Monday, February 17, 2014

Did Origen lay aside the "Rule of Faith"?

Origen (d. circa A.D. 254)
This evening I have been reading essays in S. Mark Heim, Faith to Creed: Ecumenical Perspectives on the Affirmation of the Apostolic Faith in the Fourth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). The book has a lot of interesting material. Here, however, I'd like to look at a claim made by one of the authors about Origen.

In his contribution, "The Nicene Creed and the Unity of Christians," E. Glenn Hinson makes the following assertion:
"Both Clement and origen professed to approach Scriptures by the rule of faith. Origen himself expressed the necessity in terms of the diversity of opinions, not only about trivial but also about important matters, among professed Christians. He was quick to note, however, matters on which the church had no clear tradition, and he was capable of setting aside the church's rule of faith if he thought Scriptures allowed it." (p. 125; emphasis added)
I was stunned by the last line. As the author provided references in a footnote--though no quotations!--I was quick to examine the sources cited.

To be clear, as is well known, like other early writers, Origen insists that proper biblical interpretation must be consistent with the "rule of faith", which seems to be another way of talking about ecclesiastical authority.

In fact, the rule of faith is closely associated with apostolic succession:
. . . so, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. (De princ., Preface, 2; ANF 1).
It seems to me that the idea of the "rule of faith" is problematic for those who believe in the Protestant Reformation's affirmation of sola scriptura, so I can understand why a Protestant scholar would love to find Origen departing from it.

I was eager to see evidence that Origen did that. 

Let's just say I was underwhelmed.

Some of the sources cited make absolutely no comment relating to the rule of faith. Those that do seem relevant appear completely misunderstood by Hinson.

For example, Hinson cites this from Origen's Matthew commentary:
Let others, then, who are strangers to the doctrine of the Church, assume that souls pass from the bodies of men into the bodies of dogs, according to their varying degree of wickedness; but we, who do not find this at all in the divine Scripture, say that the more rational condition changes into one more irrational, undergoing this affection in consequence of great slothfulness and negligence. (Comm. Matt. 17; ANF 9]
How in the world does this illustrate that Origen dispenses the rule of faith? It is "strangers to the doctrine of the church" who get Scripture wrong! Origen's point is that to get Scripture right, one must not be a stranger to the church's teaching.

Hinson also cites this passage from Origen's commentary on Matthew:
Accordingly, if we do alms before men, having in our thoughts the design of appearing to men philanthropic, and of being honoured because of philanthropy, we receive the reward from men; and, universally, everything that is done with the consciousness in the doer that he will be glorified by men, has no reward from Him who beholds in secret, and renders the reward to those who are pure, in secret. So, too, therefore, is it with apparent purity if it is influenced by considerations of vain glory or love of gain; and the teaching which is thought to be the teaching of the Church, if it becomes servile through the word of flattery, either when it is made the excuse for covetousness, or when any one seeks glory from men because of his teaching, is not reckoned to be the teaching of those “who have been set by God in the Church: first, apostles; secondly, prophets; and thirdly, teachers.” (Comm. Matt. 11; ANF 9)
Um... Here Origen condemns following those things "thought to be the teaching of the church" when doing so is simply a pretense to vainglory. However, note that in doing this one is not truly rejecting the rule of faith, which is identified with those "who have been set by God in the church".

Finally, to give one more, Hinson cites Contra Celsus. 
But since he has ridiculed at great length the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh, which has been preached in the Churches, and which is more clearly understood by the more intelligent believer; and as it is unnecessary again to quote his words, which have been already adduced, let us, with regard to the problem (as in an apologetic work directed against an alien from the faith, and for the sake of those who are still “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive”, state and establish to the best of our ability a few points expressly intended for our readers. (Contra Celsus 5.18; ANF 4)
This reference is especially perplexing to me. Is Hinson suggesting that Origen claims that the resurrection is "more clearly understood by the more intelligent" because it is misunderstood by those who have preached it in the churches?

Such is hardly his intent! Rather, Origen is clearly saying that doctrine of the resurrection "has been preached in the churches" and that it is "more clearly understood by the more intelligent believer", i.e., it is better understood by them than by Celsus.

The lesson here: always check the sources in the footnotes. Moreover, if a scholar doesn't actually quote primary texts, be suspicious. 


Adam Phipps said...

In the words of the famed wizard and would-be theologian in our world: "Constant vigilance!"

Anonymous said...

"To see him at work: this, we must repeat, is what has been most lacking. Many of the allegations we have recalled would have fallen away on their own after reading him. But Origen is rarely read. If we overlook its intensity, understandable on the part of a disciple who had known the living master, Pamphilus' accusation is still relevant today: 'we see his adversaries blame and insult him without any consideration...They often make themselves ridiculous in the process...There are many who, if asked to specify the book and passage in which the ideas they oppose are to be found, are obliged to admit that they do not know, that they have never read anything of him and know him only by hearsay.'

"Origen is rarely read, except by fragments and without making an effort sufficient to understand him. Or else he is approached with prejudice" (HISTORY AND SPIRIT: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen, pgs. 37-380).