Origen of Alexandria: To Be and to Be Called a Christian

Blake Adams
Friday, August 20th 2021

In April 2012, an archivist at the Bavarian State Library discovered inside a twelfth-century manuscript a collection of twenty-nine homilies on the Psalms. Originally catalogued as “anonymous,” these homilies were later confirmed to be the work of the fourth-century Christian teacher, Origen of Alexandria.[1] In addition to expanding Origen’s corpus, this discovery is significant for several reasons: first, these homilies are Origen’s last works before his death, representing his thought at its most mature; second, they are preserved in the original Greek, not, like most of his surviving works, in Latin translations by Rufinus or Jerome; finally, these homilies are the earliest extant exegetical treatment of the Psalms by a Christian writer.

The discovery of these homilies is the occasion for this series, which is a modest attempt at ressourcement of Origen’s teachings.[2] The reception of Origen has been mixed in Christian history, to understate the matter. But it cannot be denied that Origen has profoundly influenced Christianity. In terms of influence, he is often compared with Augustine. Together, they are the two most influential teachers in early Western Christianity. In this respect, it is understandable why Origen provokes so much controversy: he is precisely the sort of figure we cannot ignore, whether we like him or not. In this article, then, we will look at the life of Origen and some general contours of his thought.

Origen the Pastor

Origen’s work is not for scholars, in the sense that he does not write primarily for them. Of his tremendous corpus—some ancient accounts claim he wrote up to two-thousand works, which would make him the most prolific author of the ancient period, Christian or not—the majority is intended for the hearing of all churchgoers. On First Principles, the work of Origen most likely to be read by a student today, is the rare exception in addressing those who were advanced in the faith, as a preparatory text for pastoral exegesis. This limited exposure often leads students to imagine Origen as a speculative or systematic theologian operating in an academic/theoretical context. A more accurate picture locates Origen in the assembly, developing his theology in the act of pastoral teaching. He writes, “I hope to be a man of the Church. I hope to be addressed not by the name of some heresiarch, but by the name of Christ. I hope to have his name, which is blessed upon the earth. I desire, in deed and in thought, both to be and to be called a Christian” (Hom. Lk. 16.6). This latter phrase, “to be and to be called a Christian,” would be adopted by Christian teachers down the centuries as the chief practical end of this earthly life. But the corollary of this is “to be a man of the Church.” Not only do they go together as bride and groom, but in Origen’s thought, there is no way to know Christ except through his Church, just as there is no way to know the Father except through the Son.

By the time of Origen’s writing, the Church had outgrown its older reputation as an upstart cannibalistic cult, but it remained disliked and misunderstood. There was still no Christian emperor, no Nicene Creed, no monarchical ecclesial order, and no finalized canon. Small, Christianity grew in a grand and diverse civilization it had not helped to create. Conversion came at great personal and social cost, involving as it did a renunciation of things held dear by one’s family, neighbors, and country to join a church vulnerable to persecution at any time. There would be three waves of persecution in Origen’s lifetime: the first martyred his father when Origen was seventeen; the second made him a teacher of repute as other teachers fled while Origen remained in Alexandria to pastor disciples, many of whom were martyred; the last wave martyred Origen. Most Christians were not raised by Christians—Origen being an exception in this regard—and, unlike today, most lacked socio-historical and intergenerational incentives to “keep the faith.”

This is the Church in, for, and through which Origen taught. In some respects, his circumstances are analogous to ours. Origen’s was a pluralistic, diverse, and interconnected society in which the Church had no (or very little) cultural capital; few consulted it for spiritual guidance or with questions on the nature of reality and the meaning of life. As is increasingly becoming the case today, there were many alternatives to Christianity in third-century Alexandria. In addition to the old pantheons, Alexandrians could find spiritual homes in Egyptian occultism, Chaldean astral religion, or even Hinduism (see First Principles, 3.3.2). What’s more, waves of syncretic revivals were revising and recombining elements from the world’s religions to cook up a vast menu of cults, clubs, and societies.[3] In this context, responses to the Gospel were either hostile or uncomprehending. For example, Origen took great pains to explain to his Hellenistic audience that humility is, in fact, a virtue (Hom. Lk. 35.9).

