Monday, February 19, 2024

Paul and Origen and the urgent search for their successor

For reasons I am not entirely clear about, I have started something of a quest to get to know Origen (c. 185 - c. 253) and his writings. I now have two different translations of his most famous work of systematic theology, De Principiis/On First Principles.I have also started reading a book which has been on my shelves for many years, sadly unread.

That book is J. W. Trigg's Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (SCM Press - oddly, no date - it is the British edition of a book first published in the USA).

Trigg makes this observation at the beginning of the first chapter, p. 8:

When changed conditions call the church's message into question, a theologian must develop an all-encompassing religious vision that enables other Christians to interpret their experience. Two theologians, more than any others, have accomplished this for the entire Christian church. Paul of Tarsus is one of them. The other is neither Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, nor Schleiermacher, for none of them shaped the entire Christian tradition. The other is Origen, who lived at a time when the church's present divisions were, at most only incipient. 


[p. 9] Even if few Christians grasped Paul's profundity, the forcible divorce he effected between Christianity and the Jewish ritual law endured and made possible the spread of the church throughout the Greco-Roman world. Though few Christians, likewise, accepted Origen's entire theology, he made Christianity compatible with the highest aspirations of classical Greco-Roman culture. We have Origen, more than any other single person, to thank that Athens and Jerusalem belong equally to our Western heritage.

It is no purpose of this post to argue for or against Trigg's case for the seminal-and-universal significance of Origen. (I take it for granted thate all readers here agree on the significance of Paul!)

What I want to put before readers is that what Trigg says here highlights a question for today - a fractious day within the church, a testing day for the church in respect of its role in the global mission of God, and a day when, arguably, our fractiousness is a consequence of the pressure of change in the world external to the church - and that question is this:

Do we need a new Paul/Origen for our day?

A larger version of that question could be this:

In the early third millennium of Christianity, viewing many aspects of Christianity today (its divisions, including its divisions within globally significant churches/communions; its loss of adherents in the West [the greatest heir of Greco-Roman culture?]; its inability (seemingly) to be both counter-cultural (challenging the ungodliness of culture) and cultural (becoming like X in order to win X to Christ); its dicing with the powers of our age (Christian nationalism in all its forms, in nations as diverse as USA and Russia); its competing demands to be vigorous in combatting the growh of Islam, especially in Africa and vigorous in responding to change in social and sexual ethics in Western societies); its confusion around the vernacular of Christian discourse (noting movements as diverse as those promoting the BCP and the Latin Mass) - etc - is there an urgent need for a new Paul/Origen, for a theologian-missioner who can lead a renewal of our global Christian mind in a resetting of the agenda for church, for theology, for liturgy, for mission?

Critical - I suggest - to answering such a question is that such a theologian-missioner can form and articulate a message with universal import and universal attractiveness to world Christianity.

Paul was a universalist of this kind because he grasped (i.e. he received and did not let go of Christ's revelation to him) that Christ was for all people, for Jew and for non-Jew.

Origen (in my limited understanding of him and his theology) was a universalist of this kind because he took utterly seriously texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:28, "... that God may be all in all." (Cf. Ephesians 1:22.)

(Whether Paul and Origen were "universalists" of a different kind - concerning the putative salvation of all - is another matter and not a focus of this post.)

What might a new and renewed understanding of the universalism of Christianity look like in this millennium? If Christ is Christ for all, if God seeks to be "all in all", if the purpose of God's plan of salvation is "to unite all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:10), how might we see that being articulated for God's people today? 


Liz C. said...

Perhaps because I don't regularly attend church and I'm not academic, I also don't understand why we need "a new Paul/Origen for our day".. I concede I have a limited view! I think the answers are already out there, shared every day by the people who've either left the church altogether or who've felt the need to change denominations such as (notably) Beth Moore, Russell Moore. I wrote the following with the many stories in mind that I've read recently where people have felt estranged from their churches and have had to leave due to what I might term "systemic un-Christlikeness" (a term I've made up!) or who perhaps remain in their church and advocate for change.

