Tag Archives: Origen

Did Origen Castrate Himself?

The story that Origen, in a fit of piety, castrated himself, was well known during the Middle Ages. Carl Pyrdum on his (now defunct?) blog, Got Medieval, has a brief discussion of this which includes an image of Origen and his severed genitalia(I decided not to include an image here).

This account comes to us from Eusebius. In his Ecclesiastical History, VI.8 he relates how Origen decided to, er, separate himself from his sexual bits because he either misread scripture or because he was teaching female catechumens and wanted to either be free from temptation or let everyone know that it was impossible for any hanky-panky to be going on, or maybe a combination of the two. 1

So as sort of a warmup to discussing Origen’s theology I thought it would be interesting to explore this question; Did Origen castrate himself?

A fair amount of this will involve a discussion of Origen’s life so I guess I might as well include relevant parts of his biography. Origen was the son of a prominent Christian who was martyred around the start of the third century. His career began in Alexandria where he quickly became a favorite of the Bishop, Demetrius. As an educated layperson, Origen was qualified to give instruction to catechumens which he did, as well as write. At some point Origen’s teaching turned into actual preaching (I’m a bit fuzzy on the distinction myself) which Demetrius opposed.

As a result, around 230 Origen was driven out of Alexandria and moved to Caesarea. There he was ordained as a priest, which Demetrius opposed and wrote against, and stayed there for the rest of his life, preaching and writing.

In looking at Origen’s self-distesticulation, which was certainly a no-no for Christians, especially for priests who were expected to be free of blemishes, the discussion has to center upon the possibility that this was an invention of his critics, particularly Demetrius. Eusebius specifically attributes the story getting out to the Alexandrian Bishop who, as he was nearing death, seems to have developed a hatred of Origen.

So was this story invented? It’s a plausible theory. Religious conflict could be messy and Alexandria would later develop a reputation as a place where things could get particularly dirty. Someone could have spread this story around, once Origen was in Caesarea and not on hand to be examined, or engage in public flashing, to dispute it. The story would have had an added benefit of keeping Origen away because even if the story wasn’t true, it would be a pretty good indication of what he’d face if he returned.

To me the above is a wash. Demetrius could have made this up but we have no evidence of this other than the fact that Origen had enemies(this could have been invented by someone else and then used by Demetrius). So how do we resolve this?

Well, first of all, we don’t. There’s no “the answer” unless someone finds where Origen was buried, can definitively prove it was him, and finds testicles(and I suppose to really remove doubt DNA would have to show that the testicles belonged to the rest of the body). However I want to explain why I consider Origen’s self-castration to be unlikely. I’m going to do this by examining two areas; his role within the Church and his writings.

OK, Origen was a teacher in the Church, educating catechumens at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which he revived while a young man. This school was operated as a philosophical branch. One of the traditions of philosophy was that teachers should inspire students to want to emulate them. Would castrating oneself be something students would find desirable? Would this help attract students?

At that time a catechumen was a person who was interested in Christianity and was engaged in learning enough about it to make an informed decision before being baptized which would (at least in theory) result in a radical change in the catechumen’s lifestyle. Again, would the fact that one of the teachers and the head of the school had castrated himself out of religious piety encourage people to convert? I know I recently cautioned everyone not to make assumptions about folks from historical periods thinking like us but I’m going to take a leap here and say that having a teacher who cut his own junk off for religious reasons would not be a strong selling point when trying to attract new Christians.

So this is the first reason I consider this unlikely. A prominent teacher at a school designed to educate people about Christianity and convince them to convert would likely not have been someone who had engaged in self-mutilation. I don’t care if he was educating girls, boys, or snow leopards. I think it unlikely, though we have to give at least some credibility to the idea that he had done so, regretted it, and managed to conceal it.

However the real reason why I have serious questions about this is because of Origen’s writings. Eusebius relates that in addition to avoiding suspicion while teaching girls, Origen castrated himself because he misunderstood Matthew 19:12 where Jesus advocates people becoming Eunuchs for the Church.

