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Origen:
On First Principles

edited and translated by john behr
oxford, 800 pages, $200

In its eleventh canon, the Second Council of ­Constantinople (553) anathematized Arius, ­Eunomius, Macedonius, ­Apollinaris, Nestorius, and ­Origen, along with their impious writings. Adding Origen’s name to this list of fourth- and fifth-century heretics from the Trinitarian and Christological controversies meant that, from the sixth century on, Origen was counted a heretic, if not a heresiarch.

Opposition to Origen had been growing for centuries. Shortly before Constantinople II, the Emperor ­Justinian issued an edict against ­Origen’s person and doctrines, in the form of a conciliar decree. He quoted Origen’s renowned On First Principles, ridiculed his (supposed) doctrines, and summarized Origen’s heresy in ten anathemas. The anathemas dealt mostly with cosmological and eschatological speculation: the preexistence of souls, including Christ’s; that the Word of God became a cherub for cherubim and a seraph for seraphim; that the resurrection body will be spherical (an accusation that refused to die); that celestial bodies have rational souls; that the power of God is limited; that, in the end time, all, even the devil, will be saved and restored—that is, the notorious doctrine of apokatastasis.

Origen was born in Alexandria in Egypt, probably in 185, into a committed Christian family. When Origen was seventeen, his father, ­Leonides, a catechist in the Church, was arrested and condemned as a Christian. Origen wanted to follow his father to martyrdom, but his mother prevented it—as legend has it, by hiding his clothes.

Origen had an excellent education, in the style of the day. He studied the basic arts—­grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic—and in the course of those studies acquired a knowledge of classical Greek literature. It is generally accepted that he heard the lectures of Ammonius ­Saccas, the teacher of Plotinus, who created the great philosophical system known as ­Neoplatonism.

In his late teens or early twenties, however, Origen undertook a rigorous ascetical life: fasting, going barefoot, sleeping on a simple mat. He also served the church of Alexandria as a catechist. In 231, as a result of a dispute with the bishop of Alexandria, Origen moved to Caesarea in ­Palestine, where he found a sympathetic home and soon attracted disciples. For most of his life, he wrote incessantly; he is the most prolific author in all of Christian antiquity. When the persecution of Decius began in 250, Origen accompanied several of his pupils to martyrdom. He was arrested and tortured but survived, a broken man, until 253. His library at Caesarea was preserved and enhanced, and later scholars like ­Eusebius of Caesarea made good use of it. Its most impressive holding was the Hexapla, the Old Testament written out in parallel columns in six versions (Hebrew, Hebrew transliterated into Greek, and four Greek translations, all by Jewish scholars), marked with editorial signs to indicate passages present or missing in the ­various versions. For several centuries, scholars of the Bible would travel to ­Caesarea and consult the Hexapla.

Origen’s opponents condemned him by presenting statements from his writings that were no more than speculations. Origen had learned the art of dialectic: an exercise in which every possible answer to, and implication of, a question was explored, even some that might seem absurd. For example, when considering the verse “all things were made through [the Word]” (John 1:3), ­Origen wondered whether the Holy Spirit is one of those things; or whether the Holy Spirit is unbegotten, or has no distinct essence, or even is the mother of the Son. Or, when he read of the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), he asked if the end would be just as the beginning, with the restoration of all spirits to their first state, thus including the salvation of the devil. So Origen’s opponents found, in his writings, all the ammunition they needed. Hans Urs von Balthasar summarized the proceedings:

What good did it do to render this system of theses—already half dried up—utterly harmless? What good did it do to rail against the preexistence of souls, the Incarnation of the Logos as an angel, the ensoulment of the heavenly bodies, the spherical shape of the risen bodies (which Origen in fact never held), and, finally, against the eschatological end of hell? Of these pathetic relics of a brilliant whole—one is tempted to compare them to the wreckage of an airplane that crashed—the spirit, the life, the allure was long since gone. But thereby there occurred in the open what had long since happened unnoticed: the vessel was shattered into a thousand fragments, and the name of the master was stoned and discarded; but the aroma of the perfume rose up and filled the whole house. There is no other thinker in the Church who has remained so invisibly omnipresent as ­Origen.

