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Lessons From Church History Volume 2

Volumes 2-4. This is the history of the Church from the Roman War (66-73 A.D.) to Constantine and the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. with lessons to be learned from it.

Category - Long Book

Book 4 - Chapter 2

Origen of Alexandria

Persecution broke out in 202 A.D. when Emperor Severus decided to enforce an old law prohibiting anyone to convert to Judaism or to Christianity. Origen's father, Leonides, was imprisoned and martyred. Clement fled to Antioch. The following year, Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, appointed Origen, now age 18, to replace Clement as head of the Theological School.

In 213 Origen went to Rome, where he visited both Zephyrinus and Hippolytus. He apparently tried to stay neutral in the conflict over who was the true bishop of Rome. Yet it is said that he all but agreed with Hippolytus, no doubt admiring his learning.

After his visit to Rome, Origen went to Arabia at the invitation of Bedouin tribes who had requested Christian teaching. He returned to Alexandria in 216 about the time of another massacre of Christians. Origen then moved to Caesarea in Palestine, where the bishops persuaded him to teach in the church. But now, because Origen had not been formally ordained, Demetrius began to become jealous of Origen's influence. Origen was loved for his character, humility, diligence, and scholarship, and as other bishops began to sing his praises, Demetrius began to act more and more like King Saul when the women sang about David in 1 Sam. 18:7, 8,

7 And the women sang as they played and said, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” 8 Then Saul became very angry, for this saying displeased him, and he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, but to me they have ascribed thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?”

So once again, the denominationalist spirit of Saul began to rise up in the church of Alexandria. Demetrius wrote a letter to Alexander, the bishop of Jerusalem, and to Theocristus, bishop of Caesarea, complaining that they were allowing an unordained minister to teach the people. They replied that this practice had been sanctioned in the past several times and was not so unusual. Demetrius did not like their answer and sent a letter to Origen, ordering him to return at once to Alexandria. Origen complied humbly and resumed his position as head of the Theological School.

From this we can see that the bishops were becoming more concerned about their clerical positions than in teaching the people. Jerusalem and Caesarea had not been fully infected yet with this wrong spirit. When they recognized a scholar, they still prized truth more than ordination papers. Not so with Demetrius.

This took place under the rule of Elagabalus, the Roman Emperor (218-222). Elagabalus was barely 14 when he began to rule, after the assassination of his predecessor. In his four years he married five times, which violated the Roman conscience. The Romans would have thought nothing of it if he had merely taken the women as concubines or mistresses. But they were protective of their marriage traditions. Finally, his grandmother, Julia, joined in a plot to have him killed by his cousin, Alexander. The plot was a success, and Alexander then became emperor.

Alexander's mother, Mammaea, lived in Antioch, and she was a Christian. She heard of Origen and wrote him a letter, inviting him to come and teach. Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, was no doubt frustrated, but could do nothing about it, for Mammaea sent a military escort to bring Origen to Antioch! Alexander himself does not appear to have been a Christian as such, but he did favor the Christians and unofficially recognized Christianity as if it were a legal religion. According to Schaff,

“He [Alexander] placed the busts of Abraham and Christ in his domestic chapel with those of Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and the better Roman emperors, and had the gospel rule, ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,’ engraven on the walls of his palace and on public monuments.” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, p. 59)

When Origen finally left Antioch, he returned via Caesarea, where the bishops ordained him as a presbyter in order to avoid further problem with Demetrius.

But Demetrius was less interested in procedure as he was in jealously maintaining control over Origen. He resented the action of the bishops, but since he could do nothing about the ordination, he simply declared Origen to be unfit for the priesthood on the grounds that he was a eunuch.

The plot thickens. Two decades earlier, in 206, Origen had taken Jesus' words in Matt. 19:12 more literally than he ought to have done. In his zeal, he had emasculated himself. At the time, Demetrius had applauded his actions, for he did not yet perceive Origen to be a threat to his influence. But years later, after the bishops of Palestine bypassed him in ordaining Origen, he used this to condemn Origen as being unfit for the priesthood. Of course, he was speaking of the law found in Leviticus 21:20, where an Aaronic priest was not to be physically deficient in any way.

That law was applied physically in the time of the Levitical priesthood, but was applicable only spiritually in the Melchizedek priesthood. Here, then, is another example of how the Church was reverting to an Old Testament type of priesthood in its misunder-standing of the law. Demetrius made life miserable for Origen until he finally packed up and moved to Palestine permanently in 231. Demetrius then excommunicated him for insubordination, but the order was largely ignored, for the other bishops knew the bad character of Demetrius and loved Origen’s humility and scholarship.

Origen's excommunication had nothing to do with the things he taught—certainly not for his teaching on Universal Reconciliation. He was condemned as a schismatic for leaving Alexandria without the blessing of the domineering bishop and for accepting ordination at the hands of the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea though he was a self-made eunuch.

Demetrius died shortly afterward.  The bishops who succeeded him ignored but did not formally reverse the excommunication. For this reason, it was used against Origin long after he had died in the great controversy that arose in the year 400.

