Analysis

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Origen's On First Principles is a rigorous text, written by Alexandrian scholar and early Church Father, Origen, around 185 CE. His vast tract on the nature of Christianity addresses subjects such as the Trinity, free will, the end of the world, and Scripture. The treatise On First Principles is in...

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Origen's On First Principles is a rigorous text, written by Alexandrian scholar and early Church Father, Origen, around 185 CE. His vast tract on the nature of Christianity addresses subjects such as the Trinity, free will, the end of the world, and Scripture. The treatise On First Principles is in some sense doctrinally aloof (and some scholars suspect that Origen was labelled a heretic when On First Principles was released to the public). This is likely to be true, as Christian North Africa, in addition to being a center of scholarship, was a hotbed for opposing doctrines and a wellspring of heterodox Christianities.

The major themes of On First Principles, especially those which mark it as unique, include his analogy of God to the sun; we can't see it materially by looking at it, but we know it to exist by how it illuminates all else.

Origen's eschatological discussion proposes that "after the end of this present world, others will take their beginning," (Book IV, Chapter 5). Our current world is thus not the only one, but several worlds do not coexist at the hands of God.

Origen also endows humans with free will, and claims that, at the time of creation, God "conveyed invisibly a share in Himself to all His rational creatures, so that each one obtained a part of Him exactly proportioned to the amount of affection with which he regarded Him." (Book II, Chapter 6). Origen accounts for the varied circumstances into which individuals are born by declaring that human souls move toward or away from God before being incarnate in human bodies. That is to say, the positions in which individuals find themselves are a product of their behaviors, as these behaviors are representations of their rational and free will with which all individuals are endowed.

Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

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 issues along the lines of philosophy, some interpretive scheme had to be devised to make biblical thought and expression amenable to philosophical treatment. Like many a sophisticated follower of religion, Origen was caught between the rough and untechnical nature of biblical expression and the abstract nature of technical and systematic analysis. In response, Origen attempted first of all to establish what can be taken as agreed apostolic teaching, because the church of his time provided for him no single unequivocal set of agreed doctrines.

Origen’s Kata Kelsou (248; Origen Against Celsus, 1990) is sometimes thought to be more immediately relevant to philosophy, since Origen wrote it during the time of Philip the Arabian to refute the attack against Christianity by the Greek philosopher Celsus. Actually, it is less philosophical in the systematic sense than On First Principles, since it is in the latter work that Origen develops his principal doctrines. Origen Against Celsus is rather contrived and often shows philosophical reason at its worst, compiling lists of apparently rational arguments in order to overwhelm an opponent’s point. It is true that On First Principles is much more inextricably involved with the details of Christian doctrine, but this fact should bother none but the antimetaphysical readers.

God

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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

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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, is again an overriding concern. Origen also takes the classical position in upholding the necessity of creation. God’s omnipotence demands a world to govern and so he has no choice but to create a world through the agency of the second person of the Trinity, his Word.

Origen finds the sources for his doctrine of the Son, the divine intellectual and creative agency, in pagan philosophical views. He considers not the doctrine of the Son but that of the Holy Spirit to be the unique theological idea in Christianity. No pagan before, Origen believes, had conceived of the Holy Spirit; but such teaching is, he feels, in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. The Holy Bible is the divine agent, and Origen asserts that all rational beings, Christian or not, partake of reason. As a measure of the importance Origen gives to the Holy Spirit, he believes that a sin committed against the Son can be forgiven but that a sin against the Holy Spirit cannot.

Freedom of the Will

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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 their chosen iniquity was discovered, then rational humans came to have superior forces—both of good and evil—at play upon them. Humans are still free to determine their choices, but not in the easy way that existed before the transformation of some good powers into evil. Spotless purity exists in the essential being of none save the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it is an accidental quality in every created thing and thus can easily be lost. Yet it lies within humans, in their own actions, to possess either happiness or holiness.

