(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.