January 12, 2012

What the Allegorist Origen Taught About Adam and Eve

Dr. Denis Alexander, who is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University, is an eminently qualified molecular biologist with a very odd combination of theological beliefs. In a recent article in The Guardian (December 23, 2011) entitled, "Evolution, Christmas and the Atonement", he rejected belief in a literal Adam and Eve and an historical Fall, on the grounds that it was totally incompatible with scientific discoveries over the last few decades, which clearly indicate that “we last shared a common ancestor with the chimps about 5-6 million years ago, and humans have been gradually emerging through a series of hominid intermediates ever since.” Dr. Alexander had no time for belief in an immaterial soul, either: in his view, it is our complex brains that endow us with free will.

[Dr. Alexander cites Philo and Origen as justification for his theological beliefs. But do these writers support his theories. The author shows this is not the case. Below the position of Origen is set forward.]

What did Origen (c. 185-254 A.D.) teach about Adam and Eve?

It might surprise Dr. Alexander to learn that Origen also taught that Adam was a real, historical individual. In the Preface to his work, De Principiis, Origen summarizes the central points of Christian doctrine, as taught by the apostles:

4. The particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles are as follows:—

First, that there is one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being — God from the first creation and foundation of the world — the God of all just men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noe [Noah], Sere [Serug], Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets; and that this God in the last days, as He had announced beforehand by His prophets, sent our Lord Jesus Christ to call in the first place Israel to Himself, and in the second place the Gentiles, after the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. This just and good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself gave the law and the prophets, and the Gospels, being also the God of the apostles and of the Old and New Testaments.

Secondly, that Jesus Christ Himself, who came (into the world), was born of the Father before all creatures; that, after He had been the servant of the Father in the creation of all things — for by Him were all things made — He in the last times, divesting Himself (of His glory), became a man, and was incarnate although God, and while made a man remained the God which He was; that He assumed a body like to our own, differing in this respect only, that it was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit: that this Jesus Christ was truly born, and did truly suffer, and did not endure this death common (to man) in appearance only, but did truly die; that He did truly rise from the dead; and that after His resurrection He conversed with His disciples, and was taken up (into heaven).

Then, thirdly, the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honour and dignity with the Father and the Son. But in His case it is not clearly distinguished whether He is to be regarded as born or innate, or also as a Son of God or not: for these are points which have to be inquired into out of sacred Scripture according to the best of our ability, and which demand careful investigation. And that this Spirit inspired each one of the saints, whether prophets or apostles; and that there was not one Spirit in the men of the old dispensation, and another in those who were inspired at the advent of Christ, is most clearly taught throughout the Churches. (Italics mine – VJT.)

Origen was writing before the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325 A.D.) and Constantinople (381 A.D.) had been held; hence his vagueness regarding the Holy Spirit.

Notice that in the passage above, Origen describes God as “the God of all just men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noe [Noah], Sere [Serug], Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets.” Since Origen is giving a summary here of the essentials of Christian teaching, and since he clearly regards the other individuals named as historical characters, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that for Origen, the historicity of Adam was an essential Christian teaching.

In Book II, Chapter 3 of his work, De Principiis, Origen discusses the beginning of the world, and attacks the view of those philosophers who hold that everything goes around again and again, in a never-ending cycle. Origen contends that such a view would make a mockery of free will:

4. And now I do not understand by what proofs they can maintain their position, who assert that worlds sometimes come into existence which are not dissimilar to each other, but in all respects equal. For if there is said to be a world similar in all respects (to the present), then it will come to pass that Adam and Eve will do the same things which they did before: there will be a second time the same deluge, and the same Moses will again lead a nation numbering nearly six hundred thousand out of Egypt; Judas will also a second time betray the Lord; Paul will a second time keep the garments of those who stoned Stephen; and everything which has been done in this life will be said to be repeated – a state of things which I think cannot be established by any reasoning, if souls are actuated by freedom of will, and maintain either their advance or retrogression according to the power of their will. For souls are not driven on in a cycle which returns after many ages to the same round, so as either to do or desire this or that; but at whatever point the freedom of their own will aims, there do they direct the course of their actions. (Italics mine – VJT.)

Once again, the reader will notice the reference to Adam and Eve. Since Origen is making a point about actual choices made by actual individuals in time past, he clearly intends to affirm the literal historicity of Adam and Eve. For if he did not, then what about Moses, Judas and Paul? Are they mythical too?