When Origen comes to discuss the end of the world and the ultimate transformation and restoration of all things, he acknowledges immediately that such questions are not subject to strict definition but must take the form of speculative discussion. The Trinity can be set forth in propositional form: However, any account of the end of the world can only be conjecture, despite its obvious basis in Scripture. How things will be after such a day is known with certainty only to God.

There is no rational creature that is not capable of both good and evil. Because not even the devil was incapable of good, what people become is the result of their own decisions and not of any inevitable force. However, the righteousness of humans is only accidental, and it is easy for them to throw it away. Yet God has so constructed the world that no rational creature is compelled by force, against the liberty of its own will, to any course other than that to which the motives of its own mind lead it.

Origen has sketched his position, one that concedes a great deal of the directive powers of each rational individual, but he ends by admitting that his view is only a possible one. Let each reader, he says, determine for himself or herself whether any of the views he argues can be adopted or not. Origen trusts reason a great deal, and he makes every question of theology a matter for rational discussion, but he does not believe his conclusions to be unavoidable or inevitable.

Scripture

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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 fit a passage. Some people are better interpreters of Scripture than others and can divine the esoteric meanings of certain important passages, but the exoteric meaning is easily available, even to simple folk. This being so, not all Scriptural accounts need to be factual. That is not their purpose. Interwoven in the historical accounts are reports of events that did not occur, some that could not have happened, and some that could have happened but did not. The biblical documents are not a pure history of events but were intended to convey meaning and truth on a threefold level, according to the scheme Origen has sketched. They reveal facts about the divine intention that no mere record of events could convey.

Many biblical accounts cannot be believed literally—for example, God walking in paradise in the evening—and when this is so, one knows that a deeper meaning must be sought beneath the literal phrase. Therefore, the biblical documents are, in themselves, no simple authoritative norm in theological debate, for their normative value depends on the prior working out, and acceptance of, a rational framework for interpreting the literature. Were the Bible to be taken literally, Origen argues, it would be incredibly irrational. Yet the passages that are true in their historical meaning are much more numerous than those that are interspersed with a purely spiritual signification. The reader must be careful to ascertain how far the literal meaning is true and how far it is impossible. Certainly this places the ultimate norm in the rational judgment of the individual interpreter.

Thus Origen sets Scripture into a rational framework, making it possible to use it in support of rational theological discussion. A modern reader may at first miss the philosophical importance of Origen’s analysis in On First Principles. It is more the way in which Origen treats his material than the material itself that is philosophical. Furthermore, if Origen’s approach to scriptural authority is basically rational, his philosophical interests can be seen even more clearly in his stress on the freedom of the will. For this is not basically a religious problem but one that a philosophical instinct might regard as important to theological doctrine. Classical philosophy had not laid great stress on the question of freedom; the contemporary importance of the problem of humanity’s freedom stems from the movement of philosophical minds, such as Origen’s, into a religious context that stresses the relation between a creating, ordaining God and all rational beings. Origen’s philosophical background makes him sense that rational independence for humanity depends upon establishing some form of freedom of the will as the basis of independence from God’s action. Such independence also solves the theological problem of God’s responsibility for sin, which the religious doctrine stresses; and the result is to give to the question of freedom of the will a place of new importance for all succeeding philosophy.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

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.

Ferguson, Everett, ed. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. 2d ed. New York: Garland, 1997. Provides an extensive article on Origen.

Kannengiesser, Charles, and William Petersen, eds. Origen of Alexandria: His World and His Legacy. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988. Scholarly papers on various aspects of Origen’s life, thought, and impact.

Küng, Hans. Great Christian Thinkers. New York: Continuum, 1994. The chapter on Origen offers a general overview of his life and major ideas. Presents his synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian spirituality as the first model of a “scientific theology.”

McGrath, Allister. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. Provides the background for Origen’s theology.

Trigg, Joseph W. Origen. New York: Routledge, 1998. An accessible introduction to Origen’s life and work. Includes translations of a representative selection of his writings and an index of scriptural citations.

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