The Man of Steel

His piety was redoubled by a very strong concern with orthodoxy. For example, in one of his homilies on Saint Luke he says: “As for myself, my wish is to be truly a man of the Church, to be called by the name of Christ and not that of any heresiarch, to have this name which is blessed over all the earth; I desire to be, and to be called, a Christian, in my works as in my thoughts.” Love and faith are fused in this outcry; it is the force of love which exacts rightness of faith. He often alerts us to the danger of false doctrines from which, he observes, “human nature finds it difficult to purify itself.” Such doctrines are for him in the true sense, so to speak, “the abomination of desolation.” He insists that one must protect oneself against them by vigilance and by prayer. Not content to invoke “the rule of the Scriptures” or “the evangelical and apostolic rule,” he constantly appeals to “the rule of the Church,” “the faith of the Church,” “the word of the Church,” “the preaching of the Church,” “the tradition of the Church,” “the doctrine of the Church,” “the thoughts and teaching of the Church.” In the bones of the paschal Lamb he sees a symbol of the “holy dogmas of the Church” of which not one shall be broken. He does not want “that there be any disagreement on doctrine among Churches.” He is Adamantius, “the man of iron”; “doctrinal firmness” is one of the virtues closest to his heart. He exalts the constancy in the faith and stability of dogma. Even before Saint Augustine, he speaks of “chastity of the heart,” that is, of the understanding, and doctrines that stray from the rule of faith seem to him worse than evil ways of life. Again, he says that “one must guard oneself against committing an offense of the head” and against eatin the sacred foods outside the temple, that is, “against harboring thoughts different from the faith of the Church on divine dogmas.” One must receive the faith of God in the spirit which the Church teaches us, and must not do like the heretics who search the Scriptures only in order to find some confirmation of their own doctrines. Their pride raises them “higher than the cedars of Lebanon” and their sophistries are full of deceit. But it is no use for them to pretend that they have a tradition which comes down from the apostles; they are professors of error. While the faithful Christian in no way strays from the great tradition, they appeal to secret Scriptures or to secret traditions in order to confirm their lies. Thus they want to make us worship a Christ whom they have invented “in solitude,” while the only authentic Christ reveals himself “within the house.” They disfigure those vessels of gold and silver which are the sacred texts, in order to fashion them into objects according to their own fancy. They are thieves and adulterers who seize the divine words only to deform them by their perverse interpretations. They are counterfeiters for they have coined their doctrine outside the Church. Falso teacher, false prophets, spinning out of their own minds what they propound, they are the liars of whom Ezekiel speaks. By a perverse trickery they often cover their idols, that is, their empty dogmas, with sweetness and chastity so that their propositions may be smuggled more easily into the ears of their listeners and lead them astray more surely. They all call Jesus their master and embrace him; but their kiss is the kiss of Judas.

Who is this remarkable personality who bore the nickname Adamantius? Why, it is Origen, of course! The above is found on pages xiii-xiv of the 1973 reprinting by Peter Smith of Gloucester, Massachusetts of the G. W. Butterworth translation of Origen’s On First Principles. It is excerpted from the 1966 edition’s Introduction, which is actually a translation (by William Babcock) of selections from chapters one and two of Henri de Lubac’s Histoire et Esprit, l’intelligence de l’Écriture d’après Origène (Paris, 1950).

I have always found a somewhat salacious delight in the irony of hearing those of a more pseudo-intellectual and falsely liberal bent complaining about the Church’s condemnation of Origen, holding up instead an image of Origen as a neo-gnostic like themselves, for whom dogma is “of the little people,” all the while ignoring his utter devotion to the Church! Little do they know him, this Adamantius! He would have been the first to disabuse them of their heresies both petty and gross, flaying, dismembring, and incinerating such foolish ideas, finally discarding the remnants on the ash-heap of theological history.

But we do find problems in Origen’s writings, despite his true Christian faith and his devotion to the Church. And with his recognition, entirely deserved, of being one of the more brilliant men of his generation, Christian or otherwise, we find that even his more peculiar ideas took on a lustre and maintained a staying power in certain circles, even in the face of developments of the understanding of theology in the universal Church which were opposed to Origen’s understanding. This was a problem, that certain circles, convinced of Origen’s genuine intelligence, thought his ideas were better than those that the Church held as correct. (It still happens today, far too often, though not with anyone of genuine brilliance and authentic faith like Origen’s–ours is a paltry age of the intellect when such faithless vapidities are listened to as have been.) Now, we can be sure that Origen would not have held such ideas in the face of ecumenical synodical decisions to the contrary; he would simply have rejoiced in the doctrine of the Church, as he always had. Yet, he died long before, and so lacked the benefit of, the Ecumenical Councils that would establish the formulation of doctrines to preserve the faith against heresy. And unfortunately, in one of them, the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople II of 553, in chapter 11 of the surviving canons of the council, Origen is anathematized:

If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and [if anyone does not equally anathematize] all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema.
NPNF Second Series, volume 14, page 314

