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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 236

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Origen was an early church father, born in the North African city of Alexandria in (or around) the year 185 of the Common Era. Alexandria was known as one of the intellectual hubs of the ancient world, home of an extensive library (one of the so-called wonders of the world). Origen was a prolific church father, and he is particularly known for his exegesis (interpretation) of Scripture—primarily the early gospels.

It is important to note that the contents of his work On First Principles (Latin: De Principiīs) survives in its entirely only as an amended Latin translation. The contents comprise four books, each divided into several sections. In the first book, Origen discusses the nature of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. In the second book, Origen describes the origins of the world, the nature of the human body, the incarnation of Christ, and free will. The third book gives Origen's description of temptation, sin, and redemption. Finally, in the fourth book, Origen gives an interpretation on Scripture, including Old and New Testament figures. He also discusses church practices such as circumcision.

A major distinction between Origen and other early church father's is his methodology. He has a strong commitment to scholarship, and is thorough in his discussions of doctrine. Origen is also a proponent of a rational free will in humans, This free will, he maintains, leads humans in their progress of understanding God.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1344

Origen was the first Christian to write systematic theology, to explain how all the things the Bible teaches can be true, and to show how those truths relate to one another. In On First Principles, Origen begins the first book with a preface that states what is clear from the teaching of the Apostles. First, there is only one God the creator, who gave the Law and sent Jesus Christ. Second, God the Son was born of the Father, was the servant of God in the creation of all things, became a man, was born of a virgin, died, and rose from the dead. Third, the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets and apostles. Fourth, souls exist with free will and rationality, and they are rewarded or punished after death. Fifth, a devil and bad angels exist. Sixth, the world began and will end. Seventh, the Scriptures were written by the Holy Spirit and have both an obvious and a hidden meaning. Eighth, good angels help in human salvation. Origen says that anyone who wants to make a “connected series and body of truths” must begin from this foundation.

The first book of On First Principles begins by disproving the idea that God exists materially. While various Scriptures give this impression, Origen shows that they are metaphors. God is also incomprehensible, far better than any human understanding can fathom. Of God the Son, Origen says that he is also the wisdom and Word of God. Because God has always been the Father and has always possessed wisdom and his Word, God the Son must be coeternal with the Father. He is also the life by which all things live and the truth by which all things truly exist. While some might have reasoned that God exists and communicates through a divine Word, no one would think of the existence of the Holy Spirit without the revelation in Scripture. Nothing in the Bible even implies that the Holy Spirit was created, so it must be uncreated and coeternal with God the Father. This Holy Spirit works exclusively with believers. God the Father gives all beings existence, God the Son gives some beings rationality, and God the Spirit gives the rational beings who obey God holiness. Those to whom the Spirit gives holiness must continue to long for more, lest they become satiated and fall away through neglect.

Thinking of falling away through neglect makes Origen wonder whether the good angels and the bad demons were created that way or became what they are through their own choice. Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 convince him that all the spiritual powers were created good. Those who are now angels continued to obey God, but those who are demons fell away. However, Origen speculates, since every rational being has free will, it is possible that some demons may repent and be restored to their former positions.

Next, Origen wonders about the sun, moon, and stars, concluding that they are rational creatures whom God has ordained to serve humanity. Likewise, the angels discharge various functions assigned to them by God in accordance with their behavior before the earth was created. Origen concludes this first book by asserting that there can be movement by rational souls between the three ranks of angels, demons, and people. He has already asserted that angels can become demons, and demons by repenting can become angels, but in this final section he says that people can become angels. He even says that these souls may become forever one spirit with the Lord until no one can distinguish between these souls and God.

In the second book, Origen raises the question of whether or not the world was created. He finds it impossible to believe that such a well-ordered world could exist by chance and argues that the world needs an architect. He says that free will negates the Stoic notion that the events of the world repeat themselves endlessly, and he projects three possible ends for the world. One is that matter will be annihilated, a second is that bodies and spirits will become ethereal, and a third is that soul will leave the realm of change and move into an unchanging heaven.

Origen next refutes those who say the God of the Old Testament is not the Father of Jesus Christ. He then shows that goodness and justice require each other, against those who say that the Old Testament God is just and the New Testament God is good. About the Incarnation, Origen speculates that God chose the most obedient human soul to unite with himself, and that as Christ’s human soul always freely chose to do the good, its nature was changed so it became immune to sin. About the Holy Spirit, Origen says it explains the hidden meaning of the Scripture to the believer and even communicates unutterable consolation.

Turning to the nature of the soul, Origen defines the soul as the living part of a being and says that saving the soul of a person restores all its rational powers. Next Origen considers the objection that a just God did not create the world because people are born into such different situations, some into privilege and some into privation. He answers this charge by arguing that in a prebirth existence every soul either moves toward God or away from him. Those who choose God are rewarded in their birth circumstances, and those who reject him are punished. In the final judgment after death, people’s souls and bodies will be reunited, God will consider all the circumstances of earthly existence, and he will reward or punish people accordingly. Finally Origen disagrees with those who think eternal life to be one of fleshly indulgence, saying that the keenest desire of the soul is for understanding and that this is the need that will be satisfied in the heavenly world.

The third book deals with free will, which Origen defines as the rational part of a person that chooses which of the external promptings and internal desires it will follow. He cites many portions of Scripture that assume people can do what they choose, but then he addresses the passages in Scripture that seem to assert the contrary. Beginning with God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Origen explains that the same sun melts the wax and hardens the clay. Thus, while many Egyptians turned to God during the plagues, Pharaoh freely choose to defy God. Explaining Romans 9:16—“It is not of him that wills, . . . but of God that shows mercy”—Origen argues that this is just another example of a situation in which humans do things but the Scripture attributes the overall result to God. The most difficult verses to explain away are Romans 9:18-21, which assert that God has mercy on whom he will have mercy and hardens those whom he hardens. Origen cannot easily explain away these verses, so he cites several other verses wherein Paul teaches free will and says that we must not think the Apostle contradicted himself. Because Paul clearly believes in free will, this passage cannot teach otherwise, despite what it apparently affirms. In the rest of this book, Origen argues that the way the devil tempts people shows that they have free will.

The fourth book deals with the interpretation of the Bible. Using many examples, Origen teaches that the Scripture must be interpreted on three levels corresponding to the flesh, soul, and spirit in the human being. The flesh is the obvious meaning, the soul is the meaning that edifies, and the spiritual is God’s hidden wisdom for the perfect individual. In order to make the necessity of this threefold interpretation obvious, God put various absurdities into the Bible. For example, the law forbids the eating of vultures. Since no one, even in a famine, would think of eating a vulture, this prohibition must have a soulish or spiritual meaning. Origen finishes his work with a recapitulation of his teachings about the Trinity, defending them as being taught by the spiritual sense of the Scripture.