Origen: Heretic or Great Theologian?

Here is my paper that I wrote for our Greek Father’s class.  Before taking the class, the only thing I had heard about Origen was that he was a heretic.  After studying him this semester, I found that my conclusions were wrong.  There we definitely things he taught that would be considered unorthodox today, but he was clearly one of the first great Christian minds.  Therefore, I submit this paper for your reading enjoyment.

Origen’s Trinitarian Theology


Origen is one of the most controversial early church fathers.  He was accused of heresy by the 5th Ecumenical Council and was excommunicated from the church.  The anathema centered around several tenets of his theology, one of them being his doctrine of Subordinationism.  Subordinationism was the teaching that the Son and Holy Spirit were both subordinate to the Father in nature and being.  Origen is thought to be the first theologian to insinuate, if not out right teach such an idea, and that subsequent heresies derived their authority from Origen’s initial teaching.  In light of this accusation, this paper attempts to do three things.  The first section takes a look at what Origen actually said about the Father, Son, and Spirit and tries to piece together a coherent view of his Trinitarian theology.  An explanation is then given as to why Origen appears to be misunderstood, and clearly affirms that he does not adhere to a doctrine of relational subordinationism within the Trinity, but does see a subordination of roles within the divine mission.  The final section discusses two contradictions between Origen’s theology and that of the Arian doctrine that was linked to him.


Posted on May 15, 2010, in Christology, Historical Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Billy, thanks for posting this.

    Your summary seems to indicate that Origen would have seen this subordination as a purely economic matter (i.e. it pertains only to “the divine mission). Does this mean that you think Origen would reject the idea that the subordination of the Son to the Father is an eternal reality?

  2. I’m so glad to see you defend Origen, but I have to say that it’s just not true that Origen was the first–or even close to the first–to teach subordinationism.

    The page I link in my name–I did that for you, not to send people to my site–describes the Trinity based almost exclusively on Tertullian’s _Against Praxeas_. Afterwards, I give quotes from other 2nd century fathers.

    _Against Praxeas_ clearly teaches subordinationism. Another obvious subordinationist is Justin Martyr, who says the begotten God, the Word, is second to the eternal Father.

    Athenagoras, 177, gives a description of the “essence” of the Father and the Son that is almost exactly like Nicea in _A Plea for the Christians_.

    In fact, I would argue that Nicea is a subordinationist creed. Notice that it says there is one God, the Father, not One God, the Father, Son, and Spirit? In the Nicene Creed there is one God and one Lord, the Son of God.

    _Against Praxeas_, which predates Origen by 20 years, explains the use of God and Lord to refer to Jesus with this illustration, and I’m quoting:

    I shall follow the apostle [Paul], so that if the Father and the Son are alike to be invoked, I shall call the Father “God” and invoke Jesus Christ as “Lord.”

    But when Christ alone [is invoked], I shall be able to call him “God.” As the same apostle says, “Of whom is Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever” [Rom. 9:5].

    For I should give the name of “sun” even to a sunbeam, considered by itself. But if I were mentioning the sun from which the ray emanates, I would certainly withdraw the name of sun from the mere beam. For although I do not make two suns, still I shall reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things—and two forms of one undivided substance—as God and his Word, as the Father and the Son. (ch. 13)

    If that’s not subordinationism, I don’t know what is.

  3. Marc asked the question: Would Origen have seen the Son’s subordination to the Father an eternal reality? I really don’t know. Origen would affirm that the Son is eternally “begotten” by the Father. However, as was argued in the paper, “begotten” does not carry the connotation of human generation in Origen’s theology. I would venture to say that Origen would not see the son’s subordination as an eternal state after the accomplishment of the divine mission, because Origen would affirm the equality of the Son with the Father. To answer more fully I think I would have to dig into more of his eschatology and views of passages like Phil. 2:5-10.

    • But wasn’t it the very fact of the Son’s begotten-ness that suggested to Origen that there must be some kind of subordinationism in the Trinity? Granted, he definitely saw this as a kind of subordination that did not imply that the Son was less in being, honor, power, or glory. But, he was still willing to see it as a kind of subordination. But, if the Son is eternally begotten, and if being begotten entails some kind of subordination, wouldn’t that suggest that the subordination is in some sense eternal? What do you think?

  1. Pingback: Origen: Heretic or Great Theologian? « Near Emmaus: Christ and Text

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