The most important Christian philosopher of the first centuries (c. 185-after 251 A.D.), a prolific writer of mostly exegetical works. He attempted to establish a kind of Christian philosophy for the interpretation of the Bible, using of Platonic and Stoic elements, and was considered the Platonic Christian thinker par excellence.

Life and Work of Origen

Origen was born in Alexandria in c.185 into a Christian family of Greek cultural background. To earn his livelihood he taught grammar, but at an early age he turned to the study and teaching of the Scripture; it was probably during that time that he was taught philosophy. Gradually he acquired great fame as the director of the city’s Catechetical School. In the time of the Christians’ persecution by Decius (250) he was tortured and, suffering from poor health, died probably in 253.

Origen was one of the most prolific writers of late antiquity (almost 800 titles). He wrote mainly exegetical works (commentaries and homilies) of which only a small part is preserved. Of high philosophical interest are his apologetic work Against Celsus (the first systematic defense of Christianity against Platonic Celsus) and the dogmatic On principles, which analyzes philosophical and theological issues of the time (God in itself and triune, the relationship between God and world/humans, creation, soul, free will). He developed a method of textual interpretation and philosophical concepts are used throughout his entire work.

Despite Origen’s profound impact on the great Fathers of the fourth century, certain aspects of his (alleged) teachings were considered erroneous or heretical by later theologians. This, combined with Justinian’s ecclesiastical policy, led to the condemnation of Origenism by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, that negatively associated Origen with ideas as the pre-existence of souls, animism, and the denial of the actual resurrection of bodies. Thus, most references to Origen throughout the Middle Ages were very negative.

Knowledge and use of philosophy

In Alexandria in the third century the Hellenized Judaism (Philo) coexisted with Basilides’ Gnosticism, Ammonius Sacca’s peculiar Platonism (Circle of Plotinus) and a little later with Plotinus Neoplatonism along with various Christian groups. In this intellectual milieu Origen studied and taught philosophy. He had a good knowledge of Plato and Stoicism, and commented on Platonic and later philosophers’ works, passages, and views. His surviving works include about 150 citations from philosophical works.

Origen’s life and work were completely devoted to the interpretation of sacred Christian texts. For the fulfillment of this purpose he adopted from the Greek philosophy an interpretative textual method, which he developed for his own exegetical needs, favoring ‘spiritual interpretation’ of the texts: reading must conclude not only to the "corporeal (literal) sense” but mostly to their secret (and moral/spiritual) meaning. The appropriate method for this cause is allegory, which he applied to the commentaries of the Bible, by using terms of ancient philosophy (Platonic, Stoic) and often giving them a new meaning.

Origen’s attitude toward philosophy

Origen was not particularly concerned to confront Greek philosophy in general or a particular school or theory –he was, after all, eclectic. He recognized the value of ancient Greek philosophy as a preparatory study and gave it the role of "handmaid" of Christianity: Greek philosophy helps Christianity to formulate and state his own dogmas in a consistent manner, and rational as possible. But if philosophy is a way of life, Christianity may be considered as a philosophy, namely a 'spiritual practice': the introspection and preoccupation with the soul, which is released from passions and, seeing the reflection of the divine mind, is driven to deification (theosis).

The philosophical initiation included five stages: the initial purification, then the learning of logic, then physics, geometry and astronomy, then morality and at the end theology, that included the reading of both Pagan philosophers and the Scripture. This curriculum combines Platonic elements (theology as the crown of disciplines) with Aristotelian (logic) and Stoic (the priority of physical philosophy). Only the philosopher achieves self-knowledge (the Socratic "know thyself") and lives the life appropriate to logical beings.

Origen's passion for the interpretation of the Bible is thus associated with the formation of a “Christian philosophy” (the first ever), addressed for pedagogical purposes to Christian scholars.

The challenge for Origen was not to rest to the denouncement of Greek philosophy but to open a dialogue with it, e.g. correlating the philosophical Reason (Logos) with the God’s Word. Such attempts have been sidestepped by Christian communities and the mistrust towards a philosophy of mediation (between the Bible and [Greek] philosophy) was thenceforth the usual attitude of the Church. The difficulty of such a synthesis can also be seen in its reception by other Christian who cast an almost permanent doubt on Origen’s orthodoxy. He, however, in the On principles distinguishes between that which is delivered through revelation and that which subjects to the human intellectual explanation.

