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Was Origen a Universalist?

March 18, 2011

Without a doubt, the hottest trending topics in the evangelical online world the last few days have been Rob Bell and universalism. I don’t here want to go into a detailed discussion of Bell’s book. In fact, I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. However, I have seen enough of the discussion about the book online to know that the name of Origen is being bandied about as a supposed precursor to Bell’s universalism. It is not surprising to see Origen being called into the ranks to support the universalist cause, for his universalism is usually taken to be beyond question. However, the one point I want to make here is that we may have assumed too quickly that Origen was a universalist. It is true that Origen was condemned for holding to supposedly heretical teachings. However, as with all heretics from the church’s early centuries, sorting out what someone actually taught and believed is not a simple matter of repeating the synodal condemnations pronounced against them. This is especially true for Origen, since the controversies surrounding his name were some of the most political of all early Christian debates, especially the attempt in the late fourth and early fifth century by Theophilus of Alexandria to drive the Origenist monks out of Egypt.

Looking at all the evidence for Origen’s supposed universalism is beyond the scope of a mere blog post. Therefore, I simply want to point to a useful resource for those who aren’t satisfied with simply assuming that Origen must have been a universalist since everyone always says he is. Ron Heine has spent a few decades thinking and writing about Origen, and the most recent product of his prodigious labors is Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church (Oxford, 2010). Heine helpfully divides Origen’s works into those which he composed in his time in Alexandria and those he wrote while in Caesarea. While in some of Origen’s Alexandrian works there are passages that imply universalism, some of his Caesarean works, such as his Commentary on Matthew, contain passages that suggest otherwise. In fact, Origen’s Against Celsus contains one passage that suggests Satan will be destroyed forever, belying the often heard claim that Origen believed even the father of lies himself would one day be won over by God’s love (Ag. Celsus 6.44). Heine concludes that it is a “defendable, but not an unquestionable, conclusion” that Origen reconsidered his earlier universalism while carrying out his pastoral duties in the Caesarean church (p.256). To be fair, other scholars (e.g., Hanson) have looked at the Caesarean Origen and argued that he still held to the universalism of his earlier period. However, Heine’s detailed discussion demonstrates first of all, how we must carefully handle these texts lest we construct our own frameworks that do not allow contradictions and shifts in an author’s position, and second, that the commonly accepted assumptions about historical figures are not always correct, but must continually be weighed by a comparison with the primary texts themselves.

For Heine’s full discussion on this point, see pp.242-56. His entire book is a fine introduction, probably the best introduction, to Origen’s life and work. He displays a remarkable attentiveness to the primary sources and is in touch with the latest Origen scholarship.

If someone happens to stumble across the blog who has read Bell’s book, could you tell us in the comments to this post what he says about Origen? I’m curious to hear.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2011 6:45 am

    Informative post, Matt. Perhaps you could write up something for TGC on this.

  2. March 18, 2011 8:31 am

    I like historical reevaluations like this. It certainly raises my interest on the subject.

  3. December 17, 2012 3:53 am

    On February 26th I launched a new Facebook group, the UU Growth Lab, to serve as free space and think tank for Unitarian Universalist chngae agents. a0 I’ve moved information about it to a permanent page. You may read more about it and join here.

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