Thursday, December 4, 2014

Origen (185-255 AD) : The Scholar with an Iron-Will by Chris White

Origen Adamantius
 Like so many human stories, the story of Origen is deeply connected with his hometown.  In ancient times, Alexandria Egypt was known as the 2nd City of the Roman Empire and the teacher of the world.  Its great library (which stood until Muslim control of Egypt in the 7th century) had once been the repository of all human scholarly endeavor and was considered a wonder of the world.  As a result, Alexandria attracted scholars, philosophers, religious leaders and students from all over the Mediterranean.  200 years before Christ, Alexandria had a larger Jewish community than did Jerusalem.  It was because of this that the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek (known as the Septuagint) and this became the Bible that Jesus and his apostles would later read.  When Christianity came to Alexandria and the church became established, it was a natural thing for them to establish a school there to teach young Christians and seekers of the truth.  This school was also to be a witness in a city dedicated to higher learning.  By the time Origen was born, the School of Alexandria was considered a great center of Christian scholarship.  This reputation would only increase as the years passed and Origen became its leader.
Alexandria in Ancient Times

Born around 185 AD, Origen is said to have received his name from the mountain range or village where his devout and wealthy parents were hiding out from an early persecution of Christians.  At some point his parents returned to Alexandria and when Origen was old enough he was given the best education of his day.  As a young boy Origen was known to have memorized large portions of scripture and often astounded his parents with his penetrating questions.  Later he went to a school of Greek philosophy and then the famed School of Alexandria where he studied under the church father Clement.  Origen was also given the surname ‘Adamantius’ (from our word adamant) because of his remarkable firmness in thought and iron-will as regarding bodily discipline.
Roman persecution lasted centuries

Around the time Origen was 17, his father Leonidas was imprisoned  with other Christians during a Roman persecution in Alexandria.  Daily Origen would write his father and others he knew not to recant their faith and hold strong even if it meant certain death.  So passionate was Origen that he wanted to turn himself into the authorities and invite martyrdom.  His life was saved by his well-meaning mother who hid all his clothes from him so he couldn’t go outside.  Origen’s father was eventually put to death and the family property was confiscated leaving Origen’s mother and his 7 siblings in poverty.  Origen in those days was able to help support his family by teaching philosophy and copying manuscripts of great books for the wealthy.

Many Christian scholars including Clement fled Alexandria because of the persecution.  This huge brain drain led the bishop of Alexandria to appoint Origen as the head of the great school when he was just 18 years old.  Far from being a questionable move, the brilliance and intensity of love for the Lord by this “Teen Dean” attracted many new students to the school.

To say that Origen was intense is a bit of an understatement.  Origen was known to sleep on a bare floor after spending most of the night in prayer and study.  On the rare occasion he stopped to take a meal, he never indulged in a glass of wine or ate meat of any kind.  He went without shoes at all times, had only one coat, and refused all gifts from his students.  He had no money and took no thought at all for the morrow.  He was neither a kook or an eccentric, but rather an advocate for the idea that a disciplined body serves a disciplined mind that more readily perceives the voice and presence of God.

Scholarship was a sacred calling

At one point in his 30s, Origen did something quite controversial and had himself castrated in literal obedience to Matthew 19:12 which says that some are eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  He is said to have done this as a defense against fleshly temptation, but it may have been a matter of practicality.  He was constantly teaching and working with girls and women and such a bodily state would free him from both temptation and scandalous accusations.  The great irony in this whole affair is that Origen has never been known for literal exegesis of any passage of scripture.  It is odd that the only record we have of him interpreting scripture in this fashion is found when he emasculates

Read more about how Christianity first came to Alexandria 

For the remainder of his life Origen tried to relate Christianity to the science and philosophy of his day.  He believed that philosophy could prepare someone to understand the scriptures and used the phrase “spoiling the Egyptians” to describe his process of taking from the wealth of pagan learning to explain and defend Christianity to the people of his day.  This is not an original idea (pardon the pun) but an inherited idea from the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria.  He was the first to integrate the teaching of the Greeks with the revelation of the Old Testament and this enterprise was picked up later by the Christian church.  In his day Origen did more than anyone to promote the cause of Christian scholarship and to make the church respectable in the eyes of the learned.
Alexandria attracted scholars from all over

In his later 30s and 40s his reputation as a Christian scholar had spread well beyond Alexandria and he was invited to Rome, Greece, and Antioch to debate prominent leaders of a false religion known as Gnosticism.  Origen was also a notable preacher and was asked by many churches to speak and expound the scriptures.  Through conflict with his bishop in Alexandria over his guest speaking  (partly from jealousy over his success and partly because being castrated precluded a man from ordination in the church) , Origen eventually left his hometown of Alexandria and settled in Caesarea where he started another school of philosophy, literature, and theology that would in time eclipse the school of Alexandria.  
Ruins of Caesarea today

Systematic presentation of theology begins with the books of Hebrews and Romans, but Origen is to many the father of this method.  He is known for preparing short summaries of biblical teachings on various theological ideas.  He is considered by many to be the greatest Bible teacher outside the apostolic circle and the greatest biblical scholar in ancient times having done more than anyone else to master and research the text.  One of the greatest contributions to the Church was a 28 year long project where ancient manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments were collected, compared, and collated and then published for side-by-side study.  This book known as the Hexapla (the sixfold Bible) was lost forever during the Muslim invasions of Egypt in the 7th century but was an invaluable resource to Bible scholars for centuries.  Jerome himself made extensive use of it when he translated the Bible into what is known as the Latin Vulgate.

