20 September 2017

Origen: Hero or Heretic?

Origen is virtually unknown in modern church circles yet he was probably the most famous Christian in the world in the mid third century.  He was the author of over 2,000 works and acknowledged as the greatest Bible scholar in the earliest centuries of the Christian era.

Origen was born in the city of Alexandria in Egypt into a Christian home about the year 185.  His father, Leonides, was killed during persecution instigated by Emperor Septimus Severus in 202.  The family possessions were confiscated by the authorities and Origen, as the eldest son, was responsible for the support of his mother and six brothers.  Origen opened a literature school and, with the blessing of Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, he re-opened and organised the famous catechetical school in the city.  The previous leader of the school, Clement, had fled to Cappadocia during the persecution.  Catechumens were people who had become Christians and were then ‘under instruction’ in matters of Christian doctrine and life before joining the church in an official capacity by undergoing an Easter baptism.  The catechumenate course could last up to two years.

Despite his youth, Origen was a very successful school leader and teacher.  He seems to have been something of a perpetual student, always learning.  For example, he studied Philosophy under the famous Ammonius Saccas.  He developed a personal lifestyle of strict austerity.  Controversially, he interpreted Matthew 19:12 literally and had himself castrated.  After some years Origen delegated some teaching and travelled widely, to Athens, Caesarea, Asia Minor and Rome, where he consulted church leaders and debated issues of faith.  His reputation as an important Christian thinker and writer progressed and he developed a specialist ministry of counselling to people in authority.  On one occasion at Antioch he discussed Christianity with Julia Mammaea, mother of Emperor Alexander Severus.

Along with other philosophers, Origen was expelled from Alexandria in 215 on the orders of Emperor Caracalla.  Origen travelled to Palestine where he preached several times at the invitation of Alexander and Thectistus, bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea.  This activity incurred the wrath of Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, who recalled him to that city in 216.  He travelled extensively throughout the Mediterranean area and again settled in Caesarea where he was ordained.  Once again he was denounced by Demetrius who seems to have had an inferiority complex, or at least jealousy, concerning Origen – not the first Church leader in history to struggle with the popularity of clever lay people!

Origen enjoyed a successful career of study, teaching and preaching in Palestine for several years.  He was arguably the most prolific writer in the ancient world, producing by dictation over 2,000 works including commentaries on most books of the Bible.  He was aided in his vast literary output by a wealthy friend, Ambrose, who paid for a team of stenographers who recorded his words.  Origen was inexhaustibly inquisitive and explored countless areas of Christian theology.  One of his most famous works was the Hexapla, unsurpassed as a source of Bible study for over 1,000 years.  Origen was the first Christian scholar to recognise the need for a sound text for real Bible study.  The Hexapla consisted of six columns of Old Testament text on each page, allowing the reader to compare a variety of translations at a glance.  The columns contained: Hebrew text, the same Hebrew text in Greek characters, the Greek translations of Aquila, Symmachus, the Septuagint and Theodotian in turn.  This was unquestionably the most valuable Christian work yet produced by any scholar.  This book was eventually destroyed shortly after the beginning of the seventh century.

The Emperor Decius unleashed an Empire wide persecution upon the church in 250.  Origen, along with other influential church leaders, was arrested and tortured at Caesarea.  While many Christians died in brutal circumstances, Origen could not be forced to deny Christ.  He survived the end of the persecution in 251 but his health was broken and he died some months later.  His martyr status ensured reverent remembrance but his literary inheritance was much more controversial.

Origen was an original thinker and is most famous for his interpretation of Scripture.  He taught that every sentence in scripture has three levels of meaning.  “As man consists of body, soul and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture.” (De principiis 4.11.11).  The body interpretation is the basic and literal meaning of each passage.  The soul interpretation is the moral teaching of a passage about the Church or society.  The spirit interpretation is the allegorical meaning which will only be fully known in the next life.  Allegory was Origen’s key to understanding the Bible.

Allegorical interpretations can ‘see things’ that the author may not have intended.  For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan can be represented in the following terms; the ambushed man represents humans in their sin, unable to help themselves.  The priest and Levite represent the Law and the Prophets, unable to help us in our sinful state.  The Samaritan represents Jesus, who does not pass by us but stops and helps us.  The inn represents the church and Jesus promises to return.  In reality Jesus told this parable in response to a lawyer’s question and as an illustration of who our neighbour is.  The issue of allegorical Bible interpretation is compounded by the fact that we cannot dismiss all allegorical interpretations because Paul himself used allegory in Galatians 4:24-25, interpreting Sarah and Hagar, wives of Abraham, as representatives of two covenants.

Like many eastern Christians, Origen was not afraid to speculate in his theological explorations; for example on the pre-existence of souls and the life of angels.  Origen’s reputation was tarnished in subsequent generations by enthusiastic followers who pushed his carefully qualified ideas into dogma and ever more extreme positions.  Eventually, at a Church Council in Constantinople in 553, Origen was anathematised by Emperor Justinian I.  Theological issues which were open for discussion in Origen’s lifetime were considered closed to such discussion two centuries later.

Laurence Kirkpatrick