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The Influence Of Origen On The Church Religion Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 4109 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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When considering the impact or influence that an individual has had on any particular segment of society, it is necessary to review that individual’s accomplishments and contributions. This paper will provide the reader insight into the life and contributions of one of the early church fathers – Origen (ca. 186 – 255). As one of the most controversial church fathers in the evangelical community, Origen influenced the church, both the early and modern church, through his intellectual and literary contributions which included: compiling, translating and interpreting Scripture, establishing of the first Christian university replete with the first systematic theology, and writing numerous commentaries, sermons and apologies which have been utilized for reference by numerous generations. A man’s contributions are only as good as his reputation; therefore, we must know a little about Origen of Alexandria.

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One must not reject the influence of a man based solely upon the opinions of others. The evangelical community appears to gloss over the true accomplishments and influence of Origen based on his rogue nature and the fact that he was condemned as a heretic. One evangelical professor even started his lecture on Origen by introducing him as many people’s least favorite theologian. The purpose of calling this to light is that there must be an acknowledgement that we would not be where we are as an evangelical community without the contributions of Origen. There must be an acknowledgement that Origen has been vilified by many, and therefore, when Origen is discussed it is with prejudice. Origen is described as the boy whose mother hid his clothes so that he could not be martyred [1] with his father, or the ascetic separatist who castrated himself because he misinterpreted Matthew 19:12. [2] The heretic, Origen, is judged with the light of modern thought because of his view that “even Satan will be saved” [3] or his speculation about the fall of mankind. Judgment is often cast during the introduction of Origen, prior to listing all of the accomplishments that Origen made which still impact Christianity today. Therefore, it is necessary to clarify some of those facts (yes, most appear to be factual) prior to investigating this early church father’s contributions and subsequent influence on Christianity. For just a moment, Origen will be defended and revered for his character and accomplishments so that an objective view can be made on his influence on the church.

Origen was a man of extreme self discipline, a rogue, who lived an ascetic lifestyle prior to the establishment of monastic orders. [4] Origen has some spectacular notations about his life, primarily his castration; however, “later he regretted the act and wrote that it should not be done. At the very least, it reveals the strength of his desire to overcome the flesh.” [5] Additionally, there are numerous accounts that Demetrius the bishop over Origen was extremely jealous of Origen and subsequently used his influence to slander and defame Origen. It is true that Origen had speculation about the fall of man and the ultimate demise of Satan; however, we must remember that Origen never had the benefit of a canonized New Testament. In spite of Origen’s numerous commentaries on books which would later become canonized into the New Testament, it does not appear that he ever commented on the book of Revelation. This might have been the cause of his speculation which trended toward universalism. Origen was a Biblical genius who revered Scripture and even wrote commentaries on much of the New Testament, many times needing a team of multiple scribes to capture his prolific notes. [6] It is an absolute fact that Origen was condemned as a heretic for his beliefs. Posthumously, Origen was condemned for his subordinate view of the Trinity. His condemnation as a heretic came 199 years after his death without the benefit of defense. Origen at the age of 69 had an opportunity to stand for his Christian beliefs where he would earn the name ‘Adamantius’ meaning ‘made of steel’ as a result of his persecution for his faith. [7] Origen’s muscles, sinews and joints were ripped as he was stretched on a rack in order to seek a confession. [8] Although Origen did not die during the persecution, he died shortly after from complications arising from this torture. Origen died in AD 255, roughly 112 years before the books of the New Testament were listed in Athanasius’ Easter letter and almost 200 years prior to Origen’s condemnation as a heretic. It is clear to see that his life had a lasting impact on the church if he was still an active topic of discussion two centuries after his death. With an understanding of the basics of Origen, we have to acknowledge his intellectual and literary contributions which would ultimately have an impact on the church even until today.

Origen’s father, Leonides, schooled Origen “with unusual rigor, giving him a fine education that prioritized scripture and also grounded him in the Greek liberal arts.” [9] After Leonides was martyred, Origen was forced to provide for his family by becoming a private tutor. Soon, Origen became a teacher in the church in Alexandria where he taught new converts in basic theology. Origen’s career as a teacher and Christian theologian earned him much fame and recognition and he began to travel throughout the region debating and teaching. “His brilliance soon became legendary, and pagan intellectuals from around the Mediterranean came to dispute with him.” [10] With this fame came jealousy and conflict with the Bishop of Alexandria, Demetrius, which ultimately forced Origen to move to Caesarea. It was in Caesarea where Origen began to contribute to Christianity through Scripture translation and formal Theology.

