Origen Against Arius

Post by
Ambrose Andreano

It is my hope that I have persuasively represented and defended my client, and that all of this suffices to silence all prosecutors who love to condemn people they clearly have not read.

[T]he understanding of Origen has so eluded your grasp that you too share the opinions about him that many others hold as well. These, either through their own inexperience (because of which they cannot behold the depth of his thought) or through the perversity of their mind (by which they expend effort, not only to accuse his statements but even to take up hostilities against those who read them).[1]
-St. Pamphilus of Caesarea (AD 2?? - 309)

I have spent the past couple of years extensively and carefully researching the person of Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254) with the intention to read everything he wrote that has been translated into English. I have many reasons for doing this, but one of them is simply my distrust of others providing me with accurate information about a man who, according to my early intuition, seemed far too important to get wrong (hence my plunge into both the primary and secondary sources). To my dismay, I have found a deep-rooted polemical dishonesty at nearly every turn, and in my studies thus far I have found that confirmation bias, ignorance, malice, and dishonesty is unfortunately normative and not beneath even some of the most prominent and respected theologians, historians, and scholars.

I find myself constantly frustrated and provoked to anger at every turn, because either I read Origen’s works and find him already anticipating and refuting nearly every later criticism prior to them being raised, or I read confirmation bias from scholars who actively work against reason and objectivity in order to work in the already established narrative.[2] I am of the opinion that one must read Origen everywhere to understand Origen anywhere. Similar to how we are to approach the scriptures: the part of Origen’s corpus is informed by the whole; The letter of the work is understood in light of the spirit of the work. Too many in the Church have read no further than On First Principles, completely misunderstand his thought (usually while being oblivious to the fact that they are also being taught by Origen as they read him), and then presumptuously delude themselves into thinking they are qualified to criticize Origen to ride the coattails of his renowned genius and make names for themselves as theologians. As St Pamphilus once said with striking precision: 

There is also another race of men, truly repulsive and disgraceful, as far as the moral quality of their character is concerned; but in terms of their gift for exceedingly violent calumny and for extremely repulsive accusations, they are what the Greeks call φαγολοιδόρους [revilers of those who are eating]. They exhibit the utmost zeal, and they pay out sufficiently attentive effort to them. For they want to take advantage of this teacher in every way and parade themselves as his special disciples. But an opportunity comes when they now prefer to name themselves “teachers” rather than “disciples,” a time when the audience’s applause begins to follow. Then, if perchance someone in the audience whispers that these things that are being praised come from Origen, lest they either yield this praise to the teacher or risk being judged as blameworthy, they protest at once that Origen is estranged. They claim that there is no common ground between Origen’s teaching and their own; nor do they hesitate even reproachfully to declare him accursed, and they do not refrain from speaking malicious things about him. These people have no respect for the Apostle’s words that make clear that “malicious gossips will not inherit the kingdom of God.”[3]

This leads us to a truly repulsive breed among religious men who are deserving of a strong rebuke, as St Pamphilus has also done in his extremely important work that nobody seems to read. As a mercy, I do not normally amplify my rhetorical abilities, but for this essay I will make a special exception since I intend to play lawyer in the court. Forgive me, you readers the jury, but I also intend to win. I will not be so merciful towards the prosecution this time around.

A Rebuke to Revilers

I have too often encountered revilers who fancy themselves sextons over the men they have killed—setting their alarms for midnight; wishing to make abundantly sure that the coffin of Origen’s reputation stays buried and nailed shut; praying that the perception of him remains authoritatively slanderous—lest the infernal chanting suffer a key change and fall out of harmony with Satan’s choir. The persistently malevolent and manifestly stupid critics of Origen’s theology are overwhelmingly numerous. Unfortunately the Church cannot yet rid her Wheat of these Tares, since Christ told the faithful: “let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them.”[4]

However, to those innocents who are ignorant of these things and what happens in the dark corners of the Church, I offer a word of caution: be not deceived. One must, as scripture says, “judge not according to appearance:”[5] for the number of criticisms regarding Origen is not of itself proof that Origen is a problematic threat to ecclesiastical unity, nor is the presence of fallibility a means to justify condemning him merely for being too popular (as St. Vincent of Lerins failed to persuasively argue[6]). The real problem is that ignorant polemicists in every age seem to have obtained ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the goblin caves, and have catechized their little green disciples to walk to and fro throughout the whole world seeking where to give false witness, stir up controversy, and sow seeds of discord. As scripture says concerning these people:

These six things does the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaks lies, and he that sows discord among brethren.[7]

These are banshees of schism who, in the heralding of their own fiery deaths, screech malice and gossip in imitation of their father. This father they have named “Christ,” but the scriptures have named “the accuser of the brethren.”[8] Therefore, the fact that Origen became controversial says little about Origen, and a lot about a Church that has too many insufferably clueless men with more power than wisdom. Men who, as St Pamphilus also said of them: know nothing of the sacred scriptures saying, “malicious gossips will not inherit the kingdom of God.”[9] As Mark Edwards said, “It is therefore not Origen but his detractors who have impaired the unity of the Church.”[10]

Therefore, because there is no limit to the possible nonsense uttered by drunkards, we must not be deceived into allowing accusations to obtain any validity simply because they are accusations. We must not fall prey to the sleight of hand of authoritarian magicians, but rather “judge righteous judgment”[11] to investigate the claims reasonably, thoroughly, and with impartiality. If the accusers happen to be wrong, then they must face the dreadful consequences for destroying the reputation of holy men with what scripture has called “the fiery darts of the wicked.”[12] These people like to play the Judas in the fold, for they venerate the icon of Christ with their lips but their hearts are far from Him.[13]

Therefore, because my desire for truth, justice, fairness, and honesty cannot be quenched, I am here once again to play lawyer in the spirit of St Pamphilus (a man who also had Origen as his defendant) as well as our Lord who is called “the advocate,”[14] to refute more false accusations against Origen by they who play prosecutor. As a man of scripture, I follow my Lord who says to me, “What is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”[15] And if the religious authoritarian wishes to dissuade me from speaking on controversial topics that absolutely must be properly addressed simply because they tend to rock a boat that worships order more than it worships Christ, to him I say with the voice of St Peter: “I must obey God rather than man.”[16]

Arius of Alexandria

The accusation in question for this essay will be with regards to Origen’s alleged Arianism (and also by extension, his alleged subordinationism). For those who may not know, Arius of Alexandria (AD 256-336) was a presbyter who, based on his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia calling him a “fellow-Lucianist,” seems to be a student of Lucian of Antioch (AD 240 - 312). Whether Arius was a literal student or a mere follower of Lucian’s theology is not clear,[17] but Lucian was a student of the prominent adoptionist theologian Paul of Samosata (AD 200-275), and was said to have attempted a synthesizing of Paul and Origen.[18] It seems to me that Lucian must have only read Origen to a limited degree, and only for the express purpose of enhancing Paul’s framework, because it does not take much searching to see that Origen explicitly rejects adoptionist Christology. However, this adoptionist backdrop for Arius’ theological education is perhaps the most important detail to understand concerning his Christology, because his conception of Christ is fundamentally an adoptionist development. Rowan Williams called it a “mythological version of adoptionism” which leaves “no logical room for a pre-existent Son.”[19]

Arius believed that Christ was created out of nothing: having a beginning just like we do, and before He was begotten, Christ did not exist.[20] The (Arian) doctrine of subordinationism is the idea that because Christ is of a lesser power and authority, He is therefore eternally subordinate to the Father in His essence. However, it must also be said that subordinationism as a general concept is not a Christological conception unique to Arius of Alexandria (AD 256-336), as it was, as I stated, also believed by earlier influential Adoptionists and pretty much every other Christology to one degree or another except Sabellianism.

