The enigma of Origen

My friend Wan Wei Hsien (his blog: Torn Notebook) posted this icon to his Facebook about two months ago and it’s been on my mind since then. It really is the most interesting icon I’ve ever seen, and probably because Origen of Alexandria has for some time stood out to me as the most interesting figure of early Christianity.

Origen was the most prolific early Christian writer, by far the greatest theologian of those early years, a martyr for the Christian Faith, perhaps the single greatest influence on what would later become the Nicene Orthodoxy of the 4th century, and, in spite of that all, a condemned heretic, according to the decrees of an Ecumenical Council. What intrigues me even more are the circumstances surrounding the Council’s condemnation and the Council’s stated reason for condemning him.

By the time of the Second Council of Constantinople (the Fifth Ecumenical Council), held in 553, Origen had been dead for about 300 years. Why take so long to finally get around to condemning him? If he was indeed a heretic, why the long delay?

Then there is the question of why the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils were so inconsistent (read, perhaps: unfair) in their proclamations of such retroactive anathemas. The First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (the Second Ecumenical Council), held in 381, for instance, condemned the heresy of chiliasm (belief in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth prior to the Final Judgment), and yet seems to have found no need to condemn either St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 120-202) nor his disciple St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-236), both believers (and sainted Church Fathers) of an earlier age who had both been adherents of this now-condemned heresy. So why does Origen get an anathema 300 years after his death for something he certainly never knew during his lifetime would be declared heretical at that much later date?

In addition, many scholars of the last couple of centuries have put forward the triple theses that 1. Origen, because he was a martyr, may have been venerated as a saint during those intervening 300 years, 2. the writings which contain the ideas for which he was supposedly condemned may not have been written by him at all, and 3. even that the Council itself may not have actually condemned him, but that the anathemas we have against Origen which seem to come from the Council are not really from it at all! Some other scholars take a view a bit closer to the middle of the road and acknowledge that the anathemas were proclaimed by the Council, but not written by it nor possibly even reviewed by it, but simply endorsed in passing.

There also seems to be a movement in some quarters of Christianity today, drawing on the work of these scholars, to redeem Origen. While looking for the actual text of the anathemas for this post, I came across this statement at a Roman Catholic site which featured a translation of the statements of the Council:

Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council.

Origen’s redemption makes sense if this is the case. If he wasn’t condemned by this Ecumenical Council, then he was never anathematized by any Christian body with the power to do so infallibily. If the writings which contain the questionable doctrines were not actually written by him but by others in his name, he wasn’t a heretic. But he most certainly was a martyr, so … shall we call him St. Origen of Alexandria???

Well, not so fast; I’m not entirely convinced that the heretical writings in question, at least some of them, are not the work of Origen. And I think also that an important point of difference between Ss. Irenaeus and Hippolytus who were not condemned for their chiliasm of an earlier date versus Origen who was condemned for his speculations is that Origen’s beliefs are easily corrected with a clearheaded reading of the Holy Scriptures, whereas chiliasm is a bit more forgiveable in that sense. The Marcionites, for instance, never need an Ecumenical Council to condemn them, as they stood self-condemned due to their stark departure from Apostolic Tradition. Similarly, Origen took the love of allegory typical of the Alexandrian school just a little too far in some cases and ended up forgetting that the plain meaning of the text is just as important.

But an acknowledgement that Origen really was the author of heretical writings, whether those writings were actually condemned by an Ecumenical Council or not, leads to another intriguing set of questions; the icon above should give an indication of just what those questions are.

While most of Origen’s writings were entirely Orthodox and while most of his condemned ideas, such as the pre-existence of souls and the final annihilation of the material world, never got much wind behind them, one later-to-be-condemned belief in particular seems to have caught fire: the idea that we now call universalism, the belief that all (even, in Origen’s scheme, Satan himself) will eventually be saved.

