Church Fathers: Origen’s Theology

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 20, 2016

It is appropriate to begin this brief summary of Origen’s theology with a reminder that many of the more imaginative aspects of his “doctrine” were presented as his personal speculation and distinguished from the truths taught by the universal Church which all were obligated to believe, and that Origen submitted everything he wrote to the ultimate judgment of that Church.

Origen’s Cosmology

Origen teaches that God exists outside of space and time, and this truth must inform our reading of Scriptural passages that, understood literally, might imply otherwise. There is a clear distinction of orders between God and the created world: “There is nothing uncreated except the nature of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” [First Principles 4, 35]. In order to be the first cause of everything, He must be one and immaterial. That said, though He is not contained by space or time, He is present in all of creation.

Origen’s attempt to defend monotheism while finding some way to distinguish the members of the Trinity is not without difficulties. He says that “the Father and the Son are one and the same and differ in no respect” [Prologue to the Commentary on Song of Songs], but that the Word of God can be distinguished in terms of relations, both to Himself and to mankind. Rather than being divided from the Father, the Son proceeds from the Father as the will proceeds from reason. The procession is a spiritual act, not a difference in substance.

Even before the Incarnation, the Word is the mediator between God and the created world. There is a bit of subordinationism in Origen’s view, as when in On Prayer he says we should only pray to the Father, not the Son, but for him the Word’s role as mediator is a functional, not an ontological one. The Holy Spirit is treated similarly.

God created the rational natures to express His goodness by giving them knowledge of Himself. These created rational natures are all immaterial, equal and eternal. They were to come to knowledge of God through the Word, but, with the exception of the soul of Jesus, they all became distracted from Him. These souls were given bodies as a result of falling away from God.

It is not so much that the bodies are evil in themselves, as that they reflect the state of the soul that has fallen away from unity with God (Origen’s connection between immateriality and unity is again at work here). After the fall, there is a hierarchy of embodied souls that can learn and move up the ranks in a series of successive world orders, like grades in school. The main point, however, is that all souls are in pilgrimage back to God. This return is caused both by the soul’s free will and by the providence of God, working together.

Though bodies are given to souls as punishment, this punishment is itself providential in bringing the soul back to God. Another providential use of a body is the Incarnation, in which the Word unites itself to a (pre-existent) human soul and takes on a body so that God can be revealed to souls in their now bodily manner of understanding.

At the end of all the successive ages, all souls will be brought back in unity with the Father, with greater stability than they had in the beginning because of the experience they have attained on their journey. This universal restoration is called the Apokatastasis. They will have resurrected bodies, not the old ones but new bodies reflective of their perfected state. Equality will not be restored as in the beginning, as there will still be a hierarchy based on the worth of each soul. They will continue to study under the Word and learn more and more, but their attention will never be diverted from Him again.

Mariology

The fifth-century historian Sozomen says that Origen used the term Theotokos (Mother of God) referring to Mary, though this is not to be found in his surviving works. This title had already been in use in the School of Alexandria and would eventually be defined in the Council of Ephesus in 431. We do have a precious passage in his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, where he declares Mary’s universal motherhood: “No one may understand the meaning of the Gospel, if he has not rested on the breast of Jesus and received Mary from Jesus, to be his mother also” [1, 6].

The Church

The Church is both the community of believers and the mystical body of Christ. For Origen, the latter definition means that Christ is to the Church as the soul is to the body: her principle of life, “so the Word, arousing and moving the whole body, the Church, to befitting action, awakens, moreover, each individual member belonging to the Church, so that they do nothing apart from the Word” [Against Celsus 6, 48].

According to Quasten, Origen was the first to call the Church the city of God on earth. She is distinct from and alongside the secular state, so her laws “are in harmony with the established constitution in all countries” [Contra Celsus 4, 22]. Eventually, though, the Church will transform all states and nations according to her character.

There can be no salvation without the Church and no faith outside of her: “The faith of heretics is no fides, but arbitrary credulitas” [Quasten, Patrology Vol. 2, p. 83].

Infant Baptism and Original Sin

In his commentary on Romans, Origen writes, “The Church has received from the apostles the custom of administering baptism even to infants.” In a homily on Leviticus, he refers to this custom as an argument for the existence of original sin: if every soul were not tainted with sin from the first moment of its existence, infant baptism would surely be unnecessary. As evidence of original sin he also cites Job 14:4 (“No man is clean from sin, not even if his life be one day long”) and Psalm 51:7 (“Behold, I was born in guilt, in sin my mother conceived me”).

