Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Origen’s Christian Epistēmē in De Principiis: Exegesis as Ktisis

Origen of Alexandria’s De principiis exerted enormous influence on early Christian writers, yet few works have been met with such a perplexingly varied and polemical reception, even up to our time. In this article, I propose a new reading of De principiis based on taking seriously Origen’s enduring preoccupation with movement and body throughout his work, in conjunction with the central relevance he accords to imitation. I argue that books 1 and 4 provide the framework in which the two cycles of the work are unfolding, thereby initiating the reader into the praxis of Origen’s ἐπιστήμη. It is then this praxis that is able to enlighten even notoriously obscure passages by uniting the ambiguities of “ἀρχή” in itself and finally leading human beings into the completion of themselves and the cosmos.


Although widely read and circulated—as illustrated by the devotion the towering figures of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus showed it in the Philokalia attributed to them—Origen of Alexandria’s De principiis was disfigured through polemical quotations already during his lifetime and great parts of his work became lost in the aftermath of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. What remained for posterity of Origen’s De principiis was to be Rufinus’s Latin translation, critically edited beginning in the twentieth century with varying degrees of sympathy for either his thought or the condemnations of 553: while Paul Koetschau redacted Rufinus’s text in his pivotal 1913 edition, more recent translations into modern languages were based on editions of De principiis freed of Koetschau’s interpolations.1 [End Page 23]

In addition to these editorial questions regarding authorial attribution, the closely linked problem of the overall structure and purpose of De principiis can only be termed perplexing and has received repeated and enduring attention by a wide range of scholars. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the first critical editions were completed, scholars understood the work primarily as a systematic treatise on Christian dogma in Greek philosophical style.2 More recently, Henri Crouzel has stressed the tentative and experimental character of the work.3 This, inevitably, has led a number of scholars to postulate that De principiis is really just a collection of independent lectures and essays, loosely arranged according to philosophical or catechetical criteria.4 Although Basilius Steidle was one of those advocating the theory that the work is composed of separate lectures, he also for the first time made the influential suggestion that the overarching plan of the work does not correspond to its division into four books, but is rather worked out over three cycles, with the shortest and final one being chapter 4.4.5

This insight was taken a step further by a group of scholars under Marguerite Harl, showing that this repetitive structure is a common feature of ancient philosophical and technical treatises.6 The themes and their arrangement, Harl and her group contended, have prominent similarities with contemporary Greek treatises on natural philosophy and physics, and even the title of the work has parallels in cosmological handbooks. Thus, for these scholars, Origen broke new ground in the Christian theological literature by aiming to provide a biblical physics: an account of the origin and constitution of the world and the human being based on a synthesis of observation, reason, Christian Scripture, and ecclesial tradition. This way of reading De principiis—taking seriously the perplexing structure of Origen’s work as it has come down to us—has become widely accepted at the close of the twentieth century, including in the 1984 edition by Crouzel and Simonetti for Sources chrétiennes.7

Physics, however, was for Origen a subject matter much different from what we today might associate with this term. We get an inkling of this difference when we read Martin Heidegger’s statement, just four pages into his article “On the Essence and Concept of Φύσις in Aristotle’s Physics B, 1,” that “Aristotle’s Physics is the hidden, [End Page 24] and therefore never adequately studied, foundational book of Western philosophy.”8 In the second book of his Physics, the beginning of which Heidegger spends sixty pages on to retrace and translate, Aristotle’s thought on those things that exist “from φύσις” (192b8) opens with the observation that

each of them has within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness [τούτων μὲν γὰρ ἕκαστον ἐν ἑαυτῷ ἀρχὴν ἔχει κινήσεως καὶ στάσεως] in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration. On the other hand, a bed and a coat and anything else of that sort qua receiving these designations—i.e. in so far as they are products of art [τέχνης]—have no innate impulse to change [οὐδεμίαν ὁρμὴν ἔχει μεταβολῆς ἔμφυτον]. But in so far they happen to be composed of stone or of earth or of a mixture of the two, they do have such an impulse, and just to that extent—which seems to indicate that nature is a principle or cause [αἰτίας] of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not accidentally [καθ’ αὑτὸ καὶ μὴ κατὰ συμβεβηκός].9

Aristotle thus begins working out his thought on the essence and concept of φύσις based on a definition as “ἀρχὴ κινήσεως.” In his article, Heidegger goes on to spell out the compelling coherence with which Aristotle works through his subject matter based on this initial observation. Toward the end of his tour de force, he offers the following summary:

If we keep the whole in mind, then we now have two conceptual determinations of the essence of φύσις. The one takes φύσις as ἀρχὴ κινήσεως τοῦ κινουμένον καθ’ αὑτο, the origin and ordering of the movedness of what moves of and by itself. The other takes φύσις as μορφή, which means as γένεσις, which means κίνησις. If we think both determinations in their unity, then from the viewpoint of the first one, φύσις is nothing other than ἀρχὴ φύσεως, which is precisely what the second definition says: φύσις is φύσεως ὁδος εἰς φύσιν—φύσις is itself the origin and ordering of itself. From the viewpoint of the second definition, φύσις is the μορφὴ ἀρχῆς, the self-placing in which the origin places itself into the ordering process and as that which orders the self-placing into the appearance.10 [End Page 25]

While Heidegger’s conclusions may seem idiosyncratic at first sight, it is important to note that more recent and less creative investigations also focus on “nature as a principle of change” in the Physics, albeit also highlighting that the definition of nature that Aristotle offers here is “rather a first approximation or nominal definition that states a common, general characteristic of natural things.”11 More importantly, without engaging in a complex argument about the influence of Aristotle’s thought on Origen,12 we are immediately reminded of Origen’s enduring interest in the movements of rational creatures in De principiis, described as free will, and his reading of the beginning of the κόσμος from the point of its end, i.e., its τέλος.

Yet even if we accept that Origen attempts to deliver a λόγος about the φύσει ὄντα that is based on the revelation received in Scripture, or a biblical physics, with his De principiis, some parts of the work still remain perplexing. Thus, the chapters on biblical interpretation (4.1–3) would appear to be nothing more than a misplaced appendix, and the very last chapter (4.4) could be understood only with much goodwill as another cycle: it does not follow the order of topics found in the first two cycles, and suddenly offers a rather surprising excursus on matter. In order to take seriously the fourth book of Origen’s work, this essay will therefore first investigate and finally accept Brian Daley’s argument for the importance of the fourth book within the overall structure of De principiis.13 According to Daley, it becomes evident in book 4 that Origen is aiming with his entire work to form into a cohesive whole the Christian version of what in the Aristotelian tradition was called a science (ἐπιστήμη). It is Origen’s ἐπιστήμη of “the teaching of Christ the Logos, contained in the whole of Scripture and enunciated with authority in the apostolic tradition” that is then passed on to the reader so that through this cohesive whole he might share in real σοφία.14

Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle and the unencumbered view on Physics this affords together with Daley’s argument about Origen’s ἐπιστήμη will be taken here as a starting point to propose Origen’s preoccupation with movement throughout his work as the phenomenon that allows him to both render his science (ἐπιστήμη) coherent and underline the importance of the reader’s praxis of this science. This new (and therefore at times lightly footnoted) reading will be based on a structure of De principiis as principally developed by Steidle, Harl, and Daley, and as now reflected in the most recent English translation.15 We will, in conclusion, see how De principiis [End Page 26] can indeed be understood coherently as a Christian physics based on a synthesis of observation, reason, Christian Scripture, and ecclesial tradition—and how at the same time the work radically transforms Hellenistic literature and philosophy by using imitation as the one good movement to make exegesis the foundation for an ongoing Christian κτίσις.


