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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Origen of Alexandria: Master Theologian of the Early Church,” by John Anthony McGuckin

Published Monday, September 19, 2022 By Blake Adams

I begin with a personal interlude. When I wanted to learn more about early Christian doctrine several years ago, I thought Jaroslav Pelikan’s celebrated The Christian Tradition was as good a place to start as any. Two-hundred pages in, I began to notice this oddly named fellow, Origen of Alexandria, seemed most frequently quoted and usually had an alternative, often subtler take on matters (e.g., the nature of the soul, the relation between providence and free will, etc.) than his patristic pre-Constantine peers. His name is a useful mnemonic device, for Origen was in fact the origin for many doctrines which orthodoxy esteems, such as the eternal generation of the Son (which would be indispensable for the Nicene formulation of the Trinity), the invisibility of Christ’s divinity (a key doctrine for avoiding heresy unknown in the West until Augustine, and which many suspect he learned from Rufinus’s Latin translation of Origen’s On First Principles), the doctrine of Scripture (e.g., Origen coined the terms Old and New Testament), and others.

What began as curiosity developed into admiration. I do believe Origen made major errors (e.g., a deficient Trinitarianism that leans into subordinationism, though this is what Origen meant to avoid; implicit apocatastasis, though Origen himself was an agnostic on the point of universal salvation; primordial purity of human intellects;[1] etc.), but I believe they were the errors of a fellow Bible-loving churchman, not of a heretic or a baptized Greek philosopher. But more essential than my appreciation for his intellect and spiritual fervor is my sense of indebtedness: whether I like him or not, agree with him or not, I owe him—and so, I think, does all the church. And that is sufficient reason to read him deeply and charitably. In fact, we cannot afford not to.

Origen the Master Theologian

Origen of Alexandria has drawn much scholarly attention in recent decades. The effect has been a rehabilitation of this pre-Nicene Egyptian theologian, by and large. Yet every study recognizes his legacy is a troubled one. This is often stated vaguely—perhaps as a pretext to dismiss Origen’s contributions to orthodoxy. John Anthony McGuckin is the first to carefully map out the Origenist controversies (for there have been more than one) throughout church history. Origen of Alexandria: Master Theologian of the Early Church is essentially a reception history of Origen’s legacy.

Readers will come away with a clearer idea of what the church has found objectionable in Origen, and when, and why. But perhaps just as importantly, they will see that the name of Origen does not always spell trouble. He has a long list of devotees from every era of the church: devotees who played major roles in the formation and definition of orthodoxy, such as the Cappadocians, Athanasius, and Ambrose, the mentor of Augustine, and later Bernard of Clairvaux, Abelard, and Erasmus.

The Reformers who read Origen spoke of him as a great genius of the early church. Zwingli references him over 340 times in his corpus. Erasmus, lover of rankings, declares Paul, Origen, and Augustine the greatest Christian exegetes of all time—in that order. He would say that one page of Origen meant more to him than ten pages of Augustine. Throughout this period, authors spoke of Origen and Augustine together as the greatest contributors to post-apostolic Christian theology. Modern scholarship tends to agree: besides Augustine, no other Church Father from the early period can match Origen’s influence. “Whether in following his suggestions or even in reacting against them explicitly,” writes McGuckin, “most of Christianity’s classical doctrinal structure, practices of biblical exegesis, and history of spirituality have been deeply shaped by his [Origen’s] scholarly agenda” (3).[2]

The First Origenist Controversy

Perhaps the greatest contribution McGuckin makes in this book is the delineation of discrete Origenist controversies. He argues that the First Origenist Controversy is the one that occurred in Origen’s lifetime. It began with the publication of Origen’s early (perhaps earliest) work, On First Principles. The book immediately drew criticism, culminating in an open debate in Athens. The point in tension was whether the devil would be saved. Some claimed Origen taught this. Origen denied having taught any such thing, and challenged his accusers to point out where in On First Principles he had done so. They could not, but this controversy would haunt his legacy forever.

The Second Origenist Controversy

The Second Origenist Controversy, McGuckin tells us, is what most textbooks call the First Origenist Controversy. This occurs a century and a half after Origen’s death, and at its center is the monk, Evagrius of Pontus. Though little known by Westerners today, Evagrius was an important figure whose teachings would deeply shape Christian monasticism, East and West. He deeply admired Origen, but where Origen entertained an idea as an hypothetical or simply for seminar discussion, Evagrius ventured to assert it as dogma while expanding on it with his own ideas. Evagrius would teach, particularly in his Gnostic Chapters,[3] that human souls were created before their bodily existence; that all things, including Satan, would be restored in a final reconciliation with God; that total passionlessness—apatheia—was achievable on earth; and that in our final reconciliation with God, our identities would be lost, absorbed into the divine nature. In short, Evagrius introduced what is still today construed as Origenism, though it is more accurately Evagrianism.

