Saint Origen of Alexandria

Biography1

Origen2 was born in the mid 180s in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was an upper class professor of literature and a committed Christian, who raised Origen in the faith and taught him to memorise scripture passages every day.

When Origen was in his late teens, there was a violent persecution throughout the Roman empire put in motion by the Emperor Severus. During this time Origen’s father was imprisoned and eventually executed via beheading. Origen was zealous for martyrdom and desired to turn himself in to the persecuting authorities, but his mother prevented him from doing so by hiding all of his clothes at the crucial moment, thus preventing him from leaving his house and turning himself in.

At the age of 18, Origen found work as a catechist at the Alexandrian Catechetical school. This was a means by which he could support his family, who were in need of a new breadwinner seeing as his father had been executed. Origen’s routine at this time consisted of spending the daylight hours teaching, and then staying up late into the night writing theological works. At this period of his life he refused to drink alcohol and refused to eat meat.3

Around this time Origen managed to convert a wealthy man named Ambrose to the faith. Ambrose showed his gratitude to Origen by supplying him with funding and all the material resources required to live out his academic vocation.

Apart from teaching, Origen was also a student and it is reported by Eusebius that he studied under another renowned church father, Clement of Alexandria. Origen also studied at the various other philosophical schools in Alexandria, giving him both wide and deep exposure to the broader tradition of Hellenistic thought.

Tradition holds that Origen castrated himself sometime during this youthful Alexandrian period. This was on account of his holding to a literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12. There is an ongoing dispute among historians as to whether this actually happened, and one alternative theory is that the story was concocted by his enemies as a false rumour in order to tarnish his reputation and get him into trouble with the Roman authorities.

In his 20s, Origen travelled around Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, including visits to Rome and Arabia. During this time he had a tense relationship with Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, who had jurisdiction over him. At a certain point on his travels, Origen was illicitly ordained a priest by one of the bishops at Caesarea, which worsened the tension between Origen and Demetrius. Origen opted to remain in Caesarea rather than return to Alexandria. Meanwhile Demetrius started to actively oppose Origen by spreading rumours and generating scandal and outrage towards Origen’s more speculative ideas (such as apokatastasis). However ultimately the attempt to tarnish Origen’s name was unsuccessful, and during his stay in Caesarea, he acquired a reputation as the premier Christian theologian of the day.

Origen continued teaching up until 250, when the Decian persecution occurred. Origen was captured and his captors brutally tormented him in an attempt to force him to renounce his faith. Origen endured the torture for two years without succumbing to the temptation to apostatise. He lived out the short remainder of his life severely crippled, finally dying at the age of 69.

Major Works and Key Themes

According to Epiphanius, Origen wrote around 6000 treatises and other works, while St Jerome gives a more modest estimate which puts the number around 2000.4 Unfortunately the majority of his literary corpus has been lost, but nevertheless what remains extant is substantial. He wrote commentaries on all of the scriptural books, as well as numerous homilies and letters dealing with theological themes. Arguably the most important of his writings that we still possess today is Περι Αρχων (On First Principles)5, which is a (relatively) short systematic theology touching upon every important theological point, including protology, christology, anthropology, pure theology, eschatology, soteriology and so on.

Origen’s teachings constitute a single systematic theology which can only be understood as a unified whole; while he did cover the whole territory and have something to say about all the different areas of Christian theology, attempting to divide his theology into separate and isolated domains risks misrepresenting him. However, there are three key themes which today stand out as unique in his thinking and writings: Pre-existence, Samsara and Apokatastasis, and these three are intimately intertwined with each other.

Samsara is a sanskrit word which names the foundational philosophical concept underlying all Indian and eastern philosophy, theology, and religion. In terms of importance and centrality to Indian thought, it occupies a place and prestige akin to that which Tawhid6 holds in Islam and to which the Trinity holds in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Samsara also features in the wings of the western tradition, with some of the Greek philosophers holding to it, and it also featured for a time in the Christian tradition via Origen and those whom he influenced.

