Church History I - Lesson 5
The Eastern Tradition: Origen
The Eastern Tradition: Origen
CH502-05: The Eastern Tradition: Origen
I. Background of Origen
A. Early Life and Education
B. Career and Contributions
II. Theology of Origen
A. The Bible and Interpretation
B. Trinitarian Theology
C. Anthropology and Eschatology
III. Controversies Surrounding Origen
A. Orthodoxy and Heresy
B. Later Reception and Influence
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The life and thought of the Christian church from the apostolic period up through events in the 8th century.
Course: Church History I
Lecture: The Eastern Tradition: Origen
Last time we met, I was telling you about Tertullian and the beginnings of the western tradition in Christian thought, and today I want to look at the main alternative to that which is the growth of the eastern tradition and I want to concentrate as much as possible on the figure of Origen. Now this is slightly artificial. In dealing with the western tradition, there is no question: Tertullian is the head of it. He is the first Christian writer in Latin of any significance. He has left us an enormous body of literature which gives a very good impression of what he thought, and he was widely influential in subsequent generations, so we don’t have to ask where the tradition came from. We don’t have to go any further than this because we can see that he is the fountainhead and origin of it.
One of the things that I think I pointed out – I hope I pointed out. I can’t remember now; it’s so long ago – but in case I didn’t stress it adequately enough, I’ll say it again right now. And that is that the western tradition is legal in conception. This is not to say that it is necessarily legalistic. Legalism is, of course, an abuse of the law. It is what happens when the law is misused. But the characteristic of western Christianity is the fact that its way of thinking is governed by questions of law, questions of what we would call today government, politics. I don’t mean politics in the Bush/Cheney/Kerry type mode. I mean something a little bit more serious than that. Government. I mean, the system of government. The way government functions. And you see this, of course, the minute you start looking at the issues at stake. I mean, things like justification by faith. Justification is a legal term. Election is a legal term. Adoption is a legal term originally. The word “sacrament” is a legal term. Sacrament means oath and the word “sacrament” was invented – well, not invented, it was borrowed by Tertullian from the law courts from the army because it was the oath that a soldier took when he joined the army and applied to Christians and in particular to baptism, because baptism was the oath that a Christian took in the army of Christ. And so for his point of view, this was seen as something analogous, something very similar.
Now the eastern tradition functions in a very different way and it is extremely important that we understand this. The background is not nearly as obvious and clear as it is in the west. This is typical of the east. The west tends to be clear, simple, straightforward. The east is always more complex and harder to pin down. There was not one center of government and authority like Rome in the west. I mean, some people look to Alexandria, some looked to Antioch, others looked to Corinth or Pergamum or somewhere like that. I mean, there were a variety of centers in the east which were rivals for authority and influence in the local area and this prevented the kind of centralization and sort of uniqueness that you find in the west. In the west, Rome really had no competitors, but in the east, there was no one place or one tradition which dominated over the rest. So that also has to be born in mind.
Nor is it very easy to say when and how the eastern tradition came – what we call the eastern tradition came into being because different people will say different things. Those who maintain it today, of course, say, well, it was the New Testament, what are you talking about, sort of thing, and they will say it goes back to then. And, of course, their churches are the churches which are founded and visible in the New Testament. All right. Well, that’s true, of course, to that extent. Their language is the language of the New Testament and so on, so they feel a kind of connection to it that perhaps others either don’t feel or feel in a very different sort of way. So there’s that aspect.
But it’s also difficult to pin down particular individuals who represent the tradition because there were a number of people in the second century. We’ve looked at some of them in passing – Irenaeus, for example. Justin Martyr would be another and then various minor figures that appear and you could say, well, all of them or any of them could be taken as an example of the tradition. I mean, that is possible. So again, you can’t really point to one individual and say, well, this person stands out head and shoulders above everybody else as the representative of it.
However, I have chosen Origen as the person to focus on, not because we couldn’t have looked at anybody else and not because Origen was an uncontested authority. One of the things that you find in the subsequent history of the Christian church in general but of the eastern tradition in particular is that Origen is on more than one occasion condemned for various heresies which he supposedly held. And indeed the subsequent history of the eastern tradition can largely be written in terms of contradictions which you find within Origen’s writing that one group of followers would latch onto one thing and another group of followers would latch onto another thing and they would work out the consequences and, of course, discover that there were contradictions and start fighting each other as a result, and so you have problems of this kind.
Well, I mean, that’s fine. The bottom line, however, remains that whether you take one part of Origen and argue for that or another part and argue for that, all subsequent thinkers in the east took something from Origen. I mean, their work, their writings, their way of thinking indicates that they came – they had passed by his writings. I mean, you cannot understand the subsequent history unless you understand who he was and what he did and why he matters. All right? So that’s a very important thing to bear in mind and we’ll look at that in a minute.
