Origen is one of the most prolific and most controversial Early Church Fathers in all of Christianity. His influence and contribution to the body of Christ is immensely paramount, and his impact is still felt today. His opus endeavor on the Hexapla (taking 28 years to complete), which is a bible that he wrote in different translations, is a testament to his devout dedication to the study of the Divine Scriptures. He is considered the “father of the homily,” “the father of textual criticism” and he is the first biblical geographer. He wrote over 6,000 works and has vastly influenced some of the most prominent saints in Christianity. Even with everything he selflessly contributed to the body of Christ, his works appear to be overlooked due to controversies, that in truth, came about at the hands of heretics and those who grew jealous of him.
Origen’s first opposition came from his own Bishop, Demetrius of Alexandria. At the age of 18, Origen started to teach the Catechumen in Alexandria, one of the most prestigious Christian institutes of their day. In his early years Origen took the Scripture Matthew 19:12, “made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom” in a too literal manner and castrated himself. By doing so he would also silence unbelievers who might assume he had other motives when he would study the Divine Word with women. Origen tried to keep this silent, nonetheless his Bishop, Demetrius, commended him for it. This act created a fame for Origen that ended up being a stumbling block for Demetrius. Demetrius commended Origen, and upon noticing he was becoming more famous than he, then began to slander Origen and deemed it a foolish act. It seemed no one else shared the same sentiment as Demetrius did, because the Bishops of Palestine and Caesarea applauded Origen for his commitment to holiness. (1)
None of the issues that Demetrius had with Origen had to do with his exegesis (interpretation) of Scripture. Origen’s remarkable exegesis of the Divine Scripture was unparalleled. If Origen was truly found to be teaching any heretical doctrine outside of the orthodoxy (belief) of the church and foreign to the apostolic tradition, he would have been excommunicated from the church, as was Marcion.
As we continue, we will see a pattern of people loving and respecting Origen in one moment, then turning on him in the next moment.
Earlier, we read that the first controversy had nothing to do with what Origen was teaching. If Origen had truly stepped out of the orthodoxy of the church and had taught outside of the apostolic traditions, he would have been condemned by the church. We see examples of the church strongly disapproving of those who were once a part of the body yet departed from the truth to follow after a strange opinion. The first example is from the bible. In the book of Revelation, we read about the Nicolaitans and how Christ despises their deeds and teachings (Rev 2:6; 15). The interesting point is that the Nicolaitans were a faction of people who followed the teachings of Nicolas, who was a deacon ordained by the apostles in Acts 6:5. Iranaeus speaks of them in his book “Against Heresies”:
“John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that ‘knowledge’ falsely so called, that he might confound them”
~Iranaeus-Against Heresies Vol. 1 Book 3, Ch. XI
Hippolytus also illustrates the heresies of Nicolas:
“But Nicolaus has been a cause of the wide-spread combination of these wicked men. He, as one of the seven (that were chosen) for the diaconate, was appointed by the Apostles. (But Nicolaus) departed from correct doctrine and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food. And when the disciples (of Nicolaus) continued to offer insult to the Holy Spirit, John reproved them in the Apocalypse as fornicators and eaters of things offered unto idols. (Rev_2:6)”
~Hippolytus-Refutation Vol. 5 Book 7 Ch. XXIV
We also see amongst the Ante Nicene Fathers, one who fell from the path of truth, as did Nicolas, and followed after a strange doctrine. Novation was a well-respected presbyter in Rome in 250 A.D. until the time of excommunication from the church. Here are some Church Fathers depicting their views on Novation:
“For indeed it ought not to pertain to the majesty or the dignity of the Church, to concern itself with what the audacity of heretics and schismatics may attempt among themselves. For Novatian’s party is also said to have now made Maximus the presbyter — who was lately sent to us as an ambassador for Novatian, and rejected from communion with us — their false bishop in that place; and yet I had not written to you about this, since all these things are slighted by us; and I had sent to you lately the names of the bishops appointed there, who with wholesome and sound discipline govern the brethren in the Church.”
