- Sin in Origen's Commentary on Romans by Stephen Bagby
Sin in Origen's Commentary on Romans
New York: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2018
Pp. xxi + 179. $95.00.
In Sin in Origen's Commentary on Romans, Bagby disambiguates the textual and theological complexities of Origen's hamartiology (i.e., doctrine of sin) through a focused analysis of his Commentary on Romans rather than On First Principles because the former "represents Origen's mature thinking on sin" (xiv). He argues that "Origen's doctrine of the preexistent fall of souls is encapsulated in a subsequent historical fall of Adam in the Garden" (xiii). Bagby defines Origen's conception of sin as "the soul's deviation from its created, natural order" (xiii–xiv).
The study unfolds in four chapters. In Chapter One: Sin in the Second and Third Centuries (1–34), Bagby provides the historical and theological context of [End Page 504] Origen's hamartiology by surveying the major figures that precede and influence him, including: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and gnostic Christians whose deterministic anthropology was the target of Origen's repeated theological attacks. He also makes a first pass at Origen's doctrine of "volitional sin" from his earlier writings (20–24). In Chapter Two: Original Sin (35–92), Bagby examines Origen's key statements on sin and the fall in Commentary on Romans and their scholarly interpretation. He then seeks to integrate Origen's doctrine of preexistence with his theology of original sin (35). These two theories, Bagby argues, "must be held in tension" (46), and he further posits that "Origen attempts to offer an awkward reconciliation of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Fall" (47). Bagby notes the fluidity of Christian anthropology in the third century, which enabled Origen to speculate in different, sometimes seemingly opposing directions (74). In Chapter Three: Parameters of Volitional Sin (93–125), Bagby outlines Origen's tripartite anthropology, which defines the human as consisting of mind, soul, and spirit in perpetual tension with its disordered desires. He defines volitional sin as the violation of "God's law"—subdivided into "natural law, Mosaic law, or the law of Christ"—because of the soul's lack of moderation, a state engendered by the lower soul accommodating to the desires of the flesh at the expense of the higher soul (93). Against gnostic determination and "denigration of the material world" (113), the body serves a salutary soteriological function. Finally, in Chapter Four: Practice of Volitional Sin (127–58), Bagby delineates the cause and consequences of sin as the hegemonikon mediates between the lower and higher parts of the soul (128). After the preexistent fall our wills are weakened and impaired, but through salvation they are sufficiently restored to enable us to begin the arduous journey back to God by exercising our wills aright. Sin results when the mind succumbs to the passions of the body and the lower soul to "usurp" the higher elements (146). Finally, in the Conclusion (159–61), Bagby notes Origen's hamartiology's surprising similarity to Augustine and dissimilarity to Pelagius (159).
Sin in Origen's Commentary on Romans originated as a doctoral thesis at Durham University under the expert supervision of Lewis Ayres and Andrew Louth, two doyens of patristic studies (179). Many recent studies on Origen began as doctoral dissertations, which means they are often very technical, narrow, and immersed in the primary and secondary literature. That is both a strength and a weakness. Bagby's book is doubly "delimited": he restricts his analysis to the topic of sin primarily in Origen's Commentary on Romans, which obviates the common overreliance on De Principiis to determine Origen's ideas. As a structural strategy for a dissertation, this makes perfect sense. But readers interested in the architectonics of Origen's thought would want to know the broader systematic implications of his hamartiology. In other words, the laser focus of the study, while admirable from the perspective of a dissertation, loses some of its utility for a less specialized readership in Origen and patristics. A conclusion of three pages (159–61), which really amounts to one page of written text, serves to...