Watch a short video here on Origen and his historic context 

Origen’s method of Biblical interpretation shaped the Church for more than a thousand years and still does to some extent today.  His interpretive formula was based on the idea that the Bible had three layers of meaning corresponding to human nature of body, soul and spirit.  This is attributed by some to Origen’s affirmation of Platonic philosophy and it certainly may be true, but it is not without any biblical precedent either.  His method called for a literal sense, a moral sense, and finally a mystical or spiritual sense.

As an example, in Numbers chapter 33, 42 stopping places for Israel in the wilderness are listed.  In the literal sense, this is a catalog of their journeys.  Morally, we must understand that our lives are a long spiritual journey to prepare us for heaven and we must not allow this time to be wasted by sloth and neglect.  Spiritually, the purpose of our journey is to end up on the banks of the Jordan.  As we arrive at the river of God, the waves of divine wisdom and knowledge of God will water us and purify us and make us ready and worthy to enter into the Promised land.

Read or download a book by Origen on prayer here 

The organizing principal is that every verse in the Bible leads the believer in his advance towards perfection.  When that insight is found, the deepest meaning of a passage is fully understood.  The strength of this idea is that it demonstrates the Old and New Testaments are rightly a guide to Christians and need to be interpreted in light of Christian doctrine.  Origen felt that in some cases the spiritual sense of a passage was the only possible interpretation.  This was especially true of passages where what is said seems to be difficult to believe or needs reconciliation with other passages that seemingly contradict it.  Origen took such passages as a cue from the Holy Spirit that a deeper sense was intended.

 The great weakness of  this method was that often the literal sense of a passage has much to say, but is ignored or undeveloped in favor of a more mystical understanding.  Such interpretive methods remained popular throughout the Middle Ages but with the Renaissance and Reformation, came a return to the emphasis on the grammatical-historical setting of a scripture verse.  However, this is not a denial of the legitimate existence of layered meaning in the scriptures.

Copying books was an art in the ancient world

Through the patronage of a wealthy Christian, as Origen taught, a staff of stenographers would write down his every word.  These notes in turn would be given to a staff of secretaries for editing and then would be turned over to calligraphers who would turn them into artfully produced books.  Using this method, Origen was able to write nearly 6000 books in his lifetime.  Most of these books presented either theology or arguments against heretics and pagans.  St. Jerome is believed to have said “all that Origen wrote was more than a person could read in a lifetime.”  Unfortunately, nearly two centuries after his death, a great controversy erupted in the church over some of his ideas and because they were not understood in their original context, he was declared a heretic at a church council (Constantinople II in 553 AD) and many of his works were destroyed or no longer copied, thus today very few of his works remain in their complete form.

Critics of Origen are many and their charge that he employed the speculative thinking of his philosophically trained mind a bit too much in his theology is not unwarranted.  Origen believed all of us pre-existed in eternity before being born on earth and that we had a Pre-fall even before the one in the Garden of Eden.  He was also one of the first Christian universalists who held that all people would be eventually redeemed by God including the possibility of even the devil repenting!  He did believe in the Trinity and believed in the divinity of Christ, however, he believed that Jesus was somehow less than the Father and the Holy Spirit somehow less than Christ.
Maybe a bit optimistic on that point!

Origen believed the redeeming work of Christ even had significance for rational creatures living on distant stars and galaxies.  He also believed that creation is eternal and is constantly going through metamorphosis.  The creation is eternal because God is eternally and a creator.

Not surprisingly Origen denied a bodily resurrection.  This was not out of incredulity or disbelief, but more from his philosophical leanings.  He didn’t think the body had much purpose in this life except to house the spirit and so looked forward to leaving it behind and having solely a spiritual existence.

Origen also did not look for a millennial reign of Christ on earth, but like many Christian teachers of his day interpreted Revelation 20 as happening in heaven and upon death, Christians are immediately transferred to the Kingdom of God which is in heaven.

Against this, it has been argued that Origen was orthodox by the standards of his time as he lived prior to the more formal creedal statements set by the Church councils.  He was an early thinker and began planting the seeds of thinking and interpretation of the Bible that would be considered orthodox at a later time.  Had he died as a martyr he probably would have been forgiven for his shortcomings and over speculation as martyrdom has always had the effect of covering a multitude of sins.

Schaff estimates Origen as a man who held erroneous views but was anything but a heretic, especially in an era where the theology of the church was still emerging and was far from fixed.  That said, Origen was not orthodox in the Catholic or Protestant sense, but more of a guide from philosophy and Gnosticism to Christianity.  He had a fertile mind and moral imagination (including a bit of over optimism it would seem) but had no heart to knowingly lead people into apostasy or error.
In 250 Origen was imprisoned and sentenced to death in another Roman persecution of Christians.  He was eventually released but his health was broken and he died in the next few years at age 70.
Since his death Origen has been vilified as a heretic for some of his doctrinal ideas and hailed as a hero by others for his pioneering efforts in critical biblical scholarship.  Even heathens and heretics admired the brilliant talent and vast learning of Origen.  

In the Eastern Church today, Origen is considered the father of Christian theology.


Cairns, Earle. E.  Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids : Academie, 1981)

Ferguson, Everett.  Christian History  vol. 1.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2013)

Jenkins, Philip.  The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia----and How It Died.  (New York : HarperOne, 2008)

McManners, John.  The Oxford History of Christianity.  (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2002)

“Origen”  Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters.  Donald K. McKim ed.  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity,2007)

“Origen”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity vol. 2.  Angelo Di Berardino ed.  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2014

“Origen”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church vol. 2.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1994)

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