Debunking Myths about Origen

Introduction

Whenever the topic of Origen presents itself, it seems to always come packaged together with a whirlwind of false information. I have seen, time and time again, Origen summoned by ignorant men merely to be whipped and sent back to the dungeon. One internet commentator even said, “Origen is only worth quoting if you are commenting on his heresy.” The image of Origen has become so marred by the mud of slander, accusation, and polemic, that one finds it difficult to discern what is actually Origen and what is not. Most people, whether they realize it or not, have uncritically sided with Jerome’s polemical rhetoric over and against his rival translator Rufinus, rather than the objective evidence. However, modern scholarship has discovered that past negative assertions of Rufinus’ translations of Origen were misled and incorrect. Contrary to Jerome’s assertions, Rufinus was not trying to hide Origen’s errors in his translations. Rufinus even states that he would not mess with Origen’s speculations and oddities but would only fix what he considered to be malicious additions concerning the Trinity alone:[1] not because he had some secret agenda and wanted people to accept Origen, but because such content contradicted Origen’s own words in other places. So, in the name of charity, Rufinus simply made Origen agree with himself to kill two birds with one stone: 1) undoing the foreign additions to Origen’s work, and 2) clearing away the cloud of scandal surrounding Origen, so we can all benefit from his work.

Despite posthumous condemnation from key influential figures, the condemnation was never, at any time, fully accepted by the Church (both East and West). It never stuck, probably because Origen’s faithful admirers include colossal figures such as: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Pamphilus the Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, (early) Jerome, Rufinus, Macrina the Younger, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Evagrius of Pontus, Didymus the Blind, John Cassian, and Dionysius of Alexandria. Even Theophilus of Alexandria, who was vigorously opposed to the Origenists, could not but hypocritically use Origen’s writings in private, for inspiration, to bolster his own sermons.[2] Coming in the charitable spirits of Pamphilus and Rufinus, I will attempt to write my own small apology for Origen to clear away some demonizing misconceptions about him.

Alleged Denial of the Historicity of Scripture

No small number of people are under the assumption that Origen thought the historicity of Scripture was not essential, so I must in the name of honesty push back against such a reading. Origen did not believe the historicity of Scripture was nonessential. I understand why people are prone to think this, because it sounds like he is pushing aside the historicity of scripture in order to then talk about deeper things, but it is nonetheless an erroneous over-critical reading of Origen that is not reflective of his actual views. He believed that most of Scripture has historical support and that the historicity ought to be affirmed where there is support for it (For example, Origen vigorously defends the historicity of the virgin birth in Against Celsus [3]). However, when you get down to the particulars, certain passages of Scripture may not be actual history, and we do not need everything in the Old Testament to be actual history, because not every historical detail is of equal weight. This is obviously a debatable point for each passage in question and should not be assumed in either direction: On the one hand, we should not assume that every passage in the Old Testament that looks historical must be taken as literal history, nor should we, on the other hand, assume all of Origen’s specific criticisms are all valid. It is each particular that should be investigated. Does it really matter that the Book of Judith was not actual history? Let us take that further: would it really ruin our faith to find out that Book of Esther was not real history? What about certain passages of historical books? Origen would obviously, by necessity, affirm the historicity of the Gospel account of the birth of Christ, but at some point, we do have to admit that our faith does not rely on the historicity of every passage of every book in the Bible, whether you believe it to be real history or not. Our faith does not even rely on every passage of the Gospels being real history, but rather certain passages which are historically essential (which are those that Origen felt the need to defend their historicity, such as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ). It seems that this can only be an issue in our modern literalistic scientific fact-checking culture: where if something is not historically and scientifically factual, then it has no deeper worth. However, Origen’s emphasis was not on a rejection of the literal, but on the exegetical motion of traveling from the historical into the moral and mystical, in order to affirm a three-fold nature of Scripture,[4] rather than affirming the equivalent of an exegetical corpse.[5] Origen is rejecting a form of interpretation that is all body and no soul or spirit, he is not saying interpretation is, in a Gnostic sense, all spirit and no body. Origen wrote “As man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so too does Scripture which has been granted by God for the salvation of men.”[6] In other words, Origen’s whole mission is to get us to affirm all three senses of Scripture rather than just one. Therefore, the next time you hear people say Origen was just an allegorist, as if to imply Origen denies the body and soul of Scripture, know that they are not accurately representing Origen.

Alleged Platonizing

One of the most common assertions concerning Origen is the idea that he was primarily a Platonist through and through. John Behr writes that modern scholarship has fortunately moved on from the misconception of Origen as a “platonizing Christian, indulging in speculative flights of fancy based upon an arbitrary allegorical reading of Scripture.”[7] This dated caricature is far too common, and it was largely popularized by Adolf Von Harnack. Vladimir Lossky (c. 1903-1958) reveals that he was a man of his time when he says, “With Origen, Hellenism attempts to creep into the Church.”[8] Lossky even proceeds to praise the Cappadocians for their apophaticism, and even says, concerning Hellenism, “It is for this reason that the Church has had to fight against ‘Origenism’ as she has always fought against doctrines which, in striking at the divine incomprehensibility, replaced the experience of the unfathomable depths of God by philosophical concepts.”[9] Lossky also accuses Origen transforming theology into a “religious philosophy” that forsakes apophaticism.[10] The word “Origen” appears exactly seven times in Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, and every time it was to use Origen as a bad example.

