ORIGEN (c. 185–c. 254), surnamed Adamantius (the man of steel or diamond), is considered the greatest Christian theologian of the Antenicene period.
The main source for Origen's life is the sixth book of Eusebius of Caesarea's Church History. His teachings are also described in a panegyric delivered by one of his students, who (despite recent doubts) is still believed to be Gregory Thaumaturgus. Much information about Origen that was contained in Eusebius's lost writings is preserved in the writings of Jerome. It is difficult to date precisely the events of Origen's life, and recent attempts to do so are not completely satisfactory.
Origen was probably born in Alexandria in 185, the first of seven children in a Christian family. His father, Leonides, taught him Greek literature and the Bible. In 202, when he was seventeen, his father was martyred (by beheading) during the persecution of Septimius Severus. To support his family, Origen opened a school of rhetoric, and at the same time Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria assigned to him the task of training catechumens. Some years afterward he left the school in order to devote himself entirely to the teaching of Christian doctrine. He divided his students into two groups; the catechumens were taught by his disciple Heraclas, while Origen instructed the more advanced students. According to Eusebius, he castrated himself (taking literally Matthew 19:12), and he assisted some of his students in their martyrdom. He completed his own philosophical studies at the school of Ammonius Saccas, who later was the teacher of Plotinus. To deepen his knowledge of the Bible Origen studied Hebrew, although he never became proficient in the language.
Origen began to write between 215 and 220, encouraged by a wealthy man named Ambrose. Ambrose had been led by his intellectual zeal to adopt the Valentinian heresy, but Origen converted him from that heresy and in turn was provided with stenographers and copyists—virtually a whole publishing house.
During this first Alexandrian period of his life, Origen traveled to Rome, to the Roman province of Arabia (present-day Jordan) at the invitation of the governor, and to Antioch. In Antioch he met the dowager empress Mammaea, who wished to learn about Christian doctrines. Along with all teachers of philosophy in Alexandria, Origen was forced to leave the city in 215. Origen stayed for a short period at Caesarea, in Palestine. Here, because of his great knowledge of scripture, he was permitted by Bishop Theoctistus and his colleague Alexander of Jerusalem to preach, even though he was still a layman; but Bishop Demetrius protested against this innovation and called Origen back to Alexandria. About 231 Origen was invited by the bishops of Achaia (Greece) to debate with heretics in Athens. Passing through Palestine, he was ordained a priest at Caesarea by Theoctistus and Alexander. When he returned to Alexandria, Bishop Demetrius, angry at the ordination performed without his consent, summoned a synod of Egyptian bishops and priests that ordered Origen to leave Egypt, and another synod, composed only of bishops, defrocked him. This sentence, however, was not accepted by the bishops of Palestine and neighboring provinces.
Origen was welcomed to Caesarea by Theoctistus and Alexander, and he opened a school in the city. Among his first students were Gregory Thaumaturgus and Gregory's brother Athenodorus. Ambrose followed Origen to Caesarea, bringing his stenographers and copyists, and Origen continued to compose his great works. Many homilies survive, attesting to his extensive pastoral activity. He acquired a high reputation as a theologian, and he was frequently invited by bishops to defend the faith. He traveled extensively throughout the eastern part of the Roman empire, including the provinces of Achaia, Arabia, and Cappadocia, and the towns of Ephesus and Nicomedia.
During the Decian persecution, Origen was imprisoned and several times tortured in the hope that he would apostatize, but he maintained his faith firmly. Upon the death of Decius he was freed, but his health was broken and he died, probably in 254. Up to the thirteenth century his grave could be seen in the old cathedral of Tyre.
