“To say that Origen of Alexandria has been a critical figure in the history of the Christian tradition would be an understatement.” Who was Origen of Alexandria? If his name is known to Christians, it is probably known as some ancient heretic who thought all creatures, even the devil and demons, would be reunited with God on the last day. Although a tremendous influence over the eastern fathers, especially the Cappadocians, and even a significant influence on the Latin fathers, especially saints Jerome, Rufinus, and Augustine, Origen was equally controversial in his life and immediately after. The Origenist controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries speak to Origen’s contested life and writings not long after his death. Today’s debates over Origen, including his recent rehabilitation, still contend with his simultaneous influential and controversial legacy.
While Origen’s influence faded by the medieval period, during the Reformation Origen was, perhaps surprisingly to some, recovered by Protestants seeking to free themselves of ecclesiastical subjugation in theological matters. Though now long condemned as a heretic by the Second Council of Constantinople back in the sixth century, Origen was among the many early church fathers championed by the Reformers for their vision of theological freedom: Origen was a pristine example of how the earliest generation of Christians were scriptural theologians and not conciliar or ecclesiastical theologians as the Catholic Church claimed. The Reformers saw themselves standing on the shoulders of those early church fathers who engaged in a purely scriptural theological exegesis without the need for conciliar or ecclesiastical ratification. Even Thomas Jefferson, the man who famously called himself “a sect unto himself,” owned the surviving copies of Origen and spoke highly of him in some of his private letters discussing theological matters.
When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, Origen was one of the key figures in our patristics classes. Yale is, and remains, a small hub for the reevaluation of Origen—an attempt to free the great Alexandrine theologian from the generally negative impression of him both popularly and even academically. Only Augustine shared as much class time as Origen did (each received four weeks of study in our introduction to patristics). Mark Therrien’s new book, Cross and Creation: A Theological Introduction to Origen of Alexandria, would have been a great supplemental guide to Origen had it been available when I took my patristics classes.
One of the problems with Origen is his reception, both immediately after his life and during the patristic revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But in offering a rehabilitation of Origen, something that has grown commonplace among theological scholars over the last 50 years, the nagging question that comes up is this: who was the real Origen? Therrien has an obvious appreciation for Origen, not just in his influence over the subsequent traditions of Christian theology, but also for the supposed real theology gleaned from Origen’s writings now seemingly accessible to us in the twenty-first century. However, are we to believe that nearly 1700 years of interpreters of Origen have all been wrong?
Early on, Therrien sets the stage for why the previous generations of interpreters are wrong. Faulty editions of his works that paint a misleading portrait of Origen; now discredited paradigms of Origen as a pseudo-gnostic; and the false dichotomy going back to Jerome of a praiseworthy Origen as biblical “commentator” and a condemnable Origen as “theologian.” It is this last sticking point that Therrien takes great umbrage with. Rather than these old paradigms, especially Jerome’s division of biblical commentator from biblical theologian, our studious author shows why it is impossible to separate Origen as commentator from Origen as theologian.
Nevertheless, in The City of God Augustine lamentably notes how “a learned master” like Origen could have gotten creation and the fall so wrong. Following the singular and narrow reading from First Principles, where Origen seems to imply that humanity—originally purely spiritual and intellectual souls—turned away from intellectual love and contemplation of God and therefore fell into the void and God created the world and bodies to contain them in their drift away from Divine reality, Origen as having too many similarities to Gnosticism has been a common critique of the theologian from Alexandria. Therrien painstakingly shows why this view, too, is mistaken.
Looking at Origen’s Peri archon (First Principles) and his Commentary on John—rather than just First Principles which doesn’t paint a full portrait of Origen’s theology—Therrien highlights a far more complex understanding of creation from Origen’s perspective. It is important to point out that Origen had traveled to Rome in his early days before his systematic writings on Scripture and theology got underway; there, it is very plausible as many scholars have acknowledged that Origen likely rubbed up against Monarchism and Valentinian Gnosticism which spurred his writings to be soft rebuttals of these Christian heresies. Any association of Origen as a quasi-Gnostic, then, misses the historical reality to Origen’s time and place.
Against the Gnostics, who, despite their anti-corporeal theology, conceived of God in corporeal terms, “Origen thus rejects a way of thinking about God’s being that would conceive of it as a mere thing with corporeal properties, including subjection to change and division.” The change and division of God through Valentinian theology was something that early Christians had to contend. Origen, like Irenaeus before him, stood at the floodgates of the theological revolution of divine incorporeality, the movement away from Stoic, Gnostic, and even some early Christian (like Tertullian) conceptualizations of God that understood divine nature in corporeal categorizations. Origen’s emphasis on God as transcendent and incorporeal was part of his dedicated effort to confront the errors of various theologies he encountered in his early life. All subsequent Christian theology which rests on divine transcendence owe this view to Origen.
