The Teachers of the Church: Origen of Alexandria (Part 2)

Origen of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria

The History of Christianity #54

Our Scripture verse today is James 3:13 which reads: “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.”

Our quote today is from Anselm. He said: “For I seek not to understand in order that I may believe; but I believe in order that I may understand, for I believe for this reason: that unless I believe, I cannot understand.”

Today, we are looking at “The Teachers of the Church” (Part 11) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Origen of Alexandria (Part 2)

The spirit of Origen’s theology is very similar to that of his teacher, Clement. It is an attempt to relate Christian faith to the philosophical tradition that was then current in Alexandria, Platonism. He was aware of the danger of abandoning Christian doctrine in favor of the teachings of the philosophers, and thus declared that “nothing which is at variance with the tradition of the apostles and of the church is to be accepted as true.” This tradition includes first of all the doctrine that there is only one God, creator and ruler of the universe, and therefore the Gnostic speculations regarding the origin of the world are to be rejected. Secondly, the apostles taught that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, begotten before all Creation, and that His incarnation is such that, while becoming human, he remained divine. As to the Holy Spirit, Origen declares that apostolic tradition is not entirely clear, except in affirming that the Spirit’s glory is no less than that of the Father and the Son. Finally, the apostles taught that at a future time the soul will be rewarded or punished according to its life in this world, and that there will be a final resurrection of the body, which will rise incorruptible.

However, once these points have been affirmed, Origen feels free to rise in great speculative flights. For instance, since the tradition of the apostles and of the church gives no details as to how the world was created, Origen believes that this is a fair field of inquiry. In the first chapters of Genesis there are two stories of creation, as Jewish scholars had noted even before the time of Origen. In one of these stories, we are told that humankind was created after the image and likeness of God, and that “male and female created He them.” In the second, we are told that God made Adam first, then the animals, and then formed the woman out of Adam’s rib. In the Greek version of the first narrative, the verb describing God’s action is “to create,” whereas in the second it is “to form” or “to shape.” What is the meaning of these differences? Modern scholars would speak of the joining of separate traditions. But Origen simply declares that there are two narratives because there were in fact two creations.

According to Origen, the first creation was purely spiritual. What God first created were spirits without bodies. This is why the text says “male and female” – that is, with no sexual differences. This is also why we are told that God “created,” and not that God “formed.”

God’s purpose was that the spirits thus created would be devoted to the contemplation of the divine. But some of them strayed from that contemplation and fell. It was then that God made the second creation. This second creation is material, and it serves as a shelter ot temporary home for fallen spirits. Those spirits who fell farthest have become demons, while the rest are human souls. It was for these human souls – fallen preexistent spirits – that God made the bodies we now have, which God “shaped” out of the earth, making some male and some female.

This implies that all human souls existed as pure spirits – or “intellects,” as Origen calls them – before being born into the world, and that the reason why we are here is that we have sinned in that prior, purely spiritual existence. Although Origen claims that all this is based on the Bible, it is clear that it is derived from the Platonic tradition, where similar ideas had been taught for a long time.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Teachers of the Church: Origen of Alexandria.

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