Arius viewed himself as an antithesis to gnostic theologians Valentinus (AD 100 - 160), who believed that Wisdom (Sophia) was a material projection from the Father who then fell, Mani (AD 216 - 277) who said the Son is of one essence (homoousios) with the Father, but imagining that the divine substance is material in nature, and Sabellius (fl. AD 230), who Arius thought to have divided the monad. It is also worth mentioning that these are precisely the same figures that the orthodox party sought out to refute, only for different reasons. It seems to me that Arius must not have actually read many of Origen’s writings, because Origen had everywhere argued against all of his heterodox ideas. Anyone who has read over ten of Origen’s works knows that, concerning Christology, he had already placed the puzzle pieces where they needed to be placed (as long as his readers knew his works extensively and could accurately comprehend his thought) so his orthodox followers only had to point at the very Trinitarian image he left for them and merely explain what the image depicted. But before I go any further, I wanted to explain the three main terms thrown around in the Nicene world which will be helpful for those who may be new to this topic:

  1. Homoousios, which means “of one essence/substance,” and was proposed by Athanasius.
  2. Homoiousios, which means “of like essence/substance,” and was used by Eusebius of Caesarea (presumably as a way to maintain proper distance from Sabellius[21]).
  3. Heteroousios, which means “of a different essence/substance,” and was used by Arius.
Origen’s Alleged Arianism

Many influential figures in Church History accused Origen and perpetuated the false idea of him being some kind of prototypical fountain of Arianism, but I will list only a few of them because the list is quite long:

St Epiphanius of Salamis (AD 310 - 403) said, “For Arius took his cue from Origen [...] And this is his first downfall. For he does not believe that the Son is of the Father’s essence, but represents him as entirely different from the Father, and created besides. But he holds that he is called “Son” by grace.”[22] St Jerome (AD 347 - 420) said of his contemporaries, “they covertly struck at Origen as the source of the Arian heresy: for, in condemning those who deny the Son to be of the substance of the Father, they have condemned Origen as much as Arius.”[23] Ironically, Jerome himself tried to protect Origen’s reputation specifically from the charge of proto-Arianism.[24] Even the renowned Catholic saint Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225 - 1274) is found on multiple occasions uncritically recycling the tired old polemic tethering Origen to Arius. He says, “the Father and the Son differ in substance, which was the error of Origen and Arius.”[25] And again he says, “The Arians, who sprang from Origen, declared that the Son differed in substance from the Father.”[26] The 15th century Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Gennadios II Scholarios (AD 1405 - 1473) records the mainstream perception of Origen succinctly:

The Western writers say, “Where Origen was good, no one is better; where he was bad, no one is worse.” Our Asian divines say on the one hand that “Origen is the whetstone of us all,” but on the other hand, that “he is the fount of foul doctrines.” Both are right: he splendidly defended Christianity, wonderfully expounded Scripture, and wrote a noble exhortation to martyrdom. But he was also the father of Arianism, and worst of all, said that hellfire would not last forever.[27]

Thus, we see again and again how powerful and influential authorities in the Church present Origen and Arianism as a package deal, and how the masses uncritically accept this (usually thinking their priests or bishops are literally prevented by God from being incorrect about anything), and how it is transmitted onto the next generation. However, I wanted to take some time to go through the patriarch’s words. Take for instance the popular saying he references: “Where Origen was good, no one is better; where he was bad, no one is worse.” It is of course nonsensical to suppose that the same man can produce both the greatest and the worst of Christian theology. Listen to the Lord saying, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”[28] Who among the reasonable would think that it makes sense to say the scent of a single perfume is at once both supremely wonderful and the most disgusting? Scholarios is also trying to harmonize two entirely different opinions of Origen. The whetstone comment is from St Gregory Nazianzen[29] who is a friendly supporter of Origen, and the fount of foul doctrines comment is from a hostile antagonist (presumably Epiphanius). How can anyone seriously propose that “both are right?” No, rather one understands Origen’s theology and the other does not. Presenting the idea that these are two equally valid opinions is not a balanced view simply because they are treated the same. This quote tells me that Scholarios did not have his own informed perspective of Origen that was based on his reading of the primary sources.

The Misleading Tour Guides

All kinds of people were uncritically inheriting the Anti-Origenist polemical tradition and operating from within that framework. However, this framing is so misleading it borders on conspiratorial propaganda. I’ll give an analogy to explain why the framing is absurd:

Imagine being on a tour bus throughout the Eastern world, journeying to see all who were readers of Origen and influenced by him. On the left side of the road there is Arius, Evagrius, Nestorius, and various other people viewed with hostility. On the right side there is Gregory Thaumaturgus, Pamphilus, Alexander, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Chrysostom, and the other saints. However, the tour guide intentionally says, “Now, if you look to your left, you will see the followers of Origen.” As the tourists look to their left, seeing Arius and a variety of other controversial figures, they subsequently turn their heads away from the orthodox side, which presents a deceptive narrative so people think badly of Origen. Was Arius schooled in Origenian theology? Yes, and so was pretty much everyone else. The fact that Arius was drawing from Origen’s works is a testament only to Origen’s popularity.

Origen: A Church Father

It is common today to hear people who, at the mention of Origen’s name from within the patristic corpus, say he was no church father “because he was an Arian heretic.” If this is true, surely we should see evidence from St Athanasius, right? That great and foremost defender of orthodoxy against Arianism? What does he say? In his work De Decretis, Athanasius lists certain theologians that he views as authorities for his (anti-Arian and anti-Sabellian) theology. Those figures are Theognostus [taught by Origen], Dionysius of Alexandria [taught by Origen], Dionysius of Rome, and, of course, Origen. “But,” one might object, “does Athanasius genuinely like Origen and view him highly as a church father?” Let us look at him in his own words:

And concerning the everlasting co-existence of the Word with the Father, and that He is not of another essence or subsistence, but proper to the Father’s, as the Bishops in the Council said, you may hear again from the labour-loving Origen also. For what he has written as if inquiring and by way of exercise, that let no one take as expressive of his own sentiments, but of parties who are contending in investigation, but what he definitely declares, that is the sentiment of the labour-loving man. After his prolusions then (so to speak) against the heretics, straightway he introduces his personal belief, thus—[Athanasius then proceeds to quote sections from On First Principles to argue against Arius][30]

“Yes but, this still does not mean St Athanasius saw Origen as a Father of the Church,” our critics will say, seeking desperately to find justification for erroneous opinions. However, listen to Athanasius continue, saying (immediately after quoting Origen): “See, we are proving that this view has been transmitted from father to father...”[31] Therefore, anyone who thinks Athanasius viewed Origen not as a Church Father but as an Arian heretic, is at war with his own words, and is unknowingly crossing swords with the very theologian who led the charge against Arianism.

Even the Catholic scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam (AD 1466 - 1536) did not agree with the view that Origen was an Arian, despite the massive Jerome bias he inherited and the excessively suspicious view of Rufinus’ manipulation of Origen’s Latin translations. Thomas Scheck writes how Erasmus in many places had high praise for Origen, and “contrasts Origen with Tertullian, who left the Catholic Church, and with Arius, who split it down the middle.”[32] Therefore, according to Erasmus, it was Arius who was the actual schismatic, not Origen. Ilaria Ramelli agrees, and is in my view one of the modern scholars who understands things as they are rather than things as they are said to be. She writes: “Origen was not the forerunner of ‘Arianism,’ as he was depicted in the course of the so-called Origenistic controversy, and as he is often still regarded to be, but the main inspirer of the Cappadocians, and especially Nyssen, in what became Trinitarian orthodoxy.” [33]

In his Commentary on Romans, Origen is very clear to distance himself from a variety of heretical conceptions of the Godhead, and the ones he has in view are (1) Adoptionism, (2) Gnostic Tritheism, and (3) Sabellianism:

For there are many who, to be sure, announce and preach about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but not sincerely and completely. There are, for example, all the heretics who certainly announce the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; but they do not announce well or faithfully. For either they wrongly separate the Son from the Father, when they say that the Father is of one nature and the Son is of another nature, or they wrongly confuse them, when they imagine either that God is composed of three or that he is merely referred to by three names. But whoever announces the good news well will bestow upon each one, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, his own unique characteristics; but he will not confess that there is any difference in essence or nature. Those who announce the gospel in this way, then, not only announce the good news, but they announce the good news well and irreproachably.[34]