But wait, there’s more! In Book I, chapter 22 of his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Origen declares that Wisdom is Christ’s fundamental characteristic: Jesus is the Wisdom of God, who was sent into the world in order to redeem it. Origen writes that Jesus is called the light of the world, because men, who are spiritually darkened by wickedness, need the light. Likewise, Jesus is called the first-born from the dead, because He had to rescue those who had died. Origen explains that this was necessary only because Adam and Eve fell and failed to attain the goal of freedom from bodily death and corruption, that God had originally planned for them:

Now God is altogether one and simple; but our Saviour, for many reasons, since God set Him forth a propitiation and a first fruits of the whole creation, is made many things, or perhaps all these things; the whole creation, so far as capable of redemption, stands in need of Him. And, hence, He is made the light of men, because men, being darkened by wickedness, need the light that shines in darkness, and is not overtaken by the darkness; had not men been in darkness, He would not have become the light of men. The same thing may be observed in respect of His being the first-born of the dead. For supposing the woman had not been deceived, and Adam had not fallen, and man created for incorruption had obtained it, then He would not have descended into the grave, nor would He have died, there being no sin, nor would His love of men have required that He should die, and if He had not died, He could not have been the first-born of the dead. We may also ask whether He would ever have become a shepherd, had man not been thrown together with the beasts which are devoid of reason, and made like to them. (Italics mine – VJT.)

In the above passage, there can be no doubt that Origen believed in a real Fall, in which one woman (Eve) was deceived, and one man (Adam) fell from grace. Had it not been for the Fall, man would have escaped the grim fate of bodily corruption, which is our lot. In other words, Origen taught that human beings would not have died had Adam and Eve not fallen. Contrary to Dr. Alexander, Origen clearly believed that the Bible teaches that physical death originates with the sin of Adam.

Origen, discusses some other consequences of the Fall in Contra Celsum, Book VII, chapter 28, where he writes that “the earth … was originally cursed for the transgression of Adam.” He goes on to explain:

For these words, "Cursed shall the ground be for what you have done; with grief, that is, with labour, shall you eat of the fruit of it all the days of your life", were spoken of the whole earth, the fruit of which every man who died in Adam eats with sorrow or labour all the days of his life. And as all the earth has been cursed, it brings forth thorns and briers all the days of the life of those who in Adam were driven out of paradise; and in the sweat of his face every man eats bread until he returns to the ground from which he was taken.

(Emphases mine – VJT.)

In his article written for The Guardian, Dr. Alexander maintains that for Origen, Adam is Everyman. Alexander even contends that Scripture supports this view, since “the definite article in front of Adam in chapters 2 and 3 – ‘the man’ – suggests a representative man.” But we can see from the above passage that Origen’s point is quite a different one. Precisely because Adam is the original man, he is a type or symbol for the whole human race. Hence, in Adam, every man died. And in Adam, every man was driven out of Paradise. There is nothing in the above passage that Augustine would have disagreed with.

In Contra Celsum, Book VI, chapter 36, Origen criticises the pagan philosopher Celsus for mocking a Christian doctrine which he does not understand: the doctrine of the resurrection. Origen affirms in passing that “death was in Adam”:

Celsus, moreover, has often mocked at the subject of a resurrection,— a doctrine which he did not comprehend; and on the present occasion, not satisfied with what he has formerly said, he adds, And there is said to be a resurrection of the flesh by means of the tree; not understanding, I think, the symbolic expression, that through the tree came death, and through the tree comes life, because death was in Adam, and life in Christ. (Italics mine – VJT.)

It would have been easy to overlook this passage if I had not previously highlighted other passages where Origen explicitly declares his belief in a literal Adam. But now we can see that Origen probably understood the saying, “death was in Adam, and life in Christ,” in a fully orthodox Christian sense.

Now we can address the celebrated passage in Contra Celsum, Book IV, chapter 40, where Origen seems to affirm that Adam is a purely symbolic figure. In this passage, Origen is replying to an objection made by the pagan philosopher Celsus, that if God were truly omnipotent, then surely one insignificant man, Adam, could not have thwarted his purposes by sinning at the very beginning of human history; for an omnipotent God could have simply prevented Adam from succumbing to temptation. Origen replies that the consequences of the sin of Adam apply not to one human being but to the entire human race:

For as those whose business it is to defend the doctrine of providence do so by means of arguments which are not to be despised, so also the subjects of Adam and his son will be philosophically dealt with by those who are aware that in the Hebrew language Adam signifies man; and that in those parts of the narrative which appear to refer to Adam as an individual, Moses is discoursing upon the nature of man in general. For in Adam (as the Scripture says) all die, and were condemned in the likeness of Adam’s transgression, the word of God asserting this not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race. For in the connected series of statements which appears to apply as to one particular individual, the curse pronounced upon Adam is regarded as common to all (the members of the race), and what was spoken with reference to the woman is spoken of every woman without exception. (Italics mine – VJT.)

