Origen Essay - Critical Essays



Origen c. 185-c. 254

Greek theologian.

Considered the father of dogmatic theology, Origen, with the exception of St. Augustine, was the most distinguished and influential theologian of the ancient Church. Origen was critical in the development and final solidification of Christian dogma during the fourth and fifth centuries. This development began two generations before Origen, with Justin, Clement, and others, in an attempt to find an intellectual expression and philosophical basis for the Christian faith. By proclaiming the reconciliation of the best of pagan philosophical wisdom and its highest cultural forms with Christian theology and the Gospel, Origen did more than anyone else of his time to convert the East to Christianity. All of his work has as its premise his unshakable conviction that the sacred truths of Christianity are fully compatible with the ideals of antiquity. It was this conviction that led him into theological speculations founded on pagan Greek philosophical ideas. By the seventh century, however, when Christian doctrine had solidified and speculative theology was no longer welcomed, such theory had become inadmissible. Origen formulated his theological thought in opposition to both the pagan Greek philosophers (the Neoplatonists) and the Christian gnostic heresies, but his ideas nevertheless bear the clear impression of both. Despite his salutary influence upon it, Christian dogma had taken a different direction than that in which he had been directing it. This divergence led in the sixth century to the loss of his orthodox standing in the Church due to his neoplatonist and gnostic thought. During his lifetime, however, Origen enjoyed the highest esteem of the Church as a teacher of Scripture, and a great value was placed on his theological acumen, which was sought by both kings and bishops. Alongside his theological contribution, Origen had also laid the foundations for allegorical exegeses of Scripture that lasted long into the Middle Ages and a system of textual criticism of the Old and New Testaments that still commands respect. Origen's reputation has been somewhat restored by modern scholarship inasmuch as his theology and the significance of its historical contribution to the development of Christian thought is better understood.

Biographical Information

Origen was born in Alexandria of Christian parents in about 185. His father, Leonides, gave him a first-class education, for which he showed an early aptitude. This took place in the catachetical school in Alexandria, which was the only institution at that time where Christian boys were given both a Hellenistic and Christian education, being taught both the Greek sciences and the Holy Scriptures. Alexandria, even in the third century, was still the nexus of East and West, the place where Christian and Greek thought could interact. Consequently, in Alexandria, Christian thinking tended to be more speculative and less dogmatic and was strongly influenced by Greek philosophy, which permeated the intellectual climate there. A persecution arose in 202 in which Origen's father was martyred and the family lost its livelihood. In 203, at the age of 18, Origen launched his career as lecturer and writer, when he was made headmaster by the bishop Demetrius of a catechetical school to provide instruction to young inquirers about the Christian faith. As a teacher, he devoted himself to the study of Greek philosophy and the Scriptures, regularly attending the lectures of a famous neoplatonist, Ammonius Saccus, and acquiring a knowledge of Hebrew to study the Old Testament in the original language. Origen lived an extremely ascetic life, practicing at once the principles of Christian ethics and those of the Stoics. Because he taught many young women, tradition tells us, he had himself surgically castrated in order to prevent rumor and maintain his purity. His school was highly regarded, and both pagans and Christians thronged to it. After a few years, giving the beginning pupils over to the instruction of his colleague Heracles and teaching only the advanced students, Origen freed enough time to begin his textual criticism of the Scriptures. At the same time, he began publishing his many commentaries on the Old Testament and his theological investigations. He labored in these pursuits for the next twenty-eight years. During this period, he also traveled throughout the East and parts of the West for scholarly and ecclesiastical purposes and often by invitation to deliver public lectures in the churches. Even as a layman, Origen was often asked by bishops to teach in their churches, as was the custom in the East. But this was not done in Alexandria, because bishop Demetrius strongly disapproved of Origen's teaching in the Church; in fact, he once called Origen back to Palestine from his teaching engagements to demonstrate his disapproval. When Origen was ordained a presbyter by the bishops in Palestine in 230, Demetrius, believing it an infringement on his rights as the bishop of Alexandria, arranged to have him stripped of his presbytership on grounds that he promulgated objectionable doctrine. Under pressure to leave Alexandria, Origen retired from the city in 232 and traveled to Palestine, where his condemnation was not acknowledged. He eventually settled in Caesarea, where he established a school which flourished and soon rivaled the reputation of that which he left in Alexandria. He also continued his indefatigable labors as a teacher and writer of exegesis and theology and traveled on demand, as his reputation in the East as the Church's greatest teacher remained strong. In 250, the Decian persecution broke out, and Origen was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. Although he survived, his health had been broken. In 254, Origen died at Tyre, where his grave was on display throughout much of the Middle Ages.

