The Augustinian Displacement of Origen

The decisive turn of the church in regard to metaphysics, philosophy, attitudes toward violence, church structure, the acceptance of Platonism, and a host of other issues can be marked by the differences between Origen and Augustine. It is not that the two can simply be posed against one another, as Augustine is formed by Origen’s theology more than he is himself aware,[1] but it is also the case that Christian theology takes on a very different shape as represented by these two theologians. As Gerald Bostock states it, “Origen, the founding father of Christian theology in the East, has had little influence in the West. This is because the great exponent of Christianity in the West has always been Augustine of Hippo.”[2] It may seem extreme to attribute to Augustine the suppression of Origen, as it is the 5th ecumenical council (recognized by both East and West) which condemns Origen, but it is in the wake of Augustinianism that this condemnation takes place.

According to Adolf Harnack, the church of the West, up to and including the reformers, owes its distinctive characteristics to one man, Augustine:

Along with the Church he served, he has moved through the centuries. We find him in the great medieval theologians, including the greatest, Thomas Aquinas. His spirit sways the pietists and mystics of those ages: St Bernard no less than Thomas à Kempis. It is he that inspires the ecclesiastical reformers—those of the Karling epoch as much as a Wyclif, a Hus, a Wesel and a Wessel: while, on the other hand, it is the same man that gives to the ambitious Popes the ideal of a theocratic state to be realised on earth.[3]

Augustine is not simply the first modern man but he lays the foundations of what will become modernity and its hosts of dualisms.[4] He bequeaths to the West the peculiar philosophy of mind and language taken up by Rene Descartes (the split between mind and body) and the apologetic argument and theological rationalism developed by Anselm, and he poses the theological doctrines of original sin and predestination which reach their final trajectory in John Calvin (the split between the wrath and love of God). We can credit Augustine with the full theological embrace of Greek philosophical thought, for the sense of the individual, and the notion of God’s sovereignty that contrasts with that individualism (the contradiction between human freedom and cosmic determinism). The failures inherent to his thought seem obvious in the postmodern aftermath in which his system has played itself out.

The alternative to Augustine was and perhaps still is the theological understanding of Origen of Alexandria. B. F. Westcott poses the stark difference between these two alternative forms of Christianity:

Few contrasts can be more striking than that offered by the two philosophies of Christianity of Origen and Augustine … In Origen history is charged with moral lessons of permanent meaning and there is carried forward from age to age an education of the world for eternity. In Augustine history is a mere succession of external events … For Origen life has a moral significance of incalculable value: for Augustine life is a mere show, in which actors fulfil the parts irrevocably assigned to them. The Alexandrian cannot rest without looking forward to a final unity … the African acquiesces in an abiding dualism in the future … not less oppressive to the moral sense than the absolute dualism of Mani.[5]

In an attempt to picture the extent of the contrast and what was lost of Origen due to the dominance of Augustinian thought, I resort to a list, which cannot possibly contain the fulness of the difference between these two world-shaping figures. (The point is not a critical examination of the whole of Origen’s theology but to highlight elements of his thought suppressed in the West.)  

  1. History is salvific (apocatastasis) versus history as predetermined assignation:

The most complicated and controversial difference between Origen and Augustine may be the most far reaching, but what is obvious is that in Augustine’s rejection of Origen’s apocatastasis, which he had at one time deployed in his arguments against Manicheanism, he falls into the very dualism he had found so repulsive in his former belief system. In his turn from refuting Mani to refuting Pelagius he also turned against Origen. According to Ilaria Ramelli, Augustine could be quoting Origen in his early utilization of the doctrine: “The goodness of God orders and leads all the beings that have fallen until they return/are restored to the condition from which they had fallen” (The Confessions 2.7.9). As Ramelli describes, “Augustine is briefly presenting the doctrine of universal apokatastasis: all creatures (omnia) that have fallen are restored to their original condition by the Godhead in its supreme goodness. Origen also thought that the agent of apokatastasis is God’s goodness. What is more, a precise parallel with Origen’s Περὶ ἀρχῶν is detectable.”[6]

By 415 Augustine had changed his mind, and in his efforts to refute Pelagius, his understanding of the economy of salvation is also changed up, in that he no longer holds that God’s purpose in creation is the purification of rational creatures (Ad Orosium 8.10; cf. 5.5).  According to Ramelli, “What is more interesting, he argued that ignis aeternus must mean “eternal fire,” or else the righteous’ bliss could not be eternal.” He argues there must be two parallel and opposite eternities, that of the blessedness of the righteous and that of the torments and death of the damned. Origen had already refuted this argument in his Commentary on Romans (which Augustine had read), in which he argued that eternal life and eternal death cannot subsist together, since they are two contradictories.

