Results tagged “Origen” from Reformation21 Blog

This is the sixth post in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed community (see part 123, 4 and 5).

Second Statement: Platonic Dualism

As noted at the end of the previous post (see part 5), his discussion of the incarnation under the distinction between human nature and humanness vaguely sounds like Origen (or Isaac Watts). Origin believed in the pre-existence of human souls and taught a two-stage incarnation of the Son, the first consisting of his union with the un-fallen human soul of Jesus from the beginning of creation and the second a union with a human body in Mary's womb. The prior union of the Son with a human soul is why, he reasons, "throughout the whole of Scripture, not only is the divine nature spoken of in human words, but the human nature is adorned by appellations of divine dignity."[1]

Our speaker makes similar claims, drawing the same conclusion about the biblical witness to humanity's "dignity and glory" prior to the incarnation.[2] Though he does not endorse the pre-existence of the human soul, his notion of humanness as the original, pre-existing form of the humanity later embodied in Jesus of Nazareth and prototype of all created humans comes close. Traditionally, the human soul (anima) is conceived as the form of the human body (forma corporis). Most Reformed theologians adopted a broadly Aristotelian interpretation of this, in which the form (soul, in this case) only properly exists in the particular thing formed (the embodied human).[3] Like Origen, however, our speaker embraces a version of Platonic dualism in which forms really exist independent of the thing formed:
Humanness is the essence within human beings, the essence by virtue of which human beings are human. This human essence has existed from all eternity, and is something within God's being that he intended to use as the gene for his creation of humankind. It is the image of God; it is the ontological being of Christ [4]
In other words, the original, pre-existing form of humanity (humanness) is not just an idea in God's mind but an actually existing thing, which he, unlike Origen, declares eternal and locates within God's being.

The implication of this for understanding the unique moment of the incarnation in Mary's womb is taken up in the next post.


[1] Origen, De Principiis, 2.6.3-5. See also Isaac Watts, "The Glory of Christ as God-man" in The Works of the Rev. Isaac Watts, vol. 6 (Leeds: Edward Baines, 1813), pp. 484-670, and the discussion of this work in Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 423-28.

[2] First Recording

[3] Ordinarily, form and matter are considered inseparable in this tradition. The separation of soul from body in death is a temporary, abnormal state.

[4] First Recording

The primary apologetic value of the efficacy of God's word is obvious: the gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes and the instrument the Spirit ordinarily uses to bring people to faith and keep and grow them in it. The implication for apologetic method is just as obvious: preach Christ, clearing out whatever bramble obscures a fuller and richer view of of him as you can.

I suppose if it is possible to "preach Christ from envy and rivalry" (Phil 1:15), it is also possible to do so without empathy. But, we are called to preach Christ "out of love," and love takes the questions people raise seriously, even when offered in the form of objections. And, as we have no doubt learned through wrestling with many of these same issues ourselves, the gospel constantly proves itself to be the best answer we have to each question we face. So, every question of this kind, properly considered in a spiritually realistic, empathetic, and intellectually serious way, is an occasion--invitation, really--to further preach Christ.

I say the gospel is the "best answer" because we do not always have the answer we or our neighbors may at first demand. Sometimes we even ask questions impossible for anyone to answer. But, in the gospel, we always have an answer sufficient for faith and life--an answer able to humble, silent, quiet, convert, correct, comfort, encourage, edify, and keep us. All of this belongs to the power of the gospel and is the primary apologetic value of the efficacy of God's word.

The power of God's word to accomplish these things, especially to bring people to faith and keep them in it, is also apologetically valuable in at least two secondary ways. This is an ancient point and here's how Origen, arguing "that the Scriptures are divinely inspired," makes it in De Principiis (written sometime prior to 225):
We may see . . . how that religion itself grew up in a short time, making progress by the punishment and death of its worshippers, by the plundering of their goods, and by the tortures of every kind which they endured; and this result is the more surprising, that even the teachers of it themselves neither were men of skill, nor very numerous; and yet these words are preached throughout the whole world, so that Greeks and Barbarians, wise and foolish, adopt the doctrines of the Christian religion (4.1.2).

The power of the gospel demonstrated in its fruitful advance among all kinds of people throughout the world, not just in the face of but through the means of the sometimes intense suffering of those who believe and the unskilled labors of a relatively few teachers, is astonishing. To Origen's mind, this is a very compelling apology for the faith.
It is no doubtful inference, that it is not by human power or might that the words of Jesus Christ come to prevail with all faith and power over the understandings and souls of all men. For, that these results were both predicted by Him, and established by divine answers proceeding from Him, is clear from His own words (4.1.2).

He then visits several places where Jesus taught that the gospel would go out and bear fruit throughout the world and that his disciples would suffer for their faith, before concluding that,
If these sayings, indeed, had been so uttered by Him, and yet if these predictions had not been fulfilled, they might perhaps appear to be untrue, and not to possess any authority. But now, when His declarations do pass into fulfillment, seeing they were predicted with such power and authority, it is most clearly shown to be true that He, when He was made man, delivered to men the precepts of salvation (4.1.2).

