Thursday 2 June 2016

A sketch of Origen's theology: 20 principles

Well my postgraduate seminar on Origen's theology ended today. We read and discussed Exhortation to Martyrdom, On Prayer, First Principles book IV, the whole of Balthasar's anthology (Origen: Spirit and Fire), and the first half of the Commentary on John. At the end of the course I had a go at sketching out 20 principles of Origen's theology. These are not meant to be comprehensive but only an attempt to gather up some of the themes that we explored throughout the semester.

1.    Christian theology is a vision of spiritual pilgrimage: the pilgrimage through time of a holy community, and the pilgrimage of the soul towards eternity.

2.    These are not two pilgrimages, but one.

3.    This pilgrimage is motivated by desire. Human beings have an innate yearning for the beauty of God. Through that yearning we reach out beyond ourselves, beyond all time and space, towards our hidden source and destiny in eternal Love.

4.    All human beings are on a continuum of love and lovelessness. We are always either inching towards God in love or drifting away as our love grows cold. Nobody can love so much as to have already arrived; nobody can love so little as to be finally and irreparably lost.

5.    (At this point Origen’s theology could be integrated with a more pessimistic Augustinian theology of disordered desire: our innate yearning for God is both our best feature and the source of all our woe. We cannot move towards God through an effort of will, since will itself is subject to the vagaries of fallen desire. It is a mark of grace and healing whenever the will finds itself bending, however slightly and uncertainly, towards the Love of God.)

6.    There is no dualistic split within the human community, whether at the beginning (through the creation or predestination of two classes of people), or at the end (through the salvation of some and the damnation of others). All derive from a common unity, and all will finally share in the common fire and delight of Love.

7.    Evil is not part of creation. It is not a positive quality within creatures. Nor is it an eternal spiritual entity that opposes God. It is a privation, a shadow, a distortion of goodness, in which the creature bends itself away from Love and attaches itself to lesser goods.

8.    Fate, determinism, and anything that annihilates personal freedom must be rejected. Without a doctrine of personal freedom, the privation theory of evil would be impossible. The goodness of creatures (or of the creator, or both) would thus be compromised and the Christian metaphysical system would collapse.

9.    Body and soul are not absolutely divided but exist on a spiritual continuum. The soul can become “fleshly” as its love grows cold and it drifts away from God. The body can become “spiritual” as attachment to God increases. The goal of our pilgrimage is the divinisation of the soul and the spiritualisation of the body. This is not to deny that the future life will be embodied, but only to deny that our present experience is a reliable guide to what it means to be fully embodied and to enjoy wholeness of life. In the coming age we will be more physical, not less, than we are now.

10.    All creatures have an innate kinship with God, since God’s eternal Wisdom and Word, the Logos, contains within itself an outline of all creatures. The Logos adapts and accommodates himself to every creature, patiently and lovingly revealing to each one the truth of its source and destiny in the Love of God.

11.    Salvation is primarily a matter of revelation. By an infinitely patient divine pedagogy, the Son of God leads each soul through a lifelong (and longer-than-life) curriculum in Love.

12.    (Again, there is room for integration with Augustinianism at this point: why would our education in Love take so long unless our capacity for love were radically disordered and in need of the most extensive healing, correction, and practical training?)

13.    The Christian community is just as much a school, a community of learning, as it is a cultic or sacramental community.

14.    There is a distinction, but not a division, between beginners and the spiritually advanced. Both are on the same continuum of spiritual progress. The beginners are exhorted to become the advanced, and the advanced are warned against regressing. All who are, today, making progress in growth towards Love may be described as the spiritually “perfect,” since they are walking in the way of perfection.

15.    The main spiritual business of the Christian life is the reading and study of scripture. Scriptural exegesis is the instrument by which the Logos heals the soul, unmasks its fantasies, and trains it in the practice of the love of God.

16.    In this life, a deeper grasp of the meaning of scripture is not only the cause of spiritual progress, but also its main reward.

17.    The spiritual meaning of any passage of scripture lies in its relationship to the overall message of scripture: the good news of Jesus, God’s Son and our Saviour, the Wisdom and Word of God made flesh. It is only in relation to Jesus that all scripture finds its unity, coherence, and truthfulness.

18.    Platonism: the history of Israel is a typological revelation of eternal things.

19.    Christianised Platonism: the fact that history can reveal eternal things shows the value and dignity of history. The fact that material things can reveal spiritual things shows the value and dignity of matter.

20.    The divinisation of the self does not entail a destruction of the ego through a merging of the self with the divine nature. Rather it involves the continual exercise of personal freedom. It is the free and loving union of the creature with the creator, without abolishing the distinction between them. Because it is a union between the finite and the infinite, there can be no end point to divinisation. It is not perfection so much as perfecting. It is unceasing progress in growth and transformation. There is no limit to how much of God the soul can contain. Every advance in Love is an advance towards the infinite. The pilgrim soul travels deeper into Love, for endless ages, without ever reaching a final destination or without ever being able to say: “Enough.”


Anonymous said...

First ever post I think to Faith & Theology and can't believe no one has posted a reply yet!

I just wanted to say your a huge inspiration Ben. You were the one that revealed Barth and Rowan Williams, and other incredible theologians to me and really brought my faith alive after it had tired from tired old apologetics that seemed forced.

I actually do a blog too now:

You'll notice a ton of your name on there and your work. I would categorize you and your work as my faith theology even the bit size stuff!

Anyway just wanted to say how much of a fan I am and how much your site has influenced me!

P.s. I am super into Origen right now too hah!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous here, aka Charles Twombly. Your Origen list is a keeper, a great aid for teaching. Makes me want to get back at teaching early Christian thought. Thanks, Ben.

Anonymous said...

Unmasking Origen:

Jason Pratt said...

I've posted a link back to this article for a new thread at the EU forum, Ben. (

I don't know if you've read Dr. Ramelli's recent Tome on patristic universalism, but I'd say your 20 points comports very well with her analysis there, in her monograph on Bardaisan (where she also comments extensively on Origen), and elsewhere.


Alex said...

I've been reading Origen for the first time recently. Related to #6 above, I loved this quote in the selected works of Origen edited by Rowan Greer in the Classics of Western Spirituality Series: "Although it remains flawed by importing the concept of time into our notion of God, it is better to think of God, in Origen's view, as standing at the end of time summoning us to Himself, than as an antecedent to history determining what will happen in the future." I loved this perspective. It actually encapsulates a lot of your principles above.

GrCel said...

Thank you. Very helpful guide.

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