Thoughts about Origen: Deviant Doctrine (Part 3)

3. Abiding in the Doctrine of Christ


Origen Adamantius, I don’t quiet know how to value the beauty of one icon over another; but Macrina Walker assures me this is a step up from the previous two I posted. Click image to enlarge.

“Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn 1:9).

Origen’s impact on the early church, even extending to present day evangelical thinking, cannot be understated. As discussed above many of his contributions where of great value and laid a firm foundation for others to subsequently build upon.

It is now to his doctrinal views which went beyond the apostolic teaching that we turn. This paper does not have scope to deal with every theologically errant view however I will evaluate those I feel are most relevant and demonstrate how his doctrinal influence reaches beyond the early church – even to the present day.

3.1. Mystical Mystifications

Clement reigned as bishop of Alexander until 202 AD when he was forced to flee due to persecution. He was formally training in philosophy and actively “sought to reconcile two worlds, to persuade Christians of the wisdom of Greek philosophy, and to persuade philosophers of the truth of Christianity… …Clement read Scripture as more allegorical than literal” (Roy 13:2012).

Under Clement’s oversight the Catechetical School in Alexander had “become famous for its use of the allegorical method in biblical interpretation” (Pillay 16:1999) “An allegory is a symbolic representation… …and is usually resorted to when the literal sense seems unacceptable to the interpretator” (Ryrie 125:1999).

It was this school of thought which birthed the mind of Origen and his more fanciful (heretical by another name) doctrines spring out of his use of allegory.

3.2. Erroneous Eschatology

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

The Last Judgment is a canonical fresco by the Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo. It is a depiction of the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. Click image to enlarge.

Up until Origen the early church had stressed a literal hermeneutic. As such the Fathers were premillennialists (they expected Christ’s imminent return followed by a literal 1000 year reign). According to Ryrie Origen was the first to spiritualise the future kingdom, understanding “it to be the present Church age from Adam on. This amillennial eschatology was popularised by Augustine” (Ryrie 520:1999).

All Covenantalists, who apply an allegorical interpretation to unfulfilled prophecy as it applies to the nation of Israel, can therefore trace Origen as their theological forbearer.

3.3. Anti-Accepted Atonement

In his wonderful book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (which ironically is an allegory), in chapter 14, titled The Triumph of the Witch, C.S. Lewis depicts Aslan, the lion, suffering young Edmund’s penalty by paying the price for him to the White Witch (Lewis 150 – 161:2005).

Origen held that in “the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, Satan established control over man…. …Satan now is the governing power in the world.” The ransom therefore “must have been paid to the evil one, for it was he who held us captive until the ransom, namely, the soul of Jesus, was paid” (Erickson 793:1988).

The Biblical view, called The Satisfaction Theory is that the atonement was as compensation to the Father. The key verse being, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:23). The concept has been articulated so beautifully in the hymn In Christ Alone (Getty 2001) as:

Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live

3.4. Sacrilegious Souls

What got Origen branded as a heretic was his views on the pre-existence of the human soul. He taught God created spiritual intelligences before the foundation of the world. At first devoted to their creator over time these created beings’ first love waned. Those whose love diminished most became demons, those whose love diminished less became human and those whose love diminished least became angels.

The charge against him was comprehensive and spanned numerous councils and anathemas however the key indictment reads, “IF anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema” (IMSB 2012).

3.5. Unorthodox Universalism

Rob Bell

baaaaaa, baaaaaa, bleated the wolf (picture is of Rob Bell). Click image to enlarge.

William Barclay, the prominent Church of Scotland theologian, boldly declared, “I am a convinced universalist” (Barclay 65 – 67:1977). By this he expressed belief “that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.” In the same paragraph he writes “Origen was the great name connected with universalism… …Origen did not eliminate hell; he believed that some people would have to go to heaven via hell.”

Origen’s influence and legacy continues to this day. Rob Bell, in his New York Times Bestseller Love Wins (Bell 2011), writes, “Whatever objections a person may have of [the Universal Reconciliation view], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it.”

4. Conclusion

Origen towers in history as an academic giant and dedicated scholar. He should be remembered for the contributions that he made to textual criticism, exegesis, systematics and other practical theologies.

Negatively, his desire to be relevant to the society around him (specifically the Hellenistic Greek academics) meant he sacrificed the apostolic tradition. His method of approach to Scripture, allegory, resulted in many heresies spilling off his pen.

Origen’s was a massively influential figure in the early church and his impact can be felt even today as the church continues to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3).