Traditionally, the "One God" was formally understood as a reference specifically to the hypostasis of the Father (the eternal principle of the hypostases of Son and Spirit), not a united Trinity. This is why the Nicene Creed says "We believe in One God, the Father Almighty..." However, this fact is also not to imply something Unitarian: that the one God was not used to refer to the unity of the Trinitarian essence: as the Creed also shows, the hypostasis of the Son is homoousios with the Father, and why it says concerning the Son: “Light of Light, True God of True God.” And even here Origen’s spirit can be found influencing the thought of Nicaea, since he says the following in his Commentary on Song of Songs (a work that was supremely beloved by St Jerome and St Gregory of Nyssa[35]):

My own opinion is that it is knowledge of the Trinity that is called high mountains; no one can achieve possession of that, unless he be made a hart. But these same mountains that here are called high mountains in the plural, in other places are termed a high mountain in the singular, as Isaias says: Get thee up upon a high mountain, thou that bringest good tidings to Sion; lift up thy voice with strength, thou that bringest good tidings to Jerusalem. For that which in the former place is understood of the Trinity because of the distinction of Persons, is here understood as the One God by reason of the unity of Substance.[36]

And elsewhere in his ninth homily of his Homilies on Ezekiel, he says:

We must be "one body and one spirit" [Eph 4:4]. But if we are such that unity does not circumscribe us, but it could even be said about us: "I am of Paul, but I am of Apollo, I am of Cephas" [1 Cor 1:12], and we are still being torn apart and divided by evil; we are not going to be where those ones are who are drawn back into union. For as the Father and the Son are one [cf. John 10:30], so those who have one Spirit are confined into a union. For the Savior says: "I and the Father, we are one" [John 10:30], and: "Holy Father, just as I and you are one, that even they may be one in us" [John 17:11-12].[37]

It would be wrong to assume that Arianism was the only heresy the Creed was trying to correct, because the Nicene Fathers were also trying to retain the older arguments against the heresies that Origen refuted in his day: Sabellianism, Adoptionism, Ebionism, and the (Valentinian) Gnosticism popularized mostly through Heracleon and Marcion. Arianism was just the logical extension of the earlier Adoptionism.

A Semantic Detour

Forgive my detour, but I wanted to quickly comment on something else in this passage about semantic nuances and the general problem of crafting theological formulations. Origen here says that the heretics in question announce the Trinity (a) neither well nor faithfully,[38] and I would suggest there is an implication that it is because there is also a way to announce a Trinitarian formulation (b) well, but not faithfully: that is, something that is correct according to the semantic letter but the understanding is heterodox,[39] (c) faithfully, but not well: that is, something that is correct in spirit/intention but misleading in phraseology depending on the audience,[40] and (d) faithful and well: which suffices both in letter and in spirit.[41] Both (a) and (b) are true of heretics, (c) is true of people who are orthodox in understanding mistakenly thought to be heretics by those who for whatever reason cannot discern beyond the letter of their expression, and (d) is that which is orthodox and catholic in expression.

Christ: The Spirit of Wisdom

Whenever people discuss the topic of Christology and Arianism, they rarely have a working knowledge of the biblical texts that were being debated, and the reasons why people argued what they did. Many today, in being completely ignorant of the Wisdom passages, and in trying to sound as egalitarian as possible, unknowingly align themselves with Sabellius. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to begin by quoting the main passages:

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water [...] Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; (Proverbs 8:22-24, 30)
For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness. For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness. (Wisdom of Solomon 7:24-26)
All wisdom is from the Lord, and with him it remains forever [...] Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent understanding from eternity [...] There is but one who is wise, greatly to be feared, seated upon his throne—the Lord. It is he who created her; he saw her and took her measure; he poured her out upon all his works [...] To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; she is created with the faithful in the womb. (Sirach 1:1, 4, 8-9, 14)
[...] Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:24)

This Christological debate surrounding Arius is exegetical, and it is with regards to how one might correctly understand the notion of “created” for the divine spirit named Wisdom in Proverbs 8, Sirach 1, and Wisdom of Solomon 7 in a way that is harmoniously consistent with what scripture says elsewhere.[42] However, because certain figures have followed error and grouped Arius with Origen, I am now the one burdened with feeling a sense of obligation to correct this mistake. Arius did not believe Christ was of one essence (homoousios) with the Father, but Origen certainly did.

In his now lost Commentary on Hebrews, Origen says the Son, who St Paul says is Wisdom, is of one essence (homoousios) with the Father (as quoted in the original Greek by Pamphilus):

We need to realize that Holy Scripture, as it makes its way somehow through certain ineffable, secret, and hidden matters, tries to indicate to men and to suggest an understanding by introducing the subtle term “breath.” It has taken this term from the physical realm in order that we might be able to understand it in part, since it is Christ who is Wisdom. Therefore, like the breath that proceeds from some physical substance, so likewise he himself comes into being as some “breath of the very power of God.” So also the Wisdom that proceeds from it is generated from the very substance of God; so also, no less according to the likeness of a physical απόρροια [emanation], it is said to be a certain and simple “pure απόρροια of the glory of the Almighty.” Both of these comparisons show very clearly that there is a sharing of substance between the Father and the Son; for an απόρροια [emanation] is clearly ὁμοούσιος [consubstantial], that is, of one substance, with that body from which it is either an απόρροια [emanation] or breath.[43]

Anyone who has read more than a single work of Origen knows how Arius’ interpretation would have scandalized him.

In his Commentary on Romans, Origen expounds on St. Paul’s concluding remarks in the very last sentence of Romans where he says “to the only wise God.”[44] Origen sees Paul’s words as an opportunity to talk about the divine person of Wisdom. He makes a distinction (a) the wisdom of man: we who are made wise by participation in Wisdom (that is, wisdom is accidental and not essential to our nature), and (b) the Wisdom of God: where Wisdom (who ever since Paul was universally identified by Christians as Christ Himself) is an essential united property of the divine nature. God cannot be God without Wisdom, which makes the Father the begetter of Wisdom (the Son), because Wisdom can only be from the Father. The Father is wise because He begets Wisdom, and is not like us who are made wise by Wisdom. Now, remember, Origen is saying all of this because St. Paul said “the only wise God,” which for Origen means the God in whom Wisdom has its source and was not made wise by Wisdom (as is the case among lesser gods like the saints[45]).

Now after explaining this, Origen says the following:

And rightly is splendor through Jesus Christ referred to him, because God alone is so wise that he himself, Christ Jesus, who is the power of God, has begotten wisdom and the wisdom of God has made it known.[46]

I’m going to unpack this sentence and explain what Origen is saying. He has so many scripture verses in mind any time he says something and people tend to either overlook them in carelessness, or forget they exist and should definitely be incorporated into our theological expression. Origen here is equating Christ with God, so Christ’s divinity is already a given. Origen obviously read John 1:1-3. The only distinction he makes is between Trinitarian hypostases, and all of them are thought to be eternal.

As I mentioned earlier, Origen is heavily alluding to wisdom passages such as Sirach 1 and Proverbs 8:22, and he conceives of Christ as being the Power of God in its actuality. And it is through the Son as the Father’s Power that the eternal begetting of the Son as the Father’s Wisdom occurs. This is where the “sun begets light” Trinitarian metaphor comes from. Why is Origen making this connection between the person of Christ and the power/wisdom of God? Because St Paul says, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”[47] Thus, for Paul, Christ is identified with both the power and wisdom of God, and Origen is merely falling in line. As I said, Origen also mentions Proverbs 8:22, where the Spirit of Wisdom says that God “created me as the beginning of His ways.” This is the paradoxical language of the divine scriptures that Origen desires to keep intact. In his Commentary on John, Origen gives the analogy that the Father begetting the Son is like the mind begetting word:

[T]he Word can also be "the Son" because he announces the secrets of his Father, who is "mind" analogous to the Son who is called "Word." For as the word in us is the messenger of what the mind perceives, so the Word of God, since he has known the Father, reveals the Father whom he has known, because no creature can come into contact with him without a guide.[48]