The intellectual background of the eastern fathers was not legal in the way that it was in the west. The intellectual background of the eastern fathers was philosophical. Now again you have a different way of thinking and a different context. The legal background of Rome was one. There was one Roman law and although there were different interpretations of it, you were nevertheless dealing with a body of material which everybody agreed mattered. And, all right, you might argue for this or argue for that, but still you’re within certain fairly well defined parameters as far as the text is concerned.
Philosophy, on the other hand, knows no boundaries. And there were many different schools of philosophy, competing schools of philosophy, contradictory schools of philosophy. And so if you came from this environment and this background, conflict and dissension were almost built in to the program from the beginning because you couldn’t just adopt philosophy as your intellectual foundation. You had to have a particular kind of philosophy, and so some people would adopt stoicism and some people would adopt Platonism and some people would follow Aristotle and some people would follow Epicurus and Pythagoras, and you name it. There would be different schools of philosophy which in varying degrees would be in competition with one another.
Now it is true as time went on Platonism or a born-again version of Platonism which we call neo-Platonism, came to dominate the field. I mean, that is true. This was happening in Origen’s lifetime. Origen himself can perhaps be regarded as part of that movement. I mean, that’s a little bit more controversial but it is possible that you can look at him in that sort of way and see him as one more link in the chain by which Neo-Platonism came to be the dominant way of thinking after his death and so on. But it would also be fair to say that in his youth when he was being educated it was not so clear that Platonism was going to dominate, so he grew up in a world where different philosophical schools were competing with each other more or less equally and died in a world where Neo-Platonism was clearly on the road to dominance, so this is something which is happening during his lifetime. And I’ll explain what all these things are in due course, just to give you that idea to begin with.
What we can take from the point of view of general principles though is the use of language, the use of vocabulary which is different in the east from what it is in the west. To give you but one example, the word “sacrament” does not exist in the east. There is no equivalent term. When you want to refer to baptism or Holy Communion as we would do as “sacraments” – I mean, when you need a word for this, the word which is used is “mysterion” – mystery. Now, of course, the very word immediately evokes a completely different mental context. I mean, a “mysterion” is not going to be the oath of allegiance which a soldier swears to his commanding officer or the emperor as he joins the army nor to Jesus Christ as he joins the Salvation Army. I mean, it’s not going to be that way of thinking. A mysterion by definition is something which hides something else. In other words, the reality of the event is a mystery, it is a secret. And, of course, this has tremendous implications.
I mean, if you take baptism, for example, as to how you are going to look at this. Because if you say baptism is signing on the dotted line, it’s your oath of allegiance. It’s how you join. Well, it’s clear, isn’t it, what happens. I mean, you’re baptized; you’re in the army now. And off you go to do your daily training in things like fasting and prayer and abstinence from sexual intercourse and all the other things that soldiers today wouldn’t dream of doing. And then, you know, that kind of thing. And then you don’t ask questions. That’s the first thing. Soldiers don’t ask questions, do they? They just say “aye-aye, sir.” Off they go. All right. That’s what the army is like and it’s all clear and it’s laid down and you don’t have to worry about it. Okay, up to a point. I know it’s more complicated than that but you get the general picture.
Now, if you’re talking in terms of mystery, however, you can baptize somebody and who knows what’s happened. You see what I mean? It’s a mystery. It’s a secret. I mean, has the Holy Spirit come into this person’s life or not? Well, we don’t know. What’s going on inside? We can’t tell. Now you can see when you start asking this sort of question – or when you start thinking in this way – that both sides have a point. I mean, it’s not that one is right and the other is wrong; it’s that they are looking at these things from different points of view. And you can say that in a sense the protestant reformation, when it comes to something like baptism, was a protest at what had become an imbalance in western thinking whereby if you were baptized you were a Christian, no questions asked. And it was obvious that the army had fallen on hard times by the later Middle Ages and a lot of these people who’d signed on weren’t exactly fit for duty. And so the question comes, well, is this really the right model? Should we be thinking like this? What about the role of the Holy Spirit? Where does this come in? And, of course, you get a development of thinking about something like baptism which in effect is moving more towards an eastern idea of mystery. Because although no one would express it that way and we don’t talk like this, we in fact have moved in a way to that sort of view because we would say, well, you can baptize somebody but you really don’t know what’s happening inside. And, I mean, the arguments over baptism that we tend to have or tend to be used to are basically over the question of how much evidence if any do you need before you baptize somebody? But whether you say you need a lot or you don’t need any, at the end of the day, both sides agree that you really can’t tell by simply by baptizing them what’s going on inside their hearts. You see what I mean? Nobody is going to pretend that simply the act by itself makes you a Christian. I mean, while I say “nobody,” there are people who say that, but basically your mainline protestant people – even people who disagree about how you should baptize and when you should baptize and who you should baptize – tend to agree about this because they say, well, baptism represents symbolizes a spiritual reality in the heart of the believer being born again in Christ but whether this has happened to this person or not is something that you really don’t know. I mean, you can take it on trust. They confess, they say this, but even then you can’t – you’ve just got to believe them. You can’t actually prove it one way or the other. I mean, it’s not as if you’ve dunked them in water and if they come up purple then you know they’re baptized. You know what I mean? It’s not – there’s no objective way of determining whether this is right or wrong.
