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Origen and Origenism

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Life and work of Origen


Origen, most modest of writers, hardly ever alludes to himself in his own works; but Eusebius has devoted to him almost the entire sixth book of "Ecclesiastical History". Eusebius was thoroughly acquainted with the life of his hero; he had collected a hundred of his letters; in collaboration with the martyr Pamphilus he had composed the "Apology for Origen"; he dwelt at Caesarea where Origen's library was preserved, and where his memory still lingered; if at times he may be thought somewhat partial, he is undoubtedly well informed. We find some details also in the "Farewell Address" of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus to his master, in the controversies of St. Jerome and Rufinus, in St. Epiphanius (Haeres., LXIV), and in Photius (Biblioth. Cod. 118).

Origen at Alexandria (185-232)

Born in 185, Origen was barely seventeen when a bloody persecution of the Church of Alexandria broke out. His father Leonides, who admired his precocious genius was charmed with his virtuous life, had given him an excellent literary education. When Leonides was cast into prison, Origen would fain have shared his lot, but being unable to carry out his resolution, as his mother had hidden his clothes, he wrote an ardent, enthusiastic letter to his father exhorting him to persevere courageously. When Leonides had won the martyr's crown and his fortune had been confiscated by the imperial authorities, the heroic child laboured to support himself, his mother, and his six younger brothers. This he successfully accomplished by becoming a teacher, selling his manuscripts, and by the generous aid of a certain rich lady, who admired his talents. He assumed, of his own accord, the direction of the catechetical school, on the withdrawal of Clement, and in the following year was confirmed in his office by the patriarch Demetrius (Eusebius, Church History VI.2; St. Jerome, "De viris illust.", liv). Origen's school, which was frequented by pagans, soon became a nursery of neophytes, confessors, and martyrs. Among the latter were Plutarch, Serenus, Heraclides, Heron, another Serenus, and a female catechumen, Herais (Eusebius, Church History VI.4). He accompanied them to the scene of their victories encouraging them by his exhortations. There is nothing more touching than this picture Eusebius has drawn of Origen's youth, so studious, disinterested, austere and pure, ardent and zealous even to indiscretion (VI, iii and vi). Thrust thus at so early an age into the teacher's chair, he recognized the necessity of completing his education. Frequenting the philosophic schools, especially that of Ammonius Saccas, he devoted himself to a study of the philosophers, particularly Plato and the Stoics. In this he was but following the example of his predecessors Pantenus and Clement, and of Heracles, who was to succeed him. Afterwards, when the latter shared his labours in the catechetical school, he learned Hebrew, and communicated frequently with certain Jews who helped him to solve his difficulties.

The course of his work at Alexandria was interrupted by five journeys. About 213, under Pope Zephyrinus and the emperor Caracalla, he desired "to see the very ancient Church of Rome", but he did not remain there long (Eusebius, Church History VI.14). Shortly afterwards he was invited to Arabia by the governor who was desirous of meeting him (VI, xix). It was probably in 215 or 216 when the persecution of Caracalla was raging in Egypt that he visited Palestine, where Theoctistus of Caesarea and Alexander of Jerusalem, invited him to preach though he was still a layman. Towards 218, it would appear, the empress Mammaea, mother of Alexander Severus, brought him to Antioch (VI, xxi). Finally, at a much later period, under Pontian of Rome and Zebinus of Antioch (Eusebius, VI, xxiii), he journeyed into Greece, passing through Caesarea where Theoctistus, Bishop of that city, assisted by Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem, raised him to the priesthood. Demetrius, although he had given letters of recommendation to Origen, was very much offended by this ordination, which had taken place without his knowledge and, as he thought, in derogation of his rights. If Eusebius (VI, viii) is to be believed, he was envious of the increasing influence of his catechist. So, on his return to Alexandria, Origen soon perceived that his bishop was rather unfriendly towards him. He yielded to the storm and quitted Egypt (231). The details of this affair were recorded by Eusebius in the lost second book of the "Apology for Origen"; according to Photius, who had read the work, two councils were held at Alexandria, one of which pronounced a decree of banishment against Origen while the other deposed him from the priesthood (Biblioth. cod. 118). St. Jerome declares expressly that he was not condemned on a point of doctrine.

