Early Non-Pauline Christianity
A Review of F.F. Bruce: "Men and Movements"
CH101 - The Third Century
The Expansion of the Church, 202 - 303 A.D.
Origen of Alexandria
In the vacuum of leadership following the persecution under Severus, Origen became the head of the Alexandrian school. Origen was highly educated and became one of the greatest writers of the early church. Frustrated by the growth of Gnostic writings, especially commentaries on biblical text, Origen began producing commentaries and other writings. During the first half of the third century Christianity grew in numbers, but also gained a measure of intellectual and philosophical respect, bolstered largely by the writings of Origen which were numerous, dense in thought, and HUGE in size. He would sometimes dictate his biblical commentaries while stenographers jotted notes in shorthand to be later written out. It was said that several stenographers would work in shifts while Origen would go for hours every day.
He never mentions Clement, but follows in his tradition to some degree. Origen does not openly embrace Plato as Clement did, but his theological system is clearly marked by Platonism. It is Origen who truly develops the Alexandrian model of allegorical interpretation. Philo had done this with the Old Testament; now Origen applies the same methodology to Christian texts. For Origen each text had three meanings: a literal one, an ethical one, and finally a spiritual meaning. This system was developed to help explain what certain texts might mean when the immediately clear meaning cannot be correct (in the mind of Origen). The God of Israel could not have really decreed that His people kill every woman and child in some of the OT battle scenes. Origen would find a "spiritual" way to explain this. For Origen the spiritual meaning of the text was most important, thus sometimes he would minimize the literal meaning.
Origen could be seen as a prototype and a primary influence on the men who would commit themselves to celibacy in the monastic tradition. He never married, but gave himself completely to the service of Christ and His church. Eusebius reported that Origen castrated himself as a young man (a practice that most certainly happened in the Egyptian church), but this tradition is not completely reliable. What is certain is that Origen embraced a very spartan lifestyle, including all the Christian disciplines that would later become codified in monasticism.
The importance of Origin on the future of Christianity is difficult to overestimate. His writings were used by his contemporaries, but held in higher regard by the next few generations. Later generations would take sides regarding some of his controversial positions and come to blows. Referred to by historians as the "Origenist controversy," future leaders would part ways over the teachings of the second century writer.
On First Principles
Origen's major work, De Principii ("day prinCHEE pay" - On First Principles), contains many of these controversial topics. In the prologue of this work Origen warns the reader that this work is NOT for just any believer, but is designed to be read only by those who are solidly grounded in their faith and in philosophical training. He continues by saying that he will be speculating about things that are beyond human knowledge, but beneficial to be discussed. Various topics are addressed that would suggest Clement's emphasis: creation and how all things first began, the origin of evil, angelology, among many other topics. One topic that seems to emerge from time to time in church history is universalism. Origen speculates on how "all things" might eventually come under submission to God and in this context he states that "maybe after eons and eons Satan himself will repent." This kind of statement obviously caused concern, but it must be remembered that this appears in the one document Origen warns is NOT to be taken as orthodox theology. He does, however, defend his speculations publicly which shows that he takes his view seriously. Also important is how Origen gets himself into this situation - by trying to reconcile every disparate verse and force some kind of literal interpretation. The reader should also keep in mind that Origen is writing before formal orthodoxy had been completely established. Whatever the case, Origen's writings were at times condemned, and sometimes embraced. Interestingly, the "Origenist controversy" also had some influence in the divide between the Eastern and Western churches. Historically the Eastern fathers and churches have embraced Origen and the West has been much less sympathetic.
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