Now the eastern tradition interestingly enough has gone the other way, you see, because this is what always happens. You start with one position and then you move towards the other because you need to have a balance. So they’ve started out with this idea that it’s all a mystery. It’s all sort of something in the mind of God. And as time has gone on, they’ve come round to the idea that, well, it is, of course, all a mystery in the mind of God, but you can’t run a church like that. You can’t sort of just go along assuming that you don’t know anything. You’ve got to have guidelines. You’ve got to have boundaries. You’ve got to have things like this, and so although ultimately we leave it up to God to decide, in the meantime we practice and we’re very strict about what we do and so on to make sure that we do it the right way and that the right people do it and so on, and they become very fussy about who gets baptized and when they get baptized and how they get baptized, and it’s all very detailed and so on. But really as a kind of counterweight, you see. We can’t decide what’s going on in the heart but we can at least make sure that the outward appearance looks okay. You see what I mean? There tends to be a sort of counterbalance like this.
Now as I say, it’s not that one is right and the other is wrong, it’s that both in a sense have their place and the real question is just trying to decide how much weight to give to each aspect of the question. You see what I mean? And this is not an easy thing to answer. And all through your life you’re going to have this problem one way or another. Perhaps with baptism today it’s less of a problem for us than it would have been in the past but where it continues to be a problem, shall we say. Let’s forget baptism for a moment. Take matrimony. What makes a person married? Is it the ceremony? Is it the signing of the papers? Or is it the consummation? And again you may say to yourself, well, you can’t really sort of divide it up like that. All the sort of aspects have their place, and this is, of course, true, but when you do have to decide – which you sometimes do have to do – I mean, what is the thing that really counts? And it’s interesting, you see, even in the western tradition, all along, the thing which counts ultimately is the consummation. So that you can go through the ceremony, you can sign all the papers and everything else, but if the marriage is not consummated then it can be dissolved as never having existed.
On the other hand, if the marriage is consummated without the benefit of clergy, as we say, you know, we won’t go into that in detail but you know what I mean – this has always been regarded by the church as valid. Yes, if you’ve sort of consummated this, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve gone through the priest or the registrar like this. I mean, that’s just detail that you can sort of fill in later as you go along. The fact is the two have become one flesh and that is the marriage. And in the eyes of God you are married, you see, and then you just have to do the paperwork later on. I mean, this is a fact. This is the way the church has always looked at this over the years, and people may rush you into it. They may say, well, for goodness sake, go and get it sorted out and so on because you don’t want the baby to sort of come along illegitimate and all that. But that’s the way people have traditionally thought. I mean, I know it’s a little different now, but it’s been the reality of the consummation which has been the determining factor as to whether the marriage really exists or not. But there is this tension. There’s still this tension in our minds and, of course, if you say to yourself, well, if that’s the thing that really counts, why go through the ceremony.
And sometimes you do have to wonder. I mean, I was horrified – and I must say horrified, shows you how old-fashioned I am – I was horrified the other day when somebody told me that he bought an engagement ring which had cost over $2,000. And I thought, “You what? You spent $2,000 on an engagement ring? How long are you planning to be engaged for, a couple of months?” I mean, really. Is this – you know, what a waste of money. And, of course, everybody agreed with this that, yes, looked at objectively, it is a waste of money. Far better to send it to charity or something like this. But you can’t because you’re sort of caught in the structures in the system and so on, you see. But I mean, I’m still sort of reeling. This is my attitude just sort of hang on to my wallet and think, “$2,000, my goodness.” And then I was told that that’s cheap, that’s nothing. “You what?”
