Tuesday 20 October 2015

Postgraduate course on Origen

I'll be teaching a postgraduate seminar next year on the theology of Origen. Right now I'm working on a plan for the twelve weeks, and this is what I've come up with so far:

1. Origen in context: Exhortation to Martyrdom; On Prayer; Eusebius
2. Balthasar anthology: soul
3. Balthasar anthology: Word
4. Balthasar anthology: Spirit
5. Balthasar anthology: God
6. Commentary on John, book 1
7. Commentary on John, book 2
8. Commentary on John, books 4-6
9. Commentary on John, book 10
10. Commentary on Song of Songs
11. Homilies on Song of Songs
12. Origen the educator: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Address of Thanksgiving to Origen

On this plan, students would be required to read Balthasar's Origen: Spirit and Fire (Catholic University of America Press), Exhortation to Martyrdom (Classics of Western Spirituality series), Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies (Ancient Christian Writers series), and Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Volume 1 (Fathers of the Church series).

I am still in two minds about whether to use Balthasar's anthology or Origen's First Principles. I am habitually averse to anthologies, and it makes obvious sense to stick with First Principles. But the Balthasar volume is so rich in content, and so artful in arrangement, that I suspect it would serve students better than First Principles, especially as preparation for reading the commentaries in the later weeks of the course. Origen's distinctive blend of exegesis, doctrine, and spirituality is still present in First Principles, but it's much more pronounced and more visible in Balthasar's anthology. The worst mistake for students approaching Origen for the first time would be to assume a division between something called "theology" (in First Principles) and something called "exegesis" (in the commentaries), and, perhaps, a third thing called "spirituality" (in On Prayer etc).

What do you think, reader? Have any of you done a course like this? Any ideas for improvement? Any suggestions regarding the choice of texts?

I leave you with an amazingly apt and vivid description of Origen from Balthasar's introduction to Spirit and Fire (pp. 2-3):  

He himself hardly ever wrote, but dictated, practically day and night, tirelessly, to a team of stenographers. Thus his works ... are really only the sound of a voice. But it is a voice that drives straight through everything, ... with a cool, unapproachable intellectual restraint that has never again been equalled. It is not the voice of a rhetorician ..., for this voice is not even trying to persuade; nor is it the enthusiastic voice of a poet ...; it is too brittle, too dry and plain for that, even to the point of poverty.... Everything here is unpremeditated, unforced, and expressed with a modesty that never ceases to amaze.... Not a trace of the Augustinian pathos which, without asking, breaks open the doors of the heart.... But no less distant is the sagacious and, in the best sense of the word, humanistic balance of the great pastoral bishop Basil. The voice of the Alexandrian is more like that glowing, rainless desert wind that sometimes sweeps over the Nile delta, with a thoroughly unromantic passion: pure, fiery gusts. Two names come to mind in comparison: Heraclitus and Nietzsche. For their work too is, externally, ashes and contradiction, and makes sense only because of the fire of their souls which forces their unmanageable material into a unity and, with a massive consumption of fuel, leaves behind a fiery track straight across the earth. Their passion, however, stems only from the Dionysian mystery of the world. But here, in Origen, the flame shoots out and darts upward to the mystery of the super-worldly Logos-WORD which fills the face of the earth only to be itself baptized in this fire, to be ignited and transformed into the Spirit.


Steve Wright said...

Have you thought of interrupting the reading of the Commentary on John after book 5 (with Exhortation to Martyrdom and/or On Prayer) and then picking up again with book 6? While the chronology is not neat, it might help show the upheaval in Origen's life, and the way that it impels him to revisit his reasons for writing the commentary.

I've been teaching Origen for the last few weeks in my undergrad classes, and I'm always pleasantly surprised to see how well the students receive him. One student declared to me last week, "I've always hated the church fathers!" After I had regained consciousness he added, "But Origen, he makes sense to me."

Ryan Turnbull said...

I'm currently taking a seminary course on the book of Joshua and we have wandered around with Origen a bit in the process. It might be good to look at how somebody like Origen deals with a book like Joshua, if only to discuss how he deals with particularly troublesome portions of Scripture. My professor is currently writing a commentary on Joshua and she has repeatedly noted how there is a trend to regain some of the theological exegesis of the Fathers in our approach to interpreting scripture, as it can be beyond modern exegetical method to comprehend.

brian said...

I took a course in patristics in grad school years ago.
We read selections from First Principles, but it was a dry and pedantic exercise. No doubt, your teaching would bring something of Origen's fire through to the students, but in my opinion Balthasar's framing is really excellent, especially for a first acquaintance with Origen.

Unknown said...

For lecture 12 I hope you will consider consulting Christoph Markschies's discussion of Origen and Gregory Thaumaturgus's Address of Thanksgiving in Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire (pp. 76-91). See http://germanforneutestamentler.com/markschieskctuii/

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these suggestions - much appreciated. I'll post an update later once I've finalised plans for the course.

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