Origen's argument from the observed efficacy of the word of God, evident in the astonishing results of its preaching, argues to two entangled but distinct conclusions: (1) that the gospel is true and (2) that it possesses divine authority.

First, he argues that those results strongly support the truth of what Jesus taught since he predicted precisely what has come to pass. This can be understood somewhat narrowly, along the lines of prophet verification laid out in Deut 17:15-22, where a supposed spokesman for God would be tested by whether predictive words came to pass. Jesus passes this test; now we must pay close attention to everything he says.

It can also be understood in a broader sense, however. Those predictions speak more generally to the power of God's word to produce various kinds of effects. Predictions can be understood as singling out specific results to fix our attention not just on those specific outcomes but on the general efficacy of God's word which is evident all around us in the astonishing results it consistently produces. This is what Luther had in view when he spoke of drinking beer while God's word accomplished the Reformation.

I think if I could ask Origen whether he meant us to take his argument in the narrow or broad sense he would simply answer "Yes," meaning in both senses while implying the distinction was not an issue for him. Fair enough. But those who want to avoid the appearance of playing the dispensational parlor game of matching every cable news alert with some supposed predictive prophecy can still make good apologetic use out of the broader expectations Scripture clearly establishes. Besides, we have an even longer history of the global spread and saving power of the gospel to observe with perhaps even more astonishing results than Origen did. Here, the history of evangelical missions becomes a potent apology by way of the clear biblical expectation that the gospel is powerful to save and will ordinarily bear fruit everywhere it is preached.

According to Origen, however, if Jesus' message is not true then it could not possibly possess any authority, much less divine authority. And just because a word is true does not mean it has divine authority. So, the second conclusion he draws from the evident power of the word is that these astonishing results also demonstrate the divine authority of that word. Thus we have a second apology from the evident efficacy of God's word: not only is it true, but it has the ability to bring to pass or establish whatever it declares and foretells, up to everything God has appointed it to achieve in the world. Only a word spoken with divine authority has that kind of power over reality.

Origen on Scripture

I've been doing a little reading in Origen's On First Principles today (written sometime before 225). It's a scandalous work on several counts, but is likely the first attempt at a systematic exposition of the faith in the post-apostolic era and not without its benefits. So, continuing my theme on finding help in unexpected places (see my last post), I offer the following quotes on the doctrine of Scripture.

Origen opens his exposition of the faith with a strong statement on Scripture as the absolute source and norm of theology:

All who believe and are assured that grace and truth were obtained through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, . . . derive the knowledge which incites men to a good and happy life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ (trans. by Crombie; preface.1).

He continues:

By the words of Christ we do not mean those only which He spake when He became man and tabernacled in his flesh; for before that time, Christ, the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets. For without the Word of God how could they have been able to prophecy of Christ? And [if space permitted] . . . it would not be difficult to show, in proof of this statement, out of the holy Scriptures, how Moses or the prophets both spake and performed all they did through being filled with the Spirit of Christ (trans. by Crombie; preface.1).

Though not perfect, Origen appears to affirm something approaching the plenary divine inspiration of Scripture.

Perhaps more fascinating, and satisfying, is Origen's statement on the clarity of Scripture:

The following fact should be understood. The holy apostles, when preaching the faith of Christ, took certain doctrines, those namely which they believed to be necessary ones, and delivered them in the plainest terms to all believers, even to such as appeared to be somewhat dull in the investigation of divine knowledge (trans. by Butterworth; preface.3).

A little over fourteen centuries later the Westminster divines would confess something remarkably similar--that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (WCF 1.7). 

But most striking of all, I believe, is Origen's comments on the positive aspect of the sufficiency of Scripture. After outlining those doctrines he believed to be most clearly taught and necessary to know, he argues that, 

by clear and necessary statements [one] may ascertain the truth regarding each individual topic, and form, as we have said, one body of doctrine, by means of illustrations and arguments,--either those which he has discovered in holy Scripture, or which he has deduced by closely tracing out the consequences and following a correct method (trans. by Crombie; preface.10).

In other words, "The whole council of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture" (WCF 1.6).

I am not suggesting Origen's view of Scripture lines up exactly with the one set out in the Westminster Standards, only that on a few points it is closer than I suspect some of you might have guessed and that is at least interesting and I hope quite encouraging.

(I suppose I should note that the only complete text we have of On First Principles is a Latin translation prepared by Rufinus, a defender of Origen against accusations of heresy, over the winter and early spring of 397-98. Jerome sharply criticized this translation and prepared his own, which is mostly lost to us. But that debate had nothing to do with the passages quoted above and besides, even if these lines have been corrupted, they still date back to the end of the fourth century--which is not too shabby.)