11 thoughts on “Thoughts about Origen: Deviant Doctrine (Part 3)

  1. We should not overlook the position of ‘Christus Victor’ (Gustav Aulen), “The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death and the devil.” This would be of course more Incarnational. There are now many so-called ‘paleo-orthodox evangelicals’ here. This has much truth in it, but it does not overcome the truth of Christ’s death as vicarious, as St. Paul states: “The One not knowing sin, He made sin on behalf of us, that we might become the righteousness of God in HIM.” (2 Cor. 5:21, lit. Greek) Indeed the “Death of Christ” (His person, as the Lamb of God, the perfect One) is the value of the Atonement or ‘Expiation’ – HE is Himself the “mercy-seat” (Rom. 3:25), the place and person of conciliation, or again expiation before God, on behalf of sinners!

    • ‘Jesus’s incarnation saves. The incarnation of the Son of God is an essential precondition for his saving work, as Paul shows in Philippians 2:5–9:

      Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.’ – Robert Peterson

    • My intent in putting forward Origen’s understanding of Ransom Theory – and I guess Christus Victor (which I had never heard of until Steve and Macrina started talking to me) – was to show how Origen’s theology impacted the church even to the present.

      I myself hold to a penal substitutionary view of the atonement. I guess regarding Soteriology I’m classically Reformed.

      • @Mark: Indeed I am Reformed also, but as an Anglican I can also see that the depth of the “Atonement” is really beyond us! But I too have studied just about everybody on the Atonement or Death of Christ…from Abelard, Anselm, Athanasius, Grotius, to Augustine, even Aquinas etc (Of course Calvin and Luther, I even wrote my D. Phil., on Luther’s Ontology of the Cross). To the more modern Aulen, Dale, Denney, Mozley, Lidgett, Forsyth, Baillie, Fairbairn. As too the Ethical Satisfaction theories…McLeod, Campbell, Moberly and Garvie. Not to mention the Moral Infuence people, Rashdall, etc. Even the Mystical Theories…John Caid, Westcott (Anglican). The lists, people and categories are out there! Note too, Psychology and the Doctrine of the Atonement, as too just other so-called Representative Thinkers here.

        Two of my favorites are James Denney and P.T. (Peter Taylor) Forsyth! I like James Denney’s statement: “I have often wondered whether we might not say that the Christian doctrine of the Atonement just meant that in Christ God took the responsibility of evil upon himself, and somehow subsumed evil under good.” And of course only God In Christ could do this!

        • Btw, Mark, you can see that I don’t believe in the idea that God the Father looked-away (“propitiated”) and poured out His personal wrath on His Son! As you can see I believe it best as “expiation” (satisfaction). Surely Christ bore the “wrath of God for sin”, and GOD did look away, but never in the ontology of the Triune Persons…And God the Father gave the Son, “through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God” (Heb. 9: 14). Amazing and quite beyond our mental ability, at least fully!

          • I’m with you regarding the unfathomablility of the atonement. Paul’s doxology at the end of Romans 11 sums up my thinking nicely.

            Are you near Ballycastle? Aware of the conference that’s happening there next month?

            • No, Mark, I am in the USA right now, actually about the last three years or so, because of my wife’s health. She has chronic COPD, and likes both the American doctors and medical (which we pay for). But the weather in Southern California is to her liking also. (Hopefully we will get to move to Canada..Victoria sometime? God is sovereign!) Note too, I am semi-retired, mostly now I do hosptial chaplain work. But,I do get to preach some, mostly with Lutherans, and the FV (Federal Vision) Presbyterians. Most of the Anglicans around us are Anglo-Catholic, of which I was somewhat years ago. Btw, I confess I am closer to Luther on the sacraments. And I am even close to the EO on Mary, Ever-Virgin (as was Luther and Calvin, and later even the Wesley brothers. Mary is the Theotokos (God-bearer). But I don’t pray to her.

              Love all the doxology in Holy Scripture! (Jude, 24-25) :)

  2. Hi Mark,

    I really don’t know how to respond – the worlds are really very far apart!

    For starters, I fear that your sources my be less-than-entirely accurate. St Clement was not bishop of Alexandria but a lay theologian – traditionally thought to have been head of the catechetical school, although the reality may be a little more complex than that.

    More fundamentally, however, to see him as as responsible for inventing allegorical interpretation is simply not true. Allegorical interpretation was alive and well in Jewish thought and taken over by the early Christians almost without pause. While Alexandria (in both its Jewish and Christian guises) did have a particular tendency towards it, it is rooted in Scripture itself as – ironically enough – your recent post on the children Sarah and the children of Hagar amply illustrates. Not only St Paul, but also the evangelists read the Old Testament as referring to a present reality.

