Recent and Older Acquisitions on Origen of Alexandria

A few words about some recent acquisitions on one particular pre-Nicene Church figure, Origen of Alexandria, and some older acquisitions regarding the same that have been sitting on my shelf.

Origen of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 184 -253) has had a bad rap. Perhaps the most prolific of all of the pre-Nicene Greek Fathers (it appears that he wrote commentaries on every book of the Bible, though a great many have been lost), and almost certainly having the most famous life within this set, he was a paid catechist, studied philosophy at many famous centers, corresponded with emperors, became an ordained cleric, ruffled the feathers of some bishops, and eventually died from wounds he suffered during the Decian persecution. The Wikipedia page on him is very good; it suggests that Eusebius of Caesarea made him the hero of the Ecclesiastical History.

Origen’s legacy among the Nicene camp was deep: the Greek and Latin Fathers of the fourth century were nearly all avid readers of his works, drinking from the wells of his wisdom. His On First Principles (Peri Archon) laid out the basics of systematic Christian principles for centuries afterwards. One of his many students, Gregory Thaumaturgus (“the wonderworker”) studied under Origen, who converted him; he composed an oration of thanksgiving to Origen, delivered in his teacher’s presence, that survives. Origen’s vicarious students include Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, Athanasius of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, and Evagrius of Pontus (not formally canonized, but his writings form a core part of the first volume of the Orthodox ascetical compendium of the writings of many authors across over a millennium known as the Philokalia — not to be confused with the Philokalia that Origen’s admirers compiled). My understanding is that Basil and Gregory of Nyssa (who were siblings) both received their faith through a family tradition that flows from Gregory Thaumaturgus through their grandparents, who had direct contact with Gregory, if memory serves. Through Evagrius, Origen’s mind traveled to John Cassian; even Jerome was fascinated with, and indebted to, Origen, despite the role he played in the first Origenist controversy. There were figures like Rufinus who went to bat for Origen against his detractors — such as Jerome.

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There are several ways to read Origen, or read about him.

The Classics of Western Spirituality series has a volume on Origen, containing his works On Prayer and Exhortation to Martyrdom and sections of other major works of his — his On First Principles and two of his commentaries on biblical books (the Song of Songs and one of the books of the Torah). If memory serves, Origen took the Song of Songs as the climax of pedagogy and the spiritual life; the three books of Solomon (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs) serve as the material to instruct in these three stages; this is why one book that stayed with me for years, before leaving for another home, was Origen on the Song of Songs as the Spirit of Scripture.

The legendary Hans Urs von Balthasar has a work titled Origen: Spirit and Fire (that has been, it seems, reissued with a better cover), which is almost nothing but nearly 400 pages of excerpts of the writings of Origen, arranged according to topics, with the most minimal introduction to each section. There is an older translation by Butterworth of the full text of Origen’s On First Principles, though John Behr has recently offered his own translation, which will be coming out in paperback in four months.

I did work on Origen early in my first masters degree, mostly looking at the stages of salvation in some Alexandrian figures as a prelude to Gregory of Nyssa. One of the resources I drew on with pleasure was Fr. John McGuckin’s The Westminster Handbook to Origen, which I was happy to stumble across in my Kindle library recently.

Origen wrote dialogues, of course, given his exposure and familiarity with Greek philosophical thought; he was trained by Ammonius Saccas, the same philosopher who trained Plotinus. Unfortunately, so many of Origen’s works are lost. Along with dialogues, Origen wrote a reply to one of the most articulate detractors of early Christianity, Celsus. Origen’s reply survives, though we no longer have the original work by Celsus aside from the lengthy excerpts that survive in Origen’s roughly century-late reply.

Origen’s exegesis is really where he shines; there is a beauty and a power in the imagery that he draws from the biblical text, that is, in the way he uses this imagery, that is so often completely transporting, and immediately edifying. His homilies on Genesis and Exodus have been regular companions to me over the years, as have been his homilies on the Song of Songs; I have had his commentary on Jeremiah next to my bed, having gone through it once already, while I was preparing one of the draft entries for the future posts in this series on writing and speaking and hearts. Years ago, a friend gave me Origen’s Commentary on Romans (volumes one and two). While writing this little post, I spent the most time with Joseph Trigg’s Origen, which is really an excellent critical introduction: not only does it have an excellent scholarly biography and survey of Origen’s works and thought, most of the book is a translation of difficult-to-find works by Origen in English.

Secondary literature is one’s friend in this field. Henri de Lubac’s History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen is not a bad secondary source to start with regarding Origen’s use of the biblical text. I recently acquired another book on that theme, Peter Martens Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, which I haven’t yet cracked open, nor have I read reviews of it, but it looks promising from what others have told me. The now-nearly-mythical Fr. Jean Daniélou has a book on Origen that has been sitting on my shelf forever, which I have not touched — but Daniélou is masterful in everything else I have read from him, and I am excited to sit down with this and a glass of wine. Less than a year ago I came into possession of Ronald Heine’s Origen: Scholarship in Service of the Church that looks like it could be very worthy of the Oxford University Press label it’s published under.

One of the complaints I’ve heard leveraged against Origen is that he is too deeply influenced by Greek philosophy (this strikes me as a silly complaint). I’ve been sitting on a book about Origen’s relationship to Plato and Platonism for years that seems to address this, and, though I hear the book is worth it, I also hear that the author strains too hard to make a greater separation between Plato and Origen than needs to be made. Origen was not, it is certain, a slavish follower of Plato; he was not, however, alienated from Plato.

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Though there was some controversy surrounding some positions that were attributed to him, Origen’s star fell hard through political controversy that was as uncharitable and twisted in its interpretation of his legacy as it was pathologically motivated. There were two Origenist controversies, the first in the final decade of the fourth century, the second under the reign of the Emperor Justinian I in the middle decades of the sixth century. Elizabeth Clark’s The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate remains the standard scholarly reference for this. There are other texts on the first Origenist controversy that I haven’t ever seen (and so can offer no thoughts on), specifically looking at Theophilus of Alexandria (there is a bio on him here, which I have also not seen). There are monographs on Origen’s legacy with regard to other figures, such as Epiphanius of Cyprus, that I haven’t looked at, but which I’ve recently acquired.

In his book Origen, Joseph Trigg writes that Origen

has aroused both fascination and repulsion, sometimes, as in the case of Jerome, both reactions in the same person. Christian tradition has not found him easily assimilable because he put forward views, particularly on eschatology, that were unacceptable in his own time or, in the case of his doctrine of the Trinity, found so later. This unacceptability was due in part, but only in part, to misunderstanding and misattribution. That tradition has, nonetheless, found him hard to dismiss because he defended the orthodoxy of his own time and, perhaps more than any other single person, laid the foundations for the orthodoxy of subsequent generations. Acknowledged saints respected him as an authority, he was the glory of the church in his day, and he died as a confessor in the communion of the church. Manlio Simonetti has argued that Origen’s thought was the product of a unique period, early in the church’s organizational evolution, in which relatively great intellectual freedom was possible. [64]

Maximus the Confessor, in his Ambigua and elsewhere, sought to correct so many of the elements in Origen and Gregory of Nyssa (and others who drank from Origen); it is fair to say that he is the teacher of the saints, and will remain so for any future saints who do not want to neglect the many lessons he will always have.

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