Church Fathers: Origen’s Works

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 28, 2016

Origen’s prodigious literary output was encouraged by his wealthy friends, in particular one Ambrose whom he had converted from Valentinianism. Out of his own pocket, this benefactor stationed in Origen’s lecture room “more than seven shorthand-writers, who relieved each other at fixed times, and as many copyists, as well as girls skilled in penmanship.”

In his addendum to St. Pamphilus’s defense of Origen, Eusebius listed two thousand of the master’s works, but the list itself is lost. Epiphanius of Salamis thought Origen had written about six thousand works in total. Fortunately, one of St. Jerome’s letters is extant which gives us a list of eight hundred titles. We have only have a small fraction of Origen’s writings, about half in the original Greek, half in Latin translations. They were translated by Jerome and Rufinus, and anthologized by St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus.

Several collections of Origen’s correspondence existed at the time of St. Jerome, one of which was edited by Eusebius and contained over a hundred letters. Only two of his letters survive in full: one to his former student St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, on the proper use of Greek philosophy and the study of Scripture, and the other to Julius Africanus, concerning the canonicity of the deuterocanonical parts of the book of Daniel. According to Jerome, Origen also wrote letters to Pope Fabianus (236-250) in which he expressed regret that some of his writings contained opinions in conflict with official Church teaching.

Given the number of Origen’s works, I will touch here only on the most important.

Origen on Scripture

Origen is the father of Biblical textual criticism as well as of scientific exegesis; most of his writings have to do with Scripture.

In the former field, his greatest contribution was the Hexapla (six-fold Bible). This was a critical text of the Old Testament, arranged in six columns: (1) the Hebrew text in Hebrew characters, (2) the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek characters, (3) the Greek translation of Aquila of Sinope, an early second-century Jew, (4) the Greek translation of Symmachus the Ebionite, a late second-century Jew, (5) the Greek translation of the Septuagint, and (6) a translation by the second-century Jew Theodotion. For the Psalms he added three more versions, making it an Enneapla of nine columns.

This massive work was apparently never copied in full. For centuries it was kept in the library of Caesarea for the use of scholars; St. Jerome himself, the great translator, recounts consulting it there. Only fragments of partial copies and extracts quoted by later writers remain today.

Origen’s exegetical writings cover the entire Old and New Testaments, and comprise three different categories: scholia (short explanations of difficult passages), homilies, and commentaries. None of the scholia are fully extant. As for the homilies, one source tells us that Origen preached every Wednesday and Friday, while Pamphilus says it was nearly every day. They are simple, conversational and spiritually edifying. The lengthy commentaries are described by Quasten as “a strange mixture of philological, textual, historical, etymological notes and theological and philosophical observations” [Patrology Vol. II, p. 48]. None of these is extant in full. (Parts of the commentaries on Matthew and John are in the Fathers section of our library.)

Reading Origen on the Scriptures, one is struck by his conviction that every word, every grammatical construction of the inspired text has a purpose, and by his care not to let any meaning God intended go to waste. He is chiefly interested in the mystical and allegorical sense, and while he makes plenty of interpretive errors, these are made up for by the spiritual depth of his reading. Exemplary is his Homily XXVII on Numbers, in which he looks at each of the forty-two stages of Israel’s journey recounted in Numbers 33 allegorically as a stage in a spiritual journey, based on the etymology of the name of each place.

Hans Urs von Balthasar believed Origen’s combination of prayer and exegesis, of “exact philology…and search for the spiritual sense,” to be exemplary for the present situation of Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI noted that the practice of lectio divina has its roots in Origen; St. Ambrose, having learned Origen’s method of interpretation from his written works, passed it on to St. Augustine and the whole Western monastic tradition.

Against Celsus (Books I-III, Books IV-V, Books VI-VIII)

In 178, the pagan philosopher Celsus wrote an anti-Christian treatise called the True Discourse. Rather than simply repeating the popular false accusations against Christians that the earlier Christian apologists had refuted, Celsus actually took the time to educate himself on Christian beliefs, reading the Scriptures and other Christian books, and acquainting himself with the difference between the mainstream Church and the various Gnostic sects.

The first part is a dialogue in which a Jew makes the Jewish case against Christianity, after which Celsus, in his own voice, raises objections against both Judaism and Christianity and tries to show the superiority of Greek religion and philosophy. While he finds some things to praise about Christianity, he is also concerned that Christians, by refusing to participate in the Roman state religion, undermine the Empire. If the Christians will not abandon their religion, he exhorts them at least to support the Roman political order, including taking government offices and fighting in the army (both of which would involve participating in Roman religion).

The True Discourse itself is not extant, but about three-fourths of it can be reconstructed because it is extensively quoted by Origen in the course of refuting it. Origen wrote Against Celsus when he was over the age of sixty, about seventy years after Celsus wrote, and only at the request of his friend and patron Ambrose. Origen himself had never even heard of Celsus or his treatise before Ambrose brought the latter to his attention. He was not particularly impressed by Celsus’s work, and was disposed to ignore it rather than risk giving it credibility by a response. But he reluctantly agreed to refute it for the sake of the ignorant and “weak in faith” who might be led astray by it.

