Saturday, July 22, 2006

Origen and the Eternal Generation of the Son

There is some debate to what extent Origen affirms God’s paternity. Does he teach the eternal generation doctrine? In what sense is God Father in Origenian thought? Granted, the teaching of the Alexandrian is not wholly clear in this respect. But Hall’s comment seems judicious (mutatis mutandis) when he delineates the teaching of Origen as follows: “God was however always Father; he could not change from one condition (not-Father) to another (Father). So the Son exists in God’s timeless eternity.”[1] The Alexandrian theologian evidently affirms the eternal generation of the Son in view of the sentential locution ouk hn hoti ouk hn (“There was not when he was not”) that occurs in his literary corpus.[2] Therefore, Father ostensibly “does not as for Justin imply an act or event. For Origen the Father constantly begets the Son by what modern theologians call ‘eternal generation.’”[3] Nonetheless, Origen’s account implies that the Son is not intrinsically God (autotheos), but God by derivation only (Commentary on the Gospel of John 2.2).[4] That is, he is not “self-sufficiently” God.[5] Only the Father is autotheos in Origen’s theological scheme; the Son is God in a strictly predicative manner. The Son (Origen believes) is “less than the Father.”[6] But to what extent is the Father greater than the Son in the Alexandrian’s system?

Hall indicates that Origen possibly balances his alleged subordinationism by means of the eternal generation doctrine, which would mean that his subordinationism is not ontological in nature.[7] On the other hand, William J. Hill observes: “Still, eternal generation [in Origen] does not of itself give divine status because Origen views all spiritual beings, both what he calls theoi and human souls, as eternal.”[8] Similarly, Brown laments Origen’s problematic approach to Christology and the Trinity since “he also taught the preexistence of individual human souls and spoke of those who are in Christ as eternally begotten.”[9] However, this speculation, argues Brown, does not diminish Origen’s contribution to the church regarding how one may speak about the tres personae. Nevertheless, the historian acknowledges that while Origen’s eternal generation doctrine, “countered the assertion that the Son must be later than the Father,” it “did not entirely throw off the assumptions of earlier Christian thinkers that the Son is subordinate to the Father” and possibly not fully divine.[10] Studer likewise concludes that Origen “does not succeed in ruling out subordinationism.”[11] He points to the Alexandrian’s belief that there are hierarchical grades in deity with the Son being one of the Seraphim or angels in Isaiah’s vision of YHWH’s glory (Peri Archon 1.3.4).[12] If Origen’s doctrine of God or Christ is characterized by subordinationism, however, one wonders to what extent he subordinates the Son to the Father.

Certain scholars attempt to resolve the difficulties in Origen’s schema by positing the Son’s subordination to the Father in an economic sense. However, Origen’s extant writings suggest that he himself may have inconsistently formulated his Christology during his lifetime.[13] It is possible that Origen viewed the Son as ontologically subordinate to the Father.[14] Moreover, another factor adding to the aporetic tendencies of this Christology is Origen’s use of the term “creature” (ktisma) for the Son.[15] This usage has generated many discussions in Origen studies, discussions that have not led to wholly satisfactory conclusions.

The first systematic theologian evidently derives ktisma from Proverbs 8:22-25 (LXX).[16] Neoplatonism may also influence what seems to be an idiosyncratic utilization of ktisma.[17] Crouzel in fact believes that “creation” (ktisiv) for Origen applies to “everything that comes from God.”[18] Along with Prestige and Wiles, he notes the fluid synonymity that existed between the Greek words for generate (gennaw) and create (ginomai) prior to Nicea.[19] Hence, there appears to be no genuine conflict between Origen’s supposed affirmation of the eternal generation doctrine and his employment of “creature.” Yet, although the Father putatively generates the Son timelessly in the thought of Origen, this pre-Nicene clearly adheres to the notion that there are grades of being in the divine. In the estimation of Bulgakov, Origen does not master ontological subordinationism “with reference to the mutual relations of the hypostases, with reference to their equal dignity and divinity.”[20] Even if Origen did posit a timeless or eternal generation for the Son, he also argued that other “created” rational spirits (logoi) are eternal.[21] Ultimately, if Father is a metaphor for Christianity’s first systematic theologian, it is a rather curious trope.

[1] Hall, Doctrine and Practice, 105.

