Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume IV/Origen/Introductory Note/Preface
Works of Origen.
[a.d. 185–230–254.] The reader will remember the rise and rapid development of the great Alexandrian school, and the predominance which was imparted to it by the genius of the illustrious Clement. But in Origen, his pupil, who succeeded him at the surprising age of eighteen, a new sun was to rise upon its noontide. Truly was Alexandria “the mother and mistress of churches” in the benign sense of a nurse and instructress of Christendom, not its arrogant and usurping imperatrix.
The full details of Origen’s troubled but glorious career are given by Dr. Crombie, who in my opinion deserves thanks for the kind and apologetic temper of his estimate of the man and the sublime doctor, as well as of the period of his life. Upon the fervid spirit of a confessor in an age of cruelty, lust, and heathenism, what right have we to sit in judgment? Of one whose very errors were virtues at their source, how can a Christian of our self-indulgent times presume to speak in censure? Well might the Psalmist exclaim, “Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for His mercies are great: let me not fall into the hand of man.”
Justly has it been urged that to those whose colossal labours during the ante-Nicene period exposed them to hasty judgment, and led them into mistakes, much indulgence must be shown. The language of theology was but assuming shape under their processes, and we owe them an incalculable debt of gratitude: but it was not yet moulded into precision; nor had great councils, presided over by the Holy Ghost, as yet afforded those safeguards to freedom of thought which gradually defined the limits of orthodoxy. To no single teacher did the Church defer. Holy Scripture and the quod ab omnibuswere the grand prescription, against which no individual prelate or doctor could prevail, against which no see could uplift a voice, without chastisement and subjection. Over and over again were the bishops of patriarchal and apostolic sees, including Rome, adjudged heretics, and anathematized by the inexorable law of truth, and of “the faith once delivered to the saints,” which not even “an angel from heaven” might presume to change or to enlarge. But before the great Synodical period (a.d. 325 to 451), while orthodoxy is marvellously maintained and witnessed to by Origen and Tertullian themselves, their errors, however serious, have never separated them from the grateful and loving regard of those upon whom their lives of heroic sorrow and suffering have conferred blessings unspeakable. The Church cannot leave their errors uncorrected. Their persons she leaves to the Master’s award: their characters she cherishes, while their faults she deplores.
The great feature of the ante-Nicene theology, even in the mistakes of the writers, is its reliance on the Holy Scripture. What wealth of Scripture they lavish in their pages! We identify the Scriptures by their aid; but, were they lost in other forms, we might almost restore them from their pages. And forever is the Church indebted to Origen for the patient and encyclopedic labour and learning which he bestowed on the Scriptures in producing his Hexapla. Would that, in his interpretations of the inspired text, he had more strictly adhered to the counsels of Leonides, who was of Bacon’s opinion, that the meanings which flow naturally from the holy text are sweetest and best, even as that wine is best which is not crushed out and extorted from the grape, but which trickles of itself from the ripe and luscious cluster in all its purity and natural flavour. So Hooker remarks; and his view is commonly accepted by critics, that the interpretation of a text which departeth most from its natural rendering is commonly the worst.
It is too striking an illustration of the childlike simplicity of the primitive faithful to be passed by, in Origen’s history, that anecdote of his father, Leonides, who was himself a confessor and martyr: how he used to strip the bosom of his almost inspired boy as he lay asleep, and imprint kisses on his naked breast, “the temple of the Holy Ghost.” That blessed Spirit, he believed, was near to his own lips when he thus saluted a Christian child, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” From a child, this other Timothy “knew the Scriptures” indeed. His own doting father imbued him with the literature of the Greeks, but, far better, he taught him to love the lively oracles of the Lord of glory; and in these he became so proficient, even from tender years, that he puzzled his parent with his “understanding and answers,” like the holy Child of Nazareth when He heard the doctors in the Temple, and also “asked them questions.” In will he was also a martyr from his youth, and to the genuine spirit of martyrdom we must attribute that heroic fault of his youth which he lived to condemn in riper years, and which, evil and rash as it was, enabled the Church, once and for all, to give an authoritative interpretation to the language of the Saviour, and to guard her children thenceforth from similar exploits of pious mistake. None can doubt the purity of the motive. Few draw the important inference of the nature of the Church’s conflict with that intolerable prevalence of sensuality and shameless vice which so impressed her children with the import of Christ’s words, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”
Here follows the very full account of the life of Origen by Dr. Crombie, professor of biblical criticism in St. Mary’s College, St. Andrew:
- Vol. ii. p. 105, this series.
- 2 Sam. xxiv. 14.