Origen was born in Alexandria in 185 AD. A brilliant student, he was given the best education and the best Christian upbringing then available and was a student of Clement of Alexandria. From his earliest years he was very conversant with the Bible. His father, Leonides, was martyred as a Christian during the persecution of Emperor Septimius Severus. Only the intervention of his mother prevented Origen from presenting himself to share his father’s fate. His family property was confiscated by the authorities. During the persecution, the catechetical school in Alexandria was disbanded.
In 202 A.D., although Origen was only eighteen years old, he was appointed by Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, not only to reopen the disbanded school but to head it. The school had been left vacant by the withdrawal of Clement. It is interesting to note that Origen likened himself to Pantaenus. In addition to teaching subjects relating to Christian studies, Origen taught secular subjects and acknowledged pagan philosophy. Among his students was Heraclaus, later the successor to Demetrius as bishop of Alexandria. Origen eventually handed over the teaching of the catechumens to him.
Meanwhile Origen focused his energies on the more advanced students and sought to equip himself for his future work by attending the lectures of Ammonius Saccas, a distinguished exponent of neo-Platonist philosophy as Plotinus would become a few years later. His success as a teacher was remarkable and attracted heretics and pagans as well as catechumens. Origen was incomparably the greatest scholar and theologian of the Eastern church in the early centuries and his fame as a teacher spread far and wide.
In 214 A.D. he made a journey to Rome where he met Hippolitus. Soon afterwards, he continued his tour and visited the pagan governor of Arabia at the governor’s request. He returned to Alexandria only to be expelled a few months later when Caracalla (Elagabulus) allowed his troops to sack the city in 218 A.D. Origen took refuge in Caesarea where, at the request of Theoktistos, the local bishop, he taught catechumens and also gave Biblical lectures. Jealous of the growing reputation of his protege, Demetrius, his bishop, recalled him to Alexandria, very angry because Origen, a layman, had expounded theology to bishops in Caesarea.
In 229 A.D. Origen was invited to Athens to help the church there to deal with a Valentinian Gnostic heretic and went without Demetrius’s permission. In 230 A.D. some Palestinian bishops, his Episcopal friends, ordained Origen to the presbyterate. Demetrius was incensed, maintaining that this was flouting his authority. At a synod of Egyptian bishops he secured Origen’s condemnation and banishment on the grounds that he had been ordained without reference to the proper authority,–in other words, Demetrius himself.
Demetrius was prepared to allow Heraclaus rather than Origen teach a number of people at Alexandria. He may also have felt it was out of order for the bishops of Palestine to ordain Origen. Demetrius might have deliberately sought to prevent Origen’s teaching in the church. Origen’s views,–the fruit of advanced thinking for the time,–could be potentially explosive as seen in the ensuing controversy and for this, Demetrius felt him to be unsuitable.
In Origen’s case, a specific objection was made manifest in later years during the Arian controversy, at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Applying Matthew 19:12 literally (“For there are eunuchs who have been so right from their birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made so by men and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it”), Origen had allegedly castrated himself in his youthful zeal. Consequently, Demetrius considered Origen’s ordination illegal and improper on technical grounds. Was Demetrius motivated by jealousy? Although Demetrius might have been envious–and there is no doubt that he was,–he nevertheless had a case against Origen mainly on two grounds.
(1) That a man should not be ordained outside his own diocese.
(2) According to Canon Law, Origen had excluded himself by self-mutilation in order to become a eunuch.
When Origen returned to Alexandria he was opposed by Demetrius who convened two local councils which condemned Origen and commanded him to leave. This decision, nevertheless, was rejected in Palestine. So, in 230 A.D., Origen established himself in Caesarea. On the death of Demetrius, Heraclaus, a former pupil of Origen, became bishop of Alexandria but continued to persecute Origen as Demetrius had done.
