Alexandria, Egypt was a major center for Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Coptic Christians believe that John Mark (author of the Gospel of Mark) was the first to preach the Gospel in Egypt. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was started by Pantaenus toward the end of the 2nd century and many believe it to be the oldest Christian catechetical school. Clement of Alexandria became head of the school after Pantaenus’ death in about 200 AD. One of Clement’s prominent students was Origen.
[Podcast version available at the end of this article]
Origen of Alexandria
Origen was born in Alexandria about 185 AD into a Christian family. He replaced Clement as teacher at the Alexandrian catechetical school about 205 AD. He taught during the day and studied Scripture at night. Origen spent the last 20 years of his life (he died in 254 AD) teaching in Caesarea. He was also a prolific writer and presented a Christian defense against many heretics. However, his own views about the pre-existence of human souls, allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and eventual universal salvation led many Christians to view Origen as a heretic.
[You can read more about Origen in A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey by Joseph Early Jr., B&H Academic, 2015]
Origen’s writings include De Principiis, Against Celsus, Commentary on Matthew, and Commentary on John. Here are some apologetic highlights from De Principiis:
Origen addressed heresies and heretics in Book II, Chapter IV – The God of the Law and the Prophets, and the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is the Same God –
“He lays down respecting oaths, saying that we ought not to ‘swear either by heaven, because it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, because it is His footstool,’ harmonize most clearly with the words of the prophet, ‘Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool?’ And also when casting out of the temple those who sold sheep, and oxen, and doves, and pouring out the tables of the money-changers, and saying, ‘Take these things, hence, and do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise, He undoubtedly called Him His Father, to whose name Solomon had raised a magnificent temple. The words, moreover, ‘Have you not read what was spoken by God to Moses: I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; He is not a God of the dead, but of the living,’ most clearly teach us, that He called the God of the patriarchs (because they were holy, and were alive) the God of the living, the same, viz., who had said in the prophets, ‘I am God, and besides Me there is no God.’ For if the Saviour, knowing that He who is written in the law is the God of Abraham, and that it is the same who says, ‘I am God, and besides Me there is no God, acknowledges that very one to be His Father who is ignorant of the existence of any other God above Himself, as the heretics suppose, He absurdly declares Him to be His Father who does not know of a greater God. But if it is not from ignorance, but from deceit, that He says there is no other God than Himself, then it is a much greater absurdity to confess that His Father is guilty of falsehood. From all which this conclusion is arrived at, that He knows of no other Father than God, the Founder and Creator of all things.”
“These words are, of course, to be understood in that mystical sense which is befitting divine words, those old wives’ fables being rejected and despised which are invented by ignorant persons respecting the anterior and posterior parts of God. Let no one indeed suppose that we have indulged any feeling of impiety in saying that even to the Saviour the Father is not visible. Let him consider the distinction which we employ in dealing with heretics. For we have explained that it is one thing to see and to be seen, and another to know and to be known, or to understand and to be understood. To see, then, and to be seen, is a property of bodies, which certainly will not be appropriately applied either to the Father, or to the Son, or to the Holy Spirit, in their mutual relations with one another. For the nature of the Trinity surpasses the measure of vision, granting to those who are in the body, i.e., to all other creatures, the property of vision in reference to one another. But to a nature that is incorporeal and for the most part intellectual, no other attribute is appropriate save that of knowing or being known, as the Saviour Himself declares when He says, “No man knoweth the Son, save the Father; nor does any one know the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him. It is clear, then, that He has not said, ‘No one has seen the Father, save the Son;’ but, “No one knoweth the Father, save the Son.”
Origen wrote this in Chapter V, On Justice and Goodness –
“And now, what we have drawn from the authority of Scripture ought to be sufficient to refute the arguments of the heretics. It will not, however, appear improper if we discuss the matter with them shortly, on the grounds of reason itself. We ask them, then, if they know what is regarded among men as the ground of virtue and wickedness, and if it appears to follow that we can speak of virtues in God, or, as they think, in these two Gods. Let them give an answer also to the question, whether they consider goodness to be a virtue; and as they will undoubtedly admit it to be so, what will they say of injustice? They will never certainly, in my opinion, be so foolish as to deny that justice is a virtue. Accordingly, if virtue is a blessing, and justice is a virtue, then without doubt justice is goodness. But if they say that justice is not a blessing, it must either be an evil or an indifferent thing.”