First of all, Lossky’s assertions are incredibly silly not only because the Cappadocians followed Origenian thinking, or because Hellenism was already clearly accepted long before Origen in the person of Justin “The Philosopher” Martyr, but because the apostle Paul was a Hellenized Jew whose theology is utterly filled with the Hellenized works of Second Temple Judaism. Why is Lossky not also blaming Paul and Justin? The answer is simple: because they would undermine the anti-Origen “whipping boy” narrative. Origen is the forerunner to the very apophaticism that Lossky criticizes him for not having; the very apophaticism that Lossky thought he was defending. However, it was Origen who said, “The interior causes of this matter are certainly veiled in deep mysteries. And indeed “it is good to conceal the mystery of the king.” Nevertheless, for the sake of explanation let us say as much as it is possible to commit words to paper.”[11] Origen’s apophaticism contains a balancing mechanism that Lossky seems to lack. That is, a “nevertheless.” Dionysian apophaticism without a nevertheless is a useless esoteric formula to make ourselves feel mystical without actually being mystical. This kind of thing is why Orthodox Christians are routinely criticized for being anti-intellectual. Lossky is far guiltier of his own criticism than anything Origen has written. Lossky has written many great things, but his understanding of Origen is far too ignorant to take seriously.

Origen was not a Platonist in the sense that these people say he was. He was not someone who was trying to fit Neo-Platonism into Christianity, as if he thought it was the greatest religious philosophy and it only needed a few tweaks. On the contrary, Origen used Christianity to plunder, baptize, and appropriate Neo-Platonism. We should understand that Origen had a consistently universal mindset. He truly believed, in line with Justin Martyr, that Christianity was the ultimate philosophy; the ultimate religion, and that you must discover a way to find the Logos in literally any philosophical construct, using any philosophical language. Origen was bent on converting the entire world to Christ, using the various frameworks of the world. He had this concept of “plundering the Egyptians,”[12] which meant you absorb all the positive benefits of a pagan education for the glory of God. Origen was not someone who believed everyone needed to learn Neo-Platonist metaphysics in order to understand Christianity, he merely adopted it to convert the Neo-Platonists. Nor did he believe you had to maintain only the original Semitic framework, because that is to proselytize all people in the world to a specific regional paradigm. We must remember that God was always intending the salvation of the Gentiles from the start. Origen saw Christianity as something that transcends the middle-east, despite beginning there. He knew there was no such thing as some pure Jewish religion that began Christianity in a form untainted by other cultures. There were multiple Jewish traditions, each one varying in how hostile they were to Gentile thought. The allegorizing Philo of Alexandria, and the apostle Paul’s obvious use of him, had already ruined any claim of there being a New Testament religion untainted by Greek thought. Whenever there is a shift in popular metaphysics, science, or cosmology, Origen would most likely say that we as Christians need to be the first ones in line telling a new version of an old story, that God may be always glorified, and His power always known.

Alleged Pelagianism

One might be inclined to think that the West was largely ignorant of Origen, but this does not seem to be the case. In fact, Origen became central to Protestant-Catholic debates. For example, Scheck writes the following:

The Magisterial Protestants (Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Beza) cited the texts in which Origen repudiated the “formula” of “justification by faith alone” to show that Origen was no true Christian but a Pelagian or even a pagan. Catholic polemicists (Eck, Cochleus, Pyghius), on the other hand, pillaged the same texts to show that Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin were theological innovators, since the ancient Church, as represented by Origen, repudiated the chief article of the Protestants. Subsequent to these initial controversies, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the disciples of the Magisterial Protestant Reformers (e.g., Cranmer, Bullinger, Chemnitz, and the anti-Calvinist Anglican theologian Richard Montague) fastened on passages in Origen where he used the formulation “justification by faith alone” approvingly. Their aim was to prove to Catholic theologians that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone was not an innovation but was rooted in the ancient tradition. What few theologians of this period saw clearly was that Origen was engaged in a set of problems wholly different from the intra-Christian, intraecclesial discussions of “faith and works” that dominated the debates of the Scholastic and Reformation periods. Consequently, few recognized that it was naïve to expect Origen to fit neatly into the categories of subsequent periods.[13]

Though Rufinus’ translation of Origen’s commentary on Romans is not isolated from the Pelagian controversy, Origen cannot be considered a Pelagian for multiple reasons: 1) A denial of being in a fallen condition at birth is central to Pelagianism, and this is not something Origen believed. 2) One could datamine Origen’s commentaries and find support for both Pelagian and Augustinian views, so it is dishonest to sway the attention in only one direction.[14] The controversy began when Pelagius “had been appalled by Augustine’s apparently fatalist resignation of his salvation to God’s grace,’ calling for “a more robust personal commitment and moral effort.”[15] It is worthy to note that it was Pelagius who was reacting against Augustine (specifically the publication of Confessions[16]), and not the other way around. For Pelagius and his monastic readers, Augustine made them feel like asceticism was entirely pointless, and all their efforts to climb the ladder of divine ascent are vanity. However, history sided with the Augustinian polemic, and the person of Pelagius was demonized and became “the Pelagian,” even though his own writings reveal something altogether different.[17] McGuckin writes:

