“Origen has been suspected of a great orthodoxy, for the Church has not always been most comfortable with the most orthodox”

The movement which began with Clement and culminated later in Athanasius preserved humanism for the Church. But the immediate successor of Clement, to deliver lectures in the School and to talk with his students in his house, was a greater than Clement, though perhaps a lesser than Athanasius; it was Origen. Origen has always been suspect. He has been condemned and denounced.

Yet constantly the opinion hath prevailed
In the Church (that Origen) was a holy man —

and not only holy but wise, and not only wise but correct. He has been suspected of a great orthodoxy, for the Church has not always been most comfortable with the most orthodox.

He continued the tradition and work of Clement. It would be improper—but not so improper—to say that the mark of the Alexandrian school was that they were all gentlemen. One must not deny the title to other saints and doctors. Yet there is about them a sense of the naturalness of Christianity, as distinguished from its catastrophic supernaturalness. Clement insisted on repentance and morality; and Origen, in his heretical self-mutilation, carried morality to a morbid and immoral extreme. But their work is, as it were, without the macabre, the terrible, the smell of corruption. Clement loved philosophy, and Origen laboured at scholarship. He compiled the first Polyglot Old Testament, of six texts. He was a great commentator, a prophet (in the new sense), a great literary critic (in the noblest sense) according to his own time. He was the first to develop the allegorical method of Biblical criticism; the method by which the sense, meaning one thing literally, meant another morally or mystically or analogically. It depends, for its value, on an illumination of greatness; these meanings must be self-evident once they are pointed out, for they cannot be proved. Like prayer, their real aim is the interior conviction. As we contemplate the images of the poets, so the allegorizers studied the texts of Scripture. It is obvious that this is the most valuable, perhaps the only valuable, method with much of the text of the Bible. But it is obvious also that it lends itself to the wildest vagaries, as with, say, the Adamites, those simple believers in nature who supposed that by returning to nakedness (as in Eden) we should return to innocence (as in Eden), and vice versa. Origen, like all intelligent readers then as now, realized that be needed a check upon his own brain and he found it, where all Christians have found it, in the universal decisions of the Church. This authority he recognized; this relationship he desired. The recognition of authority is the desire for union, but also it is the knowledge that the individual by himself is bound to be wrong. The “State” of the Church was the “State” of a City. Schism was the worst sin, for schism was bound to nullify the justice from which it might arise. However right a man’s ideas, they were bound to go wrong if he nourished them by himself. The value of dogma, besides its record of fact, is the opportunity it gives for the single mind to enter the Communion of Saints—say, of Intelligences. The personal thought is vitalized by that and aspires towards that. “He ceases,” wrote Clement, “to be a man of God and faithful to the Lord who sets on one side the tradition of the Church.”

But Origen did something more than insist on a proper obedience to authority on earth; he discovered a central obedience in the secrets of heaven. Less than fifty years after his death there were born in Africa two great opponents, Arius and Athanasius. The followers of both claimed Origen as their own doctor. This curious double claim arose from an illumination which has perhaps in itself a slightly different value. The doctrine of the Trinity had been, by Origen’s day, more or less established. The Father was Creator of all; the Son was God and Man; the Holy Ghost was-the Holy Ghost. Origen held to this; he said of the Divine Son: “Non est quando non fuerit“—“there is not when he was not”—never have two tenses so sublimely illuminated glory. But he did more. He strongly maintained, if indeed he did not discover, the voluntary Subordination of the Son; he contemplated in Deity Itself the joy of obedience—obedience which is a particular means of joy and the only means of that particular joy. The Son is co-equal with the Father (as Origen held, and as was afterwards defined), yet the Son is obedient to the Father. A thing so sweetly known in many relations of human love is, beyond imagination, present in the midmost secrets of heaven. For the Son in his eternal Now desires subordination, and it is his. He wills to be so; he co-inheres obediently and filially in the Father, as the Father authoritatively and paternally co-inheres in him. And the whole Three Persons are co-eternal together—and coequal. The Arians later denied it, but in the last struggle Athanasius and the representatives of humane culture won. It is true that the opposition is still maintained by the Unitarian bodies to-day—that deny love to God except by means of his creation. But the Church has not believed that there lack in Him any of love’s experiences (analogically understood): of all Loves holiest loves, non est quando non fuerit.

The imaginations of the Alexandrian Fathers were courteous; their visions were humane. Origen extended that vision so far as to teach the final restitution of all things, including the devils themselves. It is impossible that some such dream should not linger in any courteous mind, but to teach it as a doctrine almost always ends in the denial of free-will. If God has character, if man has choice, an everlasting rejection of God by man must be admitted as a possibility; that is, hell must remain. The situation of the devils (if any) is not man’s business. The charity of Origen schematized then too far; he declared as a doctrine what can only remain as a desire, It was one of the reasons why he was denounced; that and, among other things, a kind of Docetism—a fading of the flesh. He was not Manichaean, but in his high speculations the necessities of matter trembled into non-existence; he speaks somewhere of Our Lord’s body being phenomenally different to each observer. On the other hand “he was the first of Christian thinkers to speak at large of the human soul in Christ, and the first to describe the union by the compound word God-Man” [B. J. Kidd].

Charles Williams

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6 Responses to “Origen has been suspected of a great orthodoxy, for the Church has not always been most comfortable with the most orthodox”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I had to chuckle at Williams’s suggestion that the Alexandrians might be characterized as gentlemen. St Athanasius certainly does not strike me like that.

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    • Tom says:

      I smiled too, but thought of Cyril.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Every afternoon the bishop of Alexandria would gather with his priests for tea, bisquits, and maybe even some sherry (on feast days)–all Oxford-educated gentlemen. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I first read Hypatia (1853) by Charles Kingsley (a London-educated gentleman like Williams, and a Cambridge-educated one, too, unlike him) after reading Charles Williams’s (brief) quotations from it and discussion of it, in the manuscript of his Arthurian Commonplace Book (mostly compiled around 100 years ago), to get a fuller sense of what Williams knew and seemed to have enjoyed. And I have wondered if Hypatia might not give a kind of example of the sort of novel without explicit supernatural elements Williams aspired to at the end of his life, but did not live to attempt. Might the rich, bold, sharply humorous serious complexity of Hypatia have been in the back of Williams’s mind in this characterization of Alexandrians as courteous and humane?

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            More tangentially, do you happen to know Only a Ghost! “by Irenaeus the Deacon” (deacon under St. Cyril of Jerusalem: in fact by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould), a striking imagination of an encounter between this Fourth-century and a variety of Nineteenth-century English clergymen, published in 1870 (and best enjoyed via LibriVox.org, where the text read is fuller than that linked in the Internet Archive, however that be explained!)?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            David, I’m going to have to listen to “Only a Ghost!” Thanks.

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