Origen and the Eschatological Creation of the Cosmos

by Fr John Behr, Ph.D.

After using for several decades G. W. Butterworth’s translation of Origen’s On First Principles (the standard translation used in the English speaking world for the better part of a century), I became convinced that not only was a new translation needed but a new critical edition. Crouzel’s edition for Sources Chrétiennes, and other more recent editions, are a great improvement over that of Koetschau (used by Butterworth), but there are still issues with regard to the structure of the work as presented in their editions. In the introduction to my edition and translation, Origen: On First Principles, I argue that the work is structured differently than how it has been presented to us. There are various significant implications to be drawn from this (see the book for more details!), but perhaps none are more striking than how it challenges our picture of Origen’s understanding of creation.

That Origen held creation to be in some sense eternal is based primarily on his argument in Princ. 1.2. This chapter deals with the titles of Christ expressing his divinity, especially and primarily Wisdom, who says of herself that God ‘created me as the beginning of his ways’ (Prov. 8:22).

Earlier on in the chapter, Origen explained this verse in terms that recall both the Platonic ‘ideas’ and the Stoic ‘reasons’, suggesting Wisdom was created to be the beginning of the ways of God as she ‘contains within herself the beginning and the reasons and the species of the entire creation’ (1.2.2, cf. 1.4.4). At that stage in his argument, then, if creation can be said to be eternal, it is only in a prefigurative sense.

However, when Origen turns in Princ. 1.2.10 to consider the verse in which Wisdom is said to be ‘the emanation of the purest glory of the Almighty’ (Wis. 7:25), he seems to imply a more concrete content to the eternal existence of creation. He begins by examining what might be meant by ‘the glory of the Almighty’ to then be able to understand what its ’emanation’ is, and does so by way of an analogy to the correlation, used earlier in the chapter, between the existence of a father and that of a son, to demonstrate that the Son is eternal (Princ. 1.2.2). As it is impossible to be a father without a son, so also it is impossible for God to be almighty ‘if there are not those over whom he can exercise his power’, and, as it is clearly better for God to be almighty than not, those things by virtue of which he is almighty must always have existed: ‘if there never is a “when” when he was not almighty, by necessity those things must also subsist by which he is called almighty, and he must always have had those over whom he exercised power and which were governed by him as king or prince’; and of these things, he adds, he will speak more fully in the proper place when discussing the subject of his creatures (Princ. 1.2.10). Pared down to the bare bones of the logical structure of the analogy, as was done by Methodius of Olympus, and those who follow in his wake, this opening passage does indeed seem to suggest that creation must in some sense be eternally actualized for God to be eternally the Almighty.

However, as I argue in my introduction to the new edition, we can see from the structure of the work itself–and more immediately from the last lines of the opening paragraph of this section (paraphrased in the previous paragraph)–that Origen is not here concerned with created being themselves but with the various titles of Christ and how they correlate amongst themselves and with the Father. So much is the analogy open to misunderstanding that he continues with a warning:

But even now, although briefly, I think it necessary to give a warning, since the question before us concerning Wisdom is how Wisdom is the ἀπόρροια (or the emanation) of the purest glory of the Almighty, lest anyone should consider that the title of Almighty is anterior in God to the birth of Wisdom, through whom he is called Father, since it is said that [Wisdom] is the emanation of the purest glory of the Almighty. Let him who would think like this hear what the Scriptures clearly proclaim, saying ‘In Wisdom have you made all things’, and the Gospel teaches, that ‘All things were made by him and without him nothing was made’, and let him understand from this that the title of Almighty cannot be older in God than that of Father, for it is through the Son that the Father is almighty. (1.2.10; Ps 103.24; Jn 1.3)

In other words, Origen’s concern here is not the status of creation itself, but to work out the hierarchy of the scriptural titles for God and Christ. If Wisdom is said to be ‘a pure effluence of the glory of the Almighty’, it is nevertheless ‘in Wisdom’ that God has made all things and by the Word that ‘all things were made’, so that ‘the title of “Almighty” cannot be older in God than that of Father, for it is through the Son that the Father is almighty’.

In doing this, Origen establishes a fundamental theological point: the creative activity of God must be understood in terms of his existence already as Father. This is, in fact, the opening affirmation of almost every subsequent creed: I believe in One God Father Almighty. God’s creative act is thus grounded in the eternal relationship between Father and Son.

