Origen: Friend or Foe?

FEW FIGURES in church history have stimulated the level of debate and controversy that surrounds Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185 – ca. 254). To some, he was a brilliant intellectual as well as a passionately committed disciple of Christ, the most influential and seminal thinker in the early church. Others regard him as a dangerous heretic whose interest in philosophical speculation unleashed a string of teachings that stand in stark opposition to orthodox Christian faith (p. 2). Still others affirm the truth of both positions.

As a Christian, Origen believed that the Bible was the Word of God, and as such it occupied a central place in his life and thought, the touchstone for all his beliefs. Indeed, one of the major concerns of Origen’s work was to assist Christians facing the intellectual challenges of the third century by providing scriptural answers to the questions posed by Hellenistic philosophy and culture.

In spite of Origen’s intentions and clear commitment to biblical authority, however, many believe that his use of Scripture compromised that authority, providing fertile conditions for the germination and growth of heresy.

Cultured scholar, would—be martyr

Young Origen grew up as both a learned Greek and a devoted Christian. Born in either 185 or 186 in Alexandria, Origen was raised in a Christian home. His father was most likely a prosperous and influential man, who provided his son with an education that was both Hellenistic and Christian. This dual education undoubtedly caused some internal tension in Origen as he sought to reconcile his commitment to Christian faith and the Bible with the classic teachings of ancient Greece.

From the perspective of Hellenism, Christianity was little more than another barbarous superstition, and the Bible simply an inferior collection of texts unworthy (by Greek aesthetic standards) of serious consideration.

Origen was not the first to grapple with this tension, and he was able to learn from previous Jewish and Christian engagements with Hellenism. Indeed, as a student at the catechetical school in Alexandria, Origen likely studied under Clement of Alexandria, who was well known for his attempts to relate Christian teaching to Greek philosophical thought.

When Origen was about seventeen, his father was arrested during an outbreak of persecution and executed for his profession of Christian faith. According to tradition, Origen intended to turn himself in to the authorities and join his father in martyrdom but was prevented from doing so by his mother, who hid his clothes and thus prevented him from leaving the house.

Later, he is said to have written to his father in prison exhorting him not to turn from the martyr’s calling for the sake of his family. Many Christians fled Alexandria to escape the fate of Origen’s father, including Clement, who had been the head of the catechetical school.

The combination of Origen’s clear Christian commitment in the face of persecution and his growing reputation as an outstanding thinker led Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, to entrust him with the leadership of the school at the age of eighteen.

Teen dean

During his tenure, the pursuit and execution of Christians in Alexandria continued, and Origen was under threat on numerous occasions, living the life of a wanted man and enduring the martyrdom of several of his students. In addition to these pressures, Origen lived an austere life characterized by extreme self-discipline and ascetic practices, including his own self-castration in accordance with a literal reading of Matthew 19:12.

In the midst of all this, Origen was immensely productive, teaching, preaching, traveling, and writing scholarly works concerning theology, philosophy, apologetics, and the Bible.

He was significantly aided in his literary output by Ambrose, a wealthy convert impressed by Origen’s intellectual abilities. Ambrose provided Origen with a trained staff of stenographers, copyists, and calligraphers, as well as funds for the publication of his works. The stenographers wrote down Origen’s words in shorthand as he lectured and turned their notes over to the copyists, who produced a manuscript for him to revise. The calligraphers then reproduced as many copies as were needed in a clear and elegant hand.

Ambrose constantly exerted pressure on Origen to make full use of the resources he had provided, leading Origen to refer to his patron as “God’s taskmaster” in his life. This patronage and “encouragement” enabled Origen to compose rapidly, and he authored hundreds of manuscripts, becoming one of the most prolific writers of the ancient world. Unfortunately, the majority of these works have not survived.

Among his many extant works, two are of particular importance. On First Principles is a systematic account of Origen’s theological and philosophical positions concerning God, creation, Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, and salvation. One of the great classics of Christian thought, it constitutes both a philosophical discussion on the relation of God to the world and an attempt to develop a coherent set of theological teachings. It may be the first formal attempt at systematic theology in the history of the church.

The second work, Against Celsus, is a detailed defense of Christian faith against the critique of the Roman philosopher Celsus, in which Origen attempts to demonstrate the superiority of the teachings of the Bible versus Greek philosophy. This thorough point-by-point response to Celsus made an important contribution to the growing cogency and respectability of Christian faith in the ancient world. These works effectively refuted the contention that Christianity was simply another superstitious folk religion and helped to establish the intellectual credentials of the faith.

Spoiling the Egyptians

While Origen appreciated a great deal of Plato and the Greek philosophical tradition, he argued that at its best it merely anticipated the fullness of truth that was to be found in divine revelation.

