Atonement Egypt Jesus (as) Trinity


The life, works and beliefs of this early Christian theologian.

52 The Review of Religions – August 2005 Origen (c.185-254 CE) wasone of the most influential Christian teachers and philo- sophers of his time. His views and teachings had a profound effect at a time when Christianity was still trying to break loose from Judaism and form its own identity. Moreover, at this time, the concept and nature of Jesus(as) was also under scrutiny and there was no common understanding on this subject across the Christian world. This article attempts to explore the environment into which he emerged, his teachings, and the impact they had on the development of Christian teach- ing and thought. Our main sources about him come from a few quotations preserved from his writings, and the History of the Church written by Eusebius at the start of the 4th century which has the best part of an entire chapter (Book VI : Severus to Decius: The work of Origen: widespread persecution) largely dedicated to Origen. The fact that Eusebius was writing about the first 300 years of Christianity, and that he chose to devote the greater part of one of his ten chapters to Origen, illustrates the huge impact that Origen had on the development of Christianity at a crucial stage in its devel- opment. His Background Origen was born into a devoted Christian family in 185 CE and grew up in Alexandria, modern northern Egypt in the second century of Christianity. As a boy, his family encouraged him to study Biblical texts and memorise them, just as young Muslim boys do today. His interest soon went beyond the literal verses to the deeper meaning of the texts. Whilst this level of critical study was not always encouraged at the time (the common perception was that many meanings were beyond human comprehension, and therefore Christians must not question the Scriptures), his Origen By Fazal Ahmad – UK 53 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 family were delighted by his studious attitude. At this time, Christianity was spreading across the Mediterranean region, with centres across the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe. It was during the life- time of Origen that the official date of Easter was first set. Also, the term ‘catholic’ was first coined. More importantly, while he was a youth, the New Testament Canon (othordox b o o k s ) was fixed for the first time. There would have been much debate about which books should or should not have been included in that Canon, and this would have influenced his study in later life as we will see. As Christianity sought to distance itself from its Jewish roots and grew in stature, it also became more of a threat to the Roman Empire. Under the persecution of Emperor Severus, Leonides (father of Origen) was arrested and imprisoned. While in captivity, his young son Origen (just 18 at the time) also wanted to join him and had a zeal for martyrdom, but his mother held him back. Instead, Origen then wrote to his father saying: ‘Mind you don’t change your mind on our account.’ (Eusebius VI, p.180) This illustrates the passion that Origen had from a very young age for his faith. His father Leonides was beheaded in 203 CE while Origen was still very young. This was just one of many sacrifices that the Christians of Egypt made, and must have had a lasting impression on Origen. He was now left to try to look after his widowed mother and as many as six younger brothers. He was able to study under the theologian and philosopher Ammonius Saccas who also taught Plotinus. He learned Hebrew such that he could study the Old Testament in its original form. He decided to lead a simple life, and for years denied himself worldly goods which were being offered to him by his community. 54 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 He chose to walk the streets of Alexandria without shoes, ate the minimum of food, and stayed away from wine. He also enhanced his spiritual mood through fasting. So while training himself in the Scriptures, he also heightened his own spiritual state to a level that inspired his students. He began to write (or rather dictate) many books on Christianity, and some sources suggest he wrote as many as 2000 books. He wrote on a variety of subjects including Christian Doctrine and the Nature of Jesus(as). One of his most well-known books is Contra Celsum (Against Celsus). Note – Celsus had written against Christianity, and Origen’s work was a comprehensive response and defence of Christianity. He also wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. When we refer to the Bible, we mean that collection of Gospels and letters which is today accepted as the New Testament; however at the time of Origen, there were many books held as authentic by groups across the Church. Different scholars had their own views on what was authentic, and which were apocryphal (not authentic). Origen illustrates this point in a debate over which books were considered authentic by various churches: ‘… this work (The Teaching of Peter) is not included among ecclesiastical books. For we can show that it was composed neither by Peter nor by any other person inspired by the Spirit of God.’ (Origen 4.241). Origen was studying his faith at a time when the Canonical Books of the Church were still disputed. As we will see later, he also had a thirst for knowledge and so readily studied books outside the pale of the Orthodox Gospels. Origen also became the Teacher of Catechumens (people being taught about the faith prior to their baptism) at the Church of Alexandria. Many students came to him for advice and to learn about the faith. After a while, he 55 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 began to focus on more advanced study and teaching scholars, and delegated teaching new adherents (catechumens) to his colleague Heracles (Williamson p.400). Origen’s Work Origen taught many people who approached him for advice. One of these was Gregory T h a u m a t u rgus who wrote of Origen around 255 CE (just after he died) : ‘With respect to these human teachers, indeed, he counselled us to attach ourselves to none of them – not even if they were attested as most wise by all men. Rather, he counselled us to devote ourselves to God alone and to the prophets.’ (Gregory 6.36) So he was very open-minded and encouraged his students to study diverse sources as Gregory testifies: ‘No subject was barred, nothing was kept from us … SOME BOOKS OF ORIGEN Comentarii: In Canticum Canticorum In Matthaeum In Ioannem (Commentaries of many Biblical books such as the Song of Songs, Matthew and John.) Contra Celsum (Against Celsus) De Oratione (On Prayer) De Principiis (On First Principles) Exhortatio ad Martyrium (A Call to Martyrdom) Homiliae: In Genesin In Exodum In Librum Iesu Nave In Lucam In Ioannem Fragmenta (Sermons on Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, John and many others). Selecta: In Exodum In Ezechielem (Selected comments on Exodus, Ezekiel etc.) 56 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 We were allowed to make ourselves familiar with all kinds of doctrine, from Greek and Eastern sources, on spiritual or secular subjects, ranging freely over the whole field of learning.’ (Bettenson, p.19) In studying the Bible, Origen was not content to accept the standard line, or to view texts as perfect. He knew that he was dealing with variations of the Bible both in terms of translation and actual content. Eusebius writes about him: ‘Moreover, he hunted out the published translations of Holy Writ other than the Septuagint … he discovered several alternative trans- lations. These had been lost for many years – I do not know where – but he hunted them out of their hiding places and brought them to light. These were wrapped in mystery, and he had no idea who wrote them: the only thing he could say was that he found one at Nicopolis near Actium and the other at some similar place.’ (Eusebius, VI, 16) We cannot be sure which ver- sions of the Bible he discovered. At a guess, he was looking at Gospels which are now considered to be Apocryphal or unauthentic, such as the Gospel of Thomas, because they deviate f r om the accepted norms of C h r i s t i a n i t y. Living in Alexandria, he is highly likely to have come across Gnostic texts, and possibly even some of the Dead Sea S c r o l l s . One of the greatest pieces of work that Origen did was in the area of Biblical textual studies. He recognised the variances between different versions of the Old Testament. So he decided to lay out six versions side by side in what came to be known as his H e x a p l a (sixfold). In this, he laid down the versions of the H e b r e w text, a Greek transliteration, A q u i l a ’s literal version, the Septuagint, Symachus’ Greek version and Theodotion’s revision. This allowed discre- 57 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 pancies to become more appar- ent. This mammoth effort took almost 25 years to complete. In p a r t i c u l a r, he used this approach to look for a deeper meaning within the text. His style, now known as allegorical inter- pretation, acknowledged that beneath the literal meaning of any given verse, there must be a deeper spiritual meaning. O r i g e n ’s Beliefs In the third century of C h r i s t i a n i t y, scholars were trying to understand the nature of J e s u s( a s ). There was confusion over whether he was a Jew or not, whether he was human or divine, and what happened to him after the crucifixion. The historian, Gwatkin, describes the dilemma in the following w o r d s : ‘Either Christ is in the fullest sense divine, or else he is not. If he is, the Christians worship two gods: if he is not, they worship a creature. Either way there was no escape from the charge of polytheism.’ (Gwatkin, Vol. II, p.183) Origen exhaustively studied the nature of Jesus( a s ). He appeared to test the concept of Trinity to its limits in a way that would draw others later to question the concept altogether, as one scholar s a y s : ‘… he seems to stress the distinctions in the Trinity at the expense of the Unity; to subordinate the Son too definitely; and to limit the activity of the Spirit.’ (Bettenson, p.21) SO ORIGEN CLEARLY SEEMED TO IMPLY THAT JESUS(AS) WAS SUBSERVIENT TO GOD (THE FATHER). PERHAPS HE HAD ONLY DEVELOPED THE IDEA TO THE EXTENT THAT JESUS(AS) WAS LESS DIVINE THAN THE FATHER (GOD), BUT HIS CONCEPTS WERE HEADING TOWARDS A VIEW THAT OTHER MONOTHEISTS WOULD BE ABLE TO ACCEPT. ‘ ’ 58 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 In his book On First Principles, Origen betrayed his doubts about the Trinity as he wrote: ‘In regard to him {Jesus} it is not yet clearly known whether he is to be thought of as begotten or unbegotten, or as being himself also a Son of God or not.’ (Origen, De Principiis, I, Preface 4) He goes on: ‘The God and Father, who holds the universe together, is superior to every being that exists, for He imparts to each one from His own existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone.’ (Origen, De Principiis 1.3.5) Trinity was not a concept that Jesus(as) had himself talked about, so it was even harder for the scholars that followed to make sense of it. Origen settled for a notion of the Logos (the Spirit) and the human soul co-existing. He believed that at his birth, Jesus’ human soul was united with the Logos. In the body of Jesus (as), he believed that the soul and the Logos became closer to the extent that his soul began to share the properties of the Logos. However, as we have just seen, Origen also insisted that the Logos was subservient to the Father (God). So Origen clearly seemed to imply that Jesus(as) was subservient to God (the Father). Perhaps he had only developed the idea to the extent that Jesus(as) was less Divine than the Father (God), but his concepts were heading towards a view that other monotheists would be able to accept. This was the seed that Arius picked up on many years later. He took the ideas further to show that J e s u s( a s ) was created by the Father and was therefore not just subservient to the Father (God) but was also not eternal, i.e. he 59 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 was created at a point in time. The views of Arius led to the formulation of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in Turkey in 325 CE as a reaction to what the Church regarded as ‘heresies’ such as this. He was later accused for not accepting the resurrection of the body of Jesus( a s ) (Jerome, Adv. Ioann. Hier., 7) as again he struggled with this. Whilst O r i g e n ’s own interpretation was vague, it highlights the uncertainty that existed at this time amongst the greatest Christian minds over concepts which are now taken for granted in the Christian world. If these were unclear just 200 years after the life of Jesus( a s ), this casts doubt over them. Modern Christianity has the view that only those that accept Christ can enter heaven, and all of the rest of mankind are doomed to hell. Origen was a ‘universalist’ in that he believed that God’s power was overriding, and that u l t i m a t e l y, all men would be saved, whether they accepted Christ or not. Those that had been unable to perform good deeds in this life could be ‘purified by fire’ in the next life and eventually achieve salvation. This is dif- ferent to current Christian thinking where failing to accept Christ in this world is believed to lead to eternal damnation. Atonement was also a new and strange concept in Christianity. Origen stuggled with it. He decided that if Jesus(as) had died on the Cross as a ransom for mankind, that ransom would have to be paid to the devil as God would not be holding mankind (His own creation) to ransom. This is illustrative of a range of diverging concepts which emerged in the first four centuries of Christianity as followers could not understand concepts such as Trinity and Atonement. Falling out with the Church As discussed, there were several schools of thought emerging in Christianity, particularly around centres such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. None of these had global 60 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 coverage or acceptance, and this would later lead to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE at which a single doctrine would