I’m going to put some supplementary material here to the argument I am developing on The Universalism and the EU thread and to the argument I will develop in Damantory Clauses of the Athanasian Creed thread. I can post any corrections to my argument I think of as I go along here (they will not be major, just details), and any useful background stuff. Hope that’s OK
Here some note I made about Origen for starters -
**There are some notable facts about Origen that I’ve seen discussed with great clarity in ‘All Shall Be Well’ anthology and elsewhere. He put forward a clear doctrine of universal reconciliation in his writings. Sometime after his death he was condemned as a heretic, but it is wrong to suggest that his views on universal salvation were the main problems. He had views about the Trinity that did not chime with developed Orthodoxy (but he was the first Christian writer to seriously try to develop a doctrine of the Trinity; indeed he was the first Christian theologian of any note full stop, and it seems wrong to judge the forerunner in the lights of later developed doctrine which learnt from his mistakes). He may have held ideas about the last things -after the judgement - being a simple return to first things – Eden/paradise- seemingly without their being any real point for the journey taking place in the first place (and he may even have held views about this journey going on in cycles of eternal recurrence – but I’m unclear on this). Note I write that ‘he may have’ because we only know about most of these things through his posthumous accusers who destroyed most of his writings; some of the ‘heresies’ he was accused of may have been later developments made by his followers.
However there is one thing that we can say about Origen with a fair degree of certainty; he believed in the pre-existence of souls – an idea he found in Plato and in the Alexandrian Jewish mystics of his time. Origen interpreted the first chapter of Genesis as narrating the creation of the spiritual Universe, and the second chapter as narrating the creation of the physical universe; in the second chapter a fall takes place in which our good God creates the physical world as an act of mercy to limit the fall of pre-existent spiritual beings. This is all very curious is it not?
A big irony about Origen the ‘heretic’ is that his life and his mind were dedicated to combating the Gnostic heresy which posed a huge threat to the early church. Gnosticism was many things, and there were different types and degrees of Gnosticism – but it can usefully be seen as an extreme attempt to Platonise Christianity. Gnostics believed in a good god who is the source of the spiritual world, and in another god(ling), the demiurge, who created this world of suffering in an act of ignorance, thinking that he was the most high god in an act of blind arrogance. He had thereby trapped the spirits of human beings in this dark world of matter and law. Jesus for them has saved us by giving us liberating insight into our origin in the world of spirit and freed us from the world of matter and its laws. For the Gnostics – especially those who were followers of Marcion – the God of the Old Testament was the demiurge, the physical world an abomination, and the Jewish law the law of the demiurge. The Jesus they worshipped was not the human/divine Jesus of our faith, but a being of pure spirit (which means they had to ignore passages of scripture that refer to Jesus as having eaten, having enjoyed good company, having loved the Jewish law etc, and having suffered and died).
Origen’s doctrine of physical creation is not Gnostic in the absolute sense. He believed the creation was the act of our good and gracious God – but in his teaching that the creation took place to limit the fall he was obviously rather too influenced by the Gnosticism he sought to combat. There is another reason he fell under suspicion (which I haven’t yet seen mentioned in UR circles – so let’s break the taboo). Origen had himself castrated. Cynical historians used to talk about this as if he rushed at himself with a knife in a frenzy of self-loathing, but this is almost certainly not the case. The operation of castration was quite common in the Hellenistic world, surgery was relatively advanced, and the operation was relatively safe. Justin Martyr speaks of it as having been commonplace amongst some Christians in Rome in the second century. Origen did this, it seems, through taking the words of Jesus about those who have made themselves ‘eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom’ too literally; and wry commentators have noted that for an exegete who resorted to allegory in many other cases it is ironic that Origen should have insisted on the literal sense in this case. He was never anathematised for this act, but the later Church did not and could not condone his act. It appears that by doing this Origen wanted to return to his pre-fallen, angelic state of androgyny in which the soul is the image of God –‘male and female created he them’ (an interpretation of Genesis he probably made under the influence of the Platonic myth of the Androgyn in the Timaeus . Slightly weird stuff and we’d certainly not want to return to this way of looking at life!!! But he was a man of his times.
In praise of Origen I note that –
He was the first substantial theologian and biblical scholar of the Church
He fought against Gnosticism- - but without the bitter hatred of his near contemporary Tertullian whose writing promoted persecution of heretics – something that Augustine was the first to systematically promote and practice.
His sympathy was both with intellectual Christians and with common believers. As he is reported to have said to the Neo-Platonist snob Celsus – ‘you prepare a fine banquet for the wealthy, while I cook for the masses’. And at least he did have a dialogue with Clesus – no matter how peppery the dialogue was he assumed he was addressing someone who was already illumined by Christ the Logos and simply needed the news of Christ the Victor/Saviour to complete the revelation of Christ the Logos.
He did promote a doctrine of the goodness of creation as the creation of the God of goodness – however flawed his doctrine was. And he preserved the connection between the New Testament and the Jewish Scriptures with his scholarship, at a time when this connection was under threat from the Marcionite Gnostics. He almost certainly collaborated with Jewish Rabbis to establish the best texts of the Hebrew Scriptures.
He promoted a model for Christian tolerance and pluralism in his doctrine of the Divine Names of Christ (and real universalism must be a tolerant faith).
He believed passionately in human freewill and that this collaborates with Divine Grace for our salvation/redemption. (During the reformation Erasmus used Origen to argue with the Augustinan Luther. The latter promoted the doctrine of the complete bondage/impotence of the human will).
His father was a martyr, and he only escaped martyrdom himself because his mother hid his clothes; later in life he was tortured for his faith and probably died later of his injuries. His Latin contemporary Tertullian who also suffered persecution and lost loved ones, was the first to indulge the fantasy of resentment of looking forward to raucous scoffing at the torments of the damned. Origen, by way of contrast, believed in universal reconciliation.**