All three of the Cappadocian Fathers, Ss. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus, those great 4th century defenders and formulators of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Orthodoxy, seem to have supported it. And it’s fairly certain that they did so under the influence of Origen’s writings. In fact, Ss. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus had created a compilation of Origen’s writings to be used in their monastery.

So, why weren’t they condemned along with him?

In fact, the possibility of an eventual universal reconciliation has its modern proponents amongst Orthodox hierarchs and theologians as well. I’m thinking here especially of Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) and Archbishop Hilarion (Alfayev).

So why aren’t they being anathematized too?

The answer, I think, lies in the approach. As Archbishop Hilarion wrote of St. Gregory Nazianzus:

‘Restoration of all’ is an object of hope rather than a dogma of faith. He rejects neither the idea of eternal Hell, nor the idea of universal salvation: both concepts remain for him with a big question mark. Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, Gregory asks: ‘Is it that all will later encounter God?’, and leaves this question unanswered.

In the end, the difference between an anathema and a canonization could come down to the difference between a question mark and a period. Origen ended his sentences with periods (and a few exclamation points) about universal restoration. Ss. Basil, Gregory, and Gregory, and the modern Orthodox theologians who follow in their footsteps, on the other hand, end their sentences with question marks.

Another important point in this regard is that, after reading several times through the famous 15 anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (?) against Origen, I don’t see in the anathemas an excommunication of those who hold to universal reconcilation itself, but of those who hold to the rather complex theology of Origen which results in a supporting a rather extreme form of universal reconciliation (this reconcilation including even the evil one and being purely spiritual in nature, as all material will be ultimately annihilated, according to Origen’s scheme).

That said, though, the last of the nine anathemas issued against Origen by the Emperor St. Justinian at the same Council leave little wiggle room on the issue:

If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.

I can think of a few ways that one could get around the wording here, but not many that adhere to the spirit and don’t simply circumvent letter.

David Bentley Hart, in his book The Story of Christianity, has pointed out that much of the theological speculation and adventurism that characterized first 300 years of Christianity largely died out once the age of the Ecumenical Councils began. As the Ecumenical Councils defined dogma and heresy with increasing detail, many of the topics that seemed ripe for exploration in early Christian thought, such as the nature of the Trinity and the person of Christ, largely dried up, becoming out-of-bounds territory for anyone who didn’t want to draw the ire of the Church. I think, though, that there is still a certain amount of theological exploration to be had for those theologians and philosophers who are tactful enough to theologize and philosophize as if they were playing Jeopardy, answering questions with questions and never with statements. Perhaps that’s why the question-mark theology pioneered by the Cappadocian Fathers is so popular amongst Orthodox theologians of the later periods and even of today: it’s safe; you can’t condemn a man for just asking a question — can you?

I think I’ve found the answers to some of the questions that revolve around Origen, but there are still a lot of questions I haven’t been able to find the answer to, and which we may never be able to answer in this lifetime. Were the anathemas really issued by the Fifth Ecumenical Council? Just how much of those heretical writings can really be attributed to Origen? Was he really venerated as a saint for 300 years before being declared a heretic? How did a man sometimes called “the Father of the Fathers” come to be labeled as a heretic anyway? I’d also be very interested to know what basis the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East, neither of which officially recognizes the Second Council of Constantinople as an Ecumenical Council, use to reject his teachings and refuse him veneration. Perhaps some of you might know the answer to that question.

The question I most want answer is why? I’m not sure I fully comprehend the point of an anathema — an ecclesiastical curse (you might say excommunication plus) — being applied posthumously to an individual. I can see the point in condemning the ideas, that is, to prevent others from picking them up later. I’m not so sure I can see the point in condemning a man who can’t defend himself or recant his previous statements.

I have little doubt that Origen’s condemnation at the Fifth Ecumenical Council was influenced, in some measure, by the anti-Alexandrian feelings floating in the air amongst the other Patriarchates after the Coptic Church’s rejection of the Council of Chalcedon (the Fourth Ecumenical Council, by the reckoning of most Christians) in 451, and the subsequent break in communion between the Copts and the rest of Christendom. What better way to spite the Alexandrian Church than to condemn their most famous and heralded theologian as a heretic?