Common to all conceptions of samsara is the idea that nature, reality, existence and history are essentially cyclical.7 However beyond this broad definition, different schools differ significantly on the details. As a point of comparison, the Indian (and ancient Greek) schools8 broadly teach that a human may live through their life, and then on the basis of the karma9 they have accrued at their point of death, the human person may be reborn as one of either: another human, an animal, a plant, an inanimate object such as a rock a god10 or even an angel or demon.11 Generally this rebirth is understood to occur at some subsequent point on the same historical timeline as the previous life12. In this way a soul (or “empty being” in the case of Buddhism) may live many distinct and loosely connected lives one after another, sometimes living as a human, sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a plant. During one life the soul may reside within the body of a beautiful Chinese woman, the next life it may make its home in the body of an evil African dictator.13 The only thing linking different lives together is that the actions undertaken in a previous life will at some point produce an (positive or negative) effect in one or another of the subsequent lives.

In contrast, Origen’s account of samsara firmly denies the transmigration of souls as just described.14 Origen’s version of samsara is more analogous to the movie “Groundhog Day.”15 Rather than being reborn “as some other person”, Origen maintained that a person is resurrected as the same person they were in their previous life, with the same body, same parents, same cultural and historical context and so on. The Stoic school of Greek philosophy also affirmed this, however where the Stoics believed in an infinitely repeating cycle which plays out exactly the same in every detail every time,16 Origen firmly held to a doctrine of free will,17 which implies that every cycle will be different as it is affected by the choices that persons make during their many lifetimes. Just as in Groundhog day, the purpose of living the same life over and over again is in order to be spiritually educated and one day “get it right”, thus breaking out of the cycle of death and rebirth, and finally arriving permanently in the heavenly eschaton.18

In Indian thought samsara is without beginning or end; the cycle of life, death and rebirth has been going on for all eternity and it will continue to go on forever. Whereas in Origen’s account of samsara the history of the cosmos has a beginning and an end; the cycle of life, death and rebirth began with the fall of mankind at the beginning (αρχη) of history19, and it will come to an end (τελος) once all persons have achieved salvation and arrived safely in the eschaton20. Origen’s claim is that the beginning is the same as the end: Just as all persons existed in happiness and harmony in the beginning, so too all persons will exist in happiness and harmony in the end.21 So whereas in Indian construals of the doctrine, samsara is unbounded and infinite, in Origen’s understanding samsara is bounded by the fall as the beginning of the cycle and the restoration at the end of the cycle.22

This brings us to Origen’s teaching of pre-existence. This is the most misunderstood23 and controversial aspect of his teaching, and was historically a major cause of his condemnation at the fifth ecumenical council24 and his subsequent loss of reputation and standing in the church – a reputation which he has only recently begun to recapitulate.25

Origen is commonly criticised as teaching that souls pre-exist their bodies26, which is nonsensical according to Aristotelian and Thomistic construals of the soul as “the form of the body”. However when analysed closely, one discovers that Origen actually teaches the pre-existence of whole persons, including both soul and body27. Following St Paul, Origen teaches that there is both a samsaric physical body and a resurrected spiritual body.

Οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις τῶν νεκρῶν. σπείρεται ἐν φθορᾷ, ἐγείρεται ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ· σπείρεται ἐν ἀτιμίᾳ, ἐγείρεται ἐν δόξῃ· σπείρεται ἐν ἀσθενείᾳ, ἐγείρεται ἐν δυνάμει· σπείρεται σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἐγείρεται σῶμα πνευματικόν. Εἰ ἔστιν σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἔστιν καὶ πνευματικόν. οὕτως καὶ γέγραπται· Ἐγένετο ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος Ἀδὰμ εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν· ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδὰμ εἰς πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν. ἀλλ’ οὐ πρῶτον τὸ πνευματικὸν ἀλλὰ τὸ ψυχικόν, ἔπειτα τὸ πνευματικόν. ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος ἐκ γῆς χοϊκός, ὁ δεύτερος ἄνθρωπος ἐξ οὐρανοῦ. οἷος ὁ χοϊκός, τοιοῦτοι καὶ οἱ χοϊκοί, καὶ οἷος ὁ ἐπουράνιος, τοιοῦτοι καὶ οἱ ἐπουράνιοι· καὶ καθὼς ἐφορέσαμεν τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ χοϊκοῦ, φορέσομεν καὶ τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ ἐπουρανίου. Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται, οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ.28

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.29

However Origen is more explicit than St Paul in that he teaches that the resurrected, spiritual body and soul which are raised up at the end of samsara are literally the same body and soul which existed in the garden of Eden at the beginning of samsara30. Origen teaches that there is continuity of identity between our physical bodies and souls and our spiritual body and soul31, however our physical bodies only exist during our pilgrimage through samsara, so in the resurrection to eternal life at the end of samsara we will have no more need of these physical bodies and will exist with only our spiritual bodies.