Much of this was regarded as wholly unexceptional in many circles of the church of his day, but the growing Augustinianism would read it increasingly as self-reliance theology and pitch “Pelagianism” as an antithesis of Augustinianism, understood as the sense of God’s graceful salvation that is God-inspired, God-initiated, and God-accomplished in a sinful human being. It was not necessary, perhaps, that the two approaches should be so contrasted, and thus one had to be condemned; but that is how it happened, for Pelagius’s approach and Cassian’s adjustments to Augustine’s theology were sidelined in a way that did not occur in Eastern Christianity. Indeed, although Pelagius got into great trouble with the North African synods that were soon to be held to adjudicate this matter (and were dominated by Augustine and endorsed by Rome), much of what he had to say on this matter of athletic Christianity would not have disturbed the majority of the Eastern monastics of his day. And when Pelagius came to Jerusalem and was forced to answer ecclesiastical charges that the way he taught underestimated God’s grace and placed too high a premium on human effort (saving ourselves by good works) the learned bishop John exonerated him there, finding nothing wrong with his ascetical teachings at all.[18]

As evidenced in his Commentary on Romans, the Philocalia of Origen, and On First Principles, Origen believed a vessel of honor can become dishonorable, and vice versa. Origen would reference 2 Timothy 2:21, which explicitly states that anyone who “purges himself” will be a vessel of honor prepared for every good work. Origen comments on this by saying this language, “seems to put nothing in the power of God, but all in ourselves.”[19] Though this does not mean Origen is denying the necessity of grace, he is merely saying that our side of the synergy is what determines, biblically speaking, which vessel we are. Origen even explicitly states this in On First Principles: “neither should we suppose that those things which are in the power of our will can be done without the assistance of God, nor should we imagine that those things which are in the hand of God are brought to completion without our acts, endeavors, and purpose.”[20] This one statement denies both Pelagianism and Monergism. In other words, we do not finish the race without God’s assistance (Pelagianism), and we don’t finish the race because God made us finish without giving us a say in the matter (Monergism); We finish the race because we chose to finish the race with God’s help. And lest we think Origen considers the synergy between God and man to be an equal 1-to-1, he writes “Providence has contributed to the result immensely more than their skill. And certainly, in the saving of our souls, what God gives is immensely more than what comes from our own ability.”[21] Origen was absolutely not a Pelagian.

Alleged Castration

When it comes to discussions of Origen, it does not take long before someone brings up the idea that Origen castrated himself. People will know Origen castrated himself before they even know who Origen is. It is the one thing people will always associate with Origen. However, we must begin by asking ourselves two questions: 1) Where might this idea come from? And 2) Is it the most reasonable and charitable conclusion? The second question is more important than the first, because we ought not believe something unreasonable, especially if it is also uncharitable. As Scripture declares, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”[22] If we uncritically accept all negative accusations (especially when they align with our polemical narrative), then we simply are not living in love. It should make us tremble to fall so easily to accusations, because we know that it is not God, but Satan who is the “accuser of the brethren.”[23] It is the devil who walks to and fro throughout the whole world, seeking those he can devour,[24] being always in the business of stealing, killing, and destroying the reputations of holy men.[25] When we behold those who walk to and fro throughout the online world, seeking to devour those who say something nice about Origen, and who do not seem to use their hands for anything other than stealing Origenian concepts, killing his followers, and destroying his works, we must ask ourselves what manner of spirit they are of,[26] and whose image it is that they reflect. Therefore, love commands us to marry reason and charity in all things, especially concerning the brethren.

The story of Origen’s castration originates with Eusebius of Caesarea, who states that Origen castrated himself to be above reproach concerning women and because he took Matthew 19 too literally.[27] Not many in academia today believe Origen castrated himself, though there are some who do. For example, in the 5th footnote to her introduction, Barbara Bruce acknowledges that the story of Origen’s castration is a disputed issue. She mentions that Henry Chadwick thought it possibly the result of malicious gossip,[28] but she ultimately believes Origen did castrate himself.[29] Her reasons for taking Eusebius at his word are as follows: 1) The story is in harmony with Origen’s “ardent nature,” 2) The story is in harmony with “his literal interpretation at the time,” 3) Eusebius had a letter explaining the actions, and 4) Origen condemning a literal interpretation of the passage could be evidence of him shifting his interpretation of Scripture.[30]

