I ran across this quote in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Pope St. Anastasius I

A pontiff who is remembered chiefly for his condemnation of Origenism. A Roman by birth, he became pope in 399, and died within a little less than four years. Among his friends were Augustine, and Jerome, and Paulinus. Jerome speaks of him as a man of great holiness who was rich in his poverty. It was during the time of the barbarian invasions.

I followed the link to "Origenism" and started to read to see why it was condemned, but (and I really hate to admit this) the articles in the Catholic Encyclopedia just confuse me. There are so many terms that I've never heard, and am unfamiliar with that I end up having to look those up and then looking up others.

So, in a nutshell, I'm looking for a lay-person's explanation of what "Origenism" is, and if it's not obvious when comparing it to traditional teachings, why it was condemned.

  • +1 Catholic Encyclopedia articles, though informative, tend to be overly-verbose linguistic mazes.
    – svidgen
    Jan 25 '13 at 17:27
  • I've heard the reopened his cause for.colonization, so i'll bet it doesn't have much to do with him. It is pretty sad to see all throwback readings by the fathers of the the church chopped up in the office of readings and have st., st., bl. .... and then sorry old Mr. Origen
    – Peter Turner
    Jun 25 '13 at 11:25

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Origen and Origenism, the "sketchy" doctrines are:

  • Allegorism in the interpretation of Scripture
    Origen believed that, being God-inspired and written by human hand, scripture must be interpreted in a manner than is worth of God. As such, some Biblical passages must be interpreted allegorically, lest we think God a tyrannical, blood-thirsty, etc.. It's important to note first, that a strictly allegorical interpretation of scripture was unorthodox. But secondly, Origen apparently took the allegorical interpretation train a little too far according to some. So, even at though allegorical interpretations may be OK, good, and in some cases necessary; Origen himself is an example of how difficult it can be to get off the allegory train. I.e., it's acceptable and good, but it's dangerous; be careful!

  • Subordination of the Divine Persons
    The language in Catholic Encyclopedia is confusing (to me) as to whether Origen is for or against the "sketchy" Trinitarian tendencies of subordinating The Son to The Father or to what extent he believed what he did. But, the Wikipedia article on Subordinationism clarifies it quite succinctly for us:

Perhaps the most elaborate of advocates in favor of Subordinationism was Origen of Alexandria. Origen taught that Jesus was a "DEUTEROS THEOS" (second God) He also said the Son was "distinct" from the Father. Finally Origen insisted that the Son is other in substance than the Father. It should be noticed that some of these same references are used to defend the concept of the Trinity. However, Subordinationism is not a differentiation or distinction between persons in the Trinity. In this regard they agree. Subordinationism rather suggests that the Son (and Spirit) are other in substance than the Father. (Subordinationism, Pre-Nicean)

Other things I've seem suggest that the extreme material distance placed between the Father and Son in this theology isn't actually Origen's intended understanding. Rather, it's termed Origenism because his ideas paved the way for the more radical, questionable, and non-orthodox understanding. But, I'm not at all 100% sure on that.

  • The theory of successive trials and a final restoration. I didn't quite understand which details of the theology are technically part of this questionable doctrine. But, these are listed:

    • Eternal creation - An infinite number of universes/worlds have been and will be created infinitely backwards in time and infinitely forward in time.
    • Intellectual creation - All intellectual entities were created equal. Some of them got bored and became naughty.
    • Matter exists for the spiritual - More unorthodox, I think, is the subpoint that without matter, the spiritual cannot be. If the matter would cease to be, the spiritual entity it serves would cease to be.
    • Universal, final restoration - Everything will be returned to its original state of glory and union with God. I.e., hell isn't really eternal, it just seems like it.
  • 1
    Origenism is only loosely connected with Origen himself. Many of the ideas you mention here were taken from speculations in Origen De Pricipia, and developed by his "fans" long after Origen died.
    – Waeshael
    Jun 25 '13 at 3:47

Orgien's influence was primarily in inspiring the asectics and ultimately inspiring other Egyptians (most notably St. Antony) towards the monastic lifestyle. His emphasis on spiritual warfare and putting the flesh to death would find its natural expression in the monasteries.