Origen had many enemies in antiquity, but he also had his defenders and champions. In the early twentieth century, a fresh appreciation of ­Origen began to flourish, in the mostly Catholic revival of historical and patristic studies that began in the 1920s and 1930s, denominated by the hostile Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange “la nouvelle théologie.” The practitioners of this new theology began to read the Fathers of the Church for their own sake. They read complete works of the Fathers, rather than mining them for quotations that would confirm neo-scholastic theses. One literary genre that emerged was anthologies, collections of excerpts from a Father’s writings. Erich ­Przywara did this for ­Augustine, and Jean Daniélou for Gregory of Nyssa. One can picture these men reading through column after column in Migne’s Patrologia and marking paragraphs that impressed or intrigued them. In 1938, Hans Urs von Balthasar published Origenes: Geist und Feuer, a collection of more than a thousand passages translated from Origen’s works, arranged under the headings “Soul,” “Word,” “Spirit,” and “God.” Balthasar ranged over all of Origen’s corpus to choose these excerpts; it is noteworthy how much he took from Origen’s scriptural commentaries and homilies.

Another aspect of the same movement was the publication of the series Sources chrétiennes, begun in Paris in 1943, in the midst of the war. The founders were Jean Daniélou, Claude ­Mondésert, and Henri de ­Lubac. The intention was to publish French translations of some of the more appealing works of the Fathers, and the first volumes had that format. But the series soon took a more scholarly turn, and original texts (in Greek or Latin) were printed opposite the French translations. The volume that launched the series was Daniélou’s translation of Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. The series soon began to include translations of Origen, and specifically of his homilies: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Song of Songs, Joshua. De Lubac wrote prefaces to the first two, Genesis and Exodus.

Writing these prefaces, which were essays on Origen’s hermeneutics, exegesis, and preaching, led de Lubac to carry his work further. In 1950, he published a monograph under the title Histoire et Esprit: L’Intelligence de l’Écriture d’après Origène, a full study of Origen’s approach to the Bible. This book was followed by the four-volume Exégèse médiévale; de Lubac, it seems, could not stop writing on the topic.

De Lubac’s book on Origen’s understanding of the Scriptures contains a sentence that marks the moment when studies of Origen took a new turn: “See Origen at work.” De Lubac perceived that in order to understand Origen, one had to observe him in the act of exegesis rather than fix on isolated statements, because “Origen’s real doctrine, that which results from his exegesis itself and which he formulates throughout his work, is very different from what he seems to imply in passing.” An occasional phrase of Origen’s, taken out of context, could seem suspect or unorthodox, especially in light of later doctrine; but the true Origen was to be sought in the great corpus of commentaries and homilies that has survived, because Origen was most at home when he was studying the Bible. In other words, Origen’s exegetical work had long been neglected, in favor of the doctrinally suspect Origen supposedly found in On First Principles, his work of systematic theology. Fr. John Behr, distinguished professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, has continued the reinterpretation of Origen with an admirable work, a two-volume edition and translation of Rufinus of Aquileia’s Latin version of On First Principles. (The Greek original of this controversial work has been lost.)

Early in the twentieth century (1913), Paul Koetschau published an edition of On First Principles that was scholarly but, in the judgment of later scholars, highly tendentious. Koetschau assumed that Rufinus’s translation of On First Principles was not to be trusted—indeed, that it was highly suspect at every turn. So Koetschau collected other texts, some in Greek and some in Latin, which he believed represented the more original or authentic text of On First Principles. Some texts were authentic, but Koetschau also inserted parts of the anathemas of 553 into Rufinus’s text, as if Origen had written them, and even interpolated into the text of On First Principles passages that Jerome had explicitly said were only a paraphrase. In other words, Koetschau made the author of On First Principles into the heretic he knew he was: a lightly Christianized Platonist indulging in fanciful speculation about the beginning and the end of things, and the myth of cyclic return, deceptively supported by biblical terms taken out of context and allegorically distorted.

Koetschau’s Origen lived on. In 1936, G. W. Butterworth published a translation that was effectively of Koetschau’s edition. Even typographically, the reader was led to trust passages that Koetschau inserted over those translated from Rufinus’s Latin. For eighty years, Butterworth’s ­translation has been the standard text that students used to read Origen’s great work.

Relief has come from John Behr. Rufinus himself wrote in his preface that he had ­eliminated some inconsistencies in Origen’s book. Some modern interpreters took Rufinus’s remark much further and assumed that Rufinus had brought Origen’s text into line with later, post-Nicene orthodoxy. More recent scholars, however, take ­Rufinus’s Latin text as the only trustworthy point of departure for the study of On First Principles. Behr follows the same principle.