Textual History

Eusebius, Origen's fourth-century biographer, collected and edited more than one hundred of Origen's letters in a series of volumes which he deposited in the library at Caesarea, but all have been lost with the exception of two and a few fragments. Origen's Hexapla, the culmination of more than twenty years of textual studies on the Old Testament, was probably never fully transcribed, but large sections survive because excerpts were taken from it by various scholars in the fourth century. His exegeses, covering the Old and New Testaments, were divided into Scholia, or brief, grammatical annotations; Homilies, or exegetical expositions; and Commentaries. Few of these are extant in the original Greek text preserved by his great admirer, St. Jerome, but many more survive in Latin translations, although some were greatly abbreviated and paraphrased by his contemporary Rufinus of Aquileia and by St. Jerome to make them more readable and more orthodox. Against Celsus, Origen's major apologetical work, has been preserved completely in the original. Of his many dogmatic writings, only On First Principles survives, and only in Rufinus' translation, while Stomata and tractates on the Resurrection and free will survive only in fragments. The Exhortation to Martyrdom, Origen's work of practical theology written during the Caesarean period, still survives intact. During his lifetime, many forgeries and falsifications were made of his works; many of these are still in existence and remain falsely attributed to him. The most noteworthy is the Dialogues of a certain Adamantius whose name was also Origen. After Origen's death, the Cappadocian Fathers Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil collaborated on an anthology of Origen's works, the Philocalia, which has survived in many editions over the centuries.

Major Works

The writings of Origen consist of letters, textual criticism, exegesis, apologetics, and dogmatic and practical theology. The Hexapla and the Tierapla, Origen's textual criticism, were undertaken to develop a more reliable text of the Scriptures by resolving the discrepencies between the Septuagent (the Greek text of the Old Testament) and the Hebrew text. In these works, Origen set the Hebrew side by side with the Greek versions, generally correcting the various Greek versions by the Hebrew. Of his exegetical works— the Scholia, Homilies, and Commentaries—those that have drawn the most attention, largely because they alone survive in any quantity, are the homilies on Jeremiah, the books of Moses, Joshua, and Luke, and the commentaries on Matthew, John, and Romans. In evidence in these texts is Origen's method of grammatical analysis and his allegorical method of interpretation, by which he distinguishes a threefold sense of the Scriptures: a grammatico-historical sense, a moral sense, and a spiritual sense, where the true wisdom of the Scripture is discerned. His principal work of apolgetics is Against Celsus, a late work in which he answers a famous critique and denunciation of Christianity by a well-known Platonist of the second century. Against Celsus is invaluable as a historical source of information about the situation of the Church in the second century in that it contains almost the entire text of Celsus's treatise. Origen's answer reveals clearly the syncretic character of his mind, which bore a close affinity to Celsus's in its fundamental philosophical and theological presuppositions. Origen's major work of dogmatic theology, On First Principles, is a relatively early work in which he presents an exhaustive and reflective statement of Christian doctrine that is probably the first example of systematic theology. Its dogmatic intent notwithstanding, On First Principles is a speculative work, for Origen's idea of the dogmatic was based on the hypothesis that although every Christian is committed to the Faith as it was handed down by the Apostles, the philosophically trained believer is at liberty to speculate as reason and wisdom directs him. Origen's most important devotional work is Exhortation to Martyrdom, a late treatise (c. 235) addressed to two friends who had recently suffered severe persecution under Maximinus I.

