Born: c. 185 AD
Birthplace: Alexandria, Egypt
Died: c. 254 AD
Location of death: Caesarea
Cause of death: unspecified
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: Middle Eastern
Nationality: Ancient Rome
Executive summary: Early Church Father
Origen, the most distinguished and most influential of all the theologians of the ancient church, with the possible exception of St. Augustine. He is the father of the church's science; he is the founder of a theology which was brought to perfection in the 4th and 5th centuries, and which still retained the stamp of his genius when in the 6th century it disowned its author. It was Origen who created the dogmatic of the church and laid the foundations of the scientific criticism of the Old and New Testaments. He could not have been what he was unless two generations before him had labored at the problem of finding an intellectual expression and a philosophic basis for Christianity (Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, Pantaenus, Clement). But their attempts, in comparison with his, are like a schoolboy's essays beside the finished work of a master. Like all great epoch-making personalities, he was favored by the circumstances of his life, notwithstanding the relentless persecution to which he was exposed. He lived in a time when the Christian communities enjoyed almost uninterrupted peace and held an acknowledged position in the world. By proclaiming the reconciliation of science with the Christian faith, of the highest culture with the Gospel, Origen did more than any other man to win the Old World to the Christian religion. But he entered into no diplomatic compromises; it was his deepest and most solemn conviction that the sacred oracles of Christendom embraced all the ideals of antiquity. His character was as transparent as his life was blameless; there are few church fathers whose biography leaves so pure an impression on the reader. The atmosphere around him was a dangerous one for a philosopher and theologian to breathe, but he kept his spiritual health unimpaired, and even his sense of truth suffered less injury than was the case with most of his contemporaries. To us, indeed, his conception of the universe, like that of Philo, seems a strange medley, and one may be at a loss to conceive how he could bring together such heterogeneous elements; but there is no reason to doubt that the harmony of all the essential parts of his system was obvious enough to himself. It is true that in addressing the Christian people he used different language from that which he employed to the cultured; but there was no dissimulation in that -- on the contrary, it was a requirement of his system. Orthodox theology has never, in any of the confessions, ventured beyond the circle which the mind of Origen first measured out. It has suspected and amended its author, it has expunged his heresies; but whether it has put anything better or more tenable in their place may be gravely questioned.
Origen was born, perhaps at Alexandria, of Christian parents in the year 185 or 186. As a boy he showed evidence of remarkable talents, and his father Leonidas gave him an excellent education. At a very early age, about the year 200, he listened to the lectures of Pantaenus and Clement in the catechetical school. This school, of which the origin (though assigned to Athenagoras) is unknown, was the first and for a long time the only institution where Christians were instructed simultaneously in the Greek sciences and the doctrines of the holy scriptures. Alexandria had been, since the days of the Ptolemies, a center for the interchange of ideas between East and West -- between Egypt, Syria, Greece and Italy; and, as it had furnished Judaism with an Hellenic philosophy, so it also brought about the alliance of Christianity with Greek philosophy. Asia Minor and the West developed the strict ecclesiastical forms by means of which the church closed her lines against heathenism, and especially against heresy; in Alexandria Christian ideas were handled in a free and speculative fashion and worked out with the help of Greek philosophy. Until near the end of the 2nd century the line between heresy and orthodoxy was less rigidly drawn there than at Ephesus, Lyons, Rome or Carthage. In the year 202 a persecution arose, in which the father of Origen became a martyr, and the family lost their livelihood. Origen, who had distinguished himself by his intrepid zeal, was supported for a time by a lady of rank, but began about the same time to earn his bread by teaching; and in 203 he was placed, with the sanction of the bishop Demetrius, at the head of the catechetical school. Even then his attainments in the whole circle of the sciences were extraordinary. But the spirit of investigation impelled him to devote himself to the highest studies, philosophy and the exegesis of the sacred scriptures. With indomitable perseverance he applied himself to these subjects; although himself a teacher, he regularly attended the lectures of Ammonius Saccas, and made a thorough study of the books of Plato and Numenius, of the Stoics and the Pythagoreans. At the same time he endeavored to acquire a knowledge of Hebrew, in order to be able to read the Old Testament in the original. His manner of life was ascetic; the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount and the practical maxims of the Stoics were his guiding stars. Four oboli a day, earned by copying manuscripts, sufficed for his bodily sustenance. A rash resolve led him to mutilate himself that he might escape from the lusts of the flesh, and work unhindered in the instruction of the female sex. This step he afterwards regretted. As the attendance at his classes continually increased -- pagans thronging to him as well as Christians -- he handed over the beginners to his friend