Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Origen of Justification

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The Origen of Justification

                Origen’s doctrine of justification is not easy to piece together. Though he did write what many consider the first systematic theology (On First Principles), justification was not among the doctrines that he discussed. One of the first places to start then is his massive Commentary on Romans (CRom). Origen penned this commentary[1] around the year 246 AD,[2] making it one of his last and most mature works.[3] Unfortunately, Origen is very erratic, especially when compared to other commentators of the early church.[4]
What complicates things even further is the only complete extant manuscript that we have is Rufinus’ Latin abridgement from year 406/7, which almost exactly abridges Origen’s commentary to half of its original size. What is important about this time period is it is around the same time that Augustine and Pelagius had their infamous debate regarding free will, sin and grace. In fact, Bammel argues that Rufinus may have been inspired to translate Origen’s CRom in order to provide the west with an alternative to Augustine’s extreme views of original sin, free will, etc.[5] While some question the integrity of Rufinus as a translator, Scheck argues that Rufinus’ abridgement is faithful to Origen’s own views; however, this translation issue should be kept in the back of the reader’s mind and should probably be researched further.

                To even further complicate things, there is much debate between Catholics and Protestants regarding the proper interpretation of Origen’s doctrine. Catholics, like the translator Thomas Scheck, present a very Catholic-sounding Origen while Protestants do one of two things; they either condemn Origen for preaching justification by works[6] or they interpret him as a defender of Sola Fide and precursor to Martin Luther.[7] So, when one consults any secondary sources on Origen’s views, it is quite hard to make any sense of the true doctrine of the distinguished gentleman from Alexandria. My goal will be to let Origen speak for himself as much as possible, while keeping the modern categories in mind to see if he can properly be identified by any modern construction. Unfortunately, I will have to rely on Thomas Scheck’s analysis, but I always go back and check his citations to make sure he is representing Origen correctly, while also trying to leave out Scheck’s conclusions when he seems to go beyond the evidence. 

                Now, with our confidence bolstered in the text before us, just what does Origen assert about justification? Though he does have quite a lot to say on the issue of faith, works, and salvation, I want to focus on five points. First, Origen’s main emphasis and the basis for much of his doctrine is his insistence on the free will of man and man’s cooperation with God in his salvation. Second, Origen declares that the initial forgiveness of sins that is given when one trusts in Christ is not for sins past, present, and future but merely only for past sins. Third, to be “in Christ” means to be “in virtue.” Next, Origen views faith as the beginning of justification and works as it’s perfection. Finally, works do determine a believer’s eternal fate.

                Origen unashamedly declares that man has been given free choice by God in all areas of life, including the different aspects of salvation. This theme is prevalent in CRom, which has for its backdrop the controversy with the Gnostics, with whom Origen interacts with often. Part of the reason Origen promotes his doctrine of free will so heavily is because the Gnostics denied it. Many of the Gnostics taught a form of fatalism in their doctrine of the two natures. According to them, man was born either with a soul that must be saved and will never perish or with a soul that can never be saved and must perish.[8] The Gnostics pointed to a variety of proof texts in Romans, not the least of which was Romans 9:20-23.[9][10]
                Origen responded to the Gnostic’s fatalism in a few different ways. When confronted with the idea that Paul was set apart for the gospel of God due to the nature he was born with, Origen countered that Paul was set apart based on God’s foreknowledge that Paul would work hard for the kingdom and continue on in his calling.[11] In response to their use of Romans 9:20-23, Origen pointed to 2 Timothy 2:20-21 and states that the determining factor for the type of vessel one is is whether one has cleansed his soul so that God sees him as pure.[12] Finally, Origen pointed out that just by the fact that Paul issues commands to believers presupposes that believers have the capacity to obey within themselves.[13]

