Church Fathers Starting with O: Origen

Church Fathers Starting with O: Origen

origenRomans 5:12-21

by Daniel Harrell

Summertime sermons mean “Church Fathers” sermons, a seventeen year series focused on personalities whose faith and lives have shaped the Christianity we confess. As there have been so many noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers), it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time, with the plan to reach Z by retirement. But now, as you know, you don’t have to wait for my retirement, the whole alphabet is now available on Amazon in ebook form, all for just 9.99. The price went up this week from the introductory 3.99, but 9.99 is still less than an average church member’s weekly offering (I hope).

As this is year seventeen, I realize I should be letter Q, but I got off to a slow start due to so many Church Fathers beginning with A–Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, Aquinas and Anselm. As there’ve been other bumps along the way, I’ve attempted to catch up a bit this summer by tackling both letters N and O. I’m able to do this due in part to the paucity of legitimate saints beginning with N (Saint Nicholas notwithstanding). I resorted to Isaac Newton and Reinhold Niebuhr this month, both powerful thinkers and believers if not bona fide church fathers since they show up so late in church history. On this “throwback Sunday” we get back to where we belong this week with a second century look at Letter O and Origen of Alexandria, a contributor to Christianity so large and influential that he gets Letter O all to himself.

The son of a martyred Christian father, Origen reportedly was prevented from becoming a young martyr himself by his mother who hid his clothes so he couldn’t leave the house. A zealous believer with an encyclopedic and fertile mind, Origen composed some 6,000 works, sometimes dictating to seven secretaries at once in order to get all his thoughts on papyrus. An early watchdog of the gospel and deeply committed to Scripture, Origen wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, thousands of sermons, treatises and letters. His enduring contribution comes mainly from two works; a systematic treatise entitled On First Principles, wherein he focused on the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, salvation after death and the authority of scripture; and secondly, a response to the pagan philosopher Celsus’ attack on Christianity, considered one of the finest defenses of faith from the early church. “True soldiers of Christ must always be prepared to do battle for the truth,” he wrote, “and must never, so far as lies with them, allow false convictions to creep in.”

Despite his Biblical convictions and defense against Celsus, Origen’s theology entangled with pagan philosophy, particularly Plato’s. For instance, Origen promoted an eternal, rather than created, existence of the soul as “pure intellect” which he believed God implanted into physical bodies as the means whereby “the image of God” could be rationally acquired after a struggle with temptation. “Faith relies on reason,” Origen held, which may be why Adam made such a mess of things. What reasonable person would ever listen to a talking snake? Thus “sin came into the world through one man,” the apostle Paul wrote in this morning’s passage, referring to Adam, “and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” Paul goes on to contrast Adam to Christ: Whereas Adam acquiesced to Satan’s temptation and brought on condemnation for all, Jesus resisted Satan’s siren song and brought “justification and life.” “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners,” Paul wrote, “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Jesus’ obedience was both his righteous life and his unjust death; with Christ’s blood, Origen believed, serving as ransom paid to Satan. Because of Adam, all succumbed and became Satan’s prisoners, willingly if unwittingly allowing the devil gain entry into our hearts just as he entered the heart of Judas. Jesus undoes Adam’s curse to set us free from both Satan and ourselves, forgiving our sin and changing our minds that we might finally desire to be obedient too. “If the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”

Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus five times in these verses. It is from these verses that Christianity, following Augustine, has held the doctrine of original sin, the inheritance of a sinful nature due to Adam’s vice. As descended from Adam, humans are regarded as natural born sinners, wired for perversity and prone to do evil. Only a second Adam can rewrite human nature. Born in the likeness of Adam, we must be born again into the likeness of Christ.

While in Oxford this past summer at a theology and science symposium, Adam was a big topic of conversation. Here in Romans, Paul based his assertions of sin and salvation on a real man on a real cross undoing the real sin of another real man, the first real man, the parent of all people and perversity, in an earlier real time in a real garden in the beginning. Paul’s tidy, one for one equation of salvation works well as long as all these realities line up.

A university geneticist, Dennis Venema, described the fairly recent fossil discovery of a new species of hominids nobody knew had existed. Named the Denisovans (for the cave in Siberia where the fossils were found), these hominids roamed the earth some 40,000 years ago. Further archaeological evidence shows these Denisovans practiced primitive religion and other aspects of culture alongside Neanderthals and Homo sapiens of the same period. DNA evidence analyzed from the fossils–possible since DNA is chemically stable as long as it’s encased in a tooth or a bone–revealed that Denisovans were not only our ancient neighbors, but our ancestors too. Sequence your own genome (which you can do these days for less than a thousand dollars) and you’ll find, due to primordial interbreeding, traces of Denisovan and Neanderthal DNA inside of you (which for some of our personalities may explain a lot).

What this means is that genetically, biologically and anthropologically speaking, there is no solitary point in human history where a single Homo sapiens suddenly appeared as purely distinct from his or her hominid cousins. Trace the family tree as far back as possible, given the current diversity of the gene pool, and there’s no place where one pair of people could have ever existed from whom the whole human race descended. Do the math and not only was there likely no talking snake in the garden, but no lone pair of talking people either.

This presents a theological problem if God is to be considered Creator of creation as we science observes it. If there were no real first parents, then Paul’s equation was based on a wrong premise and maybe people are not so bad after all. Not only that, but if Adam wasn’t real, maybe Jesus wasn’t either. Clearly, Christians should steer clear of science.

