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Origen and his Controversial Speculations

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Origen (185-254) was a pupil of Clement of Alexandria, who he succeeded at the age of 17 as the head of the catechetical school. He was unusual among the church fathers in that he came from a Christian family. His father died in the persecution under Septimius Severus in 203. It was probably only because his mother hid his clothes that Origen was prevented from the martyrdom that he earnestly desired.

Origen is remembered as one of the greatest thinkers of the early church, who through is prodigious writing, made great impact on the thinking of the Eastern Church over the following generations. However, he left many difficulties behind him, which have caused him to be remembered as a most controversial figure in church history.

Over the following century, two conflicting streams of thought developed in the Eastern Church, both of which looked back for support from the writing of Origen. As the streams of thought became polarised to extremes, this conflict developed into the Arian Controversy, which was one of the most serious divisions in the whole of church history.

The first stream emphasised the equality of the Son with the Father. Origen had taught that Christ was the Son of God, and the Logos, who had always existed, and therefore was equal with the Father. However, this emphasis left itself open to the accusation of Sabellianism, or modalistic monarchianism. This school of thought regarded the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as different modes of God.

The second stream looked to Origen’s teaching where he seemed to say that the Son is a creature, because he is the image of the Father. This could imply that he is secondary and subordinate to him. This emphasis was taken by Dionysus, the head of the catechetical school in Alexandria in the middle of the third century. He preached against Sabellianism, stressing the distinction of the Son from the Father. However, he also used language that implied that the Father had created the Son, so there was a time when the Son did not exist, and that the Son was subordinate to the Father. The same emphasis was taken by Arius, a presbyter in the Alexandrian church, who accused his bishop of being Sabellian, thus beginning the Arian Controversy.

Although Origen based his beliefs on the Catholic rule of faith, he believed he was free to speculate in areas where the church had not defined its doctrine. It was these speculations that led him to be condemned as a heretic after his death. One of his most controversial speculations was of the pre-existence of souls. He suggested that before the creation of the material world, a set number of souls were created with the potential for good or for evil. These souls became men or demons, depending on the severity of their sin. The Logos became flesh and died, paying such a great price for salvation, that even the devil and demons can ultimately be saved. He also taught that the fall might happen again in heaven.

In his many commentaries on Scripture, Origen defined three levels of meaning in the Scriptures. The first was the historical or literal sense, which even the simple-minded soul could understand. The second was the moral application to the soul. The third was the allegorical or spiritual sense, revealing a meaning hidden from most people. His approach to Scripture was followed by the church for most of the Medieval period until the Reformation. Origen is also remembered for the Hexapla, one of the greatest pieces of scholarship from the early church. This is a version of the Old Testament in six parallel columns, including a version of the Septuagint, the Hebrew text, and four other Greek versions.

External links

De Principiis
Against Celsus
Commentary on John
Commentary on Matthew