Origen of Alexandria is considered one of the greatest of all Christian theologians. Where does one begin to start conversing about the influence of Origen, one of the largest giants of the Church’s nearly 2000 years of existence? Karlfried Froelich describes Origen as “one of the great minds and probably the most influential theologians of the early Christian era.”[i]Origen answered old opponents and created questions for the later opponents of his work. In the world of philosophy, Origen’s work is undeniably worthy of an answer. He is famous for composing the influential work of Christian Neo-Platonism, such as his thesis, de Principiis.
The critics of Origen don’t have to look far to find views that are contrary to orthodox principles of the Church in later centuries, Origen’s strong conviction for the high-regard for scripture and the disciplined study of them are just some of the many qualities that should not be overlooked. While his writings on several doctrinal issues raised some in the Church to call him a heretic, Origen set a foundation for the early church theologians to defend Christianity against any of the pagan philosophies of the day. For a proper representation of Origen, many factors must be examined to put his interpretation of scripture in context. After all, Origen’s critics would’ve challenged him to do the same for scripture.
Origen living, from 185-285, during a turbulent period of the Roman Empire, when the barbarian invasions were sweeping across Europe, threatening the stability of the Roman Empire. This was also a time of periodic persecution against Christians, notably during the reigns of the Emperors Severus, Maximin, and Decius. Origen’s life began and ended with persecution.
Early Church historian, Eusebius, tells us that Origen was only seventeen when he took over as Headmaster (didaskalos) of the Christian Catechetical School at Alexandria[ii]. This was a natural fit for Origen. For he became interested in Greek philosophy quite early in his life, studying for a while under Ammonius Saccas and amassing a large collection of philosophical texts. This philosophy, invented and developed, by the Greeks, was a dominant intellectual force in the Greco-Roman world in which Origen was born. This philosophical culture of Alexandria influenced other theologians as well. Clement of Alexandria and Philo also used philosophy for exegetical purposes.
In this environment Gnosticism flourished. Origen was truly the first philosophical thinker to turn his hand not only to a refutation of Gnosticism, but also to offer an alternative Christian system that was more rigorous and philosophically respectable than the mythological speculations of the various Gnostic sects. Origen was also an astute critic of the pagan philosophy of his era, but he also learned much from it. He adapted its most useful and edifying teachings to a grand illumination of the Christian faith. In his work, Origen establishes his main doctrines, including that of the Holy Trinity; the pre-existence and fall of souls; multiple ages and transmigration of souls; and the eventual restoration of all souls to a state of dynamic perfection in proximity to the godhead.
In Alexandria, Origen studied the writings of Plato and Chrysippus thoroughly. It is probably around this time that he began composing de Principiis. However, as he became ever more devoted to the Christian faith, he sold his library. He abandoned, for a time, any contact with pagan Greek wisdom. He would eventually return to secular studies (Greek philosophy), from which he derived no small measure of inspiration, as Porphyry (recorded in Eusebius) makes quite clear. Origen then continued with his ever more sophisticated interpretation of biblical texts.[iii]
Origen’s thought is all the while well versed by his Greek philosophical education, most specifically that of the Middle Platonic tradition. The works of the Jewish Platonist Philo of Alexandria, the authoritative philosopher of the early first century, notably influences him. Origen shares with Philo an insistence on the free will of the person, a freedom that is direct evidence of humanity’s likeness to God; for, like God’s Being, human existence is free from all necessity. The works of Numenius of Apamea, a popular philosopher in the second century, also influenced Origen. From Numenius, Origen likely adopted the conception of a “second god” proceeding from a first, indescribable being called the One, “First God,” or Father. Numenius referred to this “second god” as Demiurge or craftsman, and taught that he created the cosmos by imitating the intellectual content of the “First God.” Origen applied this basic notion to his doctrine of Christ, whom he also called Demiurge in his Commentary on John. He went on to describe Christ as a reflection of the Truth of the Father. He stated that compared to human beings Christ is Truth, but compared to the Father He is falsehood.[iv] We’ll take a closer look at Origen’s writings on the Trinity a little later.
