Clement's successor as head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, Origen, was to be much more influential than he. His was, indeed, one of the greatest of Christian minds.
Origen was born of Christian parents, probably not far from the year 185. A precocious child and the oldest of seven sons, he was instructed by his father in the Scriptures and in Greek learning. Possessed of an eager mind, he perplexed his father by questions about the deeper meanings which he believed lay behind the words of Holy Writ, When Origen was slightly less than seventeen years of age, his father was imprisoned and killed and the family's property was confiscated in the persecution by Severus which seems to have been the occasion for the termination of Clement's residence in Alexandria. In his youthful ardour, as we have seen, Origen wished martyrdom and was prevented only by his mother's firmness in hiding all his clothing and thus compelling him to remain at home. After his father's death, Origen continued his study of Greek literature and in part earned his living by teaching it.
Since, because of the persecution, no one was left in Alexandria to give instruction in the Christian faith to those who sought it, Origen began to undertake it and in his eighteenth year was in charge of the catechetical school, a post in which he was confirmed by the bishop. During the renewed persecution he boldly visited those imprisoned for their faith and accompanied some as they went to their death. He himself escaped only by shifting his home from house to house. He lived with extreme asceticism, curtailing his hours of sleep and giving himself exclusively to the catechetical school and to the continued study of the Scriptures and of Greek philosophy, including Neoplatonism. Partly to avoid the possibility of scandal in teaching women catechumens, he made himself a eunuch.
Origen visited Rome and Arabia and, later, Greece and Palestine. While in Palestine he was ordained a presbyter by two friendly bishops. The Bishop of Alexandria regarded this act as a flagrant disregard of his jurisdiction and had synods banish Origen from his see and, so far as possible, depose him from the priesthood.
Henceforward Origen made his headquarters in C^sarea in Palestine. There he taught and wrote and from there he made occasional journeys. During the Decian persecution he was imprisoned and tortured. He was released, but his health was broken and not long after the persecution he died, in his seventieth year, and was buried at Tyre.
A superb teacher, he had a profound influence upon his students. From them and through his writings issued currents which were to help mould Christian thought for generations.
Origen was an indefatigable worker and wrote prodigiously. The better to study the Old Testament, he learned Hebrew, and in his Hexapla placed in parallel columns the Hebrew text and various Greek translations of the Old Testament. He wrote many commentaries on the Scriptures. Believing the Scriptures to be the word of God, he held that nothing in them was to be believed which is unworthy of God. He saw in the Scriptures three levels of meaning: first, the common or historical sense which is on the surface for even the simple-minded; second, the soul of the Scriptures which edifies those who perceive it; and third, for the perfect, a meaning hidden under what superficially is repugnant to the conscience or the intellect but which, discerned, can be expressed by allegory. The allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures was by no means new, but Origen gave it a fresh impetus. Origen's Against Celsus was evoked by the most penetrating criticism of Christianity produced in the Grsco-Roman world of which we know and, in turn, was the ablest defense of Christianity which had thus far appeared. In his Peri Archon (On First Principles) which we have in full only in a Latin translation under the title De Principiis, and which somewhat altered the original, Origen gave to the Church its first orderly comprehensive statement of the Christian faith. In his literary labours he was assisted by a substantial body of amanuenses made possible by the generous financial aid of a friend.
Inevitably, like so many of the early Christian thinkers, nurtured as they were in Greek philosophy, and, indeed, like still others in succeeding centuries who were familiar with Greek thought, in his writings and in the formulation of his religious beliefs Origen bore the unmistakable impress of the Greek heritage. Yet Origen believed that he found the truth primarily in the Scriptures and in what had been transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles. The apostolic teaching, Origen held, is (1) that there is one God, the Father, just and good, the creator of all things; (2) that Jesus Christ, the God-man, was the incarnation of the Logos who is wisdom, word, light, and truth, coeternal with the Father, for since the Father is always Father there must always have been a Son, but who, since he is the image of the Father, is dependent upon the Father and subordinate to Him; Jesus Christ was not, as so many of the Gnostics held, a phantom, but was truly born of a virgin and the Holy Spirit, truly suffered, truly died, truly rose from the dead, conversed with his disciples, and was taken up into heaven; (3) that the Holy Spirit is associated in honour and dignity with the Father and the Son and that he is uncreated. Origen distinguished the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit from one another, although they constitute a unity. He taught that men derive their existence from the Father, their rational nature from the Son, and their holiness, or sanctification, from the Holy Spirit.
Origen held that there had been an earlier stage of the creation, a spiritual world, in which there were spiritual and rational beings to whom God had given free will. Some of these did not turn away from God, but others used their free will to do so. To punish and reform the fallen, God created the present visible world. Salvation was the work of the Son, the Logos, who in becoming man united with a human soul which had not sinned in its previous existence. The Saviour, the God-man, was the self-revelation of God, making evident to sinful men what God really is. The Saviour also gave himself as a ransom for the lost and by doing so conquered evil in the hearts of the fallen. He is a propitiatory offering to God. The Holy Spirit brings light to those who believe.
Origen taught that ultimately all the spirits who have fallen away from God will be restored to full harmony with Him. This can come about only with their cooperation, for they have freedom to accept or to reject the redemption wrought in Christ. Before their full restoration they will suffer punishment, but the punishment is intended to be educative, to purge them from the imperfections brought by their sin. After the end of the present age and its world another age and world will come, so Origen believed, in which those who have been born again will continue to grow and the unrepentant will be given further opportunity for repentance. Eventually all, even the devils, through repentance, learning, and growth, will be fully saved. Origen's conception of the drama of creation and redemption was breath-taking in its vast sweep and in its confident hope.
Influential though he was in the stream of Christian thought, some of Origen's views proved repugnant to the Catholic Church. Among these were his beliefs that the created world had always been, that human souls had existed from eternity before they came into these present bodies, that all souls, not only men but also demons, are ultimately to be saved, and that beyond this present existence the growth of souls through discipline is to continue until all are perfect. In the later years of the fourth century and in the fifth and sixth centuries controversy raged over Origen. In it monks, among them the scholarly and emphatic Jerome, and high ecclesiastics were involved. It entailed violent words and bitternesses. It contributed to the expulsion of John Chrysostom from Constantinople. Eventually, because of some of his teachings and also for others wrongly attributed to him, the Catholic Church in regional synods in Alexandria (399), Jerusalem, and Cyprus, and perhaps in one of its general or ecumenical councils, at Constantinople in 553, although this has been hotly debated, labelled him a heretic.
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