[2] See Crouzel, Origen, 186; Widdicombe, Fatherhood of God, 68. Peri Archon 1.2.9 and 4.4.1; Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans 1.5 (PG 14); Homily on Jeremiah 9.4. However, Crouzel observes that Origen’s use of aion or aiwniov are not clear (187).

[3] Hall, Doctrine and Practice, 105. Cf. Homily in Jeremiah 9.4; Peri Archon 1.2.2 and 4.4.28.

[4] Studer, Trinity and Incarnation, 85.

[5] Hall, Doctrine and Practice, 106.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. Compare Contra Celsum 8.15, however.

[8] W. J. Hill, Three-Personed God, 39. Granted, Origen attributes divinity to the Son. However, he makes a curious statement in Commentary on John 2.2 regarding the Son’s maintenance of his divinity through uninterrupted contemplation of the Father.

[9] Brown, Heresies, 90. Cf. Daniélou, Origen, 256; Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 155.

[10] Heresies, 91.

[11] Trinity and Incarnation, 85.

[12] Ibid. Cf. Fortman, Triune God, 57.

[13] Brown, Heresies, 91. Compare Peri Archon 1.3.7 with Commentary on John 13.25; 25.152.

[14] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 155.

[15] Widdicombe (Fatherhood of God, 89) insists that Origen “almost certainly called the Son a ktisma in the original text of De Principiis [Peri Archon].” Nevertheless, he states that the sense of ktisma in Origen when applied to the Son is not clear (Ibid). See Peri Archon 4.4.1. Cf. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 1:; Prestige, God in Patristic Thought,.

[16] Hill, Three-Personed God, 39.

[17] Frend, Rise of Christianity, 377. Cf. A.H. Armstrong, “The Plotinian Doctrine of nouv in Patristic Theology,” Vigiliae Christianae vol 8.4 (1954): 234-238.

[18] Origen, 186. Cf. Peri Archon 1.2.10.

[19] Maurice Wiles, “Eternal Generation,” JTS 12 (1961): 284-291; G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, 37-54.

[20] The Comforter, 20. Wiles similarly concludes: “The idea of eternal generation as it stands in Origen’s scheme of thought as a whole does not really have any effective anti-subordinationist significance at all” (“Eternal Generation,” 288).

[21] R. A. Norris Jr., God and World in Early Christian Theology, 150-152.


Pertinacious Papist said...

Origen is very strong on the eternal generation of the Son, which ultimately rules out any Arian interpretation. As you point out, Origen’s references to the Word being ‘created’ are to be understood in light of Origen’s very unique understanding of ‘creation’ – as Prof. Crouzel has shown, in Origen’s neo-Platonic understanding, anything generated by God is ‘created’, including something which shares His very essence. So he means something different by ‘created’ than we ordinarily do. You are also right to point out that for Origen the Word’s divinity is ‘second-hand’ or ‘derived’ – Origen (according to my son, Jamie) uses the analogy of an iron heated in a fire – the iron possesses the ‘same nature’ of the fire, but it possesses it by derivation and not by ‘right’. This allows Origen to call the Son ‘less’ than the Father. But I think this need not lead to subordinationism, since it's not in principle far removed from what Thomas says about Trinitarian relations. The only thing which differentiates the Persons is their relations – i.e. that the Son is generated, that the Father is generator, etc. This is apparently all Origen is saying using the heated iron analogy, according to Jamie. The Son’s nature is the same as the Father’s, the only difference being the relation between them (the Father generates the divinity, the Son receives it).

The only place I would differ from you is in your comparison to the eternality of creatures. You attempt to minimize the significance of the Son’s eternal generation by pointing out that, for Origen, spirits/souls are eternal as well. But this undertaking fails, I submit, on two counts. First, that Origen believes creatures to be truly ‘eternal’ is by no means clear – Jamie says that Prof. Crouzel has significantly undermined this supposition in his work Origen. Second, that spiritual creatures pre-exist the creation of the material world is clearly a speculation of Origen’s, but according to Jamie, it's not clear that Origen believed them to be strictly eternal. This is a disputed question among Origen scholars. In either case, though, it does not in any way minimize the uniqueness of the Son’s generation, since Origen is very clear that the Son originates from the Father in a radically different way than other souls/spirits do.