Obviously it is impossible for the Father to have ever existed at any time without wisdom, because that would suggest there was a time when God was not wise, which means God is not God because God must be wise for God to be God. Origen already understood this, saying, “In being with God, however, the Word is God because he is with him.”[49] This is also why the argument that the Wisdom of God is therefore a lesser God than the Father is conceptually nonsensical, since the Father’s actualized Power, Wisdom, and Word is itself (paradoxically) contingent upon the very Son whom He begets. But (and here is where the semantics can get more complicated), Sirach nonetheless says “The Lord himself created wisdom,”[50] and that is after it says “all wisdom comes from the Lord, and wisdom is with him forever.”[51] And again, “Wisdom was created before anything else, and understanding has always existed.”[52]

“So wait,” says the confused reader, “Wisdom is said to be both eternal and created?” Yep, that is what scripture says. Origen’s theologizing here is precisely where the Eastern Orthodox doctrine about the Monarchy of the Father comes from. The biblical language (where Origen’s thought is tethered) forces us into conceptualizing the Father eternally begetting the Son: not because there was a time when the Son was not, as Arius supposed, but because this is the paradoxical language we have been given to talk about Christ’s relationship to the Father. Origen’s thought is consistent on this, because it is how he understood not only Christ as the Spirit of Wisdom, but also Christ as the “Truth”[53] and the “Image of Goodness.”[54]

He says the following in Against Celsus:

If, however, anyone is perturbed by these words lest we should be going over to the view of those who deny that there are two hypostases Father and Son, let him pay attention to the text 'And all those who believed were of one heart and soul', that he may see the meaning of 'I and my Father are one.’ Accordingly we worship but one God, the Father and the Son, and we still have a valid argument against the others. And we do not worship to an extravagant degree a man who appeared recently as though he did not exist previously. For we believe him who says, 'Before Abraham was I am', and who affirms, ‘I am the truth.' None of us is so stupid as to suppose that before the date of Christ's manifestation the truth did not exist. Therefore we worship the Father of the truth and the Son who is the truth; they are two distinct hypostases, but one in mental unity, in agreement, and in identity of will. Thus he who has seen the Son, who is an effulgence of the glory and express image of the Person of God, has seen God in him who is God's image.[55]

And in his Commentary on Matthew, he says how even though Christ says, “No one is good except One, God,”[56] Christ nonetheless is the image of the Father’s Goodness, and the way in which the Father is greater than man (in goodness) is of an exceedingly different nature compared to the way in which the Son has elevated the Father above Himself to make a distinction (contra Sabellius) between the unbegotten Father and the Son whom He has eternally begotten before all ages (that Son who is “image of the invisible God”[57] and “mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus”[58]):

For God is not good in the same way that one might say that “a man is good” who brings forth good things “from the good treasure of his heart.”[59] The Savior indeed, since he is “the Image of the invisible God,”[60] is thus also “the Image of his Goodness.”[61] But when it comes to any lesser thing, to which the term “good” is connected, this carries a different signification than when said about Him, since in relationship to the Father he is the “Image of goodness,” but in relationship to the remainder of things, the reality of the Father’s goodness is in relationship to him. One should understand, then, that the connection between the goodness of God in relationship to the Savior who is “the Image of his goodness” involves an exceedingly greater degree of correspondence than between the Savior in relationship to a good man, a good work, and a good tree.[62]
Origen’s “Two Gods:” A Response to Sabellius

Wishing to condemn Origen, some have conjured up a semantic controversy around his experimental use of “two Gods” or “second God” as he put it one time in Against Celsus,[63] which then led to others misinterpreting it and presuming falsely that Origen believed Christ was a lesser God separate from the Father. This was mostly related to a fragment from Justinian that Paul Koetschau (wrongly) inserted into On First Principles 1.3.5.[64] Clearly people do not seem to take the time to actually read what Origen says, because he says what he means in that very passage of Against Celsus:

For we ought not to imagine that because of the feminine name wisdom and righteousness are feminine in their being. In our view the Son of God is these things, as his genuine disciple showed when he said of him: Who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.' Therefore, though we may call him a second God, it should be understood by this that we do not mean anything except the virtue which includes all virtues, and the Logos which includes every logos [...][65]

Origen’s use of two Gods is itself merely an anti-Sabellian expression to validate the notion of a distinct hypostasis of the Son (as opposed to believing in accordance with Sabellius that the Father and the Son are one hypostasis). The very same anti-Sabellian caution is found in Dialogue with Heraclides:

Origen: "Is it not true, then, that there was a God, the Son of God and only begotten of God, the first born of all creation, and that we do not hesitate to speak in one sense of two Gods, and in another sense of one God?"
Heraclides: “What you say is evident[...]”[66]

And lest we misunderstand what Origen means by two Gods, the rationale is explicitly clarified by Heraclides’ agreeing with Origen by responding with a rhetorical question:

Origen: "Is the Son distinct from the Father?"
Heraclides: “Of course, for how could He be son if He were also father?”
Origen: And while being distinct from the Father, the Son is Himself also God?”
Heraclides: “He is Himself also God.”
Origen: “And the two Gods become a unity?”
Heraclides: “Yes.”
Origen: “We profess two Gods?”
Heraclides: “Yes, but the power is one.”
Origen: “But since our brothers are shocked at the statement that there are two Gods, we must treat this matter carefully, and point out in what respect they are two and in what respect these two are one God...”[67]

Origen explains unity and distinction according to the scriptures,[68] and then explains that our prayers tend to (depending on which prayer) go back and forth between unity and distinction: one God and two Gods, to distance ourselves from different heresies (Sabellianism/Patripassianism,[69] Adoptionism, Ebionism, etc.):

In some of our prayers we maintain the duality and in others we introduce the unity, and thus we do not fall into the opinion of those who, cut off from the Church, have fallen prey to the illusory notion of unicity, abrogating the Son as distinct from the Father and also, in effect, abrogating the Father; nor do we fall into the other impious doctrine which denies the divinity of Christ.[70]

Thus, the two Gods is to simply say there exists a distinction in the Godhead, and that both Origen and Heraclides are admitting that they are against Sabellianism. He says the same in On Prayer, saying “Son is distinct from the Father in essence.”[71] But this is not to say the Father and the Son are not of one essence, it is merely to make distinction of hypostasis and say generally “The Son is not the hypostasis of the Father,” which is something Christians have everywhere believed at all times since the time of the apostles. Christ Himself is the one responsible for distinguishing Himself from the Father, as even the most careless read through the New Testament will reveal. Theologians must be honest and reconcile His Trinitarian status with His words, “the Father is greater than I.”[72] This also means that semantic formulations are entirely contingent upon the apologetic agenda motivating it, and different local heresies will warrant different local expressions of orthodoxy that may vary in the semantic letter but are nonetheless united in spirit. St Athanasius follows Origen and makes the same point, saying, “For the Word, being Son of the One God, is referred to Him of whom also He is; so that Father and Son are two, yet the Monad of the Godhead is indivisible and inseparable.”[73]

In his now lost Commentary on Titus (salvaged in part by Pamphilus), he shows that denying that there are multiple hypostases of God is to simply be a Sabellian (believing there is no real distinction between the hypostasis of Father and Son):

Moreover, not without danger may those be associated with the Church’s membership who say that the Lord Jesus was a man, foreknown and predestined, who before his coming in the flesh had no substantial and proper existence, but that, because he was born human, he possessed only the deity of the Father within him. The same applies to those who with more superstition than religion, wishing to avoid the appearance of saying that there are two Gods, and yet having no intention of denying the deity of the Savior, claim that the Father and the Son have one and the same substance. That is to say, they indeed say that the deity receives two names according to the diversity of causes, yet there exists a single hypostasis, that is, one underlying person with two names. In Latin they are called Patripassians.[74]

And again Origen’s cautioning against Sabellianism is shown in homily twelve of his Homilies on Numbers where he uses the analogy of three wells to argue for the three hypostases of God, but does not argue this at the expense of Trinitarian oneness:

