Church Fathers: Origen's Life and Legacy
At last we come to Origen, surely the most titanic intellectual figure of the first three centuries of Christianity after St. Paul. In the breadth of his writings and in the depth of his influence, he is equaled by few among the Church Fathers. He brought the catechetical school of Alexandria to its height, and was the first to make Scriptural exegesis into a science. His works were copied by Sts. Jerome and Ambrose among many others, and he influenced great medieval mystics like St. Bernard and Meister Eckhart. Though he fell into some theological errors, he submitted all his thought to the judgment of the Universal Church and attained something very close to a martyr’s death.
We know more about Origen’s biography than about any of the Fathers covered previously. St. Pamphilus of Caesarea wrote an apology defending Origen in five books, with a sixth added by Eusebius, but only the first book is preserved in a Latin translation by Rufinus, whose work is considered none too reliable. One of Origen’s students in Caesarea, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus ("Wonder-Worker"), gave a farewell address to his master’s circle when he left Palestine, which is an important source for Origen’s character and style of teaching. Some details can also be gleaned from St. Jerome and Photius.
But our main source for his life is Eusebius, who devotes much of the sixth book of his Ecclesiastical History to Origen. Eusebius based his account on a collection of over one hundred of Origen’s letters, which are now lost.
Origen was born in 185 in Alexandria, the eldest son of a large Christian family. He was educated by his father and later in the catechetical school under Clement. His father, St. Leonidas, was martyred in the persecution of Septimus Severus.
Origen, then seventeen years old, wanted to join Leonidas in prison, but his mother forbade him. When he insisted, she prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes. The young man had to be satisfied with writing his father a letter urging him to take courage and die for Christ, saying, “Take heed not to change your mind on our account.” For the rest of his life, Origen greatly desired to imitate his father’s martyrdom, and exhorted his students at the school of Alexandria to aspire to such an end.
Leonidas’s wealth having been confiscated by the state, Origen supported his family by secular teaching, which he was able to give up once a wealthy woman began to support them all. When Clement left Alexandria because of the persecution, Bishop Demetrius made Origen new head of the catechetical school. Though only eighteen years old, Origen was a great success and made the school all the more prestigious under his headmastership. His students were inspired by his personal example as well as his teaching; Eusebius calls him Adamantius, “Man of Steel,” because of his strict asceticism.
Around this time, Eusebius tells us, Origen castrated himself, “both to fulfill the Savior’s saying [Matthew 19:12], and also that he might prevent all suspicion of shameful slander on the part of unbelievers (for, young as he was, he used to discourse on divine things with women as well as men).” Unfortunately, if predictably, most people who have heard of Origen only know of him in connection with this incident.
On the one hand, Eusebius was sympathetic to Origen and had no reason himself to make up something that would have hurt his reputation. On the other hand, Eusebius says this story was initially leaked by Bishop Demetrius, who, as we will see, came to have a vendetta against Origen. More significantly, this action would have been totally contrary to Origen’s highly allegorical reading of Scripture; in his own writings Origen derides a literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12 and similar passages, going so far as to describe such self-mutilation as a “great crime.” It may be doubted, then, whether he truly did castrate himself; but if he did, it was out of a misguided, youthful zeal we can be sure he came to regret later.
Origen was the head of the school of Alexandria from 203 to 231. He taught not just orthodox Christians, but heretics and pagans as well. For a time he taught preparatory courses such as dialectics, physics, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, Greek philosophy, and speculative theology, but he eventually delegated these subjects to his student Heraclas so that he could focus on instructing the advanced students in philosophy, theology and Scripture.
Origen must have been extraordinarily disciplined. He found time in the midst of his teaching duties to attend the lectures of Ammonius Saccas, the founder of Neoplatonism and teacher of Plotinus. He also wrote a staggering amount—hundreds, perhaps thousands of works—with the help of a large staff of clerks and assistants to whom he dictated.
In 212 he traveled to Rome, “desiring to see the most ancient Church of the Romans,” where he met the priest and theologian St. Hippolytus. Shortly after, he also made trips to Arabia to teach the Roman governor there, and to Antioch at the request of the current Emperor’s mother, who wished to hear him speak.
Persecution and looting by the Emperor Caracalla led Origen to leave Alexandria in 215. He went to Palestine and preached at the request of several of the bishops there (of Caesarea and Jerusalem among others). His own bishop, Demetrius, was displeased with a layman preaching in the presence of bishops and summoned him back to Alexandria.
Fifteen years later, in 230, Origen returned to Caesarea on his way to Greece. While he was there, Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, and Theoctistus, bishop of Caesarea, ordained him to the priesthood so there could be no objection to his preaching. This made Demetrius even angrier; Eusebius speculates he was jealous of Origen’s influence. He deposed Origen from his headship of the school and from the priesthood, and excommunicated him from the church of Alexandria. (In light of later controversies, it is perhaps worth noting that St. Jerome says that this excommunication was not because of Origen’s doctrine.)
Origen went to Caesarea, and with the help of Theoctistus founded a new school, where he taught from 231-254. From the farewell address of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (particularly chapters 13-15), we learn that the instruction at Caesarea was modeled closely after that of the school of Alexandria, and that he made his students read “every one of the writings of the ancients, whether philosophers or poets, excepting and rejecting nothing (for we had not the necessary discrimination), save only those of the atheists, who…deny the existence of God or Providence.”