~Cyprian- The Epistles of Cyprian Vol. 5 Ep. LIV (Boldness emphasized added)
Cyprian wrote to Cornelius to warn about the heresies of Novation, because Novatian divided the churches unity with his heretical doctrines. Cyprian even established a priestly ordination that he himself thrusted into that position. Cyprian proceeded to give a list of Bishops who were approved by the church.
The church was very protective over preserving the truth in the body of Christ, because it was the preaching of the same truth that was the substance of unity, and anyone who would destroy that unity was excommunicated from the church.
“For we rightly repulse Novatian, who has rent the Church, and has drawn away some of the brethren to impiety and blasphemies; who has brought into the world a most impious doctrine concerning God, and calumniates our most merciful Lord Jesus Christ as if He were unmerciful; and besides all these things, holds the sacred layer as of no effect, and rejects it, and overturns faith and confession, which are put before baptism, and utterly drives away the Holy Spirit from them, even if any hope subsists either that He would abide in them, or that He should return to them.”
~Dionysius-Extant Fragments Vol. 6 Pt. 2.1, Ep. VIII (Bold emphasis added)
I want to cite some passages from the Ante Nicene Fathers on the gravity of teaching heresy in the body of Christ. A heretic was considered an enemy to the church due to the schism that would destroy its unity. So, if Origen was genuinely guilty of heretical doctrines, he would have received the same judgment that Novatian and Nicolas received and would have been addressed in the same manner. However, we see the opposite, as Origen was a praised presbyter whose famed authority of interpreting prophetic Scriptures set a pattern that influenced other renowned saints. Some of these saints include the following: St. Pamphilus, Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Hilary, Didymus, St. Ambrose, Rufinus, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. John Chrysostom. St. Jerome said that after the 12 Apostles, Origen was the greatest teacher. (2) What is astonishing is how Jerome later changed his sentiment on Origen, which was a baseless prejudice. I will expound on that later.
Another reason Origen was prone to attack was that his style of writings was found to be contradictory at times. Some have refused to read Origen and other Ante Nicene Fathers because from the readers’ tainted perspectives, these writers seem to contradict themselves, proving to be unseasonable according to their own knowledge. However, we see in the Scriptures themselves the same “contradictions”, at least to the untaught and untrained [2 Pe 3:16].
St. Clement, Clement of Alexandria, and Dionysius of Alexandria were other Ante Nicene Fathers who were also accused. They were not the only ones who seemed to have this same controversy. The Apostle Paul and even the LORD Himself seem to be contradicting themselves. In Ezekiel 20:20-21, the LORD says that His statutes are good and holy, however in verse 25 He says, “Therefore I also gave them up to statutes that were not good,” so from this could anyone be so absurd to think the creator of the universe, the LORD himself would contradict himself? The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:7 refers to the Torah as the “ministry of death, written and engraven on stones,” then in Romans 7:12, 14; “the Torah is holy, just and good, and it’s spiritual.” So, if you were going to petition your reason for not reading Origen, or any other Ante Nicene Father for that matter, then you would have to refrain from reading the Bible.
So, now this begs the question “what are these supposed contradictions?” That is a good question. First and foremost, The LORD does not contradict himself and neither do His servants. These alleged “contradictions” are actually hinting that there is a mystery hidden deeper, behind the veil of the letter (literal/historical interpretation) of the Scriptures. In the Scripture above, from Ezekiel, the LORD is speaking about the difference between the spirit of the Law (Torah) and the dead letter of the Law. It is the same as what Paul writes about in His epistles. Justin Martyr said the following about this very issue:
“But I shall not venture to suppose or to say such a thing; and if a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext [for saying] that it is contrary [to some other], since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself”
~Justin Martyr- Dialogue with Trypho Vol. 1 Ch. LXV (Bold emphasized)
So, what appears to be a contradiction is actually alluding to a mystery waiting to be revealed. If you have a hard time understanding the principal of how the Scriptures are recorded in that style of writing, then it would be just as difficult to understand the writings of these Early Church Fathers who wrote, at times, in the same manner. These men of God were hiding pearls in their own writings and only those who were truly spiritual could understand what they were mystically saying. It was the same with Messiah. To help better understand as to why they would veil even their own writings, keep in mind what Paul had said: “If our Gospel is veiled, it’s veiled to them that are perishing” [2Co_4:3] and “But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.” [2Co_3:14]. According to the Apostle Paul the Old and New Testament are veiled. Scripture is not easily (correctly) understood because there is a veil laying over it? Why is that? I will allow Clement of Alexandria to explain:
“But since this tradition is not published alone for him who perceives the magnificence of the word; it is requisite, therefore, to hide in a mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught. Now, therefore, Isaiah the prophet has his tongue purified by fire, so that he may be able to tell the vision. And we must purify not the tongue alone, but also the ears, if we attempt to be partaken of the truth.
