With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, September 29, 2006

On Origen

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – 254) is one of the most famous, important, and yet controversial theologians of all time. Indeed, many scholars think that he is the founder of systematic theology. While his writings are filled with grand speculations, we must remember that in them he tried to answer the questions that Christians were being asked by their pagan critics. He did not engage theology for the sake of speculation, but for the sake of the Church. Whatever excesses and errors we might find in his theological writings, they must be understood in the light of his willingness to be corrected by the Church. He was not a heretic desiring to impose his own mental reconstruction of the faith upon the Church: he was a man seeking to use his intellectual abilities to offer possible solutions to questions which in his day had not been answered

His teacher, St Clement of Alexandria, taught him to use the best aspects of pagan philosophy as tools for theological analysis. For Origen, the method pagan philosophers used to interpret their own religious writings was more important than the philosophical ideas they produced. Pagan philosophers interpreted Homer allegorically. Origen believed that Christian Scriptures needed to be interpreted the same way. While he believed some Scriptures could easily be believed and followed on a literal level, when he noticed difficulties in Scripture, such as contradictions inherent in a literal understanding of Genesis, he believed they were put in Scripture on purpose to indicate to the careful reader that there were deeper, more important, truths to be discerned in the text. The Song of Songs, he believed, could be seen as a very base work if one understood it literally, but when one understood it as the relationship between a perfect soul or the church with God, its true intent becomes clear. His critics thought this use of allegory as the mean to interpret Scripture was excessive, and relatives its message.

It would be very surprising to find Origen taking a passage of Scripture literally when no one else, not even his opponents, does so. Yet this is a claim we find spread about Origen. According to Book VI of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History Origen, after reading the Gospels took Jesus’ words, “there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:12) literally and had himself castrated. Eusebius, it must be noted, did not invent this story, but reported the rumor that had by his time been accepted as true. Does this make any sense? Would one who took Scripture hyper-allegorically take this one text literally? Probably not!

While it has become normative to joke about Origen and his self-castration, is this bit of “orthodox” history really true? We do not find it mentioned in any of his writings. Looking to the source of this tradition (the one whom Eusebius notes first told others about this so-called event in the life of Origen), it seems it is more likely a piece of malicious gossip than truth. For its source is Patriarch Demetrius of Alexandria. Demetrius originally was one of Origen’s supporters. However, in 215, Origen was in Jerusalem and Bishop Alexander of Jerusalem requested Origen, a layman, to preach in his presence. Demetrius was upset, believing a layman should never preach when a bishop is present. After a brief reprimand, Demetrius’ anger cooled off. Then, in 230, Origen was asked to settle a dispute in Achaea. He used the opportunity to revisit Caesarea; the bishop there, remembering the conflict of 215, decided to have Origen ordained so that Origen could be given a chance to preach. When Demetrius heard about this, he was enraged: Origen was one of his subjects and his ordination was seen as a breach of ecclesiastical etiquette. Demetrius had Origen banished from Alexandria, and it was at this time that he, bitter at Origen, suggested the story of Origen’s self-castration. If true, it would suggest Origen’s ordination was invalid. Yet, in his exile, his ordination was not rejected. Would not his supporters have been curious about the validity of the claims and checked into them to make sure Origen was indeed a valid priest?

Combing these two lines of reasoning, that is, it seems to contradict Origen’s hermeneutical principles for him to take the Gospel passage literally and that the source of our information on Origen’s so-called self-castration is a biased source who could not prove its truth, it seems to me that this rumor was nothing more than malicious gossip. Origen did not castrate himself. He had no reason to do so. Just because this story was often repeated does not make it anything more than a rumor. It was uncritically accepted as true, in part, because those who believed it wanted it to be true. They did not like Origen's theological ideas. They helped to make this story repeated so often it just was accepted as true. Yet, it seems to be an ad hominen written against him to make him look foolish. It was spread by those who were jealous of his genius. They could not argue against his intellectual arguments, and so it appears, they tried to make it so they would not have to do so.



  • At 9/30/2006 2:31 AM, Blogger Antonio449 said…

    What about Origen and Von Balthasar?

  • At 9/30/2006 4:09 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    I am trying to figure out what you want to know in regards of Hans von Balthasar and Origen. Certainly Balthasar was fond of Origen's thought and hoped to see Origen canonized (after many specific questions were asked and answered: i.e., did Justinian write the condemnations of Origen after the fact and interpolate the records of II Constantinople; how accurate were the condemnations in relation to Origen's thought; can he really be considered a heretic, even if the teachings are condemned, because the condemnations were written several centuries after Origen's death and Origen showed every willingness to follow the Church's judgments on his thought; since he was a martyr for the faith, should he not be given the same accord as those martyrs who held similar positions to Arius and yet died before the official condemnation of Arius (and thus were canonized)? et. al.)