In Caeserea, Origen formalized his teaching and training when he established the region’s first Christian school of Theology. [11] The nature of the school was for the formation of Christian scholars in an ascetic environment; however, some scholars have suggested “that Origen developed in Caesarea essentially a ‘missionary’ school to educate young pagan men out of secular Greek thought and into the true Christian philosophia.” [12] Origen might have established the first center for missionary training. One of Origen’s pupils, Gregory Thaumaturgus, captured the nature of the institution in his words Origen was “instructing us in theology and the devout character.” [13] A training institution is more than just the physical structures. It requires vision, doctrine and foundation. Origen provided the vision and the works that became the keystones to Christian Theology. At the cornerstone of the School of Caesarea stood The Hexapla, a six-column Hebrew & Greek translation of the Old Testament with Origen’s annotations. Eusebius writes this about Origen’s study leading up to the formation of The Hexapla,

“So earnest and assiduous was Origen’s research into the divine words that he learned the Hebrew language, and procured as his own the original Hebrew Scriptures which were in the hands of the Jews. He investigated also the works of other translators of the Sacred Scriptures besides the Seventy [LXX].” [14] 

The first consolidated work on the Old Testament, The Hexapla would have a lasting impact on Christianity. The Hexapla was used as a reference by Jerome and Eusebius. [15] Emperor Constantine would later commission scribes to copy fifty copies of The Hexapla to be sent to the great churches throughout his empire. [16] Origen sought to provide the church with a usable translation of the Old Testament with The Hexapala in a language that the literate could understand. In addition to this six-column format, “Origen also produced a smaller Tetrapla version of the four columns most likely to be used by Christians.” [17] The often overlooked impact of his work is that it translated the Hebrew into Greek and provided a reference for generations of Christian scholars. Expounding on the foundation of the Scriptures through the cornerstone established by The Hexapla, Origen wrote the first systematic theology aptly named On First Principles. On First Principles “set forth Christian theology on a scale previously unknown to the church. He [Origen] argued powerfully for the inspiration and authority of Scripture.” [18] On First Principles appears to have been equally beneficial for the student as well as for the unbeliever. Origen wrote this handbook on Christianity as a synthesis between philosophy and Christianity which some scholars believe that “Origen wished to make available for seekers.” [19] If accurate, this provides a vision of an Origen with an evangelical nature. One notable feature of On First Principles is Origen’s focus on and apparent love for Jesus Christ. One needs only to read the opening lines of the preface of On First Principles to derive Origen’s core beliefs and see his lasting impact on Christianity. Origen writes,

“All who believe and are assured that grace and truth were obtained through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, agreeably to His own declaration, ‘I am the truth,’ derive the knowledge which incites men to a good and happy life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ.” [20] 

From this passage, one can easily see parallels to teachings which are still present in the modern day evangelical church. Additionally, Origen addresses three core principles in the preface of his work that have remained through millennia of Christian thought:

“First, that there is one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being…” [21] 

“Secondly, That Jesus Christ Himself, who came (into the world), was born of the Father before all creatures… became a man, and was incarnate although God, and while made a man remained the God which He was…” [22] 

“Then, Thirdly, the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honour and dignity with the Father and the Son. [23] “

These statements alone provide a firm Ante-Nicene view of the Trinity which, of course, has deeply impacted our orthodoxy in the 21st century. Origen argues that all Christian understanding proceeds from the teaching of Christ. Throughout On First Principles, Origen addressed topics such as Christology, anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology and hermeneutics.

Origen’s thoughts on hermeneutics and freedom of thought within his allegorical interpretive method draws some criticism from the Evangelical community today. However, “according to Origen, God had intentionally invested the Bible with multiple layers of meaning… [Where] any verse can become a rich source of Christological truth.” [24] Origen saw Scripture interpretation as a deeply personal venture into seeking God and seeing Christ on every page. More importantly, why would Origen’s allegorical method of interpretation have an impact on the church? Prior to Origen, who was not a bishop, “tradition had restricted scriptural interpretation in the churches to the ordained clergy, the bishop himself, or one of his chosen presbyters.” [25] Origen was breaking the mold of interpretation and taking it from ecclesiastical process to personal revelation. Origen’s life and literary works appeared to be trending toward the individual conscientiousness of the believer to grow in knowledge and depth; however, centuries later the papacy did much to stifle the believer’s accessibility to both the Bible and its interpretation. The Catholic Church sought to stifle the believer by withholding the interpretation Scripture at the highest level of the church – an apparent contradiction to Origen’s philosophy of proliferative information on the Bible. It is quite possible that Origen’s allegorical interpretation of Scripture enabled him to have the freedom to write such a prolific number of literary works. The sheer number of Origen’s literary works must have affected the formation of Christianity.

Origen’s literary contributions were so vast that some have numbered his works up to 6000; however, Eusebius, an Orgenian scholar, listed around 2000. [26] It is important to note that Origen’s thoughts (conveyed through his literary works), even after being condemned, have permeated Christianity to a degree that they may never be dismissed.

“All of the greatest thinkers of the patristic age were in his [Origen’s] debt, and even after his condemnation he was too deeply inserted into the fabric of Christian theologizing ever to be dismissed or forgotten. He had been the founding architect of biblical commentary as a mode of organizing Christian reflection, and no one who took the Bible seriously in the first millennium of the church was able to avoid his groundbreaking writing.” [27] 

Since the understanding that Origen’s literary works had a profound impact on Christianity is well established, it is beneficial to note the types of literary works and their respective influence.

