Sunday, November 29, 2009

Spotlight on Church History: Origen

In the coming months, I intend to read more non-fiction, especially Church History and Historical Theology. As a first step towards those ends, I will periodically be posting summaries of biographies and other historical or theological texts that I read several years ago. These were originally written as an annotated bibliography. By posting them in this public forum, I hope to encourage others to delve into these important subjects for our faith in these days. These are not intended as "cliff notes" on academic texts, and I do not wish to encourage plagiarism or shoddy scholarship if other students happen upon them in the course of their research. Many of these books may be out of print but are likely available through university libraries or inter-library loan. I will provide a link to Amazon whenever possible, which will generate a small percentage to support my book fund if you make a purchase after following that link.

Origen (c. 185-254)
Crouzel, Henri. Origen - The Life and Thought of the First Great Theologian. Translated by A. S. Worrall. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1989. (269 pages)

Crouzel writes a summary of Origen’s life and thought that is at once thorough, scholarly, objective, and sympathetic. His wide knowledge of all extant documents attributed to Origen allows him to evaluate the common conceptions of this early theologian with greater historical accuracy than is generally afforded him in other studies, and in so doing provides an excellent introduction for theological students and a springboard for further studies.

Origen was born in Alexandria, an intellectual center of the ancient world, in approximately 185 A.D. His life and theology were shaped by a classical and biblical education, his father’s martyrdom, and the unsettled times, both politically and theologically, in which he lived. Origen first earned his livelihood teaching grammar or rhetoric, but his biblical knowledge was recognized by Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, who made him head of the catechetical school when he was only eighteen years old (8). His teaching included both philosophy and theology, but his purpose was always to use philosophy to lead those who inquired about the Christian faith to baptism (27) and to provide Christians with Scriptural answers to intellectual problems to keep them from Gnostic sects (14, 153). In either 231 or 233, Origen traveled from Alexandria and eventually settled in Caesarea of Palestine where he continued to teach, occasionally enduring persecution, until his death in approximately 254-255.

After summarizing his life and cataloging his works, Crouzel divides the remainder of this study into three sections dealing with Origen’s exegesis, spirituality and theology. Origen is most often characterized as minimizing literal interpretation and seeking primarily an allegorical or spiritual meaning in Scripture. While Crouzel recognizes the limitations and weaknesses of Origen’s methods, he also demonstrates that Origen operated under a different definition of “literal” than the modern exegete. One today seeks the literal meaning in the intention of the author whatever the literary genre, but Origen understood “literal” to indicate strictly the words of the text (62). Thus, in many cases where the intention of the author is figurative or parabolic, Origen would find a spiritual meaning, while the modern exegete would claim it was a literal interpretation of the biblical author’s intention. Although one still might conclude that Origen took his quest for the spiritual meaning too far, understanding these differences in terms, does help the student to better appreciate Origen’s attempt in the context within which he worked.

Crouzel insists that much of Origen’s works, including the Treatise on First Principles which is the basis for much criticism, should be understood as “research theology,” or a theological exercise where many theological questions are pursued and various answers on both sides of the question are proposed and most often not resolved (167). Such a method is all the more understandable in the third century when many theological questions had not been worked out to their full extent by the Church. Origen has been misunderstood when fragments or sections of his writings are taken out of this pedagogical context and considered as dogmatic statements of his firm beliefs. These misunderstandings on the part of both his followers (Origenists of the fourth and sixth centuries) and critics (Jerome, Justinian, and the Constantinopolitan Council of 453) have overshadowed the significant portions of his theology in favor of ostracizing him over a few aberrant or inconclusive views, such as the pre-existence of souls or a universal restoration, for which Origen seems to have hoped while not insisting upon it. A more thorough study of primary sources, as Crouzel has undertaken, reveals that for his time Origen is orthodox on most points, including the Trinity, which had yet to be defined by the Arian controversy. In that controversy, in fact, Athanasius recognizes Origen as the source of the crucial phrase, “there was not when he was not,” in reference to the eternal generation of the Son (172, 268). Thus, a genuine history of doctrines must not disregard the value of Origen’s early expressions of theology simply because some of his ideas seem to contradict what was later more carefully defined and articulated.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

Off topic but you won the Tiger Tales contest on my site. I know I have your e-mail/mailing address somewhere but I can't find it in my inbox! Would you mind e-mailing me your contact information?

readingtoknow (at) gmail (dot) com