These reasons are not very persuasive if one wishes to be either charitable or beyond reasonable doubt, and it is much more consistent with the evidence-stretching of confirmation bias. How exactly does an “ardent nature” make someone more likely to castrate themselves? I can only guess why Bruce believes Origen to have an ardent nature. Perhaps she has in mind the time he wanted to be martyred with his father as a 16-year-old,[31] but this would be silly in light of the fact that 1) the same is true for Anthony of Egypt, who also sought his own martyrdom when he was young,[32] and 2) Origen did not start publishing until he was already 37 years old, which usually does not qualify as young. Not only this, but Origen is one of the least ardent theologians of the first five centuries simply because he was also the most stereotypically academic. Though he wrote apologetic works, which as a genre was always at least somewhat polemical in nature for rhetorical force of argument, but he was never fearfully reacting against the possibility of sheep leaving the fold. He was always level-headed and intentional, never afraid, knowing that the most rational and consistent argument will win the day (which he believed Christianity possessed for every topic, whether it was he or someone else greater than he to present it). He knew he did not need to, like bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, use his spiritual authority to force people into theological submission, because he knew such a method will create a culture of ignorance and eventually backfire. He instead spoke to people on their own terms to tell a more persuasive story. How could anyone honestly list Origen alongside firebrands like Tertullian, Demetrius of Alexandria, Theophilus of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Jerome, Epiphanius of Salamis, and John Chrysostom? Compared to them, Origen was a timid introvert. I am also confused by what Bruce means by Origen having a “literal interpretation at the time,” when Origen’s earliest works include the mystical Commentary on Genesis and the most speculative of all, On First Principles.[33] Unless she means Origen’s interpretation prior to publishing his first work in his late thirties, which would be impossible to say since we do not have an account of an early unpublished Origenian interpretation. Also, interpreting certain passages literally does not mean one can be described as having a “literal interpretation,” as if Origen only had allegorical understandings of all Scripture passages,[34] or as if every subject on which Origen speaks requires the same level of mystical interpretation. The only way one could make this assertion is if Origen published two opposing commentaries of the same verse to the same audience (having the latter correcting the former). Otherwise, differing interpretations of the same verse could be seen as merely adding multiple layers of meaning rather than a drastic shift in hermeneutic. Eusebius having a letter explaining the actions does not mean much, considering the letter was not from Origen, and shifting one’s interpretation of Scripture has nothing to do with castration. Fr. John Behr states that the story “should probably be rejected.”[35] In the introduction to his 2017 translation of On First Principles, Behr says the following in his 9th footnote:

Eusebius, Eccl. hist. 6.2.5. It is at a slightly later period, when he had begun his work of instructing Christians, that Eusebius places Origen’s self-castration (Eccl. hist. 6.8), suggesting that he did this in order to avoid charges of misconduct from pagans regarding his dealings with women (though Eusebius also claims that he kept it a secret) and that it had resulted from an over-literal interpretation of Matt. 19. Epiphanius, on the other hand, records a tradition that attributed Origen’s renowned chastity to the use of drugs (Panarion, 64.3.12). Henry Chadwick suggests that both stories are ‘malicious gossip,’ Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987 [1966]), 68. Origen, routinely criticized for his allegorical interpretation, derides those who would take that scriptural passage literally (Comm. Matt. 15.1-5).[36]

Eusebius most likely recorded what was essentially rumors and hearsay, which happened to be malicious accusations to discredit Origen’s obvious integrity. Eusebius was no doubt trying to protect Origen’s reputation, but it does not make sense that the very person to popularize allegorical interpretation is also guilty of such an extreme literal interpretation that not even the most literal of theologians would follow. Origen is nowhere marked by carelessness and everywhere marked by thoughtfulness. Origen might appear bold or rash at times, but there is always an underlying cautious humility being expressed that most other theologians lack, especially as it relates to biblical hermeneutics. Origen is always trying merely to follow what can be revealed within the text itself. For example, in his homilies on Luke, Origen states “Perhaps I seem to speak rashly; but the authority of Scripture prompts me to ask.”[37] Concerning castration, Fr. John McGuckin agrees and says the story “was lurid enough to ensure that it is the one thing most people remember about Origen.”[38] He continues by saying Origen’s own text must always take priority over Eusebius.[39] McGuckin also refutes Henri Crouzel in the 57th footnote of his third chapter, titled Coming of Age: Christianity in the Third Century:

Crouzel (Origen, 9n32), who says Origen writes with “apparent” firsthand knowledge about eunuchism, does not realize he is drawing this entirely from the medical treatise of Galen. Already in the nineteenth century, F. Boehringer (Kirkengeschichte [Zurich: 1869], 28) saw through the castration tale. It has become increasingly suspect in modern historiography and ought now to be laid aside. Postinfantile castration debilitates massively, and Origen was a very robust and energetic individual all his life until his final torture.[40]

Alleged Heresy

Many people react against Origen because they believe he is someone who taught all kinds of heresy. This is highly debatable, because we simply do not know what exactly Origen did or did not write due to his works being subject to interpolation even in his own day. Pamphilus wrote a treatise defending Origen against such accusations, and describes how Origen was dealing with, even in his own day, people who took his writings, added heretical content to them, and then redistributed them as if Origen wrote it. Here is an excerpt from Pamphilus’ text:

