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Origen

origen

Icon of 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.

Biography

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.

Works

"Origenes," in Numeros Homilia XXVII, Schäftlarn Monastery (ca. 1160)

“Origenes,” in Numeros Homilia XXVII, Schäftlarn Monastery (ca. 1160)

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.

Theology

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.

A fragment of Origen's Hexapla

A fragment of Origen’s Hexapla

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 ChurchA particularly nuanced study of Origen’s allegorical method of interpreting scripture is History and Spirit by Henri de Lubac, S.J.

Clement of Alexandria

Icon of Clement

Icon of Clement

The life and career of Titus Flavius Clement mark the ascendancy of Alexandrian theology. Whereas Clement’s contemporary, the sarcastic Latin lawyer Tertullian (whom we read next) famously asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” the Alexandrians answered that pagan philosophy had a vital role to play in bringing the world to Christian faith. For better or worse, Clement had an almost reckless confidence that pagan philosophy was the underpinning of Christian truth, so that Christ fulfilled not only the law of Moses but also the myriad attempts of pagan thought to discern the immutable nature of all things true, good, and beautiful.

Biography

Clement was born to wealthy pagans in Athens sometime in the middle of the second century. Given the breadth of learning displayed in his writings, he was undoubtedly well traveled. We learn from an autobiographical brief in Stromateis 1.2 that his education under a variety of teachers took him from Greece to southern Italy to Egypt, where his career as a student of Christian philosophy seems to have begun upon meeting Pantaenus (c. 180), the master of the catechetical school in Alexandria at that time. (Clement’s intellectual pilgrimage is reminiscent of that of Justin  Martyr). The learned circles of Alexandria at the time melded Hellenistic and Judaic religious sensibility, which is evident in Clement’s thought. Clement became the master of the Alexandrian school around 190. According to tradition, Clement suffered martyrdom during the persecution under Septimius Severus sometime after 203.

Clement was the teacher of Origen (whom we will read later), the third-century Egyptian prodigy who popularized the Alexandrian approach to theology, in particular its exegesis. Clement failed to attain to universal acclaim in later Christendom despite his martyrdom. His pupil Origen  suffered posthumous condemnation at the second council of Constantinople in 553, and the eclecticism of Clement’s theological works led Photius of Constantinople to criticize them sharply in the ninth century. Clement all but disappeared from western calendars by the seventeenth century, having achieved little recognition except among the non-Chalcedonian churches of the east, such as the Coptic church.

Clement thus stands as a threshold figure, representing a passage from the era of the apostolic charism of theological intuition and the vigor of the apologists to an age of intellectual acuity and precise theological definition. In Clement, we finally begin to see Christianity “plunder the Egyptians,” taking pagan philosophy captive and turning it to its own purposes, which culminated in the first three general councils and the formulae of Nicea ratified at Constantinople.

Works

Clement is best known for three principle works: the Protrepticus (“Exhortation to the Greeks”), the Pedagogus (“The Instructor”), and the Stromateis (“Miscellanies”). In addition, “Who is the Rich Man who Shall be Saved?” is a surviving work of Clement’s, written to exhort some of his wealthier Christian students not to despair over their salvation, and to maintain a disposition toward riches in keeping with that taught in the gospel. There are numerous “lost” works by Clement, the one worth mentioning being the Hypotyposes, or “Outlines,” which, according to Photius, was an “impious” work of esoteric speculation about the heavenly hierarchies.

The Exhortation to the Greeks is a polemic against pagan thought. Clement here strives to demonstrate the utter undesirability of pagan religion and theology, and to encourage his Greek audience to abandon the ignorant worship of malignant and misanthropic deities  in favor of the worship of the true God of Christianity. The Instructor is a reflection of somewhat less consequence, which focuses on the practical elements of Christian discipleship. Here we see Clement not as a polemicist but as a tutor, schooling his audience in the basics of  the moral life and Christian piety.