Such were the impediments in the way of my writing. And even now I fear, as it is said, “to cast the pearls before swine, lest they tread them under foot, and turn and rend us.” (Mat_7:6) For it is difficult to exhibit the really pure and transparent words respecting the true light, to swinish and untrained hearers.”
~Clement-Stromata Vol. 2 Book 1 Ch. XII (Bold Emphasized)
By understanding that this was the style of writing of the Ante Nicene Fathers, we can see why it is often difficult to understand their writings. They understood the way the Message was to be preached and they veiled their own writings. Only those not trained in spiritual things will not be able to perceive these spiritual words. You cannot approach the study of the Early Church as you would an academic. The Word of God, and the Ante Nicene Fathers are not academics to be studied. They are to be read, imparted, and understood by the Holy Spirit.
Now that we have established the style of the Ante Nicene Father’s writings and how Origen’s writings are misunderstood, I now want to present probably the most controversial and most damaging claim to Origen’s legacy which came at the artifice of a heretic who cunningly sought to change the writings of Origen by sprinkling heresies into his writings. What is so fascinating about this occurrence is that Origen wasn’t the first and only victim of this atrocity. Other saints including the Apostle Paul [2 Thessalonians 2:2 “not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us,”] also suffered from this same type of attack. A monk in the 4th and 5th century, Rufinus, was translating the works of Origen from Greek to Latin. He contributes to us a letter from Origen concerning the matters of his writings being corrupted. (3) If you understand Origen’s time period, there was a plethora of spurious men writing epistles, and even gospels that falsely bore the name of one of the apostles during the time of the 2nd and 3rd century in which the New Testament canon had not yet been officially appointed. (4)
Iranaeus, in Against Heresies, did not just come against the heretical doctrines that were being preached under the guise of Christianity, he also confirmed which New Testament writings were accepted by the church and which ones were not. Contrary to what many believers admit today about when the canon was formed, or the assumption that the Apostles handed the church a New Testament canon; the Ante Nicene Fathers were the ones who fought for the true writings of the Gospels and Apostolic Epistles. They had to discern through the Holy Spirit and adhere to the Apostolic traditions to decipher the true writings of the Apostles and the true Gospels. What was happening with the canon was also happening to the Ante Nicene Fathers.
Origen wrote a letter to his friends in Alexandria explaining the controversy in which he confronts the heretic that corrupted his writings. One of the vilest accusations that came against Origen was that he taught that the devil could be saved. Origen exclaims that not even an insane person would admit such a thing, that even Satan could be saved. It was in Origen’s book “De Principiis” where this outlandish claim was deceptively injected. Here is an excerpt from Origen’s letter that Rufinus translated:
“Let them take heed to themselves how they refuse to mark that solemn injunction which says that ‘Revilers shall not inherit the kingdom of God,’ when they declare that I hold that the father of wickedness and perdition, and of those who are cast forth from the kingdom of God, that is the devil, is to be saved, a thing which no man can say even if he has taken leave of his senses and is manifestly insane. Yet it is no wonder, I think, if my teaching is falsified by my adversaries, and is corrupted and adulterated in the same manner as the epistle of Paul, the Apostle. Certain men, as we know, compiled a false epistle under the name of Paul, so that they might trouble the Thessalonians as if the day of the Lord were nigh at hand, and thus beguile them. It is on account of that false epistle that he wrote these words in the second epistle to the Thessalonians: ‘We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto him; to the end that ye be not quickly shaken from your mind, nor yet be troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter was sent from us, as that the day of the Lord is at hand. Let no man beguile you in any wise.’[2Th_2:2] It is something of the same kind, I perceive, which is happening to us also.” 5(Bold Emphasized)
In Origen’s own words he communicated that he did not profess that Satan would be saved and condemns the very teaching. If you understand Origen’s Orthodoxy and his resolute approach the study and teaching, you would understand that Origen would never make such a claim. In his homilies of Joshua, he makes such a weighty statement, the very word reverberates within my own soul. Origen was so zealous for the bride of Christ (the church) that he states, “remove the evil one from your midst.” His heart and passion for the Kingdom, and his love for the souls in the body of Christ weighed so heavy in his heart he says the following:
