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Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen's Commentary on Romans.

Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen's Commentary on Romans. By Thomas P. Scheck. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. xii + 300 pp. $60.00 cloth.

Origen has often served as a protean figure in historical theology. Tarred by Adolf yon Harnack's Hellenism brush for Protestants and the condemnation of Origenism for Catholics, the figure of Origen has had both the stigma and attraction of being outside the mainstream. Modern scholarship has reclaimed Origen in a number of ways--his spirituality, his biblical theology, his role as an ecclesial figure, and, most recently, his exegesis. Thomas Scheck's work represents a significant contribution to this enterprise. His Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation, vol. 103, 104 [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001]) opened up Rufinus's version of Origen's Romans commentary for English readers. This current volume investigates the contribution of Origen's Romans commentary to the area where he otherwise has perhaps been considered most the outsider--the controversies on justification from Pelagius to the Reformation.

Scheck argues that from the point when Rufinus's translation became available, through the Reformation, and perhaps even into current "new perspectives" on Romans, Origen's exegesis of Romans laid the groundwork and provided much of the material for the persistent debates on justification in Western theology. Focusing on faith, law, freedom, works, and predestination, Scheck first identifies central themes in Origen's own interpretations, and then follows them in the interpretations of Pelagius and Augustine, William of St. Thierry in the twelfth century, Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Phillip Melanchthon in the sixteenth century, and in post-Reformation debates among Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist theologians. His conclusion is that Origen's influence is immense and determinative and that, far from being forgotten or ignored, Origen's Paul, either tacitly or explicitly, appears in most of the significant theological debates of the Western tradition.

For Scheck, Origen's interpretation of Romans, especially the significant passages in chapters 1, 3, and 5, is influenced by his concern to refute the Valentinians on the one hand and Marcion on the other. Against what he sees as Gnostic determinism, Origen asserts the freedom of the will and human responsibility while affirming Paul's language of justification by faith. Origen sees justification as a process that begins with grace and proceeds with human cooperation and good works. For Scheck, Origen's great accomplishment is to reconcile faith, grace, and human good works in his interpretation of Romans. Origen's interpretation then is widely used in the western exegetical tradition by a variety of theologians, rejected by Luther, but endorsed even by subsequent Protestants.

Scheck begins his review with the Pelagian controversy. He argues that in their own commentaries both Pelagius and Augustine are dependent on Origen, and where Augustine (especially the later Augustine) criticized Origen it was largely not in regard to his Romans commentary. Scheck then examines the Exposition on Romans of William St. Thierry, a twelfth-century Cistercian. While William was self-consciously an Augustinian, he depends heavily on Origen in his own commentary on Romans, often drawing directly from Origen. William follows Augustine when he depends on Origen but prefers Augustine when he disagrees with Origen. For William, Origen's commentary serves as a significant exegetical resource for his own Augustinian approach. Scheck then turns to the perhaps better known Erasmian reliance on Origen, and notes the impact of Rufinus's translation newly printed in 1506. For Erasmus, Origen is a source for both grammatical and theological solutions to Pauline theology and serves as the transmitter of the apostolic consensus of the early church. In contrast, for Luther and Melanchthon, Origen serves as a focal point for their attack on Catholic views of justification. According to Scheck, for Melanchthon, Origen plays the key role in the church's abandonment of the gospel when he misinterprets Paul to include virtue with faith as the grounds for justification.

Scheck succeeds in demonstrating the significance of Origen's Romans commentary for subsequent debates on justification. Origen's potential as an alternative and mediating source for resolving early and Reformation debates about faith and works, predestination and free will, or even insight into the ways Origen's exegesis is appropriated in the varying historical and cultural contexts is less evident in this book. Scheck's thesis is that Origen interprets Paul in a way that "reconciles the diverse statements of Scripture" (217) and incorporates both faith and works into a progressive view of justification in short, that he affirms the decrees on justification of the Council of Trent, where, Scheck notes, his interpretations of Paul's language were read with approval. Scheck's work here seems less an analysis of the impact and use of Origen's commentary than a prehistory of the Reformation debates and subsequent post-Tridentine Catholic-Protestant polemic. Nearly every chapter includes an excursus in which Scheck takes up traditional Catholic vs. Protestant arguments, critiques Protestant (often traditional Protestant) scholarship, and emphasizes the orthodoxy of Origen's readings. This is often at the expense of further analysis. Abelard is neglected in the chapter on William of St. Thierry, although the two engaged in a debate in which Origen featured heavily. The orthodoxy of Erasmus is defended, but little effort is made to analyze the interest Origen held for the humanists, or the rhetorical or polemical strategies of Erasmus, other humanists, or Luther in their employment of Origen. The chapter on post-Reformation controversies wanders rather far afield in an effort to defend the fifteenth-century Gabriel Biel and the seventeenth-century Molinists from ascriptions of Pelagianism by modern scholars, with little attention to Origen or the way in which such theologians might have used him. While Scheck's work provides a helpful review of Origen's reception, a more sensitive analysis of the uses of Origen's commentary in the particular historical settings of the justification debates would be welcome.

doi: 10.1017/S0009640709000110

Robert J. Hauck

Gonzaga University
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Author:Hauck, Robert J.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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