Origen explains that the fundamental difference between the spiritual body/soul and the physical body/soul is that the physical body/soul exists temporally and therefore undergoes change, whereas the spiritual body/soul represents the sum of all of a persons’ physical bodies, but existing as an eternal, immutable and immortal unity. St Gregory of Nyssa later developed this theme to its’ logical conclusion: it is not just a single body that experiences resurrection, but a whole stream of bodies32 (embryo, baby, toddler, child, adult, old man and everything in between).33 Furthermore, because the resurrected spiritual body and soul are eternal, they must necessarily be without beginning or end, and this logically implies that they pre-exist the physical body and soul.

Origen understood samsara to be divisible into discrete ages or worlds.34 Every cycle of samsara ends with Christ returning as judge, weighing up everyone’s sins and virtues, and then annihilating the cosmos and starting the whole cycle again from the beginning. However in the next age/world, the sins and virtues of people during their life in the previous age “come back” to them in a way superficially similar to Indian construals of karma. Those who abused their freedom and were lazy and sinful in the last age are punished in the next, while those who were virtuous are rewarded.35

As previously mentioned, Origen believed that samsara would come to an end. After a long succession of ages, eventually we will arrive at “the age of the ages”, or “the final age”.36 This refers to the apokatastasic eschaton, which is the eternal age standing at the backward and forward horizons of samsara. Immediately prior to the inauguration of this final age, there will be the final judgement. However the outcome of this final judgement is known in advance: all will pass the judgement because by this point, after many (perhaps uncountable) ages, all will have been freely refined in the samsaric fire of death and rebirth to the point where no sin remains to weigh people down and keep them trapped in the cycle.37 At this point there is no more need for further ages, because all people will have freely been baptised, accepted Christ, chosen God, trusted in the Gospel and so on, and therefore all people without exception or distinction will be admitted back to everlasting bliss in the heavenly eschaton where the whole story started in the first place.

Influence on Later Doctrinal Developments

Origen’s impact on both Catholicism specifically and Christianity more broadly has been incredibly vast and multifaceted. It is not possible to exhaustively survey his influence in a paper as short as this. However, one key theme in his thinking that has been vitally influential in development of doctrine in the church is that of the Trinity.

Origen’s Trinitarian theology was neatly integrated into his systematic theology as a whole, however it was sufficiently generic that it was able to be cited in favour of the positions put forward by all parties in the Christological debates that rocked the church in subsequent years. Just as everyone was seemingly able to deploy the New Testament in defence of their own positions, so too Arians and Monarchists, Trinitarians and Subordinationists all equally found support for their views in Origen’s writings.

As they forged what came to be accepted as the central Trinitarian dogma, both Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea) all heavily relied on the doctrinal foundations and theological path which Origen had already blazed ahead of them. Similarly, Arius and various other heretics leaned on Origen as they constructed their unorthodox theological frameworks.

The fact that Origen contributed so intimately to the cause of the heretics came to overshadow the fact that he had equally well contributed to the foundations of orthodoxy, and by the time of the fifth ecumenical council he was considered by the authorities of the church to be a heretic himself. He was posthumously condemned, as well as his teachings, however by this point the doctrine of the Trinity had been so thoroughly developed and was so deeply integrated into the liturgy and consciousness of the church that it (thankfully) was not to be stomped out. Unfortunately this did not hold for many of his other beautiful teachings, (such as apokatastasis) and it remains an ongoing task today to recover these forgotten aspects of Origen’s thinking in a manner that is compatible with and palatable to the orthodoxy of the present day.