The problem is, Origen constantly cautions people not to read scriptures literally. He states, many times, that the Bible (he’s also the first person I recall to say the Bible should be considered a single book, not a collection) includes figurative and spiritual, as well as literal, meanings. Now Eusebius says Origen did this while very young, however he also says one reason was to help him teach girls. Clearly we’re not talking about Origen the teenager. We’re likely discussing him while in his 20’s. Unless his thinking was very different from when he wrote On First Principles beginning from when he was about 30, he would have known not to take scripture literally. 2

Of course a counter to this is that cutting one’s own testicles off, then finding out this isn’t what the Bible meant, might cause someone to radically alter his opinion of how scripture should be read. I’d say that would rank pretty high on any list of OSM’s. 3

So I want to offer a specific quote which I consider the key piece of evidence, for my opinion anyway. In On Prayer, XX.1, Origen writes:

Let us suppose there is a difference between church and synagogue. In its proper sense the church has no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but is holy and blameless. Into it enters no bastard or eunuch or one castrated …

On prayer was written after Origen had moved to Caesarea. Unlike much of his material, the entire work survives in Greek, meaning it was not changed by Rufinus. Would Origen, by this time certainly aware of Demetrius’ accusation, have written about this and drawn attention to it if he himself had violated this prohibition on castrated people entering the Church?

Ultimately, there’s no way to know for sure if Origen castrated himself. However the above passage is the deal breaker for me. I think it unlikely.

In the end, is this important? Not terribly but a little. When folks talk about historical religious fanaticism, Origen’s self-mutilation comes up and makes a rather impressive factoid. The Church had its fanatics (or folks we’d consider fanatics today, back then those people were often considered to be doing their job). People left behind everything they had to live their life on top of a pole or in a cave. They engaged in self-flagellation and deliberately inflicted pain upon themselves in the name of religion. However after thinking this over, considering what he wrote, specifically the passage from On Prayer, I think Origen’s castration should not be included in this list of fanatical acts.

1 When you read Eusebius’ account, it comes across as contradictory. Eusebius says he did it partly to be free from slander and then says he couldn’t hide it, however hard he tried. If the reason for becoming a Eunuch was to avoid slander, wouldn’t you have to let folks know about it?

2 On First Principles(de principiis) IV.9. I’ll be talking about this in more detail when I discuss Origen’s theology. As evidence that this was Origen’s thought, not something added by Rufinus, this passage is one of those which Jerome did his own translation of. The idea is also included in the Philocalia, provided by Gregory Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, in Greek. This, along with considering how many times he returns to this theme, is very strong evidence that the concept is Origen’s own.

3 OSM stands for “Oh Shit Moment.” I try to avoid profanity here but occasionally its use does legitimately advance an argument.

Eusebius of Caesarea, C.F. Cruze, trans., Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Origen, George Lewis, trans., The Philocalia of Origen: A Compilation of Selected Passages from Origen’s Works Made by St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Caesarea. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark (1911).

Origen, Rowan A. Greer, trans., Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, First Principles: Book IV, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XXVII on Numbers. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press (1979). ISBN: 978-0-809102198-4.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.


Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Religion


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What do I do With Origen?

This is not the first time this question has been asked. Heck, the Church asked it for a couple of centuries before Justinian had him condemned in 553 at the Council of Constantinople. My perspective’s a bit different.

If you’ve been following my reading/blogging on Early Christianity posts you know that at the moment I’m reading forward from first century Christian origins (though many will say the date of the true origin is the same as for Judaism). I’m planning to do this fairly intensely until I get to Nicaea. My post-Nicaean level of knowledge is quite a bit higher so from that point I’ll be in more of a gap filling mode rather than this wholesale gobbling up of everything.

So here we have Origen. He’s prominent. He wrote from the early to the mid-3rd Century. He started his career in Alexandria and ended it in Caesarea. I should be able to go through his stuff and use him as another example of what Christians were thinking during that period, right?

Not so fast. Most of Origen’s writings come to us through early 5th century Latin translations by Rufinus of Aquileia. Rufinus has been roundly criticized by various folks, as early as his contemporary, Jerome, for mistranslation to the point of making wholesale changes to Origen’s text and completely altering his meaning.

To provide a little background, Rufinus’ Orthodoxy came into question in the late 4th century. One of the criticisms leveled against him was that he had not been a strong enough critic of Origen. There was this whole conflict between Jerome and Rufinus which I’ll need to read more on to fully discuss. I have read Claudian and he hates Rufinus passionately, though this has much more to do with Claudian being Stilicho’s panegyrist and the conflict between East and West/Arcadian and Honorius than religious reasons. 1 In any case, with his Orthodoxy still an open question, Rufinus was accused of amending Origen’s text. Jerome had access to the Greek and provided some translations of his own demonstrating these changes(these amounted to a small fraction of Rufinus’ translations).