And then somebody else was saying they spent, was it, I can’t remember now whether it was $7,000 or $70,000 – some enormous amount of money anyway – on flowers. And I mean, this is just absurd. And I thought to myself, well, for goodness sake, elope. It’s so much cheaper and it does have the same effect. You can give the money to somebody. Well, I mean from a Christian point of view, and I’m serious here. Because you think to yourself, here are people spending fortunes that they haven’t got on outward ceremony which is dispensable, when this money could really be used for constructive purposes. You could build a Habitat for Humanity house or something with this money and make some use of it. In fact, you could probably take out a mortgage with it, you know, and do something useful. And yet we’re sort of caught in this because people sort of insist, well, the legal formalities, the sort of outward show has to go on. I know this is the male point of view. Yes, I know. I realize that. I mean, all men agree with me totally. It’s the women who cause the problem. No, it’s true. It’s the women who say, oh, but you can’t get married without flowers. But anyway, never mind.
But you see what I’m saying? We have put so much emphasis on the formalities, the outward things as essential that we’re prepared to go to these lengths. Now move back for a moment to baptism, something like baptism, and say to yourself, well, do the outward things matter that much? I mean, would we be as particular about the outward things in baptism as we are when it comes to matrimony? And if you remember that for centuries matrimony was regarded as a sacrament and that is why there is all this fuss and bother about it. These things are not unconnected. And I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the church ceremonies – to baptism and to communion – we are not so bothered. Protestant people generally today are not so bothered about the outward forms as they would have been, say, a thousand years ago. You see what I mean? We tended to move in that direction and therefore more towards the idea of mystery. I think that is probably true for most people most of the time. But again you can dissent from me if you wish later.
Another example from the eastern tradition of the way a word can change its meaning or have different meanings – same word has different meanings. The word “monarchy.” This was a word widely used in ancient theology to refer to God. God was the monarch. Now if I say this to you, you will, of course, hear this as meaning that God is the king of the universe. You will associate it with kingship. All right? And because that is what monarchy is in one of its uses of the word, it is basically a political system and you will simply take a political system which is known on earth and transpose it to the heavenly realm and say, well, God is the king of Heaven and this is how it works and everything to do with monarchy and monarch you will understand in that light.
However, the Greek words behind this term – well the monos is clear but the archaea – this word in Greek has two meanings. It can mean rule which is where the political meaning comes from, of course, the rule of one person, but it can also mean beginning, head or beginning or source. And, of course, in philosophical thought, this is what the monarchy is. The ultimate source. The single source of all reality.
Now if you say God is the monarch and leave it like that, both interpretations are valid. I mean, God is the ruler of the universe, yes. God is the source of all reality, yes. All right? We aren’t going to have a problem with this. The problem comes when you try to relate Jesus, the son, to the monarchy. Is Jesus the monarch or not? Now if you are thinking in political terms, then, of course, Jesus is the king and the kingdom of Christ and so on, so the Bible (New Testament) says, yes, Jesus is the king. So somehow or other you have to fit him in to the concept of monarchy and have a joint kingship. And joint kingship was common in ancient times. I mean, it was not an unusual thing. You find it all over the Old Testament only you don’t recognize it because it’s not clarified. But if you ever study the genealogies or the history of the kings of Israel and Judah and try to work out when they reigned and so on, what you find is that if you just add up the numbers the way they’re written down there in the Old Testament, you come up with the wrong answer. It won’t work. What you have to reckon on is that several of the kings of Israel and Judah in fact reigned jointly with their predecessor, usually their father, for several years before taking over on their own. I mean, those of you who have family businesses know what this is like. You know, there is a period of transition, you might say, as father hands over to son, and this was the sort of thing that went on. It was extremely common in the Roman Empire because the emperors tended to associate their designated successor with them on the throne. So although it sounds like a contradiction, joint monarchy is indeed possible because it’s sharing the ultimate source of power.
All right. So if that’s the model that you are working with, if that’s the concept you’re working with, then to say that Jesus is the monarch is fine. Of course, the father and son are joint monarchs in the kingdom of Heaven. All right. But if you are saying that monarchy means the ultimate source of all being, then you see that it doesn’t work because you have to say, well, there can only be one ultimate source of being. It’s like the old joke, you know, how many Monists does it take to change a lightbulb and the answer is there’s only one Monist. So you can’t ask this question and this is the issue that arises when you come to this because you say to yourself, well, either the father is the monarch – the ultimate source of all being – or the son is the monarch – the ultimate source of all being – but they can’t both be the ultimate source. And, of course, the Bible says the son is begotten of the father, then it’s clear that the son is not the ultimate source. He comes from the father. So the father alone must be the ultimate source of all being and so he is the monarch in a way which does not apply to the son and the Holy Spirit. So you see how the difficulty arises because if you say God is the monarch, everybody says, yes, yes, yes. If you say the son is the monarch, then you have division because of the different meanings attached to the word monarch. The different context. And basically the context is on the one hand legal and political and on the other hand philosophical. You see what I’m saying?