                When we start looking at Origen’s view of forgiveness, things do get a little more foreign. Origen states clearly that a Christian is only initially forgiven for his past sins. After discussing the phrase, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” which was directed to the woman who cried and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair and affirming that a man is justified through faith without works of law, Origen directs his attention to those who might become “lax” and states, “For a person does not receive the forgiveness of sins in order that he should once again imagine that he has been given a license to sin; for the remission is not for future crimes, but only past ones.”[14]

He asserts elsewhere that if a believer transgresses and does not wipe it away with tears of repentance, Jesus himself will not help them, because “Jesus is truth; therefore, the truth cannot testify falsely on your behalf” and “even though Jesus may intercede for us, nevertheless Jesus cannot call darkness light and what is bitter sweet.”[15] This is radically different from the usual Evangelical cry that we are forgiven in Jesus for past, present, and future sins.

                But what about the fact that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? Wouldn’t that contradict Origen’s argument? It all depends how one defines what it means to be “in Christ.” In the phrase, “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” Origen interprets, “It is just as if he [Paul] had said, ‘alive to God in wisdom, in peace, in righteousness, in sanctification, all of which are Christ. To be alive to God in these things, therefore, is what it means to be alive to God in Christ Jesus.”[16] Origen’s favorite verse to prove this is 1 Corinthians 1:30, “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.”[17]
Maurice Wiles, in commenting on this topic, writes, “[For Origen] to be ‘in Christ’ is to be ‘in’ all the virtues; to have Christ in us is to have them in us. To be ‘in Christ’ is the same as to serve him, and to be his servant is to be the servant of all the virtues.”[18] This leads Wiles to conclude, “This point is well illustrated by Origen’s penetrating interpretation of the opening verses of the sixth chapter of Romans. When Paul poses the question, ‘Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound?’, the ‘God forbid’ (μὴ γένοιτο) with which he answers his own question is no substitute for reasoning but is followed by reasoning of logical cogency. Grace can only abound for those who have died to sin. The question of continuing in sin that grace may abound is not therefore a regrettable counsel to be opposed but a logical impossibility to be exposed.”[19]

                When approaching the question of the relationship between faith and works, Origen’s stance again proves to be interesting: 

The Apostle is saying that it is only on the basis that one believes in him who justifies the ungodly that righteousness is reckoned to a man, even if he has not yet produced works of righteousness. For faith that believes in the one who justifies is the beginning of being justified by God [initium iustificari a Deo]. And this faith, when it has been justified, is embedded in [haeret] the soil of the soul like a root that has received rain so that when it begins to be cultivated through God's law, branches arise from it which bring forth the fruit of works. The root of righteousness, therefore, does not grow out of the works, but the fruit of works grows out of the root of righteousness, namely out of the root of righteousness which God accepts even without works.
Much can be made of this statement. First, we have faith as the “beginning of being justified by God.” What Origen means by this is anyone’s guess at this point, but it seems to be quite different from what we espouse today. I can at least confidently conclude that to Origen, justification is not a one-time event but instead an on-going process. Second, the order is faith, then works, which are a “fruit” of the faith. Scheck is sure to highlight this fact and cites another scholar who says, “Faith obtains the righteousness out of which on the other hand works emerge; and this relationship is not reversible. Only upon the way of faith does man obtain forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God.”[20] Even with this, it is doubted that Luther and company would be any happier with Origen. 
                However, that is not the end of the matter with Origen and the relationship between faith and works, for in some places he talks as if faith and works are not so distinct from one another. He even speaks of “works of faith” and argues that the “proof of true faith is that sin is not committed, just as, on the contrary, where sin is being committed, there you have proof of unbelief.”[21] Though James would be very proud of Origen here, it does seem to contradict Origen’s earlier comments which assumed more separation between faith and works.