There’s a LOT more to this but the essence is I don’t know what to do with Origen. I don’t think I can use him as an example of 3rd century Christian thought, not reliably, as what we have from him isn’t (probably) completely his own words and ideas. At the same time, Rufinus didn’t totally rewrite him so we can’t use him as an example of early 5th-century thought either.

What can be done, since Rufinus’ translation is what was handed down to posterity, is talk about Origen’s influence on Early Christianity or, more correctly, the influence of Origen-Rufinus. I can touch on this a little but as I haven’t completely gone through Jerome and Augustine (and other writings of Rufinus) I can’t assess this all that well either. In the end, I’ll probably limit myself to a single topical post on Origen’s writings, then hope to link back to them once I begin reading up on the late 4th/early 5th centuries. I’ll mention prominent concepts and areas were he got himself into trouble but the caution has to be made that it may not be that he got himself into trouble but that Rufinus got him in trouble (150 years after he died).

One area this highlights is the importance of critically analyzing sources. I think, though I have questions about my qualifications to do so, that I’ll probably put together a post on the use of sources. And for Origen, I’m going to focus less on specific ideas, as I did with Tertullian, and spend more time talking about broader concepts. I’m not terribly happy about this but I’m less happy about picking something specific which Origen talks about and say, “This is what 3rd century Christians thought.”

1 See Claudian, Against Rufinus(In Rufinum). He sprinkles criticism in elsewhere too.

Claudian, Maurice Platnauer, trans., Claudian (2 Volumes). Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (1922).

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Posted by on February 8, 2014 in Historiography, Religion


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Tertullian XII: Summary

I’ve re-written this section several different times and am still not sure it captures what I want to express but I’ll have a go anyway. There are some things about Tertullian which are very intriguing. One of these is trying to assess how influential he was during the Medieval period. As I’ve tried to relate, he is the first to offer some concepts which later became prominent themes in Christianity. His thoughts on Original Sin and the way he defines the Trinity are significant advances over anyone who wrote earlier, at least that I’ve come across. It’s difficult to say whether these were innovations of his, or if his writings reflect what was already believed in the Church, at least at Carthage. I expect I’ll learn more on this as I continue and I also expect to find that it was a mix of the two.

As I’m now in the middle of Origen I’ve found it interesting that he, not Tertullian, seems to have drawn more attention from modern historians. Is this because Tertullian’s writing style is so harsh and unappealing? Is Origen considered a better example of the merging of philosophy and Christianity? Is it because much of Origen has been lost and historians are trying to recreate what he may have contributed based on fragments and subsequent developments? Or is Tertullian just simpler to understand where modern historians look at him and what’s already been written and don’t think there’s much more to be said? Origen’s influence is more subtle. At this moment in time I’d say that of the two, Tertullian was more influential though I have a lot yet to read and may change my mind.

I’ve written enough on him that I think you can figure out what I thought was important. I have been struck by his inconsistent consistency and my summaries of his thoughts on marriage and military service capture this, I hope. The change in tenor and content in these areas is a nice micro-example of how people often respond when threatened, by retreating even more strongly into their core beliefs. I think Tertullian’s fate points to an important difference between the pre- and post-Nicene Church. Tertullian’s group, the Montanists, appears to have been labeled as heretical. Yet they were not cast out of the Church, at least not all of them. Even at his most strident, Tertullian writes as a member of the Church, to misguided colleagues, not to enemies. Two centuries later and I think it likely that he would have been cast out of the Church and anathematized.

My focus on specific concepts may have detracted from, or at least lacked enough emphasis on, an area where I think Tertullian profoundly influenced those who would follow. Perhaps even more than his thoughts on specific aspects of dogma and doctrine, where Tertullian had a great detail of impact was by introducing a new type of dialogue; one less interested in debate and discussion and a search for truth but focusing instead on the certainty of belief and providing defined, stricter guidelines regarding what it meant to be a Christian. To this point Christian authors had been engaged in discussion and debate. They had points upon which they were beginning to reach agreement. Christ certainly was the Son of God, he was crucified, died and was resurrected. Men could be saved, body and soul. Those who lived sinful lives would be punished. However there remained points of debate. Did God intend that men would reside in Hell permanently or might they also be saved after a period of punishment? How did Adam’s sin impact Humans, particularly after the resurrection; was this sin redeemed by Christ’s death so that men and women were born with a “clean slate” or did this open a path for redemption despite people being weighed down by Adam’s transgression? Should Christians live as part of Roman society or separate themselves from it? These and other issues were points for discussion and debate, so Christians might draw closer to understanding God and the truth.

