With the fourth chapter of Peter Bouteneff’s book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives we come to a rather controversial character, Origen of Alexandria, (ca.185-254) Origen was a prolific Christian writer, thinker, and scholar. He is purported to have written some 2000-6000 works (depending how one counts) from commentaries on Genesis and John to his well known texts On First Principles and Against Celsus. His Hexapla contained a comparison of six versions of the Old Testament. Most of his work is lost, and even with that which has survived, the mode of transmission is something of the problem.
Origen was a thinker and a scholar who wrote from a Christ-centered perspective. Nonetheless some of his ideas (such as reincarnation) were controversial and he was later found to be heretical. Article XI from the Second Council of Constantinople AD 553 reads: If anyone does not anathematize Arius,… and Origen, together with their impious, godless writings, … let him be anathema. The history is complicated and the controversy surrounding Origen continued well beyond this Council. Certainly the decree of heresy was not and is not universally affirmed. But because of this controversy many of his works were destroyed or simply not preserved. Those that were preserved and transmitted may have been altered by supporters or by detractors. This is especially true of his text On First Principles. Nonetheless there is much we can learn from his surviving work.
For all of his flights of fancy and emphasis of allegory, Origen was yet another early church father anchored in a Christ-centered view of creation and view of scripture. This is apparent from beginning to end.
Even the first words of the Bible “In the beginning,” to him signify not a temporal or chronological beginning but Christ, who is “the beginning.” He opens his Genesis homolies by quoting Genesis 1:1 and asking “What is ‘the beginning’ of all things except our Lord and Savior of all, Jesus Christ, the first-born of every creature? … all things which were made were made ‘in the beginning’ that is in the Savior. (p. 115)
Origin thought deeply on the nature of scripture and the interpretation of scripture – his thoughts are worth considering. We often suppose that it is only in the modern, scientific age that the nature of scripture and the nature of the creation narratives have been questioned. This is clearly not the case however. Origen defended the inspiration of scripture and he thought the earth was young and used the age of the earth as a part of his argument in Against Celsus. Yet this still did not lead to a literal interpretation of the creation narratives. Consider this passage from On First Principles Book 4 as translated from the Greek.
For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone
doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. (Anti-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4, p. 365)
But did Origen consider Adam and Eve as literal historical figures and the fall as a historical event? Bouteneff works through Origen’s writings and summarizes as follows:
First: There were no witnesses to convey many of the stories in Genesis 1-11, thus Origen concluded that the Holy Spirit dictated the scripture to Moses to the very last letter, but his understanding of the process and result was more nuanced than many of our arguments today. The Scriptures were inspired, but were intentionally not literal. The modern definition of literal inerrancy would have made no sense to Origen. Bouteneff summarizes Origen’s nuanced view as follows: “Yet the Holy Spirit dictated not history but stories that contained complexities and difficulties, with the intention of inviting readers into the deepest and most serious engagement.” (p.118)
Second: Even in Origen’s time Christians were faced with a choice – suspend belief in the “science” of their day or suspend belief in a literal or scientific interpretation of the creation narratives. This isn’t a new problem – although some of the questions are certainly new.
Third: The Fall. Bouteneff finds Origen somewhat inconsistent in his discussion of Adam, a position I share from my much more limited reading. He probably thought of Adam and Eve as actual persons when he considered the genealogies, but he did not follow through on this consistently. On the other hand, “[Origen] had a strong sense of human fallenness, which he attributed sometimes to the Adamic transgression and sometimes to God’s pre-existing ideas for humanity.” (p. 119) In fact Bouteneff suggests that “Pelagius’s teaching on the self-sufficient goodness of human nature was part of an anti-Origenist wave,” while Augustine retained Origen’s sense of fallenness but placed the burden solely on Adam. Here we have the beginning of something that may be considered original sin – not as contagion, but as an intrinsic and inescapable falleness of all of humanity.
This is fascinating. Through story we are led to wrestle with truth in profound ways – in ways more powerful than a prosaic recitation of fact.
What do you think of Origen’s view of parts of scripture – including the creation narratives – as stories with the intention of inviting readers into deep engagement?
Must human fallenness be connected to a unique historical act?
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