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Pioneering Theologian: Origen

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
February 23, 2023 12:01 am

Pioneering Theologian: Origen

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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February 23, 2023 12:01 am

When divorced from Scripture, even well-meaning efforts to understand the world will fall short. Today, W. Robert Godfrey considers some of the speculative theology of Origen.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

Today on Renewing Your Mind, we meet a pioneering theologian in the second century named Origen. What we see in Origen's time and after that is already beginning to emerge clearly in the second century is this notion that really spiritual Christians will more and more cut themselves off from connections to this life and all of its values. We welcome you to the Thursday edition of Renewing Your Mind.

I'm Lee Webb. Thank you for being with us. Origen was a product of his time and picked up some errors from the philosophical thinkers around him. Yet some of his work was groundbreaking, and we can see the impact of it on the church even today. Let's learn more about Origen as we continue Dr. W. Robert Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. Well it's great to return to our study of the ancient church and some of the great theologians of the ancient church period that we've been looking at together. And I want to come back to Origen for a minute, our pioneering theologian who earnestly desired to use his great intellectual gifts in the service of the church and addressed so many important questions but regrettably did not always get the answers right.

I want to turn with you to his what is usually called speculative theology. We looked last time at how he had answered the pagan Platonist Celsus and Celsus' criticism of Christianity, and in doing so he showed the dangers of Platonism becoming an alternative to Christianity. But when we turn to Origen's speculative theology, we see that in fact Platonism came more into his thought than he realized.

Thoughtful intellectuals in the ancient world in the West were largely influenced by Plato and by a more spiritualizing look at reality, and Origen could not entirely escape that environment. And when he came to ask tough questions that the Bible didn't answer, his influence by Platonism especially showed itself. And so he raised the question, how do we understand the relationship of God to creation and especially to the problem of evil? Now we know that the problem of evil is a perennial serious theological question for Christians. If God is supreme, if God has created all things, if God controls all things, if God is good, where can evil possibly come from? It is a serious problem, and Origen wrestled with that in an interesting, although ultimately wrong way.

I want to label these things going in so we don't write in large letters wrong. But this is the way Origen's thinking about this spelled itself out. He said God is eternal and God is spiritual, and God is immovable in a Platonic sort of sense. So since God is immovable, spiritual beings whom God created must also always have existed. Because if they hadn't always existed, then God would have moved from non-creator to creator. And since that cannot, now this is wrong, write that down again, wrong, but since this is the way his Platonism influenced him to think about the being of God, he said, now God did create, but he's always been creating. And so these spiritual beings are eternal with God. And these spiritual beings, what we would call souls and angels, existed in contemplation of God and in love of God. But these souls had a free will, write that down wrong, had a free will and had reason, and in time the attention of these souls wandered away from God, and therefore in a sense they fell into sin. Now you see how he's wrestling with the problem of evil, but this doesn't really solve it. I'm only describing now.

I'm not advocating. So then God decided these souls needed to be rehabilitated. And in order to rehabilitate the souls, God created the material world and sent the souls into bodies to live in this world to be reeducated. Now exactly why it was alright to God to create matters somewhere along the line, we can't explore all these things or expect the entire consistency from Origen. But this was his idea of the material world. It's not our ultimate home.

It's not where we really belong. It's a kind of reeducation prison, and that one day the souls will learn their lesson and all return to God. That's the good news. Origen was an original universalist. He believed that ultimately everybody would be saved.

That was the good news. The not-so-good news is that conceivably these free will souls could fall again into sin. So there wasn't as much stability in heaven as we might have hoped for. But this was his effort to try to think through the issue of how is God good? How is God creator? How is God immovable?

Where does sin come from? And then the one that God appointed to lead to the reeducation of souls, to save souls from their sin, was his logos, his word, his son. You know that Greek word, logos? It's a very rich Greek word. It means word, but it means more than word. It can mean reason in Greek.