Aside from these, he introduced his students to all the schools of philosophy so that they would not get stuck, before they had the capacity to judge, in any one set of opinions, or become too attached to any one teacher other than God and the prophets. Gregory also notes that in contrast to many philosophers of the day, Origen’s ethical teaching was primarily practical in nature, and that he taught even more by the example of his life than by words.
Around 244 Origen travelled again to Arabia, where he convinced Bishop Beryllus of Bostra to abandon monarchianism (an anti-Trinitarian heresy). He was imprisoned and tortured during the Decian persecution of 251, and died at Tyre shortly after being released, at the age of sixty-nine (c. 254)—what might be called a martyr’s death.
Philosopher or Christian?
In comparison to his predecessor Clement, Origen at first seems less concerned with philosophy. In a letter to his student Gregory, he says that philosophy is merely a precursor to the study of Scripture. Clement cites pagan poets and philosophers constantly, while Origen rarely does so.
But as seldom as Origen cites the pagan philosophers, their influence upon him is significant. There has been an ongoing debate since the Origenist controversies over whether he was more of a philosopher or a Christian. It would be accurate to call him a Christian Platonist; he made a sincere attempt to express the Christian truths in Platonic language, whatever tensions between the two there were. Rowan Greer even goes so far as to call him one of the founders of Neoplatonism along with Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus. His errors are distinctly Neoplatonic: the eternal creation of the world, the pre-existence of the soul, and the ultimate salvation of all intelligent creatures.
Yet while his most well-known work, First Principles, has led him to be seen down the centuries as more of a philosopher than a Churchman, those familiar with the breadth of his writings aver that his other works, such as the treatises on prayer and martyrdom and most of all the Scriptural commentaries, show another side of this great thinker. His commitment to the ideal of martyrdom shows him a true Christian.
While he was alive and during the century and a half after his death, Origen was enormously influential. Contemporaries and pupils who regarded him highly included St. Firmilian of Caesarea, St. Alexander of Jerusalem, St. Hippolytus of Rome, St. Dionysius of Alexandria, and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. Even after his writings began to come under suspicion, St. Athanasius and St. Augustine advocated a generous reading, since speculative theology was then a new frontier. St. Jerome lists St. Eusebius of Verceil, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Victorinus of Pettau among Origen’s imitators.
Rowan Greer writes that “his influence upon the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century means that he is an important source for the theology that became the classical articulation of Christian spirituality”: through St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Basil, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, Origen influenced Evagrius of Pontus, the Pseudo-Dionysius and John Cassian, “and so too all Christian monasticism, both Eastern and Western” [Origen, p. xvi].
Despite Origen’s vast influence, his reputation suffered in the following centuries. He had had a few critics around 300 A.D., such as Methodius of Olympus and St. Peter of Alexandria, against whom he was defended by St. Pamphilus of Caesarea. But the real downturn in his fortunes resulted from two major “Origenist controversies” involving not just theological debate but ecclesiastical action, personal politics, and a number of issues irrelevant to Origen himself. In both cases, disputes between Origenists and anti-Origenists in monastic communities caught the attention of the religious and secular authorities.
Around 400, Epiphanius of Salamis condemned Origen in a synod held near Constantinople, while Pope Anastasius condemned his works in a council. Around the same time Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, began persecuting the so-called Origenist monks, whom he had previously supported. Four of these, the "Tall Brothers," went to Constantinople to ask the help of St. John Chrysostom; this started a conflict between Chrysostom and Theophilus which led to Chrysostom being deposed as bishop.
St. Jerome, who had praised and defended Origen in a letter fifteen years earlier (even attributing all criticism of Origen to the jealousy of those less accomplished), took the side of the anti-Origenists in this controversy. When his opponent Rufinus pointed out that Jerome himself had translated some of Origen’s works, he protested that he had excised what he deemed harmful (the doctrine) and kept only what he deemed valuable (the Scriptural interpretation).
During the second major controversy, the Emperor Justinian wrote an imperial edict including ten propositions of Origen’s to be anathematized, which was signed by Pope Vigilius and all the patriarchs just before the beginning of the Fifth General Council (the Second Council of Constantinople) in 553. The council made some mention of Origen, but whether he was really condemned as part of the council itself is still debated.
Matters are complicated by the fact that these actions were in response to a proliferation of monks holding to forms of “Origenism” that may have had little to do with Origen’s own doctrines. At any rate, large categories of his works and the works of writers influenced by him (such as Evagrius of Pontus) were destroyed.
It cannot be denied that some of Origen’s ideas are contrary to Catholic doctrine, but these were declared heretical only centuries after his death. He himself submitted his writings entirely to the judgment of the Church:
O Church! If I who seem to be your right hand, bearing the name of priest and preaching the Word of God, should ever offend against your canon and your Rule of Faith, thus giving scandal: Let then the Universal Church in unanimous accord cut off me, her right hand, and cast me away from her. (Hom. in Josua 7.6)
His reputation was rehabilitated in the twentieth century by Henri de Lubac, confirmed by citations in papal encyclicals, in the Catechism and in two Wednesday audiences devoted to him by Pope Benedict XVI.
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