Tertullian didn’t bother with that. There was fact and falsehood, truth and lies. He believed what he believed and this was what all Christians should believe. Once a Christian believed and understood, the need for further investigation was ended. I have profound doubts as to whether this was good for the development of Western Civilization but good, bad, or indifferent, it certainly was there. Tertullian comes across as far more Medieval in his outlook than Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, or even Irenaeus. In fact he comes across as less interested in debate and discussion than many Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries. This is an essential element of his legacy.

I feel as if my use of large chunks of quoted text rather than picking things apart in more detail was a bit of a shortcut and maybe more exposition on my part would have been helpful. But that takes more time and once I was several thousand words into this I began to realize that the only way I’d ever finish would be to let Tertullian speak for himself. Fortunately, while he often took a long time to come to his concluding statements, once he got there he didn’t mince words. This type of tactic works much better for him than for those who were more nuanced. I don’t think I’ll be able to use this method when I talk about Origen.

That’s it for Tertullian. I wish I could say that’s all I have but it isn’t. I could probably add another 10,000 words. And as I finish this up I’m wondering what will happen when I get to Augustine. Tertullian’s source information was a full volume and another hundred pages or so in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series. Augustine gets 8 books all to himself and his influence is so much greater. Yeesh.

I haven’t been able to come up with a succinct statement to wrap all of this up. Instead I’ll defer to Eric Osborn who quotes J. Danielou:

Tertullian’s achievement was not merely cultural and linguistic, but above all intellectual. For ‘despite his obvious originality, he displays those characteristics which are to be found throughout Latin Chistianity: a realism which knows nothing of the Platonist devaluation of matter; a subjectivity, which gives special prominence to inner experience; and a pessimism which lays more stress on the experience of sin than on transfiguration’. 1

NOTE: Below I’m including all of the sources I used throughout these twelve posts even though I used very few of them for this one.

1 Osborn (1997), p. 7, quoting J. Danielou, The Origins of Latin Christianity (London, 1977) I finished Osborn while I was in the middle of writing this series of posts and as much as possible stayed away from using him. His book is a detailed discussion of what Tertullian meant in his various writings. Well, I had my own ideas about what he wrote and wanted to share them, even if they’re wrong. This is a good book though a bit pricy. I don’t think he said I was wrong too often.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.

Kleist, James A., trans., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers Number 6. New York: Newman Press (1948). ISBN:0-8091-0247-1.

Osborn, Eric, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1997). ISBN: 978-0-521-52495-7.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.

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Posted by on February 3, 2014 in Religion


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Tertullian I: Ascetic Theologian

I had this idea that I was going to put everything I had on Tertullian in one post with a caution that it would be long. Well, I’m at over 6600 words right now and still have six major and several minor areas he covers to write about. I don’t know what the final word count will be but I’d guess somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 words. That’s not long, that’s hideous. Instead I’m going to break this into sections because, well, I want people to read them. However, since part of the reason for this blog is for my own benefit as a way to refer back to things, I’m also going to post the monster after I’ve posted the sections. I’ll make sure everyone’s aware that all of the information in that post has already been covered. The title of that post will be, “Tertullian: The Whole Thing.”

I had no idea just how important Tertullian was to the evolution of Christianity. I’ve read books and articles speaking about him in terms such as, “The First Latin Theologian” or, “The Founder of Latin Christianity” and had always figured on these as exaggerations. Now? While labels such as these are overly simplistic and minimize the complexity of how things actually developed, they are indicators of his importance. In looking at his writings I can see direct influences on Christianity to the present day, often transmitted through Augustine. As I was reading through his material I was struck by how his thoughts on the nature of God, the nature of Christ, women, asceticism (maybe) and other aspects of Christianity are seminal and in some cases very close to current Christian Doctrine. He represents the beginning of a break from Platonism and turning away from the knowledge of ancient philosophers, though even he couldn’t escape them completely. I knew Tertullian was important but I had no idea just how much.