Origen never returned to Alexandria but made his home in Caesarea, teaching and writing. Among his pupils were Firmilian, bishop of Cappadocian Caesarea and Gregory Thaumaturgus. Origen travelled extensively and on two occasions was invited to Arabia as a theological arbitrator. In spite of his widespread fame, he was imprisoned during the persecution of Emperor Decius and cruelly tortured. Although Origen was released, he was physically broken and died in 254 A.D.
Origen was incomparably the greatest scholar and theologian of the Eastern Church in the early centuries as well as a prolific writer. His learning and his works were encyclopaedic. He is reputed to have written about 6,000 books. The first scientific theologian, Origen was a man ahead of his age, particularly in terms of Biblical scholarship and criticism.
In 218 A.D., Origen began his written works for Ambrosius, a wealthy friend who provided him with a staff of seven stenographers, seven copy writers and girls to make fair copies. From 223 A.D., there followed an amazing succession of works. It has been remarked that he “wrote more books than others had time to read” on textual criticism, exegesis, doctrines. He also undertook the Hexapla, a gigantic work on the Old Testament which has been lost apart from the Septuagint (LXX) part of the text. He also wrote the Scholia and other homilies and commentaries.
His great doctrinal work is De Principiis (“Concerning First Principles”), a masterpiece of which only an inaccurate Latin translation survives. His rule of faith was largely that of the Apostle’s Creed to which all the Christian churches would subscribe. Anything contradictory to such a statement of faith was heresy and he mentioned that Gnostic groups belonged to this category.
There were, on the other hand, open questions on which Origen gave his own opinion. For example,
(i) Is the Holy Spirit begotten?
(ii) Are the sun, moon, and stars animate?
(iii) What is the origin of the soul?
(iv) What is the existence of a succession of the world’s past and present?
For our purposes, the principal writings of Origen’s prodigious literary output may be divided into four groups:
Origen’s biblical scholarship was outstanding. In an age in which versions and translations were multiplying he saw the pressing need for an accurate text of the Bible. In order to provide this he constructed the massive Hexapla, a critical edition of the Old Testament, which occupies a place apart in his body of work.
The Hexapla was arranged in six columns in which were placed side by side the Hebrew text, a transliteration into Greek characters, and the four Greek versions of Aquila, Symmachus, the Septuagint and the Theodotion. For some parts of the Bible other versions were added. The texts were compared with each other and the Septuagint was marked with symbols drawing attention to points at which it appeared to deviate from the original Hebrew. Important variations were found, for example, in the translation of Aquilla, all written in the margins. It is probable that many copies of the Hexapla were made, but the original remained in the library at Caesarea where Jerome had access to it over a century later. The Hexapla could be found in some libraries in Caesarea many centuries after it was written but only a small portion of it has been preserved up to the present day. This monumental work provided the manuscript foundation for Origen’s exegetical work which constituted the greater part of his writings.
Origen wrote a vast series of Scriptural commentaries in the Caesarean period about 230 A.D. but most of the ones which survived are in small fragments. In these commentaries Scripture was interpreted allegorically.
Origen taught that every text in the Bible could be read at three levels,–the literal, the moral and the spiritual level,–the spiritual level, discovered by means of allegory, being the most important. He has been severely criticized for this view,–a view no doubt due to his indebtedness to Platonism.
Origen’s teaching generated controversy even during his own life and led to his banishment by Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria. After his death the battle over his ideas (known as the Origenist controversy) ensued and led to the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. False teaching was ascribed to him, especially on his views on the Godhead which tended toward sub-ordinationism. Origen’s teaching on the Godhead, or rather on the relationship within the Godhead, was in fact taken to its logical conclusion by Arius in the Arian controversy which led to the decision of the council of Nicaea of 325 A.D. We shall now consider, however briefly, the Origenist controversy as it affected Jerome.
Only one work need be considered under this heading, his De Principiis (or “First Principles”) in which Origen sought to expound a coherent system of Christian teaching about God and the Universe. De Principiis only exists in a Latin version of the original Greek which was made by Rufirius in 398 A.D.
