"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Friday, February 4, 2011

Origen: Theology in Service of the Church

The great Origen has never been without commentators, and has perhaps never been an object of so much study as he has been in the last decade or so. Part of that is motivated by genuine interest on the part of serious scholars like John McGuckin, but part of it is motivated by the widespread and tediously adolescent interest certain scholars have in rehabilitating heretics (the very category of which they of course reject as nothing more or other than an expression of libido dominandi) in order to spit in the eye of Orthodox Christianity. I am not saying that Origen was a heretic: on that score, I think the evidence remains, at best, skimpy, ambiguous, and often tendentiously abused. (It is worth noting the great esteem in which Origen is held by the current bishop of Rome.) As one so often sees in the history of Christian ideas, the problem more often lies with the disciples and successors of a great man than with the man himself. It is often the disciples who create problems for people like Origen or Arius, and it is often the thought of the disciples that is more suspect than that of the "master" though the latter gets the blame that more properly belongs to the former.

Whatever controversy has attached to him, by any standard Origen was an outstanding--perhaps the outstanding--scholar of Alexandrian Christianty, known for his prodigious learning and unrivaled depth of insight. Rightly he has been acclaimed as a vir ecclesiasticus. Now a new book looks afresh at his status and legacy:

Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church (Christian Theology in Context) (Oxford University Press, 2011), 256pp.

The publisher provides us the following blurb:
This book is about the life and thought of Origen (c.185-254 A.D.), the most important Greek-speaking Christian theologian and Biblical scholar in antiquity. His writings included works on the text of the Bible, commentaries and sermons on most of the books of the Bible, a major defense of the Christian faith against a philosophical skeptic, and the first attempt at writing systematic theology ever made. Ronald E. Heine presents Origen's work in the context of the two urban centers where he lived-Alexandria in Egypt, and Caesarea in Palestine. Heine argues that these urban contexts and their communities of faith had a discernable impact on Origen's intellectual work.

The study begins with a description of Roman Alexandria where Origen spent the first forty-six years of his life. The thought of the Alexandrian Christian community in which Origen was born and in whose service he produced his first written works is examined from the limited resources that have survived. The remains of Origen's writings produced in Alexandria provide information about his early theological views as well as the circumstances of his life in Alexandria. Heine discusses the issues of the canon and text of the Bible used by Origen and the Alexandrian Christian community and the special work called the Hexapla which he produced on the text of the Septuagint.

Origen's later life in Caesarea was shaped by pastoral as well as teaching duties. These responsibilities put him in contact with the city's large Jewish population. Heine argues that the focus of Origen's thought shifts in this period from his earlier Alexandrian occupation with Gnostic issues to the complex questions concerning the relationship between church and synagogue and the ultimate fate of the Jews. In his final years it appears that Origen was rethinking some of the views he had espoused in his earlier work.
This will be reviewed later this year in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

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