Origen at Caesarea (232)

Expelled from Alexandria, Origen fixed his abode at Caesarea in Palestine (232), with his protector and friend Theoctistus, founded a new school there, and resumed his "Commentary on St. John" at the point where it had been interrupted. He was soon surrounded by pupils. The most distinguished of these, without doubt, was St. Gregory Thaumaturgus who, with his brother Apollodorus, attended Origen's lectures for five years and delivered on leaving him a celebrated "Farewell Address". During the persecution of Maximinus (235-37) Origen visited his friend, St. Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, who made him remain for a long period. On this occasion he was hospitably entertained by a Christian lady of Caesarea, named Juliana, who had inherited the writing of Symmachus, the translator of the Old Testament (Palladius, "Hist. Laus.", 147). The years following were devoted almost uninterruptedly to the composition of the "Commentaries". Mention is made only of a few excursions to Holy Places, a journey to Athens (Eusebius, VI, xxxii), and two voyages to Arabia, one of which was undertaken for the conversion of Beryllus, a Patripassian (Eusebius, VI, xxxiii; St. Jerome, Illustrious Men 60), the other to refute certain heretics who denied the Resurrection (Eusebius, Church History VI.37). Age did not diminish his activities. He was over sixty when he wrote his "Contra Celsum" and his "Commentary on St. Matthew". The persecution of Decius (250) prevented him from continuing these works. Origen was imprisoned and barbarously tortured, but his courage was unshaken and from his prison he wrote letters breathing the spirit of the martyrs (Eusebius, Church History VI.39). He was still alive on the death of Decius (251), but only lingering on, and he died, probably, from the results of the sufferings endured during the persecution (253 or 254), at the age of sixty-nine (Eusebius, Church History VII.1). His last days were spent at Tyr, though his reason for retiring thither is unknown. He was buried with honour as a confessor of the Faith. For a long time his sepulchre, behind the high-altar of the cathedral of Tyr, was visited by pilgrims. Today, as nothing remains of this cathedral except a mass of ruins, the exact location of his tomb is unknown.


Very few authors were as fertile as Origen. St. Epiphanius estimates at six thousand the number of his writings, counting separately, without doubt, the different books of a single work, his homilies, letters, and his smallest treatises (Haeres., LXIV, lxiii). This figure, repeated by many ecclesiastical writers, seems greatly exaggerated. St. Jerome assures us that the list of Origen's writings drawn up by St. Pamphilus did not contain even two thousand titles (Contra Rufin., II, xxii; III, xxiii); but this list was evidently incomplete. Eusebius (Church History VI.32) had inserted it in his biography of St. Pamphilus and St. Jerome inserted it in a letter to Paula.

Exegetical writings

Origen had devoted three kinds of works to the explanation of the Holy Scripture: commentaries, homilies, and scholia (St. Jerome, "Prologus interpret. homiliar. Orig. in Ezechiel"). The commentaries (tomoi libri, volumina) were a continuous and well-developed interpretation of the inspired text. An idea of their magnitude may be formed from the fact that the words of St. John: "In the beginning was the Word", furnished material for a whole roll. There remain in Greek only eight books of the "Commentary on St. Matthew", and nine books of the "Commentary on St. John"; in Latin an anonymous translation of the "Commentary on St. Matthew" beginning with chapter xvi, three books and a half of the "Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles" translated by Rufinus, and an abridgment of the "Commentary on the Epistles to the Romans" by the same translator. The homilies (homiliai, homiliae, tractatus) were familiar discourses on texts of Scripture, often extemporary and recorded as well as possible by stenographers. The list is long and undoubtedly must have been longer if it be true that Origen, as St. Pamphilus declares in his "Apology" preached almost every day. There remain in Greek twenty-one (twenty on Jeremias and the celebrated homily on the witch of Endor); in Latin, one hundred and eighteen translated by Rufinus, seventy-eight translated by St. Jerome and some others of more of less doubtful authenticity, preserved in a collection of homilies. The twenty "Tractatus Origenis" recently discovered are not the work of Origen, though use has been made of his writings. Origen has been called the father of the homily; it was he who contributed most to popularize this species of literature in which are to be found so many instructive details on the customs of the primitive Church, its institutions, discipline, liturgy, and sacraments. The scholia (scholia, excerpta, commaticum interpretandi genus) were exegetical, philological, or historical notes, on words or passages of the Bible, like the annotations of the Alexandria grammarians on the profane writers. Except some few short fragments all of these have perished.