Now I’m giving you a couple of very simple examples of this but it is extremely important that you take this on board and learn it and become sensitive to it because this is the fundamental root cause of the difference between western and eastern Christianity. This is what makes it so very difficult for one side to dialogue with the other. They are not talking the same language. Even worse, when they use the same vocabulary, they are not talking the same language. You see, this is the real problem. You can say the same thing on paper but what you mean by it is different, and when you start working out the implications of it, you come to different conclusions. I mean, this actually happened in the 16th century when the Lutherans tried to enlist the support of the orthodox church against Rome and so on in the time of the Reformation, and the Lutherans – not Luther himself but some of his followers, Melanchthon and so on – sent their confession of faith to the eastern churches and asked for their opinion. And when they talked about justification by faith, the Eastern Church didn’t understand what they meant. They said, “What does this mean? We don’t know how to express this.” And it turns out, of course, that the word used for justification in the New Testament, or at least which is translated that way, does not mean justification in a philosophical sense or in this particular way. It means something more like righteousness. And so you say, well, justification by faith means righteousness by faith. And then they would sort of say, “Well, what’s the argument? What are you talking about? Why is this a problem?” They couldn’t – justification by works, justification by faith, it didn’t really mean anything to them and they found it very difficult to latch onto the debate because they just used words in a different sense.
Another example if you talk about validity, the validity of the sacrament. There’s a good expression, you see. And, of course, Catholics and Protestants fight over this. Is the Eucharist of Holy Communion valid when it’s administered by a Protestant minister or not, and this would be an issue, you see. The so-called validity of the sacrament. But you try translating that expression into Greek and you can’t really do it because what you come up with is something more like the health of the mystery. And you say, “What do you mean ‘the health of the mystery’?” Well, remember an invalid is somebody who is not valid and therefore validity – the concept of validity tends to mean health. If you’re valid, that means you’re okay. You can walk around. And if you’re invalid, you’re an invalid. It is the same word; it’s just used in a different context. And then, of course, the sacrament is the mystery, so you went around talking about the health of the mystery and people think, you know, you’ve come out of the loony bin or something. What is this? And you might, I suppose, get somewhere if you start saying, well, we can’t have shared cup because you might catch AIDS or something. That might make sense in that context, but you see what I mean. You’re basically on a different wavelength, and to try to talk this language, to try to express yourself in this way requires more than just finding the dictionary and putting down the words. Does anyone have any idea of what I’m saying? All right. You’re all so looking very blank here.
And I say this with some feeling because this problem between the western and the eastern tradition has been magnified a hundredfold in modern times with the missionary movement. Because as Christianity has spread to non-western cultures, the problems between the Greek east and the Latin west have become much more serious. Try translating this sort of stuff into Chinese or Indonesian or something like that, and what you immediately discover is they don’t have the words. Or the words that they do have mean something different in context. I mean, Chinese doesn’t even have a word for God. Of course, they make words up, you know, that do for God but when you get into theology and the implications of this, it’s very, very difficult to find terminology which will convey the right message. You see, this is a very subtle thing and you don’t appreciate it, you don’t realize how subtle it is, until you start trying to do it and trying to sort of convey your meaning in some other cultural context, then discover it just doesn’t cross over.
I mean, I was teaching about ten years ago a class on justification by faith at Trinity Deerfield, Illinois. Froze to death. It was May. Mid-May in Chicago, and do you know the temperature was 44 degrees the whole two weeks I was there? Don’t ever go to Chicago. I mean, how could anyone live in a place like that? Anyhow, never mind. I mean, forty-four degrees in May, it’s not worth it. It really isn’t worth it. Anyway, we did justification by faith for two weeks up there in those conditions and there were twenty students in the class, five of whom were Korean. And, of course, the danger signals went immediately, uh-oh, five Koreans, you know, here we go. And what’s this going to be like? After a couple of days, I realized we were in big trouble because the Koreans were smiling broadly. And if you have any knowledge of oriental culture and civilization, when they smile broadly, you know they haven’t understood a thing because that’s what they do when they don’t know what’s going on. And I thought, uh-oh, we’re in trouble now. You’re going to think I’m a terrible racist. I’m not really. I’m just realistic about this. And so I got these Koreans off to the side and I said, you know, Mr. Kim – because they’re all Kim or Park or Lee – you know if you say “Mr. Kim” one of them will answer – it’s true. I said, “How do you say ‘justification’ in Korean?” And he looked at me and said, “What?” And I said, “How do you say – what’s the word in Korean for justification?” He didn’t know. So I asked the other. Can you ask Mr. Park and Mr. Lee and Mr. Yee and on, what’s the word for justification in Korean, and the five Koreans sort of got together in a huddle and agreed among themselves that there wasn’t a word for this. Or if there was, they didn’t know what it was. And they said, “Why are you asking?” And I said, “Well, actually, that’s what this course is about.” I suddenly realized that here we were, five out of twenty people in the class had not a clue what we were talking about because they couldn’t process it in their own language and culture.