Behr uses some manuscripts that Koetschau had not collated, but his edition of Rufinus’s Latin does not differ radically from Koetschau’s. Besides the text and translation, Behr provides a long introduction, in which he presents an extensive theological analysis of On First Principles. Behr divides his analysis of Origen’s ­theology into four topics: first, whether there is an eternal ­creation; second, what the “foundation of the world” means; third, the interpretation of the Incarnation; fourth, the “pre-existence” and Incarnation of Christ. All deal, in some way, with how one who exists in time can conceive of eternity and time.

To understand Origen’s teaching, it is best first to consider the way he understands the Bible, God, and “creation.” As with so many other Fathers, Origen assumes that the final meaning of the Old Testament is found in Christ. Further, he assumes that the meaning of a word found in one place in Scripture can be explained by other instances of the same word found elsewhere. For example, since Paul calls Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), any other occurrence of “wisdom” in the Scriptures can be called upon to reveal more about Christ.

The modern mind (to use a stage villain) tends to pass over scriptural arguments in order to get to an abstract statement or logical argument. But ­Origen’s concern was the opposite. He was trying, often at great length, to discern what Scripture was saying, word by word and phrase by phrase, and drew logical conclusions only after he had marshaled and ordered the scriptural evidence.

Origen’s understanding of God takes into account every word of the Holy Scriptures, including words that modern readers might brush off as metaphorical or mythological oddities. Nicaea and the Arian controversy constitute a dividing line. Later, more philosophical monotheism (even Trinitarian monotheism) considered God prior to and independent of all other beings. But Origen’s monotheism is a biblical, monarchical monotheism, in which God is seen as presiding over a heavenly court as the celestial liturgy is celebrated. One wonders how modern readers interpret Psalm 82:1: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (RSV).

Behr makes a further point on biblical language: what Origen means by “create.” In the Commentary on John, Origen proposes a gradated sense of “create,” based on different terms in Scripture. One is “create” in the strictest sense, ex nihilo. Below that is “make,” as in Genesis 1:26, “let us make man,” in a world that already exists. Below that, literally, in Genesis 2:7, is “to mold”: “and God molded [RSV: formed] man from the dust of the earth.” Quoting Rowan Williams, Behr notes that “create” for Origen “is strictly only the unimpeded expression of God’s rational will.” Thus, when Wisdom says in Proverbs 8:22, “the Lord ­created me,” Origen could understand something quite different from creation ex nihilo.

In a final section on Origen’s theology, Behr examines the “pre-­existence” and Incarnation of Christ. The scare quotes have a point. He cites Marguerite Harl, whose studies have shown that Origen never used the terms “pre-existence of souls” or “pre-existent intellects.” Along the same lines, Behr rejects the terms “pre-existent Christ” and “pre-incarnate Word,” if they are taken to represent, in Rowan Williams’s words, “an episode in the biography of the Word.” The difficulty of talking about time and eternity in time is clear. The formulation that Behr ­prefers is “that Jesus, as a human being, through the Passion, becomes that which, as God, he always is, outside of time.”

Origen had a single text of the Scriptures, the Septuagint and the New Testament, every word of which he revered. In our own age, the multiplication of translations of the Bible, some of them mediocre or pedestrian, does not encourage the same reverence for the word. Moreover, patristic exegesis can challenge modern exegesis. A document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” included the unfortunate sentence, “The allegorical interpretation of Scripture so characteristic of patristic exegesis runs the risk of being something of an embarrassment to people today.” The document then softens the judgment, but it still stands. Historical-­critical studies led to significant advances in knowledge, but not without detriment. ­Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his 1988 Erasmus Lecture, formulated his criticisms of historical criticism in memorable terms. The way forward is not clear, but perhaps the direction should be toward an “exégèse dans l’Église.”

Behr’s study closes the circle that began with De Lubac’s “see Origen at work.” Behr reads On First Principles in light of the bigger picture of ­Origen’s theology. This theological analysis of On First Principles makes it clear that Origen was not a heretic, certainly not for his time. In the centuries after Origen, theology changed from a construct of words and terms in the Bible (granted that Origen had some philosophical presuppositions, too) to one constructed with a set of more precise terms, like essence, hypostasis, person, and nature. The gain was clarity and precision; but what was lost was a palette of concepts, titles, and images that yielded rich, if sometimes disorganized, conceptions of the truths of the Christian faith.

Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J. is professor of theology at Fordham University.

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