Other writings

We now possess only two of Origen's letters: one addressed to St. Gregory Thaumaturgus on the reading of Holy Scripture, the other to Julius Africanus on the Greek additions to the Book of Daniel. Two opuscula have been preserved entire in the original form; an excellent treatise "On Prayer" and an "Exhortation to Martyrdom", sent by Origen to his friend Ambrose, then a prisoner for the Faith. Finally two large works have escaped the ravages of time: the "Contra Celsum" in the original text, and the "De principiis" in a Latin translation by Rufinus and in the citations of the "Philocalia" which might equal in contents one-sixth of the whole work. In the eight books of the "Contra Celsum" Origen follows his adversary point by point, refuting in detail each of his false imputations. It is a model of reasoning, erudition, and honest polemic. The "De principiis", composed at Alexandria, and which, it seems, got into the hands of the public before its completion, treated successively in its four books, allowing for numerous digressions, of: (a) God and the Trinity, (b) the world and its relation to God, (c) man and his free will, (d) Scripture, its inspiration and interpretation. Many other works of Origen have been entirely lost: for instance, the treatise in two books "On the Resurrection", a treatise "On Free Will", and ten books of "Miscellaneous Writings" (Stromateis). For Origen's critical work see HEXAPLA.

Posthumous influence of Origen

During his lifetime Origen by his writings, teaching, and intercourse exercised very great influence. St. Firmilian of Caesarea in Cappadocia, who regarded himself as his disciple, made him remain with him for a long period to profit by his learning (Eusebius, Church History VI.26; Palladius, "Hist. Laus.", 147). St. Alexander of Jerusalem his fellow pupil at the catechetical school was his intimate faithful friend (Eusebius, VI, xiv), as was Theoctistus of Caesarea in Palestine, who ordained him (Photius, cod. 118). Beryllus of Bostra, whom he had won back from heresy, was deeply attached to him (Eusebius, VI, xxxiii; St. Jerome, Illustrious Men 60). St. Anatolus of Laodicea sang his praises in his "Carmen Paschale" (P.G., X, 210). The learned Julius Africanus consulted him, Origen's reply being extant (P.G., XI, 41-85). St. Hippolytus highly appreciated his talents (St. Jerome, Illustrious Men 61). St. Dionysius, his pupil and successor in the catechetical school, when Patriarch of Alexandria, dedicated to him his treatise "On the Persecution" (Eusebius, VI, xlvi), and on learning of his death wrote a letter filled with his praises (Photius, cod. 232). St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, who had been his pupil for five years at Caesarea, before leaving addressed to him his celebrated "Farewell Address" (P.G., X, 1049-1104), an enthusiastic panegyric. There is no proof that Heracles, his disciple, colleague, and successor in the catechetical school, before being raised to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, wavered in his sworn friendship. Origen's name was so highly esteemed that when there was a question of putting an end to a schism or rooting out a heresy, appeal was made to it.

After his death his reputation continued to spread. St. Pamphilus, martyred in 307, composes with Eusebius an "Apology for Origen" in six books the first alone of which has been preserved in a Latin translation by Rufinus (P.G., XVII, 541-616). Origen had at that time many other apologists whose names are unknown to us (Photius, cod. 117 and 118). The directors of the catechetical school continued to walk in his footsteps. Theognostus, in his "Hypotyposes", followed him even too closely, according to Photius (cod. 106), though his action was approved by St. Athanasius. Pierius was called by St. Jerome "Origenes junior" (Illustrious Men 76). Didymus the Blind composed a work to explain and justify the teaching of the "De principiis" (St. Jerome, "Adv. Rufin.", I, vi). St. Athanasius does not hesitate to cite him with praise (Epist. IV ad Serapion., 9 and 10) and points out that he must be interpreted generously (De decretis Nic., 27).

Nor was the admiration for the great Alexandrian less outside of Egypt. St. Gregory of Nazianzus gave significant expression to his opinion (Suidas, "Lexicon", ed. Bernhardy, II, 1274: Origenes he panton hemon achone). In collaboration with St. Basil, he had published, under the title "Philocalia", a volume of selections from the master. In his "Panegyric on St. Gregory Thaumaturgus", St. Gregory of Nyssa called Origen the prince of Christian learning in the third century (P.G., XLVI, 905). At Caesarea in Palestine the admiration of the learned for Origen became a passion. St. Pamphilus wrote his "Apology", Euzoius had his writings transcribed on parchment (St. Jerome, Illustrious Men 93). Eusebius catalogued them carefully and drew upon them largely. Nor were the Latins less enthusiastic than the Greeks. According to St. Jerome, the principal Latin imitators of Origen are St. Eusebius of Verceil, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and St. Ambrose of Milan; St. Victorinus of Pettau had set them the example (St. Jerome, "Adv. Rufin.", I, ii; "Ad Augustin. Epist.", cxii, 20). Origen's writings were so much drawn upon that the solitary of Bethlehem called it plagiarism, furta Latinarum. However, excepting Rufinus, who is practically only a translator, St. Jerome is perhaps the Latin writer who is most indebted to Origen. Before the Origenist controversies he willingly admitted this, and even afterwards, he did not entirely repudiate it; cf. the prologues to his translations of Origen (Homilies on St. Luke, Jeremias, and Ezechiel, the Canticle of Canticles), and also the prefaces to his own "Commentaries" (on Micheas, the Epistles to the Galatians, and to the Ephesians etc.).

