Examining the Origenist Controversy

Origen had a motto that he taught his students as the guide to their whole intellectual (and psychic) lives: Hopou Logos agei, which translates as, “Go wherever the Divine Wisdom leads you.” Studying Origen, and being led more and more deeply into his speculations on God and the cosmos, is a highly infectious thing.[1]
-Fr. John McGuckin


Origen (c. 185 – 254) is perhaps the most influential, controversial, intriguing and complex figure in all of Christianity. Origen’s influence on Christianity is so extreme that it could be compared to Plato’s influence on philosophy, or Philo’s influence on Second Temple Judaism. He was the first Christian scholar, the first to write systematic theology, the first to articulate hermeneutical definitions, the first to create a framework for what would later be known as monasticism, etc. His works became so popular that basically anything he wrote was published immediately. He was a poetic prodigy, and his genius was so well known that he eventually became known as simply “The Alexandrian.” Unfortunately, as with anybody who is so intelligent that they are on their own intellectual playing field, he was misunderstood much more than he was understood.

The first wave of controversy surrounding Origen involved bishop Demetrius of Alexandria. Demetrius was at first on friendly terms with Origen, but eventually became very possessive like a father living vicariously through his son’s achievements. When Origen gained favor with bishop Alexander of Jerusalem and bishop Theoctist of Caesarea, they asked him to give discourses.[2] Like a respectful student, Origen obeyed his superiors. This infuriated Demetrius, because he claimed Origen was acting against tradition for teaching clergy as a layman, and he criticized bishops Alexander and Theoctist for allowing a layman to teach bishops.[3] However, it could be argued that his true motives were revealed when he demanded they return “his” theologian.[4] The possessive Demetrius did not want to share his catechist, and was clearly overreacting against the other bishops who simply wanted to benefit from Origen’s exceptional gifts. This led to Origen being caught in the middle of an escalating fight between the very people he wanted only to obey.

The second wave of controversy surrounding Origen was with regards to the rumor that he castrated himself. Eusebius mentions that Origen allegedly did this because he took Matthew 19:12 too literally,[5] but it does not logically follow that the one who popularized Christian allegorical exegesis would be guilty of taking something too literally. Not only that, but Origen’s commentary on that very verse says that he strongly opposed a literal interpretation of it.[6] It is much more likely that Eusebius was “uncritically reporting malicious gossip retailed by Origen’s enemies.”[7] For all we know, it could have been bishop Demetrius himself, spitefully spreading rumors to attack Origen’s character. It could have also been Epiphanius of Salamis, since he wrote in 394 to bishop John of Jerusalem trying to persuade him that Origen’s writings denigrated human sexual reproduction (but John did not want to be involved in posthumous condemnation).[8]

The third wave of controversy surrounding Origen involved bishop John of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Rufinus and Jerome. As I mentioned, Epiphanius was trying to get bishop John to condemn Origen. Because the bishop was too level-headed, Epiphanius began to publicly accuse him (in his churches) of being an Origenist. Since Jerome sided with Epiphanius, he was eventually persuaded to break communion with John.[9] This led to Rufinus to align himself with John and defend Origen’s legacy. Rufinus made a subtle attack against Jerome in his translation of On First Principles by mentioning Jerome’s former studies on Origen with well-known Origenist Didymus the Blind. Jerome realized Rufinus was intentionally trying to dismantle his reputation by associating it with heresy, which led to Jerome producing a disingenuous Latin translation which sought to highlight questionable texts and undermine Rufinus’ image as a scholar.[10]

The fourth wave of controversy surrounding Origen involved monastic followers of Evagrius Ponticus and Emperor Justinian. Origen in the 6th century was essentially reduced to his work On First Principles as funneled through the understanding of Evagrius, which was then funneled again through the limited understandings of Evagrius’ monastic followers. In other words, what people thought was ‘Origen’ in the 6th century was actually a foggy image of Evagrius. The fifteen anathemas against Origen were not even part of the official conciliar acts themselves, but rather retrospectively added to the canons by Justinian.[11] Therefore, it must be understood that Origen was never actually condemned at any Ecumenical Council, and this has massive implications. One might say, “But Origen taught things that are wrong and people later used his heretical teachings, does he not deserve to be considered a heretic?” St Gregory of Nyssa taught the minority eschatological view of universal salvation, and St Augustine is used to support what we now know as Calvinism. Such a criterion would condemn saints. I do think it is possible to disregard certain erroneous teachings without altogether condemning the individual. I also think it is wrong to overemphasize Origen’s work On First Principles, as if that stands above or defines everything else he wrote. It may not have even been intended for publication, and most of Origen’s influence was from all his other works.