It can mean message in Greek. So when John in his gospel says, in the beginning was the word, he's not just saying in the beginning was a word. He's saying in the beginning was God's reason, was God's message, was God's communication to us. And Origen says that logos became a man in Jesus and became the Savior, the reeducator, the redirector, the deliverer from evil of mankind. Now in the later conflicts in the church, in the ancient period about the nature of Jesus and the divinity of Jesus, almost everybody would appeal to Origen because the orthodox people like Athanasius about whom we'll talk later, they would appeal to Origen and they'd say, see Origen taught that the logos was eternal and Athanasius was right. Origen did teach the logos was eternal. And so Athanasius says, you see Jesus is eternally divine. But Arius, the great opponent of Athanasius would say, yes, but Origen said the logos was created because he has this crazy notion of eternal creation. So Origen brings these two things together, eternal but created, which the later church will rightly split apart and say, no, really we have to say either the logos is eternal and divine or the logos is created and not divine. And Origen never came to entire clarity about that. He didn't really side with either Arius or with Athanasius because it wasn't an issue really before him, but he also didn't really reach the truth on this issue either. So Origen is speculating about these things. He's speculating about questions that most other in the history of the church have not really examined, not really solved, and he's advancing the cause of the discussion a little bit, but he's really not getting it entirely right.

And so he helps, but he's problematic as well. And when we hear him saying, well, the souls pre-exist, the body, the logos is created even though it's eternal, when we hear him saying that there is a universal salvation in the end of the day, part of what we should hear and think about immediately is, well, he's not listening to the Bible very well here, is he? The Bible is really pretty clear that there's not universal salvation.

You have to do some sort of fancy footwork with various Bible passages to avoid the conclusion that there is eternal punishment for the wicked. And Origen was a great pioneer in the study of the Bible. And a lot of his study of the Bible was really very good. He was one of the few fathers who really knew Hebrew well as well as Greek. He had a great advantage over seminarians in that he grew up speaking Greek, so that's always a help. But he worked hard at learning Hebrew.

He did a lot of very careful interpretation of the Bible, and a lot of it was really very helpful. But Origen is also the beginner of what comes to be known as the fourfold interpretation of the Bible, that the Bible communicates its truth on four different levels of truth. The primary, the first level, is the literal level. That's the level that you and I mostly read for and are rightly trained to read for, that the Bible on the literal level tells you what it means to tell you. And so if we read that Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus, the literal meaning is, Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus.

And sometimes the literal meaning is a little frustrating. Okay, Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus. What spiritual benefit is that to me? Well, you see, if I can turn Emmaus into some kind of spiritual symbol, then I can say, Jesus walked on the road to some spiritual goal, and I can follow Him on that road to that spiritual goal, and suddenly it seems like it's more spiritual as a meaning of the Bible.

I'm getting more out of it. It applies more immediately to me. And so Origen began to develop different spiritual meanings, three levels of spiritual meaning of the text in his study of the Bible. There's the literal, what we might call the historical meaning, and then below that is a meaning for my soul individually. I'm to walk the road to Emmaus and come to some spiritual goal. And then there's a meaning that is directed at the whole church.

The church is to walk the road to Emmaus to accomplish that goal. And then there's what came to be called the anagogical meaning. I love these technical words. That's why you have to continue to employ theologians and historians to explain the words they invented. The anagogical meaning is about the end of time. So not only does my soul walk on the road to Emmaus, and not only does the church walk on the road to Emmaus, but the road to Emmaus leads to the second coming of Christ, and therefore there's a spiritual meaning relative to the second coming of Christ. And Origen begins this systematic pattern of studying the Bible in this way. And part of the motive is to be sure that all the Bible has a spiritual meaning for me and for the church.

And you can see the appeal of this. We've all read parts of the Old Testament in Leviticus or in 1 Kings and wondered what exactly am I supposed to get out of this? And Origen would have been able to tell you. He'd have been able to find a spiritual meaning below the surface.

And in setting on that path, he again had a good motive. How can the Bible really help us? But his solution is problematic. And the great problem with spiritual meanings of the text is how do you ever conclude who's right and who's wrong? How do you evaluate what can be a meaning of the text? And that was surely a problem throughout the ancient church period and the modern church period. How do we really make reliable progress? And it's interesting that Thomas Aquinas at the high point of medieval theology finally stopped and he said, you know, we should never try to prove doctrine except by the literal meaning of the text. The spiritual meaning may be helpful, but it's so uncertain.