I see, then, that something like this is also happening to us. For a certain author of a heresy, when a discussion was held between us in the presence of many persons and was recorded, took the document from those who had written it down. He added what he wanted to it, removed what he wanted, and changed what seemed good to him. Then he carried it around as if it were from me, pouring scorn conspicuously on the things that he himself had composed. The brethren who are in Palestine were indignant over this. They sent a man to me at Athens who was to receive from me the authentic copy. Prior to this I had not even re-read or revised the work, but it was lying there in such a neglected state that it could hardly be found. But I sent it, and I say with God as my witness that, when I met the man who had falsified the work, [and asked him] why he had done this, he answered, as if he were giving me satisfaction: ‘Because I wanted to adorn and purify that discussion.’ Behold with what kind of ‘purification he ‘purified’ my discussion: with that kind of ‘purification’ by which Marcion ‘purified’ the Gospels or the Apostle; or with the kind by which his successor Apelles did so after him. For just as they subverted the truth of the Scriptures, so also this man removed things that were said truly, and then inserted what is false in order to accuse us.[41]

Predictably, Jerome tried to react against this, and accused Rufinus of intentionally trying to falsify the authorship in order to give the text the status of a respected martyr, and it was actually Eusebius of Caesarea who was the true author of the text.[42] This is ironic for two reasons: 1) Origen was already respected and seen as a martyr by many (Athanasius calls him “The labour-loving Origen,”[43] and Gregory the Theologian calls him “the whetstone of us all”[44]), and 2) Jerome himself had already assigned the work to Pamphilus.[45] It is clear to those familiar with Jerome that he is known for being extremely petty: such as the time he went out of his way to publish a translation of Didymus the Blind merely to have people think less of Ambrose of Milan.[46] He even referred to Ambrose as a black crow hiding in the colorful feathers of other birds.[47] Rufinus has been routinely criticized for editing Origen’s text, and history up until now has unfortunately sided with Jerome’s erroneous polemic.[48] Later translations of Origen’s work have not made matters any better. In fact, they have made them far worse. However, Fr John Behr has recently pushed back against this. He writes:

However, most serious is the fact that, although Rufinus carefully specified that even when Origen ‘appeared to have uttered any novelties about rational beings’ he has not omitted these because the substance of the faith is not affected, the largest interpolations introduced by Koetschau, especially the infamous ‘Fragments’ 15 and 17a inserted into Princ. 1.8, concern precisely the ‘Origenist’ teachings about eternally existing intellects and their fall into bodies. These are, moreover, passages which Koetschau literally ‘made up’, by stitching together sentences from various anti-Origenist writers. Likewise, many of the anathemas from 553 are included within the text of Rufinus, as if Origen himself could have written them. The effect of all of this—especially when these texts are presented, in Butterworth’s translation, under the capitalized heading ‘GREEK’ (and the details relegated to small print in the footnotes), to give the impression to the unwary reader that this is the authentic text of Origen himself—is to seriously distort the text that we have, beyond any hope of comprehension. It is not Rufinus who produced a garbled version of Origen s work’, as Butter worth charges him, but Koetschau and Butterworth himself.[49]

It is common knowledge for those in the world of patristics that Gregory of Nyssa was the most loyal to Origen of all the church fathers. However, what is less known is what the 7th Ecumenical Council said of Gregory: “Let us then, consider who were the venerable doctors and indomitable champions of the Church…Gregory Primate of Nyssa, who all have called the father of fathers.”[50] In other words, if one were to be at the 7th Ecumenical Council and wanted to walk backwards through time, seeing the fathers before them lined up on their right and left, they would see all of them pointing in the same direction down the line, to one man at the end. There stands Gregory of Nyssa. However, the closer one gets to Gregory, the more one notices he has his thumb pointed behind him. But more on that later.

Alleged Condemnation

Many people think Origen was condemned at the 5th Ecumenical Council, but the reality is far more complicated. To be precise, it was Evagrian “Origenism” and its various divisive (even contradictory) groups that was formally condemned. Behr writes how it has become “universally accepted that the anathemas of the sixth century and the reports of Justinian were directed primarily against Evagrius and sixth-century ‘Origenism’, rather than Origen himself.”[51] Many today believe that the fifteen anathemas against Origen were not part of the official conciliar acts themselves, but rather retrospectively added to the canons by Justinian.[52] Others believe it was something discussed prior to the council’s formal opening as the attendees waited for Pope Vigilius.[53] The anathemas themselves have, in essence, nothing to do with Origen or his teachings (Origen is not named in the anti-Origenist anathemas[54]), but rather have to do with violently hostile Evagrian monastic Origenist groups (some of which even attempted the “storming and demolition” of the Great Lavra,[55] a crime which represented the beginning of the end for them) such as the Nestorian flavored “Isochristoi.”[56] For the first time, Origen was being read not as an academic professor giving students things to ponder and questions to answer for themselves, but as an ascetic and priestly authority, like that of a monastery abbot.

