Origen, Church Father Or Heretic?
Have you ever heard of the Church Fathers? How about Origen? If you haven’t then you’re in for a treat. You see, the Church Fathers were the people who lead the Church after the original followers of Jesus died. Now usually when people talk about the Church Fathers they focus on people like Clement, Polycarp (who is one of my favorites), or Augustine. But today, we’re going to look at an early leader of the church who was so radical and innovative that he called a Heretic; yet so brilliant and influential that he cannot be discarded from the ranks of the Church Fathers. I hope you enjoy the post today.
The Life And Background Of Origen
Origen Adamantius was born in the year 184 A.D. to Christian parents. The earliest information that we have about his early life comes from the historian Eusebius. Who tells us that Origen was a brilliant young boy whose father was a professor in the city of Alexandria, one of the premier cities of learning in the ancient world. According to most accounts his father was successful, respected, and their family was happy.
However, in the year 202 A.D. things took a turn for the worst. The Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus, began executing Christians throughout his empire. Eusebius reports that when young Origen’s father was taken to be killed, the distressed boy tried to be martyred with him. Fortunately, for him and us, he was restrained by his mother who had hidden his clothes, effectively preventing the teenager from leaving the house. However, the event left his desiring to be martyred like his father, which was apparently something that he desired for most of his life.
Origen dedicated himself to the study of the Bible and Philosophy, he ended up writing about 2,000 different documents, which vary from in-depth Greek translations of the Old Testament to commentaries on the Gospels. Origen’s signature work was called the Hexapla, this was a massive, word for word, comparison of the Old Testament written in Hebrew with several Greek versions of the Old Testament, pulse commentary. The most famous of his books is called, On first principals, which was the first in-depth complete breakdown of the Christian faith. He was also one of the first Christian theologians, if not the first, to make an attempt to explain and unpack some of the more abstract things in Christianity, such as the soul or the relationship between the Father and the Son.
Origen was known to be fiercely devoted to God, in both his academic endeavors and in his personal life. Eusebius drives home this point by recounting a time where Origen, after reading Matthew 19:12, went to a doctor and was voluntarily castrated. According to this account, he was persuaded that Matthew 19:12, “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can”, should be taken literally and since he fancied himself capable of “excepting” it…. snip snip.
Now, the factualness of this story is unknown, since when commenting on Matthew 19:22 Origen condemned the literal interpretation. However, Eusebius was a fan of Origen and so would be influenced to present him in a positive light, which makes the idea that he believed this embarrassing story to be fact, a reasonable position. But, either way, this story gives us a window into the kind of reputation the man Origen had. I mean, after all, how devoted to God would you have to be for people to believe, via hearsay, that you had happily castrated yourself after interpreting Matthew 19:22 in a literal way?
A Closer Look At Origen And The World He Lived In
In an interview by St Johns’s Timeline, Morwenna Ludlow, a Professor of Theology and Religion, said that when thinking about Origen it’s important to remember that he was a lifelong teacher and should be primarily viewed through that lens. I tend to agree with her on this, you see, education was Origen’s life. When he was only 18 years old, he was given a paid teaching position at the Catechetical School of Alexandria. He later quit that job to teach in Christian congregations and he continued to be an educator for the rest of his life. Another thing that is important to consider when looking at Origen is the intellectual arena that the church was battling In. You see, at that time, many of the more complicated ideas in Christianity, like the trinity, had not been properly laid out yet.
Consequently, many Gnostic teachers, who had been around since the late first century, started to take advantage of the uncertainty by providing their own explanations. This was problematic for the church because they began introducing new non-biblical teachings and reinterpretations of old ones, while flying the banners of Christianity. They would create long and complex philosophical explanations, which they would promote as proof that Jesus was never a man and many other things like that.
(The Gospel of John and the book of Jude were likely written, in part, to refute these people and their ideas.)