Origen began with the Platonic tenet that God was the Absolute Being though in place of the passive qualities of beauty and goodness he asserted the active quality of love. He tried to work out the correlation between God’s threefold nature in Christian and Biblical revelation and Platonist philosophy. He spoke of the divine realm in three ranks:
Divine transcendence–the Good or the One.
Emanating from the One was the divine mind, which contains various ideal forms of the Platonic scheme.
World Soul emanating from the divine mind.
This scheme as worked out by the great neo-platonic, Plotinus, refers to three hypostases. Where platonic philosophy spoke of three hypostases, Christianity refers to three divine beings, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Origen taught that below the divine world there was a world of spirits who became “sated,”–too satisfied with the adoration of God–and fell by their neglect, turning away from God to what was inferior. The material world was then created by God as a realm where man, who was involved in the Fall, might be educated and trained and turned back to his maker. To this end Christ, the divine Logos, came into the world to be man’s guide and educator. According to Origen, the universe will end as it began. In the last days, evil will be conquered and all beings will return to their primitive state. In the final victory of good over evil, the Devil will be saved. We shall then attain complete conformity with God and reach the state where God will be all in all.
The first two hypostases of three ranks in the divine realm were notions derived from Greek philosophy and the third from Christian tradition. In Christian tradition, God the Father is supreme and transcendent and Scripture calls the Son truth and life. This is like the divine mind of the Platonist scheme. The Son has all the divine attributes expressed in human good and in the Son, divinity is accessible to men. Therefore if the Son is begotten of the Father, the Father is eternally begetting.
Origen could speak of the Son as the writer of the book of Proverbs who said, “The Lord created me.” (Prov. 8:22). “Me” in that context, Origen contended, refers back to wisdom. The Son is the archetype of created things and the fact of creation necessitates wisdom (Mind of God). Origen insisted that the essential goodness of God required the existence of creatures. Not only is the divine word eternal, but all rational creatures are eternal.
There is little room in Origen’s thought for the genuine Christian view of judgment, sin and forgiveness. He described the process of the Fall and redemption much like the philosophers, though he found a place for the characteristically Christian concept of divine love in creation and redemption. It should be emphasized that more decisively Christian in Origen’s position is his insistence that all knowledge comes from Christ and that the Bible remains the all-important support and guarantee of the structure of theological thought.
In Origen’s system, however, there is no adequate or satisfactory place for the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, he recognized that the Holy Spirit has a very important place in baptismal confession and in church worship. The doctrine of the Trinity becomes fully evident. Thus to Origen, it is a trinity of a hierarchy of divine persons. He spoke of three hypostases or three entities,–Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The first two, Father and Son, do not pose much problem in contrast to the Holy Spirit. And of the three, there is a Platonic hierarchy: God the Father is very much like the Supreme Being, the one who is at the top, then comes the Son followed by the Holy Spirit. Origen used Scripture, particularly John 3, to support this view. The characteristic relation of the Trinity is that the Father acts indirectly upon all things, the Son or Word acts in all beings and the Spirit is in all things reasonable and sanctified.
Origen’s one major work in defence of Christianity against pagan criticism was the Contra Celsum (or “Against Celsus”), which was written between 245 and 250 A.D. to satisfy his wealthy patron Ambrosius. Celsus had written in the second century a devastating criticism of Christianity. Although contemporary Christian apologists did much to defend Christianity against Celsus, it was not until Origen that there was a reasoned or sustained reply to his attack.
Celsus was the first known pagan philosopher to realize the potential threat of Christianity to the empire. He indicted Christians for being haters of the human race, a charge based on alleged Christian aloofness and unsociability. Celsus saw Christianity as an off-shoot of an already corrupt system, Judaism. He believed that because of its link with Judaism, Christianity, as Judaism before it, perverted the old concept of the Logos of Greek philosophy.
Origen’s Contra Celsum contains lengthy quotations from Celsus’s work and detailed answers to his arguments. Origen’s main points are as follows:
That Celsus’s objection to particular incidents and passages of Scriptures would not stand. Origen placed great emphasis on prophecies, the miracles and the words of Jesus which Celsus had attacked. These, he argued, were consistent with what we would expect of God.