Origen continues his examination of the verse in question by pointing out that, as an ’emanation’, Wisdom also shares in ‘the glory of the Almighty’, as is shown by the fact that Christ, the coming one, is also called ‘the Almighty’ in Scripture (Rev. 1:8). Moreover, since Scripture calls Christ ‘God’ (John 20:28), we should not hesitate to also call the Son of God ‘Almighty’. And so:

in this way will that saying be true, which he himself says to the Father, ‘All mine are yours and yours mine, and I am glorified in them’. Now, if all things which are the Father’s are also Christ’s, and, among all that the Father is, he is also Almighty, then without doubt the only-begotten Son ought to be Almighty, so that the Son might have all that the Father has. ‘And I am glorified’, he says, ‘in them’. For, ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord in the glory of God the Father’. So, in this way is God’s Wisdom herself the pure and clear emanation of the glory of God, in respect of his being Almighty, glorified as the emanation of omnipotence or of glory. (1.2.10; Jn 17.10; Phil 2.10-11)

That is, not only does Scripture confer the title ‘Almighty’ upon both God and Christ, but the truth of their omnipotence is demonstrated by Paul’s words in Philippians, that, as a result of the Passion, every knee bows at the name of Jesus. The dominion which the Father holds over all things and by virtue of which he is called ‘the Almighty’, is exercised through his Son, who is thus also called ‘Almighty’, for ‘at the name of Jesus every knee bows’. So, Origen concludes: ‘if every knee bows to Jesus, then, without doubt, it is Jesus to whom all things have been subjected, and he it is who exercised power over all things, and through whom all things have been subjected to the Father’.

To make his point even clearer, Origen continues by explaining just what the glory of this omnipotence is:

And we add this, so that it may be more clearly understood what the glory of omnipotence is. The God and Father is Almighty because he has power over all things, that is, over heaven and earth, sun and moon, and all things in them. And he exercises power over them through his Word, for at the name of Jesus every knee bows, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth. And, if every knee bows to Jesus, then, without doubt, it is Jesus to whom all things have been subjected, and he it is who exercised power over all things, and through whom all things have been subjected to the Father; for it is through Wisdom, that is by Word and Reason, not by force and necessity, that they have been subjected. And therefore his glory is in the very fact that he possesses all things, and this is the purest and most clear glory of omnipotence, that by reason and wisdom, not by force and necessity, all things have been subjected. Now the purest and most clear glory of Wisdom is a convenient designation to distinguish it from that glory which is not called pure or genuine. (1.2.10; Phil 2.10-11; 1 Cor 15.27-8)

Christ’s glory is ‘pure or genuine’ unlike that of every being that is created, for, as created and thus alterable, they can only possess righteousness or wisdom as an accidental property, and so they can always also fall away, whereas, as Origen concludes his treatment of this verse from Wisdom in, ‘since the Wisdom of God, who is his only-begotten Son, is in all respects unalterable and unchangeable, and every good quality is in her essentially, such that it can never be changed or altered, therefore her glory is declared to be pure and genuine’.

For Origen, then, in Princ. 1.2.10, not only does the attribute of omnipotence which calls creation into being derive from the relationship between the Father and the Son, but the ‘glory of omnipotence’ is found nowhere else but on the cross, as the reference to the Philippians hymn makes clear. If we do not strip away from his argument the scriptural verses that he is in fact discussing, to treat it merely as a logical argument, but instead pay attention to the scriptural verses he uses to develop his argument, we see a very different picture emerge.

We will see more about the relationship between Christ and the Cross in a minute, but for now it is sufficient to note that Origen consistently connects Christ’s lordship with his exaltation on the cross: ‘the Son became king through suffering the cross’ (CJ 1.278). In other words, the ‘omnipotence’ Origen is speaking about when using the analogy with the relationship between Father and Son is the power revealed through the weakness of the cross. And likewise the ‘creation’ that is brought into being by this omnipotence of God is not simply that of lifeless, inanimate, and irrational matter, over which a workman might exercise his power, but the creation brought into existence through his Word, ‘by word and reason, not by force and necessity’, that is, through persuasion upon rational, self-determining beings, who through God’s long economy of creative activity come, in the end, to bow their knees in subjection to Christ, through whose own subjection to the Father God comes to be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15.27-8; cf. esp. Princ. 3.6).

