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Born: C. A.D. 185, Alexandria, Egypt

Died: C. A.D. 254, Caesarea Maritima, Palestine

Major Works: Treatise on First Principles (c. 220-225), Against Celsus (c. 246-249)

Major Ideas

God as the Ground of Being ("the First God") is unknowable except to the Logos-Son and Spirit eternally generated by God.

God, however, has communicated through the Logos-Son (Christ: Wisdom, Power) not only in the incarnation in Jesus but in Moses and the prophets and, in a qualified way, in Greek greats.

All rational creatures, and to some degree even the natural order, have free will and therefore are responsible to God.

Although a "fall" shattered an original unity, the entire universe will ultimately have its unity restored along with all creation.

Scriptures, every jot and tittle of which is inspired, provide the key to understanding the mysteries of life.

The most prolific and original Christian thinker of the third century Origen was born at Alexandria about 185 A D probably of Christian parents. His father,. Leonidas schooled him in Scripture and secular subjects from a very early age. When the latter was martyred during the persecution of Septimius Severus in 202, Origen tried to accompany him, but his mother prevented that by hiding his clothes. He studied in the Christian school at Alexandria under Clement. When Clement fled, Origen became a teacher and then bead of the school, a position he held until 232, attracting a great many students.

At Alexandria, Origen initially taught preparatory subjects--dialectics, physics, mathematics, geometry, and astronomy--as well as philosophy and theology. When burgeoning classes made this impossible he assigned preparatory instruction to his pupil Heraclas and concentrated on philosophy, theology, and interpretation of scriptures. Meantime, lie attended lectures by Ammonius Saccas, father of Neoplatonism. He also traveled extensively- to Rome in 212, to Arabia in 215, to Antioch at the invitation of Julia Mamaea mother of the Emperor Alexander Severus, and to Palestine in 216.

On this initial visit 'to Palestine, the bishops of Caesarea, Jerusalem, and other cities generated friction for Origen with Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria by asking him, a layman, to preach. Origen meekly acceded to Demetrius's command to return immediately to Alexandria. Fifteen years later, however, Alexander of Jerusalem and Theoctistus of Caesarea created an irreparable breach when they ordained Origen as he passed through Caesarea on his way to Greece. Demetrius then, contending that Origen's self-castration as a youth prevented him from being ordained, proceeded to convene a synod, which excommunicated Origen from the church at Alexandria. A year later, in 231, a second synod rescinded his ordination. When Origen returned to Alexandria following the death of Demetrius, however, Heraclas, Origen's former assistant who had succeeded Demetrius as bishop, repeated the excommunication. Consequently Origen quickly returned to Palestine and took up residence in Caesarea.

Ignoring the censure of Origen in Alexandria, the Bishop of Caesarea induced Origen to found a new school at Caesarea. Once again, he attracted students from far and wide. One of these, who became the fabled missionary in Cappadocia, Gregory Thaumaturgus. delivered an insightful if somewhat overblown address on Origen's gifts as a teacher. Imprisoned during the persecution under Decius (250- 252), Origen suffered severe tortures. His health impaired by persecution, he died around 254.

Aided by stenographers hired by an admiring layperson, Origen wrote prolifically during his Caesarean period. Although well-grounded in the classical tradition, he conceived his role chiefly as that of an expositor of scriptures, reveling in finding the "spiritual" or allegorical meaning of texts. His major writings consisted of textual criticism, scholia and commentaries and sermons, and his reply to Celsus's True Discourse as well as theological treatises. To reply to those who objected to the use of the Greek Old Testament, he produced the Hexapla, a six-column version of the Old Testament giving the Hebrew, a Greek transliteration, and four translations arranged from most to least literal-Aquila, Symmachus, the Septuagint, and Theodotion. For the Septuagint he employed diacritical marks to indicate deviations from the Hebrew; Although not all of his expository materials have survived, Origen wrote notes on difficult passages, sermons, or commentaries on all books of the Old and New Testaments. Pamphilus reported in his biography that Origen preached every day, but only a third of the 574 recorded sermons have survived. Similarly, only portions of commentaries on Matthew, John, Romans, and the Song of Songs are extant; those on other books of the Old and New Testaments have perished in their entirety. Against Celsus (Contra Celsus), Origen's reply to Celsus's True Discourse (a work now dated about 177-180) entailed a point-by-point refutation of charges framed by Celsus.

Treatise on First Principles

The writing in which Origen laid bare most of his philosophical views, entitled in Greek Peri Archon ("On Beginnings") and in Latin De Principiis ("On First Things"), belongs to his Alexandrian period and is now dated around 220-225. Unfortunately, only fragments of the Greek original have survived, and the Latin translator, Rufinus, Bishop of Aquileia, took considerable liberty to edit the text in such a way that the reader "would find in them nothing out of harmony with our faith." He also omitted some difficult passages or "clarified" them by adding his own interpolations. Consequently readers can never be certain when they are hearing Origen and when Rufinus.

Origen made it clear from the start that he wanted to be recognized as an "orthodox" Christian, but Platonism of the late Middle or Neoplatonist variety so saturated his thought that he can be best interpreted as "discovering" in scriptures the best of that philosophy. Writing in the context of somewhat strained relations with his bishop, Demetrius, Origen prefaced his treatise with an assertion of his conviction that "that only is to be believed as the truth which in no way conflicts with the tradition of the church and the apostles." Beyond the elements included there-a Trinitarian confession, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection, human free will, the existence of the Devil and his angels, the creation of the world in time and its dissolution because of its corruptible nature, the inspiration of the Scriptures by the Spirit, and the existence of angels-Origen felt free to seek truth, especially with the aid of Scriptures.

