Beginnings 4 (RJS)

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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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  • Derek Miller

    I am wrestling with this as well. However, I do have a question. Did Paul believe the events to be historical? He talks about all sinning through one man and Jesus being the “new Adam”. If there is not a representative head for all humanity in both men, where is the continuity? Does this change our understanding of the entrance of sin into the world?

  • Mason

    “Must human fallenness be connected to a unique historical act?”
    If sin did not somehow start with a unique historical act (whether it looks exactly like Gen 3 or not), then it was just ‘there’, preexistent as a natural part of the created order right?
    And in that case God would be fully culpable for falleness, since we started that way instead of having a choice or actual moment of falling from our original sinless created state.

  • RJS

    I don’t think “unique human act” gets God off the hook. If God is God – then he knew what would happen. Calvin – who certainly held to Original Sin – admits such as unavoidable in his commentary on Genesis.

    It offends the ears of some, when it is said God willed this fall; but what else, I pray, is the permission of Him, who has the power of preventing, and in whose hand the whole matter is placed, but his will? … I hold it as a settled axiom, that nothing is more unsuitable to the character of God than for us to say that man was created by Him for the purpose of being placed in a condition of suspense and doubt; wherefore I conclude, that, as it became the Creator, he had before determined with himself what should be man’s future condition.

    Now I am not what many would consider Calvinist in my understanding of theology – but agree with this conclusion in general, God didn’t create us without knowing the consequences of our being, which because we are free to follow or not includes an element of unavoidable rebellion. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a correction for a detour – but part of the plan from the beginning.

  • Wellsy

    I wonder, then, why everything that happened in the Old Testament, with all the laws, punishments, and prophets, was necessary if the ultimate act of bridging the distance between God and man was Jesus’s sacrifice? Why not send Jesus thousands of years earlier and cut to the chase?

  • Mason

    ” If God is God – then he knew what would happen. ”
    No I fully agree that we were created with a free possibility, and that God of course knew how it would play out.
    My point was just that there is a real difference between creating humanity with the freedom to fall (even knowing the would), and creating them pre-fallen as it were, which would seem a necessary conclusion if there was no moment of fall.

  • RJS

    I don’t see why a unique pair and a unique historical act changes the picture. Is there a difference between God knowing how it would play out for Adam and Eve and God knowing how it would play out for all people everywhere? If the implication is that we can, of our own power, remain innocent in the sight of God – then we have a theological problem. But I don’t see it this way. We can only become/remain innocent in the sight of God through the grace of God and the power of God.

  • phil_style

    It seems to me that sin is not apparent (or at least taken account of) until there is an instruction not to do something. Adam & Eve (if they were real) only sinned because they broke an explicit command; cf. Pauls “before the law there was no sin”. So, in the absence of a divine instruction, it would seem that beings are not morally culpable before God for their actions. Does that mean that Ignorance before God IS, therefore, an excuse (contrary to judicual law -> This makes sense if God knows all, whereas the human courts do not). Before the first command there was no culpability. Just as before the levitical law there was no culpability for many various types of ‘sins’.
    So now, even if there was no actual individual adam and eve pairing, the fall event is simply the first time humans broke an explicit divine instruction. It’s wasn’t the first ‘lie’ or, ‘act of violence’, it was the first act that was conciously carried out in contravention of a divine instruction. Perhaps an early homonid did this? Perhaps the first humans to consider divinity and its implications did this? But to be sure, we’ve been doing it ever since. In many ways, we disobey God becasue its easy. Our nature (aka nature’s nature) does not conform to any particular morailty, certainly not a morality rooted in love or justice it would seem to me. Just look at the rest of the animal world!
    We were/are always pre-disposed to natural acts. Acts of violence, territorialism, shame, derision and rejection. That’s how, in many ways, nature operates. However, when God begins to communicate he calls beings to a greater standard – the standard rooted in love. When we fall back on nature, rather than follow that call, we err (or sin). We break the trust relationship – because its our nature to behave certain ways, our natural habits die hard.
    Maybe all of this is completely wrong, in which case, I apologise.

