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Origen: Heretic or Saint?
By The Rev. Mark Stanley
For the first time in my life, I am presenting a resolution to the Diocesan Convention–a resolution on the topic of the early church theologian, Origen of Alexandria. I realize that it is pretty nerdy, but it has been bothering me that such a brilliant man was never canonized as a saint. Many early church scholars, including Henri Crouzel, SJ (Professor of Patristics at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse and the Gregorian University in Rome), have asserted that Origen has been “unjustly branded a heretic” (Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, pg 503). Trying to correct this wrong, I am presenting a Resolution at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s Convention on May 13, 2016 for Origen of Alexandria to be included in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of “saints.”
Born to Christian parents in 185 AD, Origen spent the first part of his career as a teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. During the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimius Serverus in Alexandria in 202, in which his father was killed, teenage Origen desired martyrdom but his mother prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes. Because of his Christian faith, Origen chose to lead a strict ascetic life of fasting, prayer, and voluntary poverty. According to the historian Eusebius, Origen supposedly even castrated himself because of his misinterpretation of Matthew 19:12. (Recent scholars have questioned the truth of this story, however, speculating that this may have been just a rumor circulated by his detractors.) In 250 AD, during a later persecution, Origen was imprisoned for being a Christian and cruelly tortured, after which he survived only a few years.
Refusing to deny his beliefs, Origen’s willingness to undergo personal suffering gave witness to his dedication to Christ. Origen, who was renowned for the breadth and depth of his scholarship, wrote influential works in the fields of theology, textual criticism, biblical commentary, preaching, and spirituality.
Hundred of years after the death of Origen, the Emperor Justinian instigated Origen’s condemnation and had many of his works burned. In 553 AD, the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople seems to have condemned Origin as a heretic. That this council actually condemned him is both “enigmatic and problematic” (Philip Esler, The Early Christian World, Volume 2, pg 262). The Catholic Encyclopedia (volume 11, pg 308) even states that Origen “does not deserve to be ranked among the promoters of heresy.”
Scholars today call Origen “the church’s first systematic theologian” and “the foremost biblical scholar of the early church.” Saint Jerome proclaimed Origen the “greatest teacher of wisdom and knowledge after the apostles.” Yet many of Origen’s works did not survive due to his condemnation several centuries after his death. This needs to be corrected. Some of this later criticism comes from Origen’s wide ranging philosophical speculation at a time when Christian orthodoxy was still forming. It is problematic to label as heresy Origen’s theories about the pre-existence of souls or the Son being inferior to the Father (which he may not have actually claimed) since the church at that time did not yet have official teachings on these matters.
Unfortunately some of the accusations against Origen were actually due to misunderstandings of his writings as well as the attribution of later speculations by his followers to him. Another point of controversy is Origen’s concept of Apokatastasis, that all creatures (even the Devil) could ultimately be reconciled with God. While scholars today debate whether Origen truly taught a version of Universal Salvation, Origen’s emphasis on the patience and enduring mercy of God, rather than on Divine punishment, might be seen in our own day as not heresy but as Good News. The great Anglican historian Henry Chadwick puts it this way, “If orthodoxy were a matter of intention, no theologian could be more orthodox than Origen, none more devoted to the cause of Christian faith.”
Origen is deserving of a place on our liturgical calendar with his rare combination of scholarly genius and a saintly life dedicated to Christ. The next step is a Resolution recommending Origen be included in the next edition of A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations. Then, on to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 to work for final approval from the national church.
Origen scholar, The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Lyman, states, “if anyone represented Anglican rationality, love of scripture, and holiness of life, it is Origen.”