Origen on Origins, Adam, and Eve (RJS)

Origen on Origins, Adam, and Eve (RJS) October 2, 2012

The fourth chapter of Peter Bouteneff’s book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives looks at the role the creation narrative plays in the existing works of two somewhat controversial early Christian thinkers and writers – Tertullian (around 200; ca. 160 – ca. 225) and Origen (ca.185-254).  Tertullian is sketched briefly, and Origen considered in significantly more detail.

The purpose of scripture, the Christ-centeredness of the narrative, and the importance of story are significant running themes. The role of story is especially important to Origen.

Could parts of scripture – including the creation narratives – be designed as stories with the intention of inviting readers into deep engagement?

Tertullian, from Carthage in North Africa, was the first early Church father to write in Latin. Bouteneff summarizes his use of the creation narrative in his surviving works, but doesn’t spend much time looking at Tertullian’s body of work in any depth. Tertullian read scripture in a Christ-centered fashion through the rule of faith. This rule, outlined in The Prescription Against Heretics Ch. 13 is an early sketch of the ideas we find in the Apostle’s and then the Nicene creeds. This is relevant to the discussion of origins because it begins with God and creation, and places Christ as central in the creation process.

Now, with regard to this rule of faith … that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son (Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 3, p. 249)

Scripture, for Tertullian, was not a linear record as much as a revelation of the Christ-centered rule of faith. Tertullian uses Genesis 1 to argue for creation out of nothing. He used Genesis 1-3 in his argument against Marcion to show that the God of the Old Testament was not a monster. Tertullian viewed the narrative as historical but also as story centered in Christ. Adam disobeyed God, but admitted his guilt. God did not search for Adam out of ignorance, but to give him a chance to confess (Against Marcion, 2.25 Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol 3, p. 316317).  He saw Adam and Eve as candidates for restoration because they had been relieved by confession.

God put the question with an appearance of uncertainty, in order that even here He might prove man to be the subject of a free will in the alternative of either a denial or a confession, and give to him the opportunity of freely acknowledging his transgression, and, so far,of lightening it. (Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol 3, p. 317)

Tertullian seeks to demonstrate that God is good. Sin, death, and liability to judgement are the responsibility of the creature not of the Creator.  Humans are made in the image of Christ – and in the process of creation God had in mind Christ who would likewise become flesh and earth. (On the Resurrection of the Flesh Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol 3, p. 549).

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, written while he was in Caesarea Maritima, contained a comparison of six versions of the Old Testament. (The picture at the top of this post is of an excavation of Caesarea next to the area of the Crusader fortress.)

Most of Origen’s work is lost, and with much which has survived the mode of transmission is something of the problem. Some of Origen’s ideas (such as reincarnation) were controversial and he was later found to be heretical. 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. This must be kept in mind as his work is studied. But for all of his flights of fancy and emphasis on 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. (Ante-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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  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I have often used that Origen quote, about the first ‘days’ of creation in debates against YEC’ists. Especially if one places it side by side with another famous quote on Christians and Science, this one by Augustine:

    Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]
    – From “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”, 1982 Taylor translation (Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41)

  • NateW

    This is a great post RJS! I’ve been wanting to look into Origen’s ideas about origins. : )

    It’s actually really amazing how similar his conclusions are to the ways of thinking about Genesis (and much of OT scripture in general) that I’ve been tossing around in my head. These ideas were first made clear to me while reading Bob Dylan’s 2004 autobiography “Chronicles, Vol. 1”

    It is written like any other biography, detailing events during several transitional periods in dylans life. As I was reading though, i just had a sense that something wasnt right. Some of his descriptions of events that happened 50 years ago were just too specific, the descriptive language too poetic to be coming from pure memory. I started doing some poking around online and found out that my suspicions were correct! Some reviewers have shown that a significant portion of the dialogue, descriptive language, and even events are not his own, but are drawn from old folk, blues, and jazz songs, poetry, classic literature, travel guides, and numerous other sources. He attributed quotes to real historical people who never said them, and purposefully appropriated events into his story that mirrored the words of his sources. In other words, interested people have PROVEN that much of what he says in his biography NEVER HAPPENED TO HIM.

    The thing is, even though he credits very few sources, no serious critic accuses him of plagiarism or dishonesty. Those who know Dylan will realize that these anomalies are there because, as always, he is searching for ways to say more than can be said. If you were to seek out and become familar with his sources you would find much MORE insight and truth about Bob Dylan’s heart, mind, and soul than a chronological series of facts could ever say. By using the words of others Dylan is creatively appropriating the lives and experiences of those who have influenced him (or who’s stories he sees as paralleling his own in key ways) into his own story, he is actually relating depths and nuance about his life that in a way that simply cannot be expressed via historical facts and events. By obscuring himself behind the stories and words of others, his biography is so much MORE deeply revealing,  and MORE TRUE than it could be if it were 100% historically true.

