Behr, John, ed. and trans. Origen: On First Principles. 2 Volumes. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Origen of Alexandria (c.185–c.254) is one of the most influential and controversial figures in the history of the church. He remains controversial even today. For example, many accuse Origen of believing in the pre-existence of souls, of being an allegorist (the implication being that he doesn’t understand the Bible), and of castrating himself.
Yet these accusations are either false or overstate the case. Origen did not castrate himself. Instead, this accusation probably comes from a false charge made against him from his opponents. He did read the Bible allegorically, but he also read the Bible literally. And his view of the pre-existence of souls is complicated, but Origen seems to root the existence of souls within God’s foreknowledge (or plan in his Wisdom).
Origen deserves a critical reception, but we must do better at critiquing him for the positions that he actually held. One way to do this is by learning more about his life and writings, especially On First Principles (the book that I am here reviewing).
Origen And On First Principles
Origen lived during a tumultuous time in Church History before Nicene Orthodoxy and during sporadic persecutions. During this era, Origen committed himself to Christian scholarship, writing between two and six-thousand works (xv).
On First Principles might be Origen’s most famous work. He wrote it in Greek but only fragments (or short sections) still exist in that language. The full comes down to readers in the Latin translation of Rufinus. Behr’s work presents a critical edition of the Latin text by Rufinus with an English translation. He also includes Greek texts when appropriate (i.e., the Greek text from the philocalia).
Anyone studying Origen and especially his On First Principles will need to deal with Behr’s arguments about the work’s textual history, meaning, and structure.
Prior to Behr’s edition, English readers had to rely on the 1936 translation by G. W. Butterworth, which relied on the text by Paul Koetschau (1913). Yet Koetschau’s edition of the text comes with serious liabilities, ones that persist in Butterworth and so has misled English readers of Origen for about one hundred years.
Koetschau, on the other hand, taking his lead from Rufinus’ own admission of having omitted certain passages, determined that Rufinus cannot be trusted at all and, convinced that the accounts of Origen’s teaching given by his opponents, especially the letter of Jerome to Avitus, the reports of Justinian, and even the Anathemas of 553, do in fact represent Origen’s authentic teaching, set about the task not only of putting passsages from others in parallel, but breaking up Rufinus’ translation, whatever he though he could discern a lacuna, and interpolating into its flow passages supplied from elsewhere (xxv).
The obvious problem here is that readers of Origen saw the words of Origen’s opponents as if Origen said them when he may not have done so. Moreover, they read the condemnations of Origenism in 553 as if they were Origen’s own words!
Behr further discusses places where Koetschau inserted teachings “about eternally existing intellects and their fall into bodies” (xxvii). “These are,” explains Behr, “moreover, passages which Koetschau literally ‘made up,’ by stitching together sentences from various anti-Origenist writers” (xxvii).
Unlike Koetschau’s edition, Behr attempts to provide a simpler edition (and one that is not marred by questionable interpolations). His edition “is primarily an edition of Rufinus’ Latin translation of Origen’s On First Principles” (xxviii).
One of the primary virtues of Behr’s work is to give readers an edition that clearly demarcates what has come down from Rufinus’ translation and what has come down from opponents of Origen without interpolating the text with a hypothetical reconstruction of what Origen actually wrote.
Another virtue of Behr’s work is his translation. Behr translates literally, even in word order. And this is so refreshing. It makes reading the English text and comparing it to the Latin (or Greek) much easier. If the goal is reading Origen, then Behr has done an excellent job.
So many translators attempt to smooth out the original or paraphrase it to such an extent that the translation barely can function as an aid to reading the original text. Thankfully, this is not the case with Behr.
The literal translation provides a further benefit. Behr explains, “This has been done in the conviction that the mode of expression, conveying as it does patterns of thought, is just as important as what is being said” (xcviii). And so it is, and so reading a literal translation of Origen helps readers to understand Origen.
Meaning and Structure
Behr understands Origen’s argument to be summed up in Princ. 4.1–3. He explains, “Rather, as Daley argued, it is ‘its real goal: the introduction to a deeper way of reading Scripture that will be possible for him and plausible to his readers only after they have mastered the doctrinal structure he has been presenting in books one through three'” (lv).
After quoting Daley, Behr continues:
The work as a whole is remarkably well organized and structured, from the laying out of the structure in the Preface, through the two treatments, theological and economic, of the apostolic preaching and the ecclesiastical preaching, organizing a coherent body of theological knowledge, whose first principles, or axioms, regarding the first principles of God, Christ, and Holy Spirit, and rational beings, have been established and their implications demonstrated, which then serve as a hermeneutical grounding for the studious reader to return to the Scripturues, with a divine sensibility, to be nourished by them so as to become as merciful and perfect as is God, and to realize their rightful place in the heavenly worship and as the temple of God. (lv)
The structure and meaning of On First Principles thus inform readers of the first principles of theology and to define a hermeneutical stance to Scripture.
In other words, Origen wrote On First Principles to explain his hermeneutical approach to Scripture. As Behr comments, “The work was intended to demonstrate the grounding of his hermeneutic in a coherently presented account of the scientific knowledge of the ecclesial faith, which in turn would lead his readers into the deeper mysteries of theology and cosmogony” (lv).
Put simply, Origen reads Scriptural theologically and aims to be transformed by the text into the likeness of God.
Should you buy Behr’s edition of Origen’s On First Principles? If you have any interest in Origen, church history, or the history of interpretation, then yes. It’s the best English language edition of On First Principles.
A second question to ask is, Should we read Origen today? My review so far has mainly focused on Behr’s edition of Origen, not as much on the content of Origen’s work. Is his work good and helpful?
It is certainly influential. And On First Principles provides valuable theological insight into the nature of God, outlining the doctrine of the Trinity and eternal generation. The work also outlines a clear theological approach to reading Scripture. With such an outline, someone can gain an understanding of why Origen and others like him interpret Scripture the way that they do.
And this latter point is key: reading Origen is not so much about agreeing with everything he said. In fact, I would argue that you definitely should not!
But also remember that Origen lives at a unique time in history:
- Origen lived before the rise of the ecumenical creeds, meaning that he lived during the Wild West of the Christian church when theological language had yet to be standardized.
- Origen lived during times of persecution (his father was a martyr and Origen was tortured for his faith). So, he neither had the luxury of reflecting on ecumenical creeds nor the luxury of living in peace.
For these reasons, we should temper our expectations of how Origen should sound. He certainly sounds Nicene-ish, and yet he introduces the idea of many worlds to come before the end, which is more than odd.
So as I said earlier, Origen deserves to be read critically.
And doing so will result in a reward of wisdom and theological insight as well as a keener understanding of the development of theological thinking in the church. It will also help readers to ensure that they don’t uncritically accept some of Origen’s broad inferences about theology and the world. (Origen himself says that he has done his best but is open to others correcting him).
So read Behr’s critical edition of On First Principles. Buy it if you can. Better: ask your library to buy it.
Update on April 5 2018: Disclaimer: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. I was under no obligation to provide a positive review.