A great part of Origen's immense production is now lost, and part of what is left survives only in Latin translations by Rufinus of Aquileia, Jerome, and an unknown translator. Most of Origen's works are directly exegetical. He explained the Bible in three kinds of works: scientific commentaries; homilies preached in the church; and scholia, or short texts in which the meaning of a passage was elucidated. Today it is impossible to distinguish the scholia from the multitude of surviving fragments of Origen's lost commentaries and homilies. It has been demonstrated recently that homilies on Psalms once attributed to Jerome are slightly adapted translations from Origen. In all, 279 of Origen's homilies are extant. Jerome's four commentaries on Paul's letters to the Galatians, the Ephesians, Titus, and Philemon are also in great part, as the author himself acknowledges, adaptations of Origen's corresponding commentaries.
While still in Alexandria, Origen began his great bible study, the Hexapla. In this work of six parallel columns, two columns contain the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (one in Hebraic and one in Greek characters), and four columns are devoted to four Greek translations: those by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and the Septuagint. For some books of the Old Testament, three other Greek versions are also supplied, called "Quinta," "Sexta," and "Septima." Diacritical marks are used to show what had been added or suppressed in each version. Only numerous fragments of this work have been preserved.
Among the works not directly exegetical (although Origen also discusses scripture extensively in them), the most important is the treatise On First Principles (Peri archon), the first great attempt at speculative theology by a Christian. This work was the cause of Origen's posthumous misfortunes. The entire book is preserved only in a much-discussed Latin version by Rufinus, although there are two long Greek fragments from it in the Philokalia of Origen by the Cappadocian fathers Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, and many short extracts are quoted by Jerome, Justinian, and other authors. Another major book still preserved in Greek is Against Celsus, the main apologetic work of the Antenicene period. This work is a refutation of the True Discourse, an attack on Christianity by the Middle Platonist philosopher Celsus. Other nonexegetical books that survive in the original Greek are the treatise On Prayer, which gives one of the first explanations of the Lord's Prayer; Exhortation to Martyrdom, written during the persecution of Maximinus the Thracian; and Dialogue with Heraclides, found during World War II in Egypt and consisting of a discussion in a local synod with a bishop suspected of modalism, a form of unorthodoxy that sees Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as only one person with these names. Greek fragments survive of the lost works Stromateis and On the Resurrection. Of Origen's important correspondence, two complete letters and fragments of others have been preserved.
Three groups of sources contain all the surviving fragments of Origen's work. First are the two collections of select pieces: Pamphilus of Caesarea's Apology for Origen, the first book of which is preserved only in Rufinus's Latin translation, and the Philokalia. Second are the exegetical Catenae, collections of exegeses from various chruch fathers, including Origen, in which a given book of scripture is explained verse by verse. Third are subsequent authors' quotations from Origen.
Three aspects are mingled to varying degrees in Origen's entire corpus, as well as in each work: he is at once an exegete, a spiritual and mystical writer, and a speculative theologian. Exegesis and spirituality are always present in his main speculative work, On First Principles. Together with Jerome, Origen is one of the two main critical and literal exegetes of Christian antiquity.
For Origen, the literal sense of scripture is the foundation for the spiritual sense, and he explains scripture using philology and all the learning of his time. Spiritual exegesis, or allegorical exegesis (synonymous for Origen), begins with New Testament texts in which Old Testament images and prophesies have their fulfillment in Christ. This form of interpretation had been used by some earlier church fathers, but Origen was its first great exponent, particularly in his theory of the three senses of scriptural meaning—corporal, or literal; psychic, or moral; and spiritual, or mystical. Despite its great complexity (the result of later accretions), the heart of Origen's spiritual exegesis of the Old Testament is the manifestation of Christ as the key to the ancient scriptures. These scriptures are a prophecy of Christ, both in their entirety and in their details. In his spiritual exegesis of the New Testament, Origen applies what is said of Christ to the Christian, thus foreshadowing the things to come in the "last days." This exegesis can be understood only in the context of spiritual life, prayer, and preaching. When Origen suggests the meaning of a text whose spiritual sense is not found in the New Testament, he does not claim to give a definitive answer, but only to provide "occasions for contemplation." Often he invites his reader or hearer to follow a better interpretation if it can be found. Origen's spiritual exegesis does not have the same aim as his literal exegesis (which for modern exegetes, unlike for Origen, refers to the meaning intended by the author). Literal exegesis, for Origen, points out the materiality of an expression independently, if possible, of all interpretation. Spiritual exegesis places the passage in the history of salvation and draws spiritual food from it for the faithful. A pastoral purpose is always present in Origen's exegesis.
