Thursday, May 18, 2017

Origen: A Holy Man of God Whose Brilliance Shone too Bright

This is an edited version of an older post. In the older post, I blamed Origen as the accidental starting point of compromise. I even compared him to Jeroboam, where the holy Word of God mixed with pagan metaphysics of Greek philosophy. This is not fair. Origen was one of the greatest Bible commentators, who pioneered much. This edited post reflects my changed assessment. I am sorry to have ever contributed to blackening such a righteous man's name in ignorance. Even when Origen is wrong, we should respect the spirit in which he did his work, namely Christ's Spirit, the Holy Spirit.

I've spoken highly about Origen elsewhere on this blog. He was a devout and pious man who dedicated his life to teaching and thinking the faith. He was highly educated in the best schools of Alexandria, engaging with the cutting edge of philosophy. He was thoughtful and patient. He dedicated his life to defending the Church and honoring Christ Jesus. His life was an example of scholarly piety, composing some of the first biblical commentaries, systematic theology (First Principles), and apology (Against Celsus). He set the standard for theology for centuries.

Origen set the standard for theology, but it was because he was truly a luminary. His brilliance sought to be led by the Word of God, first and foremost. It was this that led him through his study of Greek philosophy and even of Gnostic heretics. Origen sought to properly understand the glory of Jesus Christ and teach Him to all inquirers. For all teachers of the Church, Origen's breadth and depth should be honored.

In addition, this generosity of soul got him into trouble. Because Origen really took serious the Christian engagement in apologetics, he took to reading the heretics. This was something his bishop frowned upon, but Origen peaceably moved about the Roman world, seeking to understand and not cause tumult. His time in Palestine and Rome testify that Origen was indeed generous with his spiritual elders and fathers back in Egypt.

Origen was a faithful commentator of Scripture, and it was from such a vantage that he sought to understand the wonders of ancient knowledge. He knew Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, yet he never wore the philosopher's cloak, like some of his contemporaries. He believed first and foremost Christ was Wisdom who brought not only true knowledge, but saving knowledge. Origen's controversial life and increasingly controversial legacy left only fragments of his voluminous output. However, faithful and generous commentators have understood that while Origen sought to work out the Gospel with philosophical tools, he used them in creative and utilitarian ways.

Origen was truly brilliant and waded into hard territory. In the 3rd century Roman world, Gnosticism remained a battle which Origen tried to combat. In his commentaries, Origen pioneered language that would become useful for both the Arians and the Nicaeans. More importantly, Origen tried to articulate what would become the communicatio idiomatum, recognizing that Christ was Human and Divine in such an inseparable way that one could attribute elements from each to either. Origen marveled that indeed the Word of God died.

It is perhaps the brilliance, zeal, and nuance of Origen that led to confusion. Origenists, as they were labelled, would take their reputed master's teaching in strange directions. They broke a part Origen's deep and wide soul into competing systems. This was the later Origenism condemned repeatedly in the East, but this was not Origen's design, intent, or even problem. We may speak, in some sense, of an Origenist Problematic, but it is unjust to do so. While Origen may have become the source for Hellenized doctrines, he was also the inspiration of Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil's sister Macrina, who went on to teach their younger brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa. Origen truly taught the saints.

Origen's later treatment and condemnation, along with the spurious rumors of self-castration, perhaps should remind us of the Lord that he suffered for. For Origen was not only persecuted by the Romans, but was shamefully treated by his own descendants. David Bentley Hart is right to consider Justinian a "murderous thug", especially for blackening this man's character with his appended anathemas to the fifth ecumenical council at Constantinople. Origen's stout-hearted devotion to his Master led his name to be crucified. Origen believed that the Incarnation was not merely a one-time historical event, but that the history of the Word of God Enfleshed was revelation of how God the Word walked with many of the saints of Old, and continued to walk with those who were now saved according to the full revelation of the Truth. Truly, Origen walked the path of the Son of God.

Gregory of Nazianzus said that Origen was truly a whetstone, and may we all think that. It doesn't matter whether we ever read Origen, or try to puzzle out the brilliance of his language, we should all honor such a man for the incredible work he accomplished. Even if he was misunderstood, or that the subtlety of his thought was too much for students to handle, or even that Origen could not put together the solution he yearned for adequately, leading to confused and corrupting doctrine later down the line, we should honor him.

May we all pray for God to grant us more Origens, whose life and teaching remain an inspiration.

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