How did Origen Vindicate God Amidst the Horrors of Evil and Suffering?

Peter Martens on Mark S.M. Scott’s Journey Back to God

Mark Scott, Early Christianity, Early Christian History, Journey Back to God, Origen on the Problem of Evil
Mark S.M. Scott, Journey Back to God: Origen on the Problem of Evil, Oxford University Press, 2012, 256pp., $74.

Anyone with a smattering of training in religion or philosophy knows at least two things about Origen (ca. 184-253 CE): he castrated himself, and he was condemned as a heretic of the Christian church. Today there is some doubt about the former but none concerning the latter. The Byzantine emperor, Justinian, presided over a council at Constantinople in 553 at which Origen was posthumously pronounced a heretic of the Chalcedonian church. The precise circumstances that precipitated his condemnation will likely always remain opaque. Yet in the eleventh canon of what many now recognize as the fifth ecumenical council, Origen joined the ranks of the anathematized.

He has accordingly spent much time in the scholar’s dock, subject to withering prosecution or impassioned defense. Mark Scott’s book is refreshingly free of this juridical atmosphere. Journey Back to God focuses instead on the manner in which one of the early church’s greatest intellectuals vindicated God amidst the horrors of evil and suffering. Origen’s theodicy—his “theological and cosmological strategies for explaining the reality of evil”—requires Scott to address a number of the vexing themes that precipitated the Origenist crises of late antiquity. But he resists the temptation to adjudicate on Origen’s orthodoxy.

Scott traces Origen’s narrative of the soul’s prelapsarian contemplation of God, its descent into this corporeal world, and its ascent to the eschatological contemplation of God. Particularly urgent for Origen were the disparate conditions in which humans begin their lives. Why, for example, do some receive the privilege of being born as Greeks who cultivate wisdom, while others find themselves among Ethiopians whose reputed custom was “to feed on human flesh” (On First Principles 2.9.5)? This inequality raised pressing questions about the character of the Creator. Rather than posit an inferior Demiurge, Origen posited pre-existence—the belief that souls existed in a discarnate state prior to their embodiment. This doctrine eventually became contentious, but with many other recent scholars, Scott errs in attributing its condemnation to the fifth ecumenical council. It surfaces in a list of fifteen anathemas published by the emperor Justinian in 553, but Richard Price’s study demonstrates that this list was not issued by the council that met that same year.

Origen’s account of pre-existence is a theodicy. The reason humans commence their earthly lives under disparate circumstances is because they fell in varying degrees in the primordial realm. Rational souls were originally created equal and alike, and all were endowed with the capacity to make decisions for which they were ultimately responsible. When Origen raises the curtain on his theological drama we find these rational creatures contemplating God. With the exception of the soul that Jesus would later possess, all of them faltered. By turning away from the good, they immersed themselves in evil. Origen proposes boredom, distraction, and negligence as likely causes. Moreover, some fell more than others, thereby giving rise to diversity. God’s just judgment followed— the first judgment—and human souls became embodied and located in diverse stations on earth that corresponded to the severity of their fall. Origen framed this punishment as restorative, not vindictive. Life on earth is a proving ground where God’s providential care guides free souls back to the state from whence they fell. It is not the good and just God who is responsible for evil—and certainly not an inferior Demiurge—but rather rational creatures.

Children have walked for weeks across the desert to get to Dadaab, and many perish on the way. Others have died shortly after arrival. On the edge of the camp, a young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam.
A young girl stands in Dadaab amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam.

At this point Scott’s narrative begins to unravel. He does not address what most people would understand as theodicy—i.e., a vindication of God in the face of evil. He treats the soul’s ascent to God in this life and the next, but it is not clear to me how, “[b]y embarking on the road to perfection, our lives become a theodicy.” As much as I welcome Scott’s resistance to the long-standing tendency among Origen’s biographers to pit the philosopher against the ecclesiastic, we can find clearer ways to link his theodicy to ecclesial and existential concerns. For instance, in defending the goodness and justice of the one God, Origen also defends the first article in the church’s rule, which he believed was under attack from those we customarily call “Gnostics.” In other words, the theodicy also has a heresiological function (see esp. On First Principles 2.9.2-8). In Against Celsus 5.29-33, the primordial fall helps Origen account for linguistic, religious and cultural diversity, including the seemingly prejudicial election of the Jews. And as I have suggested in Origen and Scripture, the soul’s contemplation of the living Word in the protological realm serves as a template for its contemplation of the written Word, Scripture, in this realm. There are a number of places in Origen’s oeuvre in which he links his theodicy per se to his wider concerns.

Scott’s interpretations are usually sound and firmly within the communis opinio of Origenian scholarship. He perceptively notes, for instance, that “orthodoxy” is not a static concept. While Origen was just as interested in right belief as his ecclesiastical prosecutor, neither he nor Justinian constructed orthodoxy in precisely the same way. But Scott falters when he tells us that Origen viewed “orthodoxy more as the internal assimilation of doctrine than the external assent to propositions.” No evidence is given for this claim, and there are several passages—e.g., Origen’s preface to book one of On First Principles and the excerpts from his Commentary on Titus in Pamphilus’ Apology for Origen (sections 31-37)—in which Origen insists that the index of orthodoxy was assent to the church’s rule of faith. Scott correctly avoids the disjunctive portrayal of Origen as either a churchman or a philosopher, and recognizes that he was a Christian who drew critically and creatively upon philosophy.

There are times, however, where Scott is too comfortable with contemporary frameworks. He speaks easily of Origen’s negotiation of “philosophy and theology,” as if theology were an academic discipline in the third century. Origen never self-identifies as a theologos, and theologia in his day did not have the sense it would later acquire in, say, the medieval university. “Philosophy and theology”: this nomenclature invites us to picture Origen straddling two humanities departments, precisely the opposite of the otherwise salubrious tendency in this work to resist a polarized portrait of Origen.

The scholarship in this book is not always as rigorous as one might hope. Origen does not “dialogue” with Marcion. There is no citation of Marcion in his extant writings, and it is doubtful that Origen was directly familiar with his thought. We are also told that, “By all accounts, Origen was intensely pious and spiritual.” Yet only by some accounts. Epiphanius assures us that Origen was an idolater (Panarion 64.2.2-6). Greek words are misprinted, editions occasionally misidentified (the critical edition of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History was produced by E. Schwartz and T. Mommsen), and some passages are falsely attributed to Origen. Leontius of Byzantium, not Origen, speaks the words quoted from On First Principles 1.8.1.

Scott bypasses weighty and unresolved debates in Origenian scholarship. The contentious issue of whether Origen taught pre-existence—central to his theodicy—is handled too quickly. The author should have included an extended critique of the views of Mark Edwards (Origen against Plato, 2002) and Panayiotis Tzamalikos (Origen: Cosmology and Ontology of Time, 2006), both of whom deny Origen ever taught this doctrine. One of the largest questions hanging over this book is its relationship to Hal Koch’s magisterial study on Origen’s theodicy, Pronoia und Paideusis. As far I can tell, Scott never interacts with this book.

Journey Back to God is an argument crafted not only out of history but also out of generous measures of theory and philosophy. Its aim is retrieval, and its intended audience is, I suspect, less Origen specialists than readers concerned with the problem of evil. Many will already be familiar with the way a great western thinker like Augustine approached the problem. Scott helps us understand how a towering figure in the Greek patristic tradition wrestled with the same conundrum.