Introductory note to the works of Origen

Part I Part II Part III

Part I


[a.d. 185-230-254.] The reader will remember the rise and rapid development of the great Alexandrian school, and the predominance which was imparted to it by the genius of the illustrious Clement.(1) But in Origen, his pupil, who succeeded him at the surprising age of eighteen, a new sun was to rise upon its noontide. Truly was Alexandria "the mother and mistress of churches" in the benign sense of a nurse and instructress of Christendom, not its arrogant and usurping imperatrix:

The full details of Origen's troubled but glorious career are given by Dr. Crombie, who in my opinion deserves thanks for the kind and apologetic temper of his estimate of the man and the sublime doctor, as well as of the period of his life. Upon the fervid spirit of a confessor in an age of cruelty, lust, and heathenism, what right have we to sit in judgment? Of one whose very errors were virtues at their source, how can a Christian of our self-indulgent times presume to speak in censure? Well might the Psalmist exclaim,(2) "Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for His mercies are great: let me not fall into the hand of man."

Justly has it been urged that to those whose colossal labours during the ante-Nicene period exposed them to hasty judgment, and led them into mistakes, much indulgence must be shown. I he language of theology was but assuming shape under their processes, and we owe them an incalculable debt of gratitude: but it was not yet moulded into precision; nor had great councils, presided over by the Holy Ghost, as yet afforded those safeguards to freedom of thought which gradually defined the limits of orthodoxy. To no single teacher did the Church defer. Holy Scripture and the quod ab omnibus were the grand prescription, against which no individual prelate or doctor could prevail, against which no see could uplift a voice, without chastisement and subjection. Over and over again were the bishops of patriarchal and apostolic sees, including Rome, adjudged heretics, and anathematized by the inexorable law of truth, and of"the faith once delivered to the saints," which not even "an angel from heaven" might presume to change or to enlarge. But before the great Synodical period (a.d. 325 to 451), while orthodoxy is marvellously maintained and witnessed to by Origen and Tertullian themselves, their errors, however serious, have never separated them from the grateful and loving regard of those upon whom their lives of heroic sorrow and suffering have conferred blessings unspeakable. The Church cannot leave their errors uncorrected. Their persons she leaves to the Master's award: their characters she cherishes, while their faults she deplores.

The great feature of the ante-Nicene theology, even in the mistakes of the writers, is its reliance on the Holy Scripture. What wealth of Scripture they lavish in their pages! We identify the Scriptures by their aid; but, were they lost in other forms, we might almost restore them from their pages. And forever is the Church indebted to Origen for the patient and encyclopedic labour and learning which he bestowed on the Scriptures in producing his Hexapla. Would that, in his interpretations of the inspired text, he had more strictly adhered to the counsels of Leonides, who was of Bacon's opinion, that the meanings which flow naturally from the holy text are sweetest and best, even as that wine is best which is not crushed out and extorted from the grape, but which trickles of itself from the ripe and luscious cluster in all its purity and natural flavour. So Hooker remarks; and his view is commonly accepted by critics, that the interpretation of a text which departeth most from its natural rendering is commonly the worst.

It is too striking an illustration of the childlike simplicity of the primitive faithful to be passed by, in Origen's history, that anecdote of his father, Leonides, who was himself a confessor and martyr: how he used to strip the bosom of his almost inspired boy as he lay asleep, and imprint kisses on his naked breast, "the temple of the Holy Ghost." That blessed Spirit, he believed, was near to his own lips when he thus saluted a Christian child, "for of such is the kingdom of heaven." From a child, this other Timothy "knew the Scriptures" indeed. His own doting father imbued him with the literature of the Greeks. but, far better, he taught him to love the lively oracles of the Lord of glory; and in these he became so proficient, even from tender years, that he puzzled his parent with his "understanding and answers," like the holy Child of Nazareth when He heard the doctors in the Temple, and also "asked them questions." In will he was also a martyr from his youth, and to the genuine spirit of martyrdom we must attribute that heroic fault of his youth which he lived to condemn in riper years, and which, evil and rash as it was, enabled the Church, once and for all, to give an authoritative interpretation to the language of the Saviour, and to guard her children thenceforth from similar exploits of pious mistake. None can doubt the purity of the motive. Few draw the important inference of the nature of the Church's conflict with that intolerable prevalence of sensuality and shameless vice which so impressed her children with the import of Christ's words, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God."

