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The Ancient Wisdom of Origen.

Whether one regards Origen as famous or infamous, his reputation insures that he needs no introduction. Indeed, the rediscovery of O. is a distinctive feature of "modern" scholarship on the early Church. In the early-20th century theologians as diverse as von Balthasar, von Harnack, and Lossky explicitly developed their own theological insights over against the figure of O. More recently there have been numerous attempts to "claim" him. These re-evaluations almost all proceed from a recognition of O.'s pivotal importance for the development of Christian doctrine.

Given the broad range of O.'s thought, one is surprised that, despite his title, Smith's subject is limited to O.'s understanding of spiritual change, or conversion broadly conceived. Why Smith should consider O.'s doctrine of conversion identical with his "wisdom" is never made clear, although there is an implicit argument in the fundamental project of the book, namely the attempt to understand and synthesize all the various parts of O.'s thought through the force of his concept of spiritual transformation. I am personally suspicious of any attempt to organize all of anyone's thought around one conceptual axis. Yet even if one accepts such a task Smith starts on weak ground, first and foremost because he neglects to acknowledge other scholarly accounts of the fundamental character of O.'s thought. Previous accounts have found the center of his theology in, e.g., his Christology or his trinitarianism. Others place him in the sphere of gnosticism. One influential description portrays him as fundamentally indebted to Hellenism; in such an understanding of O.'s thought Smith's discovery of spiritual transformation as the foundation of that thought is untenable. Smith may have a case to offer against proposed alternative centers of O.'s thought, but he never makes it. In short, I would have been more comfortable with Smith's work if he had, at some point, recognized the real ambiguity of O.'s theology for Christianity.

This silence may mask Smith's own hermeneutical debt. Smith's account of O. reminds me more than anything of von Balthasar's account of Gregory of Nyssa, particularly the single-minded retelling of theology through existential categories in an attempt to reveal the original and still-authoritative "meaning" or (in Smith's case) "wisdom" of the texts (though Smith never explicitly draws on von Balthasar's Parole et mystere chez Origene). Like von Balthasar's account of Gregory's theology in terms of presence, Smith's account of O.'s theology in terms of conversion is meant to make a claim on O.'s value and, finally, his identity.

It is difficult to determine Smith's intended audience. Smith makes a dramatic promise at the beginning regarding the wide range of scholarship that he will draw upon, which suggests a work written for the tradition of scholarly discourse. Yet, as already suggested, there are strange omissions in his acquaintance with scholarship on O. The appendix devoted to "Origen Scholarship and Textual Methodology" cites most modern scholarly treatments but says nothing substantial about any of them. Smith's bibliography is intended to seem exhaustive, but it does not include a single reference to Patricia Cox Miller's many works on O. This omission, like the silence on von Balthasar, reveals the shadow of Smith's understanding of O., here is a competing hermeneutic of O.'s writing which simply does not, cannot, exist in Smith's account of O. Similarly, Smith has no reference to D. G. Bostock's treatment of medical influence on O.; a citation which could have greatly clarified Smith's muddled ideas on the role of opposite categories and medical images in O.'s Christology.

The credibility of Smith's claim on scholarship is further damaged when one discovers that judgements are buttressed by references to works like Justo Gonzalez's History of Christian Thought. Yet this kind of reference does provide an important clue as to who is intended to use the book: graduate students who have already had a generalist introduction to O. (like Gonzalez's) and who are now taking a second step in exploring the Alexandrian's thought. Smith's ideal reader seems to be someone who is theologically sophisticated enough to be familiar with concepts like logos and aisthesis, but who has no prior knowledge of O.'s doctrines. Because Smith does not assume that his reader has ever actually read O., parts of his book may be useful for students of the doctrine of conversion who are curious about O.'s contribution on this topic. Specific sections of the book can be useful for organizing lectures for an undergraduate patristics course.

Finally, the book is tediously written. Smith's style is opaque. A fundamental stylistic problem is that the arguments constantly take the form of "backtracking" (for lack of a better term). The development of the stated topic of a chapter or section is consistently interrupted by an announcement that in order to understand the topic we must first understand some other topic or idea. Sometimes understanding the interrupting topic requires a further backtracking. We are not led from historical background to O.'s own thought on the subject at hand; instead, we regularly depart from the stated subject as Smith discovers or recognizes an idea or subject that bears upon O.'s thought. This is a book whose sum is less than the total of its parts.
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Author:Barnes, Michel R.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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