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.