Concerning the events of the 5th Ecumenical Council, Elizabeth Harding states the following:

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.[57]

However, this does not mean that everyone present at the 5th Ecumenical Council loved Origen. Richard Price believes that Origen was indeed condemned, relying on Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Sabas as well as the works of Leonitius,[58] which suggests to him that the people of that time period knew that Origen was discussed, though anachronistically filtered through the lens of the Isochristoi. It is highly likely that many were hostile towards even the person of Origen, because there were popular misconceptions about Origen even in the 6th century (probably due to some polemicist trying to “save the Church”), such as the idea that Origen died outside the church as an excommunicated apostate.[59]

Condemning individuals posthumously may have become a tradition of the church because of Theophilus trying to seize power over Alexandria, but it is nonetheless an unnecessary and ugly tradition that must be purged. We ought to condemn erroneous dogma, not holy men who happen to also be incorrect in some speculative theologoumena. Since many men have grown accustomed to fearing authority, I will be the one to boldly speak the honest truth in pursuit of truth: The pseudo-condemnation of Origen was the single most abysmal decision our forebearers ever made, and for multiple reasons: 1) It is immoral to condemn individuals posthumously. It is the equivalent of condemning a man without giving him a trial. 2) It is immoral to condemn a man for a crime he did not commit (Origen would not agree with the Isochristoi). It is not difficult to acquit Origen of these charges in light of Pamphilus, Rufinus, and Origen’s own writings. That is, if one wishes to be charitable. 3) It is immoral to intentionally create an atmosphere of ignorance (created consequently by fear, threat, and authoritarianism) surrounding someone so foundational to the patristic corpus, and to the Cappadocians in particular. These are three major blemishes on a Church blindly believed to be spotless.

The fear of speaking against an Ecumenical Council comes with the belief that the Church is perfect and no assertion at any Ecumenical Council can ever be incorrect. This doctrine of infallibility proves to be a significant problem, however, because historical details can never be discussed objectively if one is always actively trying not to be excommunicated by some authority. And in this, I understand why Origen has remained publicly condemned, but privately canonized in the hearts of many of the faithful. However, though Justinian’s actions against Origenism was entirely for the sake of uniting East with itself, and with West, Brian Daley also suggested that the various “Origenists” were not called this because of their belief in certain Origenian doctrines (such as apokatastasis), but merely because they happened to be marked by an intellectual curiosity and an interest in theological inquiry.[60] If this is true, then the cancerous situation is even worse than we thought because it would reveal that people are being condemned based entirely on their personality type/nature/innate disposition. This would only add a fourth reason as to why condemning “Origen” (aka: all people who ask questions and think about things) was an abysmal decision.

On a related note, some today believe Origen was condemned merely for speculating, as if speculation is inherently heretical. This is false and is much more reflective of the personality types of those in ecclesiastical power. Every major church father made speculation. Gregory the Theologian even encourages people to speculate about all kinds of things when he says, “Philosophize about the world or worlds; about matter; about soul; about natures endowed with reason, good or bad; about resurrection, about judgment, about reward, or the Sufferings of Christ. For in these subjects to hit the mark is not useless, and to miss it is not dangerous.”[61] What is most interesting is to what Gregory is alluding with his examples, especially with “world or worlds.” He is alluding specifically to Origen’s speculation about pedagogical ages:

It remains, after these matters, to inquire whether there was any other world before this world which is now, and if so whether it was such as this one which is now, or slightly different or inferior; or whether there was no world at all, but something like that which we understand will be after the end of all things, when the kingdom shall be delivered up to the God and Father, which, nonetheless, may have been the end of another world, of that, namely, after which this world began; and whether the various lapses of intellectual beings provoked God to this varied and diverse condition of the world. This point also, I think, must similarly be investigated, that is, whether after this world there will be any healing or improvement—severe indeed and full of pain for those who were unwilling to obey the Word of God—through instruction and rational training, by which those may arrive at a fuller understanding of the truth who have devoted themselves in this present world to these pursuits and, being made more purified in intellect, they have advanced to be, here and now, capable of divine Wisdom; and whether after this the end of all things follows immediately, or whether, for the correction and improvement of those who need it, there will be again another world, either similar to this which now is, or better than it, or greatly inferior; and how long that world, whatever kind it is after this one, shall exist or whether it will exist at all; and whether there will be a time when there is no world anywhere, or whether there has been a time when there was no world at all; or whether there have been, or will be, many, or whether it shall ever happen that there will be one equivalent to another and like it in every respect and indistinguishable from it.[62]

The only people who condemn Origen are those who have either 1) never read him and are merely parroting what they have heard from someone else or 2) never read him charitably and are only reading him with the precise purpose of condemning something they believe he said or taught. For those who read Origen honestly with the intent to gain insight and wisdom, they walk away (like C.S. Lewis from George MacDonald) calling Origen their master. Or, as Didymus the Blind put it, the 13th apostle. Even Jerome (prior to the Origenist controversy) said Origen was the single greatest teacher second only the apostles, surpassing all.[63] We must, in the name of charity, reread Origen in light of Pamphilus, not Jerome or any other hostile opponent. That is, we must read Origen not under the assumption he is a heretic, but with the awareness that his works were subject to interpolation by heretics.

