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Blog / Origen vs. Celsus: Early Christianity Answers Its Critics

Origen vs. Celsus: Early Christianity Answers Its Critics

Origen, as depicted by André Thévet.

Origen, as depicted by André Thévet.

I recently had the privilege of leading a short discussion at my church about early Christianity. In particular, I talked about the period of time immediately following the New Testament, when early Christians found themselves contending for the faith in an intellectually diverse and often hostile environment.

One of the highlights of that time period is the vibrant interaction between Christians and their critics. One such early exchange took place between the church father Origen and a Greek philosopher named Celsus.

Celsus had written a critique of Christianity called The True Word, and Origen was asked to respond to his charges. The True Word has been lost to history, but its main points are preserved as quotations in Origen’s rebuttal.

I thought it would be fun to share an excerpt from that exchange, as a representative sample of the sort of back-and-forth that early Christians were engaged in with their pagan critics. In this excerpt, Origen accuses Celsus of misrepresenting a challenging passage from 1 Corinthians 3.

But since Celsus has declared it to be a saying of many Christians, that “the wisdom of this life is a bad thing, but that foolishness is good,” we have to answer that he slanders the Gospel, not giving the words as they actually occur in the writings of Paul, where they run as follow: “If any one among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” The apostle, therefore, does not say simply that “wisdom is foolishness with God,” but “the wisdom of this world.” And again, not, “If any one among you seemeth to be wise, let him become a fool universally;” but, “let him become a fool in this world, that he may become wise.” We term, then, “the wisdom of this world,” every false system of philosophy, which, according to the Scriptures, is brought to nought; and we call foolishness good, not without restriction, but when a man becomes foolish as to this world. […]

Moreover, that it is in agreement with the spirit of Christianity, of much more importance to give our assent to doctrines upon grounds of reason and wisdom than on that of faith merely, and that it was only in certain circumstances that the latter course was desired by Christianity, in order not to leave men altogether without help, is shown by that genuine disciple of Jesus, Paul, when he says: “For after that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” Now by these words it is clearly shown that it is by the wisdom of God that God ought to be known. But as this result did not follow, it pleased God a second time to save them that believe, not by “folly” universally, but by such foolishness as depended on preaching. For the preaching of Jesus Christ as crucified is the “foolishness” of preaching, as Paul also perceived, when he said, “But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness; but to them who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and wisdom of God.”

The verse Origen cites at the end of his response is 1 Corinthians 1:23.

You can read the entirety of Origen’s Against Celsus at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. The writing style makes it a moderately challenging read, but it’s fascinating to see the types of charges levelled against Christianity in its early years. Some of them, such as the charge that Christianity had nothing truly new or useful to offer a world built on Greek philosophy and pagan tradition, are heavily rooted in the concerns of the ancient world. Others, such as the above charge that Christianity requires its followers to reject reason, are early versions of arguments Christians contend with even today.

Imagine you were tasked with responding to Celsus’ criticisms—how would you counter his arguments?

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Filed under Apologetics, History