Origen (c. 185–253)

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(c. 185253)

Origen, the Christian theologian and exegete of the Bible, was the foremost member of the catechetical school at Alexandria. Born of Christian parents in Alexandria, he was made head of a Christian school there in 204. He taught until 231, when conflict with the bishop forced him to leave for Caesarea in Palestine, where he taught until his death. He apparently heard lectures by Ammonius Saccas, founder of Neoplatonism, although he regarded philosophy as essentially preparatory to theology in the same way that other studies were prerequisite to philosophy itself. However, the influence of philosophy (primarily Platonic but also Stoic) on his thought was highly significant; it can be observed much more clearly in his presuppositions and arguments than in explicit quotations, which are relatively unusual except in the apologetic treatise Contra Celsum. The most important of his voluminous writings are De Principiis, a treatise on first principles and the earliest extant Christian systematic theology; the treatise On Prayer ; and Contra Celsum.

De Principiis

A relatively early work, De Principiis begins with the statement that apostolic doctrine, as found in the New Testament, is incomplete because the apostles intentionally left some matters untouched for the sake of their spiritual successors. Origen devotes the first book to a consideration of the spiritual hierarchy consisting of the Father, who acts on all beings; the Logos (Word or Reason), who acts upon rational beings; the Spirit, who acts upon those rational beings who are sanctified, and the angels. The second book deals with the material world. Man, created because the angels fell, is a preexistent fallen spirit in a material body. After Adam's transgression came redemption by the incarnate Logos; later there will be resurrection, the last judgment, and the life of all men restored to spiritual bodies (a succession of other worlds may follow as it has gone before). The third book discusses freedom, characteristic of creatures but not of the Creator. When a soul is in a body, it can struggle for victory, helped by angels and hindered by demons. Since it possesses free will, it is capable of choosing the good. After a brief summary, Origen turns in the fourth book to an explanation of how the Scriptures can be shown to have various levels of meaning. Like man himself, they have flesh (literal meaning), soul (moral meaning), and spirit (allegorical-spiritual meaning). The exegetical difficulties in Scripture were placed there by their ultimate author, God, in the way that similar obstacles to faith were placed in the cosmos so that man could use his mind.

Origen's work, written in Greek, is extant only in fragments (Book IV is almost entire). The Latin version by Tyrannius Rufinus was severely criticized by St. Jerome on the ground that it lacks unorthodox passages that were in the original, but it has come to be regarded more favorably by modern scholars. The title De Principiis has parallels in second-century philosophy, as do many of the subjects Origen discusses; his approach, however, seems to be essentially Christian.

On Prayer

In On Prayer, written later in his life, Origen discusses prayer in general (Chs. 317) and the Lord's Prayer in particular (Chs. 1830). The principal problem is that presented by prayer to an omniscient God who has foreordained everything. Once again, Origen insists upon God's gift of free will; the primary purpose of prayer is not petition as such but sharing in the life of God. Origen classifies prayer as petition, adoration (only of the Father), supplication, and thanksgiving. In each case he emphasizesas do contemporary middle Platoniststhe spiritual attitude of the one who prays.

Contra Celsum

The late apologetic treatise against Celsus, written in 248, reveals the extent to which Origen was able to argue on grounds shared by his philosophical opponents; there is actually a wide measure of agreement between him and Celsus. Both are opposed to anthropomorphism, to idolatry, and to any crudely literal theology. Origen, however, consistently defends Christianity as he sees it and does not hesitate to attack philosophies and philosophers.

Origen and Philosophy

The precise extent of Origen's debt to philosophy was discussed in antiquity; the Neoplatonist Porphyry claimed (according to Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica VI, 19, 8) that Origen drew upon Plato, Numenius, Cronius, Apollophanes, Longinus, Moderatus, Nicomachus, Chaeremon the Stoic, and Cornutus. Since Origen does refer to many of these writers, whose names occur in Porphyry's description of the Neoplatonic curriculum, Porphyry may be attempting to demonstrate both the extent and the correctness of Origen's Neoplatonism. The systems and works of various philosophersexcept for the "atheists"were studied thoroughly in Origen's school. Origen himself often made use of philosophical dictionaries for the definitions of various terms, but he also studied the writings of the philosophers themselves, not only those of Plato and the Platonists but also those of the Stoics and, occasionally, the Peripatetics.