Further evidence of the influence from Greek philosophy is clear from his writings on Scripture. Although, the only mention of pagan philosophy in the New Testament (Col. 2:8) is negative, Origen uses the verse from Colossians in the Contra Celsum, then states: “Paul perceived that there are impressive doctrines which are convincing to most people, but which present as truth what is untrue…seeing that there was some greatness apparent in the theories of the wisdom of the philosophers were ‘according to the elements of the cosmos.’ But no intelligent person would say that this was the case for Celsus.”[v] This provides great insight on Origen’s view of Greek philosophy as it relates to his interpretation of Scripture. He doesn’t hold philosophy in the same high-regard that he would for scripture. He simply sees the value and even “some greatness”.
The clouds of the undefined Christian doctrine collided into the clouds of this era of philosophical frenzy to create the storm known as Gnosticism. There is no doubt that Origen’s writings and reasoning for his views were based on response to Gnosticism. Up until this point in time Christian theologians felt unarmed to face the Gnostic opposition.
The Gnostic interpretation was a tremendous threat to the Christian doctrine.
The Gnostic teachings denigrated the Old Testament as an inferior deity and the creation was a mistake. Then, the New Testament was reinterpreted, sometimes with allegories, to support the evilness of matter. While Irenaeus attempted a defense against Gnostic teachers, it wasn’t until Origen that there was a consistent doctrine of defense for the Christian faith.
The Valentinian School, founded by Valentinus, was the most philosophically accomplished of the Gnostic sects. In his Commentary on John, Origen refutes the doctrines of a Valentinian Gnostic named Heracleon, who had earlier written a commentary on the same Gospel. While Origen’s opposition to Gnosticism precluded any doctrinal influence, he saw in Gnosticism the value of a system. This was precisely by virtue of their elaborate and self-consistent systems why the Gnostics were successful in gaining adherents. Since there were not any non-Gnostic Christian theological systems in his day, it was up to Origen to formulate one.
It is possible that, although refuting Gnosticism, Origen was still influenced by the Gnostic presence. In the de principiis, Origen states, “by the command of God the body which was earthly and animal will be replaced by a spiritual body.” Here Origen remains somewhat consistent to the Gnostic teaching of the evilness of flesh, and sets out his distinctive view that the resurrection body is totally spiritual in character.[vi]
The philosophical influence, followed by the spread of Gnosticism, clearly played a large part in his formulation of allegorical interpretations that he gives Scripture. Origen believed that the literal interpretation of Scripture alone led to errors, contradictions, and spiritual stumbling blocks. He went beyond the simple interpretation to gain a stronger spiritual feeling and to satisfy his thirst for a deeper level of meaning that he received from his studies of philosophy. This ultimately led to Origen’s allegories. While his predecessors, such as Philo and Irenaeus, used allegories as well, Origen’s opponents would concede that his were more consistent.
The allegorical method of interpretation suggested that Scripture actually operates on three levels, the “bodily”, the “soulish”, and the “spiritual”. Origen’s motivation for this type of interpretation is two-fold. First, Jewish interpreters denied the literal fulfillment of Messianic prophesies by Jesus. Second, the Gnostic interpreters reduced the Old Testament to actions of a lesser deity. Christopher Hall asks, “How could the Christian interpreter respond adequately to the Gnostic charge that many Old Testament texts presented a deity who was jealous, vengeful, apt to change, and in many instances responsible for evil itself?”[vii] (Ex 20:5; Micah 1:12; Amos 3:6; 1 Sam 15:11; 16:14; 18:10) The allegory was an apologetical response to the opposing views of Gnosticism and pagan philosophy.
In a closer look at the spiritual level of the allegory, Scripture deals with mysteries of the Christian faith, such as the nature of the Son, his incarnation, the true nature of the world, and our place in it. The “soulish” level seems to be a position that satisfied Origen’s Platonic impulses. The bodily or literal level was for the simple believers that didn’t have the wisdom or education of Origen. To put it milder, Origen promoted a graduated syllabus for the books of the Bible. For example, one could start by reading Esther and take on more complex books, such as Psalms.[viii] The more complex books would require an allegorical interpretation for full understanding.