Origen divided the main body of his Treatise on First Principles into four books: God, the world, humankind, and the Scriptures. Reflective of his Platonism, he repudiated vigorously those who thought of God as corporeal. God the Father is "incomprehensible and immeasurable," far removed from human ability to conceive, and characterized by absolute oneness. God the Son, Christ (called Wisdom, Firstborn, and Power of God in the Scriptures), is the Word of God who always existed, coeternal, with the Father. In him God the Father created all things. The Holy Spirit, who shares the divine nature, functions as the inspirer of Scriptures and indweller of saints. The Spirit, too, coexisted eternally with the Father and the Son and thus receives knowledge of the Father independent of the Son. The Father, however, is superior to both Son and Spirit. According to the Greek text, "the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); and the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone." The Father creates, the Son bestows reason, the Spirit sanctifies. But through the action of all three, humankind may attain the beatific vision.

Continuous Creation

Origen espoused a theory of continuous creation. The plan of creation existed in the wisdom of God from the beginning. In the beginning, nothing was essentially good or essentially bad. All rational creatures--angels, demons, and human beings- possessed free will (a central and often-repeated concern of Origen) Origen backed up his emphasis on free will with Scripture. Even the sun, moon, and stars he argued, undergo change and receive commands from God. They probably have souls inserted into them. by God, just as human beings do. Certainly angels operate on instructions from God and receive rewards according to their merits.

Origen's cosmology reflects the Platonic theory of a "fall" from unity into multiplicity. Though diverse, however the world is not dominated by discord and contradiction, for God holds the entire universe together and directs it toward the unity of God's self. Matter has not always existed; it was created by God. Rational beings require bodies suitable to their natures; only God is incorporeal. At some future time, however, they will relinquish their bodily state, as God "becomes all in all." Although Rufinus had Origen deny it, Origen seems to have propounded a theory of successive worlds and the transmigration of souls.

Like most of his predecessors, Origen repudiated Marcion's distinguishing of the God of the Old Testament from God the Father of Jesus Christ. Marcion argued that the God who is the Father of Jesus is good but not just whereas the God of the Old Testament was just but not good. Origen blamed Marcion's error on his literalistic interpretation and contended that God is both just and good.

In his effort to interpret the incarnation, Origen theorized that Jesus' soul acted as a "medium" for the union of the Logos-Son with humanity. Predictably, 'Origen underscored the claim that Jesus had free will but was without susceptibility to sin because of the indwelling Logos-Son. Whereas the prophets and apostles possessed the Logos in part, Christ possessed the whole Logos, and his rational soul acted as a "shadow" of the Logos. Before the incarnation, the Holy Spirit was given only to the prophets, but now it is given to all believers.

Although he debated whether angels have souls, Origen concluded from the fact that Christ had a soul that all rational creatures have souls. When saved, souls become something like fire and light. If they sin, they forfeit their rational condition, though their downward course varies, and they can be restored if they direct their course toward God. If the saints persevere, they will eventually see things more clearly and their bodies become pure mind.

Free Will

Throughout, Origen underscored free will. Rational animals have the ability to choose between good and evil. The fact that God requires a good life of human beings proves they have free will. The fact that demonic powers oppose and try to thwart them does not disprove free will; it proves, rather, the need for God's help. Some souls contracted guilt in their preexistence, but with divine help all can rise above their limitations.

At this place in his discourse Origen introduces his idea of the eventual restoration (apokatastasis) of all things, even the Devil. To sustain this, he invokes his doctrine of successive worlds. As the present world, which "fell," hastened toward its end, God intervened directly in the Son. As Paul contended in 1 Corinthians 15, the Son will eventually submit to the Father in order to restore the whole human race to unity in God. The final goal is "to become as far as possible like God," When God is all in all," corporeality will cease and mind will no longer be conscious of anything but God, so that evil will no longer exist. It will require ages, but ultimately all things will be restored.

In what should probably have been his prologue, Origen presented his case for inspiration and interpretation of the Scriptures. Proving the divine nature of Scriptures, he argued, are both the rapid spread of Christianity in fulfillment of Jesus' predictions and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies through Jesus. Both the Jews and heretical sects, as well as many simple folk, fail to under- stand the Scriptures, however, because they try to interpret them literally. Proper interpretation will take into account their spiritual nature and recognize different levels of meaning: the literal for simple persons, the moral for those who have "made some progress," and the spiritual for the "mature." Yet not all Scriptures have a literal meaning; taken literally, as a matter of fact, some will be highly offensive. But all will have a spiritual meaning. Although not incognizant of the dangers posed by his approach, Origen concluded that piety demanded its use in uncovering the depth of God's wisdom and knowledg e.

Further Reading

Berchman, Robert W. From Philo to Origen: Middle Platonism in Transition. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1984. Helpful in locating Origen within the Platonist tradition.

Chadwick, Henry. Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966. Chadwick establishes Origen's critical stance toward Platonism and intense desire to be considered orthodox.

Crouzel, Henri. Origen. Translated by A. S. Worrall. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989. The most recent critical biography of Origen, based on a lifetime of research.

Danielou, Jean. Origen. Translated by Walter Mitchell. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1955. A sympathetic biography stressing Origen's orthodoxy in his context and deemphasizing allegorical method.

Dechow, Jon F. Dogma and Mysticism in Early Christianity: Epiphanius of Cyprus and the Legacy of Origen. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1988. A careful critical study of the Origenist debates during the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

Trigg, Joseph Wilson. Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century. Atlanta: John Knox, 1983. A balanced assessment of the impact of the Bible and Platonism on Origen.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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