    The hook, of course, is that the reader only gets out of the book what he puts into it. If a reader approaches the book as historical fact (as most reviewers and readers have done) they will come away with only a superficial knowledge about Dylan, yet believe themselves to be experts, knowing all the intimate details of his life. I’ve read other reviewers who have noticed the oddities and strange language, but dismiss it as further evidence that Dylan is just trying to mess with us and is a crazy, senile, paranoid old man. It is only reader who goes in with an open mind just wanting to know the man behind the book that discovers the nearly endless wealth of insight that lies below the surface. 

    I think that we could say God in a similar way also chooses to be made visible within hiddeness, found within seeking, and known within unknowing what we think is certain. If we take the bible at face value, as historical/literal account, we will miss out on the riches that are to be found with its depths of meaning.

  • Patrick

    If the recent authors of the latest Genesis book are accurate, the Genesis cosmology is neither literal nor metaphorical.

    It is no more or less than Yahweh inspiring the author to go ahead and use mainly Egyptian cosmological myth(some Babylonian maybe as it was widely respected) because Yahweh and the Jewish author wanted to impress the ANE Jewish audience OUT of honoring various Egyptian and Babylonian gods and into honoring Yahweh and Egyptian cosmology myths are all they would have known at that time.

    Sort of fits, since the narrative claims the Jews spent 4 centuries in Egypt and had not had time to develop their own religious culture or global views previous to Egypt. Had they not spent that time there, they would have borrowed Canaanite cosmology more likely.

    They present a picture of the discerning student seeing the pro Yahweh, denigration of Egyptian and Babylonian gods dialectic ongoing there.

    Adam is distinct from this, there is no ANE antecedent for Adam. The Jews did that w/o influence from others. Whether he is real or myth we have to decide w/o comparable literature except the bible narrative itself.

    With the way Paul treats Adam and Jesus uses Abel’s murder in His judgment on Jerusalem, I think Adam is definitely real. It’s not as clear to me what Adam’s role really is though.

    It may be some of our “orthodox” views may not be 100% accurate.

    The bible is written by ANE Jews within their scientific and secular knowledge limits.
    Since I believe this, it is no problem for me to resolve this “Adam/evolution/human genome project” problem by either assuming:

    1) The genome isn’t accurate and Adam is. ???

    2) Adam isn’t the first human, he’s the first human the Jews knew of . Possible.

    3) Adam is the first human who sinned and thus introduced sin into humanity, but, there were plenty of other humans around in the text and the text in it’s original culture lent itself to a form of evolution at least intra genus.

    Adam’s sin did not have to be introduced genetically as our old original sin doctrine states, it still infected everyone as they were tempted by Adam’s family, Cain’s, etc. Dr. Michael Heiser has issues with our reading of Romans 5:12 along these lines.

  • Bev Mitchell


    This series is most helpful. Sorry to not engage your good questions of the day directly, but the following is related to the last one.

    You comment,

    “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.”

    And the age-old pendulum still swings, piling us up, confused, at either extreme. Are we in a new time when some centring will be generally possible? On good days it seems so, but it’s probably too early to tell.

    Here is a bit of centring encouragement from Miroslav Volf, as quoted by Pinnock in “Most Moved Mover”

    “God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah.”

    I will be impertinent enough to suggest an improvement to Volf’s last phrase, amending it to read “the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified and risen Messiah.” But, otherwise, this seems a good affirmation for those who seek a strong middle. (to replace the current muddle. 🙂

  • RJS

    Thanks Bev,

    Apparently my question of the day didn’t hit a nerve with many, if any. Oh well.

  • RJS – Believe it or not, I actually intended my comment to be an answer to your question by giving a modern example of an author who uses stories that aren’t necessarily true of himself to give more insight into himself than the straight facts ever could. Revelation embedded within hiddenness so that only those who humble themselves and this have “ears to hear” can find it.

    Does that sound like what you were trying to get at with your question?

  • So, no, I absolutely do not think that human falseness must be connected to a unique historical act. To borrow Rob Bell’s phrase, the key truth of the story of Adam and Eve is not that it happened, but that it happens. The serpent still whispers in our ears, we still believe him, eat, and, ashamed of our nakedness, hide our faces from God. Yet, he still seeks us and clothes us.

