Origen (185-254)

Origen is generally considered the greatest theologian and biblical scholar of the early Eastern church. He was probably born in Egypt, perhaps in Alexandria, to a Christian family. His father Leonides had given him an excellent literary education. His father died in the persecution of 202, and he himself narrowly escaped the same fate. At the age of 18, Origen was appointed to succeed Clement of Alexandria as head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, where he had been a student.

Between 203 and 231, Origen attracted large numbers of students through his manner of life as much as through his teaching. During this time Origen traveled widely and while in Palestine (c. 215) was invited to preach by local bishops even though he was not ordained. Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, regarded this activity as a breach of discipline and ordered him to return to Alexandria. The period following, from 218 to 230, was one of Origen's most productive as a writer.

In 230 he returned to Palestine, where he was ordained a priest by the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea. Demetrius then excommunicated Origen, deprived him of his priesthood, and sent him into exile. Origen then settled at Caesarea and founded a school of literature, philosophy, and theology. During the persecutions of the Christians in 250 under Emperor Decius, Origen was imprisoned and tortured. Released in 251, but weakened by injuries, he died in about 254, probably in Tyre.

Origen’s literary productivity was enormous. His accomplishments as an exegete and student of the text of the Old Testament were outstanding. His works include letters, treatises in dogmatic and practical theology, apologetics, exegeses, and textual criticism. Contra Celsum (Against Celsus) is a closely reasoned long apologetic work refuting arguments advanced by the philosopher Celsus, an influential 2nd-century Platonist of Alexandria and perhaps the first serious critic of Christianity. Other works include The Hexapla, the first attempt to establish a critical text of the Old Testament, and De Principiis (or Peri Archon), which treated successively in its four books of: (a) God and the Trinity, (b) the world and its relation to God, (c) man and his free will, (d) Scripture, its inspiration and interpretation.

Many other works of Origen have been entirely lost: for instance, the treatise in two books On the Resurrection, a treatise On Free Will, and ten books of Miscellaneous Writings. Origen attempted to synthesize Christian scriptural interpretation and belief with Greek philosophy, especially Neoplatonism and Stoicism. His theology was an expression of Alexandrian reflection on the Trinity, and, prior to Saint Augustine, he was the most influential theologian of the church.

Origen is regarded as the father of the allegorical method of scriptural interpretation. He wrote that Scripture is inspired because it is the word and work of God. But, far from being an inert instrument, the inspired author has full possession of his faculties, he is conscious of what he is writing; he is physically free to deliver his message or not. Since Scripture is from God, it ought to have the distinctive characteristics of the Divine works: truth, unity, and fullness. The word of God cannot possibly be untrue; hence no errors or contradictions can be admitted in Scripture.

The author of the Scriptures being one, the Bible is less a collection of books than one and the same book, a perfect harmonious instrument. But the most Divine note of Scripture is its fullness. True there are imperfections in the Bible: antilogies, repetitions, want of continuity; but these imperfections become perfections by leading us to the allegory and the spiritual meaning.

He taught the principle of the threefold sense, corresponding to the threefold division of the person into body, spirit, and soul, which was then a common concept. He developed the idea of Christ as the Logos, or Incarnate Word, who is with the Father from eternity, but he taught also that the Son is subordinate to the Father in power and dignity. He also taught that souls pre-existed, and that they are engaged in a process, the outcome of which will be such that even the Devil will be saved.

He believes that God created from eternity, for “it is absurd”, he says, “to imagine the nature of God inactive, or His goodness inefficacious, or His dominion without subjects” (De princip., III, v, 3). Consequently he is forced to admit a double infinite series of worlds before and after the present world.

Despite their sometimes controversial character, his writings helped to create a Christian theology that blended biblical and philosophical categories.


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Geddes MacGregor, Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy, New York: Paragon House, Copyright 1989 Geddes MacGregor.

The Catholic Encyclopedia: an International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline and History of the Catholic Church, Herbermann and Pace, eds., New York: Appleton, 1907-1912.