Speculation for the fathers is not a demon to be exorcised, it is the innocent inquiry of an awestruck child. And not a child in the bare literal sense, but also in the mystical Nietzschean sense. Speculation, when successful, is like good art. It inspires and edifies the brethren, which is something we are explicitly called to do.[64] And Origen, being always faithful to and inspired by the underlying Pauline concepts (whom Paul regarded as the greatest apostle[65]), sought to do just that. What does that say about those who refuse to speculate about anything? Well, if we were to see a marvelous wonder, such as a giant meteor about to crash into the planet, only to turn at a 90-degree angle and evade the planet, would we not be moved with excitement and the desire to speculate about every little detail concerning what we have just seen? Perhaps the lack of youthful joy combined with the animosity for speculation actually means such people have seen or experienced nothing at all.

Conclusion

In his commentary on Joshua, Origen identifies himself with the person of Achan, and tells the church what to do if it was ever discovered that he himself stole a tongue of gold and with his eloquent writings weighed down the Church, preventing her from ascending to heaven:

For thus also the Lord says, “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and thrust it from you.” But does the hand of our body ever cause us to stumble or does the Gospel say concerning this hand of the body, “Cut it off and thrust it from you”? On the contrary, this is what it says, that I, who seem to be a right hand to you and am named a presbyter and seem to preach the word of God, if I should do anything against the teaching of the Church and the rule of the Gospel, so that I create a stumbling block for you the Church, may the whole Church in one accord, acting in concert, cut me off and fling me, their right hand, away. “For it is expedient for you,” the Church, to enter into the kingdom of heaven without me, your hand, which, by doing evil, prepared a stumbling block, than with me “to go into Gehenna.”[66]

Origen was so profoundly humble that he was willing to literally go to hell if it meant saving the rest of us. Origen’s sacrificial humility is following in the footsteps of Paul, Moses, and of course, Christ Himself. This section from his Commentary on Romans really illuminates the underlying intent of his homily on Joshua:

He says, “That I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart.” Go ahead, have sorrow; go ahead, feel pain because of the lostness of your brothers, “who are kinsmen according to the flesh.” But does it really extend so far that you should wish to become accursed from Christ? And why would their salvation benefit you if you should be cut off from salvation? And what benefit is it to save others if you yourself perish? He says, It is not so, but I have learned from my teacher and Lord that “whoever wants to save his soul shall lose it, and whoever loses it will find it.” What is so astonishing, then, if the Apostle should desire to become accursed for the sake of his brothers? He knows that the one who was in the form of God emptied himself from that form and took on the form of a slave and became a curse for us. What is astonishing then if, since the Lord became a curse for the sake of slaves, a slave should become accursed for the sake of brothers? Yet I believe that this is also what Moses was saying to the Lord when the people sinned, “And now, if indeed you will forgive their sin, forgive it; but if not, blot me out of the book of life that you have written.”[67]

How can one genuinely summarize Origen? As Origen said, the lack of oneness in the proverbial “multitude of words” and “much speaking” is determined not by the number of books or voices, but the number of doctrines.[68] Therefore, coming in the spirit of Origen, I will use different voices to speak one truth concerning Origen: “He was humble and free from envy, caring neither for power nor wealth. He bore unmerited suffering, from friends and foes alike, without complaint. His life, from beginning to end, was hard and strenuous. His courage never failed, and he died in reality a martyr’s death. He loved truth with a sincerity and devotion rarely equaled, and never excelled.”[69] “Though he does not bear the conventional title of Saint, no saintlier man is to be found in the long line of ancient Fathers of the Church.”[70] “Many were attracted to Origen because of his universally acknowledged holiness and his unparalleled zeal in studying Scripture. Origen’s writings reveal a man whose heart was aflame with a consuming love for Jesus Christ and for his Church. One senses not only penetrating biblical insight but a sincerity and modesty that is rare among learned men.”[71] “Origen had a motto that he taught to 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.[72]

Moses was willing to sacrifice himself if it meant the salvation of the Hebrews, Paul was willing to sacrifice himself if it meant the salvation of the Jews, and Origen, taking up Paul’s mantle, was willing to sacrifice himself if it meant the salvation of the Gentiles. As our Lord said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”[73] As I said before, Gregory of Nyssa has a thumb pointed behind him. However, many do not get close enough to notice to whom Gregory is pointing. Behind his thumb lurks a mysterious silhouette: giant, unnerving, holy, and profound, ruling from the apophatic shadows of orthodox theology like a black lion.

 


[1] John Behr, “Introduction,” Origen, On First Principles (Volume I), trans. John Behr (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), xxiii.

[2] John McGuckin. The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 589. Digital Version.

[3] Origen, Against Celsus 1.35.

[4] Body, soul, and spirit.

[5] A one-fold nature of Scripture, being just the body.

[6] Origen, The Philocalia of Origen: A Compilation of Selected Passages from Origen’s Works Made By St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Caesarea, trans. George Lewis (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1911), 1.11.

[7] Behr, “Introduction,” Origen, On First Principles (Volume I), xxvii.

[8] Vladimir Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Ch. 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 1-5 (FOTC 103), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 110.

[12] Origen, Philocalia of Origen 13.2.

[13] Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 33.

[14] Ibid., 17.