The case of Christianity, argued Origen, finally rests, on the strength and force it displays in the moral reformation of mankind. He consistently appealed to the strength of Christ’s power in the lives of Christians, who, he said, shine as stars in the world.
The crucial question underlying the two previous arguments concerned whether, within a Platonic metaphysic, it is possible to speak of freedom in God or whether “God” is only another name for the impersonal process of cosmos. Celsus thought “God” was only a name for the impersonal process, but Origen asserted that God is free to take initiative in the world. He regarded this idea of freedom as a characteristically Christian emphasis which justifies and explains the spontaneity of the coming of Christ and the possibility of moral change in man.
Biblical studies took the paramount place in the scheme of Origen’s work. It has been said that he lived in the Bible to the extent that no one else before Luther rivalled him. The great mass of his literary work was concerned largely with Biblical criticism and exposition, the Hexapla occupying a central place.
The Hexapla was not the only work of criticism which Origen undertook. He examined particular problems such as the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This letter was unlike those of St. Paul. “But who wrote the epistle,” Origen declared, “in truth God knows.” He did mention nevertheless, that Clement of Rome and Luke had both been named as possible authors.
Origen’s critical labours on the text of the Bible formed the basis of his exegetical work. He wrote a commentary on almost every book of the Bible. In his exposition he vindicated the allegorical method against the literalist method and established two canons of interpretation, namely that the Bible is a unity, every text needing to be treated in the light of the teaching of the Bible as a whole, and that the key to every passage in the Old and New Testament alike is Christ. For Origen every text in the Bible could be read at three levels,–the literal, the moral and the spiritual level.
(i) The literal meaning commonly was useful but on occasion it had to be set aside. For instance, Christ could not have seen “all the kingdoms of the world,” and, at a literal level, we can make nothing of the text, “Let the dead bury their dead.”
(ii) The moral meaning involved drawing out some lesson for the edification of ordinary Christians.
(iii) Origen maintained that the primary purpose of Scripture was to convey spiritual truth. He drew here upon his understanding of Platonism which taught that beyond the visible world lay the spiritual world–of which all things here are an image and a reflection. For Origen everything in the Bible in a similar way reflected the spiritual order beyond the ordinary material world. Thus, for instance, Jerusalem, Zion, Carmel, and a host of other places, ceased to be geographical locations and expressions and became mirrors of heavenly truth.
Indeed Origen’s surprisingly modern canons of interpretation saved the method from some of its vagaries. Nevertheless, the great church historian of the twentieth century, Von Campenhausen commented quite aptly that Origen “remains the prisoner of the assumptions of his Platonising and Gnosticising outlook” in his exegetical work (see H. Von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church p. 49).
A Summary of Origen’s Contribution to Greek Theology
The great mass of Origen’s works was exegetical. He had a critical faculty far ahead of his time. Origen argued that the Letter to the Hebrews was not written by St. Paul, a position embraced by modern scholarship. He saw the Bible as a whole, the inspired Word of God. He contended that human nature consists of a trinity of body (somatic), social (psychic) and spirit (pneumatic).
Origen argued for the interpretation of Scripture under three headings - literal, moral, spiritual. All things in the Bible reflected that real and spiritual order beyond the visible world–which is a strong element of Platonism. The exegete’s job was to find the clue to the spiritual truth in a given text and work out the message by analogy with other texts.
Origen made an attempt to establish a doctrine of the Trinity in the course of his argument against the Gnostics and the Monarchians on the one hand, and the Adoptionists on the other. Origen’s God was the Absolute Being of Plato, but Origen insisted on the divine quality of love in place of beauty and goodness. Love was active and had to be manifested through an object, i.e., God’s Word or Son, ever begotten, and was with him through the ages. The Son was an exact image of the Father yet he was different from God, for God alone was immutable. But the Son was being eternally generated and linking God with creation. The Spirit was the first being created by the Word. Thus for Origen, the Spirit was a creature, not God. This was the stumbling block of the Greek Logos theologians. There was a distinctive place for the Spirit. Thus his Trinity was three graded beings united in a single substance, but possessing individualism. However only two, God and his Word, were relevant to mankind.