Amidst these expressions of admiration and praise, a few discordant voices were heard. St. Methodius, bishop and martyr (311), had written several works against Origen, amongst others a treatise "On the Resurrection", of which St. Epiphanius cites a long extract (Haeres., LXVI, xii-lxii). St. Eustathius of Antioch, who died in exile about 337, criticized his allegorism (P.G., XVIII, 613-673). St. Alexander of Alexandria, martyred in 311, also attacked him, if we are to credit Leontius of Byzantium and the emperor Justinian. But his chief adversaries were the heretics, Sabellians, Arians, Pelagians, Nestorians, Apollinarists.


By this term is understood not so much Origen's theology and the body of his teachings, as a certain number of doctrines, rightly or wrongly attributed to him, and which by their novelty or their danger called forth at an early period a refutation from orthodox writers. They are chiefly:

Before examining how far Origen is responsible for these theories, a word must be said of the directive principle of his theology.

The Church and the Rule of Faith

In the preface to the "De principiis" Origen laid down a rule thus formulated in the translation of Rufinus: "Illa sola credenda est veritas quae in nullo ab ecclesiastica et apostolica discordat traditione". The same norm is expressed almost in equivalent terms in many other passages, e.g., "non debemus credere nisi quemadmodum per successionem Ecclesiae Dei tradiderunt nobis (In Matt., ser. 46, Migne, XIII, 1667). In accordance with those principles Origen constantly appeals to ecclesiastical preaching, ecclesiastical teaching, and the ecclesiastical rule of faith (kanon). He accepts only four Canonical Gospels because tradition does not receive more; he admits the necessity of baptism of infants because it is in accordance with the practice of the Church founded on Apostolic tradition; he warns the interpreter of the Holy Scripture, not to rely on his own judgment, but "on the rule of the Church instituted by Christ". For, he adds, we have only two lights to guide us here below, Christ and the Church; the Church reflects faithfully the light received from Christ, as the moon reflects the rays of the sun. The distinctive mark of the Catholic is to belong to the Church, to depend on the Church outside of which there is no salvation; on the contrary, he who leaves the Church walks in darkness, he is a heretic. It is through the principle of authority that Origen is wont to unmask and combat doctrinal errors. It is the principle of authority, too, that he invokes when he enumerates the dogmas of faith. A man animated with such sentiments may have made mistakes, because he is human, but his disposition of mind is essentially Catholic and he does not deserve to be ranked among the promoters of heresy.

Scriptural allegorism

The principal passages on the inspiration, meaning, and interpretation of the Scriptures are preserved in Greek in the first fifteen chapters of the "Philocalia". According to Origen, Scripture is inspired because it is the word and work of God. But, far from being an inert instrument, the inspired author has full possession of his faculties, he is conscious of what he is writing; he is physically free to deliver his message or not; he is not seized by a passing delirium like the pagan oracles, for bodily disorder, disturbance of the senses, momentary loss of reason are but so many proofs of the action of the evil spirit. Since Scripture is from God, it ought to have the distinctive characteristics of the Divine works: truth, unity, and fullness. The word of God cannot possibly be untrue; hence no errors or contradictions can be admitted in Scripture (Commentary on John X.3). The author of the Scriptures being one, the Bible is less a collection of books than one and the same book (Philoc., V, iv-vii), a perfect harmonious instrument (Philoc., VI, i-ii). But the most Divine note of Scripture is its fullness: "There is not in the Holy Books the smallest passage (cheraia) but reflects the wisdom of God" (Philoc., I, xxviii, cf. X, i). True there are imperfections in the Bible: antilogies, repetitions, want of continuity; but these imperfections become perfections by leading us to the allegory and the spiritual meaning (Philoc., X, i-ii).

