Church

Origen’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit – Part 1

Today’s post is the first of a two-part series on the pneumatology of the early Christian theologian Origen (185 – 254). This week’s post breaks down Origen’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit into three categories. Next week’s post demonstrates how Origen’s pneumatology impacts a number of his key speculative doctrinal positions.

 

Origen’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit can be divided into three categories: dogmatic, speculative, and injurious. These three categories are discussed below.

Dogmatic Doctrine

Origen lays out his dogmatic thought in his preface to On First Principles. Although one of his main purposes therein is to advance Christian thought, Origen nonetheless affirms the basic Apostolic teaching that had been handed down. As to these core Christian truths, Origen describes four necessary roles for the Holy Spirit in Christian dogma, and these are summarized below.

  1. The Holy Spirit is Part of the Trinity[1] – While affirming this, Origen also recognizes that the Apostolic teaching does not detail how the Holy Spirit is a full member of the Trinity.
  1. The Incarnation Occurred Through the Power of the Holy Spirit – Origen affirms that Jesus’ body “was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit.”[2] The Holy Spirit’s participation with the soul of Jesus is the paradigmatic example for human existence.
  1. The Holy Spirit is the Same Spirit in Both the Old and New Testaments – Origen is not to be confused with a Marcionite or a Gnostic. Not only is the Father the same God in the Old and New Covenants, but also the Spirit of God is the same Spirit.
  1. The Holy Spirit inspires the Holy Scriptures and Gives us the Proper Understanding of Them – The Holy Spirit inspires the Scriptures and illuminates the proper understanding of them. Not only is the Holy Spirit the author or Scripture, but the Holy Spirit also gives Scripture its inspired meaning.

Along with the four items outlined above, it is also worth mentioning the liturgical emphasis of Origen’s pneumatology, which is evidenced in his approaches to baptism and prayer – both of which underscore the Spirit’s role.

Speculative Doctrine

It is in the area of speculative theology that we see Origen at both his best and his worst. His speculations are what led him to so many profound theological conclusions well ahead of the rest of the Church, and yet are also what led to the censure of many of his works. In considering Origen’s speculative doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the following quote aptly (and favorably) sums up the tension at play in the pneumatology of this Church father:

A man as passionate about God and divine knowledge as Origen does not reach God by a system, but by all the means, intellectual and mystical, that are at his disposal, even if these means do not form a system ruled by rationalist logic, and in the dark places of the faith that is ours he is not ashamed to feel his way. But that groping is much more moving and interesting than the best constructed systems.[3]

In formulating his speculative pneumatology, Origen will at times make statements that seem contradictory, and sometimes they are. However, on the whole his theology is quite systematic, and it rewards honest efforts to compile it. Next week we will explore three specific areas associated with his speculative pneumatology, namely, the doctrine of God, humanity’s participation with the Trinity, and the doctrine of Scripture.

Injurious Doctrine

There are two major “injurious” areas that are typically associated with Origen’s pneumatology (other than subordination within the Trinity, which will be discussed next week. First, he has been charged with teaching that the Son cannot see the Father, and therefore, the Holy Spirit cannot see the Son. Second, it has been accused that he taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit were created.

Regarding the first of these, it is indeed the case that Origen states, “To see and be seen is a property of bodies, which it would certainly not be right to apply either to the Father or to the Son or to the Holy spirit in their relations one with another.”[4] Read in isolation, one might think Origen to be implying that the members of the Trinity could not see each other. However, Origen’s very next sentence clarifies the matter: “For the Trinity by its nature transcends the limits of vision, although it grants to those who are in bodies, that is to all other creatures, the property of being seen one by another.”[5] Therefore, God’s very nature makes our most dependable resource for knowledge (sight) seem completely insignificant.

The second charge has a little more merit. This is true despite repeated claims in On First Principles that the entire Trinity is uncreated. The main issue is Origen’s explanation in his Commentary on John in Book 2.10, where he states,

But we must inquire whether, if it be true that ‘all things were created through him,’ the Holy Spirit was also created through him. Now I think we are forced to admit to the man who says that he was created, and who quotes the text, ‘All things were created through him,’ that the Holy spirit was created through the Word, since the Word is older than he. But the man who is unwilling to say that the Holy Spirit is created through Christ must assert that he is unbegotten . . . We, however, believe that there are three hypostases, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and being of opinion that no one is unbegotten except the Father, maintain the pious and true belief to be that while all things were created through the Word the Holy Spirit is of more honor than all others and first in rank of all who have been created by the Father through Christ.[6]

Curiously, the above passage is very different from everything we have in On First Principles, where the Spirit is God, uncreated, and typically “proceeds” from the Father. In fact, the above passage seems incompatible with Origen’s whole system of theological thought put forward in On First Principles. How can this be reconciled? One possibility is connected to Origen’s claim that time does not apply Trinity.[7] With this in mind, if Origen were to think of the Trinity in time, then the above would be the order of creation (because the Father is a first among equals). However, the Trinity is not in time, and therefore, is eternal and uncreated. Otherwise, we would have to admit that Origen let a misunderstanding of Colossians 1:16 wreak havoc on his (rather sophisticated and informed) theological system.

 

Timothy Rucker earned a Th.M. degree from Western Seminary. He currently lives in the Tampa Bay Area with his family, where he worships with and serves the congregation of Keene Terrace Baptist Church

 

[1] “Trinity” is often thought to be an anachronistic term imported by Rufinus into Origen’s thought.
[2] OFP, Preface, 4.
[3] Henri Crouzel, Origen. Translated by A. S. Worrall. San Francisco: (Harper & Row, 1989), 266; cited by Moser, Teacher of Holiness, 13-14, note 50.
[4] OFP 2.4.3, 123.
[5] Ibid.,123.
[6] Commentary on John 2.10, cited by OFP Preface, 4, note 3.
[7] OFP 1.2.11, 35; OFP 1.3.4, 43; and OFP 4.4.1, 206.