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Standing on Giants’ Shoulders 5: A Series Formerly Known as Criterion

Is Origen the Root of All Kinds of Hermeneutical Evil?

Renaming the Series

This week we rechristen this blog series Standing on Giants’ Shoulders since that reflects more the character of what I am trying to accomplish with this series. Because this is a renaming of the Criterion series we can still number this entry 5. Today we come to the second point of departure for Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and Its Legacy. We will be covering material from pages 20 through 30.

Origen the Brilliant Alexandrian

Many of you will no doubt be familiar with the name of the early church father Origen (circa 185-251) who hailed from Alexandria in Egypt. Perhaps he is best known as an early practitioner of textual criticism (he created a six version Bible known as the Hexapla) and for his subordinationistic tendencies and for his being declared heretical by subsequent church councils (he is also known as possibly mutilating his body from an overly wooden interpretation of Christ’s words about eunochs, but that is fodder for another post).

Origen’s Complexity

Ayres’ concern in this section is to consider Origen’s subordinationism. This tendency is to view the Son of God as a kind of lesser deity than the Father. It is a Trinitarian question. By now we expect Ayres to argue for and typically demonstrate far greater complexity on the question than is usually assumed. Ayres rightly stresses familiarity with the context (and this includes the tradition of said theologian, 20). Clearly the Arian heresy is subordinationist in that Jesus is not even God but an exalted creature. But can we directly lay the blame for Arianism at the feet of Origen? Ayres’ briefly answers that such a view is “implausible” for three main reasons (21).

  1. Origen influenced theologians on all sides of the conflict including those within Alexandria and beyond in Egypt and Palestine.
  2. No theologian adopted Origen’s system wholesale.
  3. Origen’s theology which “in some ways subordinates” the Son to the Father shares this feature with his contemporaries (21).

Origen Among the Theologians

Origen was an extremely influential theologian in his day, perhaps analogous to the pervasive influence of Karl Rähner at Vatican II such that he was called the ghost of Vatican II. Ayres notes

Origen commented on a huge amount of the biblical text and at every turn he was determined to display the capacity of the Scripture to illumine the story of creation and redemption, and the ways in which the text draws Christians into a process of purification and salvation. For Origen the text yields its message in degrees as purity of heart and attention to the Logos grows. To serve these he developed several styles of intertextual practice, allowing texts throughout Scripture to illuminate each other and the whole. Many of these interpretative practices are used throughout the fourth century (21).

Origen was in the air, so to speak. Getting down to specifics, Ayres points out that Origen argued for the correlativity of the Father and Son. That is, they presuppose each other. The Father could not be the Father without the Son and vice versa.

Introducing an argument that will be developed in the fourth century, Origen argues that Father and Son are ‘correlative’ terms. The name Father implies the existence of a child, and if God is truly called Father, the Son’s generation must be eternal. The Son’s existence thus seems to be essential to God being what God from all eternity wills to be. Thus we see that while the Father is superior to the Son, Origen works to make the Son intrinsic to the being of God: subordinationism is an inappropriate word for describing this theological dynamic (22-23).

A Nuanced and More Specified Species of Subordinationism

I would respond that while our understanding of what subordinationism means might need more nuance or specificity than we normally give it, Origen still is subordinationistic in a significant way (the use of the language of the Son being by the Father’s will is troubling to me). Ayres goes on to note that for Origen the Son while correlative with the Father (i.e., eternally generated) and while the Son was not temporally after the Father, he was a “distinct being dependent on the Father for his existence” (23). Post-Calvin we could ask whether Origen has in view here the derivation of the Son’s divine being or person. Calvin will argue, understandably many years after Origen’s time, that the Son is autotheos as to his divinity but he derives his personhood from the Father.

Ayres also points out that Origen shied away from ousia (substance) language because it smacked of materialism to him (24). Origen appears to have begun the use of hypostasis with regard to the existence of the three persons of the Godhead being concerned to stress the equality of the persons with regard to their distinctness as individuals (25). Origen, we are told further, held that the Son did not share the simplicity of the Father (26) either. As Ayres notes after discussing Rowan Williams’ consideration of Origen’s understanding of the relation of the Father and Son (especially in how the Son reveals the Father) in his study of Arius, “Origen’s account of shared but graded divine existence offers an initially clear, but complex language to describe this relationship” (26). It is this graded existence which has yielded charges of subordinationism by others methinks.

Origen also spoke of the Son as from the will of the Father and not of his essence (27). However, as Ayres hastens to add, given that the Father’s will is eternal means that the Son’s existence is eternal as well. This would certainly mark Origen out as distinct from Arius who argued that there was a time when the Son was not. Origen also spoke of the Son as created. But he clearly distinguished between the creation of the Son and the material world (27). Ayres goes on to comment on the complexity of Origen’s Christology, “Origen’s account is, then, complex. He speaks of the Son as inferior to the Father, and yet his explanation of this inferiority turns, at many points, into an account of the necessity of the Son within the divine life” (28). Ayres is right to carefully note how Origen should not be confused with Arius (or our understanding of Arianism) at this point. But I would once again note that Origen’s thought is still a species of subordinationism even if a more nuanced and complex form.

We Need to Understand the Exegetical and Hermeneutical Practices of the Day

Ayres concludes this initial look at Origen’s influence on the fourth century Trinitarian controversy by noting the need for students of the controversy to familiarize themselves with the exegetical and hermeneutical practices of the day,

Origen’s theology thus encountered criticism but influenced many across the theological spectrum. His theology shaped many of the theological trajectories found in the early fourth century. While Origen may, however, serve as a temporal point of departure for understanding fourth-century theology, the constant ground of all fourth-century theologies is a conception of the reading of Scripture and the practice of theology. Narrations of these disputes tend to assume that readers are familiar with the exegetical practice of fourth-century Christians and understand how it may be understood as the core of early Christian ‘theology’. This seems to me a considerable mistake (30).

We will turn to Ayres’ discussion of the grammatical and figural readings of Scripture practiced by fourth century theologians in our next blog post. We will find that treatment interesting and highly relevant to present day concerns. I conclude this blog entry by noting that Ayres has brought to light greater specificity to our understanding of Origen’s subordinationism, but he has not convinced me that the term is altogether inappropriate when applied to Origen. If the term is reserved for views which place the Son outside of the Godhead then yes, the term no longer applies. However, allowing for gradations of existence within the Godhead (as over against the distinction of the persons) seems to me to be a species of subordinationism. Among other things, this compromises the voluntary nature of the plan and execution of redemption and specifically the Son’s part in that. I am not suggesting this was even on Origen’s radar. I recognize the difference between intent and result. I also recognize that Origen is early in church history and we need to be fair to him as we place him within his historical setting. While we would agree that there has been growth in the church’s understanding of the relation between the Father and Son since Origen’s time and that we need to be careful about holding him to the standard of a later development, it is equally true that once the church has come to conclusions on some point of theological dispute or development, there is no benefit in going backwards. Still, having said that, Origen had the Word of God which is not principially shackled by any historical or cultural context. To say that Origen was a man of his times and circumstances is not to say he was a prisoner of his times and circumstances. That would be the error of historicism.


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