Now it must be possible. I mean, I’m sure there is some way of doing it. I’m not saying there isn’t, but they didn’t know. You see what I mean? And so really we were wasting our time because we were starting there talking about something that they could not conceive of in their own context. And this is what happens, you see, when you do missionary work in parts of the world like this. Missionaries will tell you this. You have to spend as much time establishing a conceptual basis for what you want to say as actually saying it because people just don’t have this background, these implications. It’s not a simple matter. And this is what we have to get through our heads because a lot of the controversies which went on in the early church went on for this reason. Because people simply didn’t know what you were talking about half the time. There was vocabulary, yes, plenty of vocabulary, but there weren’t agreed meanings to words. And most of the Christological controversies, for example, of the early church – and we’ll see this when we get there – can be explained in this way. The need to define what on earth it is you are talking about. And what the Christian church did was it took the vocabulary of its time, it took the ideas which were floating around, and tied them down to specific meanings. Words like “being,” words like “person,” words like “substance,” which could mean all sorts of different things and did mean all sorts of different things to different people, until they were pinned down and given a specific meaning related to God were more dangerous than anything else because you would say, well, God is a being, for example, and this could mean different things to different people. What do you mean? And then you say, well, God is a being. God is three persons in one being. Or God is three beings in one substance. Or God is even three beings in one person, or something like this. You see, people would just throw these things around and you might eventually be able to decide that actually they were all saying the same thing, but because they hadn’t defined their terms, their categories of thought and so on, each one thought the other was heretical.
Now I know it’s not quite as simple as that. There were people who genuinely got things wrong. That is true. But this was a major aspect of the problem. Until you knew what you were supposed to say and how you were supposed to say it, it was very difficult to know who was right and who was wrong. You see what I’m saying? This was part of the process of the development of a standard systematic theology.
All right. The other thing that Origen was into which may strike us as a little bit odd is the concept of hierarchy. And this again goes back to a philosophical background. It is rooted in the whole notion of being. I just mentioned being. Basically, what Origen seems to have thought – and this is rooted in Platonism in particular – is the notion that true being, ultimate being, is a spiritual thing. It is a concept. It is an idea. Visible things are in varying degrees corruptions or derivations of ultimate being. So that what we see around us, diversity in the world is explained by the fact that being has somehow broken up. It has somehow been filtered through something inferior and therefore has produced many different things that you see around you which differ from each other but the differences reflect the degree of corruption or distance from the original.
Now Plato, of course, talked about this in terms of the table. That in Heaven or somewhere in the mind of God there was an ideal table and everything that you see on earth that you call a table somehow reflects that. And if you have different types of table, that is simply because the people who make tables are incapable of making the ideal table because we are limited beings and we cannot do this. We cannot reproduce the mind of God. Well, of course, with a table, it’s really neither here nor there whether you make the ideal one or not. But with human beings, life becomes a good deal more complex because the Bible says that you and I are created in the image and likeness of God. Well, if we’re created in the image and likeness of God, how come if there’s only one God – how come we’re not all the same? See, you’ve never thought about that, have you. I mean, well, look at it like this. You see, Abraham Lincoln’s effigy is stamped on pennies. I think. Isn’t that right? I’m trying to remember. I don’t usually spend much time looking at pennies, but there you are. They’re all the same because the image and likeness of Abraham Lincoln is sort of stamped, stamped, stamped, stamp, stamp, and, of course, you recognize it because it’s identical. All right? So if you were in the image and likeness of God and I am in the image and likeness of God, how come we’re not identical? Why are human beings different from each other?
Now you may think this is a strange question to ask. But, you know, in a funny sort of way, parents ask this about their children. Because you often find – I mean, this is quite true, some of you will know this from personal experience but you see this all the time – parents cannot figure out why their children are different from them. Inferior, of course, goes without saying. But you know what I mean? You’ll see this sometimes. Your child will start doing something and you sit there and think where did he get that from? And initially, sort of mother will say to father, “What have you been telling this kid? Why is he doing that?” And the father says, “No, not me, not my kid. It’s your kid.” And there’s this kind of sort of back and forth, but there’s a mystery here is the point. Because children have a way of being themselves. And we know this, of course. We know this in our heads but it’s sometimes difficult to sort of actually take it on board that if your child is a sort of champion, say, concert pianist, well, of course, we know who he got that from. But if he’s a serial killer, you know, we’re not going to own up to it. You know what I mean? It’s something that you can’t really say because there’s a mystery of individuality there that just goes beyond what we can explain. All right. This is our experience. But why?