When the Arian controversy blew up nearly a century after Origen’s death, Eusebius of Caesarea, best known today for his Ecclesiastical History, appointed himself the representative of Origenism. Of course, a figure of such stature as Origen was quoted by both sides of the debate. The hammer fell when Eusebius famously rejected the term homoousios during the Nicene proceedings. Eusebius argued that the term homoousios, literally meaning “substance,” suggested that God was made of “stuff.” This flew in the face of Origen’s hard-won insistence that God was totally incorporeal.[4] However, this was widely taken by the Nicene party as proof that Eusebius was a closet Arian. It was no leap, then, to characterize Origenism itself as proto-Arianism.

If Evagrius and Eusebius misrepresented Origen in their devotion, then Jerome misrepresented Origen in his antagonism. Jerome expended considerable energy to blacken Origen’s reputation, accusing him of being a progenitor of Arianism. Jerome had praised Origen earlier in his life, but he seems to have seen a conflict of loyalties between the Alexandrian and Nicaea, and had to make a choice. Even so, it is important to point out that Jerome kept consulting and teaching from Origen’s writings, even reprinting them under his own name. The plagiarism would be apparent to later generations of theologians and scholars. Thus the legacy of Jerome resulted in two Origens: one the dogmatist to be soundly rejected; the other the exegete to be admired and modeled. And so it would be until the time of Erasmus.

Conclusion

This is only a summary of the earliest controversies. A third would erupt in the sixth century, resulting in his anathematization in the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. However, a perusal of the fifteen anathemas against Origenism shows they resemble more his devotee, Evagrius, than Origen himself. While McGuckin does not set out to build a defense of Origen, he does force us to confront how we judge our religious ancestors. This work, if nothing else, is a parable on how much misunderstanding and misinterpretation we could avoid if we only read the condemned in their own words and in their own context.

Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is a writer, editor, educator, and Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection (ACNA). His interests are early Christian history, exegesis, and ascetical theology. He lives with his wife in Glen Ellyn, IL.


[1] This is often confused for the “pre-existence of souls,” which Origen did not teach. The soul, for Origen, is an intellect that has been “cooled” because of sin; a consequence of this cooling is the body hardens and becomes material. It is therefore more accurate to speak of a primordial existence of pure intellects. Calling it “the pre-existence of souls” implies a bodiless pre-existence (this confusion would lead to Origen being accused of teaching the transmigration of souls, and at other times of reincarnation; he taught neither), which further suggests that the body and soul are created separately. But Origen is clear that all creatures, in order to exist, require bodies and cannot be created separately from them. God alone is bodiless or incorporeal; in fact, Origen’s very definition of divinity seems to be: “that which exists bodilessly.” Even angels have bodies, according to Origen, but these bodies are spiritual and immaterial, as human bodies were before the Fall and will be again after glorification. For Origen, “bodily” does not necessarily suggest “material.” The primordial purity of human intellects would have been an embodied yet immaterial existence. (We also see here a glimpse into Origen’s anthropology: our bodies match the purity of our souls: the more spiritual our souls, the more spiritual our bodies. Thus our sanctification in godliness involves and transforms us in every aspect, including the nature of our bodies. Far from a Gnostic body-hating dualism, Origen sees body and soul as profoundly integrated.)

[2] Due to Erasmus’s enthusiasm for Origen, Martin Luther had a negative view of Origen, though he spoke of the Alexandrian in his early career as a “subtle Magister.” However, neither Luther’s positive nor his negative comments should be given weight, since he likely never read Origen. Yet his attitude suggests that Origen had come, in his time and in his mind, to be associated with the Christian Humanism of the Renaissance. I was surprised to see John Calvin’s views on Origen unexamined in McGuckin, since Calvin was a patristics scholar par excellence. But a conference with my copy of Anthony N. S. Lane’s John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers suggests that Calvin likely had not read him, either. Calvin, it seems, was more discriminating about speaking of those he had not read than was Luther.

[3] “Gnostic” here refers to divine or mystical knowledge, not to the tradition we call Gnosticism.

[4] In fairness, another strong Origenist at Nicaea, Athanasius of Alexandria, also had misgivings about the term for the same reason, but assented to it on the grounds that it flushed out the Arian dissidents and, if not taken too literally, could adequately convey the tri-unity of the Godhead.

  • Blake Adams


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