Episode 97: Aron Reppmann Introduces Origen of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 – c. 253 CE) is both a central figure to Christianity as a whole and to many esoteric currents within Christianity; like a hydra, the powerful ideas of the anathematised Origen pop up again and again in the history of the Churches, to some representing the truest and deepest expression of the religion and to others representing the insidious power of heresy and the seduction of Hellenic philosophy. Professor Aron Reppmann gives an introduction to the life, thought, and esotericism of the great Origen.
We being with the basics of his life; born and educated in Alexandria around the beginning of the third century, Origen studied under Ammonius Saccas, the great Platonist teacher of his day, who also taught Plotinus (unless this was a different Ammonius and a different Origen; see below). We discuss Origen’s journeys, spurred in part at least by troubles with the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Origen was, at first, a lay preacher with no priestly mandate, and even when he was consecrated as a priest at Cæsaria, he seems to have faced serious pressure from above.
We then move on to Origen’s huge body of writings (most of which do not survive, but even the ones which do comprise a serious corpus). These can be categorised as:
- Scriptural text-criticism: Origen was a pioneer of text-critical approaches to scripture. His Hexapla, the ‘Sixfold’, was a colossal work comparing six different textual variants of the Hebrew scriptures (four in Greek translation, including the Septuagint) side-by-side, with a view to getting as close to the unadulterated original as possible, is a monument to unbelievable critical industry. [It is partly lost, but a new critical edition is currently underway at the Hexapla Project].
- Commentaries on scriptures (sadly few of which survive completely): Origen wielded a powerful and highly-creative exegetical mind in his approaches to scripture, drawing on, and arguably surpassing, his forerunner Philo in his ability both to respect the literal, ‘surface’ meaning of scriptural texts and to plumb their depths for esoteric meanings. This body of work made Origen indispensable to the developing church, even as some of his doctrines caused them to reject him.
- Systematic philosophical works: the Περὶ ἀρχῶν, De principiis or On First Principles (known only in Rufinus’ problematic Latin translation) and the Contra Celsum, Against Celsus. These two works are among our most powerful windows on the possibilities of Platonist philosophy (and theological metaphysics in particular) in tandem with the powerful new movement of Christianity. The On First Principles is a masterpiece of speculative theology based in esoteric reading of scripture along Platonist lines. The Contra Celsum is an apologetic (or polemical) defense of Christianity against a traditionally-religious Platonist writer’s attacks; it features in a podcast episode solely devoted to this essential controversy.
The interview then moves on to the controversies surrounding Origen’s thought within Christianity and Origen’s esotericism.
Origen’s troubles with the orthodox establishment started early, as outlined in the biographical part of this interview, but they didn’t end there. The controversies arose for the most part after Origen’s lifetime in the period of the so-called Arian Controversy, when the nascent Orthodox consensus was engaged in a bitter conflict with the tendency, expounded by the prominent theologians Arius and Athanasius of Alexandria, to subordinate Christ to the Father, resulting in a trinity much more in line with Platonist hierarchic emanationist metaphysics than the ‘three-in-one’ trinitarian theology of the Nicene Creed. In particular, he held a number of doctrines which Orthodoxy would find it very difficult to deal with:
- Apokatastasis: The remaking and redemption of all things, for Origen, must surely include even the most evil of entities; the devil himself would, in the end, be redeemed.
- Metensomatosis: Origen’s term for the more normal ‘metempsychosis’; like many early Christians (and like Philo and Clement before him), Origen held that souls, being powerful entities bearing the divine image within them, must reincarnate, so that their journey toward God could be carried out diachronically. The process of salvation of all things cannot fit within a single lifetime.
- Pre-existence of souls: If a soul is truly immortal, it must have eternity in ‘both directions’ – that is, souls cannot simply be created by God every time a lady gets pregnant (which is basically the Orthodox dogma), but must pre-exist from eternity.
- Origen’s logos-theory: Like Philo, Origen’s idea of the logos is something like a ‘first Mind’ of God – but it is also of course Christ. This logos-theory led to many problems in the era of the Arian Controversy, alluded to above, at which time any subordination of the logos to the Father became a serious ideological problem for Orthodoxy.
Turning to Origen’s esotericism, Professor Reppmann expounds two interlinked themes found in Origen’s works, in the ‘Letter to Gregory’ in particular: Origen’s apophatic theology and his esoteric hermeneutics of scripture, through which this theology is drawn out from the scriptural texts under examination.
As a special bonus, we discuss the ‘problem of the two Origens’. We know from Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus that the great third-century sage Plotinus had several important fellow-students during his time studying with Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria; one of these was named Origen. Professor Reppmann (and your humble host) take at face-value the testimony of Porphyry, particularly in the fragments of his Against the Christians preserved by Eusebius, that this Origen who knew Plotinus was our Origen, the same Origen who wrote On First Principles and so many more important works of Christian Platonism. But there is much controversy here: many scholars argue that there must have been two Origens (and two Ammoniuses, for that matter), one Origen the Platonist and one Origen the Christian. We discuss why this extra Origen has been invented, and what this invention says about our need for intellectual ‘purity’ in our sources.
Aron Reppmann is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Christian College in Illinois. He publishes and teaches in the liminal space where Plato’s thought and early Christianity mingle.
Works Cited in this Episode:
Gregory the Wonder Worker’s Address – a biographical account of his teacher Origen – and Origen’s letter to Gregory can both be found in Migne’s Patrologia Græca Vol. 10. A critical edition with translation of Gregory’s Address can be found in:
- Henri Crouzel, editor. Remerciement à Origène, suivi de la Lettre d’Origène à Grégoire. Number 148 in Sources chrétiennes. Cerf, Paris, 1969.
An English version can be found at:
- The Fathers of the Church, vol. 98. Ed. and tr. Michael Slusser. Catholic University of America Press, 1998.
- Henri Crouzel on Origen’s ‘research theology’: see Crouzel, 1989 below.
A number of Origen’s works can be fund in various forms online, as kindly collected by John Übersax on his website.
On Origen’s Life and Thought:
- Henri Crouzel. Origen: The Life and Thought of the First Great Theologian. Harper and Row, San Francisco, CA, 1989.
- J. Dillon. ‘The Knowledge of God in Origen’. In R. van den Broek, T. Baarda, and J. Mansfield, editors, Knowledge of God in the Greco-Roman World, pages 219–28. Brill, Leiden, 1988.
- Justin M. Rogers. ‘Origen in the Likeness of Philo: Eusebius of Cæsaria’s Portrait of the Model Scholar’. SCJR, 12(1):1–13, 2017.
- Ilaria L.E. Ramelli. ‘Origen, Patristic Philosophy, and Christian Platonism: Re-Thinking the Christianisation of Hellenism’. Vigiliæ Christianæ, 63(3):217–63, 2009.
- J. Rist. Eros and Psyche: Studies in Plato, Plotinus, and Origen. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1964
- J.W. Trigg. ‘God’s Marvelous Oikonomia: Reflections on Origen’s Understanding of Divine and Human Pedagogy in the Address Ascribed to Gregory Thaumaturgus’. Journal of Early Christian Studies, 9(1):27 – 52, Spring 2001.
On the Question of ‘the two Origens’:
- Ilaria L.E. Ramelli. Origen and the Platonic Tradition. Religions, 8(21), 2017. [this article addresses the ‘two Origens’ thesis, coming down strongly on the side of ‘one Origen’].