I don’t think that a simple low-blow was the only motivation though. I wonder what the Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council thought they were accomplishing by anathematizing Origen — if they thought that it somehow affected his eternal state, or if it was simply an extra measure against his ideas, that condemning the man was the natural extension of condemning his theology. Perhaps the New International Version’s (in)famous (mis)translation of St. Paul’s use of the word “anathema” in Galatians 1:8-9 as “let him be eternally condemned” wasn’t so off the mark? If anyone knows more about the use of the word and its intended purpose, I’d love to hear it.

But, for now, I think I will have to follow the lead of the illustrious men I named above and end with a question mark: ?

11 thoughts on “The enigma of Origen”

  1. They weren't exactly thrilled about it either, and they had the same moral dilemas as you, and the strong personality of the Emperor WAS a MAJOR factor in the final outcome: but the idea is that the practice of castration and the belief in apocatastasis became SO famous and popular and wide-spread that they had virtually no other choice.

    And chilliasm was true, but not in the sence they expected it to: they believed that in the seventh millennium from the creation of the world [6,000 AM – 7,000 AM or 500 AD – 1,500 AD] there will be an earthly reign of Christ, and that the Kingdom of Heaven will descend on earth. Now, this didn't happen exactly as expected: there were indeed Christian emperors in this time frame, all heirs to a Christian Empire: but a Christian king is NOT the same as Christ the King, nor/ is a Christian kingdom the same Christ's Heavenly Kingdom [and yes, I'm talking here of the Byzantine Empire: 313/395 AD – 1453 AD].

    So Chilliasm died out from natural causes, and didn't have any major moral or theological implications like Origen's teaching's had. (ie, poeple didn't go around castrating themselves, NOR whoring around mindlessly, thinking that they're gonna end up in Heaven one day anyway, so why the heck miss out on “life” and try and be holy?)

  2. Lucian, doesn't apocatastasis just mean redemption?

    Perhaps Origen was a Marcionite pretending to be a Catholic, and that's why he goes too far with his allegorical interpretations. Overcompensation in his pretence. It would explain the castration and perhaps odd view about apocatastasis. Not to mention the fact that Origen's patron, Ambrose, had been a Marcionite before becoming a Catholic. Had Origen also been? And did the Catholic church of the day allow Origen to live and to continue to be head of the catechetical school only to prevent a riot or something in Alexandria?

  3. Usually, when I want to find out something, I check out Wikipedia or the Catholic Encyclopedia: they don't say anywhere anything about Ambrose being a former Marcionist:

  4. Lucian:

    You're a genius — what would I do without you?

    I didn't even think about implications — that's what I should have been looking at all along, as that was exactly what the Fathers were all about. “If you say this, then you must also say this.” In the military, we call them second and third order effects. Thanks for that.

    By the way — rather ironic that the dates of the Christian Roman Empire align so well with the supposed millennium — maybe there was some truth to the chiliasts' beliefs? Not a lot, but some 😉

    Thanks a lot for this, Lucian.

  5. The same footnote also says it's more likely he was a Valentinian (as Eusebius said) — but I guess we go with whatever better suits our own agendas now.

  6. “Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 56 and, says Ambrose had been a Marcionite before Origen converted him”

    Here's all that Saint Jerome has to say about Saint Ambrose in his “Lives of Illustrious Men”:

    Chapter CXXIV

    Ambrose a bishop of Milan, at the present time is still writing. I withhold my judgment of him, because he is still alive, fearing either to praise or blame lest in the one event, I should be blamed for adulation, and in the other for speaking the truth.

