Origens Interpretation of the
During the twentieth century Origen has been credited with coining
the Gap Theory,(1) the Preadamite theory,(2)
and the Framework Hypothesis(3) and put forward as a model of
how Christians today should interpret Genesis. It is obvious from the
contradictory nature of these theories that Origen could not have held all of
them at one time. Indeed, he never held any of them, as will become clear in
the following summary of Origens doctrine of creation.
In attempting to examine closely Origens understanding
of creation we are faced with considerable difficulty, because his major work
on the subject (his Commentary on Genesis) has been lost, except for a
few fragments and quotations.(4) We are therefore forced to
rely on these (remembering the possibility that they may not be representative
of Origens complete thought on the subject) and incidental references in
his later works. A further problem is that few of Origens writings are
extant in the original Greek, only in a Latin translation.(5)
This goes some way in explaining the different conclusions reached by scholars
engaged in this area of research.
Faced with the problem of the origin of the soul, Origen
found no clear guidelines in the Rule of Faith,(6) so
he felt free to speculate using Scripture and reason to fill this gap in
knowledge.(7) He felt keenly the force of the objections that
intellectuals were making against the Church in this area. Most Gnostics held
that each mans condition at birth was predetermined and beyond human
control. The Marcionites argued that the Creator God was unjust in allowing
some to be born blind or crippled through no fault of their own.(8) Origens solution to these problems was a development of
the Platonic ideas of Philo and Clement of Alexandria.(9)
Origen interpreted the Christian doctrine of creation as
follows: in the beginning was the spiritual world of rational creatures,
absorbed in the contemplation of God.(10) Two possible
explanations are put forward by Origen for the first fall. The
souls either became satiated with the contemplation of the divine(11) and became bored and so fell away from God. Alternatively,
he reasoned using the etymology of the word for soul (psuche) that the
intelligences moved away from the warmth of Gods presence and became cold
(psuchos). The cooling caused the intelligences to become souls, but
their ultimate form depended up their degree of cooling, in a
descending order.(12) It might be represented in a simplified
form as shown below.
The position of these rational creatures was not static, as
Origen conceived that eventually every rational creature would be saved and
returned to its original state of contemplative union with God,(13) even the Devil.(14) For the end is
always like the beginning.(15) The perceptible and
terrestrial world was created by God to house the fallen rational beings until
they should return to their original status.(16) Indeed the
whole point of Origens interpretation of the Bible was to show how a
believer might return to this original state of union with God.(17) This explanation solved completely the objections of the
Valentinians and Marcionites. Mans present state, even his physical
condition and place of birth, is the result of his souls original fault
committed in pre-existence.(18) Origen found scriptural
support for this in such passages as Malachi 1:2-3 and Romans 9:11: Jacob
I loved, Esau I hated...(19) In his Commentary on
Genesis Origen argued that the Fall took place, not because of
disobedience, but because Adam & Eves love for God cooled; they
became bored and rebellious, and the result was that they were driven from
Many people make the mistake of assuming that because Origen
taught the pre-existent fall of rational beings that he also denied the
historicity of Adam as an individual. It is equally inaccurate to argue that he
viewed Adams fall as being merely symbolic of the fall of every
mans soul.(21) The story of Adam and Eve in
Origens thought represented a second fall.(22) Eve was
deceived (because of her inherent weakness resulting from her fall in
pre-existence)(23) by the serpent who envied Adam and
deceived him by means of food.(24) Although some scholars
have argued strongly that Origen did not believe in the historicity of Adam(25) it appears to me that as we do not have Origens
complete works it is better for us not to be too dogmatic; for in his surviving
works Origen himself does not appear to have had just one view on the
Origens doctrine of the pre-existence of souls would
not have been considered heretical in his day, because no clear doctrine on the
subject had yet been formulated. Only in the centuries that followed did the
idea of pre-existence come to be viewed as not only mythical, but even
heretical...(27) The doctrine was finally declared
heretical at the Second Council of Constantinople (AD 553),(28) 300 years after his death! The controversy that later
developed in Origens name was owed more to the development and
systematisation his works by his followers than to Origen himself.(29)
Origen, in contrast to the Platonists, argued that the
creation was ex nihilo,(30) and that it took place in
time, but postulated that as God could never have been idle it must therefore
be one of an endless cycle of worlds (a Platonic concept). He appears to have
reasoned that creation was ex nihilo because he believed that the end of
the world was to be like the beginning. As the end of the world involved a
disappearance of all matter, so the beginning must have been the opposite: the
formation of all matter.(31)
It seems logical to conclude that Origen should not be taken
as a model of how modern Christians should interpret Genesis.
(1) Arthur C. Custance,
Without Form and Void: A Study of the Meaning of Genesis 1:2.
(Brockville, Ontario: Privite Publication, 1970), 18. See above, Chapter
(2) Christian Pesch, Des
Deo Creante et Elevante, de Deo Fine Ultimo Tractatus Dogmatici. (Feiburg,
1909), referenced by David L. Livingstone, Preadamites: The History of an
Idea From Heresy to Orthodoxy, SJT, Vol. 40 (1987), 42.
(3) Roger Forster & Paul
Marston, Reason & Faith: Do Modern Science and Christian Faith Really
Conflict? (Eastbourne: Monarch Publications, 1989), 358. For further
references see Chapter 3.
(4) Crouzel, 218.
(5) C.P. Bammel, Adam
in Origen, Rowan Williams, ed. The Making of Orthodoxy: Essays in
Honour of Henry Chadwick. (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), 64.
Principles, Preface 5; (ANF, Vol. 4, 240).
Principles, Preface 10; (ANF, Vol. 4, 241).
(8) Crouzel, 208.
(9) Henry Chadwick, Early
Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition. (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1966) 120; Crouzel, 207.
(10) Trigg, Origen,
103; Eusebius, Against John of Jerusalem 7.18.21. Origen argued that
there must have been a finite number of these rational intelligences as an
infinite number would be incomprehensible to God - and this was unthinkable.
Trigg, Origen, 104.
Principles, 1.3.8 & 1.4.1; (ANF, Vol. 4, 255-256). Crouzel,
Principles 1.8.1 (J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius: Documents
Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337. [London: SPCK, 1987],
201.); Crouzel, 210; Trigg, 105;
(13) Trigg, Origen,
(14) W.H.C. Frend,
Saints And Sinners In The Early Church. (London: Darton, Longman &
Todd, 1985), 79.
Principles 1.6.2; (ANF, Vol. 4, 260).
(16) Frend, Saints And
(18) Crouzel, 208-209.
Origen speaks of a preliminary divine judgement preceding birth, analogous to
the last judgment, Origen, Principles 2.9.8; (ANF, Vol. 4, 293).
F.R. Tennant, The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin.
(New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 297.
Principles 3.1.22 (ANF, Vol.4, 328); Philip Schaff, History of
the Christian Church, Vol. 3. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989),
(20) Frend, Rise,
(21) Bammel, 63.
(22) Bammel, 83.
(23) Origen, On
(24) Origen, Song of
(25) Hanson, Event,
(26) Bammel, 83.
(28) Schaff, Vol. 3,
(29) Chadwick, Early
Christian Thought, 120-121.
Principles, 1.7.1 - 2.2.2 (ANF, Vol. 4, 262-271); Commentary
on Genesis, cited by Eusebius, Preparation, 7.22; Blower,
(31) Trigg, Origen,