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Origen of Alexandria, pt. 3: The Cross and Theosis

The Crucified One

In this third installment on the life and thought of Origen of Alexandria, I would like to take up a topic some may find troubling. So far, I have insisted on the significance of the “imitation of Christ” for Origen, but I have been imprecise. When Origen talks about imitating Christ or renewing the imago Dei within, what does he mean? What is the thing that Christ does that we imitate, exactly?

Many scholars today find the key kenosis (“self-emptying”) passage, where Christ is said to have taken the “form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7), to be an allusion to the Passion. While also reserved for traitors and thieves, crucifixion had a special reputation in Rome as the manner of execution for slaves. This reputation was caught up in the shamefulness (to say nothing of the physical agony) of crucifixion: for a free person to be crucified, usually for theft or treason, was to descend to the level of a slave. Rome could not tolerate one of its own enduring this indignity, so a Roman citizen could not legally be crucified. (This is why Paul was beheaded.) The passage from Philemon can be read to describe not the Incarnation generally, but the Passion particularly: Christ thus takes the form of a slave not at his conception, but on the cross; it is there where Christ’s kenosis is total and he takes “the form of a slave.”

At any rate, for all the Church Fathers, the marriage of humanity and divinity transpires on the cross in the person of Christ. This is marked by the flow of water and blood from Jesus’ side, signifying the birth of the Church, Christ’s heavenly bride. And just as in Eden, the formation of the bride from the side of the groom during his “deep sleep” and their marriage are simultaneous. The cross is where the two become one, and where we, likewise taking up our crosses, unite with Christ. There is no other way to unite with Christ except through a cross.[1] [1]

As with the other Church Fathers, Origen’s theology is crucicentric: the cross is the starting point for theology where we acknowledge Christ as Lord. If the destiny of the soul is union with God, this is accomplished, not through a dialectical regress, as the Platonist’s practiced, but through the cross, at the point of kenosis, where, Origen teaches, Christ becomes a slave oppressed by the devil.

In one’s evangelical proclamations, Christ’s identity as the Crucified One is premier:

In order truly to proclaim Jesus, it is necessary to proclaim him crucified: something would be lacking if, in proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, one were silent about one of his miracles; but much more would be lacking if one neglected to say that Jesus was crucified.

Comm. Matt. 12.19

Here Origen clarifies that the Passion is not just another miracle. It stands apart from all others. If you fail to speak of one of Christ’s miracles, this is negligent; but if you fail to speak of Christ as the Crucified One, you’ve missed everything. For Origen, to be converted is “to come to the cross of Christ” and there be “crucified to the world” (Contra Celsum 2.16). If we wish to “gaze upon God,” and behold “the vision of the Logos,” this can be acquired only at the price of death to the world and by enduring great tribulations for the sake of the name of Jesus (Comm. Matt. 30).

In fact, Origen speaks of the Gospels not as biographies of a man called Jesus, but as “reminiscences” (Contra Celsum 2.13) of a crucifixion. He analogizes the four Gospels to the four horns of the altar, as both are “anointed with blood” (Hom. Lev. 3.5.1); indeed, the Gospels “are red with the blood of Christ and glow reddish through the whole world by the blood of his Passion” (Hom. Gen. 2.1). This bloodied crucicentrism is borne out by the composition of the Gospels themselves: up to a third of the text of each Gospel concerns the immediate events of the Passion. For the original writers, interest in the details of Christ’s death is wildly disproportionate to any other event or teaching from his life. (In fact, the Gospels provide the most extensive and detailed descriptions of crucifixion we have from the ancient world.) If we must pick a genre for the Gospels, Origen might suggest: “Passion memoirs.”

In summary, Christ is the Crucified One: this is his premier identity. This is how he reveals himself to us. This is how he chooses to dwell with us and draw us to himself. Thus to imitate Christ means to be and to be called a crucified one, and whatever the Christian might think, say, or do, it must be engraved with the sign of the cross. Origen obviously gets these notions from the New Testament writers, for whom “the imitation of Christ” and “taking up one’s cross” are identical concepts (e.g., 1 Pet. 2:20–25; Phil. 2:1–11).