The Spiritual Writer
Origen is, after Clement, one of the founders of Christian spirituality and mysticism. His trichotomic conception of man derives much more from Paul and the Bible than from Platonism. The spirit (pneuma ) is a gift of God, something analogous with the gratia sanctificans. The incorporeal soul (psuche ), the seat of free will and personality, is divided into an upper and a lower part; the upper part is the mind (nous ), the faculty that receives the spirit, whereas the lower part, the "thought of the flesh" (phronema tes sarkos ) draws the soul toward the body. The body—earthly for man, ethereal for angels and the risen—is the sign of the human "accidental," creaturely condition, in contrast to the "substantiality" of the Trinity, which alone exists without a body.
Humans were created according to the image of God, that is, according to his Son (Gn. 1:26–27). This means much more than the reception of "natural" gifts; it means that a seed and a desire for divinization have been planted in humanity, and this seed must with God's help be developed into the perfect "likeness" of the blessedness. Such is the framework of ascetic and spiritual life, which is further explained in terms of knowledge. But the Alexandrian defines knowledge according to Genesis 4:1: "Adam knew Eve, his wife." For Origen's synthetic mind, knowledge is identical with love and union. Knowledge begins with the realities of this world, which, in Platonic terms, are copies of "true" realities, that is, the divine mysteries, toward which knowledge must strive. In other words, the way of knowledge begins in the Old Testament and passes through the historical Jesus—the Incarnate Word that enters the soul and leads it, just as the apostles were led on the Mount of the Transfiguration to see the Word through the man Jesus and thus to hear the words of Wisdom spoken among the perfect. The Transfiguration symbolizes for Origen the highest knowledge humans can have of God upon this earth; it is the prelude to the beatific vision, in which humans will contemplate, face to face, the mysteries contained in the Son of God.
Origen was one of the great creators of the mystical language and spiritual themes employed in later centuries. Before his time, the bride in the Song of Songs had been interpreted collectively as the church. Origen added to this interpretation an individual meaning: the bride is the soul of the Christian. The imagery of the dart and the wound of love began with him. He often used the Pauline theme of the birth and growth of Jesus in the soul, as well as the theme of the ascent of the Mount of the Transfiguration to express spiritual ascension. Different aspects of grace and knowledge were represented by light, life, spiritual foods, spiritual wine, and the five spiritual senses. He had a doctrine of the discernment of spirits, and he often spoke of Christ in a highly affective manner that was rare in Christian antiquity. His far-reaching ascetic teachings included treatments of such themes as martyrdom, virginity, marriage, spiritual struggle, virtue, and sin.
The Speculative Theologian
It is difficult to evaluate Origen's theology justly, as is known from his history. His theology "in exercise," which was sensitive to the antithetical aspects of Christianity, lacked definitions and accurate terminology. This is understandable, since Origen wrote before the great trinitarian and christological heresies that in subsequent centuries made it necessary to develop more precise terms. To make a fair assessment, the historian therefore must study all that remains of his work: no single text alone suffices to reveal Origen's thought on any point. Because he was the pioneer of theology, Origen must be examined with a strict historical method, with knowledge of the rule of faith of his time—still lacking precision—and of the heresies he fought. The historian must understand his vocabulary and the persecuted church of the third century, so unlike the triumphant church of his later accusers, who were little interested in understanding him on his own terms. Similarly, the historian must avoid projecting on Origen the heresies of later times.
