It is rare that one who dies well has not also lived well. Origen was no exception.
Nicknamed Adamantius — “man of steel” — by Christians of his day, Origen (c. 185-254) was a prominent teacher, writer, evangelist, apologist, defender of orthodoxy, textual critic, biblical geographer, and biblical commentator. He was easily the most remarkable and best-known Christian of his age. Sadly, today he is frequently slandered as a heretic. For that reason, it is important to set the record straight.
When Origen was arrested and tortured for his faith, the “man of steel” proved his mettle. Even extended torture could never bring him to deny his Lord.
Origen endured his sufferings with remarkable strength. He was still alive when Emperor Decius, the cause of Christian persecution, was killed and the persecution ended. However, shortly after his release, Origen died from the injuries he suffered during his imprisonment.
A Remarkable Life
Origen’s life, as did his death, demonstrated Origen’s love for Christ.
The Christians of Origen’s day would no doubt have been shocked to learn that, centuries after he was dead, Origen would be thought of as a heretic.
From his teenage years to his sixties, Origen stood out because of his burning zeal and deep love for Christ, along with his love of learning. These traits made him useful to the Church, but his inquisitive nature also brought controversy.
When Origen was seventeen, his father was arrested and sentenced to death as a martyr. Origen had wanted to stand at his father’s side and die with him for Christ, but his mother held him back. By the time he was in his early twenties, Origen was already a learned scholar. Even enemies of Christianity respected his intellect. At various periods of his life, Origen supported himself as a secular teacher. Because of Origen’s great learning, he had no trouble attracting students.
One reason Origen liked to teach school is that it enabled him to witness to pagans about Christ. He ended up converting many of his pagan students, several of whom went on to become leaders in the Church. Though Origen even studied Hebrew and rabbinical doctrine in order to witness to the Jews, the bulk of Origen’s ministry was inside the church. He continued for many years as the principal instructor of the biblical school in Alexandria.
Origen lived a life wholly devoted to Christ. He lived by all of the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, including shunning material things.
Because of his love of learning, Origen was a huge asset to the church in his defense against heretics. He skillfully defended Christianity against the attacks of the pagans, Gnostics and unbelieving Jews.
On several occasions, various churches invited Origen to come to speak to church leaders who had drifted into heresy. Origen was usually able to help these leaders see their errors. Throughout most of these years, Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, was very supportive of Origen and was pleased to have such a capable Christian in his congregation.
Nevertheless, there were tensions between Origen and Demetrius.
Conflicts with Bishop Demetrius
When Origen was about thirty, Emperor Caracalla wreaked vengeance on the citizens of Alexandria for insulting him. He slaughtered thousands of people and particularly focused on that city’s scholars. Because of this, Origen left Egypt and settled for a while in Caesarea of Palestine.The bishops in the area were delighted to have Origen in their midst, and they asked him to preach in their churches.
Although there was nothing unscriptural in this, Demetrius was displeased when he heard about it. He sent a letter of rebuke to the bishops in Palestine, saying that an unordained man should not have been allowed to preach in the presence of bishops.
At the same time, Demetrius urged Origen to return to Alexandria, which he did. Some years later, the church in Greece invited Origen to come to Athens to help persuade a bishop there of his errors. Origen was able to successfully do so. This journey took him through Caesarea.
This time, the bishops in Palestine ordained Origen as an elder (presbyter), apparently in an attempt to entice him to remain there.
Demetrius was displeased, and he refused to recognize the ordination. Not only that, he wrote to various other bishops, including the bishop of Rome, in an attempt to persuade them not to recognize the ordination either. As a result of this controversy, Origen finally left Alexandria and settled in Caesarea permanently.
Today, some history books and pamphlets incorrectly state that Demetrius excommunicated Origen. However, Eusebius reports no such thing. Furthermore, Demetrius would have had no Scriptural grounds to excommunicate Origen. The truth of the matter is that Origen served as a faithful elder in Caesarea until the end of his life, which came about twenty years later.
He continued to be recognized as a teacher and defender of orthodoxy throughout the entire Church.
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Was Origen a Eunuch?
The tragic irony of Origen is that in the twenty-first century, most Christians have never heard of him, and those who have typically heard only about his mistakes and controversial ideas. They have never heard about the great things he did for Christ or about his stand and defense of orthodoxy.
People often hear that Origen had himself made into a eunuch when he was a young man, a story that bishop Demetrius spread after his controversy with Origen.
We could safely dismiss it as rumor or slander if it were not for the fact that Eusebius assumed it was true. Eusebius says it was something Origen did in his youthful zeal, taking Jesus’ words in Matthew literally: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Mt. 19:12). Eusebius says that Origen did this so that he could teach both men and women without fear of succumbing to temptation.