For Wisdom says in the Proverbs: "Drink waters from the spring of your ownwells." So let us see what are the wells which he speaks of as having one spring. I think the knowledge of the unbegotten Father can be understood as one well, and the recognition of the only begotten Son should be understood as a second well. For the Son is different from the Father, and he that is the Father is not also the Son, as he says himself in the Gospels: "There is another who speaks testimony about me, the Father:' And again I think a third well can be seen in the knowledge of the Holy Spirit. For he too is different from the Father and from the Son, as it is said of him no less in the Gospels: "The Father shall send you another Paraclete, the Spirit of truth:' So there is this distinction of three persons in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is recalled in the plural number of the wells. Yet of these wells there is one spring. For the substance and nature of the Trinity is one. And in this way the distinction in holy Scripture which says, "From the spring of your wells," will be found not without meaning. But he has carefully expressed the mystical language, so that what was said in the plural of the persons would be in keeping with the substance in the singular.[75]
Alleged Proto-Subordinationism

Related to Arianism generally, another criticism thrown at Origen was that he was a subordinationist: not in the orthodox sense of the monarchy of the Father, but in the Arian sense that Christ is an inferior created god who is eternally subordinate to the Father. For those who don’t know, subordinationism is the Arian belief that the Son is eternally, essentially, and ontologically subordinate to the Father from within the inner Trinitarian life. In other words, Christ is not equal with the Father, He is inferior and merely obeys the Father. The kinds of assertions one would typically find is as the following: “Scholars have long recognized his significance: for some over the last century Arius' own theology is a direct result of Origen's ‘subordinationism’.”[76]

Origen in fact did not believe this, nor could it be argued that Arius’ theology was a direct result of Origen anymore than it could be said that Satan’s theology was a direct result of Psalm 91:11-12.[77] The asserted meaning is entirely contrary to the source material, so the connection is only nominal. I have personally seen many people assume (in accordance with their own confirmation bias) that Origen was a subordinationist merely because he said the Son was “distinct” from the Father. To this I simply say of course the Son is distinct from the Father, because if He was not distinct, we would all be Sabellians arguing that the Son is the Father: having no distinction of hypostasis. It really is striking how much Sabellianism comes up in Origen’s corpus, and it is why he constantly makes it a point to say that the Son being of one essence with the Father is not to say that God has one hypostasis/substance with different names, and that there are “two Gods” rather than one hypostasis who is both Father and Son.

One cannot correctly understand the Christological formulations of any historical figure if the understanding is divorced from the apologetic agenda behind those formulations. It is for this reason that it is so difficult for different people to agree on semantics: there are different agendas, and different heresies that people wish to distance themselves from. The notion of distinct hypostases also does not imply separation or difference in authority, power, or essence, it is just a conceptual category to guide our thoughts.

In his Commentary on John, we again see how Origen wishes to correct the Sabellians:

Those, however, who are confused on the subject of the Father and the Son bring together the statement, "And we are also found false witnesses of God, because we have testified against God that he raised up Christ, whom he did not raise," and words like these which show him who raises to be different from him who has been raised, and the statement, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." They think that these statements prove that the Son does not differ from the Father in number, but that both being one, not only in essence, but also in substance, they are said to be Father and Son in relation to certain differing aspects, not in relation to their reality. For this reason, we must first quote to them the texts capable of establishing definitely that the Son is other than the Father, and we must say that it is necessary that a son be the son of a father and that a father be the father of a son.[78]

Others assert that Origen believed Christ was lesser in power than the Father. This is also false, because as I quoted above from his Commentary on Romans, Origen explicitly states (following Paul) “Christ Jesus, who is the power of God.” Christ literally is the power of the Father, so it makes no sense to say Christ was lesser in power if He is in Himself the very definition.

In his Commentary on Hebrews, Origen makes the Son’s unity with the Father very clear with his eternal light analogy (one that was adopted and led directly to the Nicene Creed saying, “Light from Light”):

How else should one understand the “eternal light” except as referring to God the Father? But he, inasmuch as he is the light, never existed at a time when his radiance was not present with him—for a light without its radiance could never be conceived, which, if it is true, then there never was a time when the Son did not exist. But he was not unborn, as we have said of the eternal light. Otherwise, we would appear to be implying two principles of light. But, as the radiance of the unborn light, he was born of that light, having that same light as origin and source; yet there was not a time when he did not exist.[79]

This is also related to a misinterpretation of how Origen and others are explicitly referencing the paradoxical language of scripture, as I mentioned before. Wisdom is said to be a “creation” of God, but the word created there is not to be understood to mean not eternal, it simply refers to that which has a source/cause/principle, which is why the Son can be said to be created but qualified by His eternality. The hypostasis of the Son and the Spirit are eternally sourced in the Father. The Father is not sourced, because He is source: the eternal cause of the Godhead. If the Father always existed, and the Father always had Wisdom, then Wisdom always existed and there was never a time when Christ, who is that “Power and Wisdom” (united in essence with the Father), was not “begotten.” Therefore, what is The Wisdom of God except God?

Christ’s (Mystical) Subjection to the Father

We say in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father,” and we say that the Son is “begotten of the Father before all ages,” and “begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father.” All of this is meant to convey the belief in what is now referred to as the orthodox doctrine of the monarchy of the Father, conveying the eternal begetting of the Son, which are all the very things Origen was the first to articulate in its most advanced form.

Origen also explicitly rejects an Arian subordinationist interpretation of the text, and this can be clearly seen in On First Principles:

[T]he only-begotten Son of God, who was the Word and the Wisdom of the Father, when he was with the Father in that glory which he had before the world was, emptied himself and taking the form of a servant became obedient even unto death, that he might teach obedience to those who could not otherwise than by obedience obtain salvation; he restored also the corrupted laws of ruling and reigning in that he subdues all enemies under his feet, and by the fact that he must reign until he puts all enemies under his feet and destroys the last enemy, death, he teaches the rulers themselves the art of ruling. As he had come, then, to restore the discipline not only of ruling and reigning, but also of obeying, as we have said, fulfilling in himself first what he desired to be fulfilled by others, becoming obedient to the Father not only unto the death of the cross but also in the consummation of the age, by embracing in himself all whom he subjects to the Father and who come to salvation through him, he himself, with them and in them, is also said to be subject to the Father, when all things subsist in him and he is the head of all things, and in him is the fullness of those attaining salvation. This, therefore, is what the Apostle says of him, When all things have been subject to him, then shall the Son himself also be subject to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all.[80]

And after this he writes:

Indeed I know not how the heretics, not understanding the meaning of the Apostle contained in these words, calumniate the term subjection in regard to the Son; if the propriety of the title is sought, it may easily be found by its opposite. For if to be subject is not good, it follows that the opposite is good, that is, not to be in subjection. Now the language of the Apostle, as they would have it, appears to demonstrate this when it says, When all things have been subject to him, then shall the Son himself also be subject to him who put all things under him, as if he, who is now not subjected to the Father, will then be subjected, when the Father has first subjected all things to him. But I am astonished how it can be understood this way—that he who, while all things are not yet subjected to him, is not himself subjected; then, when all things have been subjected to him, when he is king over all and holds power over the universe, they should then suppose him to be made subject, although he was not subjected before—not understanding that the subjection of Christ to the Father shows the blessedness of our perfection and announces the victory of the work undertaken by him, since he offers to the Father not only the summit of ruling and reigning, which he has amended throughout the whole creation, but also the laws, corrected and renewed, of the obedience and subjection due from the human race. If, then, that subjection, by which the Son is said to be subject to the Father, is good and salvific, it is very logically and coherently concluded that the subjection also of enemies, which is said of the Son of God, is to be understood as something salvific and useful; so that, just as when the Son is said to be subjected to the Father, the perfect restoration of the whole creation is announced, so also when the enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the salvation of the subjected and the restoration of the lost is understood in that.[81]

The knowledge required to understand Origen is why I do not recommend people new to Origen’s corpus read On First Principles. Pamphilus was the first to recognize that the vast majority of misconceptions are due to people prematurely diving into this one work before they first learn how to properly swim in his thought.[82] However, I’ll explain what people either get wrong or overlook, and it is Origen’s mystical understanding of subordination:

Origen talks about Christ within us, His followers, being subordinate to the Father when we are, by faith, subordinate to the Father. This is an economic mystical distinction drawn from a variety of biblical texts, though mostly from St Paul, who talks about Christ being mystically “formed in you,”[83] metaphorically speaking as if man becomes pregnant with God through the spiritual seed that is the Word of God. And again Paul speaks about Christ within us: “nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”[84] And when is Christ in this sense said to be created? When He is formed in the heart, Christ is created; When flesh is mortified, Christ is created; When Paul the persecutor is uprooted and dies, Christ is created: planted and formed in the fertile heart.[85] A heart that continually says “I die daily.”[86] This is all so every person will be subject to God through Christ and that God may be “all in all.”[87] It is also worth noting that St Gregory of Nyssa copies Origen’s exegetical logic surrounding 1 Corinthians 15:28 exactly,[88] and argues against an Arian subordinationist understanding,[89] which is something Origen already did himself.

