Biographies from Church History: Part 1 of 3, Origen of Alexandria

Origen (c. 185-c. 254) was an early Christian scholar and defender of Christianity during the third century. He was well known “as a learned exegete, creative philosopher, master of spiritual life, and an active churchman.”[1]

origen3Origen was born in Alexandria and was the son of Christian parents. In 202 C.E. Septimius Severus persecuted Christians and Origin’s father was imprisoned and suffered martyrdom.[2] Shortly after the death of his father, Origen was recruited by the bishop of Alexandria, Demetrius, to train catechumens—candidates for baptism. Origen was still in his teens and so this was a serious responsibility and task for him to undertake. Nevertheless, Origen devoted himself to the role of a catechist and to the study of Scripture. Eventually, Origen’s devotion and study generated invitations to travel in order to preach and participate in theological forums. During this time, Origen became a famous teacher which caused conflict with Demetrius resulting in Origen’s departure from Alexandria and his arrival in Caesarea where he continued to teach and write for twenty years.[3]

A significant scholarly work of Origen was his Hexapla which was a study edition of the Old Testament in six parallel columns presenting the Hebrew text, a Greek transliteration and the translations of Aquila, Symmachus, the Seventy (Septuagint) and Theodotion.[4] Other scholarly works consisted of Bible commentaries, an apology entitled Against Celsus and a systematic theology entitled On First Principles.[5] His less scholarly treatises entitled On Prayer and Exhortation to Martyrdom show another side of Origen’s fervent spirituality and faith.[6]

Origen was a student of the Alexandrian School of thought which was influenced by Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E- c. 50 C.E.) and later by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 C.E. – c. 215 C.E.). Origen was a student of Clement, and so his theology is like Clement’s in that it attempts to relate Christian faith to philosophy, specifically Platonism.

An area of major contribution by Origen is in the field of biblical interpretation where he followed Philo’s emphasis on the allegorical method of interpretation. Origen had a high view of Scripture, and like Philo he believed there was a spiritual meaning beyond the literal that must be discovered. He believed that readers of the sacred text should not be content with a literal understanding, but they should look deeper for the spiritual truth which is beneath every passage or word of scripture.[7] Origen expanded on Philo’s twofold view (a literal and a spiritual meaning) by adding a moral meaning. According to Origen, “the wise interpreter of Scripture must move from the events of the passage (its literal sense) to find the hidden principles for Christian living (its moral sense) and its doctrinal truth (its spiritual sense).[8]

220px-origenOrigen’s interpretive methods produced significant contrasting eschatological ideas than those of other early Christian writers. With his threefold approach, he emphasized the spiritual truths of the last days rather than literal events. Thus, Christ’s return will not be physically in one place and there will not be a literal thousand-year reign by Christ on the earth.[9] He believed that at the future resurrection, bodies will be resurrected taking on bodies made of spiritual material. As a result, he posited that a future divine punishment (or hell) portrayed in the Scriptures was to be interpreted as spiritual anguish which will eventually rehabilitate and transform all fallen spiritual beings (even Satan) to their original state of communion with God.[10]

During the Decian persecutions, Origen was imprisoned and tortured and shortly after his release from prison, he died in Tyre at about the age of seventy years old.[11]

In view of Origen’s life and thought, the present-day church can apply many aspects of his life to the present-day context. Origin’s commitment to studying the scriptures and teaching Christian doctrine should be admired and imitated by Christians. He is an example of how Christians can use their knowledge of Christian doctrine as a defense of the Christian faith. Moreover, present day Christians can learn from his allegorical interpretative approach by examining the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach.

[1] E. Ferguson, “Origen” in New Dictionary of Theology (NDT): Historical and Systematic, edited by Martin Davie et al. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), EPUB edition. [2] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Rev. and Updated, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), EPUB edition, pt.1, ch. 9, “Origen of Alexandria.” [3] Ferguson, “Origen,” in NDT, EPUB edition. [4] Ferguson, “Origen,” in NDT, EPUB edition. [5] González, The Story, EPUB edition, pt.1, ch. 9, “Origen of Alexandria.” [6] Ferguson, “Origen,” in NDT, EPUB edition.[7] William Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Third ed. (Nashville, TN: Baker Academic, 2017), 84. [8] Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard Jr., Introduction, 85. [9] T.A. Noble, “Eschatology” in New Dictionary of Theology (NDT): Historical and Systematic, edited by Martin Davie et al. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), EPUB edition. [10] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine: A Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 32, “The Final Judgement.” [11] González, The Story, EPUB edition, pt.1, ch. 9, “Origen of Alexandria.”

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