Therefore, pretty much everything about the Origenist controversy had nothing to do with Origen. The controversy involved so many different people and issues across hundreds of years. However, to show how ridiculous the controversy is, I will try to paint a picture of what I believe happened as if it all occurred simultaneously in one room: Origen is sitting on the floor while Rufinus and Jerome are in a publishing fist-fight on one side of the room over their individual reputations. On the other side of the room is bishop Demetrius fighting Caesarean authorities because he cannot bear the thought of a clergyman like himself being taught by his own slave. Obscenities are heard amid the chaos intended to discredit Origen’s integrity. Then, out of nowhere, Evagrius’ monks storm through the windows with flaming darts of speculation and they burn the house to the ground, killing Origen. After this, detective Justinian arrives on the scene, sees one of the monks holding a copy of On First Principles, and declares Origen to be the real arson behind it all. Origen, unable to defend his reputation, is henceforth seen as the villain.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the condemnation of Origen is the fact that he not only positively influenced people during his lifetime, but he also positively influenced just about every Church Father up until the 6th century, and without condemnation. Origen was like a big tree that provided shade for all subsequent Orthodox theologians. He was not correct about everything, but that is not true of anyone. The patristic corpus is indebted to Origen, and in light of the fifteen anathemas against him being a forgery, I think it is time we have a serious discussion about restoring him to his rightful place in history as a 2nd century trailblazer rather than a 6th century heretic.


[1] John Anthony McGuckin. The Westminster handbook to Origen. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), Preface xi.
[2] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History. 6.27.
[3] Ibid. 6.19.16-19.
[4] John Anthony McGuckin. The Westminster handbook to Origen. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 9.
[5] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History. 6.8.
[6] Henry Chadwick, The Penguin History of the Church: The Early Church, (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 108-109.
[7] Ibid.
[8] John Anthony McGuckin. The Westminster handbook to Origen. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 164.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., p. 166. “After opening the council of 553 without Vigilius’s cooperation, Justinian presented to the bishops the central issue of the Three Chapters (a general attack on Antiochene Christology, which had been resisting the Cyrilline christological standard that had been in the ascendancy since the Council of Ephesus in 431). There were additional anathemata drawn up to condemn the christological deviancy of the Three Chapters, and here in the eleventh anathema one again finds the name of Origen listed (quite anachronistically) as a christological heretic. However, the same list of heretics that appears in the conciliar anathemata forms the content of Justinian’s edict (the Homonoia) which had been issued from the imperial chancery as the first draft of those anathemata. In the Homonoia (the prior text) Origen’s name does not appear at all, making it at least possible that the name of the third century theologian had been inserted into the conciliar acts retrospectively. When Vigilius, considerably later, reluctantly agreed to sign the conciliar condemnations that he had refused to attend in person, it is again noticeable that the name of Origen does not explicitly figure in his version of the anathemata texts. It is clear enough, from all this confusion, that Origen was condemned at the council mainly as a figure who synopsized the sixth-century Isochristoi, who themselves were predominately following Evagrian themes and speculations.” (Elizabeth M. Harding)


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Showing 3 comments
  • Fr Aidan Kimel

    Your statement that the anti-Origenist anathemas were “retrospectively added to the canons by Justinian” caught my immediate attention. I do not have access to McGuckin’s book. May I ask you to provide the citation so I may add it to my article on the topic. Thanks in advance


      I added it to footnote #11.

  • Viktor Schimko

    First I’ve ever heard about Origen. Seems like an interesting character in Church history.
    Thanks for the information. I like it – Go where the divine wisdom leads you!!

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