The ecclesiastical writer Origen of Alexandria (185-253) exerted an enormous influence on the Church Fathers and the development of Christian doctrine. He is the first and arguably the greatest Christian scholar of Sacred Scripture. He was instructed rigorously in letters and the study of Sacred Scripture by his father, St. Leonidas. After his father’s death, one wealthy benefactor financed the precocious youth’s education. Another, Ambrose, whom Origen had converted from Gnosticism to orthodox Christianity, provided him with a staff to write out and copy the books dictated by the brilliant biblical scholar. Still a teenager, Origen was appointed a catechist by Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, and for many years headed the city’s prestigious catechetical school. During a visit to Palestine, the bishops who had invited him to preach to their congregations, ordained him a presbyter. Enraged, Demetrius condemned Origen in missives to the heads of the local churches and started some of the spurious accusations that would affect his reputation in the following centuries. However, the bishop who had ordained Origen, Theoctistus of Caesarea, welcomed him into his church. There he continued to write and directed a school, where he would teach his students—mostly pagans with an interest in becoming Christians—philosophy and then theology. Under the persecution of Decius, he was arrested. Tortured repeatedly during his two years of imprisonment, he refused to renounce the faith and died shortly after his release. Only a small fraction of his 2000-odd works is extant. Campaigns to condemn Origen as the source of later heresies were launched in the late fourth and the sixth century. As a result, many copies of his writings were destroyed or neglected. Among his main works are the Hexapla, Contra Celsum, De principiis, On Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom, along with numerous homilies and biblical commentaries.
In this interview, Dr. Thomas P. Scheck will take us through some of the great Alexandrian theologian’s writings.
Dr. Thomas P. Scheck (PhD, University of Iowa), taught for 16 years at Ave Maria University as Associate Professor of Classics and Theology. He currently teaches Latin at Naples Classical Academy, Naples, Florida. He is a translator of many works of the Church Fathers, including Origen, St. Jerome, St. Chromatius, and of Renaissance scholars such as Erasmus and St. John Fisher.
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What would you add to fill out the opening sketch of Origen? His story is deeply moving. His father became a martyr when Origen was 16 or 17 years old. Book Six of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History is devoted to Origen and tells his story in such a way that his life becomes a sermon. Eusebius reports that, when his father was arrested, Origen wanted to rush out and join him. However, his mother hid his clothing so that he could not go outside. Then, he wrote a letter to his imprisoned father, telling him to be true to his faith, in other words, do not commit apostasy in order to be released from prison, for the sake of his family. You must remain faithful to God.
For me, becoming familiar with his heroic Christian life and virtue was deeply inspiring. I wanted to get to know him better. In many ways, I feel unworthy even to speak about him. He was so otherworldly and mindful of Jesus. He lived in the age of martyrdom and many of his pupils also became martyrs. He himself was arrested and tortured. So, before anybody criticises him, they should first acknowledge that he lived a very heroic Christian life: the life of a saint.
How did you become interested in Origen and translating some of his works? When I was in my late twenties, I came across his great work of apologetics, Against Celsus (Contra Celsum). Celsus, a philosopher, wrote an attack on Christianity. Origen was asked to reply to it. This is the first of his books that I would recommend.
When I read the preface to this work, I was deeply moved. Here is how he begins it.
“Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was silent when false witnesses spoke against him and answered nothing when he was accused. He was convinced that all his life and actions among the Jews were better than any speech and refutation of the false witnesses and superior to any words that he might say in reply to the accusations. And. God-loving Ambrose, I do not know why you wanted me to write an answer to Celsus's false accusations in his book against the Christians and the faith of the churches. It is as though there was not in the mere facts a clear refutation better than any reply, which dispels the false charge and deprives the accusation of any plausibility and force.”
It was almost as if he is disarming the accusations at the very beginning, by recognising that they were manifestly false. Later, he says that he may hurt the cause of the Church by replying to Celsus. Nevertheless, he wrote this massive reply.
I was struck by the profundity with which he introduced the work. Origen is always referring to the Lord Jesus and speaks tenderly of him. The preface was thought-provoking, and then, as you read the work, it becomes clear that Origen towers over his opponent intellectually. He knew Judaism way better than Celsus did. He knew philosophy with greater appreciation than Celsus. So, point by point, he wrote a reply in answer to Ambrose’s request to refute Celsus.
However, the way that he began the work—by referring to when the Lord Jesus was on trial, and how he did not speak in his own defence—this really captivated me. It was as if someone were to accuse a Mother Teresa of ridiculous things and bring charges against her. Do we really need to reply to such nonsense? Just look at her life. There is no need to say anything else. Basically, Origen says, “Look at the Christians. Look at how they live. Are these criminals worthy of persecution?” This was the era when the Church was quite pure in its standards and morality. Maybe it does not fit that well with our situation today. However, this remarkable preface to his great apologetic work captivated me and drew me to him. I wanted to be near this figure and learn from him.
That work was my first introduction to Origen. It was back in the early 1990s. Then, I went to Germany as a missionary.
I am a revert to the Catholic Church. I grew up Catholic and converted to evangelical Protestantism when I was in college. I was an evangelical for seventeen years. As part of that pilgrimage, I felt the call to become a missionary to Germany and went there in 1994. I stayed for three years, and our first two children were born there.
