Wise Words from a Heretic

Posted: September 5, 2011 in history, Jesus, theology

Origen (c. AD 186-253) was an intelligent and influential early church thinker who lived and worked primarily in Alexandria, Egypt.  According to tradition, after his father was martyred for his faith under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, Origen’s mother hid all of his clothing to prevent him from following after his father in dying for his faith (he later wrote a pamphlet entitled, An Exhortation to Martyrdom).  Origen subsequently grew up to become involved in a wide variety of disciplines including biblical exegesis, apologetics, and dogmatics.  However, his primary occupation was that of a teacher at the Catechetical School of Alexandria.

Although hailed as a great theologian in his own day, history has not been so kind to this church father.  In AD 553, he was condemned as a heretic by the Second Council of Constantinople, largely due to his unorthodox embrace of a Christianized form of apocatastasis (belief that all things will eventually be restored to their original state, including Satan).  He also believed in the pre-existence of souls, some sort of subordinationism within the Trinity, and an allegorical reading of the Old Testament.

Despite all of that, Origen nonetheless made some important and helpful contributions to early Christian theology.  One such contribution is his caution related to theorizing about the person of Christ, specifically with regard to how exactly his two natures (human and divine) actually came together into one person.

Of all the marvellous and splendid things about [Jesus] there is one that utterly transcends the limits of human wonder and is beyond the capacity of our weak mortal intelligence to think of or understand, namely how this mighty power of the divine majesty, the very Word of the Father, and the very wisdom of God, in which were created all things visible and invisible, can be believed to have existed within the compass of that man who appeared in Judaea; yes, how the wisdom of God can have entered into a woman’s womb and been born as a little child and uttered noises like those of crying children…

When, therefore, we see in [Jesus] some things so human that they appear in no way to differ from the common frailty of mortals, and some things so divine that they are appropriate to nothing else but the primal and ineffable nature of deity, the human understanding with its narrow limits is baffled, and struck with amazement at so mighty a wonder knows not which way to turn, what to hold to, or wither to betake itself…For this reason we must pursue our contemplation with all fear and reverance, as we seek to prove how the reality of each nature exists in one and the same person…

But to utter these things in human ears and to explain them by words far exceeds the powers we possess either in our moral worth or in mind and speech.  I think indeed that it transcends the capacity even of the holy apostles; nay more, perhaps the explanation of this mystery lies beyond the reach of the whole creation of heavenly beings.

– from On First Principles as quoted in Jesus, Ed. David F. Ford & Mike Higton (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002), p. 85-86

Origen’s words remind me of those of another early Christian thinker, Gregory of Nazianzus, who wrote:

If the one [a contemplation regarding Jesus’s humanity or divinity] give you a starting point for error, let the others put an end to it.

– from his “Third Theological Oration,” as quoted in Jesus, Ed. David F. Ford & Mike Higton (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002), p. 95

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