2. Remedial versus retributive punishment:

In refuting apocatastasis Augustine turns from the belief in God’s punishment as a remedial discipline to belief in the eternity of infernal torments so as to refute what he deemed Origen’s Platonic error: “that of viewing infernal pains as therapeutic, purifying, and limited in duration. He did not know, or perhaps he intentionally ignored, that Plato did not maintain universal apokatastasis and that Origen had to correct him in this respect.”[7]

3. Free will versus Predestination:

Augustine accuses Origen of the very predestinationism of which he is guilty, suggesting Origen’s infinite series of ages (which he did not hold to) eliminates human freedom and universal restoration (which Augustine once held to and then repudiated). In his reworked understanding, Augustine claims this fails to extract the retributive justice he now believes God requires. As Ramelli explains, “Origen was now accused of determinism and predestinationism, while he had never ceased refuting ‘Gnostic’ (especially Valentinian) determinism and predestinationism, especially because of his own concern for theodicy; precisely from this polemic his philosophy of history and apokatastasis arose.”[8]

Augustine trades belief in restorative justice for a belief in a retributive justice, and this combined with his belief in predestination poses a challenge to his belief in free will. The monks under his care become fatalistic, given their masters doctrine of predestination, but Augustine attempts the seemingly impossible task of defending free will.[9]

Augustine notes that the “vast majority” of Christians in his day held to the doctrine of apocatastasis and “albeit not denying the Holy Scripture, do not believe in eternal torments” (Ench. ad Laur. 29). This of course also provided a rational foundation for belief in free will.

4. Salvation as Universal versus Salvation and Damnation as predestined:

 Augustine, in abandoning apocatastasis, also gives up the notion of universal salvation, as he had previously understood it as spelled out in I Tim. 2:4 (God “wants all humans to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth”). “After the conflict with the Pelagians, Augustine drastically reduced the strong universalistic drift of this passage by taking “all humans” to mean, not “all humans” in fact, but only those predestined.” He also holds that the “fulness of the Gentiles” and “All of Israel” are reference only those who are predestined.[10]

5. The Logos is the Incarnate Christ versus a Greek Logos:

Origen’s focus is continually and consistently on the reality of the incarnation as an eternal fact about God. This is a sensibility that may be strange to those in the West, more familiar as we may be with the Augustinian development of the Greek sense of Logos (something on the order of language per se). Augustine writes,

Whoever, then, can understand the word, not only before it sounds, but even before the images of its sound are contemplated in thought –such a word belongs to no language, that is, to none of the so-called national languages, of which ours is Latin – whoever, I say, can understand this, can already see through this mirror and in this enigma some likeness of that Word [viz., Jesus Christ] of whom it was said: ‘In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.’

(On the Trinity, 15.10.19)

This Augustinian word which belongs to no language and which exists only in thought, is the impetus to the reification of language developed in Anselm and Descartes, which is the foundation of Western philosophy and theology. “There is nothing else of comparable power or originality on this topic until Descartes’ Meditations.”[11] Indeed the dualism between mind and body often attributed to Descartes should actually be credited Augustine.[12] Augustine’s translator offers a backhanded compliment, as in tying Augustine to Descartes he also ties him to the debacle of Western thought.

6. The body as an integral necessity to intellect versus the body as an obstacle to thought:

In contrast to Origen’s repeated insistence upon the inseparability of soul and body, form and matter, Augustine pictures the necessity of setting aside bodily and material concerns so as to arrive at reason. He contends that “nothing is more present to the mind than it is to itself” though he acknowledges one might be distracted by the body from knowing itself: or is it the case as with an infant “that it knows itself, but is too intent on those things through which it begins to experience pleasure through the senses of the body” (On the Trinity 14.5.7). He maintains that it could never be the case that one could completely fail to think of the self even if “it (the mind) did not always separate itself in the same thought from corporeal things” (On the Trinity 15.3.5). Like Descartes after him, the point seems to be that the mind and thought need to be shut off from the body to function properly.