Many blame Charles Darwin for opening this can of worms. Our faith would be fine had he not stuck his fat beak onto those Galápagos Islands and come up with his theory of evolution. But actually, as far as Adam and Eve are concerned, Darwin was something of a late-comer to the discussion. Questions about Adam and Eve and the Genesis account of creation showed up some 1650 years earlier.

Writing from the second century, Origen asked, “Who that has understanding will suppose that the first and second and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun and moon and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.” (Anti-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4, p. 365)

“In appearance, but not literally.” My first introduction to Origen came in a seminary class as an example of how not to interpret the Bible. Origen taught that Scripture, like human beings ourselves, consists of three levels of meaning: the literal, the moral and the spiritual (corresponding to body, mind and spirit). By spiritual, or allegorical, Origen meant that deeper layers of Scripture become accessible to believers as they ascend in holiness and righteousness in relationship to angels and the Trinity. The closer you are to God, the more deeply you understand his word. A literal reading is the lesser reading. In contemporary practice, many Christians treat the Bible in ways that show Origen’s influence still. Think of the popular inductive Bible Study method you may have learned in Young Life or InterVarsity or in Sunday School. When approaching a passage of Scripture, you were taught to ask: “What does it say, what does it mean, and what does it mean to me?” Origen would have recognized this popular method as his own tripartite approach—the words as they appear to the eye or sound to the ear (literal), the meaning as they are understood by the mind (moral), and their power as “word of God” as they affect the soul (spiritual).

Origen wrote, “As the eye naturally seeks the light and vision, and our body naturally desires food and drink, so our mind is possessed with a becoming and natural desire to become acquainted with the truth of God and the causes of things.” (On First Principles, Bk. 2, ch. 11; vol. 1, p. 148)

As to the “causes” and “truth” pertaining to Adam and Eve, it is true that Origen, like the apostle Paul before him, would have considered the first parents to have been real people despite his reservations about other aspects of Genesis. Of course, the first centuries AD had no access to DNA or biology or fossil evidence or any theory of human evolution. Like everyone else, Paul’s understanding of Adam as the cause of human sin reflected his time and place; his shared the first century cultural assumption about ancient, primordial time. And yet taking away an actual Adam hardly takes away human sin and death. Look around: Everybody dies. Everybody does wrong. Call it what you want, but all of us fail to do what we know we should; we cause harm to ourselves and to others over and over again, with horrific destruction and collateral damage. Even without Adam to blame, sin is real; a self-evident fact of human existence.”

As to Paul’s perceptions, Eastern University Old Testament professor Peter Enns argues that, “The reason behind Paul’s distinct portrayal of Adam reflects his Christ-centered handling of the Old Testament in general. Paul’s understanding of Adam is shaped by Jesus, not the other way around… the uncompromising reality of who Jesus is and what he did to conquer the objectively true realities of sin and death do not depend on Paul’s understanding of Adam as a historical person.”

What about Jesus as an historical person? If an inspired Paul can’t get Adam straight, how do we know he’s right about Jesus? While two sides of Paul’s salvation equation, Adam and Jesus are not equal in historical standing. Adam was a primordial, prehistoric man known only through hundreds and hundreds of years of cultural transmission. The resurrection of Jesus was a present reality for Paul, an event that had happened in Jerusalem about twenty-five years before he wrote Romans. Professor Enns writes that admitting the historical and scientific problems with Paul’s Adam does not mean in the least that the gospel message is therefore undermined. A literal Adam may not be the first man and cause of sin and death as Paul understood it, but Paul’s theology does not require a real Adam as the cause of sin and death. Sin and death do just fine with him. And while critics may take issue with the miracle of resurrection, the Lord works in mysterious ways that confound science, no serious historian or scientist denies that Jesus was a real historical person.

At the Oxford meeting, the theologians in the room admitted that many of the current debates would diminish if Christians would stop trying to run Scripture through a scientific grid and let the Bible do what the Bible does best. We could afford a little more Origen in our day, allowing our souls to be nourished by a broader and more deeply layered reading of the word, which for Origen, was Jesus speaking himself. And as anyone knows who’s read Jesus’ own words, you can’t take everything he says literally. “Be born again,” “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” “cut off your hand if it causes you to sin,” we know all these words and others figuratively point to more potent truth. Though you do still have to love and forgive your enemies.

Despite Origen’s enormous contributions to Christian theology, his deviations from orthodoxy made many regard him a heretic. In addition to his departure from six days of creation, a literal garden and talking snake, Origin argued for a hierarchy within the Trinity, insisting that the Father, Son Son and Spirit did not stand on the same ground. And while he combatted Gnostic teaching that taught the created world to be evil, Origen did place higher value on the spiritual over against the material, disparaging the physical and the embodied as less godly. Most controversially, Origen believed all sinners could be saved, including Judas Iscariot and even Satan, that snake, himself. What is the victory of God in Christ if not victorious over all sin and death and evil? He wrote, “The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of us all.” (On the other hand, in a letter to his friends in Alexandria, Origen is said to have exclaimed that only a lunatic would prophesy the salvation of the devil.) Nevertheless, three centuries after his death by Roman torture, the Council of Constantinople pronounced Origen anathema for thinking that demons and the wicked would not suffer eternally.

In the Apostle’s Creed, there is an enigmatic clause that declares that Christ “descended into hell.” Origen believed Jesus descended into hell to retrieve Judas. I don’t know, but I do know that Christ descended just as far to retrieve you and me. Everybody does wrong. All of us fail to do what we know we should. We cause harm to ourselves and to others over and over again. But “just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace exercised dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”