To understand what is going on here, it is important to note that the word ‘creation’, even in modern English, can be used in various ways. It can refer, for instance, to God’s initial act of creation, creating the world ex nihilo, or it can refer to what which is thus brought into being, the creation, in which we now live and breathe. However, there is another sense in which the word can be used. Rowan Williams suggestively comments that for Origen ‘creation, ktisis, is strictly only the unimpeded expression of God’s rational will’ (Arius, 141). In this sense, following Proverbs 8:22, where Wisdom says of herself ‘the Lord created me’, Origen can perhaps even speak of Wisdom, the Son of God, as being a ‘creature’, though by this Origen clearly means something other than what was later understood as ‘creation’ (Princ. 4.4.1). The ‘creation’ of God, everything brought into subjection to him such that he is ‘all in all’, is the reality brought into existence at the end, not the beginning, it is eschatological, not protological. And it is only by looking to the end that Origen, as we will see further below, tries to get some idea of the beginning.

Later tradition, with roots already in Isaiah (esp. 65:17–24), would of course speak of this as a ‘new creation’, or creation renewed, but that this eschatological reality can simply be called ‘the creation’ is also evidenced by the New Testament. It is seen most clearly in the opening self-identification that the risen Christ speaks to the church of Laodicea: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness [ὁ μάρτυς], the beginning of God’s creation [ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως τοῦ Θεοῦ]’ (Rev. 3:14). The Christ of the Apocalypse, the apocalyptic Christ, is the ‘beginning’ of God’s creation. That ‘the beginning of God’s creation’ is an ‘Amen’ is also significant: God’s ‘creation’ requires a response, just as we have seen that ‘rational beings’ are included within the apostolic preaching alongside God, Christ, and the Spirit; it is also the Amen of martyrdom

In an important passage in his Commentary on John, Origen differentiates between creating and fashioning or moulding:

Because, therefore, the first human being fell away from the superior things and desired a life different from the better life, he deserved to be a beginning [ἀρχὴν] neither of something created nor made [οὔτε κτίσματος οὔτε ποιήματος], but of something moulded [πλάσματος] by the Lord, made [πεποιημένον] to be mocked by the angels. Now, our superior being [ἡ προηγουμένη ὑπόστασις] is in our being made [κτίσαντος] according to the image of the Creator, but that resulting from a cause [ἡ ἐξ αἰτίας] is in the thing moulded [ἐν τῷ … πλάσματι], which was received from the dust of the earth. (CJ 20.182; Job 40.19; Gen 1.26)

Here Origen, ever keen to discern the proper ordering of scriptural terminology, is working out a hierarchy of terms describing the different aspects of ‘creation’: a descending gradation of ‘create’ (κτίζειν), ‘make’ (ποιεῖν), and ‘mould’ (πλάσσειν). He does this by noting the different verbs used in the two creation accounts in the opening chapters of Genesis, by way of a verse from Job: our ‘προηγουμένη being’ is not simply a ‘superior’ existence, as created in the image of God, an intellectual reality superior to bodily matter, but also, more immediately, our primary or primordial existence: Gen. 1:26 comes, literally, before Gen. 2:7, when God takes dust from the earth and ‘moulds’ the human being. That which comes from the earth is neither simply ‘created nor made’, though, because resulting ‘from a cause’, it has ‘been made to be mocked by the angels’. Though this might seem like a superior intellectual being mocking a lower earthly one, it cannot but help recall the ‘mocking’ of Christ, on his way to becoming ‘the beginning of God’s creation’. We will see more about what this ’cause’ is that has resulted in us falling away.

A further important term for Origen’s understanding of creation is καταβολή, usually translated in the Scriptural translations as ‘foundation’, but which, as Origen makes clear in a very dense passage, signifies, rather, a casting downwards. Princ. 3.5.4 occurs in Origen’s treatment of the ‘economic’ dimensions of the principles of the faith, that is, in terms of the actual working out, or the arrangement, of God’s plans and activity. He beings by appealing to various scriptural verses in which the term ‘foundation’ appears. Especially important is Ephesians 1:4, which speaks of how God ‘has chosen us before the foundation of the world’, Origen attempts to explain what is implied by this term:

I am of the opinion that as the end and the consummation of the saints will be in those [worlds] that are not seen and eternal [2 Cor. 4:18] it must be supposed, from a contemplation of that very end, as we have frequently pointed out above, that rational creatures have also had a similar beginning. And if they had a beginning such as the end for which they hope, they were undoubtedly from the beginning in those [worlds] that are not seen and eternal. And if this is so, then there has been a descent from the higher conditions to the lower, not only on the part of those souls who have by the variety of their own movements deserved it, but also on that of those who, to serve the whole world, were brought down from the higher and invisible conditions to these lower and visible ones, even against their will. Because the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but by the one who subjected it in hope [Rom. 8:20], so that both the sun and the moon and the stars and the angels of God might fulfil an obedient service for the world; and for those souls which, because of their excessive spiritual defects needed these denser and more solid bodies, and because of those for whom this was necessary, this visible world was founded. From this, therefore, a descent of everyone alike would seem to be indicated by the meaning of the word, that is, of καταβολή. The whole creation indeed entertains the hope of freedom, of being set free from the bondage of corruption when the children of God [Rom. 8:21], who either fell away or were scattered abroad, shall be gathered together into one, or when they shall have fulfilled their other duties in this world, which are known to God alone, the Artificer of all things. (3.5.4)