In his insightful article on the structure and purpose of De principiis, Brian Daley argues that the title of the work already expresses a certain intentional ambiguity. The term ἀρχή can denote “either the root assumption of a theoretical system, a principle in the logical sense, or the ultimate underlying cause for the existence of some actual thing, a principle in the casual or ontological sense.”16 While scholarship in the nineteenth and early twentieth century has read De principiis in the first sense,17 most of the more recent scholarship tends to see it in light of the second sense.18 Yet Origen does precisely both with his book: “constructing a cohesive survey of the ontological principles of the world’s being, as Christian faith perceives them, also brings together, for him, the logical principles for an understanding of the content of revelation that is both the anchor and starting point of authentic and creative biblical interpretation.”19 That the construction of Origen’s book under this ambiguous title follows the overar-ching structure of uniting ontological and logical principles, I will argue, is also made evident by how Origen’s preface and book 4 actually form a remarkably coherent inclusio that frame the stage for the two cycles of the main body of the work.

Right at the outset of his preface, Origen clearly states that his ultimate interest in writing his work will be the proper interpretation of Scripture. All those who believe in Jesus Christ and acknowledge him to be the truth, Origen begins, “derive the knowledge which leads human beings to live a good and blessed life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ” (Pref. 1, 5).20 Since Moses and the prophets were filled with the Spirit of Christ, and Christ spoke in Paul, it is the interpretation of the entirety of Scripture that will lead to this saving knowledge of Christ. Finding the right source is therefore not a problem for the believer, [End Page 27] but rather interpreting it correctly: “[M]any of those who profess to believe in Christ differ not only in small and trivial matters, but even on great and important matters” (Pref.2, 5). For this reason, it is necessary to “lay down a definite line and clear rule regarding each one of these matters, and then thereafter to investigate other matters” (Pref.2, 5–6). Although there are many who think they know the teachings of Christ, the “ecclesiastical preaching” is the one that must be guarded, and the one that must be employed in laying down the definite line and clear rule (Pref.2, 6).21 An important distinction must be made within that one, undivided tradition preached by the apostles: while some points were delivered to all believers with “utmost clarity,” the reasons for particular teachings, their implications and modalities, were left “to be inquired into” by those who receive from the Holy Spirit the gifts of language, wisdom, and knowledge (Pref.3, 6). This was done, Origen stresses, so that those that prove themselves worthy and capable of receiving wisdom will be able to display the fruits of their loving labor (ibid.).

Origen then lists the topics that will serve as the guide to the scriptural interpretation given in the ensuing two cycles of chapters 1.1–2.3 and 2.4–3.6. Presenting these topics, Origen, beginning with the Holy Spirit, quickly starts to point out, together with those teachings delivered with utmost clarity, those points that were left for investigation. Origen begins to conclude the list by the clear teaching that “the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God,” and that they have not only an obvious meaning, but another meaning that escapes the notice of most. There is, indeed, Origen continues, “one mind throughout the entire church about this, that the whole law is indeed spiritual,” and that what the law actually conveys is only accessible to those that have received the grace of the Holy Spirit. As if meditating on his insistence that the more important meaning of Scripture is spiritual, rendering Scripture “bodiless,” he then offers a brief excursus on the term ἀσώματος. Although not found in Scripture, it will have to be inquired whether this term needs to be applied to God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and every soul and every rational creature. This is the first illustration of Origen’s enduring preoccupation with bodies and bodilessness (and the related issue of movement), and he will move on to open the first cycle in 1.1 with an inquiry into the assertion that according to Scripture “God is a body” (1.1, 13).

After briefly inserting angels and celestial bodies as one last topic, Origen concludes his preface by now more explicitly sketching out his project: to use “the elements and foundations of this sort” to construct “a certain structure and body of all these things, in accordance with reason” (Pref.10, 10). As if still in the key of body/bodiless, Origen proposes to form from the clear teachings and from their explanations and corollaries a cohesive and convincing whole, a structure and body (corpus). Elaborating on how this construction is to be done in accordance with reason, Origen writes that to form the body, “the truth about each particular point” needs to be discovered “by clear and cogent argumentation,” and illustrations and assertions from [End Page 28] both Scripture and “investigation and right reason” need to be combined (Pref.10, 10). Together with Brian Daley, we may argue here that Origen is proposing to form “the kind of integrated, demonstrative, logically coherent system of knowledge that in the Aristotelian tradition was called a science [ἐπιστήμη].”22 As Aristotle depicted it in the Posterior Analytics, one of the main characteristics of such a system was that it be developed from axioms that could not be demonstrated within the logic of the system itself, but were grasped by intuition (νοῦς])through continuous and reflective experience in the world, rooted in perception and held together by memory.23

Those propositions that we accept as undemonstrable axioms in this way become the first principles (ἀρχαί) of a structure of arguments, in the end allowing us to grasp a whole body of knowledge with the same conviction (πίστις) we have about the first principles themselves. The certainty and clarity of the first principles are communicated to all experiences and events, forming a system of sure knowledge, an Aristotelian ἐπιστήμη.24 In the Magna moralia, as Daley aptly points out, Aristotle labels as “σοφία” any organized body of knowledge about a particular branch of human experience. Aristotle writes:

Wisdom is put together from both scientific knowledge and intelligence [νοῦς], for wisdom is concerned both with first principles and with what we demonstrate from first principles, those things that are the province of scientific knowledge. So far, therefore, as it concerns principles, [wisdom] participates in intelligence [νοῦς]; so far as it deals with what is subsequent to first principles by the path of demonstration, it partakes of scientific knowledge.25

This whole Aristotelian theory, it is worth noting, was generally appropriated by the kind of second-century Middle Platonism with which Origen would have been intimately familiar.26 And we can indeed clearly see how this is echoed in Origen’s preface, where he proposes to form a coherent structure out of the axioms of the clear apostolic teaching, relying on reason and clear and cogent argumentation to draw out what is subsequent to these axioms. While the axioms cannot be proven by the system itself, Origen nevertheless shows throughout his work how through a reflective experience of the world—based on perception and held together by memory— the truth of these axioms may indeed be grasped. It is thus true that Origen builds a [End Page 29] biblical physics and intertwines logical and ontological principles (and, in this way, we could say, also intertwining physics and metaphysics), but only insofar as it relates to the more fundamental task of rendering graspable the truth of the one apostolic tradition in our particular lived experience.


In book 4, Origen makes clear reference to this project, yet this time stressing explicitly how the one who has grasped the whole can begin to see the real significance of the particular—every word in the Scriptures and every detail in the world, coming to mind in our own particular experience—in order to share in Christian σοφία. At the end of the first chapter of book 4, Origen acknowledges that the “supra-human [sense] of the meanings of every part of the writings” does not present itself easily to the uninstructed (4.1.7, 242). The “skillful plan of the providential ruler” is all the harder to discern in matters upon the earth and in matters regarding human events (4.1.7, 243). Yet this weakness of ours certainly does not annul providence, and since our faith does not rest upon the wisdom of human beings but upon the power of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:5), we should all the more “endeavor, leaving behind the teaching of the first principles of Christ, that is, of the elements, to press on to perfection, in order that the wisdom spoken to the perfect may be spoken to us also” (4.1.7, 244; cf. 1 Cor 2:6). Origen invites his reader to press on beyond the elements of the Christian ἐπιστήμη he has been developing over the two preceding cycles, in order to share in a more perfect σοφία. This other wisdom besides “the wisdom of this age and the wisdom of the rulers of this age” is that wisdom that “will be stamped upon us distinctly” (4.1.7, 244; cf. 1 Cor 2:6).