Here follows the very full account of the life of Origen by Dr. Crombie, professor of biblical criticism in St. Mary's College, St. Andrew:

Origen, surnamed Adamantinus, was born in all probability at Alexandria, about the year 185 a.d.(3) Notwithstanding that his name is derived from that of an Egyptian deity,(4) there seems no reason to doubt that his parents were Christian at the time of his birth. His father Leonides was probably, as has been conjectured,(5) one of the many teachers of rhetoric or grammar who abounded in that city of Grecian culture, and appears to have been a man of decided piety. Under his superintendence, the youthful Origen was not only educated in the various branches of Grecian learning, but was also required daily to commit to memory and to repeat portions of Scripture prescribed him by his father; and while under this training, the spirit of inquiry into the meaning of Scripture, which afterwards formed so striking a feature in the literary character of the great Alexandrine, began to display itself. Eusebius(6) relates that he was not satisfied with the plain and obvious meaning of the text, but sought to penetrate into its deeper signification, and caused his father trouble by the questions which he put to him regarding the sense of particular passages of Holy Writ. Leonides, like many parents, assumed the appearance of rebuking the curiosity of the boy for inquiring into things which were beyond his youthful capacity, and recommended him to be satisfied with the simple and apparent meaning of Scripture, while he is described as inwardly rejoicing at the signs of genius exhibited by his son, and as giving thanks to God for having made him the parent of such a child.(7) But this state of things was not to last; for in the year 202 when Origen was about seventeen years of age, the great persecution of the Christians under Septimius Severus broke out, and among the victims was his father Leonides, who was apprehended and put in prison. Origen wished to share the fate of his father, but was prevented from quitting his home by the artifice of his mother, who was obliged to conceal his clothes to prevent him from carrying out his purpose. He wrote to his father, however, a letter, exhorting him to constancy under his trials, and entreating him not to change his convictions for the sake of his family.(8) By the death of his father, whose property was confiscated to the imperial treasury, Origen was left, with his mother and six younger brothers dependent upon him for support. At this juncture, a wealthy and benevolent lady of Alexandria opened to him her house, of which he became an inmate for a short time. The society, however, which he found -there was far from agreeable to the feelings of the youth. The lady had adopted as her son one Paul of Antioch, whom Eusebius terms an "advocate of the heretics then existing at Alexandria." The eloquence of the man drew crowds to hear him, although Origen could never be induced to regard him with any favour, nor even to join with him in any act of worship, giving then, as Eusebius remarks, "unmistakeable specimens of the orthodoxy of his faith."(9)

Finding his position in his household so uncomfortable, he resolved to enter upon the career of a teacher of grammar, and to support himself by his own exertions. As he had been carefully instructed by his father in Grecian literature, and had devoted himself to study after his death, he was enabled successfully to carry out his intention. And now begins the second stadium of his career.

The diligence and ability with which Origen prosecuted his profession speedily attracted attention and brought him many pupils. Among others who sought to avail themselves of his instructions in the principles of the Christian religion, were two young men, who afterwards became distinguished in the history of the Church,-Plutarch, who died the death of martyrdom, and Heraclas, who afterwards became bishop of Alexandria. It was not, however, merely by his success as a teacher that Origen gained a reputation. The brotherly kindness and unwearied affection which he displayed to all the victims of the persecution, which at that time was raging with peculiar severity at Alexandria under the prefect Aquila, and in which many Of his old pupils and friends were martyred, are described as being so marked and conspicuous, as to draw down upon him the fury of the mob, so that he was obliged on several occasions to flee from house to house to escape instant death. It is easy to understand that services of this kind could not fail to attract the attention of the heads of the Christian community at Alexandria; and partly, no doubt, because of these, but chiefly on account of his high literary reputation, Bishop Demetrius appointed him to the office of master in the Catechetical School, which was at that time vacant (by the departure of Clement, who had quitted the city on the outbreak of the persecution), although he was still a layman, and had not passed his eighteenth year. The choice of Demetrius was amply justified by the result. Origen discontinued his instructions in literature, in order to devote himself exclusively to the work of teaching in the Catechetical School. For his labours he refused all remuneration. He sold the books which he possessed,-many of them manuscripts which he himself had copied,-on condition of receiving from the purchaser four obols(10) a day; and on this scanty pittance he subsisted, leading for many years a life of the greatest asceticism and devotion to study. After a day of labour in the school, he used to devote the greater part of the night to the investigation of Scripture, sleeping on the bare ground, and keeping frequent fasts. He carried out literally the command of the Saviour, not to possess two coats, nor wear shoes. He consummated his work of mortification of the flesh by an act of self mutilation, springing from a perverted interpretation of our Lord's words in Matthew 19:12 and the desire to place himself beyond the reach of temptation in the intercourse which he necessarily had to hold with youthful female catechumens.(11) This act was destined to exercise a baneful influence upon his subsequent career in the Church.