There are several things in this dense passage that must be noted clearly. First, it is by a contemplation of the end that Origen speculates about the beginning. This is clearly an important point for him; he says he has pointed it out repeatedly (treated most fully in Princ. 1.6.1), and we will turn to it again later. In the ‘Recapitulation’ that concludes the whole work, Origen asserts that those who come to share in the immorality and incorruptibility of God also share in his eternity, they ‘are also eternal’ (Princ. 4.4.9). If our end is to enter into the eternity of God, being purged by him as a consuming fire, and so coming to share in his properties (as does the iron in the fire), then we too, while still embodied, material, creatures, will be in a world ‘not seen’ and ‘eternal’, with ‘a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Cor. 4:18–5:1; Princ. 2.3.7; 3.6.4). This being so, then our beginning in this world and its time can only be thought of as a falling away from that eternal and heavenly reality, to which we are called.

The second point to note is that Origen does not speak about the falling away of all rational beings from their end as being caused by sinful movements, satiety, or boredom. While some, certainly, have fallen away because of their own movements, in all their variety, others have descended to minister to those who have fallen. This is something Origen returns to frequently throughout his works. ‘Not everyone who is a captive’, Origen begins his first homily on Ezekiel, ‘endures captivity on account of his sins’ (1.1). Elsewhere he gives the example of Paul, who ‘not willing, but of hope’ wishes ‘to remain in the flesh’; even though he preferred ‘to depart and be with Christ’, he remained in the state he is in for the benefit of others (CJ 1.98-100).

Third, Origen does not describe this falling away in terms of taking a body or becoming embodied, but rather as resulting in those who fall away having ‘denser and more solid bodies’. In his chapter treating, economically, the soul, Origen suggests, through the supposed etymology of the word soul (taking ψυχή to come from ψυχόω , which, as a passive verb, can mean ‘to become cold’), that the intellect becomes a soul through cooling down, noting that, as God is ‘a consuming fire’, whenever Scripture speaks of the manifestation of God in creation, it is in fiery terms (the burning bush, for instance), whereas whenever it speaks of the work of the adverse powers, and these powers themselves, it is always as ‘cold’ (Princ. 2.8.3). Christ, he points out, has come ‘to cast fire upon the earth’, and so sets Simon and Cleopas’ hearts aflame on the road to Emmaus (Lk 12.49, 24.32; Hom Jer 20.8, Hom Ex 13.4). If our end is to be in the consuming fire that is God, transformed by incorporeal fire, and coming to share in the properties of that fire, while the matter of our bodies remains what it is, our cooling down by descending from that fire results in our bodies becoming ‘denser’.

The fourth point is that it is this descent, of all, in various ways and for various purposes, that is indicated to by the scriptural expression ‘the foundation of the world’. But, fifth, and perhaps most important, is that, by starting with the end to speculate about the beginning, our ‘election’, which happens ‘before the foundation of the world’, is, in a very real sense, the call that brings us into being, prior to being ‘fashioned’ in ‘the foundation of the world’, and prior also to our being ‘created’, which only properly happens at the end.

Finally, as we have ‘descended’ or rather, in fact been ‘thrown down’ from our high calling into this world, resulting from a cause which required our being ‘fashioned’ from the dust of this earth, then our coming into being in the time of this world, and our being ‘fashioned’ to become, in the end, ‘created’, means that our subjection to decay, not by our own will, ‘but by the one who subjected it in hope’, are the ‘birth-pangs’ of creation (an apocalyptic theme if there ever was one), as it labours in travail until the revelation, the apokalypsis, of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19–22).

Our ‘election’ is, then, in a real sense, in God, prior to our being fashioned from the dust of the earth and the foundation of the world: we are primarily and primordially called to participate in the heavenly liturgy, and to enter into that eschatological and apocalyptic reality is to be created. But, because of certain causes, our being created (only realized in the end), is by way of our being fashioned or moulded from the dust of the earth, the earth which has itself been ‘thrown down’, to be mocked by the angels.