Below the divine world was the world of inferior spirits, once offering obeisance to God and keeping his commandments. They had free will and were driven out along with the Devil when they rebelled and were imprisoned in bodies which became heavy according to their fault. As all possess free will, all have the power to return to God. Man belongs to this order of creation and he possesses the means of gaining his salvation through Christ.
Origen had an idea of Christianity as a historical religion under the story of some primordial deities or religion.
Origen interpreted the concept of Eschatology spiritually. The second coming is the appearance of Christ in the souls of the pious. He argued that Christ will come back to earth again and again within our souls. In other words, the spiritual body for the pious has a spiritual experience.
Hell, he taught, is the fire of despair which burns our conscience when we are separated from God. It is only temporary and eventually everything will become spiritualized. This is a doctrine of the retribution of all things. But because freedom is never cancelled out there is still the possibility that the whole process will start again. This teaching is part of the reason why he was later condemned as a heretic.
- The Fall: According to Origen, spiritual beings–and not our world–were first created by God. They had free will and, dependent upon God, they became “sated”–complacent in their adoration of God–and turned away from him. Our material world was brought into being by the consequence of this fall and not by an accident or chaos as some heretics, as the Valentinian Gnostics affirmed. Origen affirmed that it was the goodness of God. It was God who created the world and it is redemptive to try to turn us back to him through Christ. This is a gradual process with atonement going on all the time since God respects our free will. Christ means different things to people according to their spiritual progress.
The teaching of Origen on the Trinity continued to influence theological reflection in the East long after his death in 254 A.D. Origen had thought of the Father and the Son as two distinct realities and had only been able to preserve a monotheistic standpoint by admitting that the Son was in some sense subordinate to the Father. The Son was preexistent and related to the Father as ever-begotten and co-eternal, yet he occupied a level of being within the Godhead lower than the Father.
Shortly after Origen’s death there was a reaction against his teaching in Cyrenaica where his opponents embraced the opposite error. Where Origen had posited a sharp distinction between the Father and the Son, they failed to maintain any real distinction at all between the persons. Sabellius affirmed that the names of Father, Son, and Spirit were simply descriptions of the different modes or aspects of God’s activity and did not correspond to any personal distinctions in the Godhead. This Monarchian point of view is known to us as Sabellianism or Modalism.
When a dispute arose in Cyrenaica between the supporters of the theology of Origen and the Monarchians, Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, intervened in support of the Origenist position and insisted upon the personal distinctions within the Godhead. The Monarchians detected tritheism in Dionysius’ imprudent, unrestrained language and complained to the bishop of Rome. In Rome emphasis had always been laid upon the unity of God rather than upon the distinction between the persons, and consequently the complaint was received with sympathy. Thus Dionysius, the bishop of Rome (to be distinguished from Dionysius of Alexandria) wrote an indignant letter in which he repudiated the view of his namesake, Dionysius of Alexandria.
The difference in theological emphasis between the two Dionysii was made to appear greater than in fact it was due to a misunderstanding in the use of terms. The main difficulty was that the same Latin word substantia was used to translate two different Greek words, ousi-os, essence and hypostasis, person, persona. Thus when Dionysius of Alexandria spoke of the three hypostases of the Father, Son and Spirit, the bishop of Rome thought he was referring to three substances, which was not the case. There was a corresponding difficulty with the translation of a Latin word into Greek. When the Latins spoke of the Father, Son and Spirit as three personae this was translated into Greek as three prosopa, and since the Greek word prosopon could mean the merely outward and perhaps assumed characteristics of a person, the word hinted at Modalism. In these ways the language problem aggravated the undoubted difference in the theological standpoints between East and West.
