monachisme au IVe siècle en
Asie Mineure: de Gangres au Messalianisme', in
Studia Patristica II, Berlin, 1957, pp. 404-407.

(19)J. Gribomont, whose research on the period throws
much light on the true character of 'Macarius',
recognizes that there are 'many forms of Messalianism', that Macarius never considered himself a
Messalian and that he even opposed 'gross Messa lianism'. However, this author finds it impossible to reject the thesis that the author of the Homilies is identical with Symeon of Mesopotamia, condemned at Side. 'Le De Instituto Christiano et le Messalianisme de Gregoire de Nysse', in Studia Patristica V, Berlin, 1962, pp. 320-321. There is here an obvious and unnecessary contradiction, which can be removed only be the rejection of the identification between Macarius and Symeon of Mesopotamia — an identi­fication which, as we have seen previously, is impossible to hold on the evidence of Timothy and John of Damascus.

(20) Ibid., p. 521. Further discussion of the issue in R. Staats, Gregor von Nyssa und die Messalianer, Berlin, 1968, and A. Baker, 'Syriac and the Scriptural Quotations of Pseudo-Macarius', in Journal of Theo­logical Studies, XX, 1, April 1969, pp. 133-149.

(21) Cf. for example, I. Hausherr, 'L'erreur fondamentale et la logique du messalianisme', in Orientalia Christiana Periodica I, 1935, p. 358.

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