To this point most of what I’ve read from pre-Nicene authors has represented a fairly steady progression. Authors such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus show that Christianity was gradually evolving. Ideas, concepts and practices are developing into those that would become common during the Medieval and even Modern periods. With Clement there’s a break, a move away from dogma and back to patterns of Classical Platonic thought where the journey is as important as the destination. This is what makes him so interesting to me. With Tertullian there’s a sharp break in the other direction. There is right and there is wrong. There is truth and there is untruth. There is belief and there is error. He uses a philosophical method of argument; extensive, convoluted logical appeals in support of his position. But this isn’t, apparently, for the purpose of entering into a debate but to reveal and defend the truth. 1

For the most part, I’ll be inserting citations to Tertullian’s material into the text rather than as footnotes. I will have a few notes but as these posts will be heavy on direct quotes I thought this would be cleaner. As I was writing this I realized that short sound bites don’t do Tertullian justice. To get a feel for his arguments, you really need the argument.


Woodcut image of Tertullian. From Wikimedia Commons.

As usual, I’m going to start this off with a brief biography.

Tertullian spent his early life in Carthage, received an extensive classical (philosophical) education, and appears to have converted to Christianity relatively late in life, around 197 or so when he was in his mid-30’s (he is believed to have been born around 160). His early writings indicate a strict, ascetic view of Christianity which becomes more pronounced around 207 and becomes extreme around 215-220. A key aspect of his development is Montanism. Montanism was founded in the middle of the second century and was considered a heresy, primarily because, contrasting with mainstream Christianity, they believed that people continued to receive prophetic visions from God while mainstream opinion was that Christ was the last prophet and this phase of Human development ended with the apostles. Where this sect influenced Tertullian and his writings was in its extreme asceticism. Montanists did not believe in marriage (and certainly not remarriage) and thought the world no longer needed children as the last days were approaching. Tertullian’s writings became particularly strident when a schism developed in the Church and he began writing to defend Montanist beliefs. From the standpoint of posterity, this is also where he got in trouble as much of what he wrote during this period was too extreme for the Church to accept. This is likely the main reason he was never canonized. I was in the middle of reading material from this period when I posted about my dislike for him. Having had a few days to think about it, guess what – I still don’t like him. But I see that he was important and think I can make a decent post. 2

Tertullian seems to have achieved the rank of presbyter, not bishop, but this didn’t reduce the importance of his writings. Jerome says that he lived to extreme old age but as he’s not heard from after about 225 this is questionable. 3

My overall impression of Tertullian is that he looked to describe Christianity in as simple of a way as possible. For him, there are very few grey areas. The world is composed of contrasts, conflict, and opposites. Something is either right or wrong, good or evil. There are a few exceptions to this but in most cases these involve the newly converted. For example, marriage to a non-Christian is strictly forbidden, particularly for women, but if you were already married when you converted, continuing that marriage is OK. He has similar views on military service. Based on my limited knowledge of philosophy, it appears that I may need to read up on Stoicism. He certainly isn’t Platonist, not with his emphasis on a world in conflict, absolutes, and good vs evil. Plus he comes out and tells us he’s relying on Stoics. 4

In comparing him with other Christian authors, much of what he writes reminds me of Augustine. This was more of a sense than my being able to match quotes but, while he is more extreme in some cases, much of it is reminiscent. I’ll wait until I get to Augustine to try to match specifics back. He also comes across as something of an anti-Clement. Clement of Alexandria believed philosophy was useful, that Christians should vigorously study and learn, they should be moderate in dress and sexual relations and they should participate in various aspects of Roman life. I’ll expand more on this as I get into the post but Clement and Tertullian are at odds in many areas.

One other interesting Tertullian characteristic, and one which echoes a similar evolution in Augustine, is how his views changed over time. With Augustine these stricter, more absolute views resulted from conflicts with Pelagians and Donatists. With Tertullian these arose due to conflicts with the mainstream Church. His Montanist sympathies resulted in, once the Montanist-mainstream Church conflict got going, a series of what can only be called apologies but in this case defending Montanist views and explaining why these were consistent with scripture and should not be a reason to cast out the sect. As I read his material, the use of the term Psychic became indicative of something written during the period when this conflict existed. 5

Tertullian was always strict and ascetic, even in his early writings. Clearly the Montanist views on areas of Christian life such as marriage, fornication and adultery, and the folly of pleasure, appealed to him. Honestly, what I was reading of his often reminded me of something which might have been written into a rule or as guidance for a monastic order. Things were extremely strict but his views on the nature of God and Christ were fairly Orthodox for the time. Another significant influence was his belief that the Last Days were near. Why should anyone have children or marry, or do anything pleasurable which might distract them from preparing for God’s judgement?

