Although I have spent some time defending Origen from the negative views that others have had about his beliefs in subordinationism , it should be noted that there are some aspects of Origen’s thinking we can find in the first volume of his Commentary On John that are worthy of criticism. In many ways, Origen was an early Hellenistic Christian who was aware of his own intellect, and that led him to behave in ways that were somewhat troublesome. It should be noted that I do not speak about the problems of Origen without a great deal of empathy, for I too am a person of considerable intellectual interests and pretensions, which means that I often see in myself the same sort of limitations that I find in Origen’s thoughts. The criticisms of Origen that follow, therefore, are criticisms that I am aware also may apply to me. Whether or not that makes my own behavior as problematic as I find Origen’s to be the case, I leave it for God to judge. I know that I cannot be an entirely fair judge in my own case, especially since the defense of Origen in this matter is the same defense I would use for myself, hopefully with better justice.
One example in Origen’s writing where he shows himself to be too clever by half is in his interpretation of a familiar scripture, Ecclesiastes 12:12, which states: “And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.”. Here Origen comes up with two interpretations of the text, and it is best to let him speak in his own words (in translation at least), lest I be accused of twisting them: “For, to judge by the words of the phrase, “My son, beware of making many books,” two things appear to be indicated by it: first, that we ought not to possess many books, and then that we ought not to compose many books (91).” Now, it is of little credit to Origen if he shows himself aware