Renewal of our global Christian mind needs renewal of our global Christian heart! +Peter, you did a post a while ago about unity and need for humility.. that has to be a good start. Reaching out to all means to welcome all and offer safe refuge, friendship, love, understanding and true justice. Universalism of Christianity might look like warmth of caring across racial and gender divides and across class, being informed about systemic injustice and power inequities, commitment to maintaining safe space for all. Diversity in leadership. Leaders of wisdom and character. Responsiveness. Transparency and accountability. Clear moral and behavioural expectations (and in the event of wrongdoing, a just response). When things go wrong.. holding leaders accountable for their actions and provision of practical and pastoral support for survivors/advocates. Learning from mistakes. Commitment to truth, and growing a healthy inclusive community. Integrity, courage and strength to resist divisiveness and power plays!

I mostly wrote this last night but this afternoon I came across an article, Can American Congregations Learn To Embrace The Uncoupled? and it features various viewpoints (evangelical and mainline) on thinking more broadly re inclusiveness i.e. more than just a traditional family focus, and I think it helps to illustrate what I'm driving at.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Liz
I might take your question/s up in the next post, suffice to say for now:
- we should not wait for a new Paul/Origen before we clean up our own eccelsiastical backyard - and become more like Christ;
- we do not need to a new Paul/Origen in order to re-acquaint ourselves with things which used to be very obvious to us and which now seem strangely neglected and forgotten.
In short: I agree with you above!

The possibility of a Paul/Origen for our day concerns a better/bigger articulation of the gospel for today's world which draws Christians together in a new focus of godly, missional endeavour. It's a vision thing which might better lead us to deal with the details of Christian living.

Anonymous said...

Peter, I look forward to further reports from your Origen explorations. A fascinating and sprawling Church Father. I'd be interested to hear what you discover.

In terms of "universalism" and our contemporary age, I might see this question a little differently: we live in a time of unprecedented knowledge and contact between the great faiths. We can no longer claim ignorance of what other religions believe and practice, nor be in any doubt the people full of grace, truth, and with a deep, sincere commitment to God exist outside the boundaries of the Christian churches.

The ocean of grace has many shores.

For the sake of God, truth, and love, we need unifying, mainstream Christian voices that move us beyond hostility, limited conceptions of infinity (God), or merely thinking of our own patch (i.e. Christianity). The need for such a voice, in terms of current political and religious violence, is even more urgent and necessary.

Peter Carrell said...

Hello Anonymous (please give a name next time)
Like with Liz's comment above, I will try to work a response to your point above into my next post.

Mark Murphy said...

Sorry, that was me, Mark....I'm still getting used to posting here again...

A theological step in the right direction would be for Christians to return to, coalesce around, and reform their theology and practice in terms of the original doctrine of "universalism" as applied to salvation, of which Origen was an early proponent.

The fear of burning in hell forever, or missing out on heaven, has kept so many of us bound in an inwardly fearful, outwardly aggressive faith, and hardened our hearts to full immersion and trust in the goodness of God.

See the recent documentary *Love Unrelenting*, which interviews many notable theologians across the three major positions ('traditionalist', 'annihilationist'', and 'universalist')...

Liz C. said...

A bit of wondering.....

I read something Bosco Peters posted today [1] from a letter written by C.S. Lewis. And Lewis was writing about variations in liturgy.. "the Liturgical Fidget" as he terms it (!) But the last part of the final paragraph set me wondering:

The shepherds go off, “every one to his own way” and vanish over diverse points of the horizon. If the sheep huddle patiently together and go on bleating, might they finally recall the shepherds? (Haven’t English victories sometimes been won by the rank and file in spite of the generals?)…

I can't help wondering if there's something a bit different than a top-down focus on "a theologian-missioner who can lead a renewal of our global Christian mind", i.e. to turn that model upside-down. A grassroots approach to problems right from the get-go (but with support and guidance of church clergy/theologians/missioners to enable a productive process).


Peter Carrell said...

I see what you are saying, Liz, but I don't think my proposal is about "top down" in the usual sense: Paul, for example, was NOT one of the pillars of the church of his day!

My concept is about someone whose theological/missional vision is both informed by and puts into well-formed expression what the people of God are thinking; and this person may not be a priest or bishop or currently tenured professor - they might be an Amos of our day; or a Tolstoy; or a St. Francis; etc.