At one time Origen, starting from the Platonic trichotomy, distinguishes the body, the soul, and the spirit of Holy Scripture; at another, following a more rational terminology, he distinguishes only between the letter and the spirit. In reality, the soul, or the psychic signification, or moral meaning (that is the moral parts of Scripture, and the moral applications of the other parts) plays only a very secondary rôle, and we can confine ourselves to the antithesis: letter (or body) and spirit. Unfortunately this antithesis is not free from equivocation. Origen does not understand by letter (or body) what we mean today by the literal sense, but the grammatical sense, the proper as opposed to the figurative meaning. Just so he does not attach to the words spiritual meaning the same signification as we do: for him they mean the spiritual sense properly so called (the meaning added to the literal sense by the express wish of God attaching a special signification to the fact related or the manner of relating them), or the figurative as contrasted with the proper sense, or the accommodative sense, often an arbitrary invention of the interpreter, or even the literal sense when it is treating of things spiritual. If this terminology is kept in mind there is nothing absurd in the principle he repeats so often: "Such a passage of the Scripture has no corporal meaning." As examples Origen cites the anthropomorphisms, metaphors, and symbols which ought indeed to be understood figuratively.

Though he warns us that these passages are the exceptions, it must be confessed that he allows too many cases in which the Scripture is not to be understood according to the letter; but, remembering his terminology, his principle is unimpeachable. The two great rules of interpretation laid sown by the Alexandria catechist, taken by themselves and independently of erroneous applications, are proof against criticism. They may be formulated thus:

The abuse arises from the application of these rules. Origen has recourse too easily to allegorism to explain purely apparent antilogies or antinomies. He considers that certain narratives or ordinances of the Bible would be unworthy of God if they had to be taken according to the letter, or if they were to be taken solely according to the letter. He justifies the allegorism by the fact that otherwise certain accounts or certain precepts now abrogated would be useless and profitless for the reader: a fact which appears to him contrary to the providence of the Divine inspirer and the dignity of Holy Writ. It will thus be seen that though the criticisms directed against his allegorical method by St. Epiphanius and St. Methodius were not groundless, yet many of the complaints arise from a misunderstanding.

Subordination of the divine persons

The three Persons of the Trinity are distinguished from all creatures by the three following characteristics: absolute immateriality, omniscience, and substantial sanctity. As is well known many ancient ecclesiastical writers attributed to created spirits an aerial or ethereal envelope without which they could not act. Though he does not venture to decide categorically, Origen inclines to this view, but, as soon as there is a question of the Divine Persons, he is perfectly sure that they have no body and are not in a body; and this characteristic belongs to the Trinity alone (De Principiis IV.27, I.6, II.2.2, II.4.3, etc.). Again the knowledge of every creature, being essentially limited, is always imperfect and capable of being increased. But it would be repugnant for the Divine Persons to pass from the state of ignorance to knowledge. How could the Son, who is the Wisdom of the Father, be ignorant of anything (Commentary on John I.27; Against Celsus VI.17). Nor can we admit ignorance in the Spirit who "searcheth the deep things of God" (De Principiis I.5.4, I.6.2, I.7.3; "In Num. him.", XI, 8 etc.). As substantial holiness is the exclusive privilege of the Trinity so also is it the only source of all created holiness. Sin is forgiven only by the simultaneous concurrence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; no one is sanctified at baptism save through their common action; the soul in which the Holy Ghost indwells possesses likewise the Son and the Father. In a word the three Persons of the Trinity are indivisible in their being, their presence, and their operation.

Along with these perfectly orthodox texts there are some which must be interpreted with diligence, remembering as we ought that the language of theology was not yet fixed and that Origen was often the first to face these difficult problems. It will then appear that the subordination of the Divine Persons, so much urged against Origen, generally consists in differences of appropriation (the Father creator, the Son redeemer, the Spirit sanctifier) which seem to attribute to the Persons an unequal sphere of action, or in the liturgical practice of praying the Father through the Son in the Holy Ghost, or in the theory so widespread in the Greek Church of the first five centuries, that the Father has a pre-eminence of rank (taxis) over the two other Persons, inasmuch as in mentioning them He ordinarily has the first place, and of dignity (axioma) because He represents the whole Divinity, of which He is the principle (arche), the origin (aitios), and the source (pege). That is why St. Athanasius defends Origen's orthodoxy concerning the Trinity and why St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus replied to the heretics who claimed the support of his authority that they misunderstood him.

