Friday, February 20, 2009

52 Men Trying Part 4 - Origen

Few early church fathers have drawn more personal intrigue than Origen. He was a man of amazing intellect, severe passion, and thorough dedication to the cause of Christ.


Origen was born in Alexandria around 185 AD. His parents were believers in Jesus and at an early age he too committed his life to following Christ. The strength of his commitment was evidenced by his willingness to join his father as a martyr. Though only a boy, he had made up his mind to go to his father in prison, where death for the faithful man was imminent. But Origen was spared by the love of his mother, who hid his clothes and thus kept him from departing the home. In response, Origen wrote his father a letter urging him "to allow no thought for his family to shake his resolution."

But his yearning for martyrdom would eventually be satisfied. After years of preaching and writing, he was captured and tortured during the reign of Gallus and died within a few years after his release.


Origen was a man of great intellect and abilities. One historian noted that Origen wrote in the range of 6,000 books in his lifetime. His productivity was likely due to his ability to use up to seven scribes to record his dictation at a time, along with as many female secretaries who helped with his work. His books included commentaries on every book of the Bible, the first attempt at a 'systematic theology' in the history of the church

But likely his greatest literary accomplishment was his work on the Hexapla. This was a collection of six different versions of the Biblical text, copied in parallel columns to allow for easy comparison. The project was so enormous that he gave twenty-eight years of his life to seeing it completed. His purpose in writing "was to settle the dispute between Christians and Jews about the biblical text."

One of the more puzzling aspects of Origen's intellect was his allegorical view of interpreting scriptures. Though he had a high regard for the accuracy of the text, He held to a "threefold meaning in the text… a literal (historical), moral, [and] mystical." So although the plain meaning of the text holds much value and truth and lays the "foundation for theology," Origen believed the goal for the more spiritual Christian was to "move beyond these doctrines, as long as they do not contradict them."

Difficult, indeed, for how does one know when you have moved far enough beyond the 'doctrines' without going too far? What is even more puzzling, as you will see in the next section, is how he avoided allegory in one very important area of interpreting and applying the Bible to his life.


During his life, he was constantly troubled by the lax spiritual nature of his surrounding community and took note of the hypocrisy among the Christians. Thus he stood out as a man of great commitment to asceticism, as church historian Philip Schaff notes:

He refused the gifts of his pupils, and in literal obedience to the Savior's injunction he had but one coat, no shoes, and took no thought of the morrow. He rarely ate flesh, never drank wine; devoted the greater part of the night to prayer and study and slept on the bare floor.

This commitment to a denial of the flesh and devotion to a holy lifestyle would lead him to a drastic decision. He was so overwhelmed with the text of Matthew 19.12 and a desire to "secure himself against temptation… with [his] many female catechumens," that he castrated himself, a decision he would later regret. Thankfully, the council of Nicea, in 325 AD, condemned the act of self-castration, so no need to contemplate following his example.

Oddly enough, Origen shares this particular cutting edge quality with a modern hero – Boston Corbett. Who is he? He is the man that shot John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's Assassin. Corbett, a recent convert motivated by a desire to avoid the temptation of prostitutes, used a pair of scissors to perform the act. He then ate a meal and went to a prayer meeting before going for medical treatment.


It seems that Origen, being a man of great abilities, pursued his studies and theology with the most noble of intentions, seeking merely to enter into closer communion with Christ. In this process, he explored concepts and questions that few of his contemporaries possessed the 'balls' (pardon the pun) to ask. Some of his conclusions lead to his being declared a heretic and contradicting himself in places. Thus one is left with the realization that when a man writes so many volumes on so many topics, contradiction is inevitable.

His life, his asceticism, and his commitment to Christ is inspiring, yet at the same time his distant dances with many ideas reminds one to heed the words of Proverbs 10.19, "When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent." Or one of my favorites, Proverbs 17.28 "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent."

*As for the delay on my "weekly" posts: We are in the process of packing up and moving 1500 miles back to Little Rock Arkansas. As you can imagine, finding the right reference book has been a challenge at times.

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