Bibliography

Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson, Camberwell: Penguin Books Australia, 1989. Amazon

Hart, David B. “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen

Kimel, Alvin F. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

Lapidge, Michael. “Stoic Cosmology.” In The Stoics, edited by John M. Rish, 180-184. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

McGuckin, John Anthony. “The Westminster Handbook to Origen”. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

“Mountains and Waters Discourse by Eihei Dogen”, https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Tanahashi.html#sansuia

Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. “’Preexistence of Souls’? The αρχη and τελος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians,” Studia Patristica, no. 56 (2013): 167-226

Swami, Jayadvaita. “Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life”, United States: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015

Appendix

The difference between more mainstream/common accounts of samsara and the account of samsara as articulated in the theology of Origen and his theological successors can be illustrated with a mathematical analogy. The Indian account of samsara is analogous to an irregular sign wave stretching backwards and forwards infinitely in both directions on the x-axis, representing time. The amplitude of the wave represents the sum total of the souls karma at any given point in time. Sometimes the karma is negative, sometimes it is positive, and this corresponds to the degree of suffering and pleasure the soul experiences as it moves through its’ many lives. There is no limit to how high the wave can go and no limit to how low it can go, which illustrates that infinite punishments and rewards are possible. There are certain points along the curve which are marked out at roughly (but not exactly) regular intervals. These points represent the transition from one life to another life. The fact that these points never overlap with each other illustrates the fact that there is fundamentally no continuity of identity between rebirths (ie, a soul can be a dog in one life, a flower in the next, a demigod in the following life, a human after that, and so on). The fact that the curve is continuous, indicates that the continuity between births is nothing more than that the reward and punishment which flows from karma picks up in the next life exactly where the last life left off.

The Origenistic account of samsara is better illustrated by a path traced by a conical pendulum around the origin of a Cartesian plane. As in the Indian analogy, the x-axis represents time. When the pendulum is moving above the x-axis this represents time spent alive and while it is below the x-axis this represents time spent dead. The higher the pendulum goes on the y-axis, the more perfect and virtuous the soul is and the longer is the life that it leads. The fact that the pendulum eventually reaches a maximum height on the y-axis and begins to swing back towards the x-axis represents the effect of sin as a dampener on our lives, and how sin drags us back down to death. When the pendulum crosses the x-axis, this represents the death of the soul (and thus the end of the age). The pendulum will then continue to curve around and move “backwards in time” towards where it started. As it moves below the x-axis, this corresponds to time spent in the “intermediate state” (heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo, sheol or what have you). Eventually it crosses the x-axis again, very close to where it begun the circuit last time, corresponding to the recreation of the age and the “resurrection” of the same person in a very similar state and condition to that which it experienced in the last cycle/age. In this model, it is possible for the pendulum to swing such that it traces out a circle with an infinite radius. This would work out to be a line which just keeps travelling vertically, which would correspond to a sinless existence and “eternal life”, effectively breaking the cycle by transforming the path of the pendulum into one that is linear. In a similar way it is also possible for the pendulum to swing such that it traces a horizontal line below the x-axis. This would correspond to traditional notions of “everlasting damnation”.

1My primary source while writing this section was Eusebius, “The History of the Church”

2David B. Hart, “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen, While not being officially recognised as a saint by either the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, Saint Origen was infallibly and dogmatically canonised on the heavenly and magisterial authority of the glorious and omniscient theologian, Dr David Bentley Hart, in the October 2015 edition of First Things.

3Area for future research: Does the fact that he was a teetotaller in any way reflect on the liturgy of the time? This is especially curious considering that – with very few known exceptions throughout history – the Eucharist has involved alcoholic wine being consumed by a celebrant (at minimum), with the congregation often participating too.

4John Anthony McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 26

5But alas, we only have a “complete” version in the form of a dubious Latin translation by one of his later admirers, Rufinus

6The absolute oneness and unity of God

7A Jewish Hare Krishna devotee has written a wonderful commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes in which he powerfully makes the case that the cyclical nature of reality is a core teaching of the book. See Jayadvaita Swami, Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life (United States: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015)

8These broadly being Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism

9A loose working definition of karma being “the running total of your good (virtuous/meritorious) and evil (sinful) works”

10“god” here with a lowercase G to indicate the idea of anthropomorphic “gods” as are encountered in the various and colourful mythologies of world religions throughout history, as opposed to the more philosophical/theological idea of the one true God which sophisticated theologians across all religious traditions love to speculate on.