Heracles, and took charge of the more advanced pupils himself. Meanwhile the literary activity of Origen was increasing year by year. He commenced his great work on the textual criticism of the scriptures; and at the instigation of his friend Ambrosius, who provided him with the necessary amanuenses, he published his commentaries on the Old Testament and his dogmatic investigations. In this manner he labored at Alexandria for twenty-eight years (until 231-232). This period, however, was broken by many journeys, undertaken partly for scientific and partly for ecclesiastical objects. We know that he was in Rome in the time of Zephyrinus, again in Arabia, where a Roman official wanted to hear his lectures, and in Antioch, in response to a most flattering invitation from Julia Mammaea (mother of Severus Alexander, afterwards emperor), who wished to become acquainted with his philosophy. In the year 216 -- the time when the imperial executioners were ravaging Alexandria -- we find Origen in Palestine. There the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea received him in the most friendly manner, and got him to deliver public lectures in the churches. In the East, especially in Asia Minor, it was still no unusual thing for laymen, with permission of the bishop, to address the people in the church. In Alexandria, however, this custom had been given up, and Demetrius took occasion to express his disapproval and recall Origen to Alexandria. Probably the bishop was jealous of the high reputation of the teacher; and a coolness arose between them which led, fifteen years later, to an open rupture. On his way to Greece (apparently in the year 230) Origen was ordained a presbyter in Palestine by his friends the bishops. This was undoubtedly an infringement of the rights of the Alexandrian bishop; at the same time it was simply a piece of spite on the part of the latter that had kept Origen so long without any ecclesiastical consecration. Demetrius convened a synod, at which it was resolved to banish Origen from Alexandria. Even this did not satisfy his displeasure. A second synod, composed entirely of bishops, determined that Origen must be deposed from the presbyterial status. This decision was communicated to the foreign churches, and seems to have been justified by referring to the self-mutilation of Origen and adducing objectionable doctrines which he was said to have promulgated. The details of the incident are, however, unfortunately very obscure. No formal excommunication of Origen appears to have been decreed; it was considered sufficient to have him degraded to the position of a layman. The sentence was approved by most of the churches, in particular by that of Rome. At a later period Origen sought to vindicate his teaching in a letter to the Roman bishop Fabian, but, it would seem, without success. Even Heracles, his former friend and sharer of his views, took part against him; and by this means he procured his own election shortly afterwards as successor to Demetrius.
In these circumstances Origen thought it best voluntarily to retire from Alexandria (231-232). He betook himself to Palestine, where his condemnation had not been acknowledged by the churches any more than it had been in Phoenicia, Arabia and Achaea. He settled in Caesarea, and very shortly he had a flourishing school there, whose reputation rivalled that of Alexandria. His literary work, too, was prosecuted with unabated vigor. Enthusiastic pupils sat at his feet (see the Panegyric of Gregory Thaumaturgus), and the methodical instruction which he imparted in all branches of knowledge was famous all over the East. Here again his activity as a teacher was interrupted by frequent journeys. Thus he was for two years together at Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he was overtaken by the Maximinian persecution; here he worked at his recension of the Bible. We find him again in Nicomedia, in Athens, and twice in Arabia. He was called there to combat the unitarian christology of Beryllus, bishop of Bostra, and to clear up certain eschatological questions. As he had formerly had dealings with the house of Alexander Severus, so now he entered into a correspondence with the emperor Philip the Arab and his wife Severa. But through all situations of his life he preserved his equanimity, his keen interest in science, and his indefatigable zeal for the instruction of others. In the year 250 the Decian persecution broke out, Origen was arrested, imprisoned and maltreated. But he survived these troubles -- it is a malicious invention that he recanted during the persecution -- and lived a few years longer in active intercourse with his friends. He died, probably in the year 254 (consequently under Valerian), at Tyre, where his grave was still shown in the middle ages.
Writings. Origen is probably the most prolific author of the ancient church. "Which of us", asks Jerome, "can read all that he has written?" The number of his works was estimated at 6000, but that is certainly an exaggeration. Owing to the increasing unpopularity of Origen in the church, a comparatively small portion of these works have come down to us in the original. We have more in the Latin translation of Rufinus; but this translation in by no means trustworthy, since Rufinus, assuming that Origen's writings had been tampered with by the heretics, considered himself at liberty to omit or amend heterodox statements. Origen's real opinion, however, may frequently be gathered from the Philocalia -- a sort of anthology from his works prepared by Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzenus. The fragments in Photius and in the Apology of Pamphilus serve for comparison. The writings of Origen consist of letters, and of works in textual criticism, exegesis, apologetics, dogmatic and practical theology.
