There are few names as important and controversial as Origen of Alexandria. Unlike declared saints and reformers who may be controversial for espousing theologies that have since fallen afoul of modern sensibilities, Origen’s importance and controversy stems from the fact that he is widely recognized—even in the aftermath of his death—as an influential theologian to the Christian theological and intellectual life. Despite that recognition, his condemnation by Emperor Justinian I and the Second Council of Constantinople long after his death places him in the pit of controversy. But he was controversial even in his own time, for in The City of God Saint Augustine calls him a “learned master” but also is baffled by his absurd reading of the Fall of Man in Genesis, that Adam and Eve were originally spiritual entities who, in turning away from intellectual love of God, fell away from God and God created the earth and material bodies as a result of their sin.
Although Christianity begins in the land of Galilee and Jerusalem is its city of symbolic importance, Christian theology is nurtured in the city of Alexandria. As Christopher Beeley, a former professor of mine when I studied at Yale, has written, “Alexandria produced the most prolific theologian of the early Christian period and the person who had the greatest influence on the church’s understanding of Christ for over five hundred years—Origen of Alexandria.” The importance of Origen as the “Great Master” cannot be understated. For, as mentioned, even friendly critics like Augustine regularly call him a great and learned master.
Origen’s importance rests on a number of issues. Two, however, are the most prominent. First is Origen’s proto-systematic theology. It nominally survives in the work First Principles, a standard text of primary reading for anyone who goes through patristic studies (as I did as part of my biblical and religious studies education at Yale). Origen is not necessarily a systematic theologian as we consider the term today, but he unarguably laid the groundworks for a systematic interpretation of Scripture and how to draw theology from it. First Principles also establishes the infant orthodox creed of Christianity. Again, as Beeley summarizes, Origen maintains: “the oneness of God, who is the creator of the universe, the God of Israel, and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ; that Jesus Christ was generated from God the Father before cosmic time and was the instrument and minister of creation, and that he emptied himself to become human (while remaining God), took on a body like ours, truly suffered, died, rose form the dead, and ascended into heaven; and that the Holy Spirit, who shares in the honor of the Father and Son, inspired the saints in both the Old and New Testaments.”
In Origen’s basic sketch we find the Trinity, Christ as the instrument of creation, and that the inspiration of the Old Testament saints and writers, as well as the New Testament ones, was the Holy Spirit. This is the basic and ecumenical Christian faith shared by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. Moreover, we also see the implicit allegorical typology in Origen: the Holy Spirit was active in the Old Testament and the proper way to understanding the Old Testament is through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit pointing one to God through Christ revealed to us in the New Testament.
Furthermore, Origen’s greatest contribution—for allegory and typology were already employed by the Old Testament writers and the New Testament authors, though Origen gives it a fuller expression in his semi-systematic reading of Scripture—is the spiritual-intellectual life borne from his hermeneutic. Origen, despite his later condemnation, was a key figure of the patristic revival in the Renaissance and early Reformation. In fact, most Reformers knew Origen and relied on Origen for the doctrine of Sola Scripture.
Origen bequeathed to Christianity the storied tradition of spiritual-intellectuality through reading the Scriptures. Origen’s voluminous writings, especially those that survive, give an account of how the Christian spiritual life is dependent upon unlocking the mysteries of the Scripture and discovering the Trinity, but especially Christ, in all layers of the complicated text. This reading and unlocking of the meaning of Holy Writ enhances the Christian life, spiritual growth is contingent and tied to intellectual growth. Origen helps to provide the four-fold account of Scripture: literal, allegorical (or Christological), tropological (that is, moral) and anagogical (eschatology and judgement). For Origen, the allegorical/Christological and tropological (moral) interpretations were the most important senses of Scriptural interpretation.
Origen’s providence of the guidance on how to understand the four fold interpretation of Scripture in a soft systematic sense became the basis for both western and eastern, especially Cappadocian, theology. The connection between the literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical became the basis for much of post-Origenist theology. Even in places where Origen’s influence was more moderate, like the Latin West, the debt to Origen is still profound as much contemporary scholarship dealing with the influence of Origen on Augustine now makes clear.
The notion of spiritual and intellectual maturation in the Christian life through reading Scripture finds its greatest early expression in Origen. For this reason he is so important for what has become a now normative expression of faith, even in Catholicism and parts of Western Orthodoxy (exemplified by theologian-philosophers like David Bentley Hart): reading as a means of the spiritual life. Origen’s instrumental importance in articulating the view that interpreting the Bible leads one’s closer to God circumvents the absolute monopoly of the sacraments on the spiritual life—and here one can see why he was actually quite important to the Protestant Reformers.
Origen is the most important theologian that you may have heard of but probably haven’t read. Though you should. His writings reveal that many people who comment about “Christian fundamentalism” don’t actually know what they’re talking about. From Origen the development of a systematic theology grounded in a common foundation of faith, the Trinity, revelation of who Christ was and is, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the Old and New Testaments, allegorical and Christological alongside moral interpretations of the Bible, and the defense of the spiritual life as an intellectual life, all find their earliest foundational expressions in Origen.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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