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Become Like the Angels: Origen’s Doctrine of the Soul by Benjamin P. Blosser (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 99, Number 4, October 2013
pp. 769-770 | 10.1353/cat.2013.0191

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No theologian’s legacy more exemplifies the tension between philosophy and faith than that of Origen of Alexandria (c. 185–254 CE)—“the most astonishing sign of contradiction in the history of Christian thought,” says Henri Crouzel.1 This tension is nowhere more evident than in his complex teaching on the human being. In his new book Become Like the Angels: Origen’s Doctrine of the Soul, Benjamin Blosser argues that this most hotly contested area of Origen’s system is, in fact, where he wrestles most passionately with Christian truth.

Major scholarship on Origen’s anthropology has tended to focus on his innovative doctrine of the spirit (Jacques Dupuis, Crouzel) or contentious matters like the preexistence of souls (Marguerite Harl) and their primordial fall (Jean Laporte). Surprisingly, a comprehensive survey of his doctrine of the soul—for Origen, the “very heart of the human person” (Blosser, p. 3)—has not been attempted. Blosser aims to close this gap.

Blosser acknowledges that, indisputably, Origen borrowed from the diffuse philosophical tradition known today as Middle Platonism. How deep, then, does the influence run? To answer this question, he undertakes an ambitious survey of Platonic views on the soul through Origen’s day, deftly untangling its many contradictions, beginning with Plato and leading up to Philo, Numenius, and Alcinous. The analysis is so lucidly developed that even readers with only a marginal interest in Origen will find it a useful guide to the nuances of Middle Platonic psychology.

The philosophical review is pursued in tandem with a comparative study of the main divisions of Origen’s doctrine of the soul. Blosser carefully attends to its sui generis features: the rational creation, the soul’s radical mutability, and the final restoration (apokatastasis). Throughout the discussion, Blosser correctly highlights the special role played by the uniquely unfallen “soul of Jesus”—exemplar of the human psyche and vehicle of its divinization (p. 135).

Blosser concludes that Origen adheres to “the hermeneutical strictures of Christian revelation” rather than philosophical categories. “While Origen was highly aware of Middle Platonic speculations on the soul,” Blosser writes, “[he] is in fact subtly critical of Middle Platonic theories of the soul…” (p. 267). Yet, he shows, even more than critiquing the Platonic legacy, Origen endeavors to fulfill its potential by subduing it to its proper telos in Christ.

According to Blosser, the anthropology of Origen’s intellectual contemporaries was bound to “a closed cosmos that operates according to the rigid, quasi-mechanistic laws of dualistic ontology.” It is a worldview with little “positive sense of individual personhood” (pp. 217–18). By contrast, Origen builds upon a doctrinal framework wherein the central distinction is not between matter and spirit but rather between an utterly contingent cosmos that is nonetheless free to love its maker and a freely creating God who is nonetheless bound in love to what he has made.

Having recovered the moral ground of ontology, Origen brings fresh eyes to old quandaries. For example, he overcomes the rigid Middle Platonic division between the intellectual and animal souls with the intuition that these are not “parts” of a person so much as the soul’s experience of being structurally modified by the good and bad choices that it makes (p. 126). Moreover, the whole created order is God’s provident synthesis of all such choices. Thus, for Origen, all history—cosmic and terrestrial—is sacred history or, to use Blosser’s preferred metaphor, a vast drama of “love repudiated and love redeemed” (p. 198) in which both the soul and the sensible world are the theater (pp. 13, 263). The grinding round of Middle Platonism is replaced by a morally ordered cosmos wherein the heart’s desires, and so the inner life, have ultimate purpose.

Since Blosser is mainly concerned with Origen’s relationship to Middle Platonic views on the soul, it is understandable that he will not pursue at length important themes that do not have clear analogues in the philosophies of the day. He gives only brief attention, for instance, to the soul’s “spiritual senses” (pp. 90–91)—one of Origen’s most original contributions to mystical theology. More disappointing is the absence of his concept of...

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