The origin and destiny of rational beings

Here we encounter an unfortunate amalgam of philosophy and theology. The system that results is not coherent, for Origen, frankly recognizing the contradiction of the incompatible elements that he is trying to unify, recoils from the consequences, protests against the logical conclusions, and oftentimes corrects by orthodox professions of faith the heterodoxy of his speculations. It must be said that almost all the texts about to be treated of, are contained in the "De principiis", where the author treads on most dangerous ground. The system may be reduced to a few hypotheses, the error and danger of which were not recognized by Origen.

(1) Eternity of Creation

Whatever exists outside of God was created by Him: the Alexandrian catechist always defended this thesis most energetically against the pagan philosophers who admitted an uncreated matter (De Principiis II.1.5; "In Genes.", I, 12, in Migne, XII, 48-9). But he believes that God created from eternity, for "it is absurd", he says, "to imagine the nature of God inactive, or His goodness inefficacious, or His dominion without subjects" (De Principiis III.5.3). Consequently he is forced to admit a double infinite series of worlds before and after the present world.

(2) Original Equality of the Created Spirits

"In the beginning all intellectual natures were created equal and alike, as God had no motive for creating them otherwise" (De Principiis II.9.6). Their present differences arise solely from their different use of the gift of free will. The spirits created good and happy grew tired of their happiness (op. cit., I, iii, 8), and, though carelessness, fell, some more some less (I, vi, 2). Hence the hierarchy of the angels; hence also the four categories of created intellects: angels, stars (supposing, as is probable, that they are animated, De Principiis I.7.3), men, and demons. But their rôles may be one day changed; for what free will has done, free will can undo, and the Trinity alone is essentially immutable in good.

(3) Essence and Raison d'Être of Matter

Matter exists only for the spiritual; if the spiritual did not need it, matter would not exist, for its finality is not in itself. But it seems to Origen - though he does not venture to declare so expressly - that created spirits even the most perfect cannot do without an extremely diluted and subtle matter which serves them as a vehicle and means of action (De Principiis II.2.1, I.6.4, etc.). Matter was, therefore, created simultaneously with the spiritual, although the spiritual is logically prior; and matter will never cease to be because the spiritual, however perfect, will always need it. But matter which is susceptible of indefinite transformations is adapted to the varying condition of the spirits. "When intended for the more imperfect spirits, it becomes solidified, thickens, and forms the bodies of this visible world. If it is serving higher intelligences, it shines with the brightness of the celestial bodies and serves as a garb for the angels of God, and the children of the Resurrection" (De Principiis II.2.2).

(4) Universality of the Redemption and the Final Restoration

Certain Scriptural texts, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:25-28, seem to extend to all rational beings the benefit of the Redemption, and Origen allows himself to be led also by the philosophical principle which he enunciates several times, without ever proving it, that the end is always like the beginning: "We think that the goodness of God, through the mediation of Christ, will bring all creatures to one and the same end" (De Principiis I.6.1-3). The universal restoration (apokatastasis) follows necessarily from these principles.

On the least reflection, it will be seen that these hypotheses, starting from contrary points of view, are irreconcilable: for the theory of a final restoration is diametrically opposed to the theory of successive indefinite trials. It would be easy to find in the writings of Origen a mass of texts contradicting these principles and destroying the resulting conclusions. He affirms, for instance, that the charity of the elect in heaven does not fail; in their case "the freedom of the will will be bound so that sin will be impossible" (In Roman., V, 10). So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil (De Principiis I.8.4), for malice has become natural to them, it is as a second nature in them (In Joann., xx, 19). Origen grew angry when accused of teaching the eternal salvation of the devil. But the hypotheses which he lays down here and there are none the less worthy of censure. What can be said in his defence, if it be not with St. Athanasius (De decretis Nic., 27), that we must not seek to find his real opinion in the works in which he discusses the arguments for and against doctrine as an intellectual exercise or amusement; or, with St. Jerome (Ad Pammach. Epist., XLVIII, 12), that it is one thing to dogmatize and another to enunciate hypothetical opinions which will be cleared up by discussion?

Origenist controversies

The discussions concerning Origen and his teaching are of a very singular and very complex character. They break out unexpectedly, at long intervals, and assume an immense importance quite unforeseen in their humble beginnings. They are complicated by so many personal disputes and so many questions foreign to the fundamental subject in controversy that a brief and rapid exposé of the polemics is difficult and well-nigh impossible. Finally they abate so suddenly that one is forced to conclude that the controversy was superficial and that Origen's orthodoxy was not the sole point in dispute.

