A Defense Of Origen’s Orthodox Subordinationism

Although it has been a while since I commented on the topic of subordinationism as it relates to noted and well-regarded Hellenistic Christian writers and thinkers [1], it is worth remembering that this brief series of posts was begun by a sermon in which my pastor commented on subordinationist beliefs while I simultaneously was pondering on how that related to the checkered reputation of the Hellenistic Christian Origen.  Now, it should be noted that I do not think of myself as a Hellenistic Christian (although others may disagree given my fondness for philosophy and general intellectual approach).  I consider myself to think and write about this subject as an outsider, albeit a generally friendly outsider.  Be that as it may, Origen presents us with a situation that shows what the beginnings of orthodox views on subordinationism looked like and sounded like to early readers, and given the regard in which Thomas a Kempis and C.S. Lewis are held in, it is rather surprising that Origen gets any grief for his own subordinationist beliefs, which are clearly Orthodox by any fair standard.  Let us look, therefore, at how Origen presents his beliefs in a few scattered references in his Commentary on the Gospel of John.

Let us begin with this comment that Origen makes towards the beginning of his commentary:  “Consider, therefore, since “He that sanctifies and they that are sanctified are all of one,” whether the Father is the sanctification of Him who is our sanctification, as, Christ being our head, God is His head (39).”  Here we see a question of authority, something similar to what the author of Hebrews comments on when he says that the One who placed all things under the feet of Jesus is not placing Himself under Jesus’ feet.  What is seen here is subordination in terms of authority, showing that Jesus Christ accepts the authority of His Father just as we accept the authority of Jesus Christ as believers.  There ought to be nothing controversial in this.  Origen does not consider Jesus Christ as needing forgiveness, but he does see that there is a difference in authority among various members of God’s Family, which we would see if we looked at any of the discussions that the Bible provides about authority within God’s Family.

Likewise, there is nothing particularly controversial about Origen’s next distinction about the Father and the Son in his commentary, when he writes:  “No living being besides God [the Father] has life free from change and variation.  Why should we be in further doubt?  Even Christ did not share the Father’s immortality; for He “tasted death for every man (67).””  Here again we see an incontrovertible statement.  Jesus Christ could have claimed the same immorality possessed by the Father as had been His right from the beginning, but He chose to submit Himself to life as a human being full of change and variation and death on the stake/cross according to His Father’s will.  This again is not saying anything daring or shocking or controversial, but is rather something which must be openly acknowledged by any professed Christian.  So far we have seen nothing that should even raise the eyebrows of someone who has an Orthodox view of God and Jesus Christ.

When Origen returns to this subject again, we see nothing that should raise our eyebrows, even if Origen’s language is probably not as clear as it could have been regarding the subject at hand:  “For it was of Jesus’ benignity alone that He ate and drank with publicans and sinners, and suffered the penitent woman who was a sinner to was His feet with her tars, and went down even to death for the ungodly, counting it not robbery to be equal with God, and emptied Himself, assuming the form of a servant.  And in accomplishing all this He fulfills rather the will of the Father who gave Him up for sinners than His own (151).”  Here we see once again that Origen counts Jesus as equal to God as God but also shows that Jesus subordinated Himself to the will of God and thus became a human being and died for the sake of sinful, mortal man.  This is the sort of perspective that on sees, for example, in Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, not the sort of material that makes one a fit object for heresy hunters.

And in Origen’s final reference to the issue in his commentary the debate is settled in about as blunt a matter as possible:  “Now there are some who fall into confusion on this head of the Father and the Son, and we must devote a few words to them.  They quote the text, “Yea, and we are found false witnesses for God, because we testified against God that He raised up Christ, whom He raised not up,” and other similar texts which show the raiser-up to be another person than He who is raised up; and the text, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” as if it resulted from these that the Son did not differ in number from the Father, but that both were one, not only in point of substance but in point of subject, and that the Father and Son were said to be different in some of their aspects but not in their hypostases.  Against such vies we must in the first place adduce the leading texts which prove the Son to be another than the Father, and that the Son must of necessity be the son of a Father, and the Father the father of a Son (193).”  Although this is a deeply complicated passage and uses some highly technical language that is perhaps unnecessary, its point is pretty clear in that Origen considers the Father and the Son to be of the same substance, but that they are different and that there is a relationship of subordination between them.

Given the obviousness of Origen’s views and their correspondence with the Bible–particularly the Gospel of John–why did these views ever fall into disrepute in the first place?  We see that later Christian thinkers adopted the same language to discuss Jesus Christ’s obedience to the Father as a model of our own obedience to God without suffering in their own reputation except among a few pedants.  What happened with Origen, then?  It so happens that Origen’s reputation suffered because the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father became involved in a later dispute about Jesus Christ being a created being, a dispute we know as Arianism today.  Yet Origen was vehement in discussing the eternal nature of Jesus Christ as the Logos in ways that would be familiar to any Athanasian or Hellenistic Christian, and although he was steadfast in pointing out the inequality of Jesus Christ to God the Father, this was limited to questions of authority and was never taken as viewing Jesus Christ to have been of a lesser substance or to have been a first Creation of God the Father.

Perhaps the best lesson that can be taken from Origen’s view of subordinationism and how it has been viewed by later generations of religious thinkers is that it is hazardous to discuss matters of the Godhead/God’s Family when one wants to be viewed as a Church Father and preserve one’s reputation.  Contemporary views of God and the nature of God and the Family of God are just as muddled today as they were in the early centuries of Christianity, and many people do their best to explain what they believe in contradictory or muddled ways and then throw their hands up and exclaim that it is a mystery.  We may fault Origen for having been to bold to venture where angels fear to tread in discussing the relationship between God and Jesus Christ, but we must ask ourselves if most of us could come off any better when trying to deal with the tangle of concerns about what equality and inequality we mean between the two, seeking to avoid the threat of heresy at every turn.  Perhaps that is why other than serving as a perfunctory reference of one’s Orthodoxy, we see so little in depth discussions of the relationship between God and Jesus Christ, between both and the Holy Spirit that proceeds from them, and the future adoption of believers into the Godhead ourselves so that resurrected believers may be worshiped as we worship God and Jesus Christ.  It is far safer to avoid the whole thicket altogether.

[1] See, for example:






About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to A Defense Of Origen’s Orthodox Subordinationism

  1. Pingback: Origen And the Weariness Of Many Books: Part One | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Origen And The Weariness Of Many Books: Part Two | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: An Introduction To The Una Natura Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Contra Novo Arius | Edge Induced Cohesion

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