Origen’s alleged Platonism

Origen’s intellectual background is not philosophical but biblical. However, the traditional view presents him as the prime example of a Platonic Christian who seeks answers not in the Bible but in Platonism, while not being able (or interested) to complete a synthesis of his Christian faith with the Platonic tendencies of his thought. Today one can hardly consider Origen as a mere philosopher with Christian veneer, since the mystical dimension of his work has been made clear, nor as a notably Platonic philosopher, since his anti-platonic attitude and his several Stoic influences have been demonstrated.

Since Porphyry Origen was considered to have been influenced by Platonism. In both his theology, cosmology and anthropology are found many elements that refer to Platonism (as well as to Stoicism): The nature and unity of the divine; the meaning of the first principle; the concept of Logos as God and creator; the ontological difference between God and the world; the acceptance of a global Providence; the relations between intelligibles or between intelligible and sensible realm; the immortality and pre-existence of the souls and the creation of intelligible beings before the creation of the sensible world; the attitude towards the body; the ‘restoration of all things’ at the end of history and the world, when everything will find its way back to its primordial state (cf. the Return on the Neoplatonists; Neoplatonism, glossary); and the contemplation of God.

There is a question whether Origen simply borrowed words and images from philosophy and gave them a new meaning into the new Christian contexts or whether their use has affected the core of his theological thought. In any case his perspective is biblical. Even his asceticism did not come from the belief in the evilness of matter itself but from his desire to harmonize the material with the aspirations of the soul in a state of maximum freedom. That God is always the creator of the world, means that God always wants to create the world (i.e. a change in his will never takes place); thus the world and the souls always existed as volitions in the mind of God (cf. God in Middle Platonism [Middle Platonism] who sees the examples in his mind and creates the world). Soul cannot be understood as 'stripped' of any body, it is always dressed; the nature of the body is each time the one required by the place where the soul rests. Origen denies reincarnation and basic principles of middle Platonism, i.e. that things are defined by the extent of their participation in the eternal intangible ideas, that the creator of the world is divine because he participates in Goodness, that the purpose of the soul is to contemplate the ideas in order to be delivered from corporeality. He considers Plato's ideas as chimaeras and counts not punishment but the exercise in virtue as the purpose of corporeal life, so that man –created in the image of God– can be completed by assimilation to God. The explicit references to Plato are both negative and (moderately) positive and show the distance that Origen kept from Plato and moreover from the entire Greek philosophy. However, even a Christian thinker cannot be properly understood outside the spiritual atmosphere of the Platonic Alexandria of the third century.

Author: George Zografidis
  • Marcovich, M, Origenes, Contra Celsum. Leiden, 2001.
  • Simonetti, M., Crouzel, H. Origène, Traité des principles. Paris: Sources Chrétiennes, 1978-1984.
  • Barbanti, M. P. Origene di Alessandria. Tra Platonismo e sacra scrittura. Catania, 2003.
  • Crouzel, H, Origène et la philosophie. Paris, 1962.
  • Edwards, M. J, Origen against Plato. Aldershot, 2002.
  • Heine, R, Origen: Scholarship in the service of the Church. Oxford, 2010.
  • Petersen, W. L. , Kannengiesser, C. eds. Origen of Alexandria: His World and His Legacy. Notre Dame, 1988.
  • Markschies, C. Origenes und sein Erbe. Berlin, 2007.
  • Nautin, P. Origène: Sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris, 1977.
  • Trigg, J. W, Origen. London, 1998.
  • Tzamalikos, P, Origen: Cosmology and Ontology of Time. Leiden, 2006.
Arabic Translations of Platonic works

Arabic Translations of Platonic works

Arabs of the Middle Ages considered Plato (Aflāṭūn) a...

Platonism in the 20th cent.: metaphysics

Platonism in the 20th cent.: metaphysics

Plato’s influence on 20th century metaphysics can...

Middle Platonism

Middle Platonism

Period of Platonist philosophy extending from 1st c. BCE to...

Tragedy and Plato

Tragedy and Plato

Plato’s ambivalence towards tragedy: influence and...