First Origenist Crisis

It broke out in the deserts of Egypt, raged in Palestine, and ended at Constantinople with the condemnation of St. Chrysostom (392-404). During the second half of the fourth century the monks of Nitria professed an exaggerated enthusiasm for Origen, whilst the neighbouring brethren of Sceta, as a result of an unwarranted reaction and an excessive fear of allegorism, fell into Anthropomorphism. These doctrinal discussions gradually invaded the monasteries of Palestine, which were under the care of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, who, convinced of the dangers of Origenism, had combatted it in his works and was determined to prevent its spread and to extirpate it completely. Having gone to Jerusalem in 394, he preached vehemently against Origen's errors, in presence of the bishop of that city, John, who was deemed an Origenist. John in turn spoke against Anthropomorphism, directing his discourse so clearly against Epiphanius that no one could be mistaken. Another incident soon helped to embitter the dispute. Epiphanius had raised Paulinian, brother of St. Jerome, to the priesthood in a place subject to the See of Jerusalem. John complained bitterly of this violation of his rights, and the reply of Epiphanius was not of a nature to appease him.

Two new combatants were now ready to enter the lists. From the time when Jerome and Rufinus settled, one at Bethlehem and the other at Mt. Olivet, they had lived in brotherly friendship. Both admired, imitated, and translated Origen, and were on most amicable terms with their bishop, when in 392 Aterbius, a monk of Sceta, came to Jerusalem and accused them both of Origenism. St. Jerome, very sensitive to the question of orthodoxy, was much hurt by the insinuation of Aterbius and two years later sided with St. Epiphanius, whose reply to John of Jerusalem he translated into Latin. Rufinus learnt, it is not known how, of this translation, which was not intended for the public, and Jerome suspected him of having obtained it by fraud. A reconciliation was effected sometime later, but it was not lasting. In 397 Rufinus, then at Rome, had translated Origen's "De principiis" into Latin, and in his preface followed the example of St. Jerome, whose dithyrambic eulogy addressed to the Alexandrian catechist he remembered. The solitary of Bethlehem, grievously hurt at this action, wrote to his friends to refute the perfidious implication of Rufinus, denounced Origen's errors to Pope Anastasius, tried to win the Patriarch of Alexandria over to the anti-Origenist cause, and began a discussion with Rufinus, marked with great bitterness on both sides.

Until 400 Theophilus of Alexandria was an acknowledged Origenist. His confidant was Isidore, a former monk of Nitria, and his friends, "the Tall Brothers", the accredited leaders of the Origenist party. He had supported John of Jerusalem against St. Epiphanius, whose Anthropomorphism he denounced to Pope Siricius. Suddenly he changed his views, exactly why was never known. It is said that the monks of Sceta, displeased with his paschal letter of 399, forcibly invaded his episcopal residence and threatened him with death if he did not chant the palinody. What is certain is that he had quarreled with St. Isidore over money matters and with "the Tall Brothers", who blamed his avarice and his worldliness. As Isidore and "the Tall Brothers" had retired to Constantinople, where Chrysostom extended his hospitality to them and interceded for them, without, however, admitting them to communion till the censures pronounced against them had been raised, the irascible Patriarch of Alexandria determined on this plan: to suppress Origenism everywhere, and under this pretext ruin Chrysostom, whom he hated and envied. For four years he was mercilessly active: he condemned Origen's books at the Council of Alexandria (400), with an armed band he expelled the monks from Nitria, he wrote to the bishops of Cyprus and Palestine to win them over to his anti-Origenist crusade, issued paschal letters in 401, 402, and 404 against Origen's doctrine, and sent a missive to Pope Anastasius asking for the condemnation of Origenism. He was successful beyond his hopes; the bishops of Cyprus accepted his invitation. Those of Palestine, assembled at Jerusalem, condemned the errors pointed out to them, adding that they were not taught amongst them. Anastasius, while declaring that Origen was entirely unknown to him, condemned the propositions extracted from his books. St. Jerome undertook to translate into Latin the various elucubrations of the patriarch, even his virulent diatribe against Chrysostom. St. Epiphanius, preceding Theophilus to Constantinople, treated St. Chrysostom as temerarious, and almost heretical, until the day the truth began to dawn on him, and suspecting that he might have been deceived, he suddenly left Constantinople and died at sea before arriving at Salamis.