We must ask ourselves: What was it about Christianity in the third century that incentivized someone to convert in the first place? Better yet, would we choose a Christianity as disreputable and undeveloped as that of the third century today, or is the only Christianity we feel we can commit to the one which holds the advantage of crafting profoundly the society in which it exists? Origen can help us understand what it means “to be and to be called a Christian” in non-Christian times.

The Imitable God

What did conversion entail? “To be and to be called a Christian” is to take on the name of Jesus, the Christ made man. According to Origen, the name of Christ carries power even when chanted by sorcerers without faith or understanding. Thus, some can use it to perform miracles and even cast out demons while still being estranged from God (Matt. 7:21–23). To be a Christian is not merely to speak the name of Jesus in this sense, but to live the life Christ is living: “The name of Jesus Christ is great, since he is a god, in Christians among those everywhere; the name is great through [their] life, for we magnify our Lord through a life, through a holy logos, through a flourishing condition” (Hom. Ps. 75.1). A Christian is one in whom “the name of Jesus Christ is great.” Thus “to be and to be called a Christian” is to live according to a special mode of life set down by the Incarnate Logos. In short, the name of Christ declares a new way to be a human being in the world.

We cannot discuss Origen’s thought in these matters without mentioning Plato. Platonism was experiencing a revival (i.e., Neoplatonism) in Origen’s time, and Origen himself borrowed often from Plato when he found it useful. The ultimate objective of the soul, according to Plato, is union with God, a process described as divinization (theosis). Plato offers an analogy: the soul is like a statue of the sea-god, Glaucos, submerged underwater. While essentially beautiful in form, over time the image has become encrusted with barnacles, shells, and seaweed. These represent the body and its passions. Glaucos now resembles a monster more than himself: the soul’s true identity is obscured by the flesh (Republic, 611b–d).

Origen uses similar imagery. The human soul is the image of God. Like a great iconographer, the Wisdom or Word (Logos) of God has painted himself within humanity, but by sin we have effaced that image. Origen analogizes the salvation of the soul to an art restoration project, a liberating but occasionally agonizing ordeal of removing the filth of sin that has obscured that holy image, then retouching it by “work, thought, and speech” (Hom. Lk. 8.2), forming—rather, reforming—the image of God within us. In this manner, Origen agrees with Plato regarding the ultimate objective of the soul and directly references Plato’s Theaetetus:

The highest good, towards which all rational nature is progressing, and which is also called the end of all things, is defined by very many even among philosophers in the following way, namely, that the highest good is to become as far as possible like God.

First Principles, 3.6.1; cf. Theaetetus, 176b

But what does it mean to be “like God”? In the final pages of the Timaeus, Plato affirms that we must exercise the superior part of the soul, the most divine-like quality of humanity, in order to remove the fleshly accretions and assimilate to deity (Timaeus, 89d–90a). Plato suggests “we ought to fly away from earth,” from “mortal nature” to “heaven as quickly as we can…and to fly away means to become like God, as far as this is possible; and to become like him, means to become holy, just, and wise” (Theaetetus, 176a–b:275). For Plato, likeness to God is limited to assuming his attributes. The soul is thus in perpetual pursuit of abstractions and ideals—holy, just, wise, etc.—but Christianity grounds the pursuit of God in a person, the person of Christ, the one who is not wise, but Wisdom itself. Origen writes:

I need to consider that the Lord and Savior is “the image of the invisible God,” and realize that my soul is made “in the Creator’s image,” so that it is an image of the Image. My soul is not directly an image of God; it was created as the image of an Image that already existed.

Hom. Lk. 8.2

The Son is the Image of the invisible Father (Col. 1:15). A human being is an image of the Son, and thus “an image of an Image.” We cannot destroy this image, only obscure or efface it by sin. Moreover, this is done, not by natural processes as suggested by Plato’s sea-god analogy, but by freewill disobedience. We can darken the inner icon of the Logos with the “image of the earthly,” and thus give our souls a new face God will not recognize, which estranges us:

We say, therefore, with confidence that according to the Scriptures God does not know all men. God does not know sin and God does not know sinners. He is ignorant of those alienated from himself. Hear the Scripture saying: “The Lord knows those who are his” [2 Tom. 2:19], and: “Let everyone depart from iniquity who calls on the name of the Lord” [cf. Num. 16:5]. The Lord knows his own, but he does not know the wicked and the impious. Hear the Savior saying: “Depart from me, all workers of iniquity. I have not known you” [Matt. 7:23]. And again Paul says: “If anyone among you is a prophet or spiritual, let him know that the things that I write are of the Lord. But if any man know not, he is not known” [1 Cor. 14:37–38].