    Moreover, the – largely Protestant, as far as I can see – objection to allegory seems to be rooted in a fundamental misconception of the role of Scripture in the Church. Allegory is not a way of explaining away awkward things – although it may sometimes be used for this – but is rather a way of holding us before the Mystery of Christ who is present to us in the Scriptures and of enabling us to be nourished by Him. For the Scriptures are ultimately not an armory from which to extract dogmatic arguments, but rather a source of Life insofar as they witness to and lead us to Jesus Christ Himself, who is the true Word of God Incarnate.

    If you really want to understand how the early Church read Scripture I would thoroughly recommend the fifth chapter of Fr Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery (which I summarised in detail here – the whole book is really worth getting and reading and re-reading as I never tire of saying!) and also the third chapter of Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought which is just lovely. (If you are interested, let me know and I will send you a PDF of the chapter which I have promised to send to someone else).

    I have to confess that I don’t really know what your statement about the Fathers being premillennialists means as I have never really understood (or given much attention to) Protestant speculations about the end times. Is this the same as Chiliasm? Yes, that was found in some early thinkers (most notably St Irenaeus – who we still accept despite his erroneous views) but it was viewed with suspicion and eventually regarded as heretical. But to suggest that it was the faith of the Church until Origen put an end to it is very simplistic. Apart from anything else, it is not for nothing that Apocalyptic literature was viewed with great caution in the early Church.

    I don’t really understand on what basis you are accusing Origen of scuppering the substitutionary atonement theory, given that it didn’t exist until well into the second millenium. Seeing such thinking as “biblical” is only possible if one is reading Scripture through particularly coloured spectacles. That is not to deny that Scripture (and the early Fathers) is full of the imagery of sacrifice, but that is precisely what it was – imagery, that went in various directions. And thus there are various speculations on whom the sacrifice was paid to, but that is ultimately not the point, nor is there one clearly worked out “system” but only the overwhelming conviction that Christ has destroyed the forces of death.

    On the pre-existence of souls, I basically agree with you and that is is indeed what Origen (or more precisely Origenism) was condemned for). However, I would argue that this came not as a result of his hermeneutics but rather as a result of his excessive speculation.

    On “universalism,” I agree that Origen went too far in stating as a certainty something for which we can only hope and pray. (And actually I seem to remember that the problem with Origen is not simply his faith that all people will be saved, but rather the Platonic framework of his thought). But I am really rather puzzled at the vehemence of reaction to poor old Rob Bell in the Evangelical world. I haven’t read Bell’s book (nor McLaren and company – I sometimes think I should know what they are saying, but life is too short and I suspect that I would be irritated by it if I did), but I really fail to see what the big deal is about. Why are Evangelicals so threatened at the idea that God may not want to send some people to hell? And is Christian salvation really only about avoiding hell, or securing a ticket to heaven? That just strikes me as a rather, well, a less-than-entirely Christian view of salvation.

    All that said – and excuse my longwindedness – I suspect that the worlds are still very far apart. You may, however, be interested in this short extract from NT Wright – or do you also write him off as in the same class as Rob Bell?

  3. Origen’s cosmology is complicated and controverted, but he seems to have held to a hypothesis of the preexistence of souls, before the world we know was created by God, God created a great number of spiritual intelligences. At first devoted to the contemplation and love of their creator, almost all of these intelligences eventually grew bored of contemplating God, their love for him cooling off. Those whose love for God diminished the most became demons . Those whose love diminished moderately became human souls, eventually to be incarnated in fleshly bodies. Those whose love diminished the least became angels . One, however, who remained perfectly devoted to God became, through love, one with the Word ( Logos ) of God. The Logos eventually took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary , becoming the God-man Jesus Christ . The diverse conditions in which human beings are born is actually dependent upon what their souls did in this pre-existent state. Thus what seems unfair, some being born poor and others wealthy, some sick and others healthy, and so forth, is, Origen insists, actually in a by-product of the free-will of souls. Thus, material creation is at least implicitly of a lesser ontological category than the immaterial, or spiritual, and the heavy material bodies that man assumes after the fall will eventually be cast off. Origen, however, still insisted on a bodily resurrection, but in contrast to Athenagoras, who believed that earthly bodies would be precisely reconstituted in the hereafter, Origen argued that Paul’s notion of a flourishing spiritual body is more appropriate.

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