Origen of Alexandria (c. 185--254)

"[Clement and Origen were] men eminent for their information in every department of literature and science.”-- Socrates Scholasticus c. 380

“As his doctrine so was his life; and as his life, so also was his doctrine." –Eusebius, regarding Origen

"If any man deserves to stand first in the catalogue of saints and martyrs, and the be annually held up as an example to Christians, this is the man, for except the apostles of Jesus Christ, and their companions, I know of no one among all those enrolled and honored as saints who excel him in virtue and holiness." Mosheim, Hist. Com. in Christ, before Constantine, ii, p. 149.

"It is impossible to deny a respectful sympathy to this extraordinary man, who, with all his brilliant talents, and a host of enthusiastic friends and admirers, was driven from his country, stripped of his sacred office, excommunicated from a part of the church, then thrown into a dungeon, loaded with chains, racked by torture, doomed to drag his aged frame and dislocated limbs in pain and poverty, and long after his death to have his memory branded, his name anathematized, and his salvation denied; but who, nevertheless, did more than all his enemies combined to advance the cause of sacred learning, to refute and convert heathens and heretics, and to make the church respected in the eyes of the world. Origen was the greatest scholar of his age, and the most learned and gracious of all the ante-Nicene fathers." –Schaff, History of the Christian Church, I, pp. 54-55.

"We know no man in the whole Christian era, except St. Paul, who labored so incessantly, and rendered to the church such immearsurable services. We know of no man, except St. Paul, who had to suffer from such black and bitter ingratitude. He, the converter of the heathen, the strengthener of the martyrs, the profoundest of Christian teachers, the greatest and most learned of the interpreters of Scripture--he to whom kings and bishops and philosophers had been proud to listen--he who had refuted the ablest of all the assailants of Christianity.--He who had founded the first school of Biblical exegesis and Biblical linguistics--he who had done more for the honor and the knowledge of the Oracles of God not only than all his assailants (for that is not saying much), but than all the then bishops and writers of the church put together--he who had known the Scriptures from infancy, who had vainly tried to grasp in boyhood the crown of martyrdom, who had been the honored teacher of saints, who had been all his life long a confessor--he in the very errors of whose life was more of nobleness than in the whole lives of his assailants,--who had lived a life more apostolic, who did more and suffered more for the truth of Christ than any man after the first century of our era, and whose accurately measurable services stand all but unapproachable by all the centuries--I, for one, will never mention the name of Origen without the love, and the admiration, and the reverence due to one of the greatest and one of the best of the saints of God." --F.W. Farrar

“His character was as transparent as his life was blameless; there are few church fathers whose biography leaves so pure an impression on the reader. The atmosphere around him was a dangerous one for a philosopher and theologian to breathe, but he kept his spiritual health unimpaired and even his sense of truth suffered less injury than was the case with most of his contemporaries.” -- The Encyclopedia Britannica, Prof. Adolf Harnack


Origen Adamantius, a native of Alexandria, was born into a family that was devoutly Christian, and highly educated. His father, Leonides, made sure that Origen was schooled not only in biblical studies, but in Greek education as well. When Origen was seventeen, his father was arrested and eventually martyred for his faith. Origen tried to follow his father, but his mother prevented him by hiding all of his clothing and leaving him naked in his room. Unable to follow his father to prison, Origen wrote him a letter exhorting him to persevere courageously.

With his father’s death sentence came the confiscation of the family property, and so young Origen began his career as a teacher to help to support his mother and six younger brothers. After Clement fled persecution, the catechetical school at Alexandria school had been left vacant for a brief time. At the age of 17 or 18, Origen was appointed by Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, to both reopen the disbanded school, and head it. In addition to teaching subjects relating to Christian studies, Origen taught secular subjects and philosophy.

He became interested in Greek philosophy quite early in his life, and amassed a large collection of philosophical texts. However, as he became ever more devoted to the Christian faith, he sold his library, abandoning, for a time, any contact with pagan Greek wisdom. Selling his library created a certain amount of financial independence, from which he managed to live by keeping his needs to the barest minimum. He embraced a very ascetic Christianity, teaching all day, spending most of the night studying the Bible and sleeping very little. In order to be able to teach both girls and boys without scandalizing pagan Alexandrians, Origin voluntarily submitted himself to castration, following literally the admonition of Jesus in Matthew 19:12: "For there are eunuchs who have been so right from their birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made so by men and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”

Between 203 and 231, Origen attracted large numbers of students through his manner of life as much as through his teaching. Heraclas and his brother Plutarch were his first pupils, both converted to Christianity under him. Plutarch soon suffered for the faith, being the first of Origen's disciples to be martyred. Heraclas became known for his knowledge of philosophy and Greek learning, greatly assisting Origen in the leadership of the school. Amongst Origen’s many students was the mother of the Emperor Alexander Severus.

Origen had an encyclopedic mind and wrote some 6,000 works, sometimes dictating to seven secretaries at a time. From his childhood, he memorized large portions of Scripture and other literature. He wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, sermons, treatises, letters, and apologies. Nevertheless, his importance rests mainly on two works; the systematic treatise On First Principles, and his response to the pagan philosopher Celsus' attack on Christianity. This treatise, entitled Against Celsus, became the first great Christian apologetic work.

His zeal for the study of the Bible drove him to the original texts and to learn Hebrew. To get the most accurate understanding of the Old Testament, he consulted extensively with Jewish scholars. In the process, he produced the Hexapla, an estimated 6,500-page parallel version of the Old Testament with two Hebrew versions and four Greek translations in columns side-by-side, including the Septuagint.