Further, he maintained that for all the benefits of philosophy, it could not finally lead to a true and proper knowledge of God, since it was contaminated with too much false and erroneous teaching. In spite of his reservations concerning philosophy, Origen believed that Christian faith itself was a kind of divine philosophy that, while surpassing and superceding all other philosophies, could make use of them by leading persons to a true knowledge of God and to salvation.

Thus, Christians may profitably study Greek philosophy or other pagan learning, “borrowing” truth from these sources in order to explain the Christian faith. In the same way that the Israelites took the property of the Egyptians with them in the exodus, said Origen, so the people of God are permitted to make use of the truths of pagan culture and philosophy, the “spoils of the Egyptians,” in the work of theology and biblical interpretation.

Getting to the next level

This willingness to make use of Greek thought is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Origen’s spiritual or allegorical approach to interpreting Scripture. He maintained that the Bible contained three levels of meaning, corresponding to the three aspects of a human being—body, soul, and spirit—derived from Platonic philosophy and the writings of Paul.

The bodily level of Scripture is the bare letter of the text, or its literal meaning, which is particularly useful in meeting the needs of the more simple minded.

The psychic level can be understood as the moral meaning of the text, providing guidance concerning right and proper conduct, although some ambiguity exists as to the exact ways in which Origen made use of this sense. In many cases he simply maintains that biblical narratives contain ethical and moral principles that may be found within or beneath the surface of the text’s literal meaning.

The third and most important level of meaning is the spiritual or allegorical, which points to Christ and the relationship of the Christian with God. Origen believed that this spiritual/mystical meaning, while often hidden, is always present in the text. The task of the Christian interpreter is to uncover it. The allegorical method of interpretation sought to yield this hidden, symbolic meaning, and Origen became the leading figure in its establishment as the dominant method of biblical interpretation until the sixteenth century.

To allegorize or not?

This approach to interpretation often strikes contemporary readers as strange, unwarranted, and potentially dangerous. Why did Origen adopt it?

First, allegory is a legacy of Greek thought and would have been a one of the staples of Origen’s Hellenistic education. It was initially used to defend belief in the inspired character of Homer’s writings, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the face of the charge that they portrayed morally suspect behavior. Homer’s supporters maintained that the poems were symbolic and when read in their true, allegorical sense contained no moral or religious difficulties.

Over time, allegorical interpretive methods became increasingly sophisticated. Platonists contended that myths and symbols were necessary components in the communication of truths that were otherwise inaccessible. This appreciation for the value of myths and symbols became an essential part of Origen’s outlook.

Second, Origen was exposed to a tradition of spiritual exegesis that began with the Jewish community in Alexandria, who used the method to demonstrate that their Scriptures were compatible with Greek philosophy. The leading Jewish proponent of this movement was Philo, and although his work eventually fell out of favor with the Jews, it was accepted enthusiastically by Christians and was probably communicated to Origen through Clement.

Hence, Origen inherited a strong belief in allegory as a tool to communicate the deepest and most profound philosophical and theological truths as well as the assumption that the Bible, the inspired Word of God, must be subject to such allegorical interpretation in order to grasp its spiritual significance.

Third, Origen found ample evidence in Scripture itself for the practice of spiritual exegesis, beginning with the Christian conviction that the entire Old Testament is a prophecy concerning Christ, who is the interpretive key to understanding the Hebrew Bible. In 2 Corinthians 3 he read that the Jewish people who reject Christ have a veil before their faces and over their hearts. This hides the true meaning of Scripture from their perception and limits them to the letter of the text, which kills. Only through Christ can the veil be removed and the spiritual meaning of the text, which gives life, be revealed. Only when Jesus explains the Scriptures to his disciples on the road to Emmaus and shows that they speak of him can their true meaning be revealed. For Origen, allegorical exegesis clearly provided the true meaning of the Old Testament.

The apostles did it too

Among the most significant New Testament passages that Origen cited as justifying spiritual exegesis is 1 Corinthians 10. Here, the pillar of cloud, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna, the water from the rock, and death in the wilderness represent baptism, the eucharist, and punishment for sin. Verse 11 sums up these events, explaining that each of these things happened to the Hebrews as a typikos, a figure or example, written down for those who live at the end of the age. For Origen, this implied that the Old Testament was written for Christians, who needed to seek the spiritual interpretation since many of the ceremonies and legal precepts (the literal teachings of many passages) are no longer binding.

In Galatians 4, another important passage, Sarah and Hagar symbolize the two covenants. The Christians are prefigured by Isaac, the son of Sarah the free wife, and the Jews by Ishmael, the son of Hagar the slave. This passage is explicit in its use of allegory.

Other examples mentioned by Origen include Matthew 12:39—40, in which the three days Jonah spent in the great fish symbolize the three days Jesus will pass in the heart of the earth; Matthew 26:61 and John 2:19—21, in which the Temple symbolizes the body of Christ; Galatians 3, in which the posterity of Abraham is portrayed in Christ, who will fulfill the promises made to the patriarchs; and Hebrews 8, in which the ceremonies of the old covenant are but shadows of heavenly realities.

