A brilliant but enigmatic Bible teacher and writer

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD)

ONE OF THE MOST BRILLIANT and yet also the most enigmatic figures in the early history of the Church is Origen of Alexandria. A theologian with great powers of speculation and a prolific writer, he has authored about 800 treatises on exegesis, philosophy, apologetics, ascetical theology, mystical theology and dogma during his career.

His fame as a teacher attracted even pagan aristocrats and philosophers to his Christian catechetical schools in Alexandria and Caesarea. Yet, despite his renown as a teacher of the Bible, theologian and ascetic Origen was never canonised as a saint. Some looked upon him with great suspicion because his creative and bold speculations have often brought him to the very edge of orthodoxy. In fact a Church council in 553 AD condemned aspects of his teachings as heretical.

Origen was born in 185 in Alexandria, Egypt, of Christian parents. His father, Leonidas, died a martyr in 202 during the persecution of Septimius Severus. Origen, who exhorted his father to be faithful unto death (!), also aspired to be a martyr. Aware of his zeal, his mother allegedly hid all his clothes so that he could not leave the house and get himself arrested.

After his father’s death, the young Origen began teaching literature and philosophy as a means to earn his living, having studied under the great Clement of Alexandria. When the Christian community in the Egyptian city lost its leaders due to the persecution, Bishop Demetrius gave Origen, who was only 18 at the time, the responsibility of instructing its members.

Determined to live the true philosophic life, Origen subjected himself to the most exacting discipline. He would devote many hours each day to the intensive study of the Scriptures and the writings of the philosophers, often depriving himself of food and sleep. His austere approach led him to refuse the comforts of the bed, preferring instead to sleep on the hard, cold ground. From a young age, he devoted himself to such rigour and denied himself of all youthful pleasures. However, dissatisfied even with these demanding self-imposed disciplines and believing that he was called by Christ to be a “eunuch for the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:12), he castrated himself when he was a young man.

Origen left behind a great body of work that continues to influence Christian theology, especially in its eastern traditions. One of his most important works is Contra Celsum, written specifically to refute the objections raised by the great pagan philosopher Celsus. In this book we find ancient apologetics at its finest. Origen sets out to show that “Scripture, the sacred writings of the prophets, contains things more worthy of reverence than the sayings of Plato which Celsus admires”.

De Prinicipiis (On First Principles) is another important work by Origen. In this work, he sets out his theological system dealing with profound doctrinal subjects like God, creation and many others. De Principiis became one of the great classics that exerted much influence in the history of Christian thought.

Another important contribution is his work on Scripture. He has written numerous Commentaries, Homilies and the Scholia (short explanations on difficult passages of Scripture), but his most interesting work is the Hexapla. This work is a parallel presentation of the Old Testament by placing the original Hebrew text, the transliteration of the text in Greek characters, and the four Greek versions that were used at the time (the versions by Aquila and Symmachus, the Septuagint, and the translation by Theodotus) next to each other in six columns. Through meticulous study of the original Hebrew text, Origen used a system of signs to indicate alterations, omissions and additions in the Greek translations. Unfortunately, most of this work has been lost.

Despite his speculative bent and love for philosophy, Origen was first and foremost a student of the Bible. For him, the basic concern and work of theology is to explain the Scriptures. Indeed, his theology may be described as a sophisticated and creative symbiosis between theology and exegesis. Throughout his career as a theologian and catechist, he taught that Scripture must be interpreted “spiritually”. FOR ORIGEN, the spiritual sense of the Bible, its fundamental unity, is Christ, since all of Scripture bears witness to Him. But he also stresses the importance of the “literal” and the “moral” senses of the Bible. He derives this doctrine of the various biblical senses from Clement and even from non-Christian (i.e., Jewish) exegetes like Philo. He also promoted the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, a method he applied especially to difficult passages that appear to conflict with what is proper to God.

Origen tirelessly exhorts his congregation and students to study the Scriptures with diligence. In his Letter to Gregory, he writes: “Study first of all the lectio of the divine Scriptures. Study them, I say. For we need to study the divine writings deeply … and while you study these divine works with a believing and God-pleasing intention, knock at that which is closed in them, it shall be opened to you by the porter …”

The study of Scripture, Origen teaches, will direct the “gaze of our hearts” at Jesus Christ. In his homily on Luke 32, he exhorts his congregation thus: “Today, too, if you so wished, in this assembly your eyes can be fixed on the Saviour. In fact, it is when you turn the deepest gaze of your heart to the contemplation of Wisdom, Truth, and the only Son of God that your eyes will see God. Happy the assembly of which Scripture attests that the eyes of all were fixed upon him!”

Origen’s desire to die a martyr’s death was partially realised when he was arrested and tortured for refusing to offer sacrifices to pagan gods during the great Decian persecution. He was eventually released, but died shortly from the injuries sustained during the torture.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.