It is sometimes claimed that there were two Origens, one a pupil of Ammonius Saccas and the other the Christian theologian. It is more likely that both aspects were combined within one person, the first Christian to be a genuinely philosophical theologian.

See also Celsus; Eusebius; Neoplatonism; Numenius of Apamea; Patristic Philosophy; Peripatetics; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Porphyry; Stoicism.


texts and translations

De la Rue, C. Opera Omnia. 4 vols. Paris, 17331759, reprinted in J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca XIXVII. Paris, 18571866.

Critical editions of individual works in Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte. Leipzig: Hinrichs: Hinrichs, 18971941; Berlin and Leipzig, 1953; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag: Akademie-Verlag, 1954.

English translations in Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1864.


Benjamins, Hendrik S. Eingeordnete Freiheit: Freiheit und Vorsehung bei Origene. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.

Berner, Ulrich. Origenes. Darmstatt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1981.

Bienert, W. and U. Kühneweg, ed. Origeniana septima: Origenes in den Auseinandersetzungen des 4. Jahrhunderts. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999.

Brox, Norbert. "Spiritualität und Orthodoxie: Zum Konflikt des Origenes mit der Geschichte des Dogmas," in Ernst Dassmann and K. Suso Frank, eds, Pietas: Festschrift für Bernhard Kötting = Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum. Ergänzungsband 8 (1980): 14054.

Clark, Elizabeth A. The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Crouzel, Henri. Origène. Paris: Lethielleux, 1985.

Crouzel, Henri. Origène et la philosophie. Paris, 1962.

Crouzel, Henri. Origène et Plotin: Comparaisons doctrinales. Paris: Aubier, 1991.

Dively, Elizabeth. The Soul and Spirit of Scripture within Origen's Exegesis. Leiden, 2005. Boston: Brill, 2005.

Edards, Mark. Origen Against Plato. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.

Hällström, Gunnar af. Charismatic Succession: A Study on Origen's Concept of Prophecy. Helsinki, 1985.

Hällström, Gunnar af. Fides Simpliciorum according to Origen of Alexandria. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 1984.

Harl, Marguerite. Origène et la fonction révélatrice du Verbe incarné. Paris, 1958.

Jonas, Hans. Gnosis und spätantiker Geist, vol. 2, Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie. Edited by Kurt Rudolph, reprint, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993.

Kannengiesser, Charles, ed. Origen: His World and His Legacy. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Lange, Nicholas R. M. de. Origen and the Jews: Studies in JewishChristian Relations in Third-Century Palestine. Cambridge, 1976.

Lubac, Henri de. Histoire et Esprit: L'intelligence d'Écriture d'après Origène. Paris: Aubier, 1950.

Neuschäfer, Bernhardt. Origenes als Philologe. Schweizerische Beiträge zur Altertumswissemchaft 18. 2 vols. Basel, 1987.

Peri, Vittorio. Omelie origeniane sui Salmi. Vatican City: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 1980.

Stroumsa, Guy G. Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996.

Strutwolf, Holger. Gnosis als System: Zur Rezeption der valentinianischen Gnosis bei Origenes = Forschungen zur Kirchen- and Dogmengeschichte 56. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993.

Torjesen, Karen Jo. Hermeneutical Procedure and Theological Method in Origen's Exegesis. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1986.

Trigg, Joseph W. "The Angel of Great Counsel: Christ and the Angelic Hierarchy in Origen's Theology." Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 42 (1991): 3551.

Trigg, Joseph W. Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church. Atlanta: J. Knox, 1983.

Robert M. Grant (1967)

Bibliography updated by Scott Carson (2005)