  7. Valentinians are more of less a subset of Marcionites, so I don't see how that's a big issue.

    Jerome's Lives of Illustrious Men from, the two chapters mentioned in the footnote (56 an 61):

    Chapter 56

    Ambrosius, at first a Marcionite but afterwards set right by Origen, was deacon in the church, and gloriously distinguished as confessor of the Lord. To him, together with Protoctetus the presbyter, the book of Origen, On martyrdom was written. Aided by his industry, funds, and perseverance, Origen dictated a great number of volumes. He himself, as befits a man of noble nature, was of no mean literary talent, as his letters to Origen indicate. He died moreover, before the death of Origen, and is condemned by many, in that being a man of wealth, he did not at death, remember in his will, his old and needy friend.

    Chapter 61

    Hippolytus, bishop of some church (the name of the city I have not been able to learn) wrote A reckoning of the Paschal feast and chronological tables which he worked out up to the first year of the Emperor Alexander. He also discussed the cycle of sixteen years, which the Greeks called ἐ κκαιδεκαετηρίδα and gave the cue to Eusebius, who composed on the same Paschal feast a cycle of nineteen years, that is ἐ ννεακαιδεκαετηρίδα . He wrote some commentaries on the Scriptures, among which are the following: On the six days of creation, On Exodus, On the Song of Songs, On Genesis, On Zechariah, On the Psalms, On Isaiah, On Daniel, On the Apocalypse, On the Proverbs, On Ecclesiastes, On Saul, On the Pythonissa, On the Antichrist, On the resurrection, Against Marcion, On the Passover, Against all heresies, and an exhortation On the praise of our Lord and Saviour, in which he indicates that he is speaking in the church in the presence of Origen. Ambrosius, who we have said was converted by Origen from the heresy of Marcion, to the true faith, urged Origen to write, in emulation of Hyppolytus, commentaries on the Scriptures, offering him seven, and even more secretaries, and their expenses, and an equal number of copyists, and what is still more, with incredible zeal, daily exacting work from him, on which account Origen, in one of his epistles, calls him his “Taskmaster.”

  8. Lucian, there are tow Ambroses. Ambrose bishop of Milan circa 340 and Ambrose of Alexandria circa 250. Obviously the Alexandrian one is the one associated with Origen. And as I posted above, Jerome does mention twice that he was a Marcionite, in chapter 56 “Ambrosius, at first a Marcionite but afterwards set right by Origen…” and 61 “Ambrosius, who we have said was converted by Origen from the heresy of Marcion…”

  9. In chapter 17 speaking of Polycarp, Jerome says “There he led back to the faith many of the believers who had been deceived through the persuasion of Marcion and Valentinus,” showing a connection between the two. I know some of the early heresiologists in their vain attempt to push Marcion as late as they can claim that Valentinus came before Marcion. However, it is clear that Valentinus was actually a disciple of Marcion. Clement of Alexandria witnesses to this (Miscellanies 7.17) and so does the Muratorian Canon (Metzger's translation here) “But we accept nothing whatever of Arsinous or Valentinus or Miltiades, who also composed a new book of psalms for Marcion, together with Basilides, the Asian founder of the Cataphrygians”–although founders of their own sects (which could possibly be thought of more as schools than sects), Valentinus and Basilides were disciples of Marcion.

  10. Given Jerome's extreme distaste for anything Origenist, including his former friend Rufinus of Aquileia, we should take his statements re Ambrose with a grain of salt. It's always nice to taint one of your opponents with as many as heretical connexions as possible.

    Given Origen's Platonist tendencies, a flair for allegory does not mean you have Marcionite or Gnostic leanings. Allegory was how all sorts of people read all sorts of literature (ie. Platonists reading Homer) in Late Antiquity, a practice that lasted the entire Middle Ages. I'm not saying Origen had no Marcionite contacts — but allegory alone does not make it a necessary thought.

    Re the condemnation in 553, I think it was related more to some hardcore Origenists causing disturbances in Palestine than anything to do with Origen himself. Justinian was trying to consolidate his Empire and keep the peace, including the fragile peace of the Church.

    I like the idea of posing things like apocatastasis with question marks. Origen did that with a lot of what goes on in 'On First Principles' — his opponents just ignored them all!

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