That was shortly after I had started to read the Church Fathers intensely. In Germany, I learned that Origen had written a commentary on Romans and that it had just been translated into German by a nun in Southern Germany named Teresia Heither. I acquired the work, a five-volume bilingual edition in German and Latin. I thought that it would be a great work to read in order to learn German. It had the theological words that I wanted to learn for preaching and effective missionary work.
So, shortly after I arrived in Germany, I acquired this massive commentary on Romans. I soon learned that it had never been translated into English. Initially, my only motive in reading it was to learn German better. Then, when I could read and comprehend it in German, I would look across at the Latin text. I had taken a couple of years of Latin in high school and college, but now after I had acquired a solid knowledge of German, it was as if a light went on and, all of a sudden, I could look at a Latin sentence and figure out how it worked. So, for me, the experience of learning German quite well was the key to learning the next language, Latin.
I then started working on a translation from the Latin text. I devoted about five years to that task and eventually got the completed work published with Catholic University of America Press in the Fathers of the Church series: the two-volume Commentary on Romans by Origen.
"Contra Celsum introduces you to the person of Origen, his intellect, his service to the Catholic Church, and his defence of Jesus Christ against the attacks of Celsus."
Some of our readers might not understand why Origen, who was a Greek, has left us works in Latin. Could you explain why some of his works are preserved only in Latin editions? Yes. He wrote in Greek, his native language. Some of his works, such as Contra Celsum (Against Celsus), are preserved in Greek. However, many of his works started to be translated into Latin in the late fourth century. St Jerome was one of the pioneers of that movement. Around the year 380-85 he translated a group of homilies that Origen had written on the Old Testament prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Then, he translated Origen’s Homilies on Luke. He was completely familiar with Origen’s Greek writings and initially, as a young scholar, his ambition was to translate as much of Origen as he could. However, at some point, he decided that he would become an author himself. He would write commentaries in his own name instead of just translating Origen into Latin.
Then, a monk, Rufinus of Aquileia, picked up where Jerome left off. He started translating other writings of Origen into Latin as well as the writings of other Greek Church Fathers. Rufinus translated the Commentary on Romans, De principiis, Origen’s speculative philosophical work, and Homilies on the Pentateuch.
Then, a couple of centuries later, when Origen became controversial in the Greek church, many of his Greek writings were destroyed, while the Latin translations survived in the West. So, for the Commentary on Romans, there are fragments from the Greek text, but, for the most part, the work survives only in the Latin translation. Many of his extant writings have only survived in Latin.
"Pope Benedict XVI, in his two catecheses on Origen, recommended Origen’s spiritual writings and especially his homilies."
Have you left out Origen’s On Principles (De principiis) from your list because you consider Contra Celsum to be Origen’s best presentation of Christian doctrine as a whole? Well, I would not necessarily consider Contra Celsum Origen’s best presentation of Christian doctrine. Rather, it is the most accessible of his works for the modern reader who wants to become acquainted with his intellect and religious thought. My personal pilgrimage helped determine the list of books that I have recommended.
Contra Celsum introduces you to the person of Origen, his intellect, his service to the Catholic Church, and his defence of Jesus Christ against the attacks of Celsus.
De principiisis not necessarily the first work that I would recommend to a Catholic. Many of the discussions are difficult to comprehend, though some portions are quite accessible.
However, there has been another motivation for me in compiling my list of Origen’s five best books. Two of the works on my list are Origen’s Homilies on Joshua and Homilies on Numbers. Well, Pope Benedict XVI, in his two catecheses on Origen, recommended Origen’s spiritual writings and especially his homilies. He actually quotes from the Homilies on Numbers at the end of his first catechesis, and says,
“I invite you - and so I conclude - to welcome into your hearts the teaching of this great master of faith. He reminds us with deep delight that in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in consistent commitment to life, the Church is ever renewed and rejuvenated. The Word of God, which never ages and is never exhausted, is a privileged means to this end. Indeed, it is the Word of God, through the action of the Holy Spirit, which always guides us to the whole truth. And let us pray to the Lord that he will give us thinkers, theologians and exegetes who discover this multifaceted dimension, this ongoing timeliness of Sacred Scripture, its newness for today. Let us pray that the Lord will help us to read Sacred Scripture in a prayerful way, to be truly nourished with the true Bread of Life, with his Word.”
I want to follow the Pope's exhortation and hearken to the Holy Father’s counsel. He was instructing Catholics worldwide on the Church Fathers and distilled their most valuable contributions. For him, Origen’s most valuable contribution lay in his reflections on Sacred Scripture and the power of his homilies to edify, transform us, and bring us closer to Christ. So, I think that Pope Benedict would agree that Origen’s homiletical meditations on Scripture should be given a place of prominent importance.
That is another reason why, for me, De principiis should come later in one’s study of Origen and not at the beginning. It is the work that got him into trouble, on account of its speculations on the pre-existence of souls. I would put it later for students interested in more advanced study. There are many good theologians who might want to just dive right into that to that work and give it a place of prominence. However, I prefer to begin with his spiritually edifying scriptural interpretations.
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Next is your own translation of Origen’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. You have already explained what led you to undertake that project. Which aspects of this commentary would you point out to those interested in reading it? This topic is very dear to me. It is a great exposition of Paul's Epistle to the Romans. It is really the first detailed Christian exposition of Romans.
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