The third century is dominated by the towering figure of Origen. The greatest of the pre-Nicene theologians, scholar, teacher, preacher, exegete, apologist, confessor, he was the most saintly of the Fathers never to be made a saint. His influence on the faith was profound but also controversial and led to his memory being condemned and the loss of much of his voluminous writing.
He is too large a figure to be dealt with here, especially since most of his work is not directly relevant to my subject, the œcumenical councils. After a brief biographical sketch, my remarks will be confined to a few observations relevant to his later condemnation by the 5th Œcumenical Council in A.D. 553.
Origen was born in Egypt around the year 185, the son of prosperous and deeply pious parents who provided him with a good education, both in Christian doctrine and in Greek philosophy and classical literature. His father was martyred in the persecution of the year 202 and Origen was only prevented by his mother from seeking the same end.
Not long after, he was made head of the catechetical school of Alexandria in place of St Clement of Alexandria, who had fled the city during the persecution. His reputation for piety and learning soon spread beyond Alexandria. He visited Rome, where he heard a sermon by St Hippolytus, and Arabia. In 215, when trouble broke out in Alexandria, he went to Palestine. The bishops there invited him to preach and this caused a quarrel with his own bishop, Demetrius of Alexandria, since he did not have Demetrius’s licence to preach.
The break with Demetrius became final in 230, when Origen became head of the catechetical school of Cæsarea in Palestine. He was arrested and tortured in 250 in the persecution of Decius. Although he was released on Decius’s death in the following year, he died a few years afterward. He was buried as a confessor in the cathedral church of Tyre in Palestine.
Note that he lived just three generations after the Apostolic Fathers. Although we have no reason to suppose his grandfather did so, it was not chronologically impossible for him to have known St Polycarp of Smyrna, who had ‘seen John face to face.’ (See my defence of living memory in ‘The First Century: The Oral Period.’)
Origen’s Controversial Views
Origen’s views joined Christian piety to Greek philosophy. Pelikan has said that ‘Eliminating either pole of Origen’s thought from his system would make him more consistent; but it would be an oversimplification and a distortion of his thought, for biblical doctrine and philosophical speculation are both essential components of his theology.’ [The Christian Tradition, I, p. 48] This was a position that Origen shared with other Christian thinkers of the third century, notably St Clement of Alexandria.
It seemed natural to Origen that simple believers would have simple beliefs—for example believing that God looks like a human being, with hands and feet—but he expected those of deeper faith to take a more sophisticated view, distinguishing the spiritual from the earthly. The criticism of certain of his opinions came primarily from those who believed that it was a mistake to go beyond the views of the simple, since it led you into the snares of the philosophers.
Origen shared with St Clement—and also with the Gnostics—a basic Middle Platonic assumption, that the spiritual, and more specifically the intellectual, is obviously better than the material, which exists mostly as a hindrance to it. The Church taught him, and therefore he accepted, that God had created the material world good, but he was patently puzzled as to why He had bothered. His conclusion was that God had done it for our reform. Souls have free will, so can fall into sin, but pure spirit has nothing that can experience the trials and tribulations that direct it into the path it should follow. Hence the creation of a material world in which material bodies can receive due chastisement. And this was not true just of human beings but of all rational creatures.
Because God is both benevolent and omnipotent, it seemed to Origen an obvious deduction that, when he created anything at all, he must have immediately created everything that was perfect, and for Origen this meant strictly rational souls. It was not possible that they could be infinite in number, but God would have created as many as he wished. But the rational soul has free will. Its goodness was placed there originally by God but it was not part of the soul’s nature and could be lost. Hence, souls could fall away from their original perfection. How far they fell would determine their subsequent fate, whether they were heavenly creatures, or earthly, or infernal. However, because of their original perfection, they could not cease to exist.
Matter was also created good, but it was not a part of the original creation and was not perfect—and hence not permanent—in the same way as souls. It was created in consequence of God’s foreknowledge of the fall of souls, to provide the bodies and the worlds in which they could be reformed, and it would cease to exist when the need for it had passed.
Origen believed that worlds had existed before the creation of this world, that souls had been reformed in them or sunk lower, and that this explains the differences in honour among souls in this world: their role when they enter into a body is determined by the perfection they attained in previous existences. And there will be worlds to follow this one, since Origen believed that the end of creation must be like the beginning, and all souls, including those of the fallen angels, must be restored to their original perfection, something he did not expect to happen in this world.
Since all souls had existed since the creation, the human soul of God the Son had also existed, and had been his since creation, although a special soul.
Origen believed that the Scriptures were inspired by God the Son as the Word through the Holy Spirit, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He believed that Scripture had three senses, a literal, an allegorical and a spiritual. Contrary to those who accused him of denying the literal meaning, he believed that the events recorded had in fact taken place. In particular, the literal virgin birth, death on the cross and resurrection on the third day of Jesus Christ were essential to our salvation and had certainly happened.
He believed, however, that the literal sense was the least important. After all, what did it matter to us that David lived, reigned and died, if that was all it meant? He believed that the allegorical meaning, teaching us moral lessons for this world, and still more the spiritual meaning, teaching us of heaven and the age to come, were what really mattered and that all the literal events had an allegorical and spiritual significance that it was the task of the exegete to ferret out. He even believed that the Holy Spirit had put the occasional absurdity in the Scriptures to make us pause and remind us not to focus on the literal meaning. It was his allegorical and spiritual interpretation of the Revelation of John that allowed the Church to accept the book as canonical, when many in the early church had rejected it because of its millenarianism, which seemed absurd taken literally.
Since the bodily resurrection of Jesus is at the very heart of Christian belief, Origen believed necessarily in the resurrection of the body but obviously found it difficult to square it with his belief in the essential perfection and permanence of the soul as opposed to the conditional goodness and impermanence of matter. He posited a spiritual body in which souls will be raised but it was alien to his thinking and he never managed to give a coherent account of it. Those, however, who criticised him for his alleged denial of the resurrection of the body did not hold, any more than did Origen, to the belief that our frail earthly body would be resurrected exactly as it is. They, like Origen, accepted St Paul’s teaching that ‘It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.’ (1 Cor. 15:44)
It is important to note that these controversial views were never part of Origen’s catechetical teaching. In confession of doctrine, he was strictly orthodox. These were speculations addressed to those with advanced training, testing the limits of what human reason could learn based on divine revelation, and he stated specifically that he was not advancing them as doctrinal assertions.
Origen’s Critics and Defenders
The reaction against Origen began almost half a century after his death, when Patriarch Peter of Alexandria began to attack Origenism in his paschal letters, specifically condemning his allegorical interpretation of Scripture and his notions of the pre-existence of souls and of the resurrection of a purely spiritual body. Origen’s memory was defended later in the fourth century by St Athanasius the Great and by the three Cappadocians, St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian and St Gregory of Nyssa. The two former made an anthology of selections from Origen’s writings in 358–9, the Philocalia, which preserved many passages of the Greek text that would otherwise have been lost. His memory was also defended by Eusebius of Cæsarea and later in the century by Rufinus of Aquileia. By the end of the fourth century, St Epiphanius of Salamis and St Jerome had contrived to secure condemnations of Origenism at synods in Jerusalem and Alexandria. And there the matter rested until it broke out again in the middle of the sixth century, revived by the Emperor Justinian.