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Origen of Alexandria - Theologian and Allegorical Exegete

Verse: Matthew 19:12

The blistering persecution set in motion by Emperor Septimus Severus in 202 tore apart the family of the young Origenes Adamatius (185 - 254), who would become one of the leading systematic theologians of the early church. Born into a Christian home in Alexandria, he was the oldest of seven children. As a youth he memorized lengthy passages of the Bible and often perplexed his father, a teacher of the Bible and Greek literature, with difficult theological questions. The happy home life was suddenly disrupted in 202, however, when Origen's father was imprisoned.

The sixteen-year-old boy might have been utterly distraught, but instead the ordeal served to strengthen his faith. Fearing his father might forsake his faith out of devotion to the family, he pleaded: "Do not change your mind because of us." Shortly afterward, Origen's father was beheaded and his property confiscated, leaving his widow and young children in dire straits. Through the generosity of a benefactor, Origen continued his studies for a year and then became a teacher and later the head of an Alexandrian catechetical school in order to support his mother and siblings.

For Origen, theology was intricately tied to spiritual formation. He practiced strict asceticism, denying himself normal pleasures in order to suffer with Christ, even castrating himself to avert sexual desires. With his asceticism came humanitarian outreach, primarily aiding those suffering under persecution. Some of his students were sentenced to death, and he himself hid in homes of both pagans and Christians in order to escape execution.

Under Origen's teaching and administration, the Alexandrian school grew. His scholarship captured the attention of church leaders, who invited him to preach and teach elsewhere, much to the chagrin of his bishop, Demetrius, who demanded that he return home. How dare he tour as a celebrity speaker! "It has never been heard of and it never happens now," the bishop seethes, "that laymen preach homilies in the presence of bishops."

Origen, for his part, was not easily muzzled. Traveling through the Mediterranean world, he spent time in Caesarea, where he was ordained by the bishop, who believes such acknowledgment of his ministerial gifts is appropriate. When Demetrius learned of this "breach of jurisdiction," he was livid, accusing Origen of teaching heresy and exposing the secret of his youthful self-castration. In the ensuing conflict, Origen was banned from Alexandria and his ordination was rendered null and void.

Other bishops, however, ignored the retraction of his ordination and invited him to serve as a priest and teacher under their jurisdictions. He eventually made his home in Caesarea, where he combined his work of teaching, preaching, and writing in wide-ranging fields of biblical studies, theology, philosophy, natural science, and ethics. His intention, however, was not to establish a liberal arts program. Rather, his focus was mission outreach—bringing pagans into the faith through his appealing educational offerings. During the later years of his life, Origen traveled as a theological consultant, frequently called upon to judge the orthodoxy of a particular churchman or teacher whose beliefs are in question. With the help of a wealthy benefactor, he was able to devote his time to research and writing.

During the persecution under Emperor Decius, Origen was arrested and imprisoned. Although nearing seventy, he was afforded no mercy. According to Eusebius, his torture was severe. Among other agonies, his legs were "pulled four paces apart in the torturer's stocks." Released from prison, he died soon afterward.

Unlike many of the leading Christians of the early church, Origen will never be given the title of saint. In the sixth century he was deemed a heretic for several of his controversial views, including his belief in a Trinitarian hierarchy. But he held views even more abhorrent, what a critic called "the fabulous preexistence of souls" and "the monstrous restoration which follows from it." This restoration was a form of universalism in which God's love in the end prevails over his wrath.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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