For thus also the Lord says, “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and thrust it from you.” But does the hand of our body ever cause us to stumble or does the Gospel say concerning this hand of the body, “Cut it off and thrust it from you”? On the contrary, this is what it says, that I, who seem to be a right hand to you and am named a presbyter and seem to preach the word of God, if I should do anything against the teaching of the Church and the rule of the Gospel, so that I create a stumbling block for you the Church, may the whole Church in one accord, acting in concert, cut me off and fling me, their right hand, away. “For it is expedient for you,” the Church, to enter into the kingdom of heaven without me, your hand, which, by doing evil, prepared a stumbling block, than with me “to go into Gehenna.” We have said these things, therefore, because we see recorded in the Holy Scriptures that on account of one sinner “the sons of Israel became anathema” so that they were overcome by enemies.
~Origen-Homilies on Joshua (Bold Emphasized)
How could one with such a fervent utterance that revealed his affection for the truth then make such an unsound and careless statement that “Satan could be saved” when he himself understood the consequences for being a stumbling block to the Church. How can anyone accredit to that statement? As a matter of fact, in the same letter Origen in his own words renounces that belief and declares that anyone who would make such confession would be mad. In the same letter he addresses the person who falsified his writings and has more to say concerning those who would believe he would be of that same mindset.
“A certain promoter of heresy, after a discussion which had been held between us in the presence of many persons, and notes of it had been taken, procured the document from those who had written out the notes, and added or struck out whatever he chose, and changed things as he thought right, and published it abroad as if it were my work, but pointing in triumphant scorn at the expressions which he had himself inserted. The brethren in Palestine, indignant at this, sent a man to me at Athens to obtain from me an authentic copy of the work. Up to that time I had never even read it over again or revised it: it had been so completely neglected and thrown aside that it could hardly be found. Nevertheless, I sent it: and, —God is witness that I am speaking the truth, —when I met the man himself who had adulterated the work, and took him to task for having done so, he answered, as if he were giving me satisfaction: “I did it because I wished to improve that treatise and to purge away its faults.” What kind of a purging was this that he applied to my dissertation? such a purging as Marcion or his successor Apelles after he gave to the Gospels and to the writings of the Apostle. They subverted the true text of Scripture; and this man similarly first took away the true statements which I had made, and then inserted what was false to furnish grounds for accusation against me. But, though those who have dared to do this are impious and heretical men, yet those who give credence to such accusations against us shall not escape the judgment of God. There are others also, not a few, who have done this through a wish to throw confusion into the churches.” 5
Now the big conflict, dubbed the “Origen Controversies” is where this takes an ugly turn and where Origen’s fame really became stained due to these damaging events. When the full breadth of these events is presented, we come to find that Origen’s adversaries really were not as credible and the attitude towards Origen after he passed, was completely vial and barbarous. Towards the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 5th century the Bishop of Salamis, St. Epiphanius, induced the “dangers” of Origen with an exaggerated fear of Origen applying too much of an allegorical exegesis. The irony of Epiphanius accusing Origen of being too mystical, Epiphanius wrote a few passages about the Eucharist professing it to be the “Discipline of the Secret.” A monastery in Nitria, near by St. Epiphanius’ monastery, is with whom this controversy seems to have been birthed, since the monks of Nitria were zealous Origenist’ (those who studied Origen’s exegesis of the Scriptures). What makes this more intriguing is that in Constantinople he admitted that he was not familiarized their writings or the way the school operated with the Origenist of Nitria that he had admonished, and was speaking on hearsay according to Salminius, Church History VIII.40.