It's so squishy. It's so debatable that we really should stick with the literal meaning of the text as the only solid path to true doctrine. That's interesting because that would become a big debate at the time of the Reformation and Thomas Aquinas got that one right. Origen didn't. Now what else can we talk about with Origen? Well, Origen also did a lot of writing on the spiritual life, on what we would call sanctification.

What is the nature of progress? What do we expect and what is the path we walk to becoming more holy? Here again, he's trying to think through things that have really never been fully examined in the church or examined as systematically as Origen would do it. And he comes up with what is known as the threefold path of sanctification. And what's intriguing about this is it is amazing how often this threefold path comes up in various theologians throughout the history of the church.

You find it in Origen and then you find it in various medieval mystics, but I bet half the books on sanctification that we might find in an evangelical library ultimately can be traced back to Origen's threefold path to sanctification. It occurs again and again and again, so you should be fascinated by this part of the lecture. He begins with the idea of illumination. We must come to our senses. We must have our minds informed and this is usually called in the literature and often by Origen himself as conversion. This is the turning around. This is the turning point. This is the beginning point. Our journey back to God begins with us being turned around.

And of course, like so many things in Origen, it's true up to a point. We must begin with conversion, wasn't we? We must experience that change. There has to be a redirection in our living. And then the second stage is what is called purgation. Our minds are given light so we know the way we ought to walk and then we begin to walk and in that walk we must cut away things. And Origen would have appealed, of course, to Paul's language about put off. All the times Paul in the ethical sections of his letters talks about putting off sin. Origen stresses that we need to put off sin.

Origen, like many other mystics, would often talk in a spiritual way about the travel of the children of Israel through the wilderness and how they were constantly beset by temptations to return to the fleshpots of Egypt and how they had to put that off and turning the fleshpots of Egypt into all sorts of allegory of sin. We must strip away sin from our lives. And then in the very platonic character of Origen and many mystics after him, he said, and then we have to try to strip off our attachments to good things in this life. It's not enough to strip off our attachment to sin, but we have to strip off our attachments to the good things in this life if we really want to pursue the genuinely spiritual. We mustn't be attached to wealth in this life. We mustn't be attached to family in this life.

We mustn't be attached to health in this life. More and more we must become indifferent to the things of this life so that our souls may rest in God. And here again you can see that Platonism, that spiritualizing coming in, that implicit denial of the importance of creation that God had created and how easy it is for that to creep in as a kind of hyper-spiritual way of seeing reality.

We'll return to that and its problems in the ancient church later. And then Origen says, if you can cultivate illumination and purgation adequately in your life, then you may reach union with God. And different mystics would have very different ideas of what that union was, but the idea was I will be sort of immediately connected, my soul to the being of God will be connected with God. And that's what I'm really after, that I may return at least for a moment in this life or two to this sense of really being in the presence of God, somewhat dissolved in the being of God.

And that was presented by Origen as the great goal to which we aspire, the great goal that we long for. And in that development then of his theology of the spiritual life, he was giving voice to this spiritualizing, growing conviction in the life of the church. And what we see in Origen's time and after that is already beginning to emerge clearly in the second century is this notion that really spiritual Christians will more and more cut themselves off from connections to this life and all of its values. This is the movement that is known as asceticism. Asceticism derived from a Greek word meaning discipline, but coming to have the sense of discipline as denial.

The original sense of discipline was related to the discipline of an athlete training himself for an athletic contest. And asceticism carries over that notion that I am training myself as a Christian in spiritual disciplines to cut myself off from what would distract me from running the race for Christ. And what increasingly happens in this ascetic direction is that in order to really be obedient to Christ, I should give up the most precious things of this world. What did Jesus say to the rich young ruler?

Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Now what the early church began to say is now Jesus didn't give that as advice to every Christian, but he gave that as advice to the really strongly spiritually minded Christians. And they began to distinguish between what they called the commands of God and the counsels of Jesus. All Christians have to keep the commands of God, but those that are really spiritually sensitive have to keep the counsels or want to keep the counsels of Jesus as well. So poverty becomes one of the ascetic disciplines.