Two lists of anathemas are likewise attached to this council: a list of Fifteen Anathemas against Origen, and a list of Nine Anathemas against Origen written by the Emperor St Justinian himself. Unfortunately, because of the anathemas, Origen’s original writings have been almost completely destroyed (except for a collection of excerpts and several works in Latin translations of variable faithfulness), and so the consideration of these ideas (some of them very peculiar, indeed) as representative of Origen’s positions must be taken with a certain amount of faith. But I think here it is important to note those last phrases of the official act of anathematization: “all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema.” All we know of Origen, and contrary to the other heretics listed with him, is that he would not have held “to the end the same opinion,” but in the light of the Church’s teaching he would certainly have changed his opinion to reflect that of the Church. There can be no doubt about this. His devotion to the Church, evident in the de Lubac citations above, would have allowed of nothing else. Unlike Arius and the others listed in the anathema, from what we know of Origen he would never have, despite his nickname, adamantly defended his speculative theology in the face of the teaching of the Church. So, one could say, even at this distance, that according to a strict reading of the anathema in which Origen is named, there is room to excuse him, for even though some of his ideas may certainly be worthy of anathema, he would not have held them when challenged by the Church in the body of an Ecumenical Council.

But there is something more important to keep in mind. There is always room for you to pray for another soul, too. Say a prayer for Origen sometime, for a loyal son of the Church. It’s just what he would ask of you, and just what he would do for you.


  1. What-ho, Mr Edgecomb! I just followed your links from your comments on my blog (re Junia) and found this. Neusner is very interesting – I must find the time one day to study him properly. Orthodox Jews are not very happy with his conclusions regarding Jesus, though.

  2. Well said. I too tire of the way that Origen is hijacked. I wish we had more of his stuff online. Indeed I had someone ask me recently why much of his stuff is not available online.

    The condemnation of a dead man by the fifth council must be dubious, I would have thought.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys!

    David, welcome! Yes, Neusner is somewhat controversial in what one might call “yeshiva circles” for several reasons. I haven’t read his A Rabbi Talks to Jesus yet, which I suppose is the source of that dustup, but I know his work on the Rabbinic Canon is controversial among traditionalist scholars. He’s approaching the works from a critical perspective that’s at odds with the traditional approach. I allude to that in the dichotomy “composition” versus “compilation.” I’ll expand on that later at some point.

    Roger, yes, I’ve seen that the problem with posthumous condemnation of someone who died in good standing in the Church was brought up at the time. I’ll look more into it, when I’m done with this other project. It certainly wasn’t an uncontroversial decision, and certainly doesn’t seem fair at all. He should merely have been judged according to the standards of the time, and in that case, he was a faithful son of the Church. The problems with the Origenists could have been dealt with otherwise than anathematizing Origen!

    Esteban, good for you! It took me a while to find a copy that wasn’t outrageously expensive. It is, once again, out of print, unfortunately. So hold onto your copy! Last month I also got that nice big translation of the Contra Celsum, and the Greek and English volumes of the Philocalia (the collection of excerpts of Origen’s works done by Saints Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great). Somewhere down the line I’d like to do an investigation of the reflections of Middle Platonism in Origen, or rather his Christian transformation thereof. That’s why I got these goodies in the first place.

  4. Not only is there a ‘problem’ re. Origen, -but closer to the bone, so to speak, is Saul of Tarsus aka the Apostle and eventual Saint Paul (and his cohorts Mark and Luke, -none of whom were ‘disciples’ of ‘the Lord’ nor eye-witnesses to ‘Him’ and/or his works or events attributed to ‘Him’), -not to mention “Christ”.

    No Jew, during the life-time of the (popular) ‘descendant of David’ and Jewish ‘messiah’ (there were very many), ever knew or saw or even heard of [Jesus] “Christ”. “Christ” (Kristos) is a Greek translation of the perfectly known and clearly understood Hebrew appellation ‘messiah’, -nevertheless, it has no etymological basis or foundation in the Greek language or customs. “Christ” is utterly meaningless linguistically. We can ‘thank’ Saul or Paul for that.

    Roland, a reluctant iconoclast.

  5. Well, that’s a different issue, Roland, and one that you’re welcome to take up in detail on your own site.

    In brief, though, there are serious problems with your argumentation. If christos/χριστος is a translation of mashiach/משיח, then it is not “utterly meaningless linguistically.” The word as an adjective is likewise found in Classical Greek, meaning “rubbed-on” and appears in Aeschylus and Euripides according to LSJ. It is incorrect to say that “it has no etymological basis or foundation in the Greek language or customs.” It is a perfectly Greek word.

    That said, though, overall your comment is ridiculous.

  6. A dissertation on R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai by Reuvein Kimelman attempts to find parallels betweem Origen’s commentary on Canticles and R’ Yochanan’s Midrash (Part 2 of diss.) You might find that interesting.

    I’ve never heard of any controversy regarding Neusner’s views on Jesus in Orthodox circles?

  7. I hadn’t either, specifically, so I’m not sure what it consists of. Maybe David can elaborate. I’ll send a note and ask.

    Thanks for the dissertation reference. I’ll try to find that. I’ll bet it’s very interesting!

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