Origen—How Did His Teaching Affect the Church?
“The greatest master of the Church after the Apostles.” Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, thus praised the third-century theologian Origen. But not everyone held Origen in such high esteem. Some viewed him as an evil root from which heresies sprang. In the words of a 17th-century writer, Origen’s critics asserted: “His doctrine in general is absurd and pernicious, a Serpentine deadly poison, which he vomited into the world.” About three centuries after his death, in fact, Origen was formally declared a heretic.
WHY did Origen evoke both admiration and animosity? What influence did he have on the development of church doctrine?
Zealous for the Church
Origen was born about 185 C.E. in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. He received a thorough education in Greek literature, but his father, Leonides, compelled him to expend equal effort in studying the Scriptures. When Origen was 17, the Roman emperor issued an edict making it a crime to change one’s religion. Origen’s father was thrown into prison because he had become a Christian. Filled with youthful zeal, Origen was determined to join him in prison and in martyrdom. Seeing this, Origen’s mother hid his clothes to prevent him from leaving home. By letter, Origen pleaded with his father: “Be careful not to change your mind because of us.” Leonides remained firm and was executed, leaving his family destitute. But Origen had already advanced far enough in his studies to be able to support his mother and six younger brothers by teaching Greek literature.
The emperor’s intent was to stem the spread of Christianity. Since his edict targeted not just students but also teachers, all Christian religious instructors fled Alexandria. When non-Christians seeking Scriptural instruction appealed to young Origen for help, he embraced this work as a commission from God. Many of his students suffered martyrdom, some even before completing their studies. At great personal risk, Origen openly encouraged his students, whether they were before a judge, in prison, or about to be executed. Fourth-century historian Eusebius reports that when they were being led to their death, Origen, “with great boldness, saluted them with a kiss.”
Origen incurred the wrath of many non-Christians, who held him responsible for the conversion and death of their friends. He often narrowly escaped mob action and a violent death. Though forced to move from place to place to elude his pursuers, Origen did not let up in his teaching. Such fearlessness and dedication impressed Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria. Hence, when Origen was only 18 years of age, Demetrius appointed him head of the school for religious instruction in Alexandria.
Eventually, Origen became a noted scholar and a prolific writer. Some said that he wrote 6,000 books, though this is likely an exaggeration. He is most famous for his Hexapla, a mammoth, 50-volume edition of the Hebrew Scriptures. Origen arranged the Hexapla in six parallel columns containing: (1) the Hebrew and Aramaic text, (2) a Greek transliteration of that text, (3) Aquila’s Greek version, (4) Symmachus’ Greek version, (5) the Greek Septuagint, which Origen revised to correspond more exactly to the Hebrew text, and (6) Theodotion’s Greek version. “By this combination of texts,” wrote Bible scholar John Hort, “Origen hoped to throw light on the meaning of many passages in which a Greek reader would be either bewildered or misled if he had only the Septuagint before him.”
‘Going Beyond the Things Written’
Nevertheless, the confused religious climate of the third century profoundly affected Origen’s approach to teaching the Scriptures. Although Christendom was in its infancy, it had already become polluted with unscriptural beliefs, and its scattered churches were teaching a variety of doctrines.
Origen accepted some of these unscriptural doctrines, calling them the teaching of the apostles. But he felt free to speculate on other questions. Many of his students were then wrestling with contemporary philosophical issues. In an effort to help them, Origen made a careful study of the various schools of philosophy that were shaping his young students’ minds. He set out to provide his students with satisfying answers to their philosophical questions.
In an attempt to reconcile the Bible with philosophy, Origen relied heavily upon the allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures. He assumed that Scripture always had a spiritual meaning but not necessarily a literal one. As one scholar noted, this allowed Origen “the means of reading into the Bible whatever non-biblical ideas were congenial to his own theological system, while professing (and no doubt sincerely imagining himself) to be a particularly enthusiastic and faithful interpreter of the thought of the Bible.”
