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Origen and his successors

Nov 25, 2011

Origen's father, Leonides, was killed in the persecution that broke out in Alexandria in 202 A.D. Origen himself wanted to join his father as a martyr, but his mother hid his clothing and thus prevented him from leaving the house. Hence, he lived to take over the Theological School at Alexandria after Clement fled to Antioch.

In 213 Origen took a trip to Rome, where he observed the conflict between Zephyrinus and Hippolytus, who each claimed to be the true Bishop of Rome. He then went to Arabia at the invitation of certain Bedouin tribes who wished to receive Christian teaching. He finally returned to Alexandria in 216, but another massacre of Christians convinced Origen to move to Caesarea in Palestine. There the bishops asked him to teach in the church.

Origen was loved as much for his humility, diligence, and Christian character as for his scholarship. But because Origen had not been ordained formally, Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, became jealous of his growing influence and wrote to the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea, complaining that they were allowing an unordained minister to teach the people. They replied that this was not so unusual, since this had been allowed often in the past.

Demetrius then wrote to Origen, ordering him to return to Alexandria at once. Origen meekly complied and resumed his work at the School.

Meanwhile, the Roman Emperor, Elagabalus (218-222) was killed, and his cousin, Alexander, became the new emperor. His mother, Mammaea, lived in Antioch and was a Christian. She heard of Origen and invited him to come to Antioch to teach. Bishop Demetrius dared not turn down the wishes of the Emperor's mother, so Origen moved to Antioch.

When Origen finally left Antioch, he returned via Caesarea, where the bishops ordained him as a presbyter in order to avoid further problems with Bishop Demetrius. But Demetrius then became angry with his fellow bishops. He declared Origen to be unfit for the ministry on the grounds that he was a eunuch.

Two decades earlier, in 206, Origen had taken Jesus' words in Matt. 19:12 more literally than he ought to have done. In his zeal, he emasculated himself. At the time, Demetrius had applauded his actions, because he did not yet consider Origen to pose any threat. But years later, when the bishops of Palestine ordained Origen without the consent of Demetrius, he used this pretext to condemn Origen as unfit for the priesthood.

Origen again returned to Alexandria, but Demetrius made his life so miserable that in 231 he finally left Alexandria for good and moved permanently to Palestine. Demetrius then excommunicated Origen for insubordination. The order was largely ignored, because the other bishops knew the bad character of Demetrius and loved Origen's godly character.

Demetrius died shortly after this. The bishops who succeeded him for the next 150 years ignored the excommunication order against Origen. Yet they did not formally reverse the excommunication, and so this issue was raised again in the great controversy in the year 400.

Origen continued to teach the Word until the persecution that arose under the Roman Emperor Decius (249-151). It was the worst persecution of the century. Origen was imprisoned and cruelly tortured for his faith. He never recovered from his injuries on the rack, but the prison guards allowed him to escape after Decius and his son were killed in battle in 251. Origen then died two years later at Tyre.

When Origen had moved to Caesarea in 231 to escape the oppression of Bishop Demetrius, two brothers from a rich family came to study under him. They were Gregory and Athenodorus. When they moved north to the shores of the Black Sea, they took with them the love of the Scriptures and Origen's teachings which they had learned. In fact, on the occasion of their parting, Gregory wrote his Panagyric on Origen praising him for his character and scholarship.

Gregory was later made bishop of Caesarea and was known as one of the most eminent bishops of the day. He was called Gregory Thaumaturgus, or "Wonder Worker."

It is this Gregory that the editors of The Ante-Nicene Fathers were referencing when they wrote "how Pantaenus begat Clement, and Clement begat Origen. So Origen begat Gregory...."

The teachings of Origen were extensive, and he was the first to do a commentary on the whole Bible. Throughout his writings, he taught that the divine plan would eventually lead to the salvation of all men. Some would be saved in the present life time, while the majority would be saved "through fire" in an age to come. Hosea Ballou wrote in his 1829 book, The Ancient History of Universalism, p. 147,

"Throughout the long period of nearly a century and a half... there is not an intimation found that Origen's Universalism gave any offence in the church, notwithstanding his writings, the meanwhile, underwent severest scrutiny, and were frequently attacked on other points... Even the few who treated his name with indignity, uniformly passed, in silence, over the prominent tenet of Universal Salvation."

Hosea Ballou concludes on page 166,

"... that the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation was regarded in the church as neither heretical nor even unpopular; that the standard of orthodoxy, so far as it concerned that particular point, was then supposed to require only a belief in future punishment."

In other words, it was not required that anyone should believe that the "future punishment" be everlasting but merely aionian.

Gregory of Nazianzen (325-390), bishop of Constantinople, along with his good friend, Basil, compiled a collection of Origen's writings called Philokalia, "Love of the Beautiful." This Gregory was known as one of the four Eastern Doctors of the Church. Gregory wrote about the lake of fire in Orat. XXXIX, 19,

"These (apostates), if they will, may go our way, which indeed is Christ's; but if not, let them go their own way. In another place perhaps they shall be baptized with fire, that last baptism, which is not only very painful, but enduring also; which eats, as it were hay, all defiled matter, and consumes all vanity and vice."

Church historian, Robert Payne, writes of Gregory on page 179 of his book, The Fathers of the Eastern Church,

"Of all the Fathers of the Church, he was the only one to be granted after his death the title 'Theologian,' which until this time was reserved for an apostle--John of Patmos."

Another Gregory, the younger brother of Basil, became bishop of Nyassa, a town in Cappadocia in what is now northern Turkey. This Gregory was second only to Origen in being prolific in his writings. He wrote much about the Restoration of All Things. Robert Payne wrote:

"Four hundred years after his death, at the Seventh General Council held in A.D. 787, the assembled princes of the Church granted him a title which exceeded in their eyes all the other titles granted to men; he was called 'Father of Fathers'." [p. 169]

In light of these great "fathers of the church," who clearly taught the Restoration of All Things, it is curious that their teaching would later be pronounced heretical. How did this happen?

To be continued.

This is the first part of a series titled "Origen and his Successors." To view all parts, click the link below.

Origen and his Successors

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Category: Teachings

Dr. Stephen Jones

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