[15] McGuckin. The Path of Christianity, 490.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The word “grace” appears over sixty times in Pelagius’ commentary on Romans, even though many continue to say he denied grace. In his commentary on Rom. 1:3 he writes “Many are sons by grace, but Christ is a son by nature.” On Rom. 1:5 he writes of a “grace in baptism.” On Rom. 1:11 he says, “they need some spiritual grace to strengthen them.” In Rom. 3:36 he writes “It is great blessedness to obtain the grace of the Lord without the labor of the law and of penance.” Then on Rom. 4:16 he states, “But faith makes all believers children of Abraham, their sins having been forgiven by grace,” etc.

[18] Ibid., pp. 500-501.

[19] Origen, On First Principles (Volume II), trans. John Behr (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 377.

[20] Ibid., p. 379.

[21] Origen, Philocalia of Origen 21.18.

[22] 1 Peter 4:8.

[23] Revelation 12:10.

[24] 1 Peter 5:8.

[25] Cf. John 10:10.

[26] Cf. Luke 9:55.

[27] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.8.

[28] Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and

Origen (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1966), 67–68.

[29] Origen, Homilies on Joshua (FOTC 105), trans. Barbara J. Bruce (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 4.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.2.3.

[32] Athanasius, Life of Anthony, Section 46. Clearly this does not mean Anthony was also likely to castrate himself merely for being zealous concerning martyrdom.

[33] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.24.

[34] Perhaps Barbara Bruce here is presupposing the dated and misguided trope of Origen being a mere allegorist and nothing more.

[35] Behr, “Introduction,” Origen, On First Principles (Volume I), xvii.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Origen, Homilies on Luke. (FOTC 94), trans. Joseph T. Leinhard (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 57.

[38] McGuckin, The Path of Christianity, 266.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 1289.

[41] Pamphilus, Apology for Origen: On the Falsification of the Books of Origen, (FOTC 120) trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 129.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Athanasius, De Decretis 27.

[44] As recorded in the Suidae Lexicon, ed. Adler, 3.619.

[45] Jerome, On Illustrious Men 75.

[46] Joseph T. Leinhard, “Introduction,” Origen, Homilies on Luke, xxxiv. Leinhard states that a possible reason for Jerome’s animosity towards Ambrose is due to the fact that Ambrose “did not support Jerome in the papal election of 384.Thereafter, Jerome made a point of trying to embarrass Ambrose.”

[47] Ibid. This might be a reference to Aesop’s “The Bird in Borrowed Feathers,” usually spoken of as involving a crow and a peacock. If this is true, then it would be ironic given that Jerome is not himself being original in his attack on Ambrose’s unoriginality.

[48] Not because Jerome’s arguments are sound, nor because history can retrospectively validate his position, but because he and others were so aggressively bombastic that most people (those who could not rival his scholarly knowledge or intellect) were authoritatively bullied into agreeing with falsehood.

[49] Behr, “Introduction,” Origen, On First Principles (Volume I), xxvi-xxvii.

[50] John Mendham, ed. The Seventh General Council: The Second of Nicaea, Held A.D. 787, in which the Worship of Images was Established (London: W.E. Painter, 1850), 382.

[51] Behr, “Introduction,” Origen, On First Principles (Volume I), xxvii.

[52] John Anthony McGuckin. The Westminster handbook to Origen (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 166.

[53] Richard Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553: With related texts on the Three Chapters Controversy (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), 271-72.

[54] Ibid., 280.

[55] Ibid., 17.

[56] Evagrius was the major player who adapted Origen’s early academic speculative work to a monastic context. Though, it should be noted that the Isochristoi are not reflective of Evagrius himself.

[57] McGuckin, The Westminster handbook to Origen. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 166.

[58] Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553, 273.

[59] Ibid., 280.

[60] Ibid., p. 273. Though the desire to have a “spirit of inquiry” is indeed something Origen explicitly stated in Philocalia of Origen 1.16.

[61] Gregory the Theologian, Theological Orations 27.9.

[62] Origen, On First Principles (Volume I), 157.

[63] Cf. Jerome’s Prologues to Origen’s Homilies on Ezekiel and Song of Songs.  

[64] Cf. Romans 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:11.

[65] Origen calls Paul the Apostolorum maximus in Homilies on Numbers 3.3.

[66] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 82.

[67] Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 106.

[68] Origen, Philocalia of Origen 5.4.

[69] Butterworth in Origen, On First Principles, p. v.

[70] F. J. A. Hort, Six Lectures on the Ante-Nicene Fathers (1895; reprint, New York: Books for the Libraries Press, 1972), 126.

[71] Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 7.

[72] McGuckin, “Preface,” The Westminster handbook to Origen, xi.

[73] John 15:13.

Comments
  • Luke Hinton
    Reply

    Thank you for the article. It does shed some light on common labels and ideas about Origen. My only issue is how to understand the infallibility of the council in light of your argument and the facts. I believe the fathers of the Church—grounding their idea in Acts 15 model and the indwelling of the Spirit—believed that the Ecumenical Creeds are infallible. Is it just at the dogmatic level then?

    Thanks

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