More about Beginnings

The Soul of Christ

One of the more troubling accusations against Origen and the Origenists is no doubt the idea that God does not become incarnate. Rather a dis-embodied soul (the Soul of Christ) which preexists its body and has not fallen into sin is what incarnates – becomes embodied – in Jesus Christ. In this scheme of things God remains dis-embodied and un-incarnate. The incarnation, strictly speaking, is that of the un-fallen soul which, from its beginning, is inseparably united to the Son. This is a denial of a basic doctrine of the Christian Faith. Denying that God became man is in fact a straight forward rejection of Christianity as such. This is a very serious issue indeed! It seems a careful reading of Origen’s doctine on the Incarnation and the Soul of Christ is warranted. It is to this we shall now turn.

Origen on the Incarnation

In On First Principles B. II Chap. vi. Origen states that the time has come to speak about the Incarnation. The issue to be discussed is narrowed down to how the Lord and Saviour became man, and how He dwelt among men (par. 1). From the same first paragraph it is clear who Origen believesincarnates: the Son/Word of God:

After the consideration of questions of such importance concerning the being of the Son of God, we are lost in the deepest amazement that such a nature, pre-eminent above all others, should have divested itself of its condition of majesty and become man, and tabernacled among men …

Origen, On First Principles, Bk II., Chap. 6., par., 1.

He repeats the point in paragraph 2 asserting that the “very Word and Wisdom of the Father existed in the limits of that man that appeared in Judah (Jesus Christ),” and that this very Word and Wisdom “entered a womb,” “was born an infant,” “uttered wailings like children,” “and eventually become troubled unto death,” “really died,” and on the third “rose again.” All these very human things are attributed to the Son of God who is by nature bodiless like His Father and therefore of the same nature as the Father ( ! ) a point not to be overlooked when considering the accusations against Origen of being an Arian. It is God the Son who incarnates. This is also very evident when Origen describes what would later be known as the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum:

If it [human reason] think of a God, it sees a mortal; if it think of a man, it beholds Him returning from the grave, after overthrowing the empire of death, laden with its spoils. And therefore the spectacle is to be contemplated with all fear and reverence, that the truth of both natures may be clearly shown to exist in one and the same Being; so that nothing unworthy or unbecoming may be perceived in that divine and ineffable substance, nor yet those things which were done be supposed to be the illusions of imaginary appearances.

Origen, On First Principles, Bk II., Chap., 6., par. 2.

Clearly to Origen the one Jesus Christ can be contemplated as being both God and man, but when we think of Him as God wee perceive a man and when we think of Him as man we see God. Yet there are not two beings but one. All this is quite orthodox and catholic.

The Soul of Christ binds together

But what about the soul or Nous of Christ? Did Origen not clearly assert some sort of mediator between the Divine and creation? Did not the Divine have to stablish a buffer between it and creation? Is not the Soul of Christ precisely this go-between? No, it is not. At least not in the sense that this line of questioning seems to assume.

First of all, as we saw already, Origen believes that God the Son became incarnate, that is the Divine takes on human flesh and blood as His own. I will quote a long passage from Bk II Chap. 6. par 3 and consider it carefully below. In this passage the careful reader will find that Origen believes God became incarnate, and that there is a real communicatio idiomatum as was also referenced above. This passage is the more interesting in that it mentions the Soul of Christ:

that soul (anima) regarding which Jesus said, No one shall take my life (animam) from me, inhering, from the beginning of the creation, and afterwards, inseparably and indissolubly in Him, as being the Wisdom and Word of God, and the Truth and the true Light, and receiving Him wholly, and passing into His light and splendour, was made with Him in a pre-eminent degree one spirit, according to the promise of the apostle to those who ought to imitate it, that he who is joined in the Lord is one spirit. This substance of a soul, then, being intermediate between God and the flesh— it being impossible for the nature of God to intermingle with a body without an intermediate instrument— the God-man is born, as we have said, that substance being the intermediary to whose nature it was not contrary to assume a body. But neither, on the other hand, was it opposed to the nature of that soul, as a rational existence, to receive God, into whom, as stated above, as into the Word, and the Wisdom, and the Truth, it had already wholly entered. And therefore deservedly is it also called, along with the flesh which it had assumed, the Son of God, and the Power of God, the Christ, and the Wisdom of God, either because it was wholly in the Son of God, or because it received the Son of God wholly into itself. And again, the Son of God, through whom all things were created, is named Jesus Christ and the Son of man. For the Son of God also is said to have died— in reference, viz., to that nature which could admit of death; and He is called the Son of man, who is announced as about to come in the glory of God the Father, with the holy angels. And for this reason, throughout the whole of Scripture, not only is the divine nature spoken of in human words, but the human nature is adorned by appellations of divine dignity.