be imposed upon the Church. Origen grew out of favour with the Bishop of Alexandria, Demetrius, and was expelled from his local church in 230 CE after two Palestinian bishops (Alexander of Jerusalem and Theoctistus of Caesarea) ordained him as a layman. Some scholars such as Eusebius actually claim that Demetrius was really jealous of him (Origen was a layman who had been given greater honour than many trained Bishops of his time, and this caused envy, possibly from Demetrius himself) and hence took such drastic action. At around the same time, the Romans were responsible for another massacre known as the ‘Fury of Caracalla’ in Alexandria. A combination of these factors would have encouraged Origen to move to Palestine and up to the coastal town of Caesarea where he established a new teaching academy under the patronage of Ambrose. Origen had been engaged in Caesarea for a few years before he ended up moving there. Ambrose had already established a printing house for him with a team of writers, copyists and expert calligraphers (Bettenson, p.19). Ironically, although Origen had grown out of favour with elements of the Church, it was the Romans under Emperor Decius who imprisoned and tortured Origen, and it was this cruel fate that led to his end at Tyre a few years later in 254 CE. Influence of Origen Origen had a direct influence on many scholars that came through his academy in Caesarea, but his influence lasted well beyond his death through other scholars and philosophers such as Arius. He had written a phenomenal amount of articles and books, but following the Church Council of 553 CE2 at which he was declared a heretic, many of his works did not survive. However, there were some works which 61 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 have been preserved through translations into Latin by Jerome, Rufinus and others. Although he was later to be condemned for his views, Jerome, who compiled the first Canon, was initially very enthusiastic about this great scholar over a century after he died: ‘He stands condemned by his bishop, Demetrius, only the bishops of Palestine, Arabia, Phoenicia, and Achaia dissenting. Rome consents to his condemnation, she convenes her senate to censure him, not – as the rabid hounds who now persue him cry – because of the novelty or heterodoxy of his doctrines, but because men could not tolerate the incomparable eloquence and knowledge which, when he opened his lips, made others 62 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 seem dumb.’ (Jerome, Epistle XXXII.4) Jerome had written this around 384 CE, at a time when the Church had now become the state religion of the Roman Empire, and forced the concept of Trinity on the rest of the Church in order to create a single unified Church. The zeal and vigour with which they persued any dissenters forced them to flee into the deserts of Egypt. Luckily for Origen, he died a century before all of this took place. We also get a sense of the strength of feeling soon after in a letter by the Bishop of Rome in 400 CE to his friend Simplician in Milan: ‘ … everything written in former days by Origen that is contrary to our faith is also rejected and condemned by us.’ (Anastasius c, 400 CE) For the Christian world to have such strong feelings against Origen and his views 300 years after he had passed away, shows the strength of his influence upon early Christianity. We probably could not agree with some of the conclusions that he reached, but his quest to seek a deeper meaning and question innovative concepts shows that many of the basic tenets around Trinity and Atonement which are accepeted as basic facts 2000 years after the events of Jesus(as) were not seen in this way just 200 years after the Crucifiction. References 1. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, Ed. Bercot D . W., 1998, Hendrickson Publishers Inc., Massachusetts, USA. 2. C reeds, Councils and C o n t ro v e r s i e s, Stevenson J., 1989, SPCK, London, UK. 3. A new Eusebius, Stevenson J., 1999, SPCK, London, UK. 4. Christian Theology – an Introduction, McGrath A. E., 2001, Blackwell Publishers 63 ORIGEN The Review of Religions – August 2005 Ltd., Oxford, UK. 5. Pagans and Christians, Fox R. L., 1986, Penguin Books, London, UK. 6. Early Church History to A.D. 313, Gwatkin H. M., 1909, Macmillan and Co. Ltd., London, UK. 7. Eusebius – The History of the Church, Trans. Williamson G. A., 1989, Penguin Books, London, UK. 8. The Early Christian Fathers, Ed. Bettenson H., 1956, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 9. Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, Ed. Shanks H., 1993, SPCK, London, UK. Advertise your business in The Review of Religions and see sales scale to new heights. 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