The foundation for his reader to continue this growth in perfect σοφία will be, just as Origen himself has exemplified with the two cycles of his work, the ongoing interpretation of Scripture. At the beginning of the first chapter of book 4 Origen actually already works to remove a methodological impediment to this. Whereas in his preface he touched on the divinity of the Scriptures only very briefly, and quickly postulated them as the one right source that is correctly understood by means of the definite line and clear rule, Origen now dedicates more time to demonstrating the validity of precisely that assumption. In a hermeneutically circular argument, Origen endeavors to provide proof for the validity of the text that is both the source of the clear rule he has developed and the object of the application of this clear rule. Scripture, as rightly understood in light of the teaching of the apostles, is together with “the common conceptions and the evidence of things that are seen” the source he has been using throughout the book in order to “by reason confirm our faith” (4.1.1, 233)—and simultaneously that “treasure in earthen vessels” that leads to the σοφία that will be spoken to those who continually press on to perfection by using, and ultimately transcending, the ἐπιστήμη Origen has set before his reader (4.1.7, [End Page 30] 243–44). Between the beginning and the conclusion of this first chapter, Origen not only adduces proof for the divine status of Scripture (e.g., that the Christian teaching has spread to many and diverse nations, and that the Scriptures’ prophecies have all been fulfilled) but also shows that this circular movement was set in motion not through an arbitrary decision, but through the manifestation of Christ and the subsequent preaching of the apostles: “the light contained in the Law of Moses, but hidden by a veil, shone forth at the sojourn of Jesus, when the veil was taken away and the good things, of which the letter had a shadow, came gradually to be known” (4.1.6, 242). It is only in the light of the whole Christian σοφία, which is given by Christ and ultimately is Christ, that the spiritual meaning and divine source of every part of Scripture become apparent.

In the following two chapters, Origen, contrary to how it is commonly presented, does not deliver his definitive and foolproof guide on how to correctly read and understand Scripture—and how could he, after what he has shown in the preceding chapter?27 The famous three levels of meaning in Scripture, corresponding to body, soul, and spirit, are really just Origen stressing again that the true meaning of Scripture is not the obvious one.28 Rather, the three aims of the Spirit in inspiring his ministers for the composition of Scripture seem more fundamental: to instruct human beings about their own situation (4.2.7, 258–59), to make essentials of this knowledge available by covering the mysteries in a profitable body of narratives and moral examples (4.2.8, 260), and to place into these narratives stumbling blocks that lead the discerning reader to search for the saving mysteries (4.2.9, 261–62). It is with this sense of how God reveals that one can approach difficult passages, endeavoring to grasp the “whole sense” that spiritually connects things impossible not only with other things impossible but even with things true according to the narrative (4.3.5, 270). This is possible because (and ultimately also shows that) “with respect to the whole of the divine Scripture all of it has a spiritual meaning, but not all of it has a bodily meaning” (ibid.).

Thus, Scripture does indeed give an account of how God chooses a certain nation, Israel, divided into twelve tribes by the time of Jeroboam. But because Paul writes about an “Israel according to the flesh,” and that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” there must be an “Israel according to the Spirit” that is made up of “those who are Jews in secret” (4.3.6, 271).29 Therefore, the prophecies and predictions concerning Israel will also need a mystical interpretation. In short, because even the promises are spiritual, “those also to whom the promises are made are not bodily” (ibid.). While the bodily Israelites according to the narrative all descend from [End Page 31] Adam, whom Paul says is Christ, “the Jew who is one in secret” and “the inner human being” thus descend from Christ. Christ is “the father of every soul,” and Adam is “the father of all human beings.” Origen shows how, according to the whole sense of Scripture, the real meaning of Scripture is spiritual and the real addressees of Scripture are spiritual—both, therefore, in turn being “not bodily” (4.3.6, 271). In always stretching out “to a clearer knowledge and understanding, through Jesus Christ our Savior” (4.3.14, 283), we thus need to pay attention not to the signifier, but to that which is signified—that is, to the spiritual and bodiless (4.3.15, 283). All this gives Origen an invitation to another brief excursus on ἀσώματος, before he moves on to the very last chapter of his work.

In this last chapter, Origen offers a recapitulation that is oriented, in line with the whole tenor of book 4, toward showing how everything he has been doing thus far needs to be accomplished in and by his reader. Approaching the topic of “the bodily arrival and incarnation of the only-begotten Son of God” (4.4.3, 287), Origen stresses that the Son of God assumed not only a human body, “but also a soul, in its nature indeed like our souls, but in intention and power like himself” (4.4.3, 288). Made one with him, this soul is “rightfully addressed by his titles and called Jesus Christ” (ibid.). It is for this reason that “Christ is put forward as an example to all believers,” so that according to his example and guidance, “we may, by the imitation of him, be made partakers of divine nature.” This Word and this Wisdom, “by the imitation of whom we are said to be either wise or rational, becomes all things to all, that he might gain all” (4.4.3, 289). The soul that was made one with the Son of God is put forth as the example to all believers, that by imitation they might be partakers of divine nature: this is the task that is to be accomplished by those called to take up Origen’s ἐπιστήμη in order to partake in perfect σοφία—that is, Christ himself. This is the wisdom that will be stamped upon us, and Origen in the remainder of book 4 aims to draw out the conclusions of this for our bodily existence.

By the participation in the Son of God we are adopted among the sons; by participation in the Wisdom of God we are rendered wise; and by participation in the Holy Spirit, we are rendered spiritual. Being rendered spiritual is indeed “the same thing as to receive participation in the Holy Spirit,” because the Holy Spirit is “of the Father and the Son,” and the nature of the Trinity is “one and bodiless” (4.4.5, 289–90). This argumentation, then, may be taken as the reason for his rather surprising and bewildering excursus on “matter.” For as he had just affirmed in 4.3.15, and indeed at several points before throughout his work (cf. 1.7.1, 2.2.2), although rational beings and souls are themselves bodiless, they never exist without a body and only the Trinity is, strictly speaking, bodiless. The burning question that needs answering—if we are to be made spiritual by participation in the Holy Spirit and indeed be made partakers of divine nature through the imitation of Christ—remains clearly: What happens to our necessarily embodied state when we partake of and participate in the one truly bodiless Trinity? Or, in the words of 4.1: How exactly will the perfect σοφία be actually stamped upon us “distinctly”? [End Page 32]

Origen goes on to dedicate several pages to the difficult philosophical concept of matter. He claims to have found no instance in Scripture in which matter (ὕλη) is used in the sense of a substance underlying bodies (4.4.6, 290). Matter is not itself a first principle, and it is not uncreated—all of which proves that it is changeable and “may pass from one quality into any others” (4.4.6, 291). It is therefore possible, though only in thought alone, to differentiate between matter and its qualities or properties (4.4.7, 292). Finally reaching the goal of his whole excursus, Origen can conclude that—since it was necessary for intellectual beings to make use of bodies and since these bodies were shown to be changeable by virtue of being created—our bodily nature was created by the will of the Creator in order to be changed, by the alteration of qualities, “into everything that the case required” (4.4.8, 293). And the cases indeed vary: although “it is absolutely consistent and necessary” that every substance that obtains a share of the eternal nature of the Trinity “should remain forever, both incorruptible and eternal,” there also exists a diversity of participation that is to be preserved (4.4.9, 294). Yet even if an intellect falls away from the “pure and complete reception of God into itself,” it will always contain within itself the possibility of being restored (4.4.9, 295). And this restoration happens when “the inner human being” is “renewed according to the image and likeness of God” (ibid.). The marks of the divine image are not discerned through the form of a body like our current body, which will indeed go to corruption, but through those virtues that exist in God essentially and “which may exist in the human being through diligence and the imitation of God” (4.4.10, 295). It is, in a sense, the likeness acquired through imitation that completes the image already given and unrenounceable—for if one were to ascribe substantial corruption to him who was made in the image, then one would also ascribe it to the Son of God himself, who is called “the image of God” (Col 1:15).