It is Augustine’s account of language and soul/body dualism that prefigures not only the Cartesian turn, but seemingly the very wording of the Cartesian cogito:

We resemble the Divine Trinity in that we exist, we know that we exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge … In respect of those truths I have no fear of the arguments of the Academics. They say, “Suppose you are mistaken?” I reply, “If I am mistaken, I exist.” A non-existent being cannot be mistaken; therefore I must exist, if I am mistaken. Then since my being mistaken proves that I exist, how can I be mistaken in thinking that I exist, seeing that my mistake establishes my existence.

(City of God 11.26)

Stephen McKenna notes not only Descartes but William of Ockham and Nicolas Malebranche are reliant on Augustine’s view of language.[13] So not only modernism but the nominalism definitive of the Reformation traces its roots to Augustine.

Origen pictures the body as an ongoing necessity and God alone is without a body, but Augustine absorbs the Platonic reification of language over and against the body. This may be most clear in his picture of language as an innate given (a private language with which we are born which seems to exist free of enculturation and the body.[14] (Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his counter to the notion of private language by referencing Augustine’s picture of how he learned language.)[15] This opens the door to mind body dualism and the denigration of the body.

7. Evil as originating with Satan versus a human origin of evil:

In his reaction to Manichaeism, Augustine concludes that evil (as a parasite on the good) resides in human nature and that sin and God’s punishment are the source of evil. According to Gerald Bostock, Augustine adopted the questionable claim that evil is either sin or punishment for sin.[16] The focus of evil, for Augustine, is that evil which resides in the human race due to original sin. In the Augustinian picture of original sin, the first sin corrupted the whole race of humans:

Thence, after his sin, he was driven into exile, and by his sin the whole race of which he was the root was corrupted in him, and thereby subjected to the penalty of death. And so it happens that all descended from him, and from the woman who had led him into sin, and was condemned at the same time with him, —being the offspring of carnal lust on which the same punishment of disobedience was visited, —were tainted with the original sin.

(Encheiridion 26).

In contrast, Origen is an exponent of the Christus Victor theory of the Atonement; the belief that the Cross is to be seen as the decisive defeat of the powers of darkness by the Son of God – the very heart of Origen’s theology. Origen locates evil in the lie inspired by the “father of lies” and though the devil is not responsible for human wrongdoing, as man is responsible for his decisions, the devil continues to deceive as he did with the first pair.[17] “We must now see how, according to Scripture, the opposing powers, or the devil himself, are engaged in struggle against the human race, inciting and instigating them to sin” (Princ. 3.2.1). It is not, as with Augustine, that sin automatically rules and the struggle is over before it has begun, but the struggle continues. After a general survey of Scripture, Origen concludes: “Through all these passages, therefore, the divine Scripture teaches us that there are certain invisible enemies, fighting against us, and warns us that we ought to arm ourselves against them” (Princ. 3.2.1).

The Gospel serves to equip for battle, not according to the flesh, but against the spiritual enemies that “proceed from our heart” namely, “evil thoughts, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other enemies of “our soul” (Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.). Origen is describing the powers that rule the world and the human heart and the means of defeating them, through Christ.  

8. Real world defeat of evil versus the beginnings of a forensic doctrine of salvation:

Origen depicts a continual confrontation with and possible defeat of sin and the devil. Augustine has set the stage for an alternative theory of atonement, though this will fall to his disciples to develop. Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction and Calvin’s penal substitution are the logical end of Augustine’s picture of original sin and retributive justice. For Origen there is a real world defeat of evil in the power of Christ, but Augustine mystifies both sin and the nature of redemption.

9. Synergism versus predestination and determinism:

In Origen’s theology, both the devil and God work synergistically with humans: “For consider whether some such arrangement is not indicated by that which the Apostle says, God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond that of which you are capable, that is, because each one is tempted in proportion to the amount or possibility of his strength” (Princ. 3.2.3).

Where Augustine’s notion of predestination reduces to an arbitrary determinism, Origen held to the autonomy of the soul which worked synergistically through the Spirit and power of God:

Since, therefore, through this it is being taught that man must indeed expend effort and attentive care, but that God grants the success and completion to the work, it is assuredly pious and religious, while God and man do what is in themselves, to attribute the chief part of the work to God rather than to man. And so, although Paul was planting and Apollos was watering, God is said to give the increase.

(Commentary on Romans 7.16).