Hom. Gen. 4.6

In this respect, sin is estrangement from God. By this, Origen does not mean God is ignorant of the existence of evildoers; only that God does not recognize them as his own creatures made in his own image. While all humans retain the image of God (Hom. Ps. 15.1.3), not all make that image apparent. The difference, according to Origen, comes down to a distinction between the image (eikon) and the likeness (homoisis) of God. Originally, human beings were made according to both (Gen. 1:26), but the latter has been lost. All are born with the former; the latter must be gained by the imitation of Christ. On the “deposit” written of in Leviticus 5:24, Origen allegorizes:

God entrusted “his own image and likeness” [Gen. 1:26–27] to your own soul. That deposit, therefore, must be restored by you just as intact as it was received by you. For if you are merciful, “as your Father in heaven is merciful” [Luke 6:36], the image of God is in you and you preserve the “deposit” intact [2 Tim. 1:14]. If you are perfect, “as your Father in heaven is perfect” [Matt. 5:48], the deposit of God’s image remains in you. In like manner, in all other things, if you are pious, if you are just, if you are holy, if you are “pure in heart” [Matt. 5:8], and if all things which are present in God through nature remain in you by imitation, “the deposit” of the divine image is safe within you. But if you do the opposite, and instead of mercy you manifest cruelty; instead of piety, impiety; instead of beneficence, violence; instead of quiet, turbulence; instead of liberality, greed; then since you have cast off the image of God, you have received the image of the devil in you and have refused the good “deposit” commended to you be the Divinity.

Hom. Lev. 4.3.1

The theme of imitation is critical in Origen’s teaching. Just as an artist cannot re-create a painting without the original model, so the Christian cannot grow in the likeness of Christ without that Image being ever present before him. Significantly, this image we bear is the image of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, Jesus Christ. “What other image of God is there,” asks Origen, “according to the likeness of whose image the human person is made, except our Savior who is the ‘firstborn of every creature’?” He continues:

For this reason, our Savior, who [himself] is the Image of God, moved with compassion for the human person who had been made according to his likeness, seeing him, his own image having been lain aside, to have put on the image of the evil one, assumed the image of man and came to him.

Hom. Gen. 1.13

For Origen, the occasion of the Incarnation and Passion, what moved the Savior to assume “the image of man,” was our being made in the image of God, not any particular work or request we could have made. Our salvation begins in the initiative of God and concerns what we are as image-bearers. As the original antitype, only the Son can restore his image within us, and he can only do this by becoming one of us, clothing himself in our weakness so that he could “in every respect” be “been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Christ is thus the end of humanity: he is everything we are meant to be.

Christ cannot give to us anything except what is his already. By reforming his image within us, “Christ, through the fact that he is Christ, makes christs, so also, through the fact that he is Son of God, and the unique only-begotten Son, he makes into sons of God all those who receive from him the spirit of adoption” (Origen, fragment in Pamphilus, Apology, 116). Because he is the Son, the only salvation he offers is that which comes by sonship:

The saints are therefore an image of an Image, that of the Son. They are stamped with sonship, and are conformed not only to the glorified body of Christ, but to the one who is in that body. They become conformed to the one who is in a glorified body, and are transformed through the renewal of their minds.

On Prayer 22.4

The restoration of the imago Dei in the human being is therefore equivalent to receiving divine sonship. In summary, to be like God is to be like the human being, Jesus Christ, and this is ultimately a work of the divine being, Christ, the Logos. Origen teaches that the choice of the pre-existing Logos to sojourn among us is central to the Christian life. In fact, it is the Christian life. Christ makes possible what was previously impossible: because the divine has become like humanity, humanity can become like the divine. In the flesh, God lays down a human way of divine life that we can follow because it is human. If Christianity were nothing more than a belief, Christ would not have needed to come in the flesh. He simply could have sent a message. Christ as a living model of life is thus a special contribution of the Incarnation that reveals something about the nature of our salvation. Before this, we could obey, worship, and enjoy God, but the Incarnation makes it possible for the first time to imitate God. And because we are his image-bearers, to become more like him is to become more ourselves than we currently are.