Listen to Origen revealing this mystical truth of God’s dealings within us in the first homily of his Homilies on Jeremiah:

But the words of God do not end with these: to uproot, demolish and destroy. For let what is bad be uprooted from me, the inferior demolished! If the superior was not planted before the others were uprooted, what does it matter to me? What does it matter to me if what is distinguished cannot be built up before these others? On account of this, first the words of God fulfill the need to uproot, demolish and destroy, then to build and to plant. In Scripture we always note that those acts which are “unpleasant-seeming,” as I will name them, are listed first, then those acts which seem gladdening are mentioned second. I will kill and I will make alive. He did not say, I will make alive and then I will kill. For it is impossible that what God has made to live would be taken away by himself or by someone else. But, I will kill and I will make alive. Whom will I kill? Paul the traitor, Paul the persecutor. And I will make alive so that he becomes Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ.[90]

His rationale can be found in the seventh homily of his Homilies on Leviticus. Origen says the following:

He waits for us that he may drink "from the fruit of this vine." Of what "vine"? Of that one of which he was a type: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whence he also says, "My blood is true drink and my flesh is true food., For certainly, "he washes his robe in the blood of the grape. What is this? He awaits delight. When does he await it? He says, "when I shall have finished your work. When "does he finish this work"? When he makes me, who is the last and most vile of all sinners, complete and perfect, then "he finishes his work." For now his work is still imperfect as long as I remain imperfect. And as long as I am not subjected to the Father, neither is he said to be "subjected,” to the Father. Not that he himself is in need of subjection before the Father but for me, in whom he has not yet completed his work, he is said not to be subjected, for, as we read, "we are the body of Christ and members in part.”[91]

Thus, for Origen, Christ is eternal, but Christ is also, in a mystical sense, created anew every single time someone repents and believes: having Christ born within their heart. To be born again is simply to have Christ begotten in the darkness of your own heart, as St Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6. This is the sense in which Origen talks about Christ as mystically created, and it is obviously not meant to be understood to mean Christ did not exist prior to the event.

Origen said “Not that He Himself is in need of subjection before the Father” because there is a (divine) sense in which Christ is not subject to the Father: the sense in which Christ is of one essence with the Father. There is also a (human) sense in which He is subject to the Father through His assumption of human nature and life as a man. There is yet another (mystical) sense He is subject to the Father through His operations within us, turning us into “christs” who are made willingly subject to the Father. When Christ completes His good work[92] through His power in becoming one with every individual person, leading the whole of humanity, as the captain of our salvation,[93] to be perfectly subjected to the Father, then Christ (who is the last Adam and head of the human race) will in this mystical sense be subjected to the Father because we have become christs.[94]

But lest we think this is all there is to it, not only is Christ subjected to the Father through us, but Origen also says we are subject to the Father through our subjection to Christ:

And we add this, so that it may be more clearly understood what the glory of omnipotence is. The God and Father is Almighty because he has power over all things, that is, over heaven and earth, sun and moon, and all things in them. And he exercises power over them through his Word, for at the name of Jesus every knee bows, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth. And, if every knee bows to Jesus, then, without doubt, it is Jesus to whom all things have been subjected, and he it is who exercised power over all things, and through whom all things have been subjected to the Father; for it is through Wisdom, that is by Word and Reason, not by force and necessity, that they have been subjected. And therefore his glory is in the very fact that he possesses all things, and this is the purest and most clear glory of omnipotence, that by Reason and Wisdom, not by force and necessity, all things have been subjected. Now the purest and most clear glory of Wisdom is a convenient designation to distinguish it from that glory which is not called pure or genuine.[95]
Origen’s Orthodox Legacy

I want to briefly explore how the later Church Fathers fall in line and follow Origen’s Christology concerning the Monarchy of the Father the way ducklings follow their mother. Let us begin with St Dionysius of Alexandria (AD 200 - 265), who was a student of Origen:

Next, I may reasonably turn to those who divide and cut to pieces and destroy that most sacred doctrine of the Church of God, the Divine Monarchy, making it as it were three powers and partive subsistences and godheads. I am told that some among you who are catechists and teachers of the Divine Word, take the lead in this tenet, who are diametrically opposed, so to speak, to Sabellius' opininons; for he blasphemously says that the Son is the Father, and Father the Son, but they in some sort preach three Gods, as dividing the sacred Unity into three subsistences foreign to each other and utterly separate.[96]

And again, look at Origen’s spiritual son, St Gregory the Wonderworker (AD 213 - 270). Gregory lived with Origen for five years, working face to face daily as his student. There is no man who knew Origen better than Gregory, and there has been no man to follow Origen more closely. If Origen was truly an Arian, then we should expect to see it in Gregory. But do we? Listen to Origen’s “Timothy,” the man who taught St Macrina the Elder and the entire Cappadocian family:

There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal. And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of the living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all. There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was nonexistent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abides ever.[97]

Next we have St Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 296 - 373):

The Son does not say, “My Father is better than I,” lest we should conceive him to be foreign to his nature, but “greater,” not indeed in greatness nor in time, but because of his generation from the Father himself.[98]

And St Gregory Nazianzen (AD 329 - 390):

Superior greatness belongs to the cause, equality to the nature [...] To say that [the Father] is greater than [the Son] in his humanity is certainly true, but it is not the point here, since it is no wonder that God is greater than man[...][99]

And St Basil (AD 330 - 379):

Since the Son’s origin is from the Father, in this respect the Father is greater, as cause and origin. This is why the Lord says, “My Father is greater than I.” Indeed, what else does the word Father signify unless being the cause and origin of that which is begotten of Him?[100]
God is one because the Father is one.[101]

And St Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335 - 395):

Since, then, the Holy Ghost, from Whom all the supply of good things for creation has its source, is attached to the Son, and with Him is inseparably apprehended, and has Its being attached to the Father, as cause, from Whom also It proceeds; It has this note of Its peculiar hypostatic nature, that It is known after the Son and together with the Son, and that It has Its subsistence of the Father.[102]

And St John Chrysostom (AD 347 - 407):

If any one say that the Father is greater, inasmuch as He is the cause of the Son, we will not contradict this. But this does not by any means make the Son to be of a different Essence.[103]

And St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 - 430):

[T]he Son and none other is called the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit and none other the Gift of God, and God the Father alone is He from whom the Word is born, and from whom the Holy Spirit principally proceeds. And therefore I have added the word principally, because we find that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also. But the Father gave Him this too, not as to one already existing, and not yet having it; but whatever He gave to the only-begotten Word, He gave by begetting Him.[104]

And St Cyril of Alexandria (AD 376 - 444):

[N]one the less do we believe that everything proceeds from the Father by the Son in the Spirit. You will think then quite rightly that the Father nourishes us in piety by the Son in the Spirit [...] For this view will be more correct than any other, in my opinion. For if we attribute to each a separate activity in His dealings with us, apart from the others, is it not beyond controversy that since the Son is called a Vine and the Father a Husbandman [...] For since the Father does all things by the Son, and could not otherwise act, as He is His wisdom and power.[105]

And St. John of Damascus (AD 675 - 749):

For since He was Himself wholly God although also man, and wholly man although also God, He Himself as man subjected in Himself and by Himself His human nature to God and the Father, and became obedient to the Father, thus making Himself the most excellent type and example for us.[106]

The evidence is very clear: Origen was not an Arian, nor does his Christology lead to Arianism, nor was his “subordinationism” any different from what became the standard orthodox teaching about the Monarchy of the Father. If one wishes to call Origen’s Christology “subordinationist,” then everyone is a subordinationist (rendering the accusation irrelevant). Origen’s detractors could not be more ignorant concerning his thought. One cannot take his Christological formulations apart from his intent—as if a decontextualized paragraph pulled into a vacuum has any objective meaning—and assume that he agrees with Arius. Origen’s language therefore does not indicate that he was pro-Arius, it indicates that he was anti-Sabellius. This is the fundamental point that was, for some, lost in translation when the historical context shifted from an Ante-Nicene Christianity preoccupied with articulating a Christology that addresses Sabellius, Valentinus, and Paul of Samosata to a Nicene Christianity preoccupied with articulating a Christology that primarily addresses what was found to be errors in Arius, Apollinaris, and Eunomius.