However, the story spread by Demetrius stands in stark contrast to Origen’s own words.
In his Commentary on Matthew, Origen goes to great length to explain that the following words of Jesus in this passage are figurative. In fact, Origen strongly criticizes any Christians who would presume to take Jesus’ words literally. He writes,
Such people dare to hand themselves over to become physical eunuchs. On the one hand, they do this out of fear of God. On the other hand, they do it without understanding. In fact, they have brought reproach and even shame on themselves. This is not only in the eyes of those who are outsiders to the faith. Rather, it is so to everyone who shares the common opinion on basic human matters about such a man who would produce pain and mutilation of the body—and whatever else one might experience who hands himself over to such a severe matter. Such a man only appears to fear God, and his love of discipline is excessive.
I would not spend so much time refuting those who want to take Jesus’ words in a literal sense … were it not for the fact that I have met men who have dared to do such a thing. Furthermore, I have spoken with those who are able to stir up rash souls to perform such an impetuous action. Such people might be believers, but they are not acting rationally.
Origen goes on to quote the following passage in Deuteronomy: “If two men fight together, and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of the one attacking him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall not pity her” (Deut. 25:11-12 NKJV). He then says, “For if the hand that seizes the genitals of a man is to be cut off, how will it not also be the same for the person who out of ignorance of the way of moderation has given himself over to such a dubious state? Therefore, let anyone who dares to think of doing such a thing take notice of what he will endure from those who cast reproaches. Will they not avail themselves of the verse, ‘A eunuch and one who is mutilated will not enter into the church of the Lord’ [Deut 23:2]?”
It is difficult to believe that the man who wrote those words is someone who himself had done the very thing he condemns.
Given the fact that some even thought Origen took Christ’s statement about eunuchs literally, it seems clear that he was known for not watering down the commandments of Scripture. Where Origen is distinctive is that he saw prophetic types and spiritual symbolism in so many of the narrative passages of Scripture. There is nothing heretical in this, but most western Christians today find his figurative applications unconvincing. Yet, when Origen is discussing the commandments and doctrines of Scripture, he is an extremely insightful expositor.
Origen was undoubtedly the most prolific writer of his day, among both Christians and pagans. In a letter to a Christian woman named Paula, Jerome lists 786 books of Origen. The vast majority of these works are either commentaries or transcribed sermons.
In the course of his ministry, Origen had converted a wealthy, well-educated man named Ambrose (not the famous fourth-century bishop) from Gnosticism to orthodox Christianity. Thereafter, Ambrose and Origen became close friends. Ambrose encouraged Origen to write commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. To enable him to do this, Ambrose furnished Origen with multiple stenographers and copyists. All Origen had to do was to verbally comment on the text before him, and these secretaries wrote down his comments. The same procedure was true of his sermons.
Of Origen’s many commentaries and sermons, his Commentary on Romans is among the best. Near the end of his life, at the request of Ambrose, Origen wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the pagan critic, Celsus, who had attacked Christians in one of his works. In his rebuttal, Origen brilliantly defended the biblical teachings of nonresistance and the two kingdoms.
Origen’s Imprudent Speculations
Despite the fact that Origen spent his entire adult life teaching and defending the orthodox, historic Christian faith, few people today remember him for that. Instead, Origen is mainly remembered for two imprudent speculations he made: the preexistence of souls and the eventual universal reconciliation with God of all human souls. Neither of these were things Origen taught as dogma; he recognized them for what they were: speculations. He had no quarrel with Christians who thought differently. Despite having written more than 780 books, Origen spoke at length about the preexistence of souls and about universal reconciliation in only one of his early works, On First Principles. In that work, Origen primarily explained and defended the orthodox teachings of Christianity. However, he went on to state that there are various theological questions for which the Scriptures have given no answers.
The Origin of Souls
One such question is the origin of souls. The Scriptures teach that humans have an immortal soul, but they shed no light on where the soul comes from. Does God create a new soul every time a baby is conceived? Or does God endow humans with such creative powers that when a couple conceive a new child, they pass both a body and a soul to their baby? Or did God create souls prior to the formation of man? Does he then send one of these preexisting souls into a newly conceived person at the time of conception? No one knows.
The Scriptures are silent about the origin of souls.
Origen would have been wise to remain silent as well.
However, he never presented the idea of the preexistence of souls as anything more than speculation on his part.
Outside of On First Principles, Origen rarely speaks about the preexistence of souls. There are a few brief, offhand references to the subject here and there in some of his other works, but not many. His speculation on this matter caused no controversy during his lifetime. Nor did Origen win over very many Christians to his point of view on the origin of souls.