I give away as many possessions as I can. And then chastity becomes one of those spiritual disciplines. I don't marry. I deny myself family life so that all of my attention can go to the service of God. So I am not going to allow myself to be distracted by family that binds me to this world, but I want to be free to serve God undistractedly by embracing a life of chastity or celibacy. And then I want to give myself completely to serving the church, to being obedient to what the church tells me to do. And so you see we begin to get what are the three key elements of asceticism, chastity, poverty and obedience. That is what the really spiritually hardworking and convinced want to pursue.

And so what do we discover? We discover that in the ancient church there begins to emerge late second century into the early third century, there begins to be a movement of Christians who are embracing this kind of radical asceticism, often arising first of all in Egypt and manifesting itself first of all in a hermit life. So I decide I'm going to be ascetic and part of what that means is I move out into the wilderness all by myself just to live for God, just to be able to spend my life fasting and praying, fighting with the demons. Some of the hermits lost. They went crazy out there alone. But that craziness itself was turned into a virtue in the church that they've been kissed by God.

They've entered into a kind of union that we can't understand. But here you see was the goal that they would be able to be these radically sold out people for Christ. And then that began to be regularized into some kind of community living and this was the beginning of the growth of monasticism, of communities of people. Men set aside and women set aside into communities where they would devote themselves entirely to the service of God and prayer as they understood it. And this also then began gradually to influence the life of the clergy. And people began to say, well, if these monks and nuns ought to be ascetic, shouldn't the clergy altogether live that way? Wouldn't it be best to have clergy who were disciplined in that way and devoted in that way? And so that idea began to grow up in the church as well. And eventually in the Western church, what today we know as the Roman Catholic Church, eventually by the late ancient period, the Roman Catholic Church was insistent that all of her priests should be celibate.

And that practice continues to this day. But in the Eastern church, the practice continues to this day that you can marry as a priest as long as you get married before you're ordained to the priesthood. You can't get married after you're ordained, which has the practical consequence of trying to find a really healthy girl. You don't want her dying on you.

This would be very problematic. Only bishops in the Eastern church cannot be married. So you have this, you see, spiritualizing direction, being tied to this world, seeing the value of family is a bad thing. We need to be denying of the body, being denied the pleasures of this world so we can give ourselves 100% to the service of God.

This emerged out of the kind of thing we see in Origen. It emerged out of the spiritualizing, Platonizing atmosphere of the ancient church and continues to cast this long shadow in the history of the church that somehow the celibate life is the life most pleasing to God. So as we come to an end here, we've seen how asceticism is growing in the life of the church as a really expression of spiritualizing tendencies that aren't biblical at all and warn us too to be very careful when people come along saying, I'll tell you how to be holy. We need to always look carefully at that to see, is it really biblical?

And that's true in every age, isn't it? We don't want to be products of the philosophy of our time. We need to make sure that we are grounded in God's Word. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Thursday. Thank you for being with us.

I'm Lee Webb. You know, we cheat ourselves of our rich heritage if we do not study the men and women who came before us. Dr. W. E. Robert Godfrey has faithfully prepared this series to cover the history of the church from the apostolic age through today. As one of Ligonier's teaching fellows and a respected church historian, Dr. Godfrey is eminently qualified to teach this series. And for your gift of any amount today, we would like to send you Part 1 of the series. It's 12 lessons on two DVDs, along with lifetime access to the digital download of the series and a PDF of the study guide outlining each lesson.

That also includes group discussion questions. You can make your request and give your gift online at, or if you prefer, you can call us at 800-435-4343. Ligonier Ministries is a teaching fellowship of gifted theologians, pastors, and scholars who help us develop teaching resources like this one. This is an excellent series to offer in a Sunday school class.

It would also be a valuable addition to a homeschool curriculum. So we invite you to request it with your gift of any amount. Our phone number again is 800-435-4343. Or if you prefer, you can go online to Let me also remind you to tune into RefNet. That's our 24-hour internet radio station. It's designed to provide trusted Bible teaching throughout the day. You can begin listening on your computer right now at, or you can download the free RefNet app for your smartphone and listen on the go. Renewing Your Mind is the listener-supported outreach of Ligonier Ministries. Thank you for joining us, and I hope you make plans to be with us again tomorrow.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-23 05:43:54 / 2023-02-23 05:53:17 / 9

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