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Origen of Alexandria, pt. 2: Philosophy

In the first article [1] in this series, I introduced Origen of Alexandria, a third-century Christian teacher, and led with the question: Why would a third-century pagan convert to Christianity? Naturally, this is a large topic, since the incentives to convert in any era can be complex and often obscure, but Origen and other Church Fathers appear to place special emphasis on what we might call Christ-centered exemplarism: Our capacity, by faith, to participate in divine life by imitation of the Son. As we conform to his Image, the eyes of the world can recognize the divine goodness and beauty in the Christian mode of life even before they are convinced of its truth. That must come eventually, but the name of Christ is made great and overcomes the world principally, says Origen, “through the life [of Christians], for we magnify our Lord through a life, through a holy logos, through a flourishing condition” (Hom. Ps. 75.1). This exemplarism carried evangelistic force in Origen’s time, and I think it is still in force today, though seldom acknowledged: Why expect anybody to convert to Christianity if they find it (that is, if they find Christians) ugly or harmful or impotent, even if they think, more or less, that it is true? Christianity may adorn itself with elaborate apologetics, well-crafted traditions, and grand belief systems, but the life-lived-Christianly is the first principle, the sine qua non, of evangelism. Without it, to what do we expect others to convert? Thus the first concern of a Christian facing down a non-Christian world is, as Origen put it, “to be and to be called a Christian” (Hom. Lk. 16.6).

How practically this is done is a subject we will tackle in later articles. For now, my most recent article [1] left opportunity for confusion, so this part two seeks to clarify Origen’s position. Part of the confusion arises from my use of the term “exemplarism.” To be clear, this is my term, not Origen’s. I use it to express a theme in his thought (and present in the thought of many Church Fathers) that Jesus is a perfect human exemplar of the divine Logos, and by imitating Christ we, as it were, sacramentally participate in that divine life. Moreover, this “sacrament of imitation” (another term of mine, not Origen’s) is much the point of the Logos becoming man: he wants us to imitate him in this way; he wants our joining to be done through imitation, as opposed to some other way. And yet—here the clarification—this Christo-sacramental exemplarism should not be construed to mean that Origen saw Christ merely as a moral model or as a philosopher, since this would be unremarkable: we have abundant examples of each already. In fact, for Origen, that Christ is both human and divine is the distinct appeal of Christianity. As we expound, let’s lead with the questions: Did Origen consider Christianity a philosophy? And, Did Origen consider himself a philosopher?

Two Definitions of Philosophy

There are two ways to define philosophy. The first is the philosophies, that is, the Greco-Roman schools such as Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and others. By his own report, Origen engaged not at all with these until after his fame as a teacher began to spread, “and soon there were heretics coming to me, and sometimes Greeks formed in Hellenist studies and especially philosophy; that got me involved in examining the opinions of the heretics and what the philosophers professed to say about the truth” (Contra Celsum 4.48). His exposure to philosophical thought, therefore, was relatively late, and his association of them with heretics is not accidental. An avid collector of books, however, Origen would eventually develop an expertise in many philosophical schools, bequeathing later in life the entirety of Plato’s corpus to the Library in Caesarea. However, when speaking of philosophy as the historic Greco-Roman schools, Origen always speaks negatively. 

The second way to define philosophy is “the pursuit of wisdom,” or as Origen puts it, the “knowledge of beings that tells us how we should live” (Contra Celsum 3.12–13). So long as philosophy meant the progress of the soul towards wisdom, separation from the world, and union with God, it was possible to speak of Christianity in philosophical terms. Thus, many Church Fathers say that Christianity was not just any philosophy, but “the true philosophy,” the “highest philosophy,” “the philosophy of Christ,” and the “philosophy according to the divine tradition.” Some Fathers of this period, like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, believed Christianity had supplanted all other schools. Justin reports both philosophy and Christianity share the same goal: “to gaze upon God” (Justin, Dialogue, ii [2]). This is man’s chief end according to both Plato (Theaetetus, clxxvi.b) and the Psalmist (Ps 27:8). The arrival of Christ thus completes the chief aspiration of the Greco-Roman schools. With the arrival of Christianity, the schools are defunct. Christianity is the philosophy to end all other philosophies.