1. Eusebius (to whom we owe our full knowledge of his life) collected more than a hundred of Origen's letters, arranged them in books, and deposited them in the library at Caesarea. In the church library at Jerusalem (founded by the bishop Alexander) there were also numerous letters of this father. But unfortunately they have all been lost except two -- one to Julius Africanus (about the history of Susanna) and one to Gregory Thaumaturgus. There are, besides, a couple of fragments.
2. Origen's textual studies on the Old Testament were undertaken partly in order to improve the manuscript tradition, and partly for apologetic reasons, to clear up the relation between the Septuagint and the original Hebrew text. The results of more than twenty years' labor were set forth in his Hexapla and Tetrapla, in which he placed the Hebrew text side by side with the various Greek versions, examined their mutual relations in detail, and tried to find the basis for a more reliable text of the Septuagint. The Hexapla was probably never fully written out, but excerpts were made from it by various scholars at Caesarea in the 4th century; and thus large sections of it have been saved. Origen worked also at the text of the New Testament, although he produced no recension of his own.
3. The exegetical labors of Origen extend over the whole of the Old and New Testaments. They are divided into Scholia (short annotations, mostly grammatical), Homilies (edifying expositions grounded on exegesis), and Commentaries. In the Greek original only a very small portion has been preserved; in Latin translations, however, a good deal. The most important parts are the homilies on Jeremiah, the books of Moses, Joshua and Luke, and the commentaries on Matthew, John and Romans. With grammatical precision, antiquarian learning and critical discernment Origen combines the allegorical method of interpretation -- the logical corollary of his conception of the inspiration of the scriptures. He distinguishes a threefold sense of scripture, a grammatico-historical, a moral and a pneumatic -- the last being the proper and highest sense. He thus set up a formal theory of allegorical exegesis, which is not quite extinct in the churches even yet, but in his own system was of fundamental importance. On this method the sacred writings are regarded as an inexhaustible mine of philosophical and dogmatic wisdom; in reality the exegete reads his own ideas into any passage he chooses. The commentaries are of course intolerably diffuse and tedious, a great deal of them is now quite unreadable; yet, on the other hand, one has not unfrequently occasion to admire the sound linguistic perception and the critical talent of the author.
4. The principal apologetic work of Origen is a work of eight books written at Caesarea in the time of Philip the Arabian. It has been completely preserved in the original. This work is invaluable as a source for the history and situation of the church in the 2nd century; for it contains nearly the whole of the famous work of Celsus against Christianity. What makes Origen's answer so instructive is that it shows how close an affinity existed between Celsus and himself in their fundamental philosophical and theological presuppositions. The real state of the case is certainly unsuspected by Origen himself; but many of his opponent's arguments he is unable to meet except by a speculative reconstruction of the church doctrine in question. Origen's apologetic is most effective when he appeals to the spirit and power of Christianity as an evidence of its truth. In details his argument is not free from sophistical subterfuges and superficial reasoning.
5. Of the dogmatic writings we possess only one in its integrity, and that only in the translation of Rufinus, "On the Fundamental Doctrines." This work, which was composed before 228, is the first attempt at a dogmatic at once scientific and accommodated to the needs of the church. The material is drawn from scripture, but in such a way that the propositions of the regula fidei are respected. This material is then formed into a system by all the resources of the intellect and of speculation. Origen thus solved, after his own fashion, a problem which his predecessor Clement had not even ventured to grapple with. The first three books treat of God, the world, the fall of spirits, anthropology and ethics. "Each of these three books really embraces, although not in a strictly comprehensive way, the whole scheme of the Christian view of the world, from different points of view, and with different contents." The fourth book explains the divinity of the scriptures, and deduces rules for their interpretation. It ought properly to stand as first book at the beginning. The ten books of Stromata (in which Origen compared the teaching of the Christians with that of the philosophers, and corroborated all the Christian dogmas from Plato, Aristotle, Numenius and Cornutus) have all perished, with the exception of small fragments; so have the tractates on the resurrection and on freewill.
6. Of practical theological works we have still the "On Martyrdom" and "On Prayer." For a knowledge of Origen's Christian estimate of life and his relation to the faith of the church these two treatises are of great importance. The first was written during the persecution of Maximinus, and was dedicated to his friends Ambrosius and Protoctetus. The other also dates from the Caesarean period; it mentions many interesting details, and concludes with a fine exposition of the Lord's Prayer.
7. In his own lifetime Origen had to complain of falsifications of his works and forgeries under his name. Many pieces still in existence are wrongly ascribed to him; yet it is doubtful whether a single one of them was composed on purpose to deceive. The most noteworthy are the Dialogues of a certain Adamantius "de recta in Deum fide", which seem to have been erroneously attributed to Origen so early as the 4th century, one reason being the fact that Origen himself also bore that name.