Origen’s semantic expressions, such as “two Gods,” began to be no longer understood as a means to distinguish orthodoxy from Sabellianism, and it instead became viewed as a formula that sounded too Arian, or too Gnostic, or whatever else by those who were not well-versed in Origen’s thought. This—in of itself—shows that orthodox expression is dyanamic: constantly adapting to the context and age in which it lives, and that no single expression can ever truly be objectively sufficient for all times and places. History is a difficult discipline to do well, especially when it concerns matters as pressing as theology, because anachronism is always nearby, ready and willing to ruin everything. It is also no secret that, contrary to what is commonly supposed, it was the orthodox side of the Arian debate that used Origen correctly to support Nicene orthodoxy.

It must also be said that Athanasius did not become the greatest opponent of Arianism in spite of reading Origen; St Gregory Nazianzen was not called “The Theologian” in spite of reading Origen; St Gregory of Nyssa was not called “the father of the fathers” in spite of reading Origen. It was directly because they were catechized by Origen and correctly understood his thought that they became the greats.

It is my hope that I have persuasively represented and defended my client, and that all of this suffices to silence all prosecutors who love to condemn people they clearly have not read. My opponents have cited maybe two of Origen’s works to accuse him of opinions he did not hold, I have cited fourteen to defend him with opinions he did hold.

When it comes to Origen’s connection to Arianism, it seems to me that the lawyer Socrates Scholasticus said it best:

“[Basil and Gregory Nazianzen] procured Origen's works, and drew from them the right interpretation of the sacred scriptures; for the fame of Origen was very great and widespread throughout the whole world at that time; after a careful perusal of the writings of that great man, they contended against the Arians with manifest advantage. And when the defenders of Arianism quoted [Origen] in confirmation (as they imagined) of their own views, these two refuted them, and clearly proved that their opponents did not at all understand the reasoning of Origen.”[107]


[1]  Pamphilus, Apology for Origen (FOTC 120), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), p. 39.

[2]  Such as the many assertions of René Amacker and Eric Junod, who seem to believe that anything remotely orthodox in Origen’s writings must on principle be suspiciously viewed as a later addition of Rufinus instead of considering the possibility that Rufinus’ orthodox theology was itself directly influenced by his own extensive reading of Origen, who he clearly considered to be his master. In another footnote to Scheck’s translation of Pamphilus’ apology it was argued that “The very presence of an excerpt from one of Origen’s homilies is suspicious, since Pamphilus announced that he was basing his Apology for Origen on texts from Origen’s treatises and commentaries,” as if Pamphilus must in all places use certain terms in their most strict and formal sense. Anyone who has read Origen’s homilies knows that these are also commentaries on the text of scripture for a liturgical audience. They also doubt that Origen used homoousious, and speculate that he surely could not have used it. However, this too is unpersuasive for multiple reasons: (1) Origen’s Greek commentary was obviously not lost at the time of Pamphilus’ writing, so it could have easily been verified by his opponents as being false if it was false. Because the other quotes from the work can be verified as accurately spliced from the original, so must this. (2) It is far more likely that Origen’s followers (Pamphilus, Rufinus, Athanasius, et al.) were following terminology that Origen actually used (and wish to defend Origen on the basis of what he actually believes), rather than rejecting his terminology in favor of what cannot be found anywhere in his corpus. In other words, Rufinus did not make Origen orthodox, Origen made Rufinus orthodox. (3) It is confirmation bias to reject the most likely explanation in order to maintain the narrative that Rufinus was massaging into Origen’s texts words he never said anywhere in order to turn heresy into orthodoxy. Therefore, I do not consider these kinds of stretched arguments real scholarship.

[3] Pamphilus, Apology for Origen (FOTC 120), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), pp. 45-46.

[4]  Matthew 13:30.

[5]  John 7:24.

[6]  Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, 17. Vincent made five major arguments—all of them unconvincing—about why Origen should be condemned: (1) Origen was extremely influential, controversial, and difficult to read, (2) Origen was arrogant, rashly following his own intellectual abilities, (3) Origen made ancient simplicity more complicated by interpreting Scripture in a novel way, (4) Origen’s influence leads others away from a simple faith, (5) although Origen was not himself a heretic [Vincent grants that Pamphilus is correct in saying Origen’s works were subject to interpolation], people can’t discern the difference and still use Origen’s authority to support error. To the first argument I would respond by saying, “So was St Augustine and St Paul” Perhaps Vincent will like to be the first to sign his name on their condemnation. To the second, Vincent is his own refutation. For he says “But perhaps his assertions rested simply on ingeniously woven argumentation? On the contrary, no teacher ever used more proofs drawn from Scripture.” To the third and fourth, I would ask “What exactly is meant by ancient simplicity?” Surely it must not mean the absence of any development or growth in understanding, because then we are all heretics. And surely it must not mean mystical interpretation, because that was there from the beginning in the person of Paul. And even before that in Philo. And if this is what Vincent means, then obviously he is wrong. To the fifth I would say being mislead to follow something that was interpolated by heretics does not justify the disposal of Origen. That just makes the devil win, and I refuse to do this. The mere presence of controversy should not dictate what is and what is not accepted, because this gives the authority to any clown who stirs up controversy! Do we burn the words of Christ simply because they were controversial among the religious hierarchy and thought to be subversive? Instead, Origen should be used with a caveat: that there may be things remaining that are malicious additions, and we should try to find them and bring them to light, not throw the baby out with the bath water.

[7]  Proverbs 6:16-19

[8]  cf. Revelation 12:10.

[9]  1 Corinthians 6:10.

[10]  Mark Edwards, Religions of the Constantinian Empire (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), p.269.

[11]  John 7:24.

[12]  cf. Ephesians 6:16.

[13]  cf. Isaiah 29:13; Ezekiel 33:31; Matthew 15:7-9.

[14]  1 John 2:1.

[15]  Micah 6:8.

[16]  Acts 5:29.

[17]  Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), pp. 30-31.

[18]  Ibid., p. 6.

[19]  Ibid., p. 7.

[20]  Ibid., p. 189.

[21]  I am not convinced that everyone who was hesitant to accept homoousios was against it because they were Arians. It seems to me that some were against it because they had semantic concerns, and I think Eusebius of Caesarea and Eustathius of Sebaste were probably in this category. The homoousios camp, like Athanasius, thought homoiousios was positioned too close to Arianism, and the homoiousios camp thought homoousios was positioned too close to Sabellianism, and both of them actually agreed with one another on the fundamentals of what they were trying to affirm about Christ’s divinity. They both believed Christ was God, and they were just trying to semantically distance themselves from two different heretical extremes, which would explain why they liked different terms. To give an analogy: imagine Athanasius and Eusebius standing on either side of each other, each having one arm grabbing hold of an “umbrella of orthodox fundamentals” (under which they both stand). Eusebius stands with Athanasius to his left, and Arius (who is outside the reach of the umbrella) to his right. Athanasius stands with Eusebius on his right, and Sabellius on his left (also outside the reach of the umbrella). Athanasius is looking over at Arius, and pulling the umbrella away from him. Eusebius is looking at Sabellius, and pulling the umbrella opposite him. Both men are concerned with formulating a doctrine in such a way that allows heresy to comfortably remain under its shelter, however the issue is, of course, they are in semantic conflict because they are both concerned with two wildly different heresies which are the opposite extremes of one another. Perhaps it is the case that in the local context of Alexandria, Arianism was the most persuasive heresy, and in Caesarea it was Sabellianism. This would explain the different concerns of these individuals when trying to create a universal formula. For more on Eusebius not being an Arian, I recommend Ramelli’s essay titled “Origen’s Anti-Subordinationism.”

