Thoughts about Origen: Old Dead Guy with Stacks to Say (Part 1)


Origen, church father. Click image to enlarge.

This guy has been dead for almost 2000 years yet his legacy still has a voice today. I’m sure you’ve heard of him? (if not your nerdy pastor probably has) Over the next three posts I take a look at the good (this post) the bad (next post) and the ugly (last post) of the Church Father called Origen.

1. Knowing God

“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God” (Jn 17:3).

Origen’s contribution to the church was profound. He excelled “in multiple branches of theological scholarship, including textual criticism, biblical interpretation, philosophical theology, preaching, and spirituality” (Wikipedia 2012) and as such is regarded as one of the Church Fathers. Pillay and Hofmeyr affirm that he “did provide the Church with theological language and categories of thought which were to gain a permanent place in the eastern theological tradition” (18:1991).

Origen eagerly desired to know God; and this pursuit of knowledge was his greatest legacy. According to Epiphanius (277) Origen wrote about 6000 works. His literary efforts fall into four classes: 1) Textual Criticism; 2) Exegesis; 3) Systematic, Practical and Apologetic Theology; and 4) Letters.

1.1. Textual Criticism

Of the Fathers Origen was second only to Jerome in eminence regarding textual criticism. Although he never wrote definitively on the subject he made frequent references to manuscript difficulties and variant readings in his other writings.
His magnum opus was the Hexapla (which translated means ‘Six-fold’). Much like a modern parallel Bible it placed side by side the Old Testament Hebrew text and five Greek translations.

1.2. Exegesis

Origin wrote scholia, homilies and commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible. A scholia is a brief note, a commentary is “a book of explanations or expositions on the whole or a part of the Scriptures” (Webster 284:1913) and a homily is a “discourse or sermon read or pronounced to an audience; a serious discourse” (Webster 701:1913). 197 of Origen’s homilies have been preserved; 158 on Old Testament Books and 39 on Luke’s Gospel (Wikipedia 2012).

1.3. Systematic, Practical and Apologetic Theology

Origen’s attempt at systematising the theology of the early church was compiled into four volumes called On First Principles. The primary content of each volume was: 1) God, the Logos, the Holy Ghost, reason and the angels; 2) the world and man; 3) the doctrine of sin and redemption; and 4) the Scriptures (New Advent 2012). His practical writings included the works On Prayer and On Martyrdom. He wrote an eight book refutation titled Against Celsus in reply to the pagan philosopher.

1.4. Letters

It is said that Eusebius had 100 letters written by Origen and Jerome had several epistles; yet, save a few fragments, all are lost.

In my view his written work stands as Origen’s greatest redeeming quality. For all the wayward ideas he sprouted his pursuit of God must be remembered as an endearing quality worthy of commendation.

Macrina and Steve; I did think of you as I pushed enter. I would value you input… the content is more solicitory in the posts that follow.


6 thoughts on “Thoughts about Origen: Old Dead Guy with Stacks to Say (Part 1)

  1. Oh wow, a South African blogger writing on the Fathers! (Although strictly speaking as an Orthodox Christian I shouldn’t really call Origen a Father!)

    I’m a little disappointed that there is only one positive post to two negative ones, but will wait and see what the others are like…

    Also – as a fairly quick response and noting that I haven’t done anything serious with Origen for a couple of years – there are at least three additional positive points that I would make about him. The first is the witness of his life and of his devotion to Christ to the point of virtual if not actual martyrdom. The second is his teaching on prayer – his work On Prayer can be found here and in audio form here. And the third is his hermeneutical contribution, although I suspect that you may not agree with me on that.

    I would probably also be less positive than you seem to be about his systematising of theology and in particular his work in On First Principles. It is precisely his systematising and speculating work that leads him into dangerous waters – despite his own intention to be nothing other than an obedient son of the Church.

    In short, I would argue that like like St Augustine (who also had some rather dicey ideas) Origen can best be read for his teaching on the Christian life, and in particular his works on Scripture, rather than his speculative ideas.

    • I’m disappointed that I forgot to reference the martyrdom. I had read into it only last week. That’s my bad. Not talking to his character is oversight on my part; thanks for bringing it up – although I didn’t find a great deal of source data which referenced his piety.

      I devote a post to his hermeneutical position – completely different to mine. I found it absolutely fascinating but yes, we’d disagree on that one.

      I am positive of his attempt to systematise, not necessarily the content of that systematisation (which I deal with in the third post). Looks like your mind logically lays out the content the same way I would.

      St Augustine is like the hero of the Reformed movement; a precursor to Calvin (I’ve spent a great deal of time considering his construst regarding the atonement) – so I’m a bit biased in favour of him – although like Origen I’m not too keen on his hermeneutically treatment of unfulfilled prophecy as it relates to Israel (or for that matter his interpretation of the parables; his ideas relating to the Parable of the Good Samarian was bonkers).

  2. Mark: I Have De Lubac’s book: History and Spirit, The Understanding Of Scripture According to Origen, grand! Written way back in 1950, of course I have the English copy, Ignatius Press, 2007. De Lubac approaches the historical first, again a must read for those who understand the depth and importance of Origen in the Western Church. I say Western as he has been seen there mostly, though of course he was himself Eastern. There were few like this man, for sure!

    Btw, even Von Balthasar could write: “The theory of the senses of Scripture is not a curiosity of the history of theology but an instrument for seeking out the most profound articulations of salvation history..” Indeed, but we must always return to the literal sense itself!

  3. Pingback: Thoughts about Origen: A word regarding cultural relevance (Part 1) « Because He Lives

  4. One of the things I find strange about Western Theologians is that so many of them seem to take Origen as typical of the East, though in the East many of his ideas have been regarded as heretical, or verging on heresy. David Bosch was one who seemed to to so, thening to ignore that Cappadocians, for example, in favour of Origen, from whom he seemed to derive much of his understanding of Orthodox missiology. It’s the weakest part of his Transforming mission,

    • Yes, I think you’re correct. The reason I posted these was a site I frequent published a defence of a doctrine I buy into and quoted Origen as a defence of the doctrine. That got me thinking; is it acceptable for us evangelicals to pick and choose single lines from wider works without acknowledging that there might be so much more of that author’s work that we could never ascribe to. As I researched Origen that nagging question become more and more confirmed. I do accept that Origen doesn’t represent Eastern Christianity in its entirity.

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