Most of the church fathers at that time would refute them by pointing out how it wasn’t what had been handed down by the apostles, however, they were still growing. This is where Origen comes in, as well as being an educator Origen was a philosopher. And so in his defense of Christianity, he tried to not only prove the validity of Christian beliefs, but also why they were logical and reasonable. In doing so, he laid out the groundwork of things like the trinity, free will, and many other modern Christian beliefs. Consequently, he is considered, by some, to be the first Christian theologian.
So Was Origen A Church Father Or Heretic?
So, at this point, some of you might be wondering why people have a problem with Origen. Well, you see, it’s not the things that he did which give people pause, it’s the things that he said.
Like we mentioned above, Origen was attempting to unpack the ideas found in Christianity and during his pursuit of truth, Origen explored the questions that nobody but the Gnostic and Greek Philosophers were asking. Flexing his philosophical muscle, he dove into the task head first and he was good at what he did. In fact, he was so good at unpacking and presenting Christianity as a reasonable system of belief that he actually converted several Greek philosophers to Christianity.
During this time of searching and philosophizing, Origen came to some conclusions that were later condemned by the church. These ideas included things like the human soul existed before the human was conceived, the Bible should be interpreted allegorically, a very Plato’ie Angelology, Origen often talked about scripture speculatively instead of dogmatically, he elevated God’s goodness far above God’s justice, and, most famously, he believed that eventually every creature, including the devil, would repent and be saved.
“It is not only possible, but also the case that all rational creatures will eventually submit to one Law… We profess that at a certain point the Logos (God) will have obtained the hegemony over all rational creatures and will have transformed every soul to the perfection that is proper to it, when each one, exerting its own free will, will have made its own choices and reaches the state that it had elected.”Origen, Contra Celsum
Now, given the fact that Origen had some non-orthodox ideas, if your still confused about this whole heretic thing, your confusion is valid. During his life Origen was not considered to be a heretic, in fact, those kinds of accusations didn’t start arising until the fourth century. In the year 400, almost 150 years after his death, Theophilus summoned a council in Alexandria, in which Origen was condemned as a heretic and labeled “The hydra of all heresies”. His ideas were also latter hijacked by people who were pushing non-biblical ideas, which, in my opinion, was one of the biggest blots on his reputation.
Origen, Church Father Or Heretic? Final Thoughts
When assessing Origen, personally, I think that people tend to make one big mistake. Believers and church leaders, after seeing some of his less than orthodox ideas, will often conclude that he was misguided by Greek philosophy. This is why so many people, in the past and present, reject the idea of him being a church father. However, this view of Origen is built on only two aspects of his work, the tools that he used (philosophy) and some of his conclusions. But there are many more things that should be considered before determining who or what Origen was. First and foremost, is the time that he lived in, secondly the intention of his work, and finally the substance of his errors.
As we talked about above, when Origen was alive, many of the more confusing and strange things in Christianity had not been properly articulated or explained. Consequently, there were many people who were offering up philosophical explanations, which were changing Christianity at a fundamental level. When you take this problem in combination with Origen’s philosophical background and his Love of education, I think it creates a clear picture as to why Origen decided to take the approach that he did.
He thought that If Christianity was going to be legitimized in the eyes of the world, our arguments would have to be more substantive than just the Bible says so. Origen wanted us to be capable of not only explaining the “whats” of our belief, but the “whys” as well. He was the first person to attempt this and so it’s not surprising that he got some things wrong. It’s also important to note that none of his mistakes violated what could be considered basic Christianity.
So, personally, I think that when you consider the magnitude of his task, the tools that were at his disposal, the goal of his work, and the fact that he did not make any catastrophic theological errors. I think that It would be unfair to look back at his work and, based on our current understanding of things, conclude that he wasn’t a Christian. After all, he’s part of the reason why we are, where we’re at today.
Origen not only adamantly defended the faith, but he also spent his life encouraging and strengthening the body of Christ. He also initiated a conversation about important questions that eventually became fully articulated Christian beliefs. In light of this, I really can’t see how the term heretic could possibly be a better description of him than Church Father.
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© 2019 Dave Guill