Origen’s thinking not only had an impact on later exegetical and theological work. It also enjoyed development in monastic circles. As we can see from Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony, Egyptian → monasticism of the anchoritic type was influenced from the very first by the spirituality of Origen (involving asceticism, spiritual conflict, warring against → demons, etc.). The monks of Nitria and Kellia included many Origenists who in the late fourth century engaged in highly intellectual speculation and triggered controversies by ruling out any external piety or bodily concept of God. In this regard Evagrius Ponticus worked out a complete theological system (see esp. his Gnostic Centuries) on the basis of Origen’s hypotheses regarding the creation of intelligences by God and the final restoration of original unity. This type of Origenism found supporters among Palestinian monks in the first half of the sixth century. To deal with these developments Justinian in 543 and 553 condemned an Origenism that was closer to the teaching of Evagrius than to that of Origen himself.

Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-2003). Vol. 3: The encyclopedia of Christianity (859–860). Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill.

Taken to an extreme, however, if you believe the flesh is evil, it ultimately leads to Gnosticism, however. Paul directly refutes this idea, and it was branded as heresy very early on.

More on his theology is available here:

2.3. Theology In his Principles Origen projected and executed a theological program that had no precursor or competitor among the → church fathers. On the basis of the confession and Holy Scripture (→ Confessions and Creeds), he presented a comprehensive doctrine of → God, humanity (→ Anthropology), and the world (→ Creation). The desire for coherence led him to hypotheses that were later rejected, such as the preexistence of souls, a sequence of worlds until all spiritual beings freely return to God, and the complete equality of the last state with the first (→ Apocatastasis).

In Origen’s system decisive roles are played by the goodness of God (→ Good, The) and human → freedom. The fall was the result of a misuse of freedom by the → angels, the first spiritual beings to be created, but the same freedom, being taught and supported by divine → providence, will enable all of us to attain to a perpetual vision of the triune God (→ Contemplation). Origen also took a crucial step forward in developing the doctrine of the → Trinity, especially in what he said about the → Holy Spirit as an individual substance with two modes of operation, the charismatic (→ Charisma) and the → epistemological. The → Christology of Origen is complex. For him the Son is both subordinate to the Father and equal with him. The Son has many functions as revealer and mediator, which come to expression in the terms by which he is known in Scripture (the epinoiai, “conceptions, purposes”). Before the → incarnation he already assumed unfallen humanity. His incarnation became a saving event in the sense of bringing a full → revelation of God and offering a model of the full and free obedience of the human will to God (→ Soteriology).

We attain to the knowledge and vision of God by a spiritual understanding of Scripture and by imitation of the incarnate Christ (→ Discipleship 2). Since we are composed of spirit, → soul, and body, we are at odds with ourselves. The soul, the seat of free will, is subject to passions through the influence of the body, but the spirit, sharing the divine Spirit, draws it to God. The conflict does not take place only within us. It is directly related to that of angels and demons, the background of which is Christ’s struggle with Satan. → Asceticism, → prayer, and practical → virtue are the weapons with which we can win the victory in the fight. The decisive weapons, however, are the power, the → light, and the → love that Christ brings to us as the image of the invisible God when he comes to dwell and to grow in us. Christ gives us a share in the qualities that are proper to him as God’s express image. Believers increasingly develop to spiritual perfection. By union with Christ they attain to the vision of God, but they are never completely perfect on earth. Origen’s ideal was perhaps mystical, yet his writings contain no plain references to mystical or ecstatic experiences per se (→ Mysticism 2)

Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-2003). Vol. 3: The encyclopedia of Christianity (858–859). Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill.