Origen is not arguing here that Adam is Everyman, as Dr. Alexander thinks. Instead, he is arguing that precisely because the name “Adam” means “man in general,” the consequences of the historical Adam’s Fall must affect the whole human race. Origen is employing typological reasoning here: he is arguing that because Adam’s name has a certain significance (“man in general”), his actions have a mystical (one is tempted to say, magical) significance for the whole of humanity. The same goes for Eve.

Origen was surprisingly literal in his interpretation of Genesis

In the very next chapter, Origen goes on to interpret Genesis in a way that should make Dr. Alexander blush with embarrassment. Yes, Dr. Alexander’s theological hero believed in a literal global flood and an Ark! In Contra Celsum, Book IV, chapter 41, Origen addresses head-on the objections of the pagan philosopher Celsus, who scoffed at the notion of a Deluge covering the entire earth, and of an Ark that carried the survivng humans and animals. Origen argued that the Ark was the product of one hundred years of careful construction by Noah, who was also assisted by God, according to the book of Genesis. Moreover, Origen maintained that the Ark would have been quite big enough to hold all the animals, if the Biblical cubits were Egyptian cubits, which were several times longer than standard cubits. Finally, Origen reasoned that the animals would have been perfectly secure inside the Ark, as it was specially designed by God:

After this he [Celsus] continues as follows: "They [Jews and Christians] speak, in the next place, of a deluge, and of a monstrous ark, having within it all things, and of a dove and a crow as messengers, falsifying and recklessly altering the story of Deucalion; not expecting, I suppose, that these things would come to light, but imagining that they were inventing stories merely for young children." Now in these remarks observe the hostility — so unbecoming a philosopher — displayed by this man towards this very ancient Jewish narrative. For, not being able to say anything against the history of the deluge, and not perceiving what he might have urged against the ark and its dimensions — viz., that, according to the general opinion, which accepted the statements that it was three hundred cubits in length, and fifty in breadth, and thirty in height, it was impossible to maintain that it contained (all) the animals that were upon the earth, fourteen specimens of every clean and four of every unclean beast — he merely termed it monstrous, containing all things within it. Now wherein was its monstrous character, seeing it is related to have been a hundred years in building, and to have had the three hundred cubits of its length and the fifty of its breadth contracted, until the thirty cubits of its height terminated in a top one cubit long and one cubit broad? Why should we not rather admire a structure which resembled an extensive city, if its measurements be taken to mean what they are capable of meaning, so that it was nine myriads of cubits long in the base, and two thousand five hundred in breadth? And why should we not admire the design evinced in having it so compactly built, and rendered capable of sustaining a tempest which caused a deluge? For it was not daubed with pitch, or any material of that kind, but was securely coated with bitumen. And is it not a subject of admiration, that by the providential arrangement of God, the elements of all the races were brought into it, that the earth might receive again the seeds of all living things, while God made use of a most righteous man to be the progenitor of those who were to be born after the deluge?

That’s how Origen defended the Biblical account of the Flood. This is the Christian theologian whom Dr. Alexander lauds for “interpreting the early chapters of Genesis figuratively – as a theological essay, not as science”? Surely you jest, Dr. Alexander.

But I haven’t finished yet. In Contra Celsum, Book I, chapter 19, Origen declares himself to be a young-earth creationist:

After these statements [assailing the Mosaic narrative - VJT], Celsus, from a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that, while concealing his wish, intimates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated.

There you have it. According to Origen, Genesis actually teaches that the world is less than 10,000 years old!

Let me hasten to add that I believe, with Dr. Alexander, that the world is much, much older than 10,000 years. I see no reason to doubt the evidence of science, which suggests that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, and I’ve read so many different interpretations of the “days” in Genesis that I think it would be foolish to insist that the human author of Genesis intended to declare that the world was only a few thousand years old – especially as some Church Fathers interpreted the “days” in a non-literal manner. But on the subject of Adam and Eve, there is a theological unanimity among both Jewish and Christian teachers and religious authorities from antiquity: all of them insisted that Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals. Yes, even Philo and Origen. We cannot rewrite the past to suit our whims. Facts must be faced.