During the episcopate of Zephyrinus (201-218) Origen visited Rome,(12) and on his return again resumed his duties in the Catechetical School, transferring the care of the younger catechumens to his friend and former pupil Heraclas, that he might devote himself with less distraction to the instruction of the more advanced, and to the more thorough investigation and exposition of Scripture. With a view to accomplish this more successfully, it is probable that about this time he set himself to acquire a knowledge of the Hebrew language, the fruit of which may be seen in the fragments which remain to us of his magnum opus, the Hexapla, and as many among the more cultured heathens, attracted by his reputation, seem to have attended his lectures, he felt it necessary to make himself more extensively acquainted with the doctrines of the Grecian schools, that he might meet his opponents upon their own ground, and for this purpose he attended the prelections of Ammonius Saccas, at that time in high repute at Alexandria as an expounder of the Neo- Platonic philosophy, of which school he has generally been considered the founder. The influence which the study of philosophical speculations exerted upon the mind of Origen may be traced in the whole course of his after development, and proved the fruitful source of many of those errors which were afterwards laid to his charge, and the controversies arising out of which disturbed the peace of the Church during the two following centuries. As was to be expected, the fame of the great Alexandrine teacher was not confined to his native city, but spread far and wide; and an evidence of this was the request made by the Roman governor of the province of Arabia to Demetrius and to the prefect of Egypt, that they would send Origen to him that he might hold an interview with one whose reputation was so great. We have no details of this visit, for all that Eusebius relates is that, "having accomplished the objects of his journey, he again returned to Alexandria."(13) It was in the year 216 that the Emperor Caracalla visited Alexandria, and directed a bloody persecution against its inhabitants, especially the literary members of the community, in revenge for the sarcastic verses which had been composed against him for the murder of his brother Geta, a crime which he had perpetrated under circumstances of the basest treachery and cruelty.

Origen occupied too prominent a position in the literary Society of the city to be able to remain with safety, and therefore withdrew to Palestine to his friend Bishop Alexander of Jerusalem, and afterwards to Caesarea, where he received an honourable welcome from Bishop Theoctistus. This step proved the beginning of his after troubles. These two men, filled with becoming admiration for the most reamed teacher in the Church, requested him to expound the Scriptures in their presence in a public assembly of the Christians. Origen, although still a layman, and without any sacerdotal dignity in the Church, complied with the request. When this proceeding reached the ears of Demetrius, he was filled with the utmost indignation. "Such an act was never either heard or done before, that laymen should deliver discourses in the presence of the bishops,"(14) was his indignant remonstrance to the two offending bishops, and Origen received a command to return immediately to Alexandria. He obeyed, and for some years appears to have devoted himself solely to his studies in his usual spirit of self-abnegation.

It was probably during this period that the commencement of his friendship with Ambrosius is to be dated. Little is known of this individual. Eusebius(15) states that he had formerly been an adherent of the Valentinian heresy, but had been converted by the arguments and eloquence of Origen to the orthodox faith of the Church. They became intimate friends; and as Ambrose seems to have been possessed of large means, and entertained an unbounded admiration of the learning and abilities of his friend, it was his delight to bear the expenses attending the transcription and publication of the many works which he persuaded him to give to the world. He furnished him "with more than seven amanuenses, who relieved each other at stated times, and with an equal number of transcribers, along with young girls who had been practiced in calligraphy,"(16) to make fair copies for publication of the works dictated by Origen. The literary activity of these years must have been prodigious, and probably they were among the happiest which Origen ever enjoyed. Engaged in his favourite studies, surrounded by many friends, adding yearly to his own stores of learning, and enriching the literature of the Church with treatises of the highest value in the department of sacred criticism and exegesis, it is difficult to conceive a condition of things more congenial to the mind of a true scholar. Only one incident of any importance seems to have taken place during these peaceful years,-his visit to Julia Mammaea, the pious mother of Alexander Severus. This noble lady had heard of the fame of Origen, and invited him to visit her at Antioch, sending a military escort to conduct him from Alexandria to the Syrian capital. He remained with her some time, "exhibiting innumerable illustrations of the glory of the Lord, and of the excellence of divine instruction, and then hastened back to his accustomed studies."(17)

