Church Fathers: Origen, the Humble Teacher

Reading Time: 3 mins

Origen is wrong about stuff, but he had the foresight to say that if he was wrong, he was open to correction.

In 1941, British forces were fighting the Axis powers in Egypt. The British, who needed to stockpile ammunition and keep it undetected, asked the Egyptian government to use an old rock quarry outside of Cairo. Egyptian workers began clearing out the debris when they came across a collection of papyri – something close to the equivalent of 500 pages of ancient text. And not just any ancient text, but lost work from the Church father, Origen, and his follower Didymus the Blind. Perhaps this find would have received more attention if not for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls later in that decade.

Oh, and perhaps for another important thing: no one really likes Origen. Or at least that’s how it has appeared to me from my Western Protestant education and perspective. He was one of those church fathers that was considered by some to be dangerous. He was too speculative, too allegorical. Also, I had heard he had made himself a eunuch and was deemed heretical at the Council of Constantinople.

As I do daily on The Christian History Almanac, I’d like to take a deeper look into a Church father that I once dismissed but has now become one of my favorites.

Origen was born around AD 185 and died around 250. He lived amidst the Roman persecution of Christians. His father was martyred for the faith around AD 200, and a well-known story is that Origen was so eager to join his father that his mother had to hide his clothes. She knew Origen was too pious and chaste to run out of the house naked.

From an early age, he taught in Alexandria, a cosmopolitan center of pagan education. Origen saw Greek philosophy not as a threat (see Tertullian) but rather as an apologetic tool for teaching and defending the Christian faith. He is a central figure in the development of Christian Philosophy and Apologetics.

He was regarded as an exemplary Christian scholar and textual critic by his peers and later church fathers, from Jerome (who was accused of being an Origenist) to Athanasius (who could be quarrelsome but approved Origen’s work).

If not for the brilliance of his work, the usefulness of his textual criticism, and his insights, perhaps he would have been forgotten entirely.

His initial trouble came when he disregarded church polity by preaching without being ordained. If he had given the same presentation but called it “teaching,” he would have likely been left alone. He later went to teach and learned his lesson; he was first ordained by a local bishop and then preached. Unfortunately for Origen, it was deemed an irregular ordination, and he was censured again. But in his lifetime, he was never condemned as a heretic. It was after the fact that the “Origenists” gave the Imperial church trouble. Justinian and the Second Council of Constantinople condemned the teachings of Origen (not Origen himself) in 453. Many of his works were destroyed or hidden. If not for the brilliance of his work, the usefulness of his textual criticism, and his insights, perhaps he would have been forgotten entirely.

His chief contribution, although certainly not his only, was the Hexapla. This was a six-column translation of the Old Testament. One column was Hebrew, another a transliteration into Greek, and the other included variant readings of the text. It is no wonder Jerome found him helpful as he created the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible). He emphasized that the Old Testament pointed to Jesus, perhaps a commonplace insight today in some circles but a radical approach for many in his day.

Where he would run into problems was in his commentaries. As was more common in the Alexandrian school of thought, he tended to emphasize the allegorical readings of Scripture. He was also not afraid to suggest radical propositions. Among these was his beliefs in the pre-existence of the soul and the eventual return of everything to God’s glory (even Gehenna and the devil). Finally, his doctrine of Jesus and the Holy Spirit does not line up with Post-Nicene theology.

But the phrase “Post-Nicene” is important. Origen is an “Ante-Nicene” Church Father. This means he lived before the council of Nicaea in AD 325 and the Constantinian Revolution, wherein Christianity gained favored-religion status. Of course, Origen had a hard time with Christological definitions – everybody did – hence the necessity for the council of Nicaea.

As for his more radical statements, it is important to hear Origen himself claim that he was looking for discussion instead of dogma. As he dodged persecution, he wanted to ask fellow Christians “what if…” to engage in discussion. He noted that in his special action, he wanted “nothing which is at variance with the tradition of the apostles of the church is to be accepted as true.” In other words, he tells us in his own words that if official church doctrine condemns anything he wrote, he would too. Would we all have such humility to accept the fact that we might be wrong?

Origen is wrong about stuff, but he had the foresight to say that if he was wrong, he was open to correction. Yet he died before the age of Constantine when the church could afford itself the time to detangle some of the theology of the Ante-Nicene Church. Diarmaid MacCulloch has written that reading Origen is like an exuberant adventure of the imagination. And like any adventure, you must watch your step and take a field guide with you, but a run through the work of Origen can be fruitful, exciting, and thought-provoking.

I recommend this book to those looking for more introduction to Origen and some of his selected readings.