“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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11 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. 🙂

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        • 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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  2. Basem says:

    Thank you for sharing Fr Aidan. I am a great fan or Origen and I believe he was harshly treated even by his contemporary “Alexandrian gentlemen”. I believe that Origen is timely nowadays in our modern day Christendom for many reasons:

    1-Origen illustrates the political ingredients that make up the definition of the poisonous cup of heresy! Charles Williams puts it elegantly here “Church has not always been most comfortable with the most orthodox”. Apocatastasis is a problematic doctrine for The Church and more sore for the Ancient Roman Church-State Chimera because it was of supreme importance to maintain hegemony of the masses by controlling the present and the eternal. A natural disintegration of such abused ecclesial authority was the Papal Primacy and selling of Indulgences by the RC church in the dark ages.

    2-There a huge upheaval now in all mainstream Christian traditions about Apocatastasis – among EO, OO, RC, and Reformed as well. Usually condemners are also ardent defenders of sectarianism in the alleged defense of “orthodoxy of doctrine” or “purity of the Una Sancta” where deep beneath such layers of self-defense, and often inaccessible to the polemicists, is hidden at the heart the fatal poison of the serpent pride. I don’t claim that Apocatastasis is a core orthodox doctrine but I would claim that loathing Apocatastasis is incompatible with the humility and contrition of heart that is deemed essential (at least by Holy Scriptures and writing of 4-6th century Christian mystics) for edification. Such incompatibility is as striking as of the Blood of Christ and serpent pride!

    3-“Schism was the worst sin, for schism was bound to nullify the justice from which it might arise”. There is so much Divine wisdom in that statement beyond perhaps what the Church can bear! The poisonous cup of heresy is, and has been since ancient times, being casually offered for minor disagreement in theological opinions. Now it is offered in different flavors; “the grand heresy of ecumenism” or “the heresy of sectarian minimalism”, etc. In essence, Origen’s line of thought was a threat to all what the fallen self has held on deep inside since consummation of that forbidden fruit in the garden; the need for self-defense, self-justification, and self-assertion over others. The core, being, and very heart of the original sin of PRIDE. In essence Origen was “too orthodox” to be tolerable but may be was Jesus too for his contemporaries!

    Please pray for me.

    Basem

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “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”.

    How finely is Williams distinguishing here, and how, to what ends, exactly? E.g., what does – or might – “almost always” leave open? What if we juxtapose, “However right a man’s ideas, they were bound to go wrong if he nourished them by himself”? That reminds me of various things in Williams’s play of three years earlier, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, where, for example, the striking and mysterious Figura Rerum says to Thomas at one point, “How absolute we are”. Is Williams indicating a danger for Origen combined with a practical difficulty for others, if an effective “denial of free-will” is produced, which works against the – whatever it might be properly called – ‘submissive cooperation with Grace’ (?) for creatures who have “choice” to be involved as they ought in producing “the final restitution of all things” – since that needs “remain as a desire” to come about? But, does Williams himself become too “absolute” in then saying what “must be admitted as a possibility”, at least an “everlasting” one? How does one emphasize the earnest horrors of abused “free-will” while eschewing an improper “denial of free-will” (for instance, one that would prevent its abandoning anti-natural rebellion)?

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    • Basem says:

      How much of “free-will” is actually free? Do the marasmic kids of Africa have free-will? How about kids of raped women brought up in ISIS camps to become jihadists? Did Saul have a free-will on his road to Damascus or, to rephrase, could he “kick against the goads”? I think God being biblically conceived in the image of a Father makes perfect sense. A father would give his children freedom so they can love him freely. A father desires to be glorified in the life of his children. A father would punish his children to correct. Ultimately, if all fails, an earthly father won’t write his children off; well a half-decent one won’t! Free-will is incapable of admonishing God’s supremacy. I meditate on Jesus plea nailed to the cross “father forgive them as they don’t know what they are doing”. Would the Father refuse Jesus’ plea? Do the Roman soldiers truly know what they were doing? Do we know what we are doing? Do we have access to that inner-self of us where all our hurts are deeply buried? Perhaps Calvin got one part right about the “total depravity” but messed up on the necessity of atonement to be limited?

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      • Agnikan says:

        “Perhaps Calvin got one part right about the “total depravity” but messed up on the necessity of atonement to be limited?”

        It’s interesting that as the Southern Baptist Convention becomes more Calvinist, it turns out that the only Christian church that officially teaches that Christ will redeem all, is a Baptist church: the Primitve Baptist Universalist church.

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        • Basem says:

          I believe the Assyrian church of the East (ACE) also teaches universal salvation as a doctrine. Despite the official rejection of ACE by both EO and OO churches alike being “Nestorian”. St Isaac the Syrian writings are widely popular in both churches and recognized as “genuinely orthodox”. In his prayers St Isaac didn’t only plead for all humanity but also for fallen angels!

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