It should be pointed out that the spiritual or “soulish” meaning was not Origen’s sole purpose in his commentaries. In his Commentary on John, Origen goes into great detail about what kind of high priest John is referring to. He also does the same for the word “alter” in the same commentary. While it would be more mystic to jump to more philosophical or “soulish” meanings, Origen pursues the true literal meaning of the words.
As for Old Testament Scripture, Origen interprets Deuteronomy 21:10-21, the text in which a warrior who captures a beautiful woman is instructed to shave her head and cut her nails, to mean that if the Christian should find anything among his enemies that is wisely or useless should be purified and trimmed away before use.[ix] This interpretation shows that Origen, being convinced of the inspiration of Scripture from the Holy Spirit, feels freedom to exegete individual verses to unlock truths. In the process he goes beyond literal interpretation.
Origen believes that the search for a deeper symbolic or allegorical meaning in the biblical text is not a hermeneutical free fall in which anything can mean anything. For many instances a biblical narrative itself fills Origen’s symbolic allegorical reservoir, and his interpretation results from the use of symbolic clues from comparing text with other text. [x] Furthermore, before Origen is perceived as a philosopher fitting Scripture in a Platonic model. We should take the allegories into context with his purpose. Hall states that Origen “is continually waving his theological antennae over the literal sense of the biblical text. And if a text fails to satisfy or make sense to him on a literal reading, Origen will employ the larger symbolic field he has culled from Scripture as a whole to discern a deeper, allegorical sense.”
Not all of Origen’s interpretation’s can be circumstantiated in this same manner. It would not be fair to discuss Origen’s interpretation without the mention of his view of the Trinity. In Origen’s time, Christianity as a religion had not yet developed a system of theology as a basis of orthodoxy. Therefore, in addition to a wide variety of opinions regarding the faith, there were also various sects, each claiming to possess the truth of the Christian faith. Also, in this time of history, the orthodox view of the Trinity hadn’t been developed completely. This led to these second or third generation Christians afraid to worship two gods.
This is plainly conveyed in his Commentary on John, where Origen writes: “Now there are many who are sincerely concerned about religion, and who fall here into great perplexity. They are afraid that they may be proclaiming two Gods, and their fear drives them into doctrines, which are false and wicked. Either they deny that the Son has a distinct nature of His own besides that of the Father, and make Him whom they call the Son to be God all but the name, or they deny the divinity of the Son, giving Him a separate existence of His own, and making His sphere of essence fall outside that of the Father, so that they are separable from each other.”[xi]
It is widely accepted that Origen had a tremendous influence on the formulation of the “Neo-Nicene” doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine led to the Council of Constantinople (381) ordaining a creed produced by a council in Alexandria (362), which states that the Trinity is “one substance, three persons”.[xii]
This is not to construe that Origen was without his faults on the Doctrine of the Trinity. Opponents of the “same substance” view, such as Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, both used Origen for arguments against the Nicene Creed. It is also speculated, although not confirmed, that Rufinus, who was a friend and defender of Origen, altered his writings on the Trinity. It is thought that some of the views could be more Arian in nature. For this reason, it’s possible that many of his works on the Trinity have become lost through the centuries.
Unfortunately, Origen does incorporate some of his Alexandrian background into the Trinity. He begins his thesis, de Principiis, by establishing, in typical Platonic fashion, a divine hierarchical triad. Instead of calling these principles by typical Platonic terms like “monad”, “dyad”, and “world-soul”, used by Philo, Origen calls them “Father,” “Christ,” and “Holy Spirit”. He also describes the Trinity using Platonic language.