Outline of Origen's View of the Universe and of Life. The system of Origen was formulated in opposition to the Greek philosophers on the one hand, and the Christian Gnostics on the other. But the science of faith, as expounded by him, bears unmistakably the stamp both of Neo-Platonism and of Gnosticism. As a theologian, in fact, Origen is not merely an orthodox traditionalist and believing exegete, but a speculative philosopher of Neo-Platonic tendencies. He is, moreover, a judicious critic. The union of these four elements gives character to his theology, and in a certain degree to all subsequent theology. It is this combination which has determined the peculiar and varying relations in which theology and the faith of the church have stood to each other since the time of Origen. That relation depends on the predominance of one or other of the four factors embraced in his theology.
As an orthodox traditionalist Origen holds that Christianity is a practical and religious saving principle, that it has unfolded itself in an historical series of revealing facts, that the church has accurately embodied the substance of her faith in the regula fidei, and that simple faith is sufficient for the renewal and salvation of man. As a philosophical idealist, however, he transmutes the whole contents of the faith of the church into ideas which bear the mark of Neo-Platonism, and were accordingly recognized by the later Neo-Platonists as Hellenic. In Origen, however, the mystic and ecstatic element is held in abeyance. The ethico-religious ideal is the sorrowless condition, the state of superiority to all evils, the state of order and of rest. In this condition man enters into likeness to God and blessedness; and it is reached through contemplative isolation and self-knowledge, which is divine wisdom. "The soul is trained as it were to behold itself in a mirror, it shows the divine spirit, if it should be found worthy of such fellowship, as in a mirror, and thus discovers the traces of a secret path to participation in the divine nature." As a means to the realization of this ideal, Origen introduces the whole ethics of Stoicism. But the link that connects him with churchly realism, as well as with the Neo-Platonic mysticism, is the conviction that complete and certain knowledge rests wholly on divine revelation, i.e. on oracles. Consequently his theology is cosmological speculation and ethical reflection based on the sacred scriptures. The scriptures, however, are treated by Origen on the basis of a matured theory of inspiration in such a way that all their facts appear as the vehicles of ideas, and have their highest value only in this aspect. That is to say, his gnosis neutralizes all that is empirical and historical, if not always as to its actuality, at least absolutely in respect of its value. The most convincing proof of this is that Origen (1) takes the idea of the immutability of God as the regulating idea of his system, and (2) deprives the historical "Word made flesh" of all significance for the true Gnostic. To him Christ appears simply as the Logos who is with the Father from eternity, and works from all eternity, to whom alone the instructed Christian directs his thoughts, requiring nothing more than a perfect -- i.e. divine -- teacher. In such propositions historical Christianity is stripped off as a mere husk. The objects of religious knowledge are beyond the plane of history, or rather in a thoroughly Gnostic and Neo-Platonic spirit -- they are regarded as belonging to a supra-mundane history. On this view contact with the faith of the church could only be maintained by distinguishing an exoteric and an esoteric form of Christianity. This distinction was already current in the catechetical school of Alexandria, but Origen gave it its boldest expression, and justified it on the ground of the incapacity of the Christian masses to grasp the deeper sense of scripture, or unravel the difficulties of exegesis. On the other hand, in dealing with the problem of bringing his heterodox system into conformity with the regula fidei he evinced a high degree of technical skill. An external conformity was possible, inasmuch as speculation, proceeding from the higher to the lower, could keep by the stages of the regula fidei, which had been developed into a history of salvation. The system itself aims in principle at being thoroughly monistic; but, since matter, although created by God out of nothing, was regarded merely as the sphere in which souls are punished and purified, the system is pervaded by a strongly dualistic element. The immutability of God requires the eternity of the Logos and of the world. At this point Origen succeeded in avoiding the heretical Gnostic idea of God by assigning to the Godhead the attributes of goodness and righteousness. The pre-existence of souls is another inference from the immutability of God, although Origen also deduced it from the nature of the soul, which as a spiritual potency must be eternal. Indeed this is the fundamental idea of Origen -- "the original and indestructible unity of God and all spiritual essences." From this follows the necessity for the created spirit, after apostasy, error and sin, to return always to its origin in God. The actual sinfulness of all men Origen was able to explain by the theological hypothesis of pre-existence and the premundane fall of each individual soul. He holds that freedom is the inalienable prerogative of the finite spirit; and this is the second point that distinguishes his theology from the heretical Gnosticism. The system unfolds itself like a drama, of which the successive stages are as follows: the transcendental fall, the creation of the material world, inaugurating the history of punishment and redemption, the clothing of fallen souls in flesh, the dominion