The Logos theology of Origen was not accepted everywhere in the East. Apart from the Modalists of Cyrenaica there was sharp opposition to Origenism in Syrian Antioch. The church there had a strong interest in the historical Jesus and their emphasis on his humanity led the Christians into Adoptionism, the view that Jesus was a man like other men upon whom the Spirit of God had been bestowed in a special degree. This position was actually embraced by Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch between 261 and 272 A.D. His views were condemned at a council of bishops in 268 A.D. The Greek term homo-ousios, of one substance, was now coming into use. The bishop of Rome had used it and had criticized his namesake, Dionysius of Alexandria, for not doing so. Now Paul of Samosata was condemned for using the word on the ground that he had used it in order to efface the distinction between the persons of the Godhead. At the Council of Nicaea fifty years later (325 A.D.), homo-ousios was to be used in an attempt to maintain the unity of God and yet leave room for distinctions between the persons.
Influence of Platonism on Clement and Origen
Clement (150-220 A.D.) and Origen (185-254 A.D.),–names frequently associated with Alexandria,–began the task of a Christian philosophy in earnest.
Platonism and its derivatives exercised a great influence upon the intellectual life of the ancient world. Plato had a horror of transience: turning away from the sphere of coming to be and passing away, he tended to assume that the abstract and the unchanging is the most real. Hence his theory speaks of individual things as imperfectly knowable (the object only of opinion) and of a more real sphere of ideas or forms, crowned by the supreme idea, the idea or form of God. The theory also affirms the relationship of participation between the realms whereby it can be said that individual things (which come to be and pass away) are and are knowable only so far as they participate in an unchanging idea.
Plato made reference to the gods and in particular:
Many conventional gods.
The cosmic soul of the Laws.
The divine architect of the Timaeus.
It is difficult to get a coherent picture of the whole of Platonic thought. Some have held that it is all philosophy and that the term “god” in Plato is not a religious but a philosophical term. Others have held that it is all religion and that the idea of God is divine for Plato. But it is more likely that Plato’s religion and philosophy were two different things which he never succeeded in integrating.
Plato taught that beyond this visible world there existed a transcendent world of forms and ideas. All that we see and experience here is imperfect–a shadow or a reflection of the idea. Man has a link with this world of ideas through the soul which is destined to be released from its bodily prison to ascend to the real world, its true home. Preparation for the liberation of the soul may be made by ascetic practice and thought.
Clement of Alexandria spoke of the Logos as universal reason and identified this with Christ so that, as a result of His coming, “the whole world has by this time become an Athens and a Greece through the Logos.” Clement held that the believer must be trained in philosophy. “The believer is saved by instruction.” “Christ is our tutor and instructor.” Clement produced no more than a first sketch of Christian philosophy, but already he had shown an unduly intellectual bias.
Origen carried on this task and was assisted by his allegorical interpretation of Scripture to which Alexandria was prone. Even so, his thinking took place between two poles of tension: first, his fundamental philosophical conviction and then, his Christian faith. The result contains some considerable ambiguity.
Platonism in Origen
Origen’s fundamental philosophical conviction that the ultimate is not as good as the One grew out of Platonism. This indicated a preference for logical purity rather than for moral reality, but he remained a Christian believer. Hence the tension and ambiguity in some of Origen’s thought. At one pole of his philosophical affirmation of the One, he had to make room for the Trinity and he maintained that the three persons eternally emanate from the One. But then, even the Father is not identical with, and less ultimate than, the One. The One is the one Being, the Father, who was already positing Son and Holy Spirit. Origen was ultimately fascinated by the reality of men with moral responsibility.
The Platonism of Plotinus
Ammonius Saccas, at different times the tutor of both Origen and Plotinus, was a philospher of a middle school of Platonism. Plotinus (205-270 A.D.) was the creative thinker who took and reshaped this form of Platonic thinking in the third century. In its newly developed character, this philosophical and religious system has become known as Neo-Platonism.