The Double Crucifixion

In prior articles in this series on Origen (part 1 [2] and part 2 [3]), the effect of sin on the soul was construed as estrangement, or alienation, from God: by sin, we obscure the imago Dei and become strangers to God (Matt. 7:23). But what is the character of this estrangement? In his Sixth Homily on Exodus, Origen reflects on how it is possible that God could be said to have “acquired” (or “purchased”) his people (Exod. 15:16): If the Lord is the creator of all things, isn’t everything already his possession? Therefore, “we must consider in what manner he is said ‘to have acquired’ what is without doubt his own.” He explains:

You see, therefore, that we are all creatures of God. But each one is sold for his own sins and, for his iniquities, parts from his own creator. We, therefore, belong to God in so far as we have been created by him. But we have become slaves of the devil in so far as we have been sold in our sins. Christ came, however, and “bought us back” [cf. Gal. 3:13] when we were serving that lord to whom we sold ourselves by sinning. And so he appears to have recovered as his own those whom he created; to have [purchased] as though belonging to another those who had sought another word for themselves by sinning.

Hom. Exod. 6.9

Origen conveys that sin is not merely estrangement from God, but the displacement of God in the soul by another power. By sinning, we “sell ourselves” and answer to another lordship; namely, the devil, under whose oppression we are now captive. In the ancient world, debt was the most common road to slavery; debtors became the slaves of those from whom they borrowed. Analogously, the soul accrues a debt by committing evil deeds, because things like murder, adultery, false testimony, etc., are all “the devil’s property and treasure, for such money proceeds from his mint”; and for those who so draw from his mint, the devil may write “documents of slavery” (Hom. Exod. 6.9). The devil abused Christ on the cross, Origen teaches, as “a captor his slave” (Hom. Ps. 73.1.6), not realizing that the blood spilled purchased our liberty (Hom. Ps. 73.1.5). Not only that, but the former oppressor now finds he is the one affixed to the cross. Christ’s crucifixion is thus a “double crucifixion”: devil and Christ are crucified simultaneously. In this respect, the cross is truly the new Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for it bears both: both “the good Christ and the evil Devil were suspended. Indeed, the evil one was suspended so that he might perish, but the good so that he might live ‘by the power’ [2 Cor 13:4]” (Hom. Josh. 8.6). Christ, by taking the form of a slave, thus makes the devil his subject.

In the same manner, the “crucifixion” of every soul that takes up his cross is “double”: We give up our whole person, but it is the flesh, in the Apostle Paul’s sense of the term, that remains affixed to the cross. Accompanying the offering of oneself to the Father, this sacrifice of the flesh is done to the end that we become more spiritual, less earthly and more heavenly, and thereby become more fitting partners of Christ. For Origen, to be a sacrifice to God means the soul places “the love of God before love of the flesh and he [i.e., the individual] is found not with the affection of the flesh, but ‘with the affection of Christ’ [cf. Phil. 1:8], that is with the affection of the Word of God and of the truth and wisdom” (Hom. Gen. 8.7). This done, the spiritual powers that once oppressed you now fear you:

What do demons fear? At what do they tremble? Without doubt, the cross of Christ in which “they have been conquered, in which their principalities and powers have been stripped” [cf. Col. 2:15]. Therefore, “fear and trembling shall fall upon them,” when they see the sign of the cross faithfully fixed on us …They will not, therefore, otherwise fear you, nor “will dread of you come upon them” unless they see the cross of Christ in you, unless you can say, “But let me not glory except in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” [Gal. 6:14].

Hom. Exod. 6.8

It is no accident that Origen writes this in a homily on Exodus. The crossing of the Red Sea is a figure of baptism. For Origen, in baptism, not only are we washed of our sins, but also we pass from one kingdom to another. By “the sign of the cross,” Origen invariably means the ancient practice of conducting an exorcism on the newly baptized. This was done by making the signum crucis with oil on the foreheads of those rising from the water, “marking” them as Christ’s own (Rev. 22:4). This exorcism is still practiced today in many Christian baptismal rites: an echo of this ancient “ransom” soteriology.

The process of crucifying the flesh begins the moment the soul attempts to conform to Christ. In fact, to attempt this is to invite hardship into what might otherwise have been a comfortable life:

Perhaps you used to think that the way which God shows would be level and easy and certainly would involve no difficulty of labor. It is an ascent, and a winding ascent. For it is not a downhill way on which one strives toward virtue, but it is ascended and it is ascended with great difficulty…There are many temptations, many stumbling blocks for those who wish to do God’s work. Next, you may find many winding things in the faith, many questions, many objections of heretics, many contradictions of the unfaithful. This, therefore, is the way to be pursued by those who follow God.