In sum, some scholars have pointed out that Origen can be ‘appropriated’ either by Arians or Nicenes. An Arian can find plenty of evidence for subordinationism in Origen, but the Nicene can appropriate the same evidence as proof of Nicea. Ultimately, because Origen was pre-Nicene -- he was not ‘on guard’ to defend himself against the threat of subordinationism. I would argue that this accounts for the occasional incautious statement in his writings. (P.B. with help from son, J.B.)

Edgar Foster said...

Hello Pertinacious,

For the sake of space in this combox, I have excised most of your comments. But I will address the substance of what you previously wrote.

You write concerning Origen:

"The Son's nature is the same as the Father's, the only difference being the relation between them (the Father generates the divinity, the Son receives it)."

The ancients tended to use terms for "nature" (FUSIS or OUSIA) ambiguously. Assuming that Origen believes the Son is consubstantial with the Father, he might not mean what modern Trinitarians would like him to mean. See George Stead's _Divine Substance_ for a detailed account of the ambiguities associated with the term "nature." Moreover, I believe that Origen posits a wider ontological chasm between the Father and Son than you are willing to acknowledge. This chasm between the Father and the Son is exhibited in his writings and it is noted by more than a few scholars. For example, even Crouzel cites Origen thus:

"We can say that the Saviour and the Holy Spirit exceed all creatures without possible comparison, in a wholly transcendent way, but that they are exceeded by the Father by as much or even more than they exceed the other beings."

Crouzel offers the following remarks on this passage: "Of course later orthodoxy would not express it like that, it would avoid anything that could express a superiority of the Father over the other two" (Crouzel, _Origen_ 203). To be fair, Jean Danielou observes that there is a passage in Origen's Commentary on Matthew that seems to gainsay the aforementioned comments found in his Commentary on John. But there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that Origen did not escape ontological subordinationism, as Bulgakov writes in his work _The Comforter_.

You continue:

"The only place I would differ from you is in your comparison to the eternality of creatures. You attempt to minimize the significance of the Son’s eternal generation by pointing out that, for Origen, spirits/souls are eternal as well. But this undertaking fails, I submit, on two counts. First, that Origen believes creatures to be truly 'eternal' is by no means clear – Jamie says that Prof. Crouzel has significantly undermined this supposition in his work Origen."

You might not be surprised to learn that I attribute much more significance to the eternal creation idea that you or Jamie do. But a number of orthodox scholars think similarly. One can read the evidence from Peri Archon or Commentary on John and judge for him/herself. Let me, however, leave you with these quotes from Bernhard Lohse's _A Short History of Christian Doctrine (Epochen der Dogmengeschichte)_, page 47:

"Origen's teaching concerning the eternal generation of the Son, i.e. a generation which is not yet a completed act, must be seen against the background of this concept of an eternal creation."

"Origen's notion of the eternal generation of the Son as well as his conception of the unity of the Son with the Father had to stand or fall with his insistence upon an eternal creation."

I believe that this view can be supported by the primary text of Origen. Lohse also notes that Origen did not believe that one should pray to the Lord Jesus Christ: "Only prayer to God the Father is permitted, he insisted, although such prayer has to be made through the Son and Spirit" (page 46).

See Origen's On Prayer 15.

Anonymous said...

Hello Edgar,

I'm happy to have [by accident] come across your blog. I am also, as it happens with 'blogger' under the name 'letusreason'. I find Origen and Terullian fascinating characters, as they were both, under the influence of Greek philosophy; Origen suddenly introduced 'eternal generation' and Tertullian 'divine nature'. It seemed to me through my studies, that later 'Church' theologians seized upon these two terms in their struggle with differing "Christian" views, as to who Christ was...As we know, many different "Christian" Groups/Parties coexisted and all claiming 'orthodoxy' and 'Apostolic' support...and previous "Christian" writers as their own, who happened to agree...with their take on Christ and who he was etc!

I was a Catholic Trinitarian for over 2o years and after studying Greek and Greek philosophy etc and talking candidly with many clergymen...I purposely became a JW, as I found these people to be the nearest I could get to biblical Christianity and also found that they had no hint at all and in any way of being tainted with any Greek philosophy..., as my former Church was and is!

Anyway Edgar, many thanks for your many posts [on various parts of the web]; these have been very informative and well written!


Andy [letusreason]

Hull England.