[22]  Epiphanius, The Panarion of Epipnaius of Salamis, Books II and III. De Fide (Second, revised edition. Vol.79), trans. Frank Williams (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2013), p. 137.

[23]  Jerome, Letter 84: To Pammachius and Oceanus, 4.

[24]  Alfons Fürst, “Jerome Keeping Silent: Origen and His Exegesis of Isaiah,” in Jerome of Stridon: His Life, Writings and Legacy, ed. A. Cain and J. Lössl (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009), 141–52.

[25]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.Q.32, Art. 1, Reply 1.

[26]  Ibid., I.Q.34, Art. 1, Reply 1.

[27]  Gennadios II Scholarios, Vaticanus Gr. 1742, translated and quoted in Chadwick’s Early Christian Thought, 95.

[28]  Matthew 7:18.

[29]  As recorded in the Suidae Lexicon, ed. Adler, 3.619.

[30]  Athanasius, De Decretis 6.27.

[31]  Ibid.

[32]  Thomas Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen’s Commentary on Romans (IN: Notre Dame Press, 2008). p. 172.

[33]  Ilaria Ramelli, Origen’s Anti-Subordinationism, Vigiliae Christianae 65 (2011) 24-25.

[34]  Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6-10 (FOTC 104), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 147-148.

[35]  Jerome said in the introduction of his Latin translation that Origen surpassed everyone in his other commentaries, and then surpasses himself in his commentary on Song of Songs. Gregory of Nyssa was so inspired by Origen that he wrote his own commentary on the book.

[36]  Origen, Commentary on Song of Songs, trans. R. P. Lawson (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1957), p. 226. The logic at play in his exegesis make it clear that he had a real Trinitarian conception and most likely used homoousios here as he did in his Commentary on Hebrews.

[37]  Origen, Homilies 1-14 on Ezekiel (ACW 62), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Manwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 2010), p. 117.

[38]  Such as an adoptionist monarchian who says, “There was a time when the Son was not.” This is what it means to announce neither well nor faithfully.

[39]  Such as a Sabellian who says “The Father, Son, and Spirit are one,” but they take this to mean there is one hypostasis instead of a unity of multiple hypostases. This is what it means to announce well but not faithfully.

[40]  Such as one who would say “Christ is not a man” in response to a heretic who denies His divinity. The intent behind the words is to say “Christ is not merely a man,” which is truth, but the phraseology is misleading and could give the impression that Christ was not truly man. This is what it means to announce faithfully but not well.

[41]  Such as the orthodox formulation, saying “The Father, Son, and Spirit are one,” taken to mean three united hypostases. This is what it means to announce both faithfully and well.

[42]  In places such as Psalm 2:7, John 1:1-3; 14:28, Philippians 2:6, and Hebrews 1:2-3.

[43]  Ibid., pp. 84-85.

[44]  Romans 16:27.

[45]  cf. Psalm 82:6.

[46]  Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6-10 (FOTC 104), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), p. 310.

[47]  1 Corinthians 1:24

[48]  Origen, Commentary on John, Books 1-10 (FOTC 80), trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), pp. 90-91.

[49]  Ibid., p. 97.

[50]  Sirach 1:9.

[51]  Sirach 1:1.

[52]  Sirach 1:4.

[53]  cf. John 14:6.

[54]  cf. Wisdom of Solomon 7:26.

[55]  Origen, Against Celsus, 8.12.

[56]  Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19.

[57]  Colossians 1:15.

[58]  1 Timothy 2:5.

[59]  Matthew 12:35; Luke 6:45.

[60]  Colossians 1:15.

[61]  Wisdom of Solomon 7:26.

[62]  Origen, Commentary on Matthew 15.10. Trans. Justin Gohl.

[63]  Origen, Against Celsus 5.39.

[64]  John Behr, On First Principles, Volume II, trans. John Behr (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 598. There was a fragment from Justinian inserted into On First Prinicples 1.3.5 which Behr has removed from his translation and lists as Fragment 9. “The God and Father, holding all things together, is superior to every being, giving to each, from his own, to be whatever it is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone, for he is second to the Father; and the Holy Spirit is still less, dwelling with the holy ones alone. So that in this way the power of the Father is greater than the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that of the Son is greater than the Holy Spirit, and again the power of the Holy Spirit differs greatly from other holy beings.” Justinian, Ep. ad Menam (ed. Schwartz, 208.26-32). This passage should not be thought of as being from Origen’s hand. And even if it was, it would change very little.

[65]  Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1953), p. 296.

[66]  Origen, Dialogue with Heraclides, 2.4-9.

[67]  Origen, Dialogue with Heraclides, 2.19-32.

[68]  Origen references Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, 1 Corinthians 6:17, Matthew 19:6, and John 10:30.

[69]  The teaching of Sabellius was that the Father, Son, and Spirit were three manifestations/modes of one hypostasis. The implication is, of course, that Christ is His own Father, and that this means the one Father God is who truly suffered on the cross in the manifestation of the Son. Patripassian means to say “the Father suffers.”

[70]  Origen, Dialogue with Heraclides, 4.5-10.

[71]  Origen, On Prayer 15.1.

[72]  John 14:28.

[73]  Athanasius, Discourses Against the Arians 4.1.

[74]  Pamphilus, Apology for Origen (FOTC 120), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), pp. 57-58.

[75]  Origen, Homilies on Numbers (Ancient Christian Texts), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 63.

[76]  Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy (Oxford, 2004), p.20

[77]  cf. Matthew 4:6.

[78]  Origen, Commentary on John: Books 1-10 (FOTC 80), trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), p. 309.

[79]  Pamphilus, Apology for Origen (FOTC 120), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), p. 66.

[80]  Origen, On First Principles, Volume II, trans. John Behr (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 435.

[81]  Ibid. 435, 437.

[82]  Pamphilus, Apology for Origen (FOTC 120), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), p. 48. Pamphilus says “The majority of the objections raised by his accusers are chiefly based on the books that he entitled Peri archon.”

[83]  Galatians 4:19.

[84]  Galatians 2:20.

[85]  cf. Luke 8:15.

[86]  1 Corinthians 15:31.

[87]  1 Corinthians 15:28.

[88]  Gregory of Nyssa, In Illud

[89]  Ilaria Ramelli, Origen’s Anti-Subordinationism, Vigiliae Christianae 65 (2011) 23.

[90]  Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah (FOTC 97), trans. John Clark Smith (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), p. 20.

[91]  Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, Books 1-16 (FOTC 83), trans. Gary W. Barkley (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990), p. 135.

[92]  cf. Philippians 1:6.

[93]  cf. Hebrews 2:10.

[94]  cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28. Origen says this is the meaning of Christ’s words to Mary concerning John: “Woman, behold thy son” (John 19:26).

[95]  Origen, On First Principles (Volume I), trans. John Behr (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 61.

[96]  Dionysius, On the decrees of the Council of Nicaea. Recorded by Athanasius in De decretis Nic. syn. 26.

[97]  Gregory the Wonderworker, Declaration of Faith

[98]  Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, 1.58

[99]  Gregory Nazianzen, Oration, 30.7

[100]  Basil, Against Eunomius, 1.25

[101]  Basil, Against Sabellius, 3.

[102]  Gregory of Nyssa. Ad Petrum. (Previously thought to be instead from his brother Basil, originally appearing as Letter 38.4 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.)

[103]  John Chrysostom, Homilies on John, 75.

[104]  Augustine, On the Trinity XV.17.29.

[105]  Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 10.2.

[106]  John Damascene, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 3.18.

[107]  Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, IV. 26.

More From the Blog

other posts

Halloween and the Monstrous
Irenaeus Tweed
Read More
St. Maximus the Confessor on Mind, Knowing, and Prayer
Tyler Cohen
Read More
Patristic Universalism
Ambrose Andreano
Read More
The Problem of Enoch and Elijah
Ambrose Andreano
Read More
Pop Culture
Avatar and Christianity
Irenaeus Tweed
Read More
Pop Culture
The Suffering of Innocents in Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Roberto De La Noval
Read More