The Christian theologian and biblical scholar Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254) is famous for the originality and power of his mind as well as for his vast learning and prolific writings. He was the most influential Christian theologian before St. Augustine and one of the most controversial Christian thinkers of all time.

Origen, whose full name was Origenes Adamantius, was born of Christian parents, probably in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Forced to support the family because of his father's martyrdom before Origen was 20 years old, he taught grammar for a time and then became head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria. Devoting himself to the duties of this post for the next 12 years or so, Origen adopted notably ascetic habits of life. He extended his own studies to the point of attending the lectures of the Platonist philosopher Ammonius Saccas. During these years Origen also learned Hebrew and began the compilation of his Hexapla, famous in the history of textual criticism. It was an edition of the Old Testament in six parallel columns, one each for the Hebrew text, the Hebrew text in Greek characters, and four different Greek versions.

A local outburst of violence against Christians about 215 prompted Origen to leave Alexandria and to journey to Palestine. There his fame had preceded him, and he was asked, though a layman, to preach publicly in church. News of this irregular proceeding reached the ears of Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, who forthwith recalled Origen home. Once in Alexandria, Origen began an intense period of literary work facilitated by shorthand writers and transcribers supplied by his wealthy friend and convert Ambrose.

The most famous of Origen's writings from this period was the work De principiis (On First Principles). In it he articulated a comprehensive and coherent statement of the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption. Drawing guardedly upon contemporary currents of philosophical and Gnostic speculation, he projected a cosmic history of rational beings, created before the material universe, who fell from their original love of God and who then entered bodies in the material world created by God as a place of corrective education. God's providential care for his rational creatures was brought to a decisive turning point by the Incarnation of His Word in Jesus Christ, whose role was to lead souls freely joined to him in faith and love back to the original state from which they fell in their premundane existence. Origen believed that even Satan and his angels would one day be led back to God, one of his teachings that in his lifetime and in later centuries brought him into disrepute.

About 230, on a journey to a theological disputation in Greece, Origen stopped off in Palestine, where he was ordained presbyter by his admirers, the bishops of Caesarea and Jerusalem. His ordination outside the jurisdiction of Demetrius brought Origen's tense relations with the bishop of Alexandria to a climax. At Alexandria he was formally condemned, a decree not honored elsewhere in the Eastern Church.

Thereafter, Origen lived at Caesarea, where for 2 decades he was active as teacher, preacher, biblical commentator, and Christian apologist. As a teacher of prospective scholars and Church leaders, Origen developed a carefully planned course of studies that proceeded from logic through physics and ethics to theology and the interpretation of Scripture. His sermons abounded in shrewdly critical observations on the state of the Church, including sharp comments on the laxity and venality of bishops. His expositions of Scripture, the main bulk of his vast literary output, were marked by extensive use of allegorical interpretations. Two chief purposes of this were to block any suggestion that unworthy conceptions of God are to be found in the Bible and to display the Bible as offering differing levels of insight according to the varying capacities of men in their gradual progress toward spiritual perfection. According to St. Jerome, Origen wrote about 800 exegetical and apologetic works.

In 250, during the persecution of the Church by Emperor Decius, Origen was imprisoned and tortured. He died in Tyre.


Further Reading on Origen

The best work on Origen is Jean Danielou, Origen (1955), which includes many quotations from Origen's works. A helpful, if brief, treatment is in Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement and Origen (1966). An older work, but one from which much can still be learned, is Charles Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria (1886; rev. ed. 1913).