Critical Reception

Origen was a highly controversial theologian. Even in his lifetime he came under numerous assaults on what already appeared to be his heterodoxy. He was accused of polluting Christianity with the influence of pagan philosophy and of using allegory to introduce gnostic ideas into the Church's understanding of the Scriptures. He was charged with antitrinitarianism, making the Son inferior to the Father, and he was also supposed to have denied the historical fact or significance of the Resurrection, the existence of Hell, and the entire historical foundation of Christianity. Origen, however, always believed he was propounding orthodoxy and contended that faith and philosophical wisdom were strongly connected. Especially in the East, however, Origen was immensely popular as a teacher and biblical scholar. After his death, he had many powerful defenders, among them St. Athanasius and St. Basil, and great admirers like St. Jerome, who, although he admired Origen, could not defend him. Opposition to Origen culminated in the sixth century, when the Byzantine emperor Justinian I and the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553 denounced him as a heretic. As recently as the nineteenth century, based on Eusebius's critique of Porphyry's attack on Origen, it was believed that there were two Origens: one a pupil of the neoplatonist Ammonius Saccas and the other the Christian theologian. It is now understood that they are the same man. Among modern scholars there remains considerable disagreement over Origen's true relation to Christian orthodoxy. It is now better understood from a historical perspective, however, that the strong philosophical components which composed the framework of Origen's singular thought exerted their powerful influence at a time and place in which Christian dogma had not yet been permanently formulated and speculation on the meaning of the Faith of the Apostles was at a high pitch.

Principal Works

Exhortatio as martyrdom (edited by P. Koetschau) 1899

Contra Celsum (edited by P. Koetschau) 1899

De oratione (edited by P. Koetschau) 1899

In Joannem (edited by E. Preuschen) 1903

De principiis (edited by P. Koetschau) 1913

In Genesim, Exodum et Leviticum homiliae (edited by W. Baehrens) 1920

In Numeros, Jesu Nave et Judicum homiliae (edited by W. Baehrens) 1921

In Canticum canticorum (edited by W. Baehrens) 1925

In Canticum canticorum homiliae (edited by W. Baehrens) 1925

In Librum Regnorum,...

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Principal English Translations

De oratione (edited by P. Koetschau) 1899

Vin Canticum canticorum (translated by P. Koetschau) 1899

In Joannem (edited by E. Preuschen) 1903

Jesu Nave et Judicum homiliae (edited by W. Baehrens) 1921

Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (translated by J. Patrick) [Books II-XIV only]

Selection from the Commentaries and Homilies of Origen (translated by R. Tollinton) 1929

On First Principles (translated by G. W. Butterworth) 1936

Origen's Treatise on Prayer (translated by E. C. Jay) 1954

The Song of Songs, Commentary and...

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Eusebius (essay date c. 339?)

SOURCE: "Book VI," in Ecclesiastical History, Vol. II, n. p., c. 339? pp. 51-95..

[In this excerpt, Eusebius, the first historian of the Church, defends Origen's reputation as an orthodox theologian against his detractors while reviewing his life and work.]

And so accurate was the examination that Origen brought to bear upon the divine books, that he even made a thorough study of the Hebrew tongue, and got into his own possession the original writings in the actual Hebrew characters, which were extant among the Jews. Thus, too, he traced the editions of the other translators of the sacred writings besides the Seventy; and besides the beaten track of translations, that...

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Charles Bigg (lecture date 1886)

SOURCE: "Origen," in The Christian Platonists of Alexandria: Eight Lectures, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1886, pp. 115-34.

[In this lecture, Bigg provides an overview of Origen's life and work in its various aspects: textual criticism, exegesis, and religious philosophy.]

Clement as we have seen is a philosopher of a desultory and eclectic type and so far as the needs of his tranquil spirit led him on. Egypt is his world, Gnosticism his one trouble. Origen had travelled to Rome in the West and Bostra in the East, and had found everywhere the clash of arms. But apart from this he was not one of those who discover the rifts in their harness only on the morning of the...

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René Cadiou (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Origen the Pagan," in Origen: Life at Alexandria, B. Herder Book Co., 1944, pp. 186-208.

[In this essay, Cadiou explains the purported identification of Origen 's thought with pagan Neoplatonism, the problems that follow upon such an identification, and the facts about Origen's reception of Neoplatonism.]

The comparative study of the two systems of thought justifies us in the assertion that the Platonism which Origen acquired at Alexandria in the beginning of the third century was the decisive factor in the development of his philosophy. Thirsting for its teachings on the origin of the soul, the hierarchy of spirits, the role of providence, and the genesis of...

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Jean Daniélou (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Origen's Theology of the Spiritual Life," in Origen, Sheed & Ward, 1955, pp. 293-309.

[In this essay, Daniélou examines Origen's contribution to the theology of the spiritual life or mystical theology that had an extensive influence in Western and Eastern monasticism, particularly through Origen's allegorical expositions of the Scriptures in which he traced the soul's pilgrimage back to union with God.]

Origen occupies a conspicuous position in the history of exegesis and was the most eminent theologian in the early Church. The part he played in working out the theology of the spiritual life is historically no less important. This side of him was for long...