He wrote on a wide variety of topics. I have a feeling that if I could force myself to read him again I’d find even more to write about but specific areas I’ll be covering are (not necessarily in this order):

  • The Trinity
  • Baptism
  • Original Sin
  • Purgatory
  • The Nature of Christ
  • Philosophy
  • Repentance, Penance and the Remission of Sins
  • Women
  • Military Service
  • Pleasure
  • Sex and Marriage
  • Miscellaneous Things I find Interesting

I’ll combine some of these so don’t expect 12 posts but there will be several. Also, I’m going to leave the same bibliography for all posts at the bottom of the page even though I may not use something in a particular section. And if this reads like it’s been chopped into pieces, this will be because it’s been chopped into pieces.

1 I’ve just started reading Origen’s De Principiis and he’s much more in the Clement style. He proposes questions and things to think about, often without giving definite answers. I have no idea if there was any sort of “Alexandrian” vs “Carthaginian” type of Christianity developing around this time (actually I have an idea or two but I’ll wait until I read further to post about it) but the differences in their styles are pronounced. It will be interesting as I move forward to see if Tertullian’s absolutism begins a progression of the Church in that direction or if this is something which is set aside, to be picked up later by Augustine. The reality is it’s probably a mix of the two as the Arian controversy of the 4th century helped create an Orthodox camp which held fairly strict views on various aspects of Christianity.

2 I’ve mentioned this before but want to remind everyone that when I use terms like “the Church” or “mainstream Christianity”, what I mean by this is the branch of early Christianity which would evolve into the Orthodox Catholic Church. Prior to Nicaea there was no “the Church” in the sense that we understand it today, though things seem to have been moving in that direction.

3 Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men (De viris illustribus), LIII.

4 Tertullian, de Anima (On the Soul) V.

5 Tertullian’s use of Psychic does not resemble the modern, English usage of the word but is used to represent a Christian who is ruled by his or her animal passions.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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ICMS Session Report X: Session 584 – Discerning the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Sunday, May 16, 2010
Session 584
Discerning the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

This session was a rarity – three papers which all discussed the same topic, but with very little overlap. In this case, the discussion centered on how early Christian authors believed Christians could sense God, the Logos and how they communicated this in their writings.

The session opened with a paper by Karl Morrison of Rutgers University, “Origen, Images and the Way to Godhead.”

This is another paper with a massive amount if information in it – I took 2 full pages of notes and there aren’t a lot of spaces so I will summarize this a bit more tightly than I have for some others.

Origen was interested in the concept of self-knowing, of how Christians could come to perceive God, and also how they allowed God to become a part of their own identity and self. He understood that there were problems with the scriptures and decided to justify them.

One of the primary problems is one that exists to this day – the argument of how there could be such imperfection in God’s world. Origen taught that Humans were insufficient to completely comprehend God or his works and even more insufficient to express this. He said, “Who can describe in words the difference in sweetness between a date and a dried fig?” with the implication being that if Human words couldn’t explain such a simple concept, how could they hope to describe God’s plan?

Origen’s core assumption was that “Christians are not in the world but of it.” He also taught that people should, “Believe in order to understand.” The City of God is imperfect on Earth and Christians therefore experience it imperfectly, a concept later used by Augustine in Civitas dei.

Origen believed that the simple minded were often more skilled in divine cognition than the learned. An individual’s Logos could be rejected or cast out with too much knowing, especially of the wrong type.

Morrison then turned to the issue of how Origen viewed sight and seeing. Origen completely ruled out the visual arts. He thought these were superstitious and very dangerous. He discussed a concept called “subject-image confusion” where a tension invariably exists between the image and the subject or viewer. He believed this tension lay at the heart of idolatry. The Human knowing, his or her Logos, was based on God having made man in his own image – but God is invisible.

However Origen did believe that there were legitimate visual representations of God, manifestations. Appearances could be deceiving and images of God are NOT manifestations. However there are legitimate manifestations by which God may be “seen.” These include manifestations in scripture, in the person of Christ, in believers or Christians, in sacraments through transubstantiation and also, according to Origen, in the cosmos.

Origen placed value on the concept of the Eye of the Beholder. The Logos living in a believer would replace visual sight where the “Light of God” would replace eyes. God, as contained within the believer, sees God in another believer. “The eyes that see God are the force of intention” where the seer takes God’s Logos to help him or her see.