11Curiously, according to certain schools of Buddhism, it’s even possible to be reborn as a mountain, an ocean or an entire forest. See “Mountains and Waters Discourse by Eihei Dogen”, https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Tanahashi.html#sansuia

12Some thinkers speculate on the idea of being reborn “backwards” in time, or even into alternate or fictional realities. In this way one might be reborn as Hitler, Jesus, the Buddha, Zeus, Thor. The more mainstream understanding limits the rebirth phenomenon such that it occurs “in step” with the movement of time and excludes the possibility of being reborn in fictional worlds.

13This phenomenon of a soul jumping from one physical body to another completely unrelated body is refereed to as “transmigration” (μετεμψυχωσις).

14Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “’Preexistence of Souls’? The αρχη and τελος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians,”, Studia Patristica, no. 56 (2013): 168

15For those unfamiliar with the film, the premise is that a cynical bastard of a man (played by Bill Murray) finds himself trapped in a time loop, where he is forced to live the same day over and over again until he “gets it right” by becoming a better person to such an extent that he is able to live a perfect day and thus earn the right to exit the cycle.

16Michael Lapidge, “Stoic Cosmology,” in The Stoics, ed. John M. Rish (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 180-184

17Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 181

18Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

19As described in Genesis 1-3

20Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192. This is the “final restoration”: αποκαταστασις

21Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

22The difference between the Indian and Origenistic accounts of samsara can be illustrated with a locus analagy. Indian samsara is cyclical in a similar sense to the way in which a sign wave is cyclical: the soul oscillates between local minima and maxima (representing good and bad rebirths), and the locus point is forever moving forward along the axis (which represents time) towards infinity and never going backwards. In comparison, Origenistic samsara is cyclical in a similar fashion to the way in which a conical pendulum exhibits cyclical behaviour: a projection onto a plane of the path traced by the pendulum will reveal it to approximate a circle: the pendulum is always returning to pass close by to the point where it began (representing the transition between the end of one age and the beginning of the next). For the benefit of those rare, blessed, holy and worthy souls to whom God has sovereignly elected to bestow the ultimate gift, the highest grace and the most supreme virtue of a mathematical mind, an appendix has been appended to the end of this paper wherein these magnificent and illustrious readers – if they are interested in seeing how far the analogy can be pushed – are welcome to explore further. Those who take up the offer are most certainly predestined to beatitude, for there is no surer guarantee of salvation than the ability to understand this author’s eclectic mathematical analogies deployed in the attempt to illustrate obscure theological heresies.

23Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 167-226

24More accurately, his pseudo-condemnation. For a comprehensive discussion and analysis of the controversy, see Alvin F. Kimel. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

25Hart, “Saint Origen”

26Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 168

27Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 170

281 Cor 15:42-50 (SBLGNT)

291 Cor 15:42-50 (RSVCE, mildly edited to conform with Australian English spelling standards)

30Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 172

31Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 178

32Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 200

33Incidentally, this may relate to why the glorified Christ still had holes in his hands after his resurrection: It may be argued that the resurrected Christ chose to return to earth in a body that retained the marks of his passion, presumably so that the disciples would recognise him and appreciate the cosmic weight of what had just occurred. However seeing as Christs entire stream of bodies from infancy to adult-hood was resurrected, he could have appeared to the disciples as a young man, as a baby, as a wise old man who had lived 1000 years, or potentially even as a glorified Jesus who hadn’t even ever been crucified in the first place. Entertaining this last possibility may indicate a solution to the mystery of why the disciples sometimes did not immediately recognise their risen Lord; namely, in those particular appearances where he was not instantly recognised he was appearing without his wounds, while in other resurrection appearances, he chose to retain them.

34αεον” in Greek, “saecula” in Latin.

35All of this lines up straightforwardly with scriptural talk of “reward and punishment in the next life”. To cite just one scriptural example, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.

36In Latin the phrase used is “in saecula saeculorum”; in English, “world without end”.

37Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

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