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Henry Chadwick (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Illiberal Humanist," in Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1966, pp. 66-94.

[In this essay, Chadwick reviews Origen's life and teachings, showing in what ways Origen is different from Clement, his predecessor. Throughout are discussions of Origen's thinking on revelation, gnosticism, Christian philosophy, human sexuality, and the Incarnation.]

Origen is not a figure it is easy to see in accurate perspective. This difficulty is not caused merely by the massive dimensions of his work, nor because he is especially obscure, nor even because we do not possess the full...

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Rev. H. Chadwick (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Origen," in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, Cambridge at the University Press, 1967, pp. 182-92.

[In this essay, Chadwick generally discusses the ways in which Origen's theological and philosophical thinking as well as his principles of allegorical exposition of the Scriptures are distinct from those of his Jewish and pagan contemporaries and predecessors and how they were deeply influenced by them, showing that Origen's thought is a complex patchwork that has been controversial since the sixth century.]

Origen was born about 184-5 at Alexandria, probably of Christian parents (Porphyry and Eusebius contradict one another on...

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Robert W. Smith (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Spokesman for Truth (Continued): Christian Preachers," in The Art of Rhetoric in Alexandria: Its Theory and Practice in the Ancient World. Martinus Nijhoff, 1974, pp. 73-107.

[In this excerpt, Smith examines Origen's use of the homily and how in his hands it became an occasion for explaining the meaning of the Scriptures. Discussed as well is Origen' s theory and method of preaching. The editors have included only the footnotes that pertain to the part of the chapter devoted to Origen.]

The homily … as a speech form came into its own in the third to fifth centuries in the Byzantine church, but the idea originated centuries earlier. Aeschylus spoke of it...

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P. M. O'Cleirigh (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Meaning of Dogma in Origen," in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, Vol 1. Fortress Press, 1980, pp. 201-16.

[In this essay, O'Cleirigh examines the teaching of Origen over against the teachings of Christian orthodoxy with a view to answering the question much in debate among scholars: Did Origen write from a comprehensive view of Christian theology or did he merely apply his philosophical mind to mystical ends?]

The distinct shape of Origen's achievement is a ground of debate among scholars. It is generally agreed, however, that his work established a model of Christian theology which was to predominate in later centuries.1 He accomplished...

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Joseph W. Trigg (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Charismatic Intellectual: Origen's Understanding of Religious Leadership," in Church History, Vol. 50, No. 1, March, 1981, pp. 5-19.

[In this essay, Trigg contends that Origen had succeeded in reconciling his two roles as intellectual or philosopher and as a faithful churchman by making churchmanship a function of intellectual achievement.]

Origen's vocabulary is quite definitely that of an intellectual; it owes little to daily life or to the vernacular of the time.… He seems … to manufacture his own language, often hermetic, abstract, or difficult to understand, the language of a man concerned above all with ideas, somewhat cut off...

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Andrew Louth (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Origen," in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 52-74.

[In this essay, Louth examines the degree to which Platonism permeates Origen's theology, showing how Origen helped found the tradition of intellectual mysticism received by the Eastern Church and, more broadly, the whole of the Christian mystical tradition, having provided a framework within which mystical theology could develop.]

With Origen we begin to discuss specifically Christian mystical theology. So far we have discussed the Platonic background to such theology, and in doing that we may seem to have prejudged the...

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Peter Brown (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "'I Beseech You: Be Transformed': Origen," in The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 160-77.

[In this excerpt, Peter Brown discusses how Origen in his exposition of Christian theology and his biblical interpretation understood and used the Platonism that permeated the Christian East of his day and how his understanding, profoundly Christian, was fundamentally different from that of his contemporary pagan Platonists.]

Between May 200 and the middle of 203, Laetus, the Augustal Prefect of Egypt, rounded up a group of Christians from Alexandria and from Egypt proper. The father of Origen...

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Further Reading

Berchman, Robert M. From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Translation. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1984, 359p.

An historical inquiry into the emergence of the Jewish and Christian Platonic philosophies in the formative period of Judaism and Christianity in Alexandria.

Butterworth, G.W., ed., trans. Origen: On First Principles. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973, 342 p.

Contains two good general introductions to Origen's work, one by Henri De Lubac, author of Histoire et Esprit: L'intelligence de l'Écriture d'après Origene (1950), and one by Butterworth.


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