Slowly and “one by one,” we may attain the virtues that exist forever in God, and in this movement, “although placed in the body,” we advance from things perceptible to the bodily senses on to things that are bodiless and intellectual, and perceptible only to a “divine sense” (4.4.10, 296). In the kind of circular argument we have already encountered above, this divine sense for Origen is then both the final result of the ἐπιστήμη he has been sketching out throughout his book, and also the ultimate judge of the validity of his ἐπιστήμη. For it is now with “this sense” and “in accordance with the pattern we have laid out above” that what he has spoken and written, and what follows out of them, must be considered (ibid.).


When we grasp by way of Origen’s ἐπιστήμη the truth of the apostolic tradition in our entire lived experience, then that certainty and clarity is transferred not only to the entirety of the body of knowledge but also to every experience and every event. Pressing on continuously in uncovering the whole, spiritual sense of Scripture and imitating diligently the divine virtues set before us and existing in us as seeds, we leave behind the first principles and elements in order to partake in a more perfect [End Page 33] σοφία and finally have this wisdom stamped upon us distinctly to the perfect likeness of God. Book 4 of De principiis is indeed a recapitulation, but not another cycle. It gives the essence of what we are going to see spelled out now: interpretation and imitation together form that movement that stamps us with the likeness of God. Together with the preface, it presents the framework for the two cycles and orients them toward their purpose: the two cycles are both the coherent ἐπιστήμη that is passed on to the reader, and at the same time two subsequent iterations of the praxis the reader is called to engage in.30 In what follows, we will see how Origen’s thought on the movement of the soul is able to both tie together his ἐπιστήμη into a coherent whole and also anchor it within the particular lived experience. At the same time, it will become clear how the movements of the soul form the basis for Origen’s enduring preoccupation with questions of the body and bodilessness.


The First Cycle

It is highly noteworthy that from the beginning of his work Origen argues from the perspective of the one who is to be stamped by wisdom, and less so from the perspective of a static Trinitarian teaching. Already at the end of the first chapter (on God), he writes how—just like the Son, properly speaking, does not “see” the invisible and bodiless Father, but rather “knows” him—the blessed will “see” God in their heart—that is, know him with their intellect through the faculty of the divine sense (1.1.9, 20). In the subsequent chapter on Christ, he stresses how, by virtue of being “the image of the invisible God and Father,” we come to the knowledge of the Father through Christ, who reveals the Father “by being himself understood” (1.2.6, 25–26). Because Christ is “the splendor of the glory of God,” we are able “to understand and perceive what light itself is” (1.2.7, 26), and because Christ is the “express figure of his [God’s] substance,” we are able to grasp, through the very emptying of Christ, the fullness of divinity he thereby makes visible and circumscribable (1.2.8, 27). And it is in this emptying, even unto death on the cross, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Phil 2:10), and all things shall be subjected to the Father “through Wisdom, that is by Word and Reason, not by force and necessity” (1.2.10, 31).

As all knowledge of the Father is acquired through the revelation of the Son in the Holy Spirit, we see Origen continuing in his subsequent chapter on the Holy [End Page 34] Spirit, both the Son and the Holy Spirit “exist as the cause of the knowledge of God the Father” (1.3.4, 36). In turn, because there is no separation in the Trinity, the gift of the Spirit “is ministered through the Son and worked by the God and Father” (1.3.7, 41). When this gift is received, we are rendered “capable of Christ anew” to more worthily receive the grace of wisdom and knowledge and to be made perfect in “the work of wisdom,” always being and abiding forever, with no satiety every seizing us (1.3.8, 41–42). After a brief excursus on the fate of “those who live negligently” (1.4.1, 42), Origen rhetorically gets himself back in line and in this way discloses the purposes of what he has been doing all along: “But wanting to show the divine benefits bestowed upon us by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, that Trinity which is the fount of all holiness, we have spoken of these things by way of a digression” (1.4.2, 43). Even the first cycle of Origen’s work, the more “theological” and less “exegetical” one, is thus fundamentally concerned with the divine benefits bestowed by the fount of all holiness on the one who is to be stamped by wisdom.

It is, therefore, not because he needs to move on to the next topic on an arbitrary agenda that Origen writes about rational beings next. Rather, because this is the clear apostolic teaching about the Trinity, we naturally have to focus our gaze on those beings with whom the Trinity seems to be primarily concerned. We find in Scripture “very many names and certain orders” (1.5.1, 46), and this diversity of rational beings, which includes human beings (1.5.2, 47), can certainly not, based on what we have learned about the Trinity, be the result of chance: it is based on the merits of rational beings, and not on a privilege of creation (1.5.3, 49). Every rational creature is made capable of virtue as much as wickedness, and the cause of their wickedness can in no way be separated from their own will (ibid.). As Origen has already expounded the clear knowledge we have about the end or consummation of all things—their subjection to Christ, delivered to the Father—we can, because “the end is always like the beginning,” from this end study the perfection in the beginning: “let us, I say, from such an end as this contemplate the beginning of things” (1.6.2, 54).31 As there is one end, so there is one beginning, and the diversity in between the two must be the result of an arrangement of the rational beings in different orders as led by their own impulses and according to their own merit (ibid.). It is the divine providence that in fair and just judgment bestows upon them their position, “according to their merit and the progress by which they advanced in the participation and imitation of God” (1.6.2, 55; emphasis mine). Yet even in this one end, when “the form of this world passes away” and God will be “all in all,” Origen closes this chapter, bodily nature will in no way perish utterly, but rather be renewed, transformed, and changed. Rational beings cannot “live and exist without bodies,” yet how that bodily substance will be, “God alone knows with certainty” (1.6.4, 58).

The fate of rational beings, because they cannot exist without a body, seems in some intimate way to be tied to the form of the material world. After applying his [End Page 35] general remarks on rational beings to the subgroups of celestial beings and angels, Origen can move to make this link explicit in his chapter on the world. Right in the first paragraph he writes that, given the great variety and great diversity even among rational beings, on account of which every other variety and diversity comes about, “what other cause ought to be given for the existence of the world, especially if we consider that end, discussed in the preceding book, by which all things are to be restored to their original state?” (2.1.1, 73). And with regard to the diversity of this world, what other cause could we imagine “except the diversity and variety of the movements and declensions of those who fell away from that original unity and harmony in which they were at first created by God . . . ?” (2.1.1, 73–74). Most importantly, this fundamental link between the fate of the rational creatures and the fate of the world works in both ways for Origen. Although the motions of the souls may be diverse, “they nevertheless bring to completion the fullness and perfection of one world” (2.1.2, 74). This is because God, through the ineffable plan of his Word and Wisdom, arranged everything so that every rational being (or soul or spirit—at this point these terms are explicitly interchangeable for Origen) should not be compelled against its free will but nevertheless would be “suitably and usefully adapted to the harmony of one world” (ibid.).

Seeing that the diversity of the world (and thus the diverse bodies that accompany these movements and are transformed “from everything to everything”) cannot exist without the diverse movements of the soul, it is necessary to discuss matter— that which underlies all bodies—in more detail (2.1.4, 75). The same kind of reasoning we see in book 4 now incites Origen’s interest in matter, and we see him affirming the same kind of conclusions: matter is not uncreated and thus subject to change, and its diverse qualities can be separated from it in thought alone (2.1.4, 76–77). Furthermore, material substance can be separated from rational beings “only in thought and understanding,” for a bodiless life will rightly be considered only of the Trinity (2.2.2, 78). Because it accepts every kind of transformation, when it is “dragged down to the lower beings” it is molded into “the denser and more solid condition of the body”— yet when it serves the more perfect beings, it shines in the splendor of celestial bodies and adorns “either the angels of God or the sons of the resurrection with the garment of a spiritual body” (ibid.). Origen’s further thought about the variety of the bodies is consequently intertwined with reflections about further diverse worlds and the place of the diverse rational beings within the various structures called “world” in Scripture. Diverse worlds are indeed able to exist (2.3.4, 83) because the faculty of free will is never taken away from rational beings and they will thus be subject to certain movements (2.3.3., 82). These movements “undoubtedly will again be accompanied by a variety and diversity of bodies, by which the world is always adorned, nor will the world ever be able to exist except from variety and diversity, which can in no way be effected without bodily matter” (ibid.).