                In another place, after citing many instances that Abraham obeyed God on the basis of his faith, Origen brings up the problem that though Abraham acted in faith towards God many times, God doesn’t reckon Abraham’s faith as righteousness until later. From this, Origen draws his principle of two different faiths: faith “in part” and faith that has been “perfected.” It is when Abraham’s faith was declared righteous that “his entire faith was gathered together and was thus reckoned to him as righteousness”[22] because it was manifested in obedience.[23]

                But what happens if one has the faith that begins justification, and yet his works falter and even disappear? To answer this, we must look to the prominent doctrine of the judgment of believers works. In a response both to the doctrine of natures held by the Gnostics and a belief in the church that held that believers will not be judged for their works, Origen claimed that believers should not “entertain the thought that, because they believe, this alone can suffice for them. On the contrary they should know that God’s righteous judgment pays back to each one according to his own works.”[24] Simultaneously this both flatly contradicts the Reformation[25] and sends a chill up the spine of the hearer.

                In another passage Origen speaks of the possibility of a believer, “on account of wicked deeds and negligence in the present life,” being condemned to hell, both body and soul.[26] Scheck is quick to point out that Origen is not attempting to prove that humans can save themselves, but simply taking serious Jesus’ threats of judgment. According to Peri Archon 3.1, this just judgment of God was part of the teaching of the church, making it not just unique to Origen.[27]
                Though I will have to stop here, I have only grazed the surface of Origen’s complicated views. One thing does seem certain however, Origen was not much of a Protestant. His insistence on the cooperation of man in both justification and sanctification extends beyond what most in Evangelical circles would be comfortable with. He affirmed that the remission of sins was only for those previously committed and that one could believe and yet be assigned a place with the unrighteous at the final judgment. He seemed to blur the modern division between justification and sanctification. According to the way Scheck made it sound, it seems like Origen’s commentary was the standard for some time. This sets the stage for the entrance of Augustine and his radical new doctrine of grace, which from the surface seems so diametrically opposed to Origen.[28]

[1] This is the earliest Romans commentary that has survived, preceding the next earliest by 150 years (John Chrysostom).
[2] This was during his Caesarean period.
[3] Scheck, Thomas. Origen: Commentary on Romans. Books 1-5. Page 8
[4] Robert Eno, in “Some Patristic Views on the Relationship of Faith and Works in Justification” described Origen’s style in this way, “The theological issues discussed depend very much on the words in front of him at any given moment. Bringing out one theological point here, he may stress another, even a seemingly contradictory point, a few verses later.”
[5] Scheck, Thomas. Origen: Commentary on Romans. Books 1-5. Page 16
[6] Many of the Reformers took this route.
[7] Which is quite ludicrous in my opinion, though I am always open to listen to reason.
[8] Scheck. Books 1-5. Page 28
[9] See CRom 9.2.16 for Origen pointing to the Gnostics as holding to this, and then read Origen’s actual comments on Romans 9 at 7.18.6-7
[10] This sounds like a similar line of reasoning that we might hear today from a certain group. It is quite ironic that not only does Origen not hold to their version of predestination (though they wouldn’t shed many tears over that), but that those who do were none other than the Gnostics.
[11] CRom 1.3.1-4. See his arguments here.
[12] 7.18.6-7
[13] 6.1.4
[14] 3.9.4. See also 3.8.1
[15] 7.10.3
[16] 5.10.18
[17] 3.7
[18] Wiles, Maurice. The Divine Apostle. Page 115
[19] Wiles 115-116
[20] Scheck, Thomas. Origen and the History of Justification. Page 47
[21] CRom 4.1.6
[22] 4.1.11
[23] Scheck, Thomas. Origen and the History of Justification. Page 46
[24] 2.4.7
[25] Though there are a few places where Origen states exactly the opposite, that faith apart from works saves. This seems to be only in exceptional circumstances however.
[26] Scheck, Thomas. Origen and the History of Justification. Page 29
[27] Scheck, Thomas. Origen and the History of Justification. Page 21
[28] However, lest the reader get the wrong impression, let it be known that Origen was also a firm believer in the necessity of grace and God’s ongoing provision. In 4.1.14 Origen acknowledges, “For even the fact that we are able to do anything at all, to think and to speak, we do through his gift and generosity. What debt will he have to pay back us, seeing that his capital came first?” There are many other examples to cite, but this was not the point of my paper.

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