Initiated within paganism, Neo-platonism was destined to exercise a great influence on Christian thought and may still be doing so (c.f. Tillich’s Morality and Beyond and Love, Power and Justice). Plotinus thought of the ultimate reality as the One but, unlike Origen, as the opposite, not of multiplicity or plurality but of separateness and differentiation. Thus for Plotinus to say anything specific of the One is to miss it and fall into the derivative realm of separate things. It also meant that, consequently, the One could not be grasped by thought but only by mystical experience. The one could only be described negatively as “unlimited, formless, boundless, infinite” (See R. Kroner, Speculation and Revelation in the Age of Christian Philosophy p. 91 ).
Plotinus also thought of the One as the Good. He was a follower of Plato but “he out-platonized Plato,” (See R. Kroner, p. 90) by trying to show in detail and not just in principle, as Plato insisted, that the Good was by participation, the source of all being and of all knowledge. As to how everything else was logically derived from the One, this is a kind of “speculative necessity” which takes the place of the religious idea of salvation. The process downwards from the One to the many involves, at every stage, a loss of reality. For man it would be the end of the matter, but as body and soul, man is among the many, whereas, as spirit, he seeks genuine reality as “speculative necessity” and reverses the process.
Plotinus identified three spheres of being. In the first is the Good, the One. Next in order comes the Nous–Mind–which corresponds to Plato’s world of ideas. In the third place is the soul which created and sustains the universe. Plotinus followed Plato in his doctrine of the soul of man, the element destined for immortality. The way for the soul’s ascent to the real world is by eschewing material things and by dedicating itself to rigorous moral and intellectual discipline. This system was popularized by Porphyry, a disciple of Plotinus and a bitter opponent of Christianity. Neo-Platonism flourished in the third and fourth centuries and was the only serious rival of Christianity in the sphere of philosophical thought.
Origen’s Indebtedness to Platonism
Origen’s dependence on Platonic thought may be detected in his approach to the Bible. Origen had little feeling for history and undervalued the Bible’s historical and literal meaning. For him every scriptural text was to be interpreted allegorically so that it might reveal the spiritual order beyond this visible world. The historical world of the Bible was a reflection of the spiritual world beyond. This is similar to Platonism which says that the most abstract is the most real.
Origen’s doctrine of God also betrays his debt to Plato. God is the One, the Absolute. The Word or Son is the exact image of God and co-eternal with him, but remains distinct from him. The Word or Son is the link between God and the world. The Holy Spirit is the first of the beings created by the Word and so is a lesser being than God and the Son. The view of the divine hierarchy has clear analogies with the characteristic Greek view of God as the unknowable, immutable, absolute, linked with the created order only through a graded series of beings.
Origen believed that the soul of man pre-existed its union with the body and will be enhanced when the body decays. The resurrection of the body, a fundamental tenet of Christian doctrine, had no place in his system. This denial of the unity of man’s body and soul was typical of the Platonizing and the Gnosticizing tendency of Origen’s thought.
In view of his obvious debt to Platonism, it seems rather strange that Origen should have spoken coldly of the contribution of Greek philosophy to the development of Christian philosophy and doctrines. It has to be admitted that he was deeply influenced by the intellectual currents he loved to disdain, but he himself was most aware of his points of departure from Platonism.
In any estimate of Origen’s philosophical and theological thought, the fundamental Christian themes in his writings must be regarded–his Bible-centered teaching, his concept of divine love in creation and redemption, and his emphasis on the exercise of God’s freedom in the intervention of Christ. Origen was a Christian before he was a Platonist.
G. A. Oshitelu
A. H. Armstrong and R. A. Markus, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy (1960).
W. Baner, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (London: Redwood Press Ltd. 1972): 56-60.
C. Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria, 2nd Edition (1913).
H. R. Boer, A Short History of the Early Church (Ibadan: Daystar Press, 1976): 92-94.
H. Chadwick, Contra Celsum (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from The African Fathers of the Early Church, copyright © 2002, by G. A. Oshitelu, Ibadan, Nigeria. All rights reserved.