With this in mind, in 394 A. D., St. Epiphanius went to Jerusalem to warn of the “crisis” of Origenism. When he spoke against Origen’s “errors” (as we have already explained above, Origen’s writings were corrupted by heretics to tarnish his reputation), the Bishop of Jerusalem, John, was present during the preaching that St. Epiphanius had issued, who was himself an Origenist. Bishop John had sharply rebutted and even spoke against a belief of St. Epiphanius’ theology, Anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god; the humanization of God). After this clash between the two, St. Epiphanius placed Paulinian in the priesthood in Jerusalem. He certainly intended to put his own influence in the Jerusalem church and thus planting a seed of discord in Jerusalem. What is so intriguing is that out all of people he could choose, he chose this particular individual. Paulinian is the brother of St. Jerome, an Origenist who was translating Origen’s writings from Greek to Latin. That move would eventually be a seed that caused St. Jerome, who once said in his writings, that the greatest teacher outside of the 12 apostles was Origen, to eventually turn against him and 2 years after Paulinian’s ordination, he sided with St. Epiphanius. St. Jerome’s former colleague, Rufinus, wrote an apologetic work defending Origen and disapproved of St. Jerome’s departure. Many of the things that St. Jerome reproved Rufinus for were actually things that he himself taught Rufinus. It seemed St. Jerome started to lose his sense.
In 399 A. D. Theophilus of Alexandria, who was a former monk of Nitria and professed Origenist and had defended against St. Epiphanius, suddenly changed his perspective for unknown reasons concerning Origen. He got into a dispute with St. Isidore and with the “Tall Brothers” (Origenist) over Theophilus’ issues with greed and worldliness. They eventually departed and found refuge with St. John Chrysostom (the golden mouth). In 400 A. D. Theophilus endeavored to abolish Origenism from the church, as a guise to also retaliate on St. Chrysostom. He succeeded in the Council of Alexandria (400 A. D.) and with the support of the Bishop of Cyprus and Palestine, they succeeded in their crusade for the next four years to rid of Origen’s teachings. It didn’t end there. St. Epiphanius being influenced by Theophilus also started to treat St. Chrysostom with contempt and almost heretical. In the end, St. Chrysostom was redeemed, as the truth always comes to light. St. Epiphanius eventually recognized that he was deceived and retreated from his attacks on St. Chrysostom. Theophilus was eventually summoned by the emperor to give an account of the conflict with the “Tall Brothers” and St. Isidore. Theophilus however very cunningly turned the tables on St. Chrysostom and had him condemned. Coincidentally, once that happened and the retaliation was thus fulfilled, the campaign against Origenism was demolished.
Analyzing the controversies and the disputes, it becomes very apparent that these had to do with more personal conflicts and not an issue of Origen’s Orthodoxy. It appears that there were other disputes surrounding the “Origen Controversy” making the squabble seem frivolous, and more of a vehicle to fulfill a personal vendetta.
In respect to this article being written defending Origen’s works, I think it would be appropriate for him to have the last word.
For as we ceased to seek for truth (notwithstanding the professions of many among Greeks and Barbarians to make it known) among all who claimed it for erroneous opinions, after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God, and were persuaded that we must learn it from Himself; so, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition.
~Origen-De Principiis Bk. 1 Vol. 4 (Bold Emphasized)
- Eusebuis Early Church History Vol. 6 Ch. 8
- Jerome’s translation of Origen’s Commentary on Songs of Solomon, Preface
- Rufinus’s Epilogue to Pamphilus the Martyr’s Apology for Origen
- Eusebuis Early Church History Vol. 3 Ch. 3, 24, 25
- On the adulteration and corruption of his books; from the 4th book of the letters of Origen: a letter written to certain familiar friends at Alexandria.
Pamphilus’ Defense for Origen
Jerome Homilies on Isaiah
Apology for Origen: With on the Falsification of the Books of Origen by Rufinus
St. Jerome, Illustrious Men
Prat, Ferdinand. “Origen and Origenism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 29 Mar. 2018