Origen continued to teach and write in Palestine where he was greatly loved. But after just four years, in 235 A.D., a new round of persecution arose under Maximin, and Origen was forced to go into hiding. Eventually he fled to Athens. Maximin was a Gothic commander in the Roman army. He was said to be eight feet tall. He got the attention of the Emperor by running beside his horse for miles over rough terrain. Maximin never saw Rome itself, for he ruled from his military camp.

But Maximin did not like Christians and reacted against the favor shown to the Christians under his predecessor, Alexander, whose Christian mother, as we said, had brought Origen to Antioch to teach the Word. Origen thus lost his safe anonymity as his political enemies searched for him. But Maximin ruled only three years, and Origen continued to travel and teach.

The next emperor, Gordian, ruled from 238 to 244, and then Philip the Arabian came to the throne (244-249). The emperors were generally chosen by the army, which was made up of many nationalities from the empire. Philip was the first Christian Emperor, and his wife with him. However, the Catholic Church has been reluctant to identify him as a Christian, because he was not exactly the model of Christian charity before coming to the throne.

Philip was the son of a bandit-chief that had been promoted rapidly by Emperor Gordian until Philip induced the troops to kill the emperor and give him the throne. Eusebius speaks of him in Eccl. Hist., VI, xxxvi,

“He, there is reason to believe, was a Christian, and on the day of the last Easter vigil he wished to share in the prayers of the Church along with the people, but the prelate of the time [Babylas, bishop of Antioch] would not let him come in until he made open confession and attached himself to those who were held to be in a state of sin and were occupying the place for penitents. Otherwise, if he had not done so, he would never have been received by him in view of the many accusations brought against him. It is said that he obeyed gladly, showing by his actions the genuine piety of his attitude towards the fear of God.”

A century later, Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, praised Babylas for his high standards in his sermon, De Sancto Babyla. So it is likely that this penance actually did take place. Though secular scholars always seem to assume that people never change, the record shows that Philip's character did change. Most likely he did not become a Christian until after he had become emperor of Rome.

Philip's successor was Decius (249-251), who reacted against Philip's favor toward Christians by instituting the worst persecution of the century. In that persecution, Origen was imprisoned and cruelly tortured for his faith. He never recovered from his injuries, but the prison guards allowed him to escape after Decius and his son were killed in battle in 251. Origen died two years later at Tyre.

When Origen had first moved to Caesarea in 231 to get away from the oppression of Demetrius, two brothers from a rich family came to study under him. They were Gregory and his brother Athenodorus. Origen instilled in them the love of the Scriptures, and they later introduced Origen's teachings toward the shores of the Black Sea. Gregory later was made the bishop of Caesarea and was known as one of the most eminent bishops of the day. He was called Gregory Thaumaturgus, “Wonder Worker.”

In the introduction to Gregory Thaumaturgus, we read in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI, p. 3,

“Alexandria continues to be the head of Christian learning . . . We have already observed the continuity of the great Alexandrian school; how it arose, and how Pantaenus begat Clement, and Clement begat Origen. So Origen begat Gregory, and so the Lord has provided for the spiritual generation of the Church teachers, age after age, from the beginning. Truly, the Lord gave to Origen a holy seed, better than natural sons and daughters.”

The author was speaking of spiritual seed, of course, for these men were not related physically. Origen, the eunuch, was given “a holy seed, better than natural sons and daughters.” This is a reference to Isaiah 56:4, 5, which is the promise of God to eunuchs.

Origen was, without question, the dominant personality of the first half of the third century. He was loved, not feared, for his influence did not proceed from high position in the Church or by force, but he earned respect for his diligence, character, and scholarship, sealing all these with faith in the midst of torture.

Hosea Ballou writes in his 1829 book, The Ancient History of Universalism, p. 147,

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

This is a remarkable statement, for it shows that Universal Reconciliation either was accepted universally or at least was a non-issue prior to the fifth century when it came under attack for reasons of Church politics. Origen had died in the city of Tyre, and Methodius, the bishop of that city, disagreed with Origen on a number of points—but not on Universal Reconciliation. Origen taught that the resurrection of the dead would not involve physical bodies, but spiritual only. Methodius disagreed (as I do as well). Further, Origen taught that the witch of Endor had actually raised up Samuel himself (1 Sam. 28:15). Methodius disagreed.

The way Origen is castigated today for his position on Universal Reconciliation, one would think that he was an anomaly of church history. But as Ballou points out about Methodius' writings, “in all his search for errors, Universalism escaped without a censure” (p. 150). This was the case until the year 400. Ballou concludes on page 166,

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

Future punishment was universally pictured as “fire,” and there were differences in opinion as to the specific nature of this “fire.” All seemed to believe that it was coercive to force men to believe and to give up their wicked ways. Most (if not all) never contemplated that punishment to be unending. It was said to be merely eonian, “pertaining to an eon,” which was a limited period of time. Ultimately, the judgment of God would end with the reconciliation of all things.