Saturday, July 13, 2019

Hort's Lecture on Origen

Fenton John Anthony Hort

            In 1890, Fenton John Anthony Hort (half of the Westcott-Hort duo) delivered a series of six lectures on ante-Nicene fathers.  They were published in 1895, a few years after his death.  What follows here, with slight adjustments, is the sixth lecture in the series.


            In the last two lectures the Fathers who have come before us have all belonged to Africa. It will be the same today.  We return now from North Africa, and the two great Fathers whom at this early time it brought forth for Latin theology, to Egypt and to the most characteristically Greek theology.
            If the influence of Clement of Alexandria over the later times of early Christianity was less than we might have expected, the same cannot be said of his great pupil Origen.  Not only had he the veneration of devoted disciples for several generations, but the theologies built up in the succeeding centuries of the age of the Fathers would, as far as we can see, have been very different from what they actually were, had it not been for the foundations laid by him.  Above all, his influence as an interpreter of the Bible, direct and indirect, has been both wide and lasting.  In the ancient Church three men stand out above all others as having left a deep mark by their independent interpretation of Scripture.  The other two are Theodore of Mopsuestia (late in the fourth century), the highest representative of the School of Antioch, and (a generation later) Augustine the North African, the primary teacher of the Latin West.  Not the least interesting fact however in the history of the influence of Origen as an interpreter is the way in which his thoughts and often his words were appropriated and handed on by Latin Fathers, and especially the three greatest Latin Fathers of the fourth century, Hilary of Poitiers (theologically the greatest of them all), Ambrose and Jerome.
            In this manner, as well as by direct translations of some of Origen’s works, Origenian ideas, penetrating down through various channels, supplied a by no means insignificant element in the very miscellaneous body of traditional interpretation which prevailed till the fresh and open study of the meaning of Scripture was restored, chiefly by the Revivers of learning just before the Reformation and by some of the Reformers themselves.  The permanent value of his interpretation of Scripture is much lessened by the fact that, in common with most ancient interpreters outside the School of Antioch, he shows an excessive devotion to allegorical senses; yet along with this mere fancifulness we find in him evidence of a genuine and profound study of the words of Scripture.  For all his great and lasting influence, Origen’s name has been by no means surrounded with the halo of conventional glory which has traditionally adorned Fathers inferior to him in every way.  Some of his speculations were doubtless crude and unsatisfactory, but these are but trifles beside the vast services which he rendered to theology; and accordingly, every now and then, from Athanasius onwards, he has received cordial words of vindication from men who were able to recognize goodness and greatness, in spite of an unpopular name.
            Unlike the Fathers whom we have been lately considering, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen had the blessing of Christian parentage, and received from his father Leonides a careful education both in the ordinary Greek culture of the day and in the study of Scripture, becoming the pupil of Clement.  He was not seventeen when that persecution of about the year 202 under Septimius Severus occurred which drove Clement from Alexandria, and Leonides was thrown into prison. Origen himself, being restrained by a device of his mother’s from rushing to join him in the anticipated martyrdom [she hid his clothes – JSJ], wrote to him entreating that no care for his family should be allowed to shake his constancy.  On his father’s martyrdom, with confiscation of goods, he provided for his own and his mother's and six brothers’ wants by teaching, except that he was lodged by a lady of wealth.
            Some heathens came to him for instruction, including Plutarchus, who was martyred, and Heraclas, who became Bishop of Alexandria; and thus he was led to take up, though in an informal way, the dropped work of the Catechetical School.  After a time he was placed formally at its head by the Bishop Demetrius.  For some twelve years he went on without other interruption than a short visit to Rome and another to Arabia, lecturing to large audiences as a layman, living a sternly rigorous and self-denying life.  To this time belongs the rash act of self-mutilation always associated with his name, suggested to him by a misunderstanding of the real drift of one of our Lord’s sayings.  Meanwhile he labored to fit himself for his work more and more.  On the one hand he studied Hebrew; on the other he attended the lectures of the most eminent heathen philosophers, that he might be ‘better able to understand the thoughts of those’ who came to him for help.  The work increased so much that he associated with himself his convert Heraclas.