Origen wrote this in Chapter VII, On The Holy Spirit –
“It is time, then, that we say a few words to the best of our ability regarding the Holy Spirit, whom our Lord and Saviour in the Gospel according to John has named the Paraclete. For as it is the same God Himself, and the same Christ, so also is it the same Holy Spirit who was in the prophets and apostles, i.e., either in those who believed in God before the advent of Christ, or in those who by means of Christ have sought refuge in God. We have heard, indeed, that certain heretics have dared to say that there are two Gods and two Christs, but we have never known of the doctrine of two Holy Spirits being preached by any one. For how could they maintain this out of Scripture, or what distinction could they lay down between Holy Spirit and Holy Spirit, if indeed any definition or description of Holy Spirit can be discovered? For although we should concede to Marcion or to Valentinus that it is possible to draw distinctions in the question of Deity, and to describe the nature of the good God as one, and that of the just God as another, what will he devise, or what will he discover, to enable him to introduce a distinction in the Holy Spirit? I consider, then, that they are able to discover nothing which may indicate a distinction of any kind whatever.”
Origen wrote this in Chapter IX, On the World and the Movements of Rational Creatures, Whether Good or Bad; and on the Causes of Them –
“Now, when we say that this world was established in the variety in which we have above explained that it was created by God, and when we say that this God is good, and righteous, and most just, there are numerous individuals, especially those who, coming from the school of Marcion, and Valentinus, and Basilides, have heard that there are souls of different natures, who object to us, that it cannot consist with the justice of God in creating the word to assign to some of His creatures an abode in the heavens, and not only to give such a better habitation, but also to grant them a higher and more honourable position; to favour others with the grant of principalities; to bestow powers upon some, dominions on others; to confer upon some the most honourable seats in the celestial tribunals; to enable some to shine with more resplendent glory, and to glitter with a starry splendour; to give to some the glory of the sun, to others the glory of the moon, to others the glory of the stars; to cause one star to differ from another star in glory. And, to speak once for all, and briefly, if the Creator God wants neither the will to undertake nor the power to complete a good and perfect work, what reason can there be that, in the creation of rational natures, i.e., of beings of whose existence He Himself is the cause, He should make some of higher rank, and others of second, or third, or of many lower and inferior degrees? In the next place, they object to us, with regard to terrestrial beings, that a happier lot by birth is the case with some rather than with others; as one man, e.g., is begotten of Abraham, and born of the promise; another, too, of Isaac and Rebekah, and who, while still in the womb, supplants his brother, and is said to be loved by God before he is born. Nay, this very circumstance,–especially that one man is born among the Hebrews, with whom he finds instruction in the divine law; another among the Greeks, themselves also wise, and men of no small learning; and then another amongst the Ethiopians, who are accustomed to feed on human flesh; or amongst the Scythians, with whom parricide is an act sanctioned by law; or amongst the people of Taurus, where strangers are offered in sacrifice,–is a ground of strong objection. Their argument accordingly is this: If there be this great diversity of circumstances, and this diverse and varying condition by birth, in which the faculty of free-will has no scope (for no one chooses for himself either where, or with whom, or in what condition he is born); if, then, this is not caused by the difference in the nature of souls, i.e., that a soul of an evil nature is destined for a wicked nation, and a good soul for a righteous nation, what other conclusion remains than that these things must be supposed to be regulated by accident and chance? And if that be admitted, then it will be no longer believed that the world was made by God, or administered by His providence; and as a consequence, a judgment of God upon the deeds of each individual will appear a thing not to be looked for. In which matter, indeed, what is dearly the truth of things is the privilege of Him alone to know who searches all things, even the deep things of God.”
We will look at Origen’s best-known apologetic, Against Celsus, in the next part of our series.