A letter that Origen wrote to one of his students provides insight into his thinking. Origen pointed out that the Israelites made utensils for Jehovah’s temple out of Egyptian gold. In this he found allegorical support for his use of Greek philosophy to teach Christianity. He wrote: “How useful to the children of Israel were the things brought from Egypt, which the Egyptians had not put to a proper use, but which the Hebrews, guided by the wisdom of God, used for God’s service.” Origen thus encouraged his student to “extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity.”
This unrestrained approach to Biblical interpretation blurred the lines between Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy. For example, in his book entitled On First Principles, Origen described Jesus as ‘the only-begotten Son, who was born, but without any beginning.’ And he added: ‘His generation is eternal and everlasting. It was not by receiving the breath of life that he is made a Son, by any outward act, but by God’s own nature.’
Origen did not find this idea in the Bible, for the Scriptures teach that Jehovah’s only-begotten Son is “the firstborn of all creation” and “the beginning of the creation by God.” (Colossians 1:15; Revelation 3:14) According to religious historian Augustus Neander, Origen arrived at the concept of “eternal generation” through his “philosophical education in the Platonic school.” Thus, Origen violated this basic Scriptural principle: “Do not go beyond the things that are written.”—1 Corinthians 4:6.
Condemned as a Heretic
During his early years as a teacher, an Alexandrine Synod stripped Origen of his priesthood. This probably occurred because Bishop Demetrius was envious of Origen’s growing fame. Origen moved to Palestine, where admiration for him as a reputed defender of Christian doctrine remained unbounded, and there he continued as a priest. In fact, when “heresies” erupted in the East, his services were sought to convince erring bishops to return to orthodoxy. After his death in 254 C.E., Origen’s name especially came into serious disrepute. Why?
After nominal Christianity had become a prominent religion, what the church accepted as orthodox teaching came to be more narrowly defined. Hence, later generations of theologians did not accept many of Origen’s speculative and sometimes imprecise philosophical views. His teachings therefore ignited bitter controversies within the church. In an effort to settle these disputes and preserve its unity, the church formally convicted Origen of heresy.
Origen was not alone in his errors. Actually, the Bible had foretold a general departure from the pure teachings of Christ. This apostasy began to flourish by the close of the first century, after Jesus’ apostles had died. (2 Thessalonians 2:6, 7) Eventually, certain professed Christians established themselves as “orthodox,” proclaiming all others to be “heretical.” But in reality, Christendom deviated greatly from true Christianity.
“Falsely Called ‘Knowledge’”
Despite Origen’s many speculations, his works contain beneficial elements. For example, the Hexapla retained God’s name in its original four-letter Hebrew form, called the Tetragrammaton. This provides important evidence that early Christians knew and used the personal name of God—Jehovah. Nevertheless, a fifth-century church patriarch named Theophilus once cautioned: “The works of Origen are like a meadow of every kind of flower. If I find any beautiful flower there, I pluck it; but if anything looks prickly to me I avoid it as I would a sting.”
By mixing Bible teachings with Greek philosophy, Origen’s theology became littered with error, and the consequences were disastrous for Christendom. For instance, though most of Origen’s wild speculations were later rejected, his views about the “eternal generation” of Christ helped to lay the foundation for the non-Biblical doctrine of the Trinity. The book The Church of the First Three Centuries observes: “The taste for philosophy [introduced by Origen] was destined not to be soon extinct.” With what result? “The simplicity of the Christian faith was corrupted, and an infinity of errors flowed into the Church.”
For his part, Origen could have heeded the apostle Paul’s admonition and avoided contributing to this apostasy by “turning away from the empty speeches that violate what is holy and from the contradictions of the falsely called ‘knowledge.’” Instead, by basing so much of his teaching on such “knowledge,” Origen “deviated from the faith.”—1 Timothy 6:20, 21; Colossians 2:8.
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Origen’s “Hexapla” provides evidence that God’s name was used in the Christian Greek Scriptures
Published by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library, T-S 12.182
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