Origen of Alexandria (c. AD 185-254) was a third century Christian scholar, teacher, and theologian. Well studied in Hellenistic philosophies, Origen was the founder of the Christian School of Caesarea, where he taught theology to a primarily pagan audience, using courses in Socratic reasoning and natural history as foundational elements.
Origen produced hundreds of writings, including homilies, commentaries, and apologetic refutations of both Gnosticism and pagan criticisms of Christianity. Most prominent among Origen’s works are his treatise, De Principiis (On First Principles), which is regarded as the first systematic exposition of Christian theology, and Hexapla (Sixfold), an interlinear production of the Hebrew Old Testament, Greek Septuagint, and other Greek translations.
During his lifetime, Origen drew criticism both from within the church and from the Roman Empire. Origen, having been denied ordination by Demetrius, Bishop of Alexandria, preached as a layperson during his journeys. On one such journey, Origen was ordained in Caesarea, which drew the ire of Demetrius, prompting him to strip Origen of his ordination and banish him from Alexandria. During the persecution of Christians under Emperor Decius, Origen was imprisoned and tortured. He was set free after the death of Decius, and succumbed to his injuries a few years later.
Origen was a strict ascetic, choosing to forsake earthly pleasures for the sake of spiritual purity. In addition to abstaining from meat and wine, Origen was also known to forego simple luxuries, owning neither shoes nor a bed. The Roman historian Eusebius also recorded Origen as having been voluntarily castrated, upon a literal reading of Matthew 19:12, in order that he may teach women without scandal. Some scholar’s debate this report, citing Origen’s commentary on Matthew, in which he derides literal interpretation of this verse and describes acting upon it as an “outrage”.
Theology and Doctrine
Our best source for Origen’s theology is the aforementioned De Principiis, in which he described scripture as God’s Word, incapable of error, yet also sought to address what he perceived to be textual or logical errors within scripture. Origen reconciled the paradox of errors within the inerrant by proposing that just as God created man in His image consisting of body, soul, and spirit; so too should His word be interpreted in a threefold manner of literal history, moral instruction, and spiritual allegory.
While De Principiis affirmed the most fundamental teachings of Christianity, including a creator God, the divinity and physical incarnation of Jesus, and the emerging recognition of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, it simultaneously merged these Christian doctrines with Platonic ideas, inviting even contemporaries of Origen to question his orthodoxy. Deferring to a spiritual, allegorical interpretation of scripture over a literal one wherever possible, Origen produced a number of teachings which, as Christian orthodoxy further solidified, became increasingly marked with controversy.
A well-known example is Origen’s interpretation of the Biblical creation account. Origen taught that the creation story could not be read literally, citing the presence of evenings and mornings, darkness and light, prior to the creation of the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. By contrast, Origen taught that Genesis records two creation accounts; the first being the creation of free-willed spirits, including those who would eventually become humans. Paradoxically, drawing on established Platonic ideas, he presented these souls as both created and eternally pre-existing. The second creation, Origen taught, followed the first when some of the spirits rejected God; the most depraved becoming demons, and the remainder becoming humans when the material world was created.
Further, while Origen taught a triune understanding of God, he did not teach coequality among the three Persons of the Trinity. The Logos of God, as understood by Origen (and influenced by his Platonic education), was the source of all rational thought, logic, and creative power. Origen taught that Jesus, eternally pre-existing as a soul, and remaining unfallen, was always fully human, but that he took on a divine nature when his eternal soul was united with the Logos of God. Thus, Origen claimed, while God created all things through the Logos (the Son), the Son was not equal to the Father. Similarly, Origen taught that the Holy Spirit, an indwelling of God’s presence in all people, was necessary to the work of salvation, was not shown in scripture to have been created or finite. However, even concluding that the Holy Spirit had the characteristics of both personhood and divinity, Origen viewed the Spirit as subordinate to both the Son and the Father.
Origen also promoted the doctrine of Universalism. Believing that spiritual life was a process by which all souls, humans and demons alike, were progressively ascending to sanctification by the purging of divine fire, Origen taught that eventually all could be saved, and creation would then be restored to its intended non-material state. However, Origen did not believe Heaven was absolute and final, maintaining that because of the inherent free will of created souls, the capacity for another fall would always be present.
Origen is credited with being the first Christian theologian, and his ascetic lifestyle greatly influenced monastic traditions in subsequent centuries. Origen’s pioneering work and his voluminous writings are recognized by his supporters and critics alike as having a profound influence on the direction of the early church, particularly in the Eastern traditions. Eusebius, writing within a century of Origen’s death, viewed him favorably, and others scholars and teachers of the time built upon Origen’s work.
Most notable among Origen’s followers was Athanasius of Alexandria. Influenced by Origen’s Christology, Athanasius defended the doctrine of the Trinity against Arius (which teaches that the Son is begotten, neither co-equal nor co-eternal with the Father) at the First Council of Nicaea.
As Christian theology and orthodoxy developed in subsequent centuries, Origen’s teachings increasingly were rejected by the church. Jerome, writing in the late fourth century, vehemently opposed Origen’s teachings, and by the sixth century, at the Council of Constantinople in 553, Origen had been declared a heretic by the church.