Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Church History 101: Origen

Read the introduction to this series – 50 people you need to know: Church History 101

One of the more complicated figures in Church History, Origen's shadow looms large over Christianity through the Middle Ages.

While he is recognized as a Church Father and influential on biblical interpretation, the Catholic church refused to canonize him. Origen (185-254) was denied official recognition as a saint because of some beliefs that stretched beyond accepted orthodoxy.

Still, he was the most prolific thinker and writer of his day. His hundreds of works continue to influence Christian thought and the way we understand the Bible to this day.

One part heretic, one part apologist, all parts theologian, Origen is someone you assuredly need to know.

Origen being tortured for his faith.

Who was Origen?

Born to Christian parents near Alexandria, Origen was the oldest of seven children. He was taught the faith by his father Leonides, who was martyred in 202. His mother hiding his clothes prevented 17-year-old Origen from rushing out to die alongside Leonides.

To help support his family, Origen opened a grammar school and began to teach those training for the ministry. He studied under a pagan philosopher, so as to better understand the arguments against Christianity.

As his school exploded in growth, Origen noticed a desire to better understand Scripture by himself and others. Fueled by this passion, Origen worked for 20 years on the massive Hexapla, a six-column text that contained the Hebrew Bible and five Greek interpretations.

He spent much of his adult life bouncing back and forth from Alexandria to Caesarea. While his school and his childhood home was in the Egyptian city, he was often in conflict with Demetrius, the bishop there.

During the last 20 years of his life, Origen alternately refuted heretics and defended himself from charges of heresy. He confronted many of those contradicting Christian doctrine. "Now the true soldiers of Christ must always be prepared to do battle for the truth," he said, "and must never, so far as lies with them, allow false convictions to creep in."

He challenged beliefs in adoptionism (Jesus was born strictly human, but was adopted as divine after his baptism) and soul sleep (the soul lays unaware with the body after death until the resurrection), but held to his own unorthodox positions.

For various reasons, Origen lived most of his life above the threat of persecution, but at the age of 69 the wish of his 17-year-old self was granted. After suffering excruciating torture for three years, due to the government officials seeking to extract a recantation from him, Origen died as a result of injuries he sustained while a prisoner for his faith.

Why do you need to know Origen?

Origen was characterized by complexity. On many issues, he was one of the most dedicated defender of orthodoxy. Bishops would bring Origen to their towns to teach truth and rebut the false teachings of Gnostics and others. Yet, he varied from accepted church doctrine in several aspects.

While much of his conflict with Demetrius was personal, a church synod and council did condemn his teaching. He believed that all souls have always existed and fell into sin prior to their being connected to a body. Most troubling was his belief that the Trinity was a hierarchy extending down from the Father, not a relational equality eternally existing between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There is also a distinct thread of universalism through Origen's writings. He famously said, "The power of choosing good and evil is within the reach of all." For Origen, that even extended to Satan and the demons. He believed even they, along with all humans, would eventually be restored to Christ. "God puts Christ's enemies as a footstool beneath His feet, for their salvation as well as their destruction."

Despite these lapses, Origen was possibly the Church's first true theologian and Bible scholar, as he established a manner of biblical interpretation that dominated Christianity for hundreds of years. His primary work, On First Principles, managed to meld Greek philosophy and biblical exegesis to develop a Christian philosophy.

While, most today would not accept allegorical understanding of Bible passages to the extent Origen did, he helped us to look at Scripture as a living document. He saw the entire Bible, including the Old Testament, as perpetually relevant. He taught the prophets knew about the Messiah they were predicting.
"For if the mystery concealed of old is made manifest to the Apostles through the prophetic writings, and if the prophets, being wise men, understood what proceeded from their own mouths, then the prophets knew what was made manifest to the Apostles."
Despite his massive intellect and immense talents, Origen remained humble about his own knowledge and the extent any of our knowledge can stretch into knowing God fully.
"For whatever be the knowledge which we are able to obtain of God, either by perception or reflection, we must of necessity believe that He is by many degrees far better than what we perceive Him to be."
He recognized that idolatry was not actually centered in a pagan temple, but a wayward heart.
What each one honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.
Origen sought to expand Christian influence in academic realms and develop a biblical systematic theology and philosophy. We owe much to Origen's tireless efforts and unquenchable thirst for more knowledge of God and His Word.

Odd Trivia Fact: Origen was such a prolific author that Ambrose, one of the wealthier Church Fathers, paid to have seven secretaries record Origen's dictated writing. Origen kept them all busy. Fellow Church Father, Jerome asked, only half-joking, "Has anyone read everything that Origen wrote?"

Would you like to write a guest blog for the Church History 101 series? Check out the list of 50 people, find one you would like to work on, then contact me via emailTwitter or Facebook.

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