The Church Fathers and the Two Books: Origen of Alexandria, Part 2
Origen and the Book of Creation
Origen's thinking about creation was also extremely influential in the early Church. In opposition to pagan philosophies of the time, Origen affirmed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo—that God created the entire universe from nothing. He also affirmed the goodness of creation, and—like Justin Martyr—the important role of the Divine Logos (the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ) as the means through which God created and ordered the world.
Origen also affirmed that there were two creations—not unlike that affirmed by many today who believe that God first created the spiritual realm (including heaven and angels) and then the physical world (including the earth and humans). But Origen also saw a deeper continuity between the two creations than many who affirm two creations do. For Origen, the first was the timeless creation of free, rational, purely spiritual and immortal beings, all of whom lived in perfect contemplation of and union with God. Gradually the fire of their love for God began to cool, and they began to fall away. And it was this primordial fall of the rational beings that led to the second creation: that of the material universe. As all rational beings were created free, their fall from God did not obviate their reconciliation to God. But, despite being free, these beings were not capable of returning to God by their own efforts, and the material world was then created by God, through the divine Logos, as the gracious means through which all beings may learn of God’s grace and become restored to God. Indeed, so great is God’s mercy, Origen speculated, perhaps even Satan and the demons themselves might eventually come to salvation!
But if the material world is born of God’s mercy, so also it is created by God to express divine justice. Such justice is expressed in the place that the different beings now find themselves. Those whose love cooled the least became angels and other celestial beings (such as stars, which most ancient people believed to be living beings of some kind); while those whose love for God cooled the most fell the furthest were consigned to hell and became demonic beings, the chief of which—because he was first to fall and took many with him—was Satan himself. Those who fell further than the angels but not quite as far as the demons became human beings. God’s justice also became expressed in the fact that each of these beings experience suffering and pain commensurate to their placement by God in the hierarchy of the cosmos. This interweaving of divine mercy and justice became Origen’s answer to the so-called problem of pain: we suffer because we deserve to as beings who chose to fall from God, but our suffering is also graciously intended by God to turn our hearts back to God.
In this sense, the physical world as a kind of cosmic detention hall, the chief purpose of which was to remediate all the troubled souls of the world. All of life is to be an education in the truth of God's reality and of our fall from God that we might be restored to full communion with God. And our instructor is Jesus Christ himself, for it is through Christ that God created the world as a means of our education and it is Christ who points to and has opened the way back to the Father through his life, death, and resurrection.
Origen then understood the material creation as pivotal to God's plan for salvation. Although creation would ultimately pass away with the final resurrection and restoration of ‘all things’ to God (Col. 1:20), its purpose was salvific. Even corner and crevice of the universe had been designed perfectly by God with the sole purpose of revealing God's plan for salvation and inspiring persons to repent of their sinful rebellion from God and respond to God's gracious offer of redemption. Even the suffering we experience from having physical bodies that can experience disease, injury, and decay—all of it is designed by God to reveal our need for God and restore us to union with God. Origen would even go so far to suggest—in a way quite similar to C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce—that hell has been created as a place for remediation rather than eternal damnation, and that one day God's never-failing love would succeed in reaching all rational beings and enfolding them in saving grace. Such universalism was considered as radical then as it is now, but let us be clear: Origen was not affirming that anyone gets a free to heaven no matter what they have done. Indeed, for one thing, we all do suffer as embodied beings in this world of pain and death, and those who reject Christ will go to hell, which is a place of unfathomable suffering. What Origen was affirming was that even hell was a place sustained by God's love and grace, and that, as St. Paul would affirm in Phil. 2:10, "at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord..."
Also pivotal for Origen was his identification of the divine Logos and Wisdom of God, and the relation of these to the eternality of Creation. For Origen, the Logos—as a kind of bridge between God and Creation—fully reveals the Wisdom (or mind) of God in creation. And this is neither limited to the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ nor to some moment in time when God created the world. Ultimately, for Origen, creation in some sense flows eternally from God and therefore perpetually expresses the Logos, the Wisdom and the Mind (and not just the love, mercy and justice) of God. And, as rational beings created for the very purpose of contemplating God, we are in some sense specially equipped to discern God’s creative presence in creation, even if as fallen creatures we do so imperfectly. But this is why the incarnation of the divine Logos in Jesus Christ is so important: Christ perfectly embodies and bears witness to the Father and Creator of all, and through his life, death, and resurrection we may have our capacity to fully discern God’s presence and work in creation.7
While Origen did not make any contribution to the canonization of the Book of Scripture, he had a tremendous impact on the development of the ways that Christians read Scripture by developing a multi-layered approach (including allegorical interpretation) that would become widely used among theologians in early Christianity and which continues to provide fruitful ways of reading Scripture today. Indeed, as I have argued in a previous blog, although I do not believe that all of Scripture should be read this way, it seems clear to me that there are many parts of Scripture (such as Genesis 1–3) that are intended to be read allegorically rather than literally, and that allowing for allegorical readings opens up opportunities for reading the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation together fruitfully.8
And, although Origen did not explicitly identify creation as a kind of book, it is also clear that he is not far off. For Origen, as for Justin and Irenaeus, creation was brought into being by and through the divine Logos, Jesus Christ, and therefore fully expresses the goodness and love of God. But, Origen pushes this point perhaps even further than his predecessors. The sole purpose of creation is to reveal God's plan for salvation and to draw rational creatures to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Scripture and creation have the same central purpose: to reveal to us the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, then, what they tell us about God is fully commensurate, and insofar as they might seem to be in conflict, it is because we are reading one or the other incorrectly. And it really can be one or the other. Because there is not just one way of reading Scripture, for Origen, it is entirely possible that our reading of creation (even if he would not quite put it that way) may lead us to a deeper and richer understanding of the mysteries of God revealed in Scripture that a literal or overly simplistic reading of Scripture will not allow.
In our next blog, we look to St. Augustine of Hippo, who is—without doubt—the most important figure in the development of Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity. In Augustine we will find much in common with Origen (especially in their reading of Scripture), but also some very significant differences, especially in their view of sin and salvation.
1. Cf. Gerald Bostock, “Origen’s Doctrine of Creation,” Expository Times 118:5 (Fall 2007): 222-227.
2. As Bostock (ibid) points out: “Origen would regard as absurd the idea that creation took place in a six-day sequence. He states emphatically that ‘everything was made at once…but for the sake of clarity a list of days and their events was given’. In other words, the Bible gives us a story so that we can imagine the unimaginable.” Bostock is quoting here from an extant fragment from Origen’s commentary on Genesis (FrGn 2,2).