The Exemplary Life

Returning to the question—What would incentivize a third-century pagan to convert to Christianity?—we must realize that the initial draw to any radical conversion of life in the ancient world began with admiration of an exemplary life. For example, the life of Socrates is meant to inspire us to his way of thinking, which is much the goal of Plato’s Symposium. There, Plato defines the philosopher by means of the myth of Eros. Because Eros was born on Aphrodite’s birthday, he loves the beautiful, but because his mother is Penia, the goddess of need, he is not beautiful himself, but “harsh and arid, barefoot and homeless, sleeping on the naked earth, in doorways, or in the very streets beneath the stars of heaven, and always partaking of his mother’s poverty” (Symposium, 203c–d). Yet because his father is Poros, the god of craft, Eros is also a mighty hunter, “a master of device and artifice” and “full of wisdom” which aid in “his designs upon the beautiful and the good” (Symposium, 203d). Eros is thus a worthy pursuer of beauty: a pursuit he will never fulfil because he is not beautiful himself. So Eros “stands…midway between ignorance and wisdom” (Symposium, 203e). Origen summarizes: Eros is “a philosopher throughout his life” (Contra Celsum 4.39).

For those who knew his master, Plato’s meaning is clear. The parallels between Eros and his mentor, Socrates, are unmistakable. Like Eros, Socrates is barefoot and ugly—features of his favored by comic poets (see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 2.27–28)—as well as crafty and enamored with beauty. Socrates is thus the model philosopher. He rises from the table at dawn, surrounded by the drunken snores of the other attendees, and as he withdraws to contemplate, we feel a stirring of admiration at the vision of a life that breaks with the habits and conventions of the everyday and with the world with which we are familiar, and in wonder we desire to follow. Critically, we recognize wisdom not in theoretical or dialectical demonstrations, but in a manner of life, which is precisely what Plato intends to evoke in the Symposium.

The demonstration of a holy life carried evangelical force in the ancient world. Origen cites as proof of the truth of Christianity how the Church, even by his time, had flourished “throughout the world” and drawn various peoples into its divine way (First Principles 4.1.1; Contra Celsum 2.13). To his ancient audience, the “resplendent power of the churches and from his [Jesus’] superlative strength, which has overcome the world,” would be sufficient basis for belief in Christ (Hom. Ps. 77.1.1). Comprehensive understanding of the epistemic contents of a particular philosophy or religion were subsequent to an existential commitment to a new mode of life; imitation precedes theoretical reflection, for the latter is more a feature after the fact than a prerequisite to conversion.

For Plato, the soul ascended to God by an orientation toward the idea of the Good; Socrates is a model for doing this well, but he is not himself the form of the Good. As Origen saw it, however, Christ is. Thus, in the hands of Origen, Christianity transforms idealism into exemplarism by clothing the Good in flesh. The way of life then adjusts from the pursuit of the abstract idea of the Good to the practical imitation of the Good incarnate as he appeared on earth. In this way, the Christian life exists by direct reference to the person of Christ. For Origen, Christ is the ultimate exemplar with reference to whom we learn how to be human as well as divine. (We must be both, for Christ is both, and we must be like Christ, insofar as is possible for mere creatures.) Apologetics and debate have their purpose; but these merely defend the Church from her enemies. They lack the power to convert, to make those enemies into brothers and sisters. This comes, or at least must begin, by painting with one’s life an icon of Jesus Christ and offering it to the view of the world.

It is no accident that Athanasius of Alexandria, a deep admirer of the “labor-loving Origen” (De Decretis 6.27), would repeat this theme in his The Life of Antony, the first Christian hagiography. To be clear, hagiography is not biographical in the modern sense. It concerns only the spiritual life of a person who achieves a certain excellence in this regard. If hagiographies are susceptible to embellishment, this is an effort to inflect the way of life on display. Hagiography is not to be “believed,” so much as lived by. The element of belief, of course, is often involved, but it is only a good insofar as it inspires imitation of the subjects, who imitate Christ. If the most important thing we take away from the tale of St. George is that dragons exist, our reading isn’t very hagiographical, since this would make St. George impossible to emulate (unless we happen to know a dragon to slay).

