Origen, Unorthodox Church Father


Origen (185-254) was an early church Father and apologist for Christianity. He was heavily influenced by Platonic and Gnostic thought. As a consequence his defense of the faith tended to sacrifice important teachings. He denied the historicity of critical sections of Scripture; he taught the preexistence of the soul and universalism (the belief that all will eventually be saved) and denied that Jesus was raised from the dead in a physical body. These positions were condemned as heretical by later church councils.

Origen was an early second-century Christian writer from Alexandria, Egypt. He studied eleven years with neoplatonist, Ammonius Saccas where he was a classmate of Plotinus (205-270). Origen headed up a catechetical school in Alexandria (211-232) and later founded a school in Caesarea.

His many works include the Hexapla, a six-column comparison of various Greek and Hebrew renditions of the Old Testament. Unfortunately no copies of this great work survive. He also wrote Contra Celsus, an apologetic work answering the philosopher Celsus, and De Principiis, a major theological treatise.

The Bible. While Origen claimed that the Bible was divinely inspired, he did not accept the complete historicity of Scripture, nor did he interpret it all literally. Like others in the Alexandrian school of interpretation, he often allegorized crucial sections of Scripture.

Bible Only Partially Historical. Origen insisted: "We have therefore to state in answer, since we are manifestly so of opinion, that the truth of the history may and ought to be preserved in the majority of instances" (De Prinicipiis, 4.19). Unfortunately, this did not include crucial sections of the Bible. He asserted that the attentive reader would find numerous passages in the Gospels in which insertions of non historic events had been made. "And if we come to the legislation of Moses, many of the laws manifest the irrationality, and others the impossibility, of their literal observance" (De Prinicipiis, 4.1.16-17).

Allegorical Interpretation. Accuracy was not such a concern if the message was buried in allegory. Origen sought "to discover in every expression the hidden splendour of the doctrines veiled in common and unattractive phraseology" (De Prinicipiis, 4.1.7)

The story of Adam and Eve was to be taken figuratively. For "No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it." And "those who are not altogether blind can collect countless instances of a similar kind recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place? Nay, the Gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives; for example, the devil leading Jesus up into a high mountain, in order to show him from thence the kingdoms of the whole world, and the glory of them" (De Prinicipiis, 4.1.16).

Preexistence of the Soul. Origen's argument for the preexistence and eternity of the soul is heavily dependent on Platonism. He argues that God had made other worlds before this one, and would make more in the future (De Prinicipiis, 2.5.3). In creation, "we are to suppose that God created so great a number of rational or intellectual creatures (or by whatever name they are to be called), which have formerly termed understandings, as he foresaw would be sufficient" (De Prinicipiis, 2.9.1).

To deny the eternality of the soul was to do no less than deny God's omnipotence, he believed. The soul must be preexistent and eternal because, "as no one can be a Father without having a son, nor a master without possessing a servant, so even God cannot be called omnipotent unless there exist those over whom he may exercise his power; and therefore, that God may be shown to be almighty, it is necessary that all things should exist." Did he gain more power as he created more people? Rather, "He must always have had those over whom He exercised power, and which were governed by Him either as king or prince" (De Prinicipiis, 1.2.10).

Finally, Origen argues that "If the soul of a man, which is certainly inferior while it remains the soul of a man, was not formed along with his body, but is proved to have been implanted strictly from without, much more must this be the case with those living beings which are called heavenly." Furthermore, "How could his soul and its images be formed along with his body, who, before he was created in the womb, is said to be known by God, and was sanctified by Him before his birth?" (De Prinicipiis, 1.7.4).

Universalism. Origen believed that in the end everyone would be saved. His view is explicitly universalistic:

So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him "all," and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is "all in all." And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be "all in all" (Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.3).

According to Origen, this saving knowledge would come "slowly and gradually, seeing that the process of amendment and correction will take place imperceptibly in the individual instances during the lapse of countless and unmeasured ages, some outstripping others, and tending by a swifter course towards perfection, while others again follow close at hand, and some again a long way behind." Thus, "through the numerous and uncounted orders of progressive being who are being reconciled to God from a state of enmity, the last enemy is finally reached, who is called death, so that he also may be destroyed, and no longer be an enemy. When, therefore, all rational souls shall have been restored to a condition of this kind, then the nature of this body of ours will undergo a change into the glory of a spiritual body" (De Prinicipiis, 3.6.6).

The Bible Texts. Some of Origen's arguments for universalism are based on biblical texts and others on philosophical speculation.

In the context of God's love in Christ, Origen looked to passages that spoke of God conquering and subduing his enemies. He drew on those passages which quoted Psalm 110:1, especially 1 Corinthians 15:25: "The Lord said to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet' For he must reign until he has put all hid enemies under his feet" (De Prinicipiis, 1.6.1).

The End Like the Beginning. Origen reasoned from the neoplatonic premise that "the end is always like the beginning: and, therefore, as there in one end to all things, so ought we understand that there was one beginning; and as there is one end to many things, so there spring from one beginning many differences and varieties, which again, through the goodness of God, and by subjection to Christ, and through the unity of the Holy Spirit, are called to one end, which is like onto the beginning" (De Prinicipiis, 1.6.2).