These happy years, however, were soon to end. Origen was called to Greece, probably about the year 228,(18) upon what Eusebius vaguely calls "the pressing need of ecclesiastical affairs."(19) But, this has generally been understood(20) to refer to the prevalence of heretical views in the Church there, for the eradication of which the assistance of Origen was invoked. Before entering on this journey, he obtained letters of recommendation from his bishop.(21) He passed through Palestine on his way to Greece, and at Caesarea received at the bands of his friends Alexander and Theoctistus ordination to the office of presbyter,-an honour which proved to him afterwards the source of much persecution and annoyance. No doubt the motives of his friends were of the highest kind, and among them may have been the desire to take away the ground of objection formerly raised by Demetrius against the public preaching of a mere layman in the presence of a bishop. But they little dreamed of the storm which this act of theirs was to raise, and of the consequences which it was to bring upon the head of him whom they had sought to honour. After completing his journey through Greece, Origen returned to Alexandria about the year 230. He there found his bishop greatly incensed against him for what had taken place at Caesarea. Nor did his anger expend itself in mere objurgations and rebukes. In the year 231 a synod was summoned by Demetrius, composed of Egyptian bishops and Alexandrian presbyters, who declared Origen unworthy to hold the office of teacher, and excommunicated him from the fellowship of the Church of Alexandria. Even this did not satisfy the vindictive feeling of Demetrius. He summoned a second synod, in which the bishops alone were permitted to vote, and by their suffrages Origen was degraded from the office of presbyter, and intimation of this sentence was ordered to be made by encyclical letter to the various Churches. The validity of the sentence was recognised by all of them, with the exception of those in Palestine, Phoenicia, Arabia, and Achaia; a remarkable proof of the position of influence which was at that time held by the Church of Alexandria. Origen appears to have quitted the city before the bursting of the storm, and betook himself to Caesarea, which henceforth became his home, and the seat of his labours for a period of nearly a quarter of a century. The motives which impelled Demetrius to this treatment of Origen have been variously stated and variously criticized.(22) refers his readers for a full account of all the matters involved to the treatise which he and Pamphilus composed in his defence; but this work has not come down to us,(23) although we possess a brief notice of it in the Bibliotheca of Photius,(24) from which we derive our knowledge of the proceedings of the two synods. There seems little reason to doubt that jealousy of interference on the part of the bishops of another diocese was one main cause of the resentment displayed by Demetrius; while it is also possible that another alleged cause, the heterodox character of some of Origen's opinions, as made known in his already published works, among which were his Stromata and De Principiis,(25) may have produced some effect upon the minds of the hostile bishops. Hefele(26) asserts that the act of the Palestinian bishops was contrary to the Church law of the time, and that Demetrius was justified on that ground for his procedure against him. But it may well be doubted whether there was any generally understood law or practice existing at so early a period of the Church's history. If so, it is difficult to understand how it should have been unknown to the Palestinian bishops; or, on the supposition of any such existing law or usage, it is equally difficult to conceive that either they themselves or Origen should have agreed to disregard it, knowing as they did the jealous temper of Demetrius, displayed on the occasion of Origen's preaching at Caesarea already referred to. This had drawn from the Alexandrine bishop an indignant remonstrance, in which he had asserted that such an act was "quite unheard of before; "(27) but, to this statement the Caesarean bishops replied in a letter, in which they enumerated several instances of laymen who had addressed the congregation.(28) The probabilities, therefore, are in favour of there being no generally understood law or practice on the subject, and that the procedure, therefore, was dictated by hierarchical jealousy on the part of Demetrius. According to Eusebius,(29) indeed, the act of mutilation already referred to was made a ground of accusation against Origen; and there seems no doubt that there existed an old canon of the Church,(30) based upon the words in Deuteronomy 23:1, which rendered one who had committed such an act ineligible for office in the Church. But there is no trace of this act, as disqualifying Origen for the office of presbyter, having been urged by Demetrius, so far as can be discovered from the notices of the two synods which have been preserved by Rufinus and Photius. And it seems extremely probable, as Redepenning remarks,(31) that if Demetrius were acquainted with this act of Origen, as Eusebius says he was(32) he made no public mention of it, far less that he made it a presence for his deposition.

Part I Part II Part III