The Ante-Nicene Fathers series included works by Origen earlier in our reading. But since we have returned to Origen for the remainder of the liturgical year, we are reposting our introduction to Origen.
From the Latin West we now return to the Greek-speaking East and begin reading from one of the most influential fathers of Alexandrian school, Origen, who lived from around 185 to 255. Origen was a skilled textual scholar and prolific writer of theology and biblical commentary. Though some of his theological speculations garnered criticism in later ages, Origen’s ideas—and his style of interpreting scripture allegorically—strongly influenced many of the other fathers of the third and fourth centuries.
Origen was born to Christian parents, and his father was likely killed in the same wave of persecution that led to Clement’s martyrdom. Origen was well-education and well-traveled, and after Clement’s death he established a catechetical school in Alexandria similar to the one Clement had run. Origen’s fame as a teacher attracted the attention of the wealthy courtier Ambrose of Alexandria, who under Origen’s guidance gave up his Valentinian faith and joined the orthodox fold. Ambrose became life-long friends with Origen and financed the copying and distribution of Origen’s works. We thus have Ambrose to thank for many of our readings. After falling out with the bishop of Alexandria, who objected to an irregularity in Origen’s ordination, Origen relocated to Caesarea of Palestine in 232 and re-established his school there. Though Origen persevered unscathed through the major persecutions of Severus (192–203) and Maximus Thrax (235–38), he was caught and tortured during the Decian persecution (249–53) and died a couple years later from his wounds.
Perhaps owing to his notoriety and the theological and ecclesiastical controversies he provoked, a number of colorful stories circulated about Origen during his life. Eusebius, for instance, reports the story that Origen would willingly have gone out to suffer persecution along with his father in 202, but could not leave the house because his mother hid all of his clothes. Eusebius also reports that as part of his rigidly ascetic personal discipline, Origen castrated himself. Scholars are divided on whether the great proponent of allegorical interpretation would have actually taken a passage like Matthew 19:12 so literally, or whether the rumor came from Origen’s detractors in Alexandria.
We will return to some of Origen’s exegetical writings at the end of Year 2. For now we will be reading the dogmatic work On First Principles (De Principiis) and the apologetic work Against Celsus. The De Principiis, written at Alexandria, is an early instance of Christian systematic theology—that is, it aims to lay out the foundation of the Christian faith, not to attack any particular heresy or defend any particular disputed point of orthodoxy. It proceeds in its four books to treat on the doctrine of God, the material world, man and free will, and scripture and methods of interpretation.
Against Celsus, written towards the end of Origen’s life, is—like similar apologetics from Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian—a careful, point-by-point refutation of the writings of Celsus, a scornful Platonic philosopher. Whereas the other apologists often combated apostates and heretics, to argue against an unbeliever Origen liberally included references to Greek literature and Platonic thought, which provided a rational grounding to Christian faith.
Origen’s theology is grounded in a high regard for both scripture and ecclesiastical tradition. Though Origen has been justly criticized for resorting to allegorical interpretation too often in his exegesis, he nevertheless was a skilled grammarian and textual critic, whose regard for the inspiration and authority of scripture made him one of the most brilliant early scholars of scripture. His famous Hexapla replicated Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible side by side for comparison, and Origen’s views on the New Testament canon largely accorded with the list of twenty-seven books that would be established in the fourth century. The De Principiis opens with the affirmation that “as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. Origen followed this rule closely in his writings, frequently citing scripture or apostolic tradition.
Three strands of Origen’s thought were gradually enlarged upon by Origen’s closest students and condemned as the Origenist System at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 554, though Origen himself was not anathematized by the Church. First was the principle of allegorical interpretation. While the rules of interpretation—essentially that scripture must be interpreted in a manner worthy of God—may have been unobjectionable, in the application made by Origen and his later followers, a number of Old Testament passages that offended Greek culture in late antiquity were interpreted beyond recognition.
As Origen was one of the earliest Greek thinkers to tackle the subject of the Trinity in his theological writings, his language was occasionally less precise than what fourth-century orthodoxy would demand. In later years both Athanasius and the Cappodocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus) would defend Origen’s orthodoxy, but Origen’s terminology was nevertheless employed by some who insisted on an essential difference between the Father and the Son.
The most controversial view—and one clearly entertained by Origen in the De Principiis-–concerns the origin and destiny of rational souls. Origen postulated that though God created everything, he created from eternity. In other words, there was no fixed moment of time at which God began creating. This eternal creation included all rational souls, some of which became angels and some demons, while the rest of the pre-existent souls waited to be born into fleshly bodies. On the other side of eternity, Origen, like Clement before him, affirmed a belief in apokatastasis, a final restoration of all in Christ, including the unregenerate. How strongly Origen held these views is unclear: many of his exegetical writings contradict his musings from the De Principiis, and Origen later flatly denied that he believed the devil would be ultimately restored.
Alternate Editions and Further Reading
Readers hoping to understand Origen without the encumbrances of nineteenth-century translation may wish to consult G. W. Butterworth’s translation of On First Principles and Henry Chadwick’s Contra Celsum. The Paulist Press has produced an anthology translated by Rowan Greer that includes the fourth volume of De Principiis.
Those interested in the details of Origen’s theology may be interested in Han Urs van Balthasar’s systematically anthologized edition of Origen’s writings, Spirit and Fire, translated from Bathasar’s German by Robert J. Daly.
For further reading on Origen’s life and thought, see Joseph Trigg’s study or Ronald Heine’s Scholarship in the Service of the Church. A particularly nuanced study of Origen’s allegorical method of interpreting scripture is History and Spirit by Henri de Lubac, S.J.