Reformatory Justice. Origen rejected a penal view of justice, arguing that "The fury of God's vengeance is profitable for the purgation of souls. That the punishment, also, which is said to be applied by fire, is understood to be applied with the object of healing" (De Prinicipiis, 2.10.6). He added, "those who have been removed from their primal state of blessedness have not been removed irrecoverably, but have been placed under the rule of those holy and blessed orders which we have described; and by availing themselves of the aid of these, and being remolded by salutary principals and discipline, they may recover themselves, and be restored to their condition of happiness" (De Prinicipiis, 1.6.2).

God's Wisdom. Origen insisted that: "God, by the ineffable skill of his wisdom, transforming and restoring all things, in whatever manor they are made, to some useful aim, and to the common advantage of all, recalls those very creatures which differed so much from each other in mental conformation to one agreement of labour and purpose; so that, although they are under one influence of different motives, they nevertheless complete the fullness and perfection of one world, and the very variety of minds tends to one end of perfection." For "it is one power which grasps and holds together all the diversity of the world, and leads the different movements towards one work, lest so immense an undertaking as that of the world should be dissolved by the dissensions of souls." And "for this reason we think that God, the Father of all things, in order to ensure the salvation of all his creatures through the ineffable plan of his word and wisdom, so arranged each of these, that every spirit, whether soul or rational existence, however called, should not be compelled by force, against the liberty of his own will, to any other course than that to which the motives of his own mind led him (lest by so doing the power of exercising free-will should seem to be taken away, which certainly would produce a change in the nature of the being itself)" (De Prinicipiis, 2.1.2).

God's Omnipotence. "For nothing is impossible to the Omnipotent, nor is anything incapable of restoration to its Creator" (De Prinicipiis, 3.6.5). This, of course, implies that God desires by his goodness to do so (1 Timothy 2:1; 2 Peter 3:9). But if God wants to save all, and he can save all (i.e., he is all-powerful), then for Origen it would seem to follow that he will save all.

Spiritualism. Origen also denied the permanent physical nature of the resurrection, for which he was condemned by the bishops of the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church when they wrote: "If anyone shall say that after the resurrection the body of the Lord was ethereal, and that such shall the bodies of all after the resurrection; and that after the Lord himself shall have rejected his true body and after others who rise shall have rejected theirs, the nature of their bodies shall be annihilated: let him be anathema" (Canon 10 cited by Schaff, 14:314-19). Likewise, "If any one shall say that the future judgement signifies the destruction of the body and that the end of the story will be an immaterial nature (phusis), and that thereafter there will no longer be any matter, but only spirit (nous): let him be anathema" " (Canon 11 cited by Schaff).

In about 400, the Council of Toledo declared emphatically: "We believe verily, that there shall be a resurrection of the flesh of mankind" (Parker, 24, 26). And the Fourth Council of Toledo (663) added, "By whose death and blood we being made clear have obtained forgiveness of (our sins) and shall be raised up again by him in the last days in the same flesh wherein we now live, (and) in the manner wherein the same (our) Lord did rise again" (Parker, 26).

Christ Inferior to the Father. Although he did not deny the deity of Christ, nonetheless, Origen did believe Jesus has a subordinate status to the Father even to the point that he forfeited his deity while on earth. Origen wrote: "The Son of God, divesting Himself of His equality with the Father, and showing to us the way to the knowledge of Him, is made the express image of His person" (De Prinicipiis, 1.2.8).

Even Christ's goodness is derived from the Father: "If this be fully understood, it clearly shows that the existence of the Son is derived from the Father but not in time, nor from any other beginning, except, as we have said, from God Himself" (De Prinicipiis, 1.2.11).

Origen spoke clearly about Christ's inferior status to the Father when he said, "Grant that there may be some individuals among the multitudes of believers who are not an entire agreement with us, and who incautiously assert that the Saviour is the Most High God; however, we do not hold with them, but rather believe Him when He says, 'The Father who sent Me is greater that I.' We would not therefore make Him whom we call Father inferior -as Celsus accuses us of doing -to the Son of God" (Contra Celsus 8.14).

According to Origen, although Christ is eternal, his deity is derived from the Father: "Wherefore we have always held that God is the Father of His only-begotten Son, who was born indeed of Him, and derives from Him what He is, but without any beginning (De Prinicipiis, 1.2.2).

In a contorted Platonic logic, Origen even argued that somehow the existence of the Son is dependent on the Father: "For if the Son do, in like manner, all these things which the Father doth, then, in virtue of the Son doing all things like the Father, is the image of the Father formed in the Son, who is born of Him, like an act of His will proceeding from the mind. And I am therefore of opinion that the will of the Father ought alone to be sufficient for the existence of that which He wishes to exist. For in the exercise of His will He employs no other way than that which is made known by the council of His will. And thus also the existence of the Son is generated by Him" (De Prinicipiis, 1.2.6, emphasis added).

Evaluation. Origen was at best a mixed blessing for Christian apologetics. He did defend the basic inspiration and historicity of the Bible. He stressed the use of reason in defending early Christianity against attacks of paganism and other false teachings. He was a textual Scholar.

However, Origen's negatives seem to far outweigh the positives. He denied the inerrancy of the Bible, at least in practice. He taught universalism contrary to Scripture. He taught the preexistence of the soul in contrast to the orthodox teaching of creation. He engaged in highly allegorical interpretations of Scripture, undermining important literal truths. He held an aberrant view on the nature of Christ, which gave rise to the later Arian heresy. He denied the tangible, physical nature of the resurrection body in clear contrast to the teaching of Scripture (Luke 24:39; Acts 2:31; 1 John 4:2).


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