Furthermore, against Monarchism Origen sought to prove the Trinitarian basis for the Rule of Faith. The centrality of Christ as Wisdom in a Christological understanding of the Son of God is the greatest contribution that Origen bequeathed to Christianity. This is not that Christ wasn’t identified with the Divine Wisdom of God before Origen; this is to say that no theologian (sans the author of the Gospel according to John) went to such great lengths to primarily identify Christ with Wisdom in Christological theology.
Christ as Wisdom also seems to be a rebuttal against the unitarian Monarchists and the Gnostics, to whom Sophia is only an accidental bridge between the evil material world and the unknowable supreme Deity. Here, though it is very brief, Therrien does a good job explaining the “anti-gnostic context” of Origen’s writings on Christ and how Christ as Wisdom within the Trinitarian and divine foreknowledge theology of Christianity directly refutes the Gnostic theologies of tragedy. Extending Christ as Wisdom to creation, Therrien highlights the nuanced view of Origen’s pre-existent cosmos: because all things were created in and through Christ, and Christ is the eternal Son of God, creation, being contained in the foreknowledge of God through Christ, always existed (in the mind of God through Christ) and its substantive formation was not willed arbitrarily or accidental (per Gnostic cosmologies). Thus, even though Origen does not cite Gnostic sources in rebuttal, Therrien argues alongside other scholars that it is safe to presume Origen was continuing his anti-gnostic theology in his Christological and cosmological theologies:
Origen’s main concern in speaking of the creation of all things in Wisdom…[is] to emphasize that there is no way to think about creation as existing outside of the providence of God—that is, there is now way of thinking about creation as somehow free from God’s all-embracing rule, because such a way of thinking about creation would construe it not as something freely willed by God according to reason and providence, but rather as merely arbitrarily and unintended, and thus (ultimately) little more than a cosmic accident. Origen rejects such a tragic view entirely.
Continuing onward to Origen’s thinking about the Holy Spirit, the core of Origen’s pneumatology is eschatological. From Origen’s commentaries on the Old Testament to his use of Paul, especially 1 Corinthians, Therrien makes clear that “the eschatological perspective” is the basis for Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the creative act of judgement and renewal, whether in Noah’s Flood to the becoming a new man in Christ per the Apostle Paul. Thus, the (creative) activity of the Holy Spirit cannot be divorced from its eschatological purpose. The activity of the Holy Spirit aims at an eschatological end, the deification of and salvation of the cosmos and man within it through the person of Jesus Christ.
This brief discussion on the least developed aspect of Origen’s Trinitarian theology permits Therrien to then move into the crux of his book and the heart of Origen’s “disputed” and controversial theology: pre-existence and eschatology, “[the] gift of creation (or re-creation) [as] the work of the Holy Spirit.”
The gift of creation is a manifestation of Divine Love, for God is Love. The creation, then, simply points to, and is an expression of, that Love which exists in the eternal economy of God. Therefore, the creation has an eschatological purpose: to bring all creation to knowledge and love of God that has always existed Transcendentally. This is the principal purpose of the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ which serves this eschatological end. As Therrien summarizes, “creation comes into being through the eternal providence and foreknowledge of God; and second, that all will bend the knee to Jesus eschatologically” and “the end determines the beginning.” (Yes, Origen was a universalist.)
Because creation exists in the mind of God before it does materially, the atoning sacrifice of Christ is the means by which the material “creation is brought back to God.” The revelation of God as Love through the Passion of Christ is “the end for which Christ became incarnate.” Far from an unimportant Passion and crucifixion, Therrien highlights the centrality of the Passion and crucifixion to Origen’s eschatological thinking; Origen’s eschatology is not metaphysically reductionist but Christological because Christ is the eternal Son of God (hence how preexistence and eschatology subsist before the beginning of time in God through Christ, the Wisdom of the Father). Therrien’s reading restores the centrality of Christology to Origen and removes the hyper-philosophical and Platonic readings of Origen which diminish the place of Christ and cross in the master theologian’s thinking.
Cross and Creation is but the latest in the ongoing debate and rehabilitation of the theology of Origen of Alexandria. Therrien has an undeniable love for Origen and his theology and this book is a welcome addition to the critical debates surrounding one of the most influential early church fathers. The greatest contribution of this work isn’t whether it persuades the reader to reject 1700 years of apparent misinterpretations of Origen, but how it reveals Origen as a committed “scriptural theologian.” This Origen was the same theologian partially rehabilitated during the Reformation. Origen was, and remains, one of the preeminent wrestlers with Scripture and the theology it communicates. It shows that Origen the biblical commentator is the same as Origen the theologian. Sorry Jerome, you are wrong.
Cross and Creation: A Theological Introduction to Origen of Alexandria
By Mark E. Thierren
Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022; 320pp
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