The fundamental concern of Origen's work, stimulated by the search of the convert Ambrose, was to give a Christian answer to problems (derived in part from Greek philosophy) that troubled his contemporaries. He had to ensure that they did not seek the answer in gnostic doctrines, and he had to supply searching Christians with the intellectual food they needed. His efforts in this direction, for which he had prepared himself by acquiring considerable philosophical erudition, were totally misunderstood by his fourth-century and fifth-century opponents, in spite of the fact that the success of Origen's efforts had played an important part in the conversion of the Roman empire.
The philosophical foundation of Origen's theology was the Middle Platonism of his teacher Ammonius Saccas—an eclectic philosophy based mainly on Platonism and Stoicism and to a lesser degree on Aristotelianism. Origen borrowed from this philosophy both terminology and doctrines, but he used it as a theologian, not as a philosopher, to explain and develop what he found in the Bible and in the rule of faith.
It is impossible to give a detailed account of his theology in a short space. Only one of the erroneous doctrines of which he was later accused can safely be attributed to him: his favorite hypothesis of the preexistence of souls. This idea was essentially Platonic, but Origen used it to a Christian end: to refute the Marcionites, who accused the Creator of wickedness, and to answer the great difficulties raised by the two contemporary Christian solutions to the problem of the origin of souls, traducianism and creationism. According to the rule of faith of his time, Origen's hypothesis could not be described as heretical. The other controverted points—the famous apocatastasis (the final restoration of all things), the trinitarian subordinationism, and so on—must be examined in the context of Origen's entire work and intentions. If this is done, these opinions lose most of the scandalous character that they have acquired in his accusers' formulations.
Origen has always been a contradictory figure in the history of the church. In spite of some reservations from his followers, he was the teacher of all the great Christian writers of the fourth century: in the East, of Athanasius, Basil, the two Gregories, and Didymus the Blind; in the West, of Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Rufinus, and Jerome. (Jerome owed much to Origen, both early and late in his career, although in his later years he became a strong opponent of Origen.) The first attacks on Origen were launched at the turn of the fourth century by Methodius of Olympus, Peter of Alexandria, and Eustathius of Antioch; Origen was defended by Pamphilus of Caesarea.
In the second half of the fourth century enthusiastic disciples among the monks of Palestine and Egypt turned the ocean of Origen's thought into a well-dammed river, thus making of him a heretic. This "Origenism" provoked the first Origenist controversy. Origen's opponents included Epiphanius of Salamis, Theophilus of Alexandria, and Jerome; his defenders were John of Jerusalem and Rufinus. In the first half of the sixth century, Origenism—or, more properly, "Evagrianism" (named for one of Origen's enthusiasts, Evagrios of Pontus)—agitated some monasteries of Palestine, and Emperor Justinian condemned Origen in a letter in 543. He referred the question of the Palestinian Origenists, rather than that of Origen himself, to the Second Council of Constantinople (553), but the anathemas against Origenism do not appear in the council's official acts. Whereas the Byzantine church found Origen suspect, he was much read in the medieval Latin West until the thirteenth century, and he held an especially important place in the Cistercian tradition. His influence was eclipsed by the rise of Scholasticism but revived during the Renaissance, particularly through the work of Pico della Mirandola and Erasmus. Today Origen, next to Augustine, is probably the most frequently studied church father.
A general bibliography is supplied in my Bibliographie critique d'Origène (The Hague, 1971), and in its first supplement (1982). Origen's works are available in Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P. Migne, (Paris, 1857), and in Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte (Leipzig, 1899–1953; Berlin, 1953–). English translations of his works are offered in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1965); in Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom and The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, nos. 19 and 26 in "Ancient Christian Writers," edited by Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumbe (Westminster, Md., 1954 and 1956); and in Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, vol. 71 of The Fathers of the Church, edited by Hermigild Dressler and others (Washington, D. C., 1982). For On Principles, see Origen on First Principles, translated by G. W. Butterworth (1936; reprint, New York, 1966). For Against Celsus, see Origen: Contra Celsum, translated by Henry Chadwick (1953; reprint, Cambridge, 1980). A general presentation of Origen's life and thought is available in Jean Daniélou's Origen (New York, 1955).