And, of course, Plato would answer this by saying, well, you see, when the souls separated from the being of God, they separated. Different chunks came off in different shapes and sizes and with different parts of God with them, and so as it came off in different ways like this, this accounts for the differences. And so some people are going to be more like God and other people will be less like God depending on how much of the divine soul they actually took with them when they separated from the original.
Another factor, of course, is that because the souls which separated from the divine being fell into matter – and this is what creates human beings – there’s a sort of soul imprisoned in the body of the flesh. It kind of depends what matter you fall into. I mean, some people fall into gold. Some people fall into silver. Some people fall into clay. And so inevitably you’re going to have different circumstances and so on caused by the matter into which the souls have fallen. So this is another way of explaining the differences among human beings and so on.
Well, we, of course, reject this. I mean, we don’t accept this explanation, but you have to remember that somebody like Origen and indeed most of the people of his day and age were brought up in this kind of atmosphere. This is what they thought. And they were used to thinking that the world was a hierarchy and that this hierarchy could be seen in sort of macro terms and in micro terms. If you think in macro terms, you would have God at the top, and then you would have angels, and then you would have humans, and then you would have animals, and then you would have rocks and things like that, and so on, on the way down. You see what I mean? This would be the sort of macro hierarchy. But then, of course, you would have a micro hierarchy because within the angels, for instance, you would have archangels, and then you would have powers, and dominions - they would make all these different things, you see – and authorities, and so on. And they would create a sort of hierarchy of angels.
Now you can actually read about this if you want to. It’s all detailed the nine – I think it’s the nine different grades of angels that there are, in the writings of somebody whom we know as the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who claimed to be the man who was converted in Acts 17. Dionysius, you know, on the Areopagus. That’s where he gets his name from. But who was in fact a writer who lived sometime around the year 500. I mean, nobody really knows who he was. But he wrote a book called the Celestial Hierarchy which works this principle out, and Origen would have signed off on this. This would have been exactly what he thought. All right? Different grades of angels in this way.
Of course, when you come to human beings, I mean, it was obvious to Origen that you would have men on top, and then women. Certainly this would be the major division, but then within this, you would have Greeks, of course, would be on top, and Barbarians underneath, and so things could get terribly sort of precise here. And the top of the hierarchy was a Greek male philosopher. That was the highest form of human being you could be. And then everything else sort of fell down from there. The animals, of course, the same – they organize the animal kingdom into higher and lower animals. The lion, of course, being the highest animal and on you would go. There are whole sort of treatises on this as to why a giraffe is greater than a monkey or something. I mean, now we call it the theory of evolution but in ancient times this is what they did. They sort of looked at different animals and different types and so on and tried to work it out. When you come to rocks, again, I mean, this is a general term – but material objects – some were nobler than others. Gold was the noblest thing of all, of course. So if you had to be a rock, be a rock of gold. You see what I’m saying? And everything else was sort of graded accordingly. All right?
Now it’s very, very, very important that you understand this, this mentality, this way of thinking. Why? Because when we come to God and the question of the Trinity, immediately, the hierarchy is going to kick in. Because the question is going to be asked whose boss in God? I mean, you and I wouldn’t think like this, you see, because you and I will be used the idea of sharing and equality and we all hold hands and sing the Mickey Mouse song together sort of thing, but this was not the way people did it in the ancient world. In the ancient world, you never met your equal or very seldom. You would meet somebody and the first question you would ask is, is this person above me or below me in the pecking order. And usually, of course, it was fairly easy to tell. I mean, me, for instance. Sorry, I don’t want to take me as an example, but I can’t really presume to talk for you. But, you know, if I’m walking down the street and I see various people, how do I rate myself in relation to them. Well, of course, now I don’t. It just wouldn’t occur to me and I don’t suppose it would occur to you either. But if I were Origen, in his life or anybody in that society, in the back of my mind would be a sense of “is this person above me or below me?” And, basically, all women, of course, would be below me. Anybody younger than I was would be below me though men older than myself would be above me. People with authority in the state or something like that would be above me. And I would relate to these people and they would relate to me accordingly. You see what I mean? This is not necessarily a wicked or evil system or anything like that. It’s just the way it was.