It is well known how Theophilus, having been called by the emperor to explain his conduct towards Isidore and "the Tall Brothers", cleverly succeeded by his machinations in changing the rôles. Instead of being the accused, he became the accuser, and summoned Chrysostom to appear before the conciliabule of the Oak (ad Quercum), at which Chrysostom was condemned. As soon as the vengeance of Theophilus was satiated nothing more was heard of Origenism. The Patriarch of Alexandria began to read Origen, pretending that he could cull the roses from among the thorns. He became reconciled with "the Tall Brothers" without asking them to retract. Hardly had the personal quarrels abated when the spectre of Origenism vanished.

Second Origenistic Crisis

In 514 certain heterodox doctrines of a very singular character had already spread among the monks of Jerusalem and its environs. Possibly the seeds of the dispute may have been sown by Stephen Bar-Sudaili, a troublesome monk expelled from Edessa, who joined to an Origenism of his own brand certain clearly pantheistic views. Plotting and intriguing continued for about thirty years, the monks suspected of Origenism being in turn expelled from their monasteries, then readmitted, only to be driven out anew. Their leaders and protectors were Nonnus, who till his death in 547 kept the party together, Theodore Askidas and Domitian who had won the favour of the emperor and were named bishops, one to the See of Ancyra in Galatia, the other to that of Caesarea in Cappadocia, though they continued to reside at court (537). In these circumstances a report against Origenism was addressed to Justinian, by whom and on what occasion it is not known, for the two accounts that have come down to us are at variance (Cyrillus of Scythopolis, "Vita Sabae"; and Liberatus, "Breviarium", xxiii). At all events, the emperor then wrote his "Liber adversus Origenem", containing in addition to an exposé of the reasons for condemning it twenty-four censurable texts taken from the "De principiis", and lastly ten propositions to be anathematized. Justinian ordered the patriarch Mennas to call together all the bishops present in Constantinople and make them subscribe to these anathemas. This was the local synod (synodos endemousa) of 543. A copy of the imperial edict had been addressed to the other patriarchs, including Pope Vigilius, and all gave their adhesion to it. In the case of Vigilius especially we have the testimony of Liberatus (Breviar., xxiii) and Cassiodorus (Institutiones, 1).

It had been expected that Domitian and Theodore Askidas, by their refusal to condemn Origenism, would fall into disfavour at Court; but they signed whatever they were asked to sign and remained more powerful than ever. Askidas even took revenge by persuading the emperor to have Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was deemed the sworn enemy of Origen, condemned (Liberatus, "Breviar.", xxiv; Facundas of Hermianus, "Defensio trium capitul.", I, ii; Evagrius, "Hist.", IV, xxxviii). Justinian's new edict, which is not extant, resulted in the assembling of the fifth ecumenical council, in which Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ibas, and Theodoretus were condemned (553).

Were Origen and Origenism anathematized? Many learned writers believe so; an equal number deny that they were condemned; most modern authorities are either undecided or reply with reservations. Relying on the most recent studies on the question it may be held that:

  1. It is certain that the fifth general council was convoked exclusively to deal with the affair of the Three Chapters, and that neither Origen nor Origenism were the cause of it.
  2. It is certain that the council opened on 5 May, 553, in spite of the protestations of Pope Vigilius, who though at Constantinople refused to attend it, and that in the eight conciliary sessions (from 5 May to 2 June), the Acts of which we possess, only the question of the Three Chapters is treated.
  3. Finally it is certain that only the Acts concerning the affair of the Three Chapters were submitted to the pope for his approval, which was given on 8 December, 553, and 23 February, 554.
  4. It is a fact that Popes Vigilius, Pelagius I (556-61), Pelagius II (579-90), Gregory the Great (590-604), in treating of the fifth council deal only with the Three Chapters, make no mention of Origenism, and speak as if they did not know of its condemnation.
  5. It must be admitted that before the opening of the council, which had been delayed by the resistance of the pope, the bishops already assembled at Constantinople had to consider, by order of the emperor, a form of Origenism that had practically nothing in common with Origen, but which was held, we know, by one of the Origenist parties in Palestine. The arguments in corroboration of this hypothesis may be found in Dickamp (op. cit., 66-141).
  6. The bishops certainly subscribed to the fifteen anathemas proposed by the emperor (ibid., 90-96); and admitted Origenist, Theodore of Scythopolis, was forced to retract (ibid., 125-129); but there is no proof that the approbation of the pope, who was at that time protesting against the convocation of the council, was asked.
  7. It is easy to understand how this extra-conciliary sentence was mistaken at a later period for a decree of the actual ecumenical council.

About this page

APA citation. Prat, F. (1911). Origen and Origenism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Prat, Ferdinand. "Origen and Origenism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Anthony A. Killeen. Aeterna non caduca.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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