This world, which itself is also called an “age,” is one of many possible ages both before and after it. That period in which the consummation will take place, however, seems “to be understood as something more than an age,” perhaps even more than [End Page 36] “the ages of ages” (2.3.5, 84). Origen, however, notes that Paul teaches that in the age before ours, “Christ did not suffer,” nor in any other imaginable number of anterior ages—indicating that the defining characteristic of our age has to be the suffering of Christ (2.3.5, 83–84; cf. n42).32 When that consummation will be reached, when all things have been made subject to Christ and God and the rational beings have become “one spirit” with Christ, then their bodies will be changed accordingly, and they will assume that incorruptible “building from God, a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens” (2.3.6–7, 87–88). This heaven will be part of “heaven and earth” properly speaking, not the firmament above the dry land. The saints will move on to their abode in this “kingdom of heaven” after they have left the dry land to inherit the earth, the “good land” and the “land of the living” (2.3.7, 88).

Second Cycle

It is true that Origen, when he discusses for a second time the topics he has already discussed in the first cycle, does so in a more exegetical, anti-Gnostic, and anti-Marcionite way.33 But it would be more salient to point out that this structure is simply in keeping with the overall purpose we have discerned in the framework of the preface and book 4: in order to set oneself to study the particulars, one first needs to be given the whole. Only the whole is indeed that which gives sense to the particular. The structure of the main body of De principiis is thus not statically circular, but the first circle naturally feeds into the second one. We have seen in the first cycle that the free will that will never be taken away from rational beings engenders diverse movements, which in turn are the cause for the variety of bodily existence, and even the cause for the existence of the world. The movements of the soul are what cause the diversity of the world (and indeed the diversity of the worlds) in a falling away from a beginning in unity toward an end in unity. For the same movements are what cause the fair and just arrangement of the rational beings according to their merit and their progress in the imitation of God, and are what bring to completion the fullness and perfection of the world by being arranged within the ineffable plan of the Word and Wisdom of God. These movements of the souls could thus be identified as that thread that ties together the whole that Origen set himself to form, rendering coherent his ἐπιστήμη. In the second cycle of De principiis, we will see how Origen more clearly demonstrates that the movements of the souls are not only judged and arranged but also that they have received the one clear example of good and right movement in the imitation of which they are called to apply themselves to progress. [End Page 37]

After he has stressed the need for a unitive interpretation of Scripture in the first chapter of the second cycle, Origen sees that the time has come to “return to the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior” (2.6.1, 102). He thereby clearly tells us again that the entire point of even his first discussion was to expound how the Lord and Savior “became human and dwelt among human beings” (ibid.). Not “from our own understanding” has he been considering the divine nature, but strictly “by the contemplation of his own works” (ibid.). After having then spent all this effort on studying both the visible and invisible creation, it remains “that we should seek the medium between all these created things and God, that is, ‘the Mediator,’” who is also called “the firstborn of creation” (ibid; 1 Tim 2:5, Col 1:15). The fact that the very Word of the Father “can be believed to have been within the compass of that man who appeared in Judea” surpasses even all of these marvelous and magnificent things we have been learning about the nature of the Son of God (2.6.2, 103).

The Son of God as the invisible image of the invisible God “invisibly bestowed upon all rational creatures a participation in himself” (2.6.3, 104) to the extent of the loving affection by which these rational beings adhered to him. Whereas, as we have seen above, a variety and diversity of movements took hold of all souls due to their faculty of free will; there is one soul—the soul of which Jesus said “No one takes my soul from me” (John 10:18)—that adhered “from ‘the beginning of creation’” inseparably and indissolubly to the Son of God (2.6.3, 104; Rev 3:14). It received him wholly and was made “in a pre-eminent degree” one spirit, just as Paul promised to those who imitate him that “He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit” (2.6.3, 104; 1 Cor 6:17). With that soul being one spirit with the Lord, there is born the θέανθρωπος, for that soul was able to both assume a body and to receive God, thereby mediating between God and flesh (2.6.3, 104). That soul together with the flesh it assumed is therefore deservedly called the Son of God, and the Son of God in turn is deservedly called Jesus Christ and (eschatologically, when coming in the glory of God the Father) the Son of Man (2.6.3, 105). When we accept that Origen sets the birth of the God-Man under the heading of John 10:18—which in its full form reads “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord”—then we can argue that for Origen this birth takes place at the Crucifixion, where also, according to the Synoptics, all souls fall away from Jesus but his own.34 It is precisely this transformation to being one spirit with the Lord that is promised “to those who imitate him.” Therefore, everything that will follow is directed at showing nothing less than how in this imitation all rational beings may pass from an invisible participation to being one soul and one flesh with God.

By the merit of its love, the soul with the Word of God is “anointed with the oil of gladness beyond your fellows” and made Christ, so that the essential fullness of the Word of God himself was in it (2.6.4, 105; Ps 44:7–8). There is and remains in Christ thus a human and rational soul, with the nature of that soul being explicitly [End Page 38] “the same as all others” (2.6.5, 106). The firmness of its purpose and the immensity of its affection, however, removed any thought or possibility of sin, because “what was dependent upon the will is now changed into nature by the exertion of long usage” (ibid.). This transformation may be compared to iron that is placed in fire, in which, although it remains iron, nothing else is discerned “except fire” (2.6.6, 107). In this sense the human soul of Christ was placed “in the Word forever, in Wisdom forever, in God forever, is God in all that it does, fells, and understands” (ibid.). The transformation, when this soul “received the Son of God wholly into itself” (2.6.3, 104), can thus not be contemplated solely as a historical event, because it took place “from ‘the beginning of creation’” and the soul was placed in God “forever”—that is, both before and after it is no longer known by any other properties.35 That soul, being anointed beyond its fellows, is anointed in another way than his fellows, the prophets and apostles, and is indeed the vessel containing the ointment itself: “Christ is one thing and his fellows another” (2.6.6, 107). Nevertheless, his being the very vessel indicates that his fellows will “run in the fragrance of his ointment” (ibid.; Song 1:4).

That the human and rational soul “in a pre-eminent degree” became one spirit and one flesh with God and at the same time underwent the transformation that all rational beings are called to imitate forms the backdrop for Origen’s last paragraph in this chapter on the Incarnation. He applies a verse from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (4:20) to Christ’s soul: “The breath of our faith, Christ the Lord, of whom we said that under his shadow we shall live among the nations” (2.6.7, 108). The “shadow of Christ the Lord” is the perfect imitation of Christ the Lord accomplished by Christ’s soul in all work and movement. In the mystery of this assumption—the assumption of the soul that “just like the shadow of a body assumes and performs the movements and gestures of the body without deviation”—live the nations, who, “imitating that soul through faith, come to salvation” (ibid.). It is under this shadow that we shall live, that is, under that shadow that perfectly performs the movements of Christ the Lord without deviation, imitating it to our own salvation. Then, in our own assumption through imitation, we will be “reproached in exchange for your Christ” (Ps 88:51–52), and we will rightfully say that “our life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3) and that “Christ speaks in me” (2 Cor 13:3). When “the power of the Most High will overshadow” us (Luke 1:35) we will indeed incarnate Christ in us. The truth of all these shadows will then be known in that revelation when we no longer see “through a mirror [that is, in an imitation] and in a riddle, but face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).

