The Origin According to Origen

The great Origen of Alexandria, to whom we now turn our attention, was the first Christian systematic theologian.  His name, though sounding like the English word “origin” (hence the pun in the title), actually is a Hellenized Egyptian name probably meaning “Born of Horus” ( Ὡρος in Greek).  I would recommend reading the linked Wikipedia article for more details on Origen and his thought.  Also, as a simple Googling will reveal, there is a huge amount of material on the Internet about Origen.  One could keep busy perusing it for a long, long time.  Here, my goals are more modest.  I want to give a very brief overview of the aspects of his world system as they are relevant to the discussion on reincarnation which I’m heading toward; which is itself relevant to tying up some of the loose ends from my Legends of the Fall series. Origen, as noted, was the first true systematic philosopher and theologian in the Christian tradition.  As is often the case with trail-blazers, Origen speculated widely and imaginatively, and many of his ideas were later repudiated by the Church.  Origen thus has an ambiguous status in the Church as a sort of quasi-Church Father.  His writings were profoundly influential to future theologians and were the basis for much later doctrine.  On the other hand, some of his ideas were later condemned as heretical, both by the Synod of Constantinople in 543  (which as a local synod is not binding on the Church at large), and by the Fifth Ecumenical Council a decade later.

The exact situation in this regard is perplexing.  The condemnations occurred nearly three centuries after Origen’s death, and they seemed relatively unknown in the West.  The condemnations seem to have dealt with the pre-existence of souls (which Origen appears to have taught) and with apokatastasis.  This latter doctrine is generally interpreted in modern times a universal restoration–that is, that all beings, even the “damned” will eventually be reconciled to God and saved.  However, as is discussed here, it is not clear exactly what “apokatastasis” meant in the context of Origen’s time nor in what sense he (or the later Council Fathers) meant it.  In the wake of the condemnations, many of Origen’s works were destroyed or altered, so in many cases it’s not quite clear what exactly he did teach.  Finally, as is so often the case, many of his later followers (the “Origenists”) taught a variety of doctrines, many of which possibly, and some of which almost certainly, were not, in fact, taught by him.

Thus, it is extremely difficult to pin down exactly what Origen taught that was considered heretical, and why it was so considered.

So, with these caveats, let us consider what Origen said that got him in trouble (some of which will be relevant to our ongoing discussion of reincarnation).  Let’s begin with a quote from the Wikipedia article linked above:

Origen’s cosmology is complicated and controverted, but he seems to have held to a hypothesis of the preexistence of souls, before the world we know was created by God, God created a great number of spiritual intelligences. At first devoted to the contemplation and love of their creator, almost all of these intelligences eventually grew bored of contemplating God, their love for him cooling off. Those whose love for God diminished the most became demons. Those whose love diminished moderately became human souls, eventually to be incarnated in fleshly bodies. Those whose love diminished the least became angels. One, however, who remained perfectly devoted to God became, through love, one with the Word (Logos) of God. The Logos eventually took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary, becoming the God-man Jesus Christ. The diverse conditions in which human beings are born is actually dependent upon what their souls did in this pre-existent state.

Thus, Origen’s cosmology definitely bears affinities to that of the later Evagrius Ponticus, who was strongly influenced by him (and who also got in trouble over his doctrines later).

Origen also seems to have believed in some form of universal salvation, though this has been controverted and his exact meaning is unclear.  Origen has often been accused of (or lauded for, depending on the commentator’s views) believing in reincarnation, but it appears that he did not hold such beliefs.  In this connection, it has also been asserted that Origen held that just as the damned would ultimately be saved, the saved, even in the Eschaton, could also fall.  Once more, whether he indeed held such a view, and if so, exactly what he meant by it, is highly controverted.  This will be of relevance later, though, when we move directly to the issue of reincarnation.

At this point, I think I’ve laid the groundwork for a detailed look at reincarnation from a Christian perspective.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Posted on 21/07/2012, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

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