Origen, On First Principles, Bk. II., Chap. 6., par. 3.

We must begin by taking seriously Origen’s statement that the Son/Word of God is the one to become incarnate. For Origen this is such a plain fact that he concludes by saying that the whole of Scripture speaks of the divine nature (the Son/Word of God) in human words and it speaks of the human nature in appelations of the divine dignity. A real and true sharing of properties (communicatio idiomatum). If that is clearly establsihed, and it seems to me it is, we must next explore what this Soul of Christ is all about.

It would appear that the Soul of Christ fulfills the same role in the one Being, Jesus Christ, that the soul plays in any human being. Namely a mediating function between what is bodiless and the body. Soul is a necessary component of the human being. In the passage above the Soul of Christ is not to be conceived of as a being on its own. In Justinian’s anathemas this soul is a being in between God and man so that it necessarily follows that this soul (since it preexists its body) incarnates instead of the Son of God. That is not, however, what Origen is saying! Instead the passage above uses the Soul of Christ to speak about the closeness of the union between God and man. The soul is a glue binding humanity to Divinity rather than separating them (as in Justinian’s anathemas). The soul is said to be a necessary element for a true human being and must therefore of necessity be included in the Incarnation. God taking on a body would not be an incarnation. It would be God wearing a “human-suit” if anything. The soul must be part of becoming man.

When Origen asserts that the soul stands midway between God and the body he is simply saying how it is a pure spiritual being can relate to material reality. This is not putting a barrier between God and the body, rather it is an assertion of how God can Himself take on a body – not as a suit – as His own so that God can be said to have become man. It seems to me Justinian, and others, have wholly misunderstood Origen’s meaning. The being intermediate between God and the flesh is an assertion of how God and flesh can be said to be united. After all a spirit (including our own) cannot just be united to a body. Body and spirit are simply incompatible. The soul is that element in a human being which can and by nature be united to a body. It is necessary for that reason that in the Incarnation God includes the human soul. To make the binding glue which unites God and flesh a barrier to a true incarnation seems to me a serious lack in careful reading of what Origen is actually trying to say.

Ab initio creaturae

The final troublesome part of the passage to be explained is the translation of the Latin phrase ab initio creaturae. It is patient of two translations into English:

  1. from the beginning of creation
  2. from the beginning of his creation

Most translators of Rufinus’s translation of Origen (most of On First Principles is based on a translation by Rufinus since Origen’s original work has been lost) would say that option 1 is the correct translation. This would make sense if it is indeed established that Origen taught a doctrine of preexistent (and therefore pre-incarnate) souls. Yet if Origen did not hold such a doctrine option 1 must take a significant loss in credibility. But perhaps Origen is guilt of another ancient heresy: Appolinarianism!

It has been said of Appolinarius that he believed that Jesus Christ took a body before descending to earth: that the Saviour’s flesh is of heavenly Origen. A similar heretical idea was held by Epictetus and is refuted by St. Athanasius in his 59th letter:

For you have gone further in impiety than any heresy. For if the Word is coessential with the Body, the commemoration and the work of Mary are superfluous , inasmuch as the body could have existed before Mary, just as the Word also is eternal: if, that is, it is as you say co-essential with the Body.

Athanasius, To Epictetus, par. 4.

Not a single one of Origen enemies ever accused Origen of this doctrine. It has never been a part of what was called Origenism either. It is very unlikely that Origen would have asserted that ab initio creaturae would mean that from the moment souls and their ethereal bodies were created, that from that beginning too, God has His own body. That, essentially, the body of the Word preexisted Mary. The only option left to us, it seems to me, is number 2. Origen simply stated that the soul has united God and man from the moment the incarnation happened in Mary’s womb. The creation referred to is that of His own humanity in and through Mary.

In conclusion it seems to me that it is quite possible to read Origen’s doctrine in a way compatible with that of Jerome, and, I would suggest, with that of Bishop Epiphanius himself. After all … It is told of the old heresy hunting Bishop that he had come away from talking to the Origenist leaders convinced they were not in fact heretics at all. The pieces of the puzzle seem to fit.

Fr. Gregory Wassen





About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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