  • This was great. I wish I could accept more than one answer. I had a really hard time choosing, but I went with svidgen's answer simply because he did a better job of summarizing the teachings. Jan 26 '13 at 16:10
  • Re: your comment on Paul: Paul was the darling of the Gnostic Churches including Marcion's, as you well know, and you can read gnostic ideas in Paul's writing. This is why the Church Fathers seldom referenced his writing. Origen was an exception. His commentary on Romans is very enlightening.
    – Waeshael
    Jun 25 '13 at 3:37

I have read and studied Origen's writings for many years. He was the leader of the "seminary" in Alexandria. A lay person who taught Priests, and later Bishops - though he was chastised for this. He moved to Caesarea to start a "seminary" there. And he taught and influenced some of the great Church Fathers, and he is quoted by Pope Benedict in his own work.

He was the first systematic theologian and taught in the mid 3rd. cent. He wrote many commentaries which are wonderful understandings of God's intervention in the lives of believers. He explained justification. He had many fans, including St. Augustine.

He also wrote several books that speculated on the origin of man, and the purpose of man, and where spirits came from and went to - but these were just ideas for others to ponder - he didn't say they were the truth. Some of his followers took his speculative ideas and ran with them and taught things that he would never have approved. What they taught was termed Origenism by the catholic Bishops, and their ideas - especially about the pre-existence of souls (LDS are you hearing this) which Origen had speculated on, were anathema. His suggestion that everyone was going to be redeemed, was an idea of his own. Strangely on May 22 this year Pope Francis suggested essentially the same thing

"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!".. Pope Francis 5/22/2013 Huffington Post report.

But remember that in AD 250 when he taught, there was no systematic theology before him. His book De Pricipia was the source of these speculations. But this was just one book out of the hundreds he wrote. His commentaries are wonderful to read.

Iranaeus of AD 150 was the only other person to define what was Christianity. He wrote his six volume treatise on the various misconception of Jesus being taught by many Bishops. Early theologians (he was also a Bishop,) had a different opinion of the Gospel message than we have today. Though he was the first church historian, he was not familiar with the details of the death of Jesus, and thought he was 48 years old when he died.

Origen focussed only on unbuttoning the secrets of the gospels, and not church politics. His biographers estimate he had written more than 6000 manuscripts about Jesus's teaching. Most are lost. A few of the original Greek mss. exist, and there are many Latin translation by Rufinus.

There is absolutely no point in reading summaries in the encyclopedia about him. Most people haven't spent enough time to even begin to understood his work. He was a mystic who taught the three different ways of understanding scripture. if you want to understand Jesus's parables, this is the man to consult.

Don't believe what is said about him, by people who have never read him (which is where your original comment came from - someone who did not know his work.)

Fathers from the 3rd. cent. considered Origen to be a genius, and he is revered by some Catholic and Greek leaders today. One of the most beloved books used in the Orthodox church today is the Philokalia, and Origen made a major contribution to the books. I own Vol 1, and IV.

If you like John Le Carre's writing with its mysteries and convoluted plots, you should enjoy Origen - they are just about the same reading level.


I'd never heard of it before, however a quick search on Wikipedia revealed the following about Origen:

During the fifth and sixth centuries, his orthodoxy was questioned, largely because he believed in the pre-existence and transmigration of souls, and apokatastasis, or universal reconciliation, ideas which were discussed among some patristic writers but which were later rejected as heretical. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origen

I would guess that Origenism is someone who follows the teaching of Origen.

  • Origenism, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, deals with a particular set of false doctrines that may or may not even be Origen's. So, I'm sorry to say, I don't think a brief summary of Origen's controversial teachings is sufficient here.
    – svidgen
    Jan 25 '13 at 14:58
  • I agree, Origens writings were so vast (6000 mss) and covered so much ground that to think that his work can be summarized in a few paragraphs is ridiculous. I have spent more than 500 hours on just four of his books. The brief period of Origenism can safely be ignored. It had no lasting influence (except some of these ideas also became LDS doctrine - though J.S. could not have read Origen as his writings existed in Latin only and were not published widely). Origen himself wasn't the father of Origenism (see my answer below)
    – Waeshael
    Jun 25 '13 at 3:52

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