  • At 10/02/2006 3:03 AM, Blogger Antonio449 said…

    That's about what I was thinking. Just in terms of how Von Balthasar's thought mirrors Origen's. Such that in some aspects his theology may border on a denial of the co-equality of the Son with the Father, in Christ's descent into Hell and his alienation from God. Mostly I'm just interested in how posterity will view Von Balthasar's thought and how its controversial status parallel's that of Origen.

    Someone had a thesis on this theme reviewed in the April issue of First Things, which is now being published by Eerdman's.
    "Lux in Tenebris: The Traditional Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell and the Theological Opinion of Hans Urs von Balthasar"

  • At 10/02/2006 7:22 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Yes, I need to get that book (my dissertation is taking some aspects of Balthasar's thought of hell and using them as places where one can dialogue with Buddhist thought, using Asanga the Yogacarin as my Buddhist interlocutor).

    I find many criticisms of Balthasar fail to appreciate the wide-range of viewpoints that one can find in the history of the Church. While it is true, he is not following a majority position (or I should say, the popular understanding of hell), but he has a sufficient amount of support for his view from tradition (both ancient like St Gregory of Nyssa and St Isaac the Syrian, and modern like Sergius Bulgakov).

    I do not agree with his interpretation of Holy Saturday, but I find it interesting and I think it has ideas which could be developed further.

  • At 10/03/2006 4:01 AM, Blogger Antonio449 said…

    I've just never heard of anyone criticizing Balthasar recently. Sure back in the day he was controversial but by and large his thought is pretty well received nowadays.
    As for Bulgakov I've read the Bride of the Lamb, Sophia The Wisdom of God, as well as an early work A Philosophy of Economy. Interesting stuff. A couple of years ago Eric from Advise and Dissent (you see I went to undergrad with him)asked what I was reading.

    "The Bride of the Lamb by Bulgakov."

    "Bulgakov? Oh my friend in graduate school loves him. He's a Byzantine Catholic." etc . . .

  • At 10/03/2006 4:21 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    From what I understand, the dissertation took a respectful but critical view of Balthasar, and suggested his interpretation is not exactly as compatible with tradition as he suggested.

    First Things and New Oxford Review also had a series of fiery debates over Balthasar starting around 2000, and I think Regis Scanlon's "The Inflated Repuation of Hans Urs Von Balthasar" was the opening of that debate.

    As for Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb is my favorite work of his, although I wish they included the appendix in its english edition, instead of having to rely upon a separate, hard to find edition of it, "Apocatastasis and Transfiguration." (which I have, and had before the publication of Bride, but I think Boris could have done an improved translation to include with the full work).

    I'm still waiting for his Marian work, The Burning Bush to be translated. It sounds like a classic.

  • At 10/05/2006 5:46 PM, Blogger A.K. Schwarz said…

    Thanks for the post, Henry. A very informative and well-reasoned take on Origen and the claim of self-castration. Origen's hermeneutical stance and the polemical context pose great questions to the received "history." Have others ever taken your stance?

  • At 10/07/2006 8:49 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    When I get around to writing an article on this, I will do the research, but I have heard there are scholars who follow my line of thinking. Whenever I hear about them, it has said, "some scholars say" without giving me any details.

    I have some guesses (like Balthasar, Lubac, possibly Bossuet, etc) but I will have to find out later.

  • At 3/11/2009 11:42 PM, Blogger Adamgv said…


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  • At 12/07/2009 6:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I am working at the moment on some parallels between Origen's Christology and that of Balthasar. If anyone is interested a book in Italian deals with the theme: F. Franco, La passione dell'amore - L'ereneutica cristiana di Balthasar e Origene. There is also a work on a similar theme in German from a man who has the unfortunate name Löser.
    The work dissertation you were talking about is from Alyssa Pitstick. She gained her doctorate in theology at the Angelicum in Rome

  • At 6/26/2010 3:24 AM, Blogger Composer said…

    Origen considered the presence of female pupils in his school a potential source of sexual temptation. His solution was to castrate himself. Later in life, in his commentary on the book of Matthew, he admitted to having acted foolishly by taking what Eusebius calls an “absurdly literal” interpretation of Christ’s words about some who “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”

    Source: http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=541

    Is it true that Origen admitted to having literally castrated himself and IF SO what precise document on his writings about the Book of Matthew is it contained in?

    OR, was it just slander against him?


    franjac1@westnet.com.au (Private email)


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