How Origen Exposes Our Ecclesiastical Delusions

by Ambrose Andreano

Origen teaching the saints
Icon: “Origen Teaching the Saints,” Eileen McGuckin

If one were to put all my essays having to do with Origen in a single document, it would be about two hundred pages of material. I also did multiple (AFR) podcast episodes on Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian’s Philocalia of Origen, which totals almost five hours. On July 14, 2020, I was interviewed for an hour on Fr. Tom Soroka’s AFR podcast Ancient Faith Today Live to discuss the life of Origen. Surely some will be asking themselves, “Why would anyone dedicate so much time  and effort talking about a condemned heretic?” This question reveals an ecclesiastical philosophy among a portion of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This philosophy  of pious ignorance presupposes that to be truly Orthodox is to be zealously hostile and excessively uncharitable concerning pretty much any controversial figure of antiquity. However, it takes two to create controversy. Too often do we label the other as “controversial,” ignoring how such actions are designed to fulfill the very accusation.

This shift in power subtly removes all burden of proof (and subsequently, guilt) from the scandalized and imputes it to the scandalizer. It happens like this: St. Anastasius of Sinai walks up to his buddy and zealously proclaims, “Origen believed Christ was a mere man! Can you believe this heresy?!” (cf. Hodegos, 21.1.73–4) His friend—knowing nothing about Origen or what he said—would then uncritically accept the statements of his superior: “Wow, something must be done about this, Anastasius!” There is one fairly significant problem though: Origen not only did not believe this, but he even explicitly states the opposite. For example, in Origen’s now lost (because of Justinian) Commentary on Titus,  he says the following:

[T]he man who has an erroneous understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ […] and who say instead that he was a mere man. Or a heretic may agree with those who indeed confess that he is God, but not that he assumed humanity, that is, a soul and earthly body. These heretics, under the pretext of ascribing greater glory to Jesus the Lord, claim that all his actions seemed to have been done rather than were truly done.

(Scheck’s translation of Pamphilus’ Apology for Origen, pp. 56-57).

Origen clearly states that he considers those who believe Jesus was a mere man to be heretics, which is exactly the opposite of what St. Anastasius of Sinai said of Origen. Since Anastasius was obviously wrong and was clearly not well-read in Origen’s works, we now have two people believing something false. Suppose they tell two other people, and now it’s four people, and so on. This is how falsehood spreads through a zeal “not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2).

The very first person to attempt a formal criticism of Origen was St. Methodius of Olympus, and he got pretty much nothing correct. St. Pamphilus of Caesarea refutes Methodius and shows why he did not understand the depth of Origen’s thought. For example, one of the accusations was that Origen believed in reincarnation, which is something that anyone who actually read his Commentary on Matthew, 13.1 knows is not true. There is a long history of canonized saints being wrong about Origen, and to pretend like the Orthodox Church should not talk about controversial topics like these sends a very bad authoritarian message.

Two may be required for an argument, but only one is required for a scandal. Because this is the case, it is relatively easy for people to be falsely condemned without many people noticing. Origen could be said to be among the earliest figures to have been formally canceled by mainstream imperial Christianity.  This is not simply an Orthodox problem, it is an institutional problem of methodology that has implications in both the East and West.

Some believe that it is impossible for modern man to be more informed than their ancient counterparts on any subject, let alone the Origenist controversy. “You think you know more than St. Justinian?! Ha! How arrogant you must be!” Well, yes, I do think the evidence suggests St. Justinian knew very little about Origen’s thought, and likely developed his understanding of Origen from the Evagrian monastic groups known as the Isochristoi and the Protoktistoi (see McGuckin’s The Westminster Handbook to Origen, 165-166). The average person in antiquity didn’t even have a complete Bible, and many did not even have the ability to read it even if they did. I have multiple versions of the Bible, the entire patristic corpus, in multiple English versions, with multiple secondary source material, all in a single Google Drive. It is nonsense to suggest that we do not have more access today. However, this accusation of arrogance is brought up every single time someone tries to suggest a saint got something wrong. What, are we to suggest that every saint is omniscient? Is every saint an expert on every subject? Are they not capable of making errors? This argument is so manifestly false that simply reading the patristic corpus is sufficient for its refutation. People are aware of the universalism of St. Gregory of Nyssa, but did you know Nyssen believed that even the devil would be restored? (Catechetical Orations, 26). Did you know St. Athanasius called Origen a church father? (De Decretis 6.27.) Did you know St. Isaac of Nineveh said that eschatological infernalism is blasphemy? (The Second Part, 39.2, 22.) Is anyone aware that St. Pamphilus believed in the preexistence of souls? (Scheck, p. 112) St. Justinian stated the following:

But the church, following the divine scriptures, affirms that the soul is created together with the body, not first one and the other later, according to the insanity of Origen. On account of these wicked and destructive doctrines, or rather ravings, we bid you most sacred ones to assemble together, read the appended exposition attentively, and condemn and anathematize each of these articles together with the impious Origen and all those who hold or have held these beliefs till death.

(see Richard Price’s The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553, p. 284)

Why was St. Pamphilus not posthumously condemned as a heretic? Was Justinian aware of this? (For more on this, check here) Is the Church allowed to discuss patristic discrepancies honestly, or are we to pretend willful ignorance and an uncritical acceptance of illogical concepts are prerequisites to be faithful Orthodox Christians? I believe modern scholarship is required both to accurately perceive and address these issues from a uniquely informed vantage point. We have a responsibility as the Church to “examine ourselves” honestly (cf. 2 Cor 13:5) to make sure our assessment of reality actually coincides with reality. Otherwise, the “Orthodox Church” will surely go down in history as one of the most ironically named Christian traditions of all time.

Ambrose Andreano has a B.S. in Religion: Biblical and Theological Studies from Liberty University and is an Eastern Orthodox mystic in the Origenian exegetical tradition. He engages in Patristics research (specializing in Origen of Alexandria), biblical commentary, theological meditations, research into Angelology, Gnosticism, and Mesopotamian influence on the Old Testament. Currently his research involves the theological implications of extraterrestrial life.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.