The flaw in this thinking is apparent: For Christianity to replace philosophy requires Christianity to be a philosophy and, by implication, Christ to be a philosopher. But is this how we ought to identify Christ? Is this how he identifies himself? The repercussions become most apparent in Clement’s thought. He portrays Christ as a master of the philosophical virtue of apatheia, and thus felt neither anger nor grief (Stromateis [3] 6.9.74). Clement did not address Christ overturning tables in the temple (Mark 11:15–18) or weeping at the report of Lazarus’s death (John 11:1–37).[1] [4]

The Pursuit Above Philosophy

In the Hellenistic world, along with the practice of law, philosophy was seen as the highest discipline. Others like music, astronomy, and geometry were required prerequisites for this work. Justin Martyr was turned away from the Pythagorean school because he was inadequately prepared in these subjects (Dialogue, viii). Origen, however, claims that the advent of Christ had revealed a discipline above even philosophy: biblical exegesis (not to be confused with theology, which the Church Fathers would categorize under philosophy). In a letter to a particularly bright student, Origen writes:

Thus your pursuit can have made you an expert Roman lawyer [i.e., rhetor] and a Greek philosopher of those schools which are deemed significant. But I would wish you to employ the full power of your pursuit ultimately for Christianity; therefore as a means I would beseech you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks all those general lessons and instructions which can serve Christianity, and whatever from geometry and astronomy will be useful for interpreting the holy Scriptures. Thus, what the children of the philosophers say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as handmaids to philosophy, we also may say concerning philosophy itself in relation to Christianity.

Letter to Gregory, 1.2

Origen’s appeal was that his student would not settle with law or philosophy, but would advance beyond them to the study of the holy Scriptures. For Origen, philosophy is neither extinguished by the advent of Christ, nor does Christianity look upon philosophy as a peer and rival, nor was Origen interested in flaunting his knowledge of philosophy nor wasting breath to praise it. Instead, philosophy is superseded by a greater aspiration: just as astronomy and geometry are handmaidens to philosophy, so philosophy is a handmaiden to scriptural exegesis. For Origen, the Christian life at its most advanced stage was the Way of the Book. (We will revisit this in a later article on Origen and Scripture.) Origen’s student would answer his call: he was Gregory Thaumaturgus, who would go on to mentor the Cappadocian Fathers.

Even so, the relationship between philosophy and Scripture is fraught, Origen warns. To its credit, philosophy does contain “some greatness” (Contra Celsum praef. 5) and “through the learning of philosophy,” we can “comprehend many things even of the truth,” and philosophy is particularly helpful for working out matters on which Scripture is vague or silent (e.g., What is the nature of the soul? This question is of great theological and doctrinal concern, but Scripture says little about it, so we must attempt to work it out philosophically).[2] [5] Even so, philosophy and Scripture will exist in constant tension: “For philosophy is neither opposed to everything in the Law of God nor in harmony with everything” (Hom. Gen. 14.3). Neither always in dissension nor at peace, this tension promises fruit as much as it risks error. Origen expand this point at length in a homily:

Many philosophers write that there is one God, who created all things. In this they agree with the divine Law. Some have also added that God both made and rules all things through his Logos. In this they write what is in agreement not only with the Law, but also with the Gospel. In both Ethics and almost the whole of Natural philosophy their views are the same as ours. But the latter disagrees with us when it maintains that matter is coeternal with God. It also disagrees when it denies that God takes heed of mortal affairs and limits providence to the realm above the moon. They disagree with us when they make the lives of those who are born depend on the movements of the stars. They disagree when the say that this world is eternal and will never have an end.

Hom. Gen. 14.3

One gets the picture of Origen fingering through the contents of philosophical handbooks, dividing the good from the bad: Stoic physics is helpful, but not its materialism, and these must be separated. Origen also appreciates Stoic ethics, which emphasize rational choice and freedom from passion, but Origen adds that human action must ultimately be based on love of God and the assistance of divine grace. Origen is deeply familiar with Aristotelian logic, but roundly rejects Aristotelian limitations on the action of providence. The list goes on. This task of carefully discriminating between what in Greco-Roman philosophies accords with Scripture and what doesn’t seems to have been the primary pedagogical value of philosophy for Origen. Gregory Thaumaturgus describes the advanced courses with Origen:

[Origen] praised the lovers of philosophy with many great and suitable laudations, declaring that the only people who lead a life truly worthy of reasonable creatures are those who aim at living an upright life, and who seek to know first of all themselves, what kind of persons they are, and then the things that are truly good, which one should strive after, and then the things that are really evil, from which one ought to flee…So to us nothing was beyond words, nor was anything hidden and inaccessible. We were permitted to learn every doctrine, both barbarian and Greek, both the most mystical and the most pragmatic, both divine and human; we pursued the ins and outs of all these more than sufficiently and examined them closely, taking our fill of everything and enjoying the good things of the soul.

