On First Principles Analysis



Origen is the first major figure in the Christian era who wrote—in Greek—with full philosophical training and with a full sympathy toward philosophical method. Saint Augustine is sometimes given this credit, but Origen preceded him, and Augustine owes much to Origen. In any inquiry into the sources of later philosophy and theology, Origen must be given wide attention. The infusion of Greek philosophical skill into theology gave Christian thought its unusual theoretical side and allowed it to develop close relationships with pagan philosophical interests.

Therefore, Origen’s On First Principles subjected him to charges of heresy. His strong philosophical interests and training most likely led to a doctrine that did not conform to established ideas on every point. However, because the original Greek text of the work has, for the most part, been lost, these charges are difficult to establish. The elaborated Latin translation, De Principiis, by Rufinus contains indications that Origen’s work was considerably altered in its rendering, and modern scholarship tends to find Origen not so extreme on some points as has sometimes been charged. Origen and Plotinus had the same philosophical teacher, Ammonius Saccas, who is sometimes said to be the founder of Neoplatonism.

Origen begins by establishing the words and teachings of Christ as a central norm, and his fame as a biblical interpreter is widespread. To develop theological...

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The opening chapter of the first of the four books is titled “On God.” Such a starting point must spring from systematic interests, for the Bible contains little direct discussion of the divine nature, and none in technical form. Later philosophy agreed with Origen in beginning immediately with a discussion of the divine attributes, until the modern period began to swing the emphasis away from metaphysics. Origen then discusses the second and third persons of the Trinity and gives an account of the origin of sin or defection. After this he considers humans as rational creatures and the doctrine of last things, or eschatology. He ends the book by discussing the nature and function of angels, which to contemporary readers will seem the most artificial use of rational argument. In short, what Origen provides is a vast scheme, beginning with God and including all natural creatures in an account of the beginning and end of the world.

Origen is most concerned to prove God to be incorporeal and to deny any possible physical attributes. His love for the immaterial undoubtedly reflects his Platonic training, and Origen also stresses light symbolism in referring to God, another favorite Platonic sign. Like Saint Augustine, Origen uses “God” as a symbol and norm for truth, but he goes on to place God beyond final human comprehension. Like the “Good” of Plato, God is too bright for direct human vision. God’s incorporeality, it turns out, has its primary example in the human intellect, which Origen takes to be equally incorporeal in its operation. God is not seen as a corporeal body is seen; he is known, and he knows, as an intellectual being.

The Trinity

When Origen turns to Christology, it is clear that his conception of divinity in its highest sense is personal, which is not true in Neoplatonism. The personal relationship of the three members of the Trinity is immediately apparent, and Origen establishes the coeternality of the Father and Son, despite the fact that the Son is said to have been “generated.” Any Platonic, and especially Neoplatonic, framework can accept eternal generation as an intelligible concept, so that Origen’s philosophical background helps to set the theological orthodoxy. Just as nous, the intelligible world (or principle), in Plotinus is the source of the natural order, containing the seeds and forms of all things, so the primary function of the Son, as Origen sees it, is to be the second person, the divine creative agent for the natural world. The world is not eternal and the three members of the Trinity are coequal and personal in nature. This view radically distinguishes Origen and Plotinus from a basic Neoplatonism, despite the many similarities.

The Son is the truth and life of all things that exist, and Origen goes on to argue that there should be a resurrection of the type that the Son in fact undergoes in order to destroy the bond of death placed on humans. However, the Son is the Word (Logos), the intelligible structure of all things, and as such is not subject to sight but can be revealed only to the understanding. The incorporeality of the Son, and God,...

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Freedom of the Will

When Origen turns to discuss what a rational nature is, his famous doctrine of the freedom of the will becomes evident. Every rational creature is capable of earning praise or censure: Therefore, if people are censured for sins, it is not because they were incapable of different action. However, among rational creatures Origen lists angels and spiritual powers of wickedness along with humans. Angels and the powers of wickedness are also fully free to determine their course. Angels are free to fall, and they remain angels only as a reward for contrived choice of the good.

Every creature within the rational structure has its position because of the merit, or demerit, it has earned. The situation of every creature is the result of its own work and movement. Origen is adamant about keeping the responsibility for the fall of the angels, or human sin, away from God. No malignant powers were formed by God in creation, although such irrational forces now exist. They have come into being and now plague the world. Through a fall, they were converted into wicked beings and that fall resulted from their own choices. Such a power was formerly holy and happy, and from that state of happiness, it fell from the time that iniquity was found in it.

Our world is rationally governed, and it contained only good beings at its creation; but those beings were free to choose their own actions; they included powers and angels far stronger than humans. Once such divine powers fell, because...

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Perhaps Origen’s greatest ability is shown by how he treats Scripture’s place in theological argument, a particularly interesting problem in view of his obvious attachment to philosophy and to rational argument on all points. The authority of Scripture as a norm must first be agreed to, Origen says, and in that sense, argument is prior to Scripture’s authority. Thus, he first set down the reasons that lead us to regard Scripture as divine writings. The wide conversions to Christianity, he argues, attest to the special significance of its Scriptures. Origen argues for the deity of Christ, and thus for the divine inspiration of the Scripture that prophesied him, so that the authority of Scripture in theology really rests on the prior acceptance of the divinity of Christ. Scripture is not obviously authoritative for Origen, but it becomes so for those who are convinced of Jesus’ divine authority, and one can be convinced through a process of reasoning.

Scripture hides the splendor of its doctrines in common and unattractive phraseology, and the inability to see through this is one of the most frequent reasons for rejecting scriptural passages as valid points in an argument. Thus the central problem is to state the manner in which Scripture is to be read and understood as its validity is not immediately obvious. Origen introduces his distinction of the “spiritual meaning” as opposed to the interpretation according to the “mere letter.” Origen finds certain mystical economies in the Scriptures, but to see these, the words must be properly interpreted. Each individual, Origen insists, ought to receive the threefold meaning of Scripture: first, the obvious sense; second, the “soul,” or essential meaning of the words; and third, the hidden wisdom or mystery of God contained in a “spiritual” meaning.

There are, then, esoteric and exoteric meanings in Scripture, and one cannot easily tell which of the three meanings will best...

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Sources for Further Study

Crouzel, Henri. Origen. Translated by A. S. Worrall. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. An overview of Origen’s life and theology.

Daniélou, Jean. A History of Early Christian Doctrine Before the Council of Nicaea. Vol. 2 in Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture. Translated by John Austin Baker. London: Westminster Press, 1973. Contains fine sections on Origen’s catechetical teaching, biblical interpretation, Christology, anthropology, demonology, and understanding of Christian Gnosticism. Daniélou is very precise on the meaning and practice of allegory for Origen....

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