The Miscellanies is a work of tremendous scope and varied interests; it seems to be more a sketchbook of thoughts than a theological treatise with a unified intention. Nevertheless, it is from this work that we encounter Clement’s overall theological perspective.  The work is an attempt to develop a Christian gnosticism. The Miscellanies, therefore, brings Clement more fully into view as a metaphysician and speculative theologian.

Theology

The most noteworthy element of Clement’s theology is his belief that philosophy is as divine a preparation for the gospel as the law and the prophets of the Old Testament (cf. Strom. 1.5, 20). Whereas many of Christendom’s most prolific writers, such as Tertullian and Hippolytus, had been trying to pin heresy on the influence of Greek philosophy among Christians, Clement sees in philosophy the prospect of a “preliminary cleansing” which prepares students to receive the faith. So we see that Clement’s eclecticism did have a conservative purpose: not to sow pagan tares in the midst of Christian wheat, as it were, but rather to till the soil of paganism such till it was capable of finding its fulfillment in Christ. Hence, Clement proposes a version of “gnosticism” that is quite Christian: theology is the culmination of a course of study which ascends the heights of mystical truth by way of the pedagogy of pagan thought.We must note that for Clement, the successful student will outgrow the pedagogue: therefore, Clement’s eclecticism is best understood not as an affirmation of the efficacy of paganism to convey the truth, but rather as an affirmation of the gospel to make better sense of paganism than paganism can make of itself.

Clement of Alexandria, engraving from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz by Andre Thevet (1584)

Clement of Alexandria, engraving from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz by Andre Thevet (1584)

In speculating about apokatastasis, or “restoration,” Clement is the first known Christian writer to refer to the fire of hell as a purifying fire, a “wise fire that penetrates the soul” (Strom. 7.6). So it is that the wrath of God is understood by Clement as remedial, even therapeutic: “God does not take vengeance, which is the requital of evil for evil, but he chastises for the benefit of the chastised” (Strom. 7.16). The chastisement of divine wrath is intended as an aid in the divine therapy of man’s deification, the end toward which knowledge (gnosis) is most expedient. For knowledge of God presupposes conformity to God’s very self, and conformity to God is the sum of salvation. According to Clement, it seems that all rational beings, by virtue of their rationality, when they encounter the divine substance in the form of a consuming fire, will invariably somehow be brought to genuine gnosis, to conformity to divine truth, in the end. While the universalist implications of this teaching would be condemned in 553, we will see the idea of apokatastasis recur in the writings of several other eastern church fathers, particularly Gregory of Nyssa.

Finally, Clement may be credited as an early proponent of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (cf. Strom. 1.27). It is not necessary to develop this point very much, as Origen is the Alexandrian exegete most notable for his allegorical interpretations. Let it suffice to say that Clement’s use of Scripture is influenced by his bent towards metaphysics, yet, as is most common with early Christian allegory, his conservative method results in very little overt mishandling of the biblical texts.

Alternate Editions and Further Reading

There has been a re-publication of the ANF translation in an affordable volume edited by Paul A. Boer. The Loeb Classical Library has published a critical edition, both in Greek and in English, of the “Exhortation to the Greeks,” “The Rich Man’s Salvation,” and a fragment titled “To the Newly Baptized” (trans. G. W. Butterworth). Complete editions of Clement’s three major works might easily be found distributed by smaller publishers individually, but substantial excerpts and helpful commentary can also be found in the Library of Christian Classics volume Alexandrian Christianity (ed. Henry Chadwick) and in Henry Bettenson’s The Early Christian Fathers.

Eric Osborn has published a study of Clement’s synthesis of the apostolic faith and classical philosophy in Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, 2008), and the series of Oxford Early Christian Studies has published an interesting Orthodox take on Clement’s apophatic mystical theology, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism. Also, for an enjoyable apologia for the Alexandrian allegorical method as well for the eclecticism of Alexandrian fathers such as Clement and Origin, see John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century, a dated yet pertinent work regarding Alexandrian dominance at the creative edge of Christian theology.

 

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