The Lost World of Origen’s Gospel Metaphysics

The fact that the premiere genius among the church fathers, the one most responsible for a fully articulated theological world, the one who explains what must be the case if the Gospel is true, the fact that he is condemned by the church, indicates what was mostly lost for the next two millennia. The problems which plague the church up to the present time, such as the duality between body and soul, between heaven and earth, the dualities introduced into the Trinity, the doctrines of Calvinist predestination, limited atonement, and penal substitution, but most basically the warped conceptions of God which now predominate, can be summed up as the metaphysical problems of God and creation directly addressed by Origen. In short the resulting metaphysical incoherence can be traced to a rejection of the coherence that might otherwise have prevailed if Origen’s thought had been preserved rather than being condemned.[1] As P. Tzamalikos writes in praise of Origen’s accomplishment, “Christianity, against a background of other sects, cults, beliefs and various religions of its time and place, was successful in organizing its tenets into a coherent system. To a considerable extent, this was a feat of Origen.”[2] Neglect of the coherence provided by Origen resulted in metaphysical confusion.

Origen, continuing in the spirit of Irenaeus and Ignatius, expounds and expands upon the rule of faith, inclusive of the basic principles or extrapolations which must be the case, given the truth of the Gospel. Like Aristotle he understands that there must be first principles, or the basis upon which one builds so as to gain wisdom (otherwise there is an infinite regress). While acknowledging the Greek notion of first principles, Origen’s understanding that the Gospel is the first principle departs from a Greek understanding. His opening sentence in On First Principles sets the foundation of his work on Christ: “All who believe and are assured that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, according to his saying, I am the truth, derive the knowledge which leads human beings to live a good and blessed life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ” (On First Principles, hereafter Princ. Preface, 1). Origen notes specifically, that his principle is a departure from a Greek understanding and is a turn to Christ as first principle: “For just as, although many Greeks and barbarians promise the truth, we gave up seeking it from all who claimed it for false opinions after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God” (Princ. Preface, 2).

The field of his examination is not that of the Greek sense experience and knowledge. His field of examination is Jesus Christ: “In the first place, we must know that in Christ the nature of his divinity, as he is the only-begotten Son of God, is one thing, and another is the human nature, which in the last times he took on account of the economy” (Princ. 1.2.1.1). The Gospel as first principle requires that he begin by examining the titles of Christ, and the relation of the Son to the Father. He concludes: “As no one can be a father without having a son, nor a master without possessing a servant, so even God cannot be called omnipotent unless there exist those over whom He may exercise His power; and therefore, that God may be shown to be almighty, it is necessary that all things should exist” (Princ. 1.2.10). It is through the Son that the Father is almighty, and this position of the Father is extended through the Son into all of creation. “For through Wisdom, which is Christ, God has power over all things, not only by the authority of a ruler, but also by the voluntary obedience of subjects” (Princ. 1.2.10). Again he explains:

And He exercises His power over them by means of His Word, because at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, both of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth. And if every knee is bent to Jesus, then, without doubt, it is Jesus to whom all things are subject, and He it is who exercises power over all things, and through whom all things are subject to the Father; for through wisdom, i.e., by word and reason, not by force and necessity, are all things subject.” (Princ. 1.2.10)

 This is his working principle, namely that God’s almighty rule and his work of creation is grounded in the eternal relation between the Father and Son, which is the means of understanding God’s relation to creation.

Origen is clearly working within a Christological frame. He is setting forth an alternative world-view, a Christ centered logic, or a Christian metaphysic. The problem is that very few may have been up to the task of following the subtlety of his argument. His translators, his readers, his enemies, and ultimately the church will misunderstand Origen. There are a variety of reasons for this misunderstanding, including the treatment and mistreatment of his writings which were being changed even in his lifetime. The simplistic understanding that many presume, is that Origen is a Platonist and is simply deploying Plato or Neoplatonism to explain Christianity. Thus, the charge is that he Hellenized Christianity or that his Christianity is simply a form of Greek thought. In the 15 anathemas leveled at Origen at the 5th ecumenical council, such as holding that he taught the preexistence of souls, the existence of disembodied souls, and that he denigrated material bodies, what is demonstrated is an incapacity to apprehend his argument. He is describing the world that must be the case given the truth of the Gospel, and to the degree he was correct the church subjected itself to error.

John Behr is, as with his work on the Gospel of John, arguing against the mainstream of scholarship. Behr is relying, at least in part, on the work of P. Tzamalikos, who maintains that not only is Origen not a Platonist but that he is an anti-Platonist: “Since 1986, I argue for the unpopular thesis that Origen is an anti-Platonist in many respects. This was received with suspicion and distrust within a mindset where branding him a ‘Christian Platonist’ was (and still is) a matter of course.”[3] This is particularly important, in that the anathemas and misunderstanding leveled at Origen attempt to fit his argument within a Greek or pagan frame, where it simply does not fit. Tzamalikos repeats his counter-claim and builds upon it throughout his work:

Actually, the claim of Platonism in Origen appears so baffling, that argument would be needed to establish not its incoherence, but its coherence. For it thrives on half-truths confronting his own statements and cardinal ideas, with ‘Platonism’ being mostly a flight of fancy in heads of unlearned authors (many bishops) of old times, whose views were upheld by modern theologians no less uninformed about what Plato really wrote.[4]

He makes the case that Origen is an anti-Platonist and setting forth a Christian alternative to the Greek worldview.