The Restoration of All Things
If Origen’s teaching on the preexistence of souls was intended as nothing more than a theory, his teachings on the eventual restoration of all souls did not even reach that level. Origen certainly did not teach universalism in the modern sense of the term—that everyone will go to heaven regardless of what they believe or how they live. In fact, Origen championed a strict form of Christianity, teaching that God’s people are required to live obedient, holy lives in order to be admitted to heaven on Judgment Day.
In his work, On First Things, Origen discussed Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 about the final defeat of death and about the time when God will be “all in all.” Origen asked the question whether this means that Gehenna (hell) will also eventually be destroyed along with death. He presented the question, but he never absolutely committed himself to an answer. Henri Crouzel, who made a detailed study of Origen’s works, writes, “It would be wrong to see in the texts expressing the non-eternity of Gehenna a firm statement of conviction. Origen hesitates, not seeing how to reconcile all the statements of Scripture: sometimes he makes no pronouncement, sometimes he ventures an opinion in one direction, sometimes in the other.”
It is accurate to say that Origen hoped for the eventual restitution of all lost souls, but it is inaccurate to say he clearly taught this. During his lifetime, some of Origen’s enemies accused him of teaching that Satan would eventually repent and return to God. Origen expressly denied ever having said that. In fact, he replied that only a lunatic would ever teach such a thing.
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Origen’s Influence After His Death
During the century following his death, Origen was looked upon with great favor by most Christians. In the mid-fourth century, Origen was easily the most celebrated and influential Christian of the pre-Nicene church. His writings were admired, copied and translated by men like Eusebius, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, and Ambrose. His writings were not able to turn back the clock after Nicaea, but they helped to slow down the slide away from the historic faith. Happily, Origen’s idiosyncratic views on the preexistence of souls and on the eventual universal restoration of all humans never took hold. Even among his strongest admirers, few people embraced those views.
Justinian’s War Against Origen
Nearly 300 years after Origen’s death, a controversy arose over his injudicious speculations. A group of monks who greatly admired Origen’s works embraced his speculative views on the preexistence of souls and on universal restitution. Not only that, they taught a few other hypothetical things that Origen never taught. The matter would have no doubt played itself out in a short time if left alone. However, in 553, Emperor Justinian convened the Second Council of Constantinople to deal with these radical monks, who were labeled as Origenists. The council condemned a list of doctrines, only a few of which can rightly be associated with Origen.
The official declaration of the council did not condemn Origen as a heretic. However, Justinian labeled him as such. The immediate result of the council is that hundreds of Origen’s works were immediately destroyed and probably lost forever. Other works did not get re-copied by monasteries, so they eventually crumbled and were also lost as well. Happily, dozens of his works were copied and have survived to this day. Initially, the West refused to go along with the council but six months after the close of the council, the pope reluctantly endorsed it, and Origen’s writings were added to a papal list of works to be banned. However, this did not stop church scholars from reading Origen.
The Irony of Justinian Condemning Origen
The irony in all this is that it is Justinian who should have been condemned, not Origen. Justinian had committed enormous wickedness during his lifetime. Early in his reign, a riot broke out in Constantinople by people who were against him. Justinian responded by ordering his soldiers to massacre 30,000 unarmed civilians in the city’s large coliseum. Not only that, throughout his reign, Justinian waged constant military campaigns against various peoples and nations. He persecuted Jews, Samaritans, and heretics (real or imagined).
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By the late Middle Ages, Christian scholars began openly reading Origen’s works again. They developed a new appreciation for Origen’s insights. Erasmus commented that he would rather have one page of Origen than ten pages of Augustine! However, Origen was not a favorite with the major Reformers. That is because Luther and Calvin revived the heretical doctrine of predestination, the very doctrine championed by various Gnostic sects like the Valentinians. Origen had written some of the best defenses of the historic, orthodox doctrine of free will against the Gnostics. Origen had also written an excellent Commentary on Romans, which contradicted Luther’s later, innovative interpretations of that epistle. So the Reformers once again saddled Origen with the label of heretic.
The Tide Turns
Thankfully, in the last century the tide has turned in favor of Origen among scholars. In the last fifty years, a large portion of his works have been translated into English. Christians who actually read Origen’s writings recognize the contribution he made to the church of his day and to Christianity as a whole. Few, if any, orthodox Christians have adopted Origen’s speculative views on the preexistence of souls and the ultimate restoration of souls.
Those speculations need to be rejected.
However, these one percent of his writing that was in error should not be allowed to cancel out the ninety-nine percent in which he skillfully defends and explains the historic faith.
This blog was adapted from David Bercot’s Commentary on Matthew. For citations of early church quotes, see pages 476-483 in Bercot’s commentary.