Confession to a Priest

Origen says there is only one forgiveness of sins in baptism, but that there are seven means by which remission may be achieved for sins committed after baptism. These are martyrdom, alms, forgiving others, converting the sinner, charity, and making one’s sins known to a priest. Such confession may be private or public depending on the judgment of the confessor; Origen deems that for the remission of certain grave sins not just confession to a priest but a severe public penance is necessary.

Eucharistic Sacrifice

For Origen, the Eucharist is “a sacred body,” “the body of the Lord,” sacrificial and expiatory. In different places he upholds both a literal and a symbolic interpretation of the Eucharistic body and blood; he says the literal interpretation is that commonly held by the Church, but that the symbolic interpretation (which focuses on the body and blood as the Word rather than as visible matter) is the higher conception of the learned.

The Senses of Scripture

In First Principles Origen writes:

Then, finally, that the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not such only as is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes the notice of most. For those (words) which are written are the forms of certain mysteries, and the images of divine things. Respecting which there is one opinion throughout the whole Church, that the whole law is indeed spiritual; but that the spiritual meaning which the law conveys is not known to all, but to those only on whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in the word of wisdom and knowledge. [Preface, 8]

There are three senses of Scripture: “historical, mystical and moral, corresponding to the three parts of man, body, soul and spirit, and the three degrees of perfection… The mystical sense gives the collective and universal meaning of the mystery; the moral gives its interior and individual meaning” [Quasten, p. 92-93].

Origen uses the allegorical method to derive a spiritual meaning from every passage of Scripture. His exegetical philosophy is that “all has a spiritual meaning, but not everything has a literal meaning” [First Principles 4, 3, 5]. The two pitfalls of this method that characterize the School of Alexandria, as well as medieval exegesis, are its use as a facile solution to bypass the literal meaning of potentially awkward, embarrassing or scandalous passages on the one hand, and, on the other, the occasional stretching of symbolism far beyond what the text will support.

Origen’s Spirituality and Mysticism

Like Irenaeus, Origen holds that while man is made in the image of God, he only comes to the likeness of God through grace and his own efforts. This likeness to God is the highest perfection of man, and it is achieved by the imitation of Christ. Like Clement, Origen makes a distinction between the common believers and the chosen who are true imitators of Christ in this life. He compares this to the distinction in the Gospels between the multitudes who followed Christ and His disciples; only to the latter were many mysteries revealed.

For those who choose to seek perfection in the imitation of Christ, self-knowledge is a prerequisite. Without self-knowledge a soul cannot see what it already has and what it lacks, who to listen to and who to avoid. Self-knowledge provides both the motivation for and possibility of the battle against sin, the quest for freedom from the passions and the world. The vow of chastity is the most perfect expression of this freedom (though Origen does not reject marriage). By this, and by detachment from loved ones, ambition and possessions, the Christian makes room for God in his heart. Detachment is achieved through asceticism, continual study of Scripture, and above all, the virtue of humility. Thus is a soul prepared for the interior ascent.

On the spiritual journey the soul is increasingly harried by battles and tribulations, but is proportionately strengthened by consolations and illumined by the revelation of divine things in prayer and in reading Scripture. The soul is illuminated more as it ascends closer and closer to Christ:

Yet not all who have sight are illuminated by Christ in equal measure; each has illumination in proportion as it has capacity to receive the power of the light. The eyes of our body do not receive the light of the sun in equal measure, but the higher the levels to which one climbs, the more lofty the view point from which one watches the vista of the sunrise, the larger is one’s sense of the power of the sun’s light and heat. So it is also with our spirit; the higher and the further it goes in its approach to Christ, the more nearly it exposes itself to the glory of His light, the more finely and splendidly is it illuminated by His radiance… And if a man be even so advanced as to be able to go up with Him to the mount, as Peter and James and John, he shall have the illumination not only of the light of Christ but even of the very Father’s voice. [Homily on Genesis 1, 7]

Origen uses two images to express the mystical union of the soul with Christ: the birth and growth of Christ in the heart, and the mystical wedding between the soul and Christ. The latter he discusses in his commentary on the Song of Songs; he speaks of the spiritalis amplexus (spiritual embrace) and the vulnus amoris (wound of love) in this context. Ultimately, he who wishes to embrace Christ must also embrace His cross; this is why the true imitator and disciple of Christ is the martyr—if not a true martyr, then a spiritual martyr by the road of asceticism.


Previous in series: Origen’s Works
Next in series: The Lesser Alexandrians

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.

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