What is almost always forgotten, however, is that it is Origen himself who singles out Platonic views, for the purpose of juxtaposing them with his own conceptions. Had he upheld a notion redolent of a Platonic outlook, would it be too difficult for him to say a few words about it? Cels (Origen’s work, Against Celsus) promptly concedes certain of his viewpoints appearing to be similar to Platonic views. Those points are pointed out, and considered with portions of Plato’s works quoted whenever necessary. . . . On the issue of history and eschatology, Origen knows that his views have nothing to do with those of any pagan philosopher. It is no accident that this section of Cels is one of the shortest of the entire work. He quotes the challenge by Celsus, yet he does not regard him worthy of a full reply on a question which requires the listener to be of an entirely different background. [5]

One of the specific points at which Tzamalikos finds Origen rejecting Platonism is in regard to the body:

The truth is though that Origen espoused a notion held in derision by many Platonists, which nevertheless was originated in the Hebraic tradition: survival as resurrection of the body. According to Platonists, material things make up only the lower half of the wholeness of reality, indeed the far less dignified half of it. For them the body is the source of passion, of meanness and decay, the most outright representation of degeneration of materiality; this ought to dissolve irrevocably. Rejecting the notion of the soul surviving without a body, Origen virtually denied the idea of resurrected bodies living in a disincarnate form: he defended resurrection in a body; although this is understood to be a body of a different quality, still this is a definitely material body. The salient point though is that, pace Paul, he made resurrection the central theme of his thought, indeed of all Christian doctrine: if there is no resurrection, there is no Christian faith and all Biblical history is void of any meaning at all. No one after Paul made so strenuously the Cross and Resurrection the pivotal point designating all history from start to finish.[6]

Tzamalikos lays out the overall difference in terms of the Greek focus on stasis and the unchanging order and the Christian focus on time and history:

The Presocratic religious question had been treated mainly in terms of pursuing stability behind the physis soliciting the essence behind the phenomena. With Christianity the problem of the world in time becomes of main priority. To be sure, some pagan schools of thought did quest for a purpose of history. Plato did reflect on the ultimate goal of the earthly life. Aristotle did research on the teleological causal sequence according to which civic life was formed. The Stoics, as well as Cicero, did visualize a world-state based on reason as a goal which (sic) human race ought to full. What was entirely new though was the question of an overall meaning of human history—a purpose originated in the dispensation of God manifested within the world since its creation.[7]

His starting proposition and conclusion is “that the Alexandrian formed a distinctly Christian Philosophy of History, faithfully following Paul in making the Cross the midpoint of all history. He also formed an Eschatology, which (although obscure in the Latin of De Principiis) is crystal-clear, no matter how putative orthodoxy might receive this.”[8]

The project of John Behr, who is building upon the work of Tzamalikos, is to demonstrate that Origen is spelling out a unique Christian logic, neither Greek nor Gnostic. Among the key issues undergirding Origen’s work and that which is most misunderstood and maligned, is Origen’s concept of God’s eternity as it relates to time. As demonstrated above, Origen’s first principle is the Gospel, and he also focuses on the relation between the Father and Son to explicate the relation of time and eternity. His examination of the divine titles of Christ treats that relation as understood and expressed in the incarnation. In other words, Origen is not explaining a pre-incarnate relationship (sneaking in a Greek metaphysic), but sees the relation between the Father and Son in the incarnation as the divine reality.

As Rowan Williams puts it, “the existence of Jesus is not an episode in the biography of the Word.” As Williams explains, “God has no story but that of Jesus of Nazareth and the covenant of which he is the seal.”[9] Or as Herbert McCabe has expressed the same concept: “to speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made man.”[10]  This is the problem, along with all that it entails (the capture of modern theology by metaphysics) that Origen’s first principles resolves before it occurred .


[1] And of course, with a genius of Origen’s caliber there really is no getting rid of him, as even those such as Augustine who will reject key parts of his thought can be said to still have been formed in an Origenist understanding. The Cappadocians will most directly build upon Origen, but they too must be muted and as will become most completely clear by the time of Maximus, those who embrace Origen in both the east and west risk condemnation.    

[2] P. Tzamalikos, Origen: Philosophy of History and Eschatology, Supplements to VC, 85 (Leiden: Brill, 2007) 2.

[3] Ibid. xii.

[4] Ibid. 17.

[5] Ibid. 24.

[6] Ibid. 18

[7] Ibid. 1.

[8] Ibid. xiii

[9] Rowan Williams, Arius: History and Tradition, 2nd edn (London: SCM Press, 2001) 244.

[10] Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November, 1985) 474.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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