What Origen, after a number of clarifications on the Holy Spirit, then goes on to write about the soul must be read in continuation of his words about “the mystery of this assumption [ἀνάληψις].” To strengthen his reliance on the movements of [End Page 39] souls throughout his book, Origen now furnishes a definition of “soul” established by those before him who ventured to do so in exact terms: it is a φανταστική and ὁρμητική substance, that is (as Rufinus already explains in Latin), a substance capable of perception and movement—a definition going back to Aristotle’s De Anima (2.8.1, 113).36 This gives Origen the opportunity to render his terminology more precise: the soul properly speaking, as the Greek ψυχή (meaning “cold” when used as an adjective) already intimates, is so called because it cooled down from a more divine condition (2.8.3, 117). The soul that is restored and corrected is a pure and rational intellect—the intellect also being that with which, according to Paul, the Holy Spirit is joined and associated: “I will pray with the Spirit and I will pray with the intellect also” (2.8.2, 115; 1 Cor 14:4).

The subsequent chapter on the world, then, because the world is caused by the movements of the souls, is just a continuation of his thought about those same movements. For there to be a beginning and an end, God created a foreseeable and definite number of intellects (2.8.1, 121). At this point, we learn why God granted all rational beings free and voluntary movement: so that the good that was in them “might become their own, being preserved by their own free will” (2.9.2, 121). He created all whom he created equal and alike, since “there was in himself no ground for variety and diversity” (2.9.6, 125).37 But because he also endowed all rational beings with the faculty of free will, this faculty either “incited each one to progress by the imitation of God or drew him to defection through negligence” (ibid.). Therefore, it is not unjust when the Creator, “according to the antecedent causes,” distributes to each one according to his merit, arranging with “these diverse vessels or souls or intellects” into the harmony of one world (ibid.). The movements, which are judged according to their imitation of God, are the free cause for the diverse arrangement, yet at the same time these movements, because they must be foreknown by God, are “antecedent” and used by God in his ineffable providence for the adornment and completion of the world. In this way, they may be “participants in the forbearance of the Creator” and subjected in hope (2.9.7, 126; cf. Rom 8:20). When the saints will “be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air,” they will finally be taught the reason “of the twofold mode of the arrangement”—that is, they will fully comprehend the specific reasons for the diverse arrangement and understand what they saw on earth in a twofold manner (2.11.6, 143). [End Page 40]

Given the precise definition of “soul” and its differentiation from “intellect,” it is only coherent that Scripture calls the creation of the world the καταβολή of the world (3.5.4, 218).38 It has been cast downward, for there has been a descent of the intellects from the higher conditions to the lower—including some rational beings who were brought down against their own will to serve those who descended due to their various movements (3.5.4, 219). Because those intellects becoming souls needed “denser and more solid bodies,” this visible world was founded (ibid.). That is why Paul writes that the whole creation was “subjected in hope,” the hope of being “set free from the bondage of corruption” to obtain the liberty of the children of God (ibid.; cf. Rom 8:20–21). In the last times, when even those who descended against their own will and “to whom the care of governing had been committed” had become infirm, then the aid of the “Author and Creator himself” was required (3.5.6, 220). He fulfilled in himself first “what he desired to be fulfilled by others, becoming obedient to the Father not only unto the death of the cross but also in the consummation of the age, by embracing in himself all whom he subjects to the Father” (3.5.6, 221). It is this subjection of Christ to the Father that “shows the blessedness of our perfection and announces the victory of the work undertaken by him” (3.5.7, 221). We thus find another clear indication that the example that is given by Christ to be imitated by all rational beings is the one given on the cross—and this example on the cross is at the same time the one that shows the blessedness of our perfection in the consummation of the age. By the merit of their love, those souls that follow the example of the cross are made one spirit with the Lord, and this same blessed movement is the one that will be perfected when Christ will submit to the Father all those subjected to him, so that “God may be all in all” (3.5.6, 221; 1 Cor 15:28).

That is why, in the subsequent chapter, Origen writes that “the human being obtained the image in the first creation, but the perfection of the likeness was reserved for him at the consummation” (3.6.1, 223). For God indeed said, “Let us make the human being in our image and likeness,” but the subsequent verse only recounts that “God made the human being, in the image of God he made him” (ibid.; Gen 1:26–28). The possibility of attaining perfection was given to the human being in the beginning through the dignity of the image, Origen continues, but only in the end should he “complete in himself the perfected likeness” (3.6.1, 223). And Origen is again very clear how this likeness is completed: the perfection of the likeness was reserved for him at the consummation so that “he might acquire it for himself by the exercise of his own diligence in the imitation of God” (ibid.). Then, we will truly “be like him” (1 John 3:2), the Lord’s intercession that “as I and you are one, so also may they be one in us” (John 17:21) will be granted, and God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). When things have begun to hasten toward that end, “there will be no longer any diversity” (3.5.4, 226), and accordingly “even bodily nature will receive that highest condition to which nothing more can ever be added” (3.6.9, 230). [End Page 41]


In the second cycle of De principiis, Origen shows us that the movements of the soul may be judged and arranged by God because they have received the one example that is to be imitated: Christ’s human soul, which adhered to him “from ‘the beginning of creation’” (2.6.3, 104; Rev 3:14) even unto death on the cross and the obedient subjection to the Father in the consummation, and was made one spirit with him when habit changed into nature. This is the transformation that is promised to those who imitate that soul, and this is the transformation in which we are called to progress by the imitation of God, being offered to make this good our own and preserve it through our own free will—persuaded and subjected “through Wisdom, that is by Word and Reason, not by force and necessity” (1.2.10, 31). Although Christology and anthropology are in this way totally intertwined, it remains that “Christ is one thing and his fellows another” (2.6.6, 107). Christ is the vessel that contains the ointment, whereas his fellows are those who are running “in the fragrance of his ointment” (ibid.; Song 1:4).

Origen can thus rightfully use Job 8:9 at the end of his chapter on the Incarnation: “Is not our life upon the earth a shadow?” (2.6.7, 108) That soul that perfectly imitated Christ the Lord according to his movement and will is the shadow under which the nations live, and in the imitation of which the nations will come to salvation. Living under this shadow and being pervaded by it is thus that which defines our earthly existence, everything we are called to do. And all creation is rightfully judged and ordered at all times according to this example, for it was “from ‘the beginning of creation’” that this rational soul adhered to the Son of God, and it was placed “in the Word forever, in Wisdom forever, in God forever” (2.6.6, 107; emphasis mine). Although an event on the cross, the “mystery of this assumption” (2.6.7, 108) cannot be used to delimit a before and an after, because both before and after the Crucifixion that soul cannot be seen apart from the fire within which it was placed.

While the transformation of that soul is completed “from ‘the beginning of creation,’” our transformation will be completed when we will no longer imitate even as perfectly as a mirror does, but when we will instead see face to face and Wisdom will be stamped upon us distinctly. Then we will “by the exercise of [our] own diligence in the imitation of God” (3.6.1, 223) have acquired for ourselves the likeness of God, perfecting the seeds of the image in which we were made, and completing the invisible participation that was bestowed on us. As our bodily existence was made “in order to be changed” (4.4.8, 293) according to the diversity of our movements, we will then, when our movements are directed solely to this imitation (without a doubt Rufinus’s translation for “μίμησις”), assume that incorruptible “building from God, a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor 5:1) and our bodily existence will achieve its highest condition.39 With no satiety ever seizing us, we will be instructed [End Page 42] by Wisdom himself in the reasons for “the twofold mode of the arrangement” (2.11.6, 143), understanding what we saw on earth in a twofold manner: having seen the futility and groaning of all of creation, we will understand how creation has been groaning in travail, how it was subjected in hope and was eagerly longing for the revealing of the sons of God, when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:18–22). The one good movement—that is, the one that applies itself diligently to the imitation of the one good example—is therefore the movement that both perfects the human being in its likeness to God, and brings “to completion the fullness and perfection of one world” (2.1.2, 74).40

