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Origen: Not Just for Heretics Anymore

Mike Aquilina reports that, in his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI effectively “rehabilitated” Origen, that maverick third-century theologian, commending Christians to learn from him and emulate his theological method:

I invite you to welcome the teachings of this great teacher of the faith into your hearts. He reminds us that in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in a coherent way of life, the Church is renewed and rejuvenated.

This is big. You may or may not recall that Origen was posthumously condemned for heresy back in the sixth century. Some church leaders were interpreting him in a heretical direction, and Origen came to be seen as something of a bad influence. From everything I have read, he always wanted to do theology within the bounds of the consensual teaching of the church; it’s just that he tended to ask provocative questions?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand reach provocative answers?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwhere later the church tended to move in a different direction.

Origen’s rehabilitation is welcome news for a number of reasons. I have long wanted to add a “feast day” for Origen to my personal and blatantly non-canonical sanctoral calendar but was at a loss to determine a proper date. I would jump at April 25, the date of Pope Benedict’s remarks, but I prefer not to have Origen compete with St. Mark! Perhaps some further developments from Rome may offer me some guidance?

technorati tags: church history, origen, patristics



  1. JHearne says:

    What about the whole apokatastasis thing? As long as I’ve been studying Origen I’ve loved his teachings on exegesis but I find his eschatology disturbing.

    His method and theory are incredible and invaluable. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t err, however.


  2. D. P. says:

    If Aquilina is right and this represents a “rehabilitation” of Origen, I suspect there may be further clarification from Rome on that issue. I suppose the argument would be that (especially in De Principiis) Origen was not setting forth what he considered to be THE answers but, more speculatively, setting forth what he thought were some possibilities.

    That might clear the way for saying, “Yeah, for apologetic purposes Origen set forth some pretty heretical ideas as possible interpretations of the nature of souls and their eschatological destiny. But that doesn’t make him a heretic, any more than asking difficult questions and exploring all the possibilities (based on the best information we have) makes one a heretic today. Remember: Origen’s intent was to remain within the consensual orthodoxy of the church. Imitate his method, not necessarily his conclusions–especially where additional theological work has now been done.”

    I don’t know if that argument will wash, but I wonder if that might be what Benedict was getting at, since his remarks seem focused exclusively on Origen’s method rather than his theology per se.


  3. Mike says:

    For an Orthodox rehab of Origen, check this link on the same blog:

    I don’t expect any clarification from Rome. Origen has appeared increasingly in magisterial documents, including papal encyclicals, and he’s all over the Catechism. This is just the most explicit statement of what has long been implicit.

    Origen’s is a complicated case, since (as you say) his stated intention was to deliver the teaching of the catholic church. He didn’t always succeed at that, but his failures may be understandable and excusable, given the times ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äù just as the condemnation of “Origenism” is understandable, given the later times.

    The old Catholic Encyclopedia gives us an excellent rundown of the situation:


  4. I learned to appreciate Origen from James Wm. McClendon, Jr.–that most gentle and ecumenical of Baptist theologians, may he rest in peace. It always seemed very odd to me that Origen got worse treatment than Tertullian when the latter became a Montanist!

    But why wait until the pope rehabilitates him? I’m one Baptist who doesn’t like Catholic bashing, but you don’t hold to papal infallibility any more than I do. And this pope is one of whom I am very suspicious because of the way he persecuted liberation theologians (especially Boff) as Cardinal Ratzinger.

    And, even if one is celebrating the Catholic rehabilitation of Origen, why would one need to celebrate a feast day on a Catholic calendar? Why not the Eastern calendar?


  5. Mike says:

    I wouldn’t say that Tertullian’s treated any better. He’s quoted more often, but that’s because he’s more pithy — by a long shot. Origen can be a dreary read. When he’s stirring, the credit often belongs to the translators, not to the Man of Steel.

    As for the calendar: In the east the anti-Origenist sentiment often runs stronger than in the West. The Copts, I believe, have him on the calendar. But the ambivalence is otherwise almost universal.

    I think Origen was a beautiful man. I took some heat for including him among the Fathers in my book, The Fathers of the Church. But he certainly belonged there.


  6. D. P. says:

    Welcome, Mike! Thanks for your input. I’ll look into Origen’s place on the Coptic calendar.

    Michael, I’m not waiting for the pope to rehabilitate anybody, I’m just celebrating the fact that it seems that he is. Nor am I waiting for “official” guidance from Rome or anywhere else as to when to celebrate Origen, just listening for sound guidance from wherever it may come.


  7. Mike says:

    Maybe I’m wrong. Origen’s not turning up on any calendars I check, including the Coptic. The only group that seems ready to canonize the guy is an outfit called “the Church of the East,” whose stated purpose is “to forward the Yoga of Jesus to all humanity. Freedom from conditioned thinking is what Jesus came to teach humanity.”


  8. Thanks for the clarification, Darrell. By the way, I just tagged you for a thinking blogger award. Enjoy!



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