            At length about the year 215 he was driven by tumults to leave Alexandria, as Clement had done, and took refuge for a considerable time at Caesarea, the Greek or Roman capital of Palestine.  Alexander, now Bishop of Jerusalem, of whom we heard a fortnight ago, and the Bishop of Caesarea joined in inviting him to preach (homilein) to the assembled congregation. On receiving a remonstrance from Demetrius at their permitting a layman to preach before bishops, they cited various precedents in defense of their action.  But Demetrius refused to give way, and fetched Origen back to Alexandria in a peremptory way.  After his return he was persuaded by Ambrosius, now a friend, formerly a convert of his from some Pseudo-Gnostic sect, to undertake commentaries in writing, for which purpose Ambrosius provided short-hand writers.
            But after Origen had taught at Alexandria for about a quarter of a century, his career there came to a painful end.  The Churches of Achaia, being much distracted by what were called heresies (of what kind, is not related), invited him to come to their help.  He started without obtaining license from Demetrius (but under what circumstances we do not know), and took his way through Palestine.  There he was ordained presbyter by the Bishop of Caesarea, with Alexander’s knowledge and approval.  He then completed his journey to Greece, making sojourns at Ephesus and Athens, and at length returned home.  His reception there is a sad one to read of.  Demetrius assembled “a synod of bishops and of certain presbyters,” by whom he was forbidden to teach or even reside in Alexandria.  They did not agree to reject his ordination, as apparently Demetrius wished, but this too he obtained from a subsequent smaller meeting of bishops alone.
            Our too fragmentary authorities do not tell us quite clearly the ground of condemnation. Apparently it was the ordination of one who was mutilated, though it is also possible that doctrinal differences and it may be even personal jealousies were unavowed motives of action. There is reason to believe that the Roman Church supported the action of Demetrius, but it was entirely ignored by the Bishops of Asia; those of Palestine, Arabia, Phoenicia (i.e. probably North Syria) and Achaia being specially mentioned.  Origen left Alexandria for ever, and though beloved disciples of his own succeeded Demetrius as bishop, apparently no attempt was made to undo the banishment.
            Gentlest, humblest, and most peace-loving of men, Origen would be the last to disturb the peace of the Church for his own sake.  Accordingly for the third time he betook himself to the friendly Caesarea, and there in the great seaport beside the Mediterranean he made his permanent home for the rest of his life, above twenty years.  Being welcomed and cherished by the two Palestinian Bishops of whom we heard before, he carried on his literary work as a Christian theologian with the help of Ambrosius, and at the same time resumed oral instruction, partly by expository sermons of a comparatively simple kind in Church, partly by more advanced lectures to students and philosophical enquirers, as at the Catechetical School of Alexandria.
            With this period are specially connected the names of two illustrious disciples, Firmilianus and Gregory of Neocaesarea.  Firmilianus was apparently already bishop of the Cappadocian Caesarea, the capital of the inland regions of Eastern Asia Minor, when this recorded intercourse with Origen took place, though it may well have begun at an earlier time. Sometimes he used to get Origen to come to visit him in Cappadocia to instruct his Churches; sometimes he used to make stays in Palestine to have the personal benefit of hearing Origen discourse.  A man of still greater eminence in the years after the middle of the third century was Gregory Bishop of Neocaesarea in Pontus.  According to his own narrative he had traveled to Palestine to educate himself as an advocate by study at Beirut, where there was a famous School of Roman Law; but before fixing himself there, he had traveled on to Caesarea with his sister, whose husband held an official post there.  Beirut however was soon given up.  He fell (with his brother) under the spell of Origen’s teaching and personal presence, and remained under his instruction for five years.
            On his departure he delivered an address in expression of his gratitude, and this address is still extant.  In it he describes how he first came under Origen, and how Origen dealt with him and with other pupils.  First came a training in the faculties of the mind, a pruning away of wild growths of opinion for opinion’s sake, an enforcement of clear thinking and exact speaking.  Then came the study of the visible order of nature, founded on the study of geometry.  Thirdly came Christian ethics as founded on godliness, which he called the beginning and the end of all the virtues. Having passed through these preliminary stages of mental discipline, Origen’s pupils were encouraged to read freely in the works of Greek poets and philosophers, and then, thus prepared, to enter on the study of Christian theology proper, more especially in its primary source, the Bible.