  • mike

    thanks for drawing our attention to this book and these issues. i recently have been reading karl barth’s thoughts on sin and suffering and such in his church dogmatics. barth called sin, suffering, and all the things that aren’t from God the “Nihil.” he sort of argues that they aren’t real, that they are illusory and such.
    i think once reformed theology get put into hyperdrive and seeks to explain God’s intentions and thoughts before creation, naturally sin and evil come up. in other words, you have to explain why God allowed such things. barth’s answer is that they are not even real, but he fails to tackle the origin of such issues. my problem is that they sure do feel pretty real down here. another issue is that some theologians ultimately set their systematic theologies up to necessarily put the ultimate blame for sin and suffering on God. i’m not sure i can take the blame for these things off of the creature, which brings us back to your post.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS, does this text deal at all with Origen’s views on the preexistence of souls? This was one of the major impetuses (impeti??) behind the allegations of heresy against Origen. It also is a significant aspect of Origen-ist views of the “fall.” As I understand it, Origen taught that human souls preexist the material creation and also “fell” before the material creation. Adam and Eve, in his view, were literal people, but their fall was a sort of second fall, as they had already inherited souls that had fallen from the perfect state of divine contemplation. (One summary:
    At least one prominent Christian writer on theodicy today, David Bentley Hart, describes himself as an Origen-ist when it comes to the “fall.” I’m pretty sure the same is largely true for others in the “Radical Orthodoxy,” camp, including John Milbank, as they are all Christian neo-Platonists of a sort. I don’t know that these folks literally subscribe to a doctrine of pre-existence of souls, but I think they view the “fall” as something that first happens ontologically “prior” to the material creation.
    In this respect, contemporary Origen-ists seem similar in some ways to Edswardian supralapsarians and Augustinian realists (in other words, (a) God, knowing that man would fall, decreed from before time that the world man would inherit would be “fallen”; and (b) human nature is in some real sense a spiritual unity, such that all humans past, present and future participated ontologically in Adam’s sin). I had lunch a month or so ago with a rising Reformed theologian who is working on a theory of the fall / evolutionary theodicy along these lines.
    I think one of the most useful things that comes from a study of the Patristics in this regard is not so much how they specifically understood scripture, but how they understood the ontology of creation and human nature. After the scientific revolution, contemporary philosophy ran away from ontology, because science supposedly could explain all of reality. We’re now recapturing ontology, and realizing that the strictly linear notion of causation inherent in materialism may not apply to something like “sin” and the “fall.”

  • JohnO

    Must human fallenness be connected to a unique historical act?

    I would find it hard to read Genesis (as an explanation for the state of the world in the ancient near eastern world) in a way that doesn’t make man at least partially responsible for what has happened.
    The question is, what does that say about God? Not to mention the apologetic questions it raises. Did God, in the Leibniz fashion, create the best possible of all worlds? Is an inherently fallen human “best”? If sin is a contagion (which is the side Paul seems to lean towards), what does that say about God also?
    But Origin would definitely be right in saying this brings us fully into the deep engagement (at least those that approach these with faith, the intended audience of the texts in the first place).

  • RJS

    Bouteneff doesn’t go into great detail on Origen and the basis of the claims for heresy – he refers to the works of others.
    I have not read all of Origen’s available works (although I have read On First Principles and Against Celsus) and I have not read much about him. But my general impression from what I have read is that he was basically sound on Christology and such. But he also thought as he wrote and could take rather different position in different situations. He was clearly fanciful in some of his thinking.
    I find looking at early thought on most issues interesting. Especially on scripture and on “problems for the faith” – in the apologies. There is very little that is new in our “enlightened” age.
    Guess this was a boring post – doesn’t seem to excite much interest.

  • RJS

    I agree that it is hard to read Genesis – or Paul – without coming to a conclusion that man is responsible, but this doesn’t translate into a unique historical act of a unique pair – necessarily.
    I don’t think that Paul leans toward contagion though – I think that this is read into his letters and apparently not until 400 years had passed.

  • BeckyR

    It need be a historical act by Adam and Eve in order for Paul’s thing in 2 Corinthians about resurrection to fit together.

  • BeckyR

    I mean 2 corinthians. tis a scary thing to rely on memory. I went back and read.

  • BeckyR

    no, I mean 1 Corinthians. phew.

  • Georgetta

    Why not just take God’s word literally? I see no reason not to.

  • Eddie

    As per reading everything in writ literally [I used to do that from my Bible College education], there are lots of reasons to not take every word literally. One BIG reason is to confuse scripture through the lens of 21st Century western thought and not seeing pictures and apocolyptic ideas borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures for what they were to whom they were written. In other words, we end up taking them out of context, the very thing by translating them literally we were trying to avoid. Please see the depth of meaning in the scriptures that are lost or hindered when a flacid, shallow view is seen as preferible to one that actually makes one think.
    “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?”
    Well, I think you are onto something here that reflects well on the Olivet discourse article from a couple of days ago.
    You want to think? Why is the Hebrew word for Adam used in Gen. in the Plural? Perhaps because this isn’t the story of one man, but of EVERYMAN.
    Here is what I suggest; perhaps what we have in Gen 1-11 is not a science book; but literature and should be viewed as such.
    Just a suggestion.. that is If one likes to think that he thinks. ☺

  • angusj

    Georgetta (#16) said: “Why not just take God’s word literally? I see no reason not to.”
    It doesn’t make sense to read and understand the Bible literally if significant parts of it were written in non-literal genres (eg apocalyptic, metaphorical, parable). If we do read these non-literal portions of the Bible literally, we end up misunderstanding the author and his inspired writings and find ourselves in theological corners that at best confuse and at worst make us look silly.
    Just one example:
    Matt 4:8 “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.”
    There wasn’t a mountain high enough to see even a modest fraction of the Roman Empire let alone *all* the kingdoms of the world. At the very least we’d have to believe in a flat earth to accept a literal understanding of this verse.

  • RJS

    1 Corinthians 15 is an important passage – and one we have not really dealt with yet. I don’t think that the truth of the passage relies on a historical act by a unique pair. It relies on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus – but that is a different topic. I’ll have to put together a post on 1 Cor. 15 at some point.