  • Mike M

    RJS: most of us who care enough to read and digest your post would say “no” anyway. However, I really appreciate reading the Augustine quote and the Dylan extended metaphor. These are not only feed for thought but feed for reflection and insight.

  • RJS

    Nate W.

    Thanks – I certainly thought your comment #3 was on the topic of the post.

    Stories are powerful ways of conveying truth and of getting people to think about truth. But the idea that inspired scripture might contain stories “with the intention of inviting readers into the deepest and most serious engagement” rather than recitations of history runs counter to most evangelical approaches to scripture.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Yes, I know what you mean about stories and evangelicals. Yet, the parables are often seen as stories with a message well beyond the story itself. Some might even be easily convinced that the event related in the parable never happened, as such. But, you are correct, without a big sign saying “this next part is a story” we evangelicals worry that it must first and foremost be a piece of factual history.

    The attitude probably comes from many sources, but one seems to be the general lack if wide reading. General readers, through lots of practice with lots of kinds of writing, learn to navigate. Also, there is a certain ranking that goes on with respect to what is most important – the historical truth of the story, or the truth the story, historical or not, conveys.

    Of course, many people feel comfortable with the idea that God somehow dictated the words of the Bible. But, even if he did, is God not allowed to tell stories to make a much more important point? Or is God just an uptight history/science major?

    We spoke if relationship a while back. Treating the Bible as a science text and a history book is really quite anti-relational. Who has a relationship with science texts and history texts? Relationships are scary, even with God – especially with God. Seeing the Bible as science and history can be a kind of displacement activity that limits relationship or even protects from it. This may be an overstatement, but there is some truth there too.

  • Andrew

    RJS, fwiw, the question struck a nerve with me, but life is busy prepping to move my family to Africa in three months so I’ve determined to lurk, learn, and not participate…. I always spend a looong time editing and reediting (and reediting) my comments before posting (and then coming back to see if anyone has interacted with them, which is rare). 🙂 This series is excellent – looking forward to the next installment!

  • CGC

    Hi RJS and all,
    It seems like Origen’s use of Scripture is more Chrsitological, ecclesial, and soteriological. It seems like our modern concerns are more historical literal, scientific, and chronological from a biblicist viewpoint. Modern Protestants tend the read the Bible flatly whereas Origen reads it with multi-layers. Many North American Christians like to read the Bible with its focus solely on the intention of the original writer or the literal-historical context. Early Christians like Origen read the Scriptures with its focus on the divine author and the many types (typology) of ways God reveals Himself to creation and to people made in God’s (Christ’s) image.

    Modern interpreters of the Bible like to focus on the surface-literal meaning of the text. Origen focused on the deeper hidden meanings and spiritual understanding of the text.
    For Origen, to read the Scriptures with only the literal or historical in mind is to read the Scriptures with a veil over one’s spiritual eyes. Origen even believed there are “stumbling blocks” in Scripture (things that could not possibly have happened in history) to shake people out of their overly simplistic or literalistic reading of the Bible (p.103 of Bouteneff’s book).

    For a few examples of typology in Origen’s reading of the beginning of Genesis:

    1. “Days” and “morning and evening” without sun or moon or stars is not logically consistent to think of them like science but are types (examples of typology).

    2. The tree of life or the tree of good and evil are not visible realities like you could sink your literal teeth in them to gain eternal life. Or when God strolls in a garden with Adam and talked to him doesn not mean that God has a corporeal body or vocal chords. These kinds of statements are meant to be understood as figures (types) which point to deeper mysteries.

    In the end, maybe this is the real problem . . . Modern Christians don’t know how to read the figures of Scripture (scriptural figuration) or don’t know how to handle mystery! This is why I for one go with the early church fathers readings of Scripture more often than not than I do with modern interpreters who often read the Bible in ways the Bible was either never intended to be read or simply read at a surface simplistic level while never exploring or looking further or going deeper.

  • Nate W.

    RJS – yeah, I totally understand about evangelicals taking a “flat” view of scripture where only one layer of meaning can be “true.” I have the A’s in Systematic Theology from a Reformed Presbyterian college on my transcript to prove that I did too!

    It’s a shame that so many today can’t see how a “story” can BOTH not have happened and yet still be True. We tend to think of spiritual reality as pretty much like ours except invisible rather than as an entirely different way of being that is not inside or outside of space and time, not above or below earth, but at the same time… Can be if we only shift our perspective a tiny bit…