Augustine tells a story (addressed to God) in his Confessions of two friends, both set on public careers, who came upon a copy of The Life of Antony:

One of them began to read this book, to marvel at it, and to be aroused by it. As he read it, he began to meditate on taking up such a life, and to give up his worldly career and serve you…Then the reader, suddenly filled with holy love and by sober shame made angry with himself, turned his eyes upon his friend and said, “Tell me, I ask you, where will we get by all these labors of ours? What are we seeking for?…What higher ambition can we have at court than to become friends of the emperor?…But to become God’s friend, if I wish it, see, I become one here and how.” He spoke these words, and in anguish during this birth of a new life, he turned his eyes again upon those pages. He read on and was changed within himself, where your eye could see. His mind was stripped of this world, as soon became apparent. For as he read, and turned about on the waves of his heart, he raged at himself for a while, but then discerned better things and determined upon them.

Conf., 8.15

As this last line indicates, part of the power of a holy life is not only that it helps the mind discern which life is best—a treatise or apologia can do that as well—but it assists the will to desire and choose it. It provokes the soul to recognize a way as good and beautiful, nurturing contempt for the worldly way it is currently pursuing. Through the demonstration of a holy life, the holy is seen as something both desirable and achievable, which compels us to face, as Augustine puts it, our own “naked self.” Describing this, Augustine writes,

You stood me face to face with myself, so that I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with stains and sores…If I tried to turn my gaze from myself, he [Augustine’s friend, reading The Life of Antony] still went on with the story that he was telling, and once again you placed me in front of myself, and thrust me before my own eyes, so that I might find out my iniquity and hate it.

Conf., 7.16

What Augustine saw in the life of Antony was the face of Christ shining through it. Augustine’s own conversion to a holier form of life was soon to follow, precipitated by these events, showing that discipleship is a chain of emulation—imitators imitating imitators of Christ—sourced in and sustained by the Logos; he flows through them in history like water cascading from rock to rock.

That You Might Follow in His Steps

Whatever one makes of Origen’s take on the Christian life, it is evident that a Church without a varied stock of spiritual exemplars will be offensive and wearisome to its age, no matter how keen its outreach strategy, winsome its apologetics, or articulate its belief system.

How is conformity to Christ practiced? Addressing his congregation in Caesarea, Origen instructed:

But if you come to church regularly, if you are stimulated by the scent of the divine word, and if you grasp the explanation of the heavenly commandments, then just like food and delicacies strengthen the flesh, so also the spirit regains its health through the divine words and is reinvigorated in its spiritual senses…Therefore, the nourishment of the spirit is the divine reading, unceasing prayer, and the word of instruction.

Hom. Lev. 9.7

In short, conformity to Christ comes primarily through prayer and Scripture. It just so happens both converge on the Book of Psalms in a unique way and show how Christ is unique from other exemplars like Socrates. We will address these in the next two articles, in turn.

[1] For the full details on the discovery, see Lorenzo Perrone, “Discovering Origen’s Lost Homilies on the Psalms,” Auctores Nostri 15 (2015): 19–46.

[2] For an introduction to Origen, I recommend Ronald Heine, Origen: An Introduction to His Life and Thought (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019); and St. Pamphilus of Caesarea, Apology for Origen (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010). For something more extensive, the classic study by Henri de Lubac rekindled modern interest in Origen: Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2007). For something more recent, the introduction by John Behr in his translation of Peri Archon is game-changing: Origen, On First Principles, translated by John Behr (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[3] Hans Jonas argues that this syncretic mania was the womb from which Gnosticism would emerge, including the three traditions with which Origen most often contended: the Marcionites, Valentinians, and Basilideans. See Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), pp.3–27.

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Blake Adams
Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, writer, and trained historian. His research interests include early Christian history, ascetical theology, and exegesis. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Follow him on Substack at or Twitter @BlaketheObscure.
Friday, August 20th 2021

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