Mike Aquilina

Origen’s Back

Thursday April 26th 2007, 7:28 am

I don’t think Origen was waiting around anywhere for his rehabilitation. But if he was, it arrived yesterday.

In his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict referred to the Man of Steel as “one of the most outstanding” of the “great figures of the ancient Church,” “a true teacher,” and concluded: “I invite you to welcome the teachings of this great teacher of the faith into your hearts.”

In our meditations on the great figures of the ancient Church, today we will get to know one of the most outstanding. Origen of Alexandria is one of the key people for the development of Christian thought. He draws on the teachings he inherited from Clement of Alexandria, whom we reflected upon last Wednesday, and brings them forward in a totally innovative way, creating an irreversible turn in Christian thought.

He was a true teacher; this is how his students nostalgically remembered him: not only as a brilliant theologian, but as an exemplary witness of the doctrine he taught. “He taught,” wrote Eusebius of Caesarea, his enthusiastic biographer, “that one’s conduct must correspond to the word, and it was for this reason above all that, helped by God’s grace, he led many to imitate him” (Hist. Eccl. 6,3,7).

His entire life was permeated by a desire for martyrdom. He was 17 years old when, in the 10th year of Septimius Severus’ reign, the persecution against Christians began in Alexandria.

Clement, his teacher, left the city, and Origen’s father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. His son ardently yearned for martyrdom, but he would not be able to fulfill this desire. Therefore, he wrote to his father, exhorting him to not renounce giving the supreme witness of the faith. And when Leonides was beheaded, young Origen felt he must follow the example of his father.

Forty years later, while he was preaching in Caesarea, he said: “I cannot rejoice in having had a father who was a martyr if I do not persevere in good conduct and I do not honor the nobility of my race, that is to the martyrdom of my father and the witness he gave in Christ” (Hom. Ez. 4,8).

In a later homily — when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of Emperor Philip the Arab, the possibility of ever becoming a martyr seemed to fade — Origen exclaimed: “If God would consent to let me be washed in my blood, receiving a second baptism by accepting death for Christ, I would surely go from this world. … But blessed are they who merit these things” (Hom. Lud. 7.12).

These words reveal Origen’s nostalgia for the baptism by blood. And finally, this irresistible desire was, in part, fulfilled. In 250, during the persecution by Decius, Origen was arrested and cruelly tortured. Severely weakened by the sufferings he endured, he died a few years later. He was not yet 70 years old.

We mentioned earlier the “irreversible turn” that Origen caused in the history of theology and Christian thought. But in what did this “turn” consist, this turning point so full of consequences?

In substance, he grounded theology in the explanations of the Scriptures; or we could also say that his theology is the perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In truth, the characterizing mark of Origen’s doctrine seems to reside in his incessant invitation to pass from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in the knowledge of God.

And this “allegoristic” approach, wrote von Balthasar, coincides precisely “with the development of Christian dogma carried out by the teachings of the doctors of the Church,” who — in one way or another — accepted the “lesson” of Origen. In this way, Tradition and the magisterium, foundation and guarantee of theological research, reach the point of being “Scripture in act” (cf. “Origene: il mondo, Cristo e la Chiesa,” tr. it., Milano 1972, p. 43).

We can say, therefore, that the central nucleus of Origen’s immense literary works consists in his “three-pronged reading” of the Bible. But before talking about this “reading,” let us look at the literary production of the Alexandrian.

St. Jerome, in his Epistle 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310 homilies by Origen. Unfortunately most of those works are now lost, but the few surviving works make him the most prolific author of the first three Christian centuries. His array of interests extended from exegesis to dogma, to philosophy, to apologetics, to asceticism and to mysticism. It is an important and global vision of Christian life.

The inspirational core of this work is, as we mentioned earlier, the “three-pronged reading” of the Scriptures developed by Origen during his life. With this expression we are alluding to the three most important ways — not in any order of importance — with which Origen dedicated himself to the study of Scripture.

He read the Bible with the intent to understand the text as best he could and to offer a trustworthy explanation. This, for example, is the first step: to know what is actually written and to know what this text wanted to say intentionally and initially. He carried out a great study with this in mind and created an edition of the Bible with six parallel columns, from right to left, with the Hebrew texts written in Hebrew — Origen had contact with rabbis to better understand the original Hebrew text of the Bible.

He then transliterated the Hebrew text into Greek and then did four different translations into Greek, which permitted him to compare the various possibilities for translation. This synopsis is called “Hexapla” (six columns). This is the first point: to know exactly what is written, the text in itself.

The second “reading” is Origen’s systematic reading of the Bible along with its most famous commentaries. They faithfully reproduce the explanations give by Origen to his students, in Alexandria and Caesarea. He proceeds almost verse by verse, probing amply and deeply, with philological and doctrinal notes. He works with great attention to exactness to better understand what the sacred authors wanted to say.

In conclusion, even before his ordination, Origen dedicated himself a great deal to the preaching of the Bible, adapting himself to varied audiences. In any case, as we see in his Homilies, the teacher, dedicated to systematic interpretation of verses, breaks them down into smaller verses.

Also in the Homilies, Origen takes every opportunity to mention the various senses of sacred Scripture that help or express a way of growth in faith: There is the “literal” sense, but this hides depths that are not apparent upon a first reading; the second dimension is the “moral” sense: what we must do as we live the Word; and in the end we have the “spiritual” sense, the unity of Scripture in its diversity.

This would be interesting to show. I tried somewhat, in my book “Jesus of Nazareth,” to show the multiple dimensions of the Word in today’s world, of sacred Scripture, that must first of all be respected in the historical sense. But this sense brings us toward Christ, in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, how to live.

We find traces of this, for example in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen compares the Scriptures to nuts: “The doctrine of the Law and of the Prophets in the school of Christ,” he affirms, “is bitter reading, like the peel, after which you come to the shell which is the moral doctrine, in the third place you will find the meaning of the mysteries, where the souls of the saints are fed in this life and in the next” (Hom. Num. 9,7).

Following along this path, Origen began promoting a “Christian reading” of the Old Testament, brilliantly overcoming the challenge of the heretics — above all the Gnostics and the Marcionites — who ended up rejecting the Old Testament.

The Alexandrian wrote about this in the same Homily on Numbers: “I do not call the Law an ‘Old Testament,’ if I understand it in the Spirit. The Law becomes an ‘Old Testament’ only for those that what to understand it in terms of the flesh,” that is to say, stopping at the mere reading of the text. But, “for us, we who understand it and apply it in the Spirit and in the sense of the Gospel, the Law is ever new, and the two Testaments are for us a new Testament, not because of a temporal date, but because of the newness of the meaning. … For the sinner on the other hand and those who do not respect the pact of charity, even the Gospels get old” (Hom. Num. 9,4).

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.

The Word of God, which never ages or has its meaning exhausted, is a privileged way of doing this. It is the Word of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, which leads us always to the whole truth (cf. Benedict XVI, international congress for the 40th anniversary of the dogmatic constitution “Dei Verbum,” in Insegnamenti, vol. I, 2005, pp. 552-553).

Let us ask the Lord to enable us thinkers, theologians and exegetes of today to find this multidimensional nature, this permanent validity of sacred Scripture.

We pray that the Lord will help us to read the sacred Scriptures in a prayerful way, to really nourish ourselves on the true bread of life, his Word.

Origen played leading roles in my books The Fathers of the Church and The Mass of the Early Christians.