In his point-by-point refutation, Origen emphasizes the unique role of the Holy Spirit and of grace, necessary to believe in Christ. He also counter’s Celsus’s patriotic concerns with a longer and more cosmopolitan view. He says that Christians can only be expected to obey secular authorities when their commands do not contradict God’s law. Christians ought to seek the favor of God rather than men, but they also do not rashly provoke the wrath of the powers.

Against Celsus is the most important of Origen’s apologetic writings and is considered the greatest apologetic treatise of the early Church. Eusebius was so impressed with it that he called it a refutation of all possible future heresies.

Discussion with Heraclides

Discovered in 1941, the Discussion with Heraclides is unique in early Christian literature and in ancient literature as a whole because it is not a literary dialogue but a close transcription of a conversation that actually occurred. The bishop Heraclides held some opinions about the Trinity which concerned his fellow bishops, so they sent for Origen to settle things. The record is of an informal, public meeting held in a church in Arabia around 245. It seems that the problem is more a matter of terms than anything else; Origen and Heraclides reach an agreement on an acceptable formula for the relation between the Father and the Son, and for the remainder of the meeting Origen answers questions posed by various bishops on other doctrinal points.

On Prayer

In 233-34, Origen wrote On Prayer at the request of his friend and patron Ambrose and Ambrose’s wife or sister, Tatiana. The oldest extant scientific treatise on Christian prayer, it was highly influential on monastic spirituality and on the earliest monastic rules. It consists of two sections, the first on prayer in general and the second on the Lord’s Prayer, and an appendix discussing the interior dispositions, physical postures, places and times proper to prayer, and distinguishing between the different kinds: petition, adoration, supplication and thanksgiving.

Answering Ambrose’s question about petition, Origen says that its purpose is not to influence God but to communicate with Him and participate in His life. He insists that we should not ask for worldly but only for spiritual things. Of adoration, he says (erroneously) that it is only properly offered to God the Father, not the Son or the Holy Spirit; we pray rather in the name of the Son and in the Spirit. The interior disposition necessary for true worship involves a war waged against sin and disordered passions, reconciliation with one’s neighbors, and renunciation of distractions.

Exhortation to Martyrdom

Composed during the persecution of Maximinus Thrax in 235 in Caesarea, the Exhortation to Martyrdom was addressed to a deacon and a priest there. The example of his father gave Origen a great and lifelong love for martyrdom, and he spares no praise for it here. In addition to praising martyrdom more generally and encouraging the brethren in steadfastness, one of his purposes in writing was to disabuse certain Christians who thought that it did not matter if a Christian offered pagan sacrifices so long as they believed in the true God in their hearts.

First Principles (Books I-II, Books III-IV)

First Principles is the first manual of dogmatic theology and the first work of systematic theology ever written. Of its four books composed between 220 and 230, only a few fragments survive in the original Greek. The only full version extant is a Latin translation by Rufinus, who is generally held to have changed and removed some parts in order to make Origen less vulnerable to charges of heresy. St. Jerome made a more literal translation (possibly with the opposite intent), but this is lost.

In the first book Origen deals with the supernatural world: God, the Trinity, and the angels. In the second he deals with the material world: the creation of man, his fall, and salvation history extending through the last judgment and resurrection. The third treats of the human condition, free will and morality. The fourth summarizes some of the main points and deals with Scripture, its inspiration and the various senses in which it can be read.

As the remarks about Rufinus’s translation indicate, First Principles is the work which made Origen infamous in later centuries; it is generally held to be his most heretical. It is worth noting, however, that while Origen approaches everything with speculative freedom, he is careful not to dogmatize and continually distinguishes his own speculations and suggestions from confirmed truth. He submits all to the ultimate judgment of the Church. His caution is exemplified in the following paragraph:

These subjects, indeed, are treated by us with great anxiety and caution, more in the manner of discussions and investigations than in that of fixed and definite doctrine. For we have indicated in the preceding pages those questions which are bounded by clear dogma, which I think I did to the best of my ability when speaking of the Trinity. In these matters, however, our exercise is to be conducted, insofar as we are able, more in the style of a disputation than of an actual defining. [1, 6, 1]

The essential bases of Christian belief were laid out clearly by the Apostles. These they explained with the utmost clarity, while on other points, they only said that this was so, without explaining it, or explaining the interconnections between various teachings. The role of speculative theology, Origen explains, is to deepen and clarify our understanding of such things which the Apostles left for later generations as an exercise to receive and display wisdom. Thus Origen lays out the idea of the development of doctrine.

Quasten’s comments on the inordinate influence of Greek philosophy on this work could easily be applied to Origen’s whole legacy:

In justice to its author, we must realize the number of difficulties he faced in this first effort to coordinate the various elements of the deposit of faith and mold them into a complete system. Thus it can be easily understood that he relied for the solution of many questions on Greek philosophy. The fact that he based his speculations on passages from Scripture allegorically interpreted indicates that even in these theories he did not want to depart from Biblical truth or the teaching of the Church. Despite its defects the De principiis was epoch-making in the history of Christianity. [Patrology Vol. II, p. 61]


Previous in series: Origen’s Life and Legacy
Next in series: Origen’s Theology

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.