What was the cause of this falling away? In a word, it was the scandal of ‘the lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ (Rev. 13:8). While happening in the time of the world at a particular moment, it is an eternal reality in God, and so is always spoken of in the past tense. As difficult as this might be for us to understand, with our modern preoccupation with history and chronology, it is the presupposition of Christians from the time that the risen Christ opened the books to show how Moses and all the prophets spoke of how it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer to enter into his glory (cf. Luke 24:24–6). As Irenaeus had put it a few decades before Origen, when Isaiah says, ‘I have seen with my eyes the King, the Lord of hosts’, and the other prophets similarly in their words, visions, and mode of life, they ‘see the Son of God as a human being, conversing with human beings, while prophesying what was to happen, saying that he who was not come as yet was present, proclaiming also the impassible as subject to suffering, and declaring that he who was then in heaven had descended [descendisse] into the dust of death’ (Haer. 4.20.8).

As Origen explains elsewhere, in the intersection of eternity and temporality, the future determines the past As Origen put it in Contra Celsum,

We say that the one who made the prediction was not the cause of the future event, because he foretold that it would happen; but we hold that the future event, which would have taken place even it had not been prophesied, constitutes the cause of its prediction by the one with foreknowledge. (Cels. 2.20)

It is because Christ died on the cross that the prophets spoke about this, not because they spoke about it that he then died, and, in fact, when the spoke about it, they did so as a past event, and, given that its happening is the ’cause’ of the prophecy, Christ himself speaks of it as an eternal ‘necessity’ (cf. Luke 24:26).

This non-sequential relationship between eternity and temporality is also applicable to the ‘antecedent causes’ spoken about by Origen as the occasion for our falling away from our calling, in his attempt to reconcile the inequality of human fate with an affirmation of the justice of God:

this anteriority is not simply chronological, but always related to the timelessness of God’s foreknowledge.

Rather than imagining a host of eternally existing intellects who through some pre-cosmic fall descend into bodies, the ‘antecedent causes’ invoked by Origen refers to the anteriority of the timelessness of God, who knows all things for each from their womb. Or as Origen puts it, when discussing Paul’s description of his own ‘election’ before his birth (Rom. 1:1 and Gal. 1:15), ‘any one who is predestined through the foreknowledge of God is the cause of the events known’, rather than being ‘saved by nature’ as he charges his opponents with teaching (Phil. 25).

* * *

The Very Rev. Dr. John Behr is the Father Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He has completed a new critical edition and translation of Origen’s On First Principles, which will be published by the Oxford University Press in early 2018. The above article is drawn from the Introduction to this work. Fr John is also the author of The Way to Nicaea and The Nicene Faith, as well as the beautiful collection of meditations Becoming Human.

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7 Responses to Origen and the Eschatological Creation of the Cosmos

  1. Stephen says:

    I’m not sure if I completely understood the entire article, but it seems as if Fr. Behr is promoting the apokatastasis in Origin. Am I reading that correctly? I’d like to think so!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I think that Fr John would say that he is not promoting anything but rather only translating and interpreting the writings of Origen.


  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Am I right in thinking that Origen was condemned as heretical for preaching the preexistence of souls? If I understand this article correctly (and I am by no means sure I do) Dr Behr believes this is a misunderstanding of Origen, that what he was talking about was the “throwing down” being preexisting, that is planned from the beginning by the foreknowledge of God, and not that souls are pre-existing souls thrown down from a pre-existing state, but that souls are created “thrown down” from what they otherwise would have been from necessity to save them from their (foreknown) sin. Or have I got this completely wrong?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I don’t know. I’m looking forward to reading the entirety of Behr’s introduction, as well as the text itself.


  3. Jeff says:

    There are then four realities, which should be distinguished:
    Firstly, the reality of God, the divine life in which there is nothing but the Triune God.
    Secondly, the divine reality in which God ‘decorated’ the ‘body’ of the ‘multi-embroidered’ Wisdom, which is the providential creation of the reasons, according to which everything was made.
    Thirdly, the Fall out of the ‘body’ of Christ. It is then that the actual world comes into existence: space-time and rational hypostases get to be, as individual personalities.

    That the logoi in Origen isn’t the same as Maximus is substantial


  4. Jeff says:

    The fourth being ; the ‘restoration’ to the reality ‘before’ the Fall, id est the ‘perfection of resurrection’. When this comes to pass, the world (in other words, space- time) will come to end.


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