Origen wrote a number of commentaries and sermons on both the Old Testament and on the (yet to be canonized) New Testament. Origen’s Scriptural commentaries were a unique

“genre of literature, of which he [Origen] is the first major exponent, [he] shows himself to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the text. He is able to cross-register word appearances from all over the scriptural record, an impressive feat in the days before concordances and reference tools were available.” [28] 

Origen wrote extensive commentaries on Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Isaiah, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes. Origen’s commentary seeks to bring Jesus Christ to life in the life of the reader, because “by means of divine allegory, every word on every page of scripture could be made to speak with overflowing richness about Jesus Christ, the Christian life, and the Christian’s eternal hope.” [29] Origen’s Christ-centric writings read more like a modern day sermon than a commentary. Origen also wrote on much of the New Testament books with a particular affinity to Johnnine and Pauline Scripture, and he wrote a major on the Gospel of John titled the same. It is in Origen’s Gospel of John that we see that Origen fights for the Scripture; however, he holds the Gospels in particularly high esteem. Additionally, Origen defines that “we must say that the good things the Apostles announce in this Gospel are simply Jesus.” [30] Origen identifies that the whole of the Gospel message is ‘simply’ in Jesus Christ. We cannot help but note that Origen’s views are similar to our evangelical views – separated by almost 1800 years. Also concerning the commentary on the Gospel of John, you see that Origen also portrays a keen understanding of the source of power in evangelism. Origen states,

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“[King] David says of the Apostles, perhaps also of the evangelists: “The Lord shall give the word to those that preach with great power; the King of the powers of the beloved;” teaching at the same time that it is not skillfully composed discourse, nor the mode of delivery, nor well practised eloquence that produces conviction, but the communication of divine power.” [31] 

Origen’s commentary of Matthew takes on the approach of a guide for liturgical preaching. Origen is providing the church with pastoral teaching through his commentaries. The Matthean commentary was composed in twenty-five volumes (only eight remain today), and Origen’s main ideas of his commentary “made their way into more or less all other commentators of the Christian tradition.” [32] His effect on the preaching through the generations has continued through the pastoral teaching in his commentaries. In one of his most famous commentaries, Origen addresses the Song of Song using his method of allegorical interpretation. In Canticle of Canticles, Origen outlines the mystical union between the Christian church and its Bridegroom. Although most modern thought disregard this interpretation, Christians should at least acknowledge its profound impact on the concept of Christian mysticism. [33] 

In addition to his commentaries, Origen wrote a number of letters, apologies and dialogues explaining his Christian faith and doctrine. Origen’s apologetic works, the most famous of which is Against Celsus, defend vehemently the Christian faith. Origen’s “Against Celsus, a response to a pagan treatise attacking Christianity, stands as a monument of Christian apologetic.” [34] Many of Origen’s dialogues and letters also stand in defense and explanation of the Christian faith. In his letter Reply to Julius Africanus, Origen discusses the “matter of principles of establishing the canon of Christian Scriptures.” [35] The sheer number of commentaries on New Testament books would solidify Origen’s concern with the canonization of the New Testament, yet he defends the necessity of affirming the works of the apostles in his dialogue. We have benefitted from Origen’s faithfulness to the New Testament letters through his influence in the canonization process of the New Testament.

Origen’s life might have been ascetic, but his commentaries were opulent and filled with a genuine love for the words of God and the Word of God. At least in some part, Origen has survived through this same passion in the evangelical community. Origen through his intellectual contributions started the solidification of Christian doctrine through the formation of the first Christian university, founded on the first written systematic theology. The foundation that Origen paved established a doctrinal basis which served as a starting point for the early church especially with regard to the Trinity and Christology. Origen’s passion for seeing Christ in every page of Scripture led him to pursue an allegorical method of interpretation which can still be useful when coupled with current Hermeneutical practices; nevertheless, Origen’s genius opened up the beauty of the Scriptures and allows Christians to see Christ in difficult texts like Leviticus. Origen’s prolific commentaries provided a genre of literary works which have continued to this day and have impacted Christians by providing a guide for liturgical preaching. Origen’s apologies have stood as the template for defense of the faith. Today we still refer to Origen’s Against Celsus as an apologetic worthy of emulation. Together with Athanasius’ Easter Letter, Origen’s selection of books with which to write commentaries on was instrumental in the canonization of the New Testament as we know it today. Even though the majority of Origen’s works were destroyed in 543 as a result of being condemned as a heretic, Origen’s remaining work is still relevant to the evangelical community – even for purposes of debate and dispute. Most would find the majority of his work uplifting and possibly even edifying. The character of Origen is a sad reality of the humanity of fallen man. Origen, in spite of his best efforts, was still a man; however, one might challenge whether or not his heart and passion (seemingly even for evangelism) as well as his intellectual works are not still present in the modern day church. Origen – one of the most controversial church fathers, influenced the church, both the early and modern church, through his intellectual and literary contributions which included; compiling, translating and interpreting Scripture, establishing of the first Christian university replete with the first systematic theology, and by writing numerous commentaries, sermons and apologies which have been utilized for reference by numerous generations.


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