Origen intertwined logical and ontological principles, physics and metaphysics, in the formation of his ἐπιστήμη, yet only insofar as it related to the more fundamental task of rendering graspable the truth of the one apostolic tradition in our particular lived experience. When we then take up Origen’s ἐπιστήμη, we are initiated by this definite line and clear rule into the correct contemplation of the one and whole spiritual sense of Scripture that is revealed through the manifestation of Christ and the preaching of the apostles. Applying ourselves to those parts of the tradition that were left to be inquired into, and our reason being liberated by faith, we are called to oscillate between the whole and particular—growing into the perfect σοφία while having every single word of Scripture and every single detail of the world enlightened by this σοφία. Just like our movement is oriented toward the imitation of the one good movement, so also our perception—the other capacity of our souls—is transformed. The reflective experience that the ἐπιστήμη itself was based on is changed into the understanding of the twofold account of creation, seeing the world in a twofold manner. Finally, our perception by means of bodily senses is changed into a perception based on the divine sense. Initiated and sustained in the contemplation of Scripture, interpretation becomes that on which is based the completion of creation: exegesis becomes κτίσις. [End Page 43]

With the suffering of Christ rendered accessible throughout time and outside of time because the “mystery of that assumption” happened “from ‘the beginning of creation [ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως]’” (Rev 3:14), we are given the reason for the diversity of the movements of the soul, the ensuing diversity of bodily existence and thus the creation of the world.41 Just like the preeminent transformation is through John 10:18 understood in light of the cross, so is this consummation understood in light of Philippians 2:8–11, which itself presents the subjection of all things in Christ to the Father in terms of the Crucifixion: “And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” That is why Origen can also indicate that—because Paul teaches that in the age before ours “Christ did not suffer,” nor in any other imaginable number of anterior ages—it is the suffering of Christ that is the defining characteristic of our age (2.3.5, 83–84). If the mystery of that assumption is achieved on the cross, then it is this scandal that drew all souls except for one in their free will to “defection through negligence” (2.9.6, 125). If there is one movement that both affects diversity and movement, and if there is one end that is like the beginning, then, in Origen’s thinking, the one scandal and the one mystery must be “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world [ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου]” (Rev 13:8).

As was introduced at the beginning of this investigation, and as has now been spelled out, Origen seems to be indebted to Aristotle’s Physics for his enduring preoccupation with κίνησις,42 to the Posterior Analytics for his concept of ἐπιστήμη, and to De Anima for his understanding of the soul as a substance capable of perception and movement.43 Yet the evidence is not as clear-cut as it seems, and our efforts at reconstructing Origen’s philosophical allegiances could just as well take a different [End Page 44] turn. As James Coulter has pointed out, Plato, principally in the Republic, Georgias, and the Phaedrus, arguably sees an organic structure in a literary composition— allowing the parts to cohere in a necessary, appropriate, and structured way—as a criterion for superior examples in the arts of poetry and rhetoric.44 Within later Platonic thought, then, “it is above all the conscious intention of the artist, what they call the skopos, which imparts to the various elements of his work the quality of being necessary or of belonging.”45 Every dialogue of Plato and every work of literature that is of any value at all must possess “one fundamental theme, in all of its parts and on all of its levels.”46 Taken one step further by the grafting on of the Timaeus’s concept of the artist as a creator of organisms that parallel the cosmos (i.e., “the great living thing”), a work of literature “is like a living thing” and must therefore have only one purpose (τέλος)—that is, one theme.47 Seen from this perspective, then, Origen’s understanding of exegesis as κτίσις becomes an example for the acute observation that “all working procedures in literary exegesis are based on some underlying model of reality.”48 Literary theory (exegesis) is in De principiis linked to physics (κτίσις), in that Origen discerns “Christ and the transformation to being one spirit with the Lord that is promised to those who imitate him” as the skopos of the biblical composition, cohering in a necessary, appropriate, and structured way by applying to “the living thing” that is the biblical text movement and imitation as those (meta)physical elements that also govern “the great living thing” that is the cosmos.

The slaying of the Lamb then stands at the beginning of creation and remains that according to which all creation is ordered, with the completion and perfection of creation being inextricably linked to the movements of the souls in response to it. Life on earth, in this sense, is but a shadow, for all that is required is living under the shadow of the one soul that imitated Christ the Lord without deviation and submitting ourselves to the constant persuasion of the Word and the Wisdom for the benefit of our own imitation. We have seen that De principiis constructs a coherent whole out of the ontological principles of the world and the logical principles for the understanding of revelation, in this way uniting the ambiguous meaning of “ἀρχή” [End Page 45] as outlined by Daley. On a much more fundamental level, we can now see that the transformation of that one soul that was laid down on its own accord—as the unity from which all fell and the unity to which all are to strive—is both the beginning and the principle of creation, again folding the ambiguity of “ἀρχή” back upon itself.

Timm Heinbokel
United States


1. Cf. Ronnie Rombs, “A Note on the Status of Origen’s De Principiis in English,” Vigiliae Christianae 61, no. 1 (2007): 21–29.

2. E.g., Franz Heinrich Kettler, Der ursprüngliche Sinn der Dogmatik des Origenes (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1966).

3. Henri Crouzel, “Qu’a voulu faire Origène en composant le ‘Traité des Principes?” Bulletin de Littérature Ecclésiastique 76 (1975): 241–60.

4. E.g., Charles Kannengiesser, “Origen, Systematician in De Principiis,” in Origeniana Quinta: Papers of the 5th International Origen Congress, ed. R. J. Daly (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1992), 395–405.

5. Basilius Steidle, “Neue Untersuchungen zu Origenes’ Περὶ ἀρχῶν,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der Älteren Kirche 40, no. 1 (1941): 236–43.

6. Marguerite Harl, “Structure et cohérence du Peri Archôn,” in Origeniana: Premier colloque international des études origéniennes (Bari: Istituto di letteratura cristiana antica, Università di Bari, 1975).

7. Brian E. Daley, “Origen’s De Principiis: A Guide to the Principles of Christian Scriptural Interpretation,” in Nova et Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patrick Halton, ed. Thomas P. Halton (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 3–21 (on 5). Cf. Origène, Traité des principes, ed. Henri Crouzel and Manlio Simonetti, SC 252, 253, 268, 269, 312 (Paris: Cerf, 1978–84).

8. Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks, trans. William McNeil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 185. The article was originally published in 1939 as “Vom Wesen und Begriff der Φύσις. Aristoteles, Physik B, 1” and is available in Martin Heidegger, Wegmarken, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Gesamtausgabe 9 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2004).

9. Physics 192b14–23. The English translation is taken from Jonathan Barnes, ed., Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, vol. 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), with the Greek quoted from W. D. Ross, ed., Aristotle’s Physics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). Note Heidegger’s remark on “cause” (αἴτιον/αἰτία): “The word and concept ‘cause’ makes us think almost automatically of ‘causality’ [Kausalität], that is, the manner and mode in which one thing ‘acts on’ another. Αἴτιον, for which Aristotle will soon introduce a more precise definition, means in the present context: that which is responsible for the fact that a being is what it is.” Heidegger, Pathmarks, 188.

10. Heidegger, Pathmarks, 228 (emphasis original).

11. Stasinos Stavrianeas, “Nature as a Principle of Change,” in Aristotle’s Physics: A Critical Guide, ed. Mariska Leunissen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 46–65 (on 48).

12. Vito Limone, “Origen’s Explicit References to Aristotle and the Peripateticians,” Vigiliae Christianae 72, no. 4 (2018): 390–404. For an extensive argument for a mediated influence, see Ilaria Ramelli, “Alexander of Aphrodisias: A Source of Origen’s Philosophy?,” Philosophie Antique, no. 14 (2014): 237–89. For a general introduction to the issue, see Mark J. Edwards, Aristotle and Early Christian Thought (New York: Routledge, 2019), 46–54.

13. Daley, “Origen’s De Principiis.”

14. Ibid., 12.

15. Origen, On First Principles, ed. and trans. John Behr, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Behr’s additional delineation of “apostolic preaching” and “church’s preaching” within the two cycles will not be followed for the purpose of this essay.

