Redeeming Origen: The Godly Heretic
If you know anything about Origen, then chances are that it’s one of two things: he emasculated himself in striving for sexual purity, and his theology undergirds Rob Bell’s universalistic enterprise. Simply put, he was harmfully ascetic and perilously heretical. But I fear the modern perceptions of Origen ignore that he was a man of uncommon zeal, who possessed the rare combination of intellectual brilliance and genuine humility. Church historian Williston Walker says there was no man of purer spirit or nobler aims in the early church than Origen. In Origen we meet a man who desired to present the Christian faith in its splendid array of practical truths which capture whole people for Christ.
The scope and reach of his theological works are unparalleled for his time; including the Hexapla, commentaries and notes on most of Scripture, apologetics, practically rich sermons, and one of the earliest systematic theologies in Christendom, De Principiis. The necessary qualification to make regarding his list of achievements is that he was for the most part consistent with the church tradition and teaching of his age, this included a rudimentary Trinitarianism and the view that Scripture was inspired. But being a child of Alexandrian thinking, Origen was heavily influenced by Hellenistic philosophy. This meant that beyond the literal meaning of Scripture he believed there was a deeper and more spiritual meaning. So Origen popularised allegorical interpretation. His emphasis on the place of philosophy in theology, coupled with the desire to add knowledge to faith, was both the strongest and weakest aspect of Origen’s writing.
An entire blog post could be, and many probably have been, written studying the relationship between Origen’s Christian theology and Platonic philosophy, or his contemporary, Plotinus. I will leave it up to you to write or read those posts, elsewhere. It will suffice to say that ultimately Origen’s theological structure collapsed because it was largely built on Platonism. His Platonic view of humanity concluded that our entire life, as pre-existence creatures who suffer in the shadow world, Plato’s cave, is a kind of purgatory, and therefore salvation meant returning to the spiritual reality. This demonstrates his theological method, which often overlooked Scripture in favour of philosophy.
It is not difficult to conclude, with many Christians today, that Origen’s speculative and philosophical bent derailed his theological system and imports dangerous ideas into our own. However, I would suggest another conclusion to consider: Origen demonstrates the inquisitive character necessary for theology. Christian theology, the prayerful study of our infinite God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and his Son, is carried out by fallen and finite creatures. Therefore, as Kelly Kapic says, we must avoid the path of pride burdened by defensiveness and unmoving self-assurance. Even a brief survey of church history reveals a maze of treatises, doctrinal formulations and theological debates that urge us to be weary of being too dogmatic. Of course, Scripture remains foundational and biblical exegesis must drive our systematics, but we are fools when we put aside inquisitive thinking out of rigid preference for what is already established.
There is, I think, another valuable lesson to learn when we study Origen: though we might disagree with other Christians’ theological positions (and there is a place for publically challenging divergent schools of thought) we should be slower to condemn Christians on the basis of their theology and rather observe God’s transforming grace in their lives. Origen was a great man who lived before God, actively pursuing a life of obedience and ultimately dying for the glory of Christ. How quickly we forget that God desires right hearts before right theology. Donald Macleod, in The Person of Christ, writes that Evangelicalism has always recognised that, “Someone may have little knowledge of the great creeds and yet have a real, living faith in Christ” meaning that while it is sometimes necessary to denounce a man’s heretical teaching we should also pay full tribute to their piety. That is the difficult path that we must navigate today.