Origen (185-254) was a Christian intellectual from Alexandria. He influenced Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Bernard and others. His allegorical interpretation of scripture, though out of favour now, deeply influenced the West in the years from 600 to 1200.
Alexandria of the 200s produced two great thinkers: Origen and the Greek philosopher Plotinus. They produced the two great roads to the truth that men of the Roman Empire followed in the 200s and 300s. Augustine followed both roads in the early 400s and showed how they were the same road.
Origen had a good Greek education. He tried to make Christian and Greek thinking into one system but failed. His mistake was to treat Greek thinking as a set of truths, not as a way of thinking.
It was partly in “De principiis” that Origen tried to make the two systems into one:
- Eternity of creation: it is without beginning or end. God can create and destroy, but he cannot exist without a creation.
- Free will: God made angels, stars, demons and men all equal to each other. They became unequal through what they did with their free will.
- Matter: All spiritual beings have a material nature, even angels. But some, like men, are more material than others.
- Universal salvation: If you are not saved in this life, your soul will be brought back for another chance. Because the universe lasts for ever even the demons will be saved.
Origen was not a heretic – all this was within the limits of Christian thinking in the Alexandria of his day. But the book got a bad name when heretics later used it to justify teachings that opposed the Church.
The emperor Justinian pushed to have Origen condemned. He had political reasons of his own, but “De principiis” made it easy for the Church to do it. That is why he is not considered to be a saint.
He fell out of favour in the Greek east in the 600s but the Latin west continued to read him. Not “De principiis”, but his books about the Bible. Of the few books that existed then in the West many were by Origen. They stood like a lighthouse to the Bible.
Origen said the entire Bible is true, but not necessarily our interpretation of it. Some passages just have a straight sense, some only have an allegorical sense, where the Bible speaks in figures, and some passages have both senses.
For example, the wood of Noah’s ark stands for the wood of the Cross of Christ. The lamb’s blood the Jews put on their door frames on the night of the first Passover foreshadows the saving blood of Christ. These were real events in history but God used them as figures of what was to come.
Origen’s New Testament included:
- Acts of Paul
- 1 Clement
- Shepherd of Hermas
- 2 Peter
- 2 John
- 3 John
The books of the New Testament were still not fixed till the 300s.