10. Anti-Platonism versus Platonism:

I have detailed Origen’s anti-Platonism (here) and his argument for a different order of reason based on the Gospel. There is no question that Augustine, even in his own estimate, is too much absorbed by Platonism: “I have been rightly displeased, too, with the praise with which I extolled Plato or the Platonists or the Academic philosophers beyond what was proper for such irreligious men, especially those against whose great errors Christian teaching must be defended” (Retractions 1.4).

Though this (role of Platonism) is evident in the above, the difference between the thought of Origen and Augustine comes through in the perceived problems and the tenor of their work. For Origen the Trinity is revealed as an outworking of the incarnation, while for Augustine the Trinity is a problem needing explanation and analogy, for which he turns to the human mind, where Origen turns to history, creation, and incarnation. For Origen the Gospel as the rule of faith refers to the person of Christ, while Augustine is geared to the sort of propositional explanation which will come to typify the West.

It is hard to gauge the breadth of the impact of Augustine’s embrace of Plato. While he was certainly not the first to have done so (since the time of Justin Martyr, the logos of the Platonic system was beginning to be fused with the Logos of John 1:1), Augustine sealed the deal. As Robert O’Connell describes it, Platonism will shape Augustine’s theology, in his denigration of sex and love, culture, art, and science. It is not clear he ever escaped his Manichean view (shared by Plato) that the soul is imprisoned in the body and that sexual procreation is the darkest element of this imprisonment.[18] Augustine’s failure to divest himself of Platonism has seemingly immunized Western theology against the Anti-Platonic thought of Origen.


[1] Augustine is reliant on Origen’s commentary on Romans and yet seems to forget this reliance. Ilaria L.E. Ramelli points out Augustine’s unwitting reliance on Origen in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena (Leiden & Boston: Brill Publishing, 2013) 670-671.

[2] Gerald Bostock, “Origen: The Alternative to Augustine?” The Expository Times Volume 114, Issue 10

[3] A. Harnack, Monasticism (London: Williams & Norgate, 1913), p. 123.

[4] It is Henry Chadwick’s claim that Augustine is the first modern man but the evidence indicates he contains modernism in utero, the birth of which will play out over centuries. Henry Chadwick, Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, I986), p. 3.

[5] B. F. Westcott, Essays in the History of Religious Thought in the West (London: Macmillan, I89I), pp. 247f. Quoted in Bostock.

[6] Ramelli, 664. The quote from Origen reads, “We think that the goodness of God, through his Christ, will call back and restore all creatures to one and the same end” (Princ. 1.6.1).

[7] Ramelli spells out the confusion between Greek and Latin: “The imprecision of the Latin vocabulary of eternity can help to explain Augustine’s argument. While, as I have often mentioned, the Bible describes as ἀίδιος only life in the world to come, thus declaring it to be “eternal,” it never describes as ἀίδια punishment, death, and fire applied to human beings in the world to come; these are only and consistently called αἰώνια, “belonging to the future aeon.” But in Latin both adjectives are rendered with one and the same adjective, aeternus (or sempiternus), and their distinction was completely lost. This, of course, had important consequences on the development of the debate on apokatastasis. Augustine refers twice to the words of the Lord that, he avers, declare the absolute eternity of otherworldly punishments. In those words, however, in the Gospels κόλασις is described as αἰώνιος, and not as ἀίδιος. But Augustine, just as many Latin authors, was unable to grasp this distinction.” Ramelli, 670.

[8] Ramelli, 673.

[9] Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings, Trans. and Introduction Peter King (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) xvii.

[10] Ramelli, 674.

[11] Augustine, On the Trinity, Books 8-15, trans. and Intro. Stephen McKenna (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002) xviii.

[12] Here is the full quote: ”Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is obviously the philosopher one would naturally select as the one most deeply influenced by Augustine’s De Trinitate. The concept of mind that emerges in DT, even the concept of body one finds there, strikes the modern reader as surprisingly Cartesian. The internalist argumentation to support Mind-Body Dualism seems quite Cartesian. And, of course, Descartes’ cogito, as a response to skepticism, seems to echo the cogito-like passage in DT 15.” McKenna, xxviii.

[13] McKeena xxix.

[14] G. E. M. Anscombe’s translation in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953) 2e. Quoted in McKeena, xxv.

[15] Here is Augustine’s picture of how he learned language. “When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were, the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the fact, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.” (Confessions 1.6.8).

[16] Bostock, 328.

[17] Bostock, 328.

[18] Robert J. O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Early Theory of Man A.D. 386–391, (Harvard University Press, 1968) 284.

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.

Leave a Reply