16. Daley, “Origen’s De Principiis,” 6.

17. See the overview in J.-F. Bonnefoy, “Origène théoricien de la méthode théologique,” in Mélanges offerts au R. P. Ferdinand Cavallera (Toulouse: Bibliothéque de l’Institut Catholique, 1948), 131–36.

18. The two common examples would be Endre von Ivánka, Plato christianus: Übernahme und Umgestaltung des Platonismus durch die Väter (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1964), 110, and Karpp in Herwig Görgemanns and Heinrich Karpp, Origenes: Vier Bücher von den Prinzipien (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1985).

19. Daley, “Origen’s De Principiis,” 6 (emphasis mine).

20. Citations will be taken from Behr’s 2017 edition and English translation of On First Principles, as given above. References to this edition are made as in-text citations throughout this essay, with the book, chapter, and paragraph number, followed by the page number of this particular edition.

21. For Origen’s concept of rule, cf. R.-C. Baud, “Les ‘Règles’ de la théologie d’Origène,” Recherches de science religieuse 55 (1967): 161–208.

22. Daley, “Origen’s De Principiis,” 10.

23. Ibid., 10–11.

24. Ibid., 11 (referring to Posterior Analytics 72a30–b4).

25. Magna moralia 1197a24–29, as cited by Daley in ibid. The more coherent equivalent of νοῦς would be intuition, as I have rendered it above. There is a similar passage in the Nicomachean Ethics, viz. Eth. Nic. 1141a17–20.

26. Daley, “Origen’s De Principiis,” 12. That Clement of Alexandria was familiar with these Aristotelian conceptions of ἐπιστήμη is convincingly shown in Dragoş Andrei Giulea, “Apprehending ‘Demonstrations’ from the First Principle: Clement of Alexandria’s Phenomenology of Faith,” The Journal of Religion 89, no. 2 (2009): 187–213.

27. The point that this passage doesn’t describe an exegetical procedure or method but rather three different ways in which the exegete can edify the reader is argued by Karen Jo Torjesen in “‘Body,’ ‘Soul,’ and ‘Spirit’ in Origen’s Theory of Exegesis,” The Anglican Theological Review 67, no. 1 (1985): 17–30.

28. Cf. also Daley, “Origen’s De Principiis,” 15–16.

29. Cf. F. Ledegang, Mysterium Ecclesiae: Images of the Church and Its Members in Origen, Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 156 (Leuven: Leuven University Press; Peeters, 2001).

30. For a possible sketch of how this kind of ἐπιστήμη may relate to the interpretation of data in contemporary science, see John J. O’Keefe and Russell R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 119–28. Note also Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, ed. John Worral and Gregory Currie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 8–47.

31. See also Behr’s introduction in Origen, On First Principles, lxxix–lxxxviii.

32. Cf. Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan, Terms for Eternity: Aiônios and Aïdios in Classical and Christian Texts (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007).

33. For a compilation of Gnostic theses dealt with by Origen in De principiis, see Marguerite Harl, Gilles Dorival, and Alain Le Boulluec, Origène, Traité des principes (Paris: Études augustiniennes, 1976), 18ff.

34. Here I accept the argument given in Behr’s introduction in Origen, On First Principles, lxvii.

35. For how this might relate to 2 Cor 5:16, see J. Louis Martyn, “Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages,” in Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (New York: Bloomsbury, 1997), 89–110. Note also Karl-Josef Kuschel, Born before All Time? The Dispute over Christ’s Origin (London: SCM Press, 1992); Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars 66, no. 785 (1985): 464–76.

36. See De Anima 3.9. Note also Aristotle’s highly intriguing understanding of perception/sensation in De Anima 2.12, as translated by Eric Perl: “In general, then, with regard to all sensation, it is necessary to understand that sensation is receptive of the sensible forms without the matter, as wax receives the imprint of the ring without the iron or gold.” As Perl goes on to summarize, sensation for Aristotle “effects a likeness, a sameness of form, between the sentient living being and the sensible thing. The sensible property of the thing, e.g., its color or texture, comes to be present in the perceiver’s soul as the content of his awareness.” Eric Perl, Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 100.

37. It could be argued, according to Origen’s reasoning, that only the Trinity is properly speaking bodiless because only in God are there no diverse movements.

38. See also Behr’s introduction in Origen, On First Principles, lxi–lxv.

39. The most useful introduction into the nuanced literary, aesthetic, and metaphysical concepts surrounding mimesis is still Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002). For an attempt to spell out how mimesis is used by Gregory of Nyssa in his ascetic and exegetic works (influenced by Origen), see Timm Heinbokel, “Mimetic Perfection: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Poetry of the Self,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 64, no. 3–4 (2020): 97–128.

40. Eric Perl may be able to render Aristotle’s term ἐντελέχεια more accessible in a way that is indebted to Heidegger’s fresh translation of Aristotle and that may connect with Origen’s thought about the completion of the human being and the cosmos: “the thing’s being-at-work (ἐνέργεια), its doing its characteristic work (ἔργον), is its being in-possession-of-its-end (ἐντελέχεια), that is, its completion or fulfilment as the kind of thing that it is. . . . A thing is what it is, having and exhibiting its intelligible identity, its characteristic ‘look,’ just to the extent that it fulfils its nature or is ‘in possession of its end.’” Perl, Thinking Being, 79–80. And a little later: “Hence, as Aristotle indicates, the end is the beginning in the sense that the τέλος, the fulfilment of a thing, is the ἀρχή, the moving principle that directs its development. ‘Everything that comes to be proceeds toward a principle [ἀρχὴν] which is also an end [τέλος]; for the principle is that for the sake of which, and becoming is for the sake of the end. But the end is the activity [ἐνέργεια], and the potentiality is acquired for the sake of this’ (Met. Θ.8, 1050a7–10).” Ibid., 90.

41. For a magisterial treatment of the relationship between time and eternity in Origen, though explicitly with little reference to De Principiis, see Panagiotes Tzamalikos, Origen: Philosophy of History and Eschatology, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 85 (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

42. If Heidegger’s reading is accepted. For a broader background see also Martin Heidegger, Einführung in die phänomenologische Forschung, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Gesamtausgabe 17 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1994); Martin Heidegger, Grundbegriffe der Aristotelischen Philosophie, ed. Mark Michalski, Gesamtausgabe 18 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2002). See also Thomas Buchheim, “Was interessiert Heidegger an der physis?,” in Heidegger und die Griechen, ed. Michael Steinmann, Schriftenreihe der Martin-Heidegger-Gesellschaft 8 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2007), 85–107. For a more general attempt to reapproach movement, see Simon Oliver, Philosophy, God and Motion (New York: Routledge, 2005). For an important treatment of Origen’s cosmology at least in part pertaining to this, see Panagiotes Tzamalikos, Origen: Cosmology and Ontology of Time, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 77 (Leiden: Brill, 2006).

43. For a recent systematic approach to the influence of Aristotle on the early Christian tradition as a whole, see Edwards, Aristotle and Early Christian Thought. See also note 12 above. For an argument against quickly associating Origen with Platonism by the same author, cf. Mark J. Edwards, Origen against Plato (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002).

44. James A. Coulter, The Literary Microcosm: Theories of Interpretation of the Later Neoplatonists, Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 73–75.

45. Coulter, The Literary Microcosm, 77.

46. Ibid., 79.

47. Ibid., 83.

48. Ibid., 89. The importance of metaphysical presuppositions in literary theories is also highlighted throughout in Peter T. Struck, Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). See, for example, 139–141. Cf. also the discussion of Origen’s Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles in Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017). Boersma highlights that Origen in his excursus on allegorical interpretation does not talk about exegesis, but engages in a lengthy discussion of metaphysics. For literary theory in subsequent schools of Platonism, see Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition, Transformation of the Classical Heritage 9 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).