Now as I say, it doesn’t matter to us how Origen related to his housekeeper or his mother or anything like this, but it does matter to us how he conceived of God. Because in the realm of God when you have father, son and Holy Spirit, it was as clear to Origen as it is unclear to us that they were ranked father number one, son number two, and Holy Spirit number three, in a hierarchy. All right? And therefore, of course, the father is God in a sense and to a degree which does not apply to the son and the Holy Spirit. The father in effect is God in himself, and Origen actually invented a word for this. He called the father the Autophues, God in himself. The hierarchy he understood as a ladder of spiritual experience. I am here and my knowledge of God proceeds by stages. For me to know God is, first of all, to have the Holy Spirit dwelling in my heart by faith. He is my contact with God. This happens because the Holy Spirit is lowest in the hierarchy. You know, if you have an appointment to meet with the President of the United States or somebody like that and you go and knock on the door of the White House, the first person you meet is the flunky at the door, whoever that is, because you don’t just walk straight into the President’s office. You have to go through the hierarchy. You see what I mean? This is perfectly normal once you picture what’s going on.
So the Holy Spirit is the first one we meet because he’s the lowest. You know, he’s the one who collects the mail and makes the coffee and generally sort of keeps the rest of God going. All right. So we have this experience, but what does the Holy Spirit do? The Holy Spirit’s job is to reveal the son to us. He takes us to the son, the next stage in our penetration of the divine mystery. And what does the son do? Well, the son is the mediator. The son is the one who takes us into the presence of the father. He is the one who shows us the father. Can you get to the father any other way? Well, no, of course not. Or at least not legitimately. I mean, presumably you could climb over the fence of the back of the White House and get in and so on, and given the nature of American security services you’d probably be able to blow the place up before anyone knew you were there. But, well, you know, and then they’d make a long report on it trying to explain why the FBI wasn’t around that day. But basically you can’t do this. You see what I mean? There is a way to go. There is a procedure to follow. And if you don’t follow that procedure, you don’t get the result that you want.
And so to Origen this would be perfectly natural and normal. It would be necessary for the son to have access to the father. Therefore, the son must be like the father, at least enough like the father for access to be meaningful. The Holy Spirit must be enough like the son for him to be able to have contact with the son for him to be able to usher us into the son’s presence. You see what I mean? There’s got to be a community of being in a sense in this way, but the functions are different. The functions are graded not in order to diminish the son or the Holy Spirit. It was not Origen’s idea that he was trying to keep the son and the Holy Spirit in their place or make them less than the father. That was not his aim. His aim was to help believers, to help you and me, to assure you and me that we were actually getting closer to God. Because without these beings, without these ways in, there would be no way to the father. You see, the father would be cut off. We are too far away from the father on the hierarchy of being that we need steps. I mean, it would be like having a ladder with no steps or a ladder with rungs missing. You’ve seen that from time to time, haven’t you? You get a ladder and then there’s five rungs missing and how do you get from that one to that one. And, well, some people manage it but, you know, a lot of people would sort of say, well, I can’t climb that ladder because there’s rungs missing. And so picture it like this.
Now I know some of you bright people will say, “But is that in the Bible?” And the answer Origen would give you is “Yes, of course it’s in the Bible. Haven’t you seen it? Don’t you realize it?” Where is it in the Bible, does anyone know? I mean, for Origen this would not have been a problem. He would have found it instantly in the Bible. No. What? No. You don’t know. Nobody knows. What? You don’t know either. No. No. No. Nobody knows. No, of course it’s not. I thought you might know because it’s a very famous Negro spiritual which tells you. That’s a hint. No? No. You’re going in the wrong direction. That’s the chariot coming down. We’re talking about going up. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. There you are! You see, I knew you’d get it. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross. That’s absolutely it. Jacob’s ladder. Why? Because Jacob was Israel. Israel is asleep in the house of God. How do you say “house of God” in Hebrew? Baetel, Bethel. Why did Jacob call the place where he was asleep “Bethel”? Because that was the house of God. He was asleep. What did he see when he was asleep? He saw angels and archangels ascending and descending the ladder up to God. Origen said, well, this is typical. Israel is asleep in the house of God. Israel, you see, is carnal. So Israel has to sleep. It can’t cope with this. Whereas Christians are people who have been awakened to the spiritual realities. Christians are people who are climbing the ladder. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
So to him this was obvious. Every rung goes higher, higher. I mean, there you are. He didn’t have a problem with this. So the question is it Biblical, to him is a clear yes, of course. Why haven’t you seen it? But as we have just proved in our class this morning, this isn’t obvious to you. And, of course, why it’s not obvious to you will have to remain a mystery until we meet again. All right? We’ll see you. I mean, it’s quite legitimate that it shouldn’t be but we’ll look at that later.