Hom. Exod. 5.3

But the journey is not without its comforts: we will sense our progress, for example; in addition, “the hope of future rewards provides rest for those who labor, as the hope of a crown soothes the pain of injuries for those entered in an athletic contest” (Hom. Exod. 6.7). But Origen sees the Christian life as characterized chiefly by­—indeed, requiring—tests and trials of all types. A Christian will draw the ire of both world and devil, and the flesh will never cease its demands for pleasures that insulate it from the fear of death. But even if we never reach the Promised Land of perfection, it is still better to progress a little; or in Origen’s steely terms: “Better to die in the wilderness than serve in Egypt” (Hom. Exod. 5.4). Ultimately, the Christian way is not about how far we progress morally or spiritually, but who owns our allegiance:

For he who dies in the wilderness, for the very reason that he has been separated from the Egyptians [i.e., the world] and has departed from “the rulers of darkness” [Eph. 6:12] and from the power of Satan, has a certain perfection even if he was not able to arrive at completion. For it is better for one seeking the perfect life to die on the way than not to set out to seek perfection.

Hom. Exod. 5.4

Theosis

Thus far, we have shown that, for Origen, the imitation of Christ consists primarily in being and being called a crucified one. This does not necessarily mean becoming a martyr. The spiritual labor of crucifying the flesh is more essential than the death of the body. While the cross is our first principle, the centerpiece of both the Gospels and the soul, the entirety of Christ’s life and ministry equip us for this labor:

But for this reason Christ has overcome and conquered, that he might open the way for you to conquer. For this reason he conquered while fasting [cf. Matt. 4:2], that you also might know that “the race of demons of this kind” is to be conquered “by fasts and prayers” [cf. Mark 9:29]. For this reason he despised “all the kingdoms of the world” which were offered to him “and their glory” [Matt. 4:8], that you also, despising the glory of the world, might be able to conquer the tempter.

Hom. Exod. 2.3

Christ did not suffer to become a sympathetic character, nor merely to exist in solidarity with us as an advocate; rather, in dying, he reclaims us and makes possible our union with the Father by laying down a crucicentric mode of life. And Origen, like all the Church Fathers of the era, prefers to speak of this union in terms of theosis, or deification.

Theosis is prominent among the Church Fathers; Origen teaches nothing original in this regard, but he is difficult to understand without it. It is best explained by way of analogy. Imagine the human soul is a lump of iron, and God is a flame. As the soul draws near to the fire, it begins to assume the attributes of the fire: it becomes hot, luminous, and liquid. When the lump is deposited into the flame and their “union” is total, however, the iron does not cease to be iron, even though it is transformed. By the same token, the human soul is finite, and no matter how profoundly it participates in infinity, and no matter how much it may come to resemble divinity, the soul never ceases to be finite, nor is it obliterated into the infinite. Like the lump of iron, the human essence remains intact. It is not annihilated into divine infinity, but transfigured into a heavenly image.

For Origen, this describes the process of uniting with God by imitating Christ. The paradigm for theosis is the Ascension of Christ. He characterizes Christ’s ascent as the blazing of a trail to the Father which we are meant to retrace, “even in this way following Jesus, who passed through all the heavens, so that he came to be next to the God and Father of the universe, so that one could grow to be beside God by following Christ” (Hom. Ps. 77.4.9). Just as Christ assumed his (human) body into heaven, but now as a spiritual body imbued with the divine nature, so also our humanity will be both preserved and imbued with the divine nature. This marks the point of distinction between Christian and Platonist notions of theosis: for Christians, deification is equivalent to Christ-ification.

A second point of departure is Origen insists that this deification is not according to nature, but according to grace:

But although these [souls] are susceptible of God and appear to be given this name by grace, nevertheless no one is found like God in either power or nature. And although the Apostle John says, “Little children we do not yet know what we shall be; but if he has been revealed to us”—speaking about the Lord, of course—”we shall be like him” [1 John 3:2], nevertheless, this likeness is applied not to nature but to beauty. For example, it is as if we should say that a painting is a likeness of him whose image is expressed in the painting. So far as the appearance pertains to beauty, it is said to be similar; so far as it pertains to substance, it is very dissimilar. For the painting is a figure of the flesh and the beauty of a living body. It is an artifice of colors and wax placed on tablets lacking sensation. No one, therefore, “among the gods is like the Lord,” for no one is invisible, no one incorporeal, no one immutable, no one without beginning and end, no one creator of all, except the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit.  

Hom. Exod. 6.5

In brief, the Christian is a divine image of human substance. Theosis names union with God as the end of all humanity, but Origen argues this was not possible until the appearance of Christ. Before this, our relation with God, while actual, was rather remote and legal: now it involves a transformation of being. We must become new creatures. Through deification, which is identical to conformity to Christ (how could it not be, unless Christ is not divine?), we become “like God,” and in this way, become suitable partners fit for the Logos, our heavenly groom.

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 [4].


[1] [5] A brief doctrinal interlude: the Eschaton is not the wedding. The wedding took place on Golgotha. The Eschaton is the wedding feast: the reception in the Father’s house, whereunto groom is even now leading his bride.