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Origen the Universalist?

Origen was not a universalist, at least not in the popular sense of a “universalist” as one who believes that all religious paths lead to the same summit, nor in the specific doctrinal position that the goodness of God demands the ultimate restoration of all things and the salvation of all creatures without exception. On the other hand, according to Frederick Norris in The Westminster Handbook to Origen, Origen’s view of apokatastasis (i.e., the ultimate restoration of creation) is not definitive but pastoral. Norris points out that Origen was not a systematic theologian in the manner of Augustine. His various, if apparently contradictory teachings on apokatastasis signify Origen’s dual role as both intellectual and pastor.

Since the 1970s Origen scholars have uncovered numerous errors in previous scholarship which, when corrected, serve to mollify Origen’s apparent doctrine of universal salvation. For example, early twentieth century  scholarship assumed that the Second Council of Constantinople (553) condemned Origen specifically, but in reality it only condemned the positions associated with his more extreme proponents. Also, until 1976 translators of Origen’s most influential work, Peri Archon, relied on Origen’s critics rather than his supporters in forming their critical texts. Jerome was a harsh critic of Origen and of Rufinus’s Latin translation, and historians, assuming that the church had specifically condemned Origen, trusted Jerome rather than Rufinus. Some of Origen’s stronger statements of universalism were not extant in Rufinus’s text. Even Jerome admitted that Origen did not teach the salvation of Satan, as some opponents of Origenism claimed. Nonetheless, certain favorable appraisals of apokatastasis remain in Rufinus’s text. What, then, did Origen teach on the matter? Norris answers, definitively “Who knows?” but pastorally “sometimes”:

As far as we can tell, therefore, Origen never decided to stress exclusive salvation or universal salvation, to the strict exclusion of either case. His treatment of the doctrine of apokatastasis, nonetheless, may make good sense if we remember his deep pastoral concern both for speculative intellectuals and for simple folk. Both audiences within and outside the church can be served by stressing the apparently opposing views in quite different contexts. The return of all God’s creatures, except the devil, to fellowship with God invokes the concept of a good and powerful deity, where love conquers all. But the threat of hell, either forever or to the point of total annihilation, does have motivating force toward embodying the life of virtue …[Origen] certainly thinks the idea of hell has a special significance for instructing the ignorant. Perhaps Origen felt both carrot and stick were always necessary to move humans toward lives of faith and virtue. He admits that he does not know whether the fires of hell will last forever or not. He thinks that they might be temporary and remedial punishments for souls. One could not know in advance which audience would be most likely to accept the gospel, because of the hope engendered by God’s overpowering love or because of the fear stimulated by God’s threat of hell coupled with God’s demand for ethical living. Most audiences of hearers or readers include both groups; knowing this, Origen the pastoral preacher probably kept his view of salvation economically ‘open’ for a greater effectiveness.1

  1. Norris, “Apokatastasis,” in The Westminster Handbook to Origen, ed. John McGuckin, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 59-62.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

3 replies on “Origen the Universalist?”

And Jerome’s own position on Origen was very conflicted as well (not to mention that Rufinus, once a friend, was a personal enemy of Jerome’s)!

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