Origen’s On First Principles translated by John Behr (Review)

Who Should Read This Book? – Theologians, pastors and anyone interested in Christian theology.

What is the Big Takeaway? – The Church today would do well to learn how to read scripture from Origen. Also, John Behr is a treasure for his working in translating this.

And a Quote – “There will be then, an end and consummation of the world, when every one shall be subjected to punishments on account of sins; this time, when he will render to each one what is deserved, is known to God alone. We think, indeed, that the goodness of God through Christ may recall his whole creation to one end, with even his enemies being overcome and subdued” (1.6.1)

Growing up in evangelical Christian America, the major litmus test for whether you interpreted scripture correctly (and basically, whether you were legitimately saved) was if you took it “literally”? To question the so-called literal meaning of scripture was to place oneself on the slippery slope to heresy (and probably eternal damnation).

Of course, the more I read the Bible the more I learned no one actually took the Bible literally, at least in the way they claimed to. If you meet someone’s literal scripture with a literal scripture that appears to teach something different, well, you were interpreting, and twisting, the text. How does one know which scriptures are the literal ones and which are not? Unfortunately this question is rarely asked for it seems many of the people quickest to claim their literal reading is the unquestioned right one do not realize they are just repeating what they’ve heard. Its been said so often by so many in their circles, it just sounds right.

Speaking of these sorts of questions, they are less and less possible to be avoided. It seems everyone and their sister is talking about deconstructing faith. That is a whole separate subject from this review and, for the record, I think a lot of things need to be deconstructed. What once just sounded right no longer does, and its super quick and easy to hop on TikTok or Reddit and see the host of questions, often good and necessary questions, from exvangelicals and ex-Christians.

Now, I am not saying Origen – a church father who died nearly 1,800 years ago has all the answers. But I do think pastors and church leaders would do well to learn from Origen. There is a whole lot of wisdom in the tradition of the church, especially the pre-Reformation tradition. I am not interested in scapegoating or bashing the Reformers. But it is worth wondering how the history of Christianity may have gone differently if the Reformers (and the western tradition) was reading more Origen (and the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor and others).

All that to say, if you are interested in historical theology and you want to learn from one of the great saints (well not officially, but I’m not catholic so I’ll go ahead and call him a saint) of the church, read Origen. This new translation by John Behr (also, read anything by Behr you can) is worth the money. I mean, maybe not the $180 for the super-scholarly version (unless you’re actually a scholar) but the $35 for the readers version.

At this point, if you want more background on Origen I am going to point you to another review which is brilliant: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4011255841

As I said, I think Origen has a lot to teach us on how to read scripture. Much of this comes in book four, the final book in On First Principles. He speaks of three levels of the scripture – the surface level, the soul (think the moral/spiritual) level and then the deepest level where it speaks of Christ. This brings me back to interpreting the Bible. Origen would agree with my literalist friends that the Bible does have a literal (bodily) meaning. The problem is, this is literally just the surface level. Its beginner stuff. Until we dig deep into the spiritual meaning we have not plumbed the depth of the text.

What is fascinating is Origen even argues that some passages in scripture are obviously confusing or make little sense because God wrote them so to force us to dig deeper! Today some Christians get very worried about contradictions in scripture. Much ink is spilt and much time is spent trying to prove things that appear contradictory are not. What if we spent less time defending the surface level of the text and helped people dig deeper into it.

After all, the point of scripture is not the surface level:
“For our position is that with respect to the whole of the divine scripture all of it has a spiritual meaning, but not all of it has a bodily meaning, for there are many places where the bodily is proved to be impossible” (4.3.5)

What’s the point then? Well, Origen is rather keen on Jesus. Jesus is the key to scripture, the key that is lacking in how many read scripture today. The revelation of God in Jesus is the key that guides all our interpretation of scripture. So, and this is my point not Origen’s, when we see God commanding genocidal violence in the OT and then we see Jesus commanding love of enemy in the NT, we don’t have God commanding two different things. We don’t get to, as the saying goes, “pick and choose.” We start with Jesus and this forces us to move past the surface level of those OT commands.

Anyway…for Origen scripture is written by Jesus and is about Jesus:

By the words of Christ we mean not only those which he spoke when he became human and dwelt in the flesh; for even before this, Christ, the word of God, was in Moses and the prophets” (Pr. 1)

Then, finally, that the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and that they have not only the meaning which is obvious, but also another which escapes the notice of most” (Pr.8 )

This is because Jesus is God. Origen’s doctrine of God and the Trinity was influential for the next generation of theologians who hammered out the doctrine of the Trinity. Origen, against what some have said about him, does not present us with a created Son. Rather, the Son has always been for the Father is always begetting the Son.

Speaking of false ideas about Origen, Behr talks in the preface about the infamous idea that humans pre-existed and were placed in bodies based on their obedience. This is not what Origen actually taught and a close reading of the book shows that. Origen’s view of God, creation, rational beings and such is worth the price of the book.

That reminds me, I’ve read a lot of Charles Taylor on how the premodern age was enchanted and David Bentley Hart on how the early Christians had a much more vivid sense of powers and principalities than we do. With this in mind, reading Origen’s description of angels, demons, powers, principalities and even the sun and moon was jarring and fascinating. Simply put, he viewed the cosmos quite differently than we postmoderns do. And we’d probably do well to return to a more enchanted view.

Finally, I love what Origen says about free will. He says a lot. Basically, all rational beings have a choice. We can choose to do right or to do wrong. There are forces at work that are certainly influencing us, but the choice is ours. Further, God’s grace and strength will help us, so its not ALL us. Would that this view of freedom and God’s sovereignty had won out in the West rather than Augustine’s view. On that note, its hard for me to see how the Calvinist/Augustine view does not make God the author of evil (I mean, I’ve thought this for a while). For Origen, humans are born with choice, God only works and does good, and eventually evil will be no more so all creation will be restored to God. For Augustine (and Calvin) humans are born inherently sinful and there will always be a portion of humans consumed by evil so evil will exist eternally right alongside of God.

One more time for the exvangelicals and deconstructionist in the back – there are better, more satisfying, more compelling and more beautiful understandings of God than you realize!

Of course, I suppose its up to people like me and you to help them see. Becuase they’re certainly not going to read Origen!

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