For Origen it was clear that the New Testament authorized and validated the spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament and, by extension, all of Scripture.

He could do no other

To Origen, the cultural assumptions of the Hellenistic world, the Christian belief in the inspired nature of the Bible, the centrality of Christ, and the teaching of the New Testament itself combined to demand the practice of spiritual interpretation. Three other apologetic or pragmatic impulses sealed his commitment to allegory.

1. In Hellenistic Alexandria, the assertion that the Bible was divinely inspired would have required its allegorical interpretation. To assert that it could not or should not be interpreted in such a fashion would be tantamount to denying its inspired character. Affirming the Bible as the Word of God entailed the assumption that its form and teaching was consistent with the highest cultural standards.

2. The Jewish critics of Christianity stressed Christ’s failure to fulfill many of the prophecies concerning the Messiah. Origen believed that only a spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies, able to perceive their deeper sense and meaning, would overcome these objections.

3. The Gnostic sects rejected the Old Testament on the grounds that it taught a different God than the one revealed in Christ. They believed that in contrast to the New Testament God of love, the deity of the Old Testament was vengeful, jealous, capricious, and often directly responsible for sin and evil. Origen considered this conclusion unavoidable if the biblical texts were accepted as literal; hence, he asserted that they must be understood allegorically. In fact, he argued that they are in many cases intentionally obscure and incoherent in order to coax and compel the reader to seek their true, spiritual meaning.

Finally, in response to those who might argue that the multiplicity of meanings generated by this approach would result in interpretive chaos, Origen insisted that the practice of Christian spiritual exegesis must always be conducted within the framework of the rule of faith established by the consensus of the church.

Loyal son or heretic?

Origen’s significance as a biblical commentator, coupled with his intellect and skill as a teacher, should have ensured him an esteemed and permanent place in the Alexandrian church. In spite of his accomplishment and popularity, however, he fell into conflict with Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, over the issue of Origen’s desire to be ordained to the priesthood.

Demetrius refused to allow this, saying that Origen was disqualified by his self-castration, although some have speculated that the denial had more to do with jealousy and concern over the power that Origen might wield in the church if he were to be ordained. Origen asked the bishop of Caesarea if he would be willing to grant ordination, and the affirmative answer prompted him to move to Caesarea sometime between 231 and 233. Here he spent the remaining years of his life teaching and writing, never returning to Alexandria.

Origen was arrested during the Decian persecution and subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and threatened with execution in an attempt to force him to recant. In spite of his suffering, he stood fast and was eventually released from prison, denied the martyr’s crown he had sought to share with his father so many years earlier. He was a broken man, however, and lived out his last few years in relative obscurity, probably dying sometime around 254.

Had Origen been executed or had he died in prison, subsequent generations would have been slower to condemn him. Martyrdom covered a multitude of sins, theological and otherwise. His steadfastness in the face of torture and his death as a confessor of the faith were not enough to spare him the scorn of the church in its collective memory. Eventually, Origen was formally condemned as a heretic, and he has been regarded as heretical throughout much of the history of the church, particularly in the West.

Recently, this negative assessment has been reconsidered and altered considerably in some quarters. The question remains, however: How should those who are committed to the authority of Scripture and orthodox expressions of Christian faith assess Origen?

He set the pace

In Origen’s context, Christian theological beliefs were not well developed or respected. Origen’s work was a decisive factor in changing this state of affairs, both by establishing the intellectual credibility of the faith in the Hellenistic setting and by exploring the internal coherence of Christian faith. That he must sometimes be judged as mistaken in these explorations should hardly be surprising or cause for great concern.

Origen was one of the first Christian thinkers to give sustained attention to many of the issues he addresses. He did teach some unorthodox positions by later standards. But he was a seminal thinker in a process of trial, error, revision, and refinement from which an orthodox consensus emerged. Origen was always faithful to his own time’s standards of orthodoxy. Certainly, he failed to see the implications of his views for future generations. But it is uncharitable to charge him with guilt for that failure. CH

By John R. Franke

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #80 in 2003]

Next articles

The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers

What we can learn from the church fathers that will enrich our own Bible study.

Christopher A. Hall

Why the Reformers Read the Fathers

The reformers wanted their teachings to be in harmony with the church fathers.

the Editors

Too Racy for Bible Study

Origen could not believe the Song of Songs was a hymn to erotic love. So what did it mean?

Warren Smith

Opponents of Allegory

The scholars at Antioch rejected allegory in favor of history. But their interpretive method led some into heresy.

Steven Gertz
Show more

Subscribe to magazine

Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basis


Support us

Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministry


Subscribe to daily emails

Containing today’s events, devotional, quote and stories