of sin, evil and the demons on earth, the appearing of the Logos, His union with a pure human soul, His esoteric preaching of salvation, and His death in the flesh, then the imparting of the Spirit, and the ultimate restoration of all things. The doctrine of the restoration appeared necessary because the spirit, in spite of its inherent freedom, cannot lose its true nature, and because the final purposes of God cannot be foiled. The end, however, is only relative, for spirits are continually falling, and God remains through eternity the creator of the world. Moreover the end is not conceived as a transfiguration of the world, but as a liberation of the spirit from its unnatural union with the sensual. Here the Gnostic and philosophical character of the system is particularly manifest. The old Christian eschatology is set aside; no one has dealt such deadly blows to Chiliasm and Christian apocalypticism as Origen. It need hardly be said that he spiritualized the church doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh. But, while in all these doctrines he appears in the character of a Platonic philosopher, traces of rational criticism are not wanting. Where his fundamental conception admits of it, he tries to solve historical problems by historical methods. Even in the christology, where he is treating of the historical Christ, he entertains critical considerations; hence it is not altogether without reason that in after times he was suspected of "Ebionitic" views of the Person of Christ. Not unfrequently he represents the unity of the Father and the Son as a unity of agreement and harmony and "identity of will."
Although the theology of Origen exerted a considerable influence as a whole in the two following centuries, it certainly lost nothing by the circumstance that several important propositions were capable of being torn from their original setting and placed in new connections. It is in fact one of the peculiarities of this theology, which professed to be at once churchly and philosophical, that most of its formulae could be interpreted and appreciated in utramque partem. By arbitrary divisions and rearrangements the doctrinal statements of this "science of faith" could be made to serve the most diverse dogmatic tendencies. This is seen especially in the doctrine of the Logos. On the basis of his idea of God Origen was obliged to insist in the strongest manner on the personality, the eternity (eternal generation) and the essential divinity of the Logos. On the other hand, when he turned to consider the origin of the Logos he did not hesitate to include Him amongst the rest of God's spiritual creatures. In later times both the orthodox and the Arians appealed to his teaching, both with a certain plausibility; but the inference of Arius, that an imparted divinity must be divinity in the second degree, Origen did not draw. With respect to other doctrines also, such as those of the Holy Spirit and the incarnation of Christ, etc., Origen prepared the way for the later dogmas. The technical terms around which such bitter controversies raged in the 4th and 5th centuries are often found in Origen lying peacefully side by side. But this is just where his epoch-making importance lies, that all the later parties in the church learned from him. And this is true not only of the dogmatic parties; solitary monks and ambitious priests, hard-headed critical exegetes, allegorists, mystics, all found something congenial in his writings. The only man who tried to shake off the theological influence of Origen was Marcellus of Ancyra, who did not succeed in producing any lasting effect on theology.
The attacks on Origen, which had begun in his lifetime, did not cease for centuries, and only subsided during the time of the fierce Arian controversy. It was not so much the relation between pistis and gnosis -- faith and knowledge -- as defined by Origen that gave offense, but rather isolated propositions, such as his doctrines of the pre-existence of souls, of the soul and body of Christ, of the resurrection of the flesh, of the final restoration, and of the plurality of worlds. Even in the 3rd century Origen's view of the Trinity and of the Person of Christ was called in question, and that from various points of view. It was not until the 5th century, however, that objections of this kind became frequent. In the 4th century Pamphilus, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Didymus, and Rufinus were on the side of Origen against the attacks of Methodius and many others. But, when the zeal of Epiphanius was kindled against him, when Jerome, alarmed about his own reputation, and in defiance of his past attitude, turned against his once honored teacher, and Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, found it prudent, for political reasons, and out of consideration for the uneducated monks, to condemn Origen -- then his authority received a shock from which it never recovered. There were, doubtless, in the 5th century church historians and theologians who still spoke of him with reverence, but such men became fewer and fewer. In the West Vincent of Lerins held up Origen as a warning example, showing how even the most learned and most eminent of church teachers might become a misleading light. In the East the exegetical school of Antioch had an aversion to Origen; the Alexandrians had utterly repudiated him. Nevertheless his writings were much read, especially in Palestine. The monophysite monks appealed to his authority, but could not prevent Justinian and the fifth oecumenical council at Constantinople (553) from anathematizing his teaching. It is true that many scholars deny that Origen was condemned by this council; but Möller rightly holds that the condemnation is proved.
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