The first of these principles, the Father, is a perfect unity, complete unto Himself, and without body but of purely spiritual mind. Since God the Father is, for Origen, “personal and active,” it follows that there existed with Him, always, a being upon which to exercise His intellectual activity. This being is Christ the Son, the Logos, or Wisdom, of God, the first emanation of the Father, corresponding to Numenius’ “second god,” as we have seen earlier. The third and last principle of the divine triad is the Holy Spirit, who “proceeds from the Son and is related to Him as the Son is related to the Father”.[xiii]
To further elaborate on this let’s look again at de Principiis. Origen describes in this work the allotment of power: “The God and Father, who holds the universe together, is superior to every being that exists, for he imparts to each one from his own existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone. So that in this way the power of the Father is greater than that of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and that of the Son is more than that of the Holy Spirit, and in turn the power of the Holy Spirit exceeds that of every other holy being.”[xiv]
Also, in the Commentary on John[xv] he categorically describes the creation of the Trinity: “We consider, therefore, that there are three hypostases, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and at the same thee we believe nothing to be uncreated but the Father. We therefore, as the more pious and the truer course, admit that all things were made by the Logos, and that the Holy Spirit is the most excellent and the first in order of all that was made by the Father through Christ.” In these works we see the weaknesses of Origen, which have often been attacked for being heretical.
Although, Origen’s view on the Trinity, bodily resurrection, and his Platonic model of souls cannot be ignored. Origen lived through a turbulent period of the Christian Church, when persecution was widespread and little or no doctrinal consensus existed among the various regional churches. Also, we should not forget the young Origen during the renewed persecution in Alexandria. His father was martyred, and Origen visited those imprisoned for their faith and accompanied some as they went to their death.[xvi]
In the interpretation of Scripture, Origen’s respect for philosophy was very complex. He found it useful enough to incorporate into Scripture interpretation, but remained careful of its limitations. Unfortunately for Origen, many of the Church leaders that followed him in the later centuries found that his view of that limitation was heretical.
It’s therefore ironical that Origen wrote about heretical teaching and condemned it. Here in his Commentary of Matthew he addresses false doctrines: “Now, if you attend to the saying, “Many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in and shall not be able,” you will understand that this refers to those who boast that they are of the church, but live weakly and contrary to the word. Of those, then, who seek to enter in, those who are not able to enter will not be able to do so, because the gates of Hades prevail against them; but in the case of those against whom the gates of Hades will not prevail, those seeking to enter in will be strong, being able to do all things, in Christ Jesus, who strengthen them. And in like manner each one of those who are the authors of any evil opinion has become the architect of a certain gate of Hades; but those who co-operate with the teaching of the architect of such things are servants and stewards, who are the bond-servants of the evil doctrine which goes to build up impiety.” [xvii]
Origen was surely addressing false teaching, such as Gnosticism, but historically many times he has been perceived equivalent. He would undoubtedly lament if he thought that his interpretations, of the Word that he devoted his life to, were divergent to the faith, in which he defended.
[i] K. Froechlich, ed., Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p.16.
[ii] C. Bigg. The Christian Platonists of Alexandria. Oxford, 1886. Reprint, New York, 1981.
[iii] R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden, A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. SCM Press. 1990
[iv] Jerome, Epistle 92, quoting Origen; see also de principiis.
[v] McGuckin, John Anthony, editor. “The Westminster Handbook to Origen”. 2004 Westminster John Knox Press.
[vi] A. McGrath. The Christian Theology Reader. Blackwell Books. 1995. p. 357.
[vii] C. Hall. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. Inter Varsity Press, 1998. p.149.
[viii] H. Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. Yale University Press, 1995. p. 232
[x] C. Hall. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. Inter Varsity Press, 1998. p.153.
[xi] Origen. Commentary on John. Book 2.2.
[xii] E. Clark. The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate. Princeton, 1992.
[xiii] E.P. Meijering, Orthodoxy and Platonism in Athanasius (2nd ed. 1974).
[xiv] Origen. DE PRINCIPIIS. Book 1. Kirby, Peter. “.” Early Christian Writings. 2006.
[xv] Origen. Commentary on John. Book 1. Kirby, Peter. “.” Early Christian Writings. 2006.
[xvi] K. S. Latourette. A History of Christianity. Prince Press. 1953. p. 149.
[xvii] Origen. Commentary on Matthew. Kirby, Peter. “.” Early Christian Writings. 2006.