This paper contained a lot of information. This was another which was informational rather than to argue a thesis. One of the things I’ve been doing in my reading is working backward from a time standpoint and trying to read as much material on early Christianity as I can. When I reach that point (next on my list are works by John Cassian, Arnobius of Sicca and Irenaeus) I need to order the complete Ante-Nicene library which will include Origen (this is available at CCEL but I like these sitting on my shelves – what can I say, I’m a dinosaur). So information on early Christianity and what the ancient Church writers believed, taught and wrote is very interesting to me – it’s crucial to understanding where the Church was at in the 4th century, when it achieved prominence. From that standpoint I very much enjoyed this paper though I am woefully unqualified to offer any opinion other than an appreciation for the volume and quality of information Dr. Morrison provided.

The second paper in this session was presented by Danuta Schanzer, “Discerning the Divine: The Role of the Senses.”

This was more of an overview of what senses early Christian authors felt were appropriate for and most suited to use for religious understanding. In many ways, this paper should have been the first paper we heard as the other two were more specific. Here Schanzer traces the use of the senses in Christian writings by various authors and how this changed over time.

The five senses are sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Christianity devalued all of the senses but some more than others. The Book of Revelations completely ignores smell, taste and touch while Origen in the Contra Celsum discusses how paganism heavily involves smell and taste. The passio of Perpetua discusses her vision of heaven including the “milk of paradise.”

Later Christians did not need to see paradise to be saved and smell and taste came to be devalued. Ambrose equated the senses with death. Smell was redeemed fairly easily – it could nourish. Taste came to be associated with gluttony and seemed to become the basest of the senses.

Augustine in Confessions favors smell over taste. Food should be taken strictly for sustenance, not for pleasure and in Book VII he has a failed vision where he can’t quite see God and says he can smell what he can’t eat, with the implication that smell is the “higher” sense.

Ascetic communities devalued taste and smell. In the sixth and seventh centuries hearing was referenced with Christians hearing heavenly delights through singing. During the same period furtive eaters began to be portrayed such as in the Vita Columbani where he eats in secret.

This was an interesting paper, though of less value to me than Morrison’s. However Schanzer referenced extensive sources. Part of the problem was that Dr. Morrison ran a little long so her time was cut short and she had to rush through some of it.

Her paper did bring a couple of questions to mind however I didn’t get the chance to ask them. One question I had was whether the devaluing of taste might have something to do with Christianity becoming a religion for the masses in the 4th century. Suddenly many more Christians were poor and likely well acquainted with hunger – perhaps this was a way to say that wealthier people, despite having much to eat, really were imperiling their souls by indulging and this was another advantage of the poor and something they should not covet or desire.

A second question is whether the removal of visions of paradise and the food described there was to discourage (or at least de-emphasize) martyrdom once martyrdom wasn’t as much of an option as it had been.

The final paper of this session – and for Congress, for me anyway – was by Giselle de Nie, “Augustine on Touching the Numinous.”

Augustine believed that the impressions of the physical senses didn’t directly reach the mind but could be sensed spiritually. He believed and and wrote of “contact miracles” such as the touching of the relics of the saints, however this is not related to touch itself but to divine contact. Innate, invisible patterns of truth or faith were accessible through the senses but not through the mind or cognition.

In Confessions Augustine reached out with his mind to touch God’s spiritual essence, resulting in a shock that occurred in a miraculous fashion, undetectable by the senses. He believed that mentally reaching out to a loving Christ could result in touching Christ spiritually. He also gave sermons emphasizing the difference between physical pressing as opposed to the spiritual touch of a believer.

In essence this paper discusses Augustine’s belief that spiritual touching and other senses bypassed the cognitive mind to effect a direct contact with God. To be honest, this one didn’t do much for me – it seemed to be more of a series of anecdotes rather than something tied together into a theme. There was still some information but at the end I was left with a, “So?” The idea that spiritual touching would trump physical touching among ancient authors is not particularly revolutionary. Quite simply – and maybe I missed something – this paper didn’t do it for me.

This was another good session though Nie’s paper was not what I was hoping for. However Dr. Morrison’s was excellent and Shanzer’s was useful, though I do think she would have been better placed as the first paper in the session and I felt that something was lost by her having to rush through because of time constraints.

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Posted by on May 31, 2010 in Conferences


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