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Return to Origen

A while back, I reported the arrival (at last) of an English translation of History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen. We have Ignatius Press to thank for this fine edition of a very influential 1950 title by the French theologian (and later Cardinal) Henri de Lubac. The subject of the book is the third-century exegete Origen of Alexandria — one of antiquity’s most renowned biblical interpreters and theologians, yet a man whose life and afterlife have always lingered under a cloud of suspicion. Some propositions attributed to Origen were condemned by Church councils, though his advocates say the propositions, as they were condemned, did not properly represent his doctrine. De Lubac’s study is a systematic examination — and vindication — of Origen’s methods. It begins with “The Case Against Origen,” stated in its strongest terms, then proceeds to a biographical sketch, before rolling out a detailed study of Origen’s teaching on Scripture, especially the importance of both history and the “spiritual sense.” (Origen is sometimes accused of promoting biblical allegory at the expense of biblical history.) De Lubac responds to Origen’s critics point by point, and admirably restores the reputation of this ancient confessor, who suffered for the faith and wished never to have “thoughts different from the faith of the Church on divine dogmas.” De Lubac’s book prepared the way for the abundant use of Origen’s work in subsequent doctrine of the Catholic Church, including the Catechism and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II.

2 thoughts on “Return to Origen

  1. Is it true that Origen espoused universal salvation, believing that all would be saved eventually, even those who died as sinners?

  2. In the encyclopedic Westminster Handbook to Origen, Frederick W. Norris tags him as “one of the earliest proponents of the idea of universal salvation.” The idea can be found in several places in Origen’s writings, and he was condemned for it three centuries after his death. But elsewhere (again, according to Norris) Origen says “equally clearly, that only souls who make the choice for God and practice the virtues God demands will come to rest in heaven. Those who do not live for God shall suffer eternally in hell or perhaps be annihilated there.”

    De Lubac demonstrates that Origen’s eschatology is scattered among the works that survive, and the bits that we can gather seem mutually contradictory. We do not have his treatise on the resurrection; if this turns up, it could make matters much clearer.

    One thing, however, is certain: when Origen engaged in speculation, he urged his audience to rely on the teaching of the Catholic Church and not on the thoughts of a theologian. He desired only to be a “man of the Church” (his phrase). If he was very wrong in a matter of eschatology, he would certainly not be alone among the Fathers, especially the early Fathers. We tend to forgive the ante-Nicenes even their imprecise language regarding the hypostatic union and the Trinitarian communion. We tend to forgive Gregory of Nyssa his own universalist tendencies. It’s possible that Origen was well intentioned, but wrong about a teaching that was still not clearly defined.

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