Gregory, Panegyric, 15.182; emphasis mine

For Origen, philosophy is a testing ground to develop skills that will be useful to the exegete. It also shows his thought is fundamentally biblical in ways underappreciated by his later critics.

Identifying Christ as a philosopher makes him a mere teacher on the same plane as the likes of Socrates. Origen avoids this exegetically by emphasizing Christ’s identity as the Logos, or Wisdom, of God. A philosopher is a lover of wisdom, but Christ is Wisdom itself. Socrates might be a model for pursuing the Good, but Christ is the Good incarnate; by imitating him, we participate in the Good directly. One greater than Socrates is here.

The Servant of the Word

The corollary of these observations is, just as Origen did not think Jesus a philosopher, so Origen does not think himself a philosopher—as he is often construed today. He thinks of himself primarily as an exegete, a “servant of the Word” (Hom. Gen. 13.3), which seems to be a special teaching role in the Church distinct from other teachers or priests or bishops. The exegete, in Origen’s imagining, does not merely make Scripture a fundamental part of his spiritual life or the rule of his teachings. The standard is more extreme. Allegorizing Scripture to the “well of vision” (Gen. 25:11), Origen explains the exegete has made Scripture the singular dedication of his life:

Or certainly even if I shall not have been able to understand everything, if I am, nevertheless, busily engaged in the divine Scriptures and “I meditate on the Law of God day and night” [cf. Ps. 1:2] and at no time at all do I desist inquiring, discussing, investigating, and certainly, what is greatest, praying God and asking for understanding from him who “teaches man knowledge” [cf. Ps. 93:10], I shall appear “to dwell at the well of vision.”

Hom. Gen. 11.3

Even if a person senses that he is not drawing up any life-giving waters from the well of Scripture, the exegete lingers and persists in the work of exegesis. Origen was aware not everyone could commit to the exegetical life, but not everyone had to, for the Scriptures were not for the exegete alone, but for all the Church and the world:

And let us dig so much that the waters of the Scriptures suffices not only for us, but we may also teach others and instruct others, that men may drink, and cattle may drink. Let the wise hear. Let all the simple hear. For the teacher of the Church is “debtor to the wise and to the unwise” [Rom. 1:14].

Hom. Gen. 13.4

The exegetical life was not a private toil for the sanctification of the individual, but a common work sustained by the prayers of the entire assembly which built up the Church as a whole. Here, we find one of the key aspects where Christianity, for Origen, is not at all like a philosophy, even a “divine philosophy.” Philosophy was elitist; it promised an “upright life” to only a few.  But in Origen’s understanding of the exegetical life, we see Christianity was for all, and the exegete owed a “debt” to both the simple and the wise which he paid by abiding beside “the well of vision” continuously. All the Church was involved in the work of the exegete, and they grew in conformity to Christ together.

Philosophy vs. Gospel

Analogies between the Church and philosophy are rare in Origen; rather than “divine philosophy,” Origen prefers the term “Gospel,” by which he doesn’t only mean “the narrative of the deeds, suffering, and words of Jesus” (Comm. John 1.20), that is, the written Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but all the writings (including the Old Testament) which “present the sojourn of Christ and prepare for his coming and produce it in the souls of those who are willing to receive the Word of God who stands at the door and knocks and wishes to enter their souls” (Comm. John 1.26). The Gospel is thus more than a historical narrative; it is an “exhortatory address” (Comm. John 1.18) of a uniquely exegetical dimension which produces faith in hearers. The Gospel thus differs from philosophy in at least one critical respect: With philosophy, the soul, allegorized by the myth of Eros (as discussed in my last article), is enamored with the Good but knows it will never achieve it; with the Gospel, the soul actually acquires the Good it seeks.

Blake Adams is an an associate at the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL, a Latin tutor for the Ancient Language Institute, and a copyeditor at Wipf and Stock Publishers. He writes regularly at Read Religiously [6].


[1] [7] Apatheia would later be enshrined in the Christian tradition, but only after being redefined from “lack of passion” to “freedom from passions which cause sin.” Clement’s usage, however, is indistinguishable from his Hellenist peers.

[2] [8] The Church Fathers of this period were, perhaps, more varied on this question than on any other. There were at least three different views on the nature of the soul: “those who consider the soul an intelligible substance but a generated one (Justin, Irenaeus); those who consider the soul an intelligible but ungenerated substance (Origen); and those who consider the soul a corporeal substance (Tertullian)” (George Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity (Durham: Acumen, 2013), 16). All four of these Fathers consulted philosophy in their deliberations because the question could not be resolved exegetically.