Understanding the “Time” of Origen and Paul Through Ephesians 3:9-10

Origen considered Ephesians the center of Paul’s thought[1] and according to Richard Layton he defined “this epistle as the spiritual ‘heart of Paul’s letters, a repository of mysteries at which the apostle only hinted in other correspondence.”[2] As Layton explains, “The imagery of Ephesians moves in celestial realms and encompasses the vast reaches of eternity, inviting cosmological speculation. The language of Ephesians is particularly vivid at precisely the points where Origen’s teachings kindled controversy.”[3] One might read Origen as an explanation of this cosmological time and space bending book (Ephesians), which provides entre into Pauline theology. Though Origen and Paul are often read through Platonic conceptions, Origen is making a clear break with Platonism (most clearly on such issues as the intersection of time and eternity) and his is a demonstration of the unique logic of Paul and the New Testament. What Origen demonstrates is that Paul, in his conception of time (and eternity), is neither Greek nor Hebrew but is setting forth the peculiar implications arising from the incarnation of Christ and His consummation or summing up of all things (Eph. 1:10).

A key component of Origen’s thought is derived from Ephesians 3:9-10 in which Christ is said to be “the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” Origen pictures Christ as the Wisdom of God, which as he notes from this verse is “manifold” or containing the different principles or arche upholding creation. The Wisdom of God “administered” through Christ captures the point of intersection between God, who is timeless, and his dealings with time and creation. While this Wisdom is also beginningless in its reference to the Son, it is also interwoven with the creative act of the Son:

The son of God is also called wisdom, made as a beginning of his ways to his works, according to the Proverbs, which means that wisdom existed only in relation to him of whom she was wisdom, having no relation to anyone else at all; but the son of God himself became God’s benevolent decision and willed to bring creatures into being. This wisdom then willed to establish a creative relation to future creatures and this is exactly the meaning of the saying that she has been made the beginning of God’s ways.[4]

Wisdom, through the Son, creates and is itself made part of creation, in that the reason or arche of all things is found in the Son. As Paul says, “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17) and yet He is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col.1:15). As Origen explains, he “is the oldest of all created beings and … it was to him that God said of the creation of man: ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’[5] “Wisdom” is regarded as “created” in the “body” of Christ, such that the passage from uncreated to created is present in Christ.

Origen pictures the first creation account of male and female as referring to the arche or logoi from out of which the next chapter records the creation of the man from the dust and the woman from out of the side of Adam. As Panayiotis Tzamalikos describes it:

The “reasons” is what God created in the beginning. Taking into account that the term logōi means both “words” and “reasons”, Origen’s view is that these logōi are the words of God when he was speaking to his son in the creation of the world according to Genesis. These logōi of God are but the creative . . . fiat out of which the notion of “coming into being out of non-being” began to make sense. It is certainly God who brought them into being but the act of this “creation” is portrayed as an “utterance” of the father to the son. These “utterances”, in Greek called by Origen logōi (which means “utterances”, “words” and “reasons”), is what actually came into being out of non-being.”[6]

The “manifold wisdom” of which Paul speaks, is known through creation and Christ, the wisdom of God is manifest in creation. Wisdom as given through the son, Paul explains (and Origen notes), is the means of bestowing the divine mysteries. What was once hidden in God is manifest in Christ, which Paul notes in acknowledging that God created all things. So, there is a creaturely, created aspect (the logoi) which is from the uncreated, timeless divine wisdom, but which is made known in and through the work of creation.

 In his commentary on Ephesians, Origen refers to Paul’s specialized usage of the term “foundation” (Eph. 1:4) to suggest a similar idea.

καταβολῆς is properly used when something is thrown down and is placed in a lower place from a higher one or when something assumes a beginning. For this reason also those who lay the first foundations of future buildings are said καταβεβληκ ναι, that is, they are said to have thrown down the beginnings of the foundations. Paul, therefore, wishing to show that God devised all things from nothing, ascribes to it not making, not creating and formation, but καταβολῆ, that is the beginning of the foundation, so that something from which creatures were made did not precede creatures in accordance with the Manichaeans and other heresies (which posit a maker and material), but all things subsist from nothing.[7]

Origen makes a clear distinction between Creator and creation, which is worked out in his understanding of a two-fold notion of wisdom in Christ. There is the uncreated Wisdom, but then the manifold wisdom or the logoi. Origen maintains there is a separation between these two. The wisdom of God, which is Christ (I Cor. 1:24), contains the arche. The Logos is not the creator, but the means of creation. (Origen is explaining how it is that “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (Jn 1:2–3).

As Origen writes,

And in the Epistle to the Hebrews the same Paul says: “At the end of days he has spoken to us in a Son whom he has appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds,” teaching us that God has made the worlds through the son since the only begotten had the “through whom” when the worlds were made. So here too, therefore, if all things were made through the Word, they were not made by the Word, but by one better and greater than the Word. And who would this other one be except the Father?[8]

God the Father made the worlds through the Son, who is himself “begotten of the Father.” First, there is the reality of God in himself, then as Paul expresses it in Eph. 3, there is the manifold or multiple, or as Origen will put it, there is the “decorated” or “multi-embroidered,” wisdom through which creation came about out of non-being. In this first instance, we do not have yet to do with material or corporeal reality, as it is Christ who is the Wisdom of God, but through this Wisdom (singular and timeless) there arises the manifold (many, various) or “multi-embroidered” wisdom. As the TDNT puts it, “The wisdom of God (→ σοφία) has shown itself in Christ to be varied beyond measure and in a way which surpasses all previous knowledge thereof.”[9] This then explains the preparation of the beginning from which creation occurs:

And in relation to this, we will be able to understand what is meant by the beginning of creation, and what Wisdom says in Proverbs: “For God,” she says, “created me the beginning of his ways for his works.” It is possible, of course, for this also to be referred to our first meaning, i.e. that pertaining to a way, because it is said, “God created me the beginning of his ways.”[10]

There is a created aspect contained in the Word.[11] This initial phase does not reference the material creation or the corporeal body of Adam, but pertains to the one who is true Adam or the beginning from which creation comes. The archetype is Christ, the true image bearer of humans but containing the arche of all creation. As Tzamalikos explains, “When, therefore, Origen speaks of ‘first’ creation which was ‘incorporeal’ he does not refer to any ‘incorporeal world’ whatever. For in a strict sense there is no world at all. The reality is the “body” of Christ, which was ‘embroidered’ by those ‘made’.[12] This incorporeal nature is created but not of the material created order, yet it is in this incorporeal nature that embodied humans come to their fulness.

Paul illustrates this in regard to himself, in two passages Origen often cites: Paul says, “I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) and he speaks of the husband and wife as being “one flesh” which pertains to Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-32). The embodied, corporeal person takes up the fulness of the image through Christ as Christ imparts the incorporeal logoi of his life.

In the Ephesians 3 passage, this accomplishment of wisdom shared and received is made known “to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). He says the “rulers and authorities” we “ought to understand as saints and ministers of God” though he acknowledges that “some take them to be the prince of the air (Eph. 2: 2) and his angels).”[13] Origen makes the bold attempt to describe the place of the devil, who may stand behind the “principalities and powers.”

In other places, he describes a singular counter-power which could stand behind these powers. “Thus he speaks of “one, who fell from the bliss”, further he speaks of “one” applying the adjective “ruler” without stating any noun again; “while there were many rulers who were made, it was one who fell.’”[14] There is a failure or fall (the fall of the devil) which precedes the fall of man but which (even before the fall of man) pervades all of creation. The corporeal creation contains a divide, from its inception, which is the result of this fall. Origen quotes Paul as proof, “All creation groans and travails until now (Rom. 8:22)”[15] He surmises, “Creation was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope,” that bodies and doing bodily things, which is . . . necessary . . . for one in a body, might be vanity. He who is in a body does bodily things unwillingly. For this reason, creation was subjected to vanity unwillingly.”[16]

This travail and vanity explains some of the peculiar characteristics of time and its relief in Christ. There is an original unity in the “body” of Christ, but with multiplication of wisdom (the logoi) there arises the distinctions of space-time. The beginning constituted in Christ (which is timeless), is that from which time unfolds, and time pertains to change and ultimately to decay and death, which explains Christ’s incarnation: “because our Lord, on account of his love for man, took up death on behalf of us” and he “took our darknesses upon himself that by his power he might destroy our death, and completely destroy the darkness in our soul.”[17]

This freedom from death and darkness explains the sort of time travel, or passage out of time which characterizes Ephesians. Christ is the “summing up of all things” in heaven and earth (1:10) and Christians are, in the present tense, seated with him at the right hand of God (1:20). His body “fills all in all” (1:23; 4:10) and the church is made “one flesh” with Christ (5:32) defeating “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12). And this involves a fundamental apperception in which “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Eph. 1:18). The peculiar intersection of time with eternity brings about a new form of knowing and a new unity and peace as God’s eternal purposes carried out in Christ have been made known (Eph. 3:11). This is not a discursive knowing but knowing by revelation: “By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph. 3:4–5). Origen, who provides the earliest commentary on Ephesians, rightly sets it front and center in understanding the mystery revealed in the Gospel.

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] F. Pieri and Ronald E. Heine, “Recovering Origen’s Commentary On Ephesians from Jerome,” The Journal of Theological Studies NEW SERIES, Vol. 51, No. 2 (October 2000), pp. 478-514 Published By: Oxford University Press

[2] Richard Layton, “Recovering Origen’s Pauline Exegesis: Exegesis and Eschatology in the Commentary on Ephesians” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8:3, 373–411 2000 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Origen, Fragmenta 1-140 in Joannim, fragment 1. Quoted in Panayiotis Tzamalikos, The concept of Time in Origen (Published by ProQuest LLC, 2018) 53.

[5] Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953) 5.37.

[6] Tzamalikos, 58.

[7] Jerome and Origen, The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, trans. by Ronald Heine (Print ISBN 0199245517, 2002), 84.

[8] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John Books 1-10, trans. Ronald Heine (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989) 2.72.

[9] Seesemann, H. (1964–). ποικίλος, πολυποίκιλος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 6, p. 485). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[10] Commentary on John, 1.101.

[11] Origen does not believe the Son is created, as the “Son is the brightness of eternal light” and just as there is no brightness apart from light, neither then is the Father without the Son or the Son without the Father. “How, then, can it be said that there was a ‘when’ when the Son was not? For that is nothing other than to say that there was a ‘when’ when Truth was not, a ‘when’ when Wisdom was not, a ‘when’ when Life was not, although in all these respects the substance of God the Father is perfectly accounted.” Origen, On First Principles Vol. 2, trans. John Behr, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) 4.4.1.1

[12] Tzamalikos, 72.

[13] Commentary on Ephesians, 149-150.

[14] Tzamalikos, 76.

[15] Commentary on John, 1.98. “Creation was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope,” 151 that bodies and doing bodily things, which is . . . necessary . . . for one in a body, might be vanity. 152 He who is in a body does bodily things unwillingly. For this reason creation was subjected to vanity unwillingly.

[16] Ibid. 1.99

[17] Commentary on John, 2.166.


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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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