Spiritual Growth: Origen’s 3 Levels

Spiritual Growth: Origen’s 3 Levels July 24, 2023

The early Christians understood salvation as a process of spiritual growth. As we walk with God, the Holy Spirit leads us through levels of spiritual consciousness, making us more and more like Jesus. One of the first Christian thinkers to map out the stages of spiritual growth was the controversial theologian and philosopher Origen. His system, using Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs to chart our spiritual progress, is still a useful tool to help us understand spiritual growth today.

Origen used the 3 books of Solomon to chart spiritual growth / wikimedia commons

Dualistic Salvation

Most Christians are taught a dualistic version of salvation. I’m either “in” or “out,” “saved” or “unsaved.” There are only two levels of spiritual growth:

  1. My sins are forgiven. I have been justified in the sight of God. I have been sanctified and transformed into a new creature. I’m completely filled with the Holy Spirit and destined for heaven, OR…
  2. I’m completely lost in sin. I’m alienated from God. I’m incapable of any good. I’m dead inside and destined for hell.

It makes sense on paper. But in the real world, a dualistic understanding of salvation can leave you confused and insecure. The honest confession of most Christians would go something like this:

I gave my life to Christ. I asked God to forgive my sins. I try to obey what the Bible says. I should be “in.” I should be saved. But I still struggle with old, sinful thoughts, desires, and habits. I struggle to feel the presence of God and the guidance of the Spirit. Am I really saved?

Salvation Is a Process

The good news is that the New Testament does not describe salvation as a dualistic, all-or-nothing event. The New Testament describes salvation as a process of growth.

On my spiritual journey, it has been both challenging and healing to see my salvation as a process of growth. In a recent YouTube video I talk about the New Testament and spiritual growth (did you know that even Jesus grew spiritually?). I also talk about the stages of spiritual growth mapped out by the ancient Christian mystics.

Check out the video when you have a minute. But in this article we’re going to look at the early Christian writer Origen and his views on spiritual growth. Origen was the first Christian thinker to map out a three-stage process of growth. He gives us a helpful rubric to measure our progress on the spiritual path – the wisdom books attributed to King Solomon. 


In the first century, Christian thought and preaching was firmly rooted in Judaism. The first Greek and Roman converts to Christianity were “God-fearers,” Gentiles who joined the synagogue out of devotion to the Jewish God. Most people who heard the gospel were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. The early missionaries and evangelists used that understanding to announce that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.

But by the third century, the Christian message had spread through the Mediterranean world. Missionaries and evangelists shared the gospel with people who had no prior knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. There was a need for thinkers and writers who could explain the Christian message in the more universal language of Greek philosophy.

Enter Origen. Origen lived from 185-254 AD, and was “the first systematic theologian and philosopher of the Christian church.” He was a controversial figure, especially for his strange views on sexuality. But Origen was a brilliant writer who played with Scripture, theology, and Greek philosophy to preach Christ in completely new ways.

Origen on Spiritual Growth

One of Origen’s lesser known, but enduring, contributions to Christian spirituality was the idea of a three-stage process of spiritual growth. Origen presents this idea in the prologue to his commentary on the Song of Songs. He begins with the three types of knowledge pursued by philosophers of his time: ethics, physics, and enoptics.

Briefly, ethics is the study of virtue and what makes for good character. Physics is the study of nature, and how natural systems function. Enoptics means to “look inward,” and refers to spiritual knowledge and the contemplation of divine things. For the Greeks, and for Origen, we should begin our study with ethics. Then we can add physics, and move to enoptics when we have a mature foundation of understanding. 

In a statement that would make any modern academic spit out his coffee, Origen claims that “all the sages of the Greeks borrowed these ideas from Solomon, who had learnt them by the Spirit of God.” Whether that idea holds historical water or not, Origen goes on to explain our progress through the three stages of knowledge using King Solomon’s three books of wisdom. 

Origen: Proverbs for beginners, Ecclesiastes for proficients, Song of Songs for the perfect | Russian Icon of Solomon, 18th c. wikimedia commons

Solomon’s Levels of Spiritual Consciousness

In section 3 of the prologue to his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen writes that “Solomon issued three books, arranged in their proper order” to correspond to the three stages of knowledge: 

“First, in Proverbs [Solomon] taught the moral science, putting rules for living into the form of short and pithy maxims… Secondly, he covered the science known as natural in Ecclesiastes… The inspective science likewise he has propounded in this little book that we have now in hand – that is, the Song of songs.”

For Origen the three books of Solomon represent a flow, a process of spiritual growth toward God. When we first encounter God, we need to learn the basic difference between right and wrong. We need to learn simple obedience to God’s commands, and believe that God will bless us if we do right. Proverbs is the book for beginners. 

Over time, we will notice that our good behavior is not always rewarded. Our bad behavior is not always punished. The world continues to function according to natural principles, no matter how we feel or what we do. We have doubts and questions. We lose the illusion of control. Ecclesiastes is the book for people who are progressing in their understanding. 

The Ecclesiastes understanding of spirituality (all is vanity!) is in style in society today. It looks wise to be cynical, to doubt, to sneer at the innocence of a Proverbs understanding of God and the universe. But the Ecclesiastes understanding is not the most mature, final level of spiritual growth. 

Song of Songs is a poem about two lovers absolutely entangled with each other, physically and spiritually. The early Christian writers interpreted the poem as a metaphor for the mature soul’s relationship with God. The metaphor is a little awkward, but in Origen’s system it makes sense – beyond simple obedience, beyond cynicism and doubt, the mature soul learns to simply, purely love God and receive God’s love. For Origen and the Christian mystics, simple, loving union with God is the whole point of the spiritual life, and the mark of a soul that is complete. 

Spiritual Growth and Discipleship

I find Origen’s system to be helpful in a lot of ways. It is especially helpful as a parent, and as a pastor who makes disciples. For children and people new to the faith, it is most helpful to build a basic Proverbs understanding of God and the Bible. As kids hit their teenage years, or as new disciples face new struggles, it’s normal for questions to emerge. Every doubt doesn’t have to be answered, every question doesn’t have to be resolved. It’s all part of the process. The goal as a parent or pastor is not to force people back into a simpler understanding, but to help them include their deeper understanding in a simple, sincere love of God – despite their questions and doubts. This is hard, but a roadmap like Origen’s makes it easier to trust that God has everything under control.

Thanks for reading! I just finished writing a new book called Jesus: A Field Manual / How to Live the Sermon on the Mount. In the book, I use three different stages of spiritual growth to map out the life of a disciple of Jesus. Check out the YouTube video for info about the book (coming in September), and for more on the levels of spiritual consciousness in the Christian tradition.

About Jon Adams
Jon Adams is a Bible scholar, writer, and pastor. His YouTube channel, Discover Christian Mysticism with Jon Adams, explores Christian spirituality, prayer, and biblical studies. Connect with Jon at withjonadams.com You can read more about the author here.

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