His Doctrines

Origen deeply loved the Scriptures, and developed more fully Clement’s ideas of allegorical interpretation. He saw three levels of understanding within scripture- the literal, the moral, and the allegorical/figurative. These meanings corresponded to the body, soul, and spirit, in ascending order of importance. The literal meaning of the historical events was the least important for the Christian, just as the body was less important than the soul or spirit. More important were the underlying meanings which could only be perceived allegorically. The divinely-inspired meaning may not lie in the literal meaning and be recognizable to everyone, but instead will be perceived by "those gifted with the grace of the Holy Spirit in the word of wisdom and knowledge." For example, Origen was one of the first theologians to argue that the petition in the Lord’s Prayer ought to read, not "Give us this day our daily bread" but "give us this day our spiritual bread."

Origen was the first philosophical thinker to not only offer a refutation of Gnosticism, but also a Christian system of thought that was more philosophically respectable than the mythological speculations of the various Gnostic sects. He was also an astute critic of the pagan philosophy of his era, yet he also learned much from it, and adapted its most edifying principles to the Christian faith. Like Clement before him, he traveled much, both to learn and to teach: Greece, Palestine, Arabia, Antioch, Nicomedia, Rome—Origen was familiar with what each place had to offer the scholar. Whenever he could, he took the opportunity to learn from the leading philosophers, most notably Ammonius Saccas.

Origen’s thinking emphasized the oneness of God the Father. He also set forth essential ideas about the Son and the Holy Spirit, insisting they are fully divine and coeternal with the Father but not to be confused with the Father. The Father is creator and governor of all, but rational creatures manifest the work of the Son, the divine Logos; and the Holy Spirit is working in all rational creatures that are sanctified. Origen’s understanding of the interrelationship among Spirit, Word, and Father was essential in the church’s expression of its teaching on the Trinity a century later.

He conceived of a great spiritual universe, presided over by a beneficent, wise, and personal God. The physical world provides the “theater of redemption” for fallen creatures. By the incarnation, the Logos is the mediator of redemption, and all redemption is made possible through Him and received through submitting to Him. Origen insisted on the absolute freedom of each and every soul, thereby denying the fatalism that so often found its way into so many of the various philosophical schools of his day.

Some of Origen’s more disputed doctrines include: the pre-existence of souls; multiple ages and transmigration of souls; and the eventual restoration of all souls to a state of perfection and unity to the Godhead (universalism). However, most of the dispute concerning his doctrines did not come until several centuries after his death. In his own day, his teaching was highly respected.

In 229, Origen was invited to Athens to help the church there to deal with some issues pertaining to Gnosticism and went without Demetrius's permission. (Remember, it was Demetrius who had originally enstated Origen as head of the Alexandrian school when he was only 17). After Athens, Origen ventured on to Palestine, where he was ordained a priest by the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea. For this breach of the proper chain of authority, Demetrius was incensed. When Origen returned to Alexandria he was opposed by Demetrius who convened two local councils which excommunicated Origen and commanded him to leave the city. The grounds of condemnation were these: ordination outside of the proper chain of command, and the castration which Origen had performed upon himself as a zealous youth. (Something that Origen apparently regretted later in life). Many others held that Demetrius’ real motive was jealousy, and his decision against Origen was rejected in Palestine. Origen responded to his persecution with meekness, stating, "We must pity them rather that hate them, pray for them rather than curse them, for we were made for blessing, not for cursing."

After his banishment from Alexandria, Origen settled in Caesarea. There he founded another school of literature, philosophy, and theology. Among his pupils were many future leaders of the church.

Origen continued to travel extensively, and on two occasions was invited to Arabia as a theological arbitrator. Caesarea remained his home until 235, when driven by the persecution of Maximin, he fled to Cappadocia. In the persecution of Decius he was arrested, imprisoned and cruelly tortured. Nevertheless, his courage was unshaken and from his prison he wrote letters of encouragement just as he had done as a youth when he encouraged his own father in the face of his martyerdom.

Though Origen was eventually eased from prison, his body was severely weakened from the torture. Four years later--in 254, at the age of 69--he died in Tyre.

Some of Origen’s quotes:

“Stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in Him, and this healing He applies, according to the will of God, to everyman. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil…to quote Zephaniah: “My determination to gather the nations, that I am assemble the kings, to pour upon them mine indignation, even say all my fierce anger, for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent”…Consider carefully the promise, that all shall call upon the Name of the Lord, and serve him with one consent.”

“Seeing, then, that such is the end, when all enemies will be subdued to Christ, when death - the last enemy - shall be destroyed, and when the kingdom shall be delivered up by Christ (to whom all things are subject) to God the Father; let us, I say, from such an end as this, contemplate the beginnings of things. For the end is always like the beginning: and, therefore, as there is one end to all things, so ought we to understand that there was one beginning; and as there is one end to many things, so there spring from one beginning many differences and varieties, which again, through the goodness of God, and by subjection to Christ, and through the unity of the Holy Spirit, are recalled to one end, which is like unto the beginning. --Origen, De Principiis, Book I, Chapter 6, Sections 1 and 2, ANF, Vol 4

"...When the Son is said to be subject to the Father, the perfect restoration of the whole of creation is signified, so also, when enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the salvation of the conquered and the restoration of the lost is in that understood to consist." --Origen, De Principiis, Book III, Chapter 5, Section 7, ANF, Vol 4

“We think, indeed, that the goodness of God, through His Christ, may recall all His creatures to one end, even His enemies being conquered and subdued.... for Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet.”

--Mercy Aiken

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