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E. T. Veal
- Published on Amazon.com
Origen (c. 185 - c. 250) is, with Tertullian, one of the two prolific ante-Nicene Christian authors who is not recognized as a saint. That verdict on Tertullian, an apostate to the Montanist sect, is not surprising. Origen, however, was the most prominent Christian teacher and scholar of his day, remained steadfastly loyal to the Church, died as a martyr and was admired fervently by such great and unquestionably orthodox theologians as Gregory of Nyssa. Notwithstanding such credentials, his ideas fell under suspicion soon after his death, and "Origenism" has since borne a taint of heresy.
Joseph Trigg, an Episcopal clergyman and author of a previous life of Origen ("Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church" (1983)), would like to restore his subject's reputation and introduce him to contemporary Christians. To that end, he has assembled this anthology of a dozen selections: seven Biblical commentaries, four homilies and a letter to St. Gregory the Wonder Worker. Most of these are excerpts from, or fragments of, longer works, but each is substantial in itself. None will be familiar to the non-specialist. Not included are Origen's best known treatise (the source of many later doubts about his orthodoxy), "Peri Archon" ("On First Principles"), and his apologia "Contra Celsum", both readily found elsewhere and neither typical of the author's work.
Origen's great subject was the interpretation of Scripture. These texts illustrate his approach, which differs strikingly from that of any modern commentator. The underlying theory is that, because God is the author of the Bible, every word of the text is significant. But, because God is supremely subtle, that significance is not evident to the untutored reader. The plain, obvious meaning is, to Origen's mind, usually the least important. The deepest, spiritual truths can be uncovered only through learned scholarship, augmented by prayer.
These principles lead to minute, painstaking analysis. Book I of the commentary on John's Gospel, 46 pages in this edition, is devoted to discussing two words. The conclusions reached through this effort can be unexpected and may often look arbitrary, as when Jeremiah's lamentations over Jerusalem are construed as an allegory of the mission of the Apostles or Jesus's washing of his disciples' feet is taken as symbolic of Christian pedagogy.
Because this way of reading Scripture is so foreign to our habits, these writings, if perused quickly and carelessly, are more likely to bewilder than enlighten. Origen's method and assumptions obviously bear no resemblance to modern Biblical scholarship, despite his sedulous care to establish the most accurate possible text. Nor can he be grouped with the fundamentalists. He agrees with them that the Bible is the very Word (and words) of God. From that premise, the draws the unfundamentalist conclusion that statements of fact are frequently not to be taken literally and that ordinary Christians get little out of Scripture without expert guidance.
To read Origen as more than an historical curiosity requires, then, the adoption of an unfamiliar perspective on the Bible. Fr. Trigg's introduction, while offering a useful account of Origen's career and posthumous reputation, unfortunately pays little attention to furnishing equipment for such a feat of intellectual imagination. A work like James Kugel's "The Bible As It Was", dealing with the very similar ancient Jewish hermeneutics, may help supply this need.
Origen is one of the most famous names in early Christian history, and this collection, though not fare for a casual Sunday afternoon, is the best available way for laymen to see a great mind at work in its most characteristic mode.