Henri Crouzel (1987)
The Christian theologian and biblical scholar Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254) is famous for the originality and power of his mind as well as for his vast learning and prolific writings. He was the most influential Christian theologian before St. Augustine and one of the most controversial Christian thinkers of all time.
Origen, whose full name was Origenes Adamantius, was born of Christian parents, probably in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Forced to support the family because of his father's martyrdom before Origen was 20 years old, he taught grammar for a time and then became head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria. Devoting himself to the duties of this post for the next 12 years or so, Origen adopted notably ascetic habits of life. He extended his own studies to the point of attending the lectures of the Platonist philosopher Ammonius Saccas. During these years Origen also learned Hebrew and began the compilation of his Hexapla, famous in the history of textual criticism. It was an edition of the Old Testament in six parallel columns, one each for the Hebrew text, the Hebrew text in Greek characters, and four different Greek versions.
A local outburst of violence against Christians about 215 prompted Origen to leave Alexandria and to journey to Palestine. There his fame had preceded him, and he was asked, though a layman, to preach publicly in church. News of this irregular proceeding reached the ears of Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, who forthwith recalled Origen home. Once in Alexandria, Origen began an intense period of literary work facilitated by shorthand writers and transcribers supplied by his wealthy friend and convert Ambrose.
The most famous of Origen's writings from this period was the work De principiis (On First Principles). In it he articulated a comprehensive and coherent statement of the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption. Drawing guardedly upon contemporary currents of philosophical and Gnostic speculation, he projected a cosmic history of rational beings, created before the material universe, who fell from their original love of God and who then entered bodies in the material world created by God as a place of corrective education. God's providential care for his rational creatures was brought to a decisive turning point by the Incarnation of His Word in Jesus Christ, whose role was to lead souls freely joined to him in faith and love back to the original state from which they fell in their premundane existence. Origen believed that even Satan and his angels would one day be led back to God, one of his teachings that in his lifetime and in later centuries brought him into disrepute.
About 230, on a journey to a theological disputation in Greece, Origen stopped off in Palestine, where he was ordained presbyter by his admirers, the bishops of Caesarea and Jerusalem. His ordination outside the jurisdiction of Demetrius brought Origen's tense relations with the bishop of Alexandria to a climax. At Alexandria he was formally condemned, a decree not honored elsewhere in the Eastern Church.
Thereafter, Origen lived at Caesarea, where for 2 decades he was active as teacher, preacher, biblical commentator, and Christian apologist. As a teacher of prospective scholars and Church leaders, Origen developed a carefully planned course of studies that proceeded from logic through physics and ethics to theology and the interpretation of Scripture. His sermons abounded in shrewdly critical observations on the state of the Church, including sharp comments on the laxity and venality of bishops. His expositions of Scripture, the main bulk of his vast literary output, were marked by extensive use of allegorical interpretations. Two chief purposes of this were to block any suggestion that unworthy conceptions of God are to be found in the Bible and to display the Bible as offering differing levels of insight according to the varying capacities of men in their gradual progress toward spiritual perfection. According to St. Jerome, Origen wrote about 800 exegetical and apologetic works.
In 250, during the persecution of the Church by Emperor Decius, Origen was imprisoned and tortured. He died in Tyre.
The best work on Origen is Jean Danielou, Origen (1955), which includes many quotations from Origen's works. A helpful, if brief, treatment is in Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement and Origen (1966). An older work, but one from which much can still be learned, is Charles Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria (1886; rev. ed. 1913). □
The term Origenism refers to the views of (or at least attributed to) Origen which gave rise to two later controversies. These include the pre-existence of souls and the distinction between the mortal and the resurrection body. The anti-Origenists were victorious at a synod convened by the emperor Justinian in 543, and Origenism was finally condemned at the 2nd Council of Constantinople (553).