            Such was the method of Origen’s regular teaching at Caesarea.  But he did not refuse invitations to leave home for a while, and give help to other Churches.  Some time, we know, he spent at Athens.  Twice he was asked to come into Arabia to help in neutralizing false doctrines which had arisen there.  In each case, instead of using declamation and anathemas, he sought quiet conference with the men who had propounded these doctrines; and in each case succeeded in persuading them that they had been in error.  If later controversies had been dealt with in the same spirit, what a different Christendom and a different world would now be meeting our eyes!
            Our first glimpse of Origen was as a boy, encouraging his father to face martyrdom without hesitation, undistracted by any anxieties for his helpless family. A third of a century later a similar task fell to his lot.  The emperor Alexander Severus, who had been friendly to the Christians, and with whose mother Mamsea Origen had had some intercourse, had come to a violent end, and his murderer and successor Maximinus entered on a persecution of such Christians, it would seem, as had stood in special favor with Alexander.  Origen was apparently saved by a Christian Cappadocian lady, Juliana, who kept him out of harm’s way.  But Ambrosius and a presbyter of Caesarea were imprisoned, and to them Origen wrote an Exhortation which we still possess.
            But fifteen years later, or less, he had to suffer grievously in his own person.  In that persecution of Decius in which his old fellow-student and supporter Alexander died in prison, he too was cast into prison, and had to undergo a succession of tortures.  Decius’ reign was a short one; and on his death Origen was released from prison, shattered by the treatment which he had received, and two years later he died at Tyre, being not far from 70 years of age.  His tomb in the Cathedral of Tyre is several times in the early Middle Ages noticed as then still visible, and the inscription of it still later; and a tradition of his place of burial is still said to be current in the neighborhood.  Though he does not bear the conventional title of Saint, no saintlier man is to be found in the long line of ancient Fathers of the Church.
            One of the best known sentences of Butler’s Analogy, occurring in the Introduction, is to this effect:  “Hence, namely from analogical reasoning, Origen has with singular sagacity observed, that he who believes the Scripture to have proceeded from him who is the Author of Nature, may well expect to find the same sort of difficulties in it, as are found in the constitution of Nature.”  These few words are characteristic of the subjects of Origen’s writings.  He was deeply and reverently occupied in meditation on all things in heaven and earth of which the human mind can take any cognizance; but the Bible was the center of all his thoughts and of all his studies.  He wrote commentaries or preached homilies, taken down by rapid writers, on a large proportion of books of both Testaments.  What is lost was far more than what is preserved: but we still have much, large portions of the commentaries on St. Matthew and St. John, that on the Romans in a too free Latin condensed translation, some Homilies on Jeremiah, many Greek fragments on various books, and many Latin translations of Homilies, chiefly on the Old Testament.
            A biblical work of another kind was what is called Origen’s Hexapla, an arrangement of the books of the Old Testament in (for the most part) six parallel columns, each containing a distinct text, the Hebrew, the same in Greek letters, the Septuagint, and three other Greek translations.  Numerous detached readings copied from it have been preserved, but hardly more. By this combination of texts Origen hoped to throw light on the meaning of many passages in which a Greek reader would be either bewildered or misled if he had only the Septuagint before him.  Besides the Exhortation to Martyrdom mentioned before, we possess a very interesting little treatise of Origen’s on Prayer. Very little unhappily remains of his letters, of which a collection was made some time after his death. But we fortunately possess in one shape or other what were probably his two greatest works, the systematic doctrinal treatise on First Principles, written before his departure from Alexandria, preserved for the most part only in a too free Latin version; and the eight books against Celsus in the original Greek, written near the end of his life. In connection with Origen’s writings it is worth while to mention the Philocalia, a small collection of extracts from them chiefly bearing on the interpretation of Scripture, made late in the fourth century by Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus.  It was from this source that Butler made his quotation, and the little book deserves to be better known.
            As an easy specimen of the book on First Principles, which chiefly consists of somewhat difficult speculative meditations, we may take a passage on the thirst for Divine knowledge implanted in the heart of man, and, however little he may know in this life, intended to render him capable of even higher levels of knowledge in the stages of the future life.
            “Therefore, as in those crafts which are accomplished by hand, we can perceive by our understanding the reason which determines what a thing is to be, how it is to be made and for what purposes, while the actual work is accomplished by the service of the hands, so in the works of God which are wrought by His own hand, we must understand that the reason and designs of the things which we see made by Him, remain unseen.  And just as, when our eye has seen things made by the craftsman, the mind, on observing something made with especial skill, is forthwith anxious to enquire in what fashion or manner or for what purposes the thing has been made, so much more and in an incomparably higher degree the mind is anxious with an unspeakable longing to recognize the reason of the things which we behold made by God.  This longing, this ardent desire, has we believe without doubt been implanted in us by God, and, just as the eye naturally requires light and object of vision, and our body by nature demands food and drink, so our intellect is possessed with a fit and natural desire for knowing the truth of God and discovering the causes of things.  Now this desire we have received from God not in order that it should never be satisfied or be capable of satisfaction; otherwise vainly will the love of truth appear to have been implanted in our intellect by God the Creator, if it is made never capable of satisfying its longing.
            “Wherefore even in this life those who have laboriously given their attention to godly and religious meditations, even though they obtain but a small amount from the great and infinite treasures of the Divine wisdom, yet just because they keep their minds and attention turned towards these subjects and outstrip themselves in this desire, receive much profit from the very fact that they are directing their minds to the search and love of discovering truth and making them more ready to receive future instruction, just as, when a man wishes to paint a portrait, if a pencil sketch in bare outline first marks out the plan of the coming picture, and prepares marks on which the features may be laid, the rough outline doubtless is found more ready to receive the true colors, so may a mere sketch, a rough outline by the pencil of our Lord Jesus Christ, be traced on the tablets of our heart.  And perhaps it is for this reason that it is said, ‘For to everyone that hath shall it be given, and it shall be added to him.’  Whence it is certain that to those who possess in this life a sort of rough outline of truth and knowledge shall be added in the future the beauty of the perfect picture.  Such, I imagine, was the desire indicated by him who said, ‘But I am constrained in two ways, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, for it is far better,’ knowing that when he had returned to Christ, he would recognize more clearly the reasons of all things which are done on earth.” [From Origen, ii. IV. p. 236.       Redep. (ii. xi. 4, 5).]
            The Books against Celsus contain at once the best and the most comprehensive defense of the Christian faith which has come down to us from the days of the Fathers.  They defend it not against popular prejudice and malice only, as the early Apologists had done, but against the careful and powerful indictment laid by an earnest though scoffing heathen philosopher who was also apparently an accomplished Roman lawyer, writing in the name of the highest philosophy of the time, and passionately devoted to the welfare of the Roman Empire.  A long time had passed between the writing of Celsus’ “True Account,” as he called his literary onslaught on the Christians and their faith, and its coming into Origen’s hands.  He had no real knowledge about the author, but he evidently felt that if he could answer him successfully, he would practically have effectually upheld the cause of the Gospel at all points.  If he sometimes fails to understand on what this or that smart saying of Celsus’ really rested, he never shows the unfairness of the mere partisan.  The candor and patience of his treatise are among its brightest qualities.
            The whole treatise amply repays reading and re-reading; one passage however must now suffice.  It is the reply to Celsus’ scoff about the lateness of the Incarnation and its limitation to an obscure corner of the world, a scoff in form, but covering a serious question.  As regards the time, Celsus compared it to the comic poet’s representation of Zeus as waking out of sleep and suddenly sending Hermes to men. As regards the place, he asked why God did not breathe souls into many bodies and send them all over the earth. Here is the answer.
            “Observe here too Celsus’ want of reverence when he most unphilosophically brings in a comic poet, whose object is to raise a laugh, and compares our God the Creator of the Universe with the god in his play who on awaking dispatches Hermes. We have said above that, when God sent Jesus to the human race, it was not as though He had just awoken from a long sleep, but Jesus, though He has only now for worthy reasons fulfilled the divine plan of His incarnation, has at all times been doing good to the human race.  For no noble deed among men has ever been done without the Divine Word visiting the souls of those who even for a brief space were able to receive such operations of the Divine Word.  Nay, even the appearance of Jesus in one corner of the world (as it seems) has been brought about for a worthy reason, since it was necessary that He of whom the prophets spoke should appear among those who had learnt one God, who read His prophets and recognized Christ preached in them, and that He should appear at a time when the Word was about to be diffused from one corner to the whole world.
            “Wherefore also there was no need that many bodies should be made everywhere, and many spirits like to that of Jesus, in order that the whole world of men might be illumined by the Word of God.  For it sufficed that the one Word rising like the Sun of Righteousness from Judea should send forth His speedy rays into the soul of them that were willing to receive Him.  And if anyone does wish to see many bodies filled with a divine Spirit, ministering like Him the one Christ to the salvation of men in every place, let him take note of those who in all places do honestly and with an upright life teach the word of Jesus, who are themselves too called ‘Christs’ (‘anointed ones’) in the passage, ‘Touch not mine anointed ones and do my prophets no harm.’  For even as we have heard that antichrist comes and nevertheless have learnt that there are many antichrists in the world, even so, when we recognize that Christ has come, we observe that owing to Him many Christs have been born in the world, to wit, all those that like Him have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, and for this reason God, the God of Christ, anointed them too with the oil of gladness.  But He however, having loved righteousness and hated iniquity to a higher degree than those who are His partners, has also received the first-fruits of the anointing, and, if we may so term it, has received the entire unction of the oil of gladness, while they that were His partners partook also in His unction, each according to his capacity.
            “Wherefore, since Christ is the head of the Church, so that Christ and His Church are one body, the ointment has descended from the head to the beard (the symbol of the full-grown man Aaron), and this ointment in its descent reached to the skirts of his clothing. This is my answer to Celsus’ impious speech when he says that ‘God ought to have breathed His Spirit into many bodies in like manner and to have sent them forth throughout the world.’  So then while the comic poet to raise a laugh has represented Zeus as asleep and as waking up and sending Hermes to the Greeks, let the Word which knows that the nature of God is sleepless teach us that God with regard to seasons orders the affairs of the world as reason demands.  But it is not to be wondered at, if, seeing that the judgments of God are sublime and hard to interpret, uninstructed souls do err, and Celsus among them.
            “There is then nothing absurd in the fact that to the Jews, with whom were the prophets, the Son of God was sent, so that beginning with them in bodily form He might arise in power and spirit upon a world of souls desiring to be no longer bereft of God.” [Origen, adv. Celsum, vi. 78 foll.]
            At Origen’s death in the year 253 we are still nearly half a century from the end of the first three centuries, and nearly three-quarters of a century from the Council of Nicea.  If time permitted, it would not be difficult to give some account of Fathers belonging to this interval who are quite worthy of being known.  At the same time it is true that we have only fragments, sometimes hardly that, of the men who seem as if they had been best worth knowing.  Moreover, with the exception of the almost forgotten Lucianus of Antioch, they seem to have been less original and important Fathers than nearly all those who have come before us this term.  The most attractive group is formed by the disciples of Origen, not only the two already spoken of, but Heraclas, and Pierius, and Dionysius of Alexandria of whom we can obtain a tolerably vivid and very pleasant image from the fragments of his letters preserved by Eusebius, showing how a great bishop trained by Origen would deal with the difficult questions raised by persecution without and false doctrine within.  Then would come Pamphilus, the loving collector of memorials of Origen and zealous champion of his good name against the detractors who were beginning to assail it; himself a martyr in the terrible last persecution at the beginning of the fourth century.  And Pamphilus in turn leads to his younger friend Eusebius the historian, who lived and wrote in the fourth century, and yet might in some ways be called the last of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
            But we must be content with this very hurried glance at that most important but most obscure time between the death of Origen and Cyprian and the Council of Nicea.  A better break than at the death of Origen we could hardly desire.  Not to speak of the men of later days, looking only at those other Fathers who have come before us this term, we cannot help recognizing that they had often work given them to do which he could not do, and that they were enabled to see some truths which he could not see.  But he is for us practically the last and most characteristic of the early Fathers, properly so called, the Fathers who lived while Christian thought could still be free, and while Christian faith still embraced the whole world.  From all these early Fathers taken together, you will, I trust, have gained the feeling, if you had it not already, that Christian pastors and teachers in this nineteenth century can ill afford to neglect the thoughts and aspirations of those earliest Christian ages, though, like the thoughts and aspirations of all intervening times, they must remain a dead letter to us till they are interpreted by the thoughts and aspirations of our own time as shone upon by the light of the Spirit who is the teacher of Christ’s disciples in every succeeding age.

1 comment:

Daniel Buck said...

He hints at it several times, but doesn't seem to want to come out and admit that Origen was condemned as a heretic for exactly the teachings that he now finds so impressive.