Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.
– Origen –
Origen is probably the most interesting heretic in the history of the Church. I know, that leaves things open for a lot of questions. Was Origen really a “heretic”? What’s so interesting about him? Why was he included on this list of significant early Christians? Let’s dive into history to find out…
Most historians that I’ve read date Origen’s birth to about A.D. 185 in Alexandria, Egypt. Now that we’re further on into the 2nd century and Christianity has had some time to gain more converts, we start to see more stories about Christians who grew up with Christian parents, and such was the case with Origen. In fact, his father, Leonidas (or Leonides), was a martyr for the faith. Origen, who had Christian zeal from even the young age of about 17, wanted to follow his father’s martyrdom by presenting himself before the authorities and die in the same manner. All Origen had to do was get properly dressed and leave his house. He encountered a problem: his mother took and hid all of his clothes! Soon enough he decided that rather than pursuing martyrdom, he would take up the responsibility of pursuing a career and assist his mother and several siblings. As Jonathan Hill remarks, “Teenage modesty prevailed over religious enthusiasm, and Origen remained safely at home” (History of Christian Thought, pg. 42).
From his childhood, Origen manifested great intellectual brilliance. His parents noticed this; therefore, they sought provide Origen with the best education possible. However, an important part of his education required Origen to study and memorize the Scriptures (Hill, pg. 40-41). Following the time of his father’s martyrdom, Origen helped support his family through teaching.
As Origen earned a living through education, he himself also continued to learn from others. One famous philosopher (who was actually pagan) was Ammonius Saccas. Eusebius, in his all-important Ecclesiastical History, records the connections between the two men. Ammonius Saccas is known to have been a teacher to Plotinus, a man who founded Neoplatonism (highly influential inside the Church and outside of it).
Also among Origen’s influences was the socio-historical context in which he lived, namely, the city of Alexandria. This city, of course, housed the famous library of Alexandria, so as you can probably imagine, Alexandria was probably a greater learning-driven society than many others in Antiquity. There was also much diversity concerning religious and intellectual ideologies. Philo of Alexandria was a Hellenistic, Jewish philosopher. Origen was a philosophical Christian. Paganism was also alive and well. Undoubtedly, some non-Christian influences crept into the theology of Origen, as will be discussed below.
It wouldn’t be long before news got out about this gifted, young teacher named Origen. Even those outside of Christianity wanted to be pupils to him. However, an opening came for a catechetical teacher in Alexandria when Origen was just about 18 years old. The Alexandrian bishop, Demetrius, did not despise the youth of Origen, thus he gave him the rather important job of training new converts to Christianity in their newfound faith. Prior to being baptized, a catechumen (new convert who sought baptism) would undergo a lengthy period of time of doctrinal instruction. So it was Origen’s job to serve in a pastoral-like capacity of teaching, though he certainly was not above the authority of the bishop, Demetrius. In time, a collision between Origen and Demetrius would arise, to which we shall return in a moment.
But what was so intriguing about the teachings of Origen? Well, it has been said that despite having an enormously thorough background in understanding pagan philosophy, a dramatic turn of events came as a result of Origen’s new catechetical job. He apparently had a progressively difficult time of trying to “redeem” philosophy — see its value — and therefore sold his pagan works, lived in poverty, and attempted to study the Bible as best as he possibly could. Jonathan Hill says, “His general outlook had more in common with that of Tertullian than that of Clement or Justin” (History of Christian Thought, pg. 43).
One rather blatant example of Origen’s “literal” approach to studying the Bible was that he is known to have castrated himself. If you have studied the Bible, then you will obviously find no clear command in Scripture. However, Origen was reading Matthew 19:12 which states, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” Now, it should be noted first and foremost that Origen didn’t commit this shocking act randomly or as an attempt to modify his God-given gender. As a catechumen instructor, he spent a great deal of time with both men and women. To Origen, castration would guard him from being sexually promiscuous with a female catechumen. Some argue that one of Origen’s enemies began this rumor about him to demean his legacy. In fact, many hold that Origen did not actually subscribe to a literal interpretation (as it will be shown) and would never have done such a thing. I’m not sure we can know for certain if he did castrate himself, but since he has been known to live ascetically (despite some of his allegorizing of Scripture), it may not be out of the equation.
While Origen was a literal interpreter of Scripture in some ways, as was common for many Alexandrian scholars he also implemented a “spiritual” (really, an allegorical) hermeneutic. He interpreted the Bible within the framework of 3 “levels”: (1) the literal (2) the moral (3) the allegorical. He likened this tri-fold method to the trichotomous view of the man: body, soul, and spirit (see this article in Christianity Today).
What views of theology resulted from Origen’s hermeneutical method? It’s probably impossible to know exactly if it was the method that solely caused certain views, but there are a few notable ones. Perhaps most relevant to contemporary theological issues is Origen’s propagation of “apokatastasis.” This Greek word carries the idea of restoration. Basically, apokatastasis is the view that all creatures will be reconciled to God in the future. In fact, even Satan and his demons have the capacity to be restored unto right relationship with God. In his book On First Principles, Origen writes: “There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not everlasting. For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank. For all wicked men, and for demons, too, punishment has an end, and both wicked men and demons shall be restored to their former rank” (2.10.3). I believe Origen’s view is horribly wrong. Do we not read in Revelation 20:10 how Satan and his demons will be cast into the lake of fire “forever and ever”? And for what reason would a non-repentant, unsaved human want to, all of a sudden, turn to God in obedience and faith? The sinful nature of the unregenerate is not eradicated. Indeed, while Origen-defenders try to make this a point of merely being hypothetical and not actual or definite, such views of human nature, sin, and eternal punishment are certainly not able to be drawn from the Scriptures without some type of allegorizing and hermeneutical gymnastics.
More could be said about the questionable theology of Origen and his hermeneutical base, but let’s keep on track with the life of Origen. Certainly, his provocative doctrinal propositions made some fellow believers uncomfortable. And while we don’t have all of the gaps filled in regarding his life, one important piece of biographical information concerns his clashes with Christian leaders. Demetrius, the bishop who put Origen into a ministry position (of catechumen teacher) later wanted to take him out of one. Maybe it was because Origen was so popular that Demetrius became jealous, maybe Demetrius was simply horrified by some of the false teachings of Origen; all we know is that Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, managed to get Origen condemned through an Alexandrian synod. Now, it appears that Origen had traveled into Palestine and was ordained as a priest, and because Demetrius was not invited, the Alexandrian bishop viewed this as being personally derogatory. Likewise, Origen was preaching as one ordained (prior to his priesthood) without consent and without ordination. So altogether, Demetrius had a case against Origen, ultimately leading to his banishment from Alexandria and sending him to Caesarea.
Origen was most definitely discouraged by this altercation. But nonetheless, his work would continue. It became increasingly harder for Origen, the theological workhorse, being that he no longer had his team of secretaries to work with as he had in Alexandria. But soon enough, Origen continued his career as a teacher of rather advanced Christian philosophy. Furthermore, the local bishops of Caesarea and surrounding areas fully supported him. After a brief while in Alexandria, though, Demetrius died. He was succeeded by a former assistant to Origen in his catechetical school, Heraclas. Would this bring reconciliation between Origen and Alexandria? It may have appeared so on the surface. But the former friend now viewed Origen as an enemy and offered no sign of forgiveness.
In the year A.D. 250, the Roman emperor Decius issued many violent orders of persecution against Christians. Origen was one of the many victims. However, despite being badly harmed, Origen persevered through the torture. Some have referred to Origen with the nickname “Iron Man,” referencing his almost undefeatable personality and his firm attitude toward his critics. But even the Iron Man could not live forever. He died in Tyre at the age of 69 (according to Eusebius of Caesarea), not from immediate persecution, but the earlier torture placed on his body probably caused much damage to his health.
According to my graduate school professor, Dr. Paul Hartog, Origen produced about 800 works in his lifetime. He was truly a scholar to the highest degree. Perhaps his most remarkable contribution was his “Hexapla.” This was a compilation of six columns (hexapla = “sixfold” in Greek) of biblical text with the available manuscripts to Origen of both Hebrew and Greek. Origen also published On First Principles which was the world’s first systematic theology (to our knowledge). He interpreted some sections of the Bible very literally, but on others he was quite open to allegorical interpretations. In many ways, Origen was fully “orthodox” (in line with the Church), but there were certainly aspects of severe deviation.
So then, was Origen a heretic? As is quite often, it depends on how one defines “heresy.” I personally believe that Origen’s view of apokatastasis could potentially lead someone away from faith in Jesus Christ when presented with the Christian message of the Gospel. In other words, such a doctrine could leave one eternally condemned. For example, why couldn’t a person just repent and believe on Jesus Christ later on, after he/she dies? Just live any kind of life and forget about God and His Gospel for now – right? Sure, Origen might defend himself and state that he was simply talking about potentialities, not actualities. But unfortunately, the actual Gospel is greatly distorted by this kind of doctrine.
Origen, in my opinion, was a heretic, but still an intriguing one. He has left a legacy that carries on today. Even his theological perspectives are still propagated in some spheres. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) has many similarities with Origen’s views of the afterlife. Another interesting, and this time non-heretical, theological view that has maintained some influence is the belief that God can be understood in the analogy of a Mind, or really (especially later on in historical theology), 3 Minds for 3 Persons of the Trinity. I have heard Christian philosophers still use this illustration. While it may not be a scholastic dissertation, William Lane Craig’s children’s book God Is Three Persons helps young minds to understand the Triune-ness of God via the “Mind” analogy.
However, it should also be noted that Origen takes the Mind illustration much too far past what Scripture allows and presents a Platonic and Gnostic-like understanding of the fallenness of man. Basically, all creatures (non-body, spirit beings) were united to God — the Great Mind — until they, in their free will, chose to be autonomous from God. Interestingly, those who did not fall away from God so severely were given “ethereal bodies,” who are now known as angels. Meanwhile, the worst rebels of all became demons (see Hill, HoCT, 55 for more details). Most Christian Philosophers would greatly reject these Platonic views that deal with God being like a Great Mind and humans being originally connected to that Mind before the Fall.
So Origen is in my understanding of Christian theology rightly deemed heretical. Though as also mentioned, he was definitely an interesting and important figure. Many of his writings have influenced others throughout church history and should be considered as valuable, though, of course, they should be handled with great discernment (as even more orthodox writings should be as well). Even in evaluating some of the overly-philosophical propositions, it’s hard to not at least be intellectually stimulated. While I would not recommend Origen to teach your Sunday School class, I would recommend your Sunday School class to teach about Origen because he plays an important part in the history of the Church.
Church History Tip: It’s hard to choose just one aspect of Origen’s career for utilizing a church history tip. But I think when we consider a name like “Origen,” it’s hard to not think of a very similarly spelled word “origin.” What are the origins of humanity and angels and of the entrance of sin? Origen believed in a very Platonic view of these origins. Likewise, Origen’s views of origins played a key role in his understanding of other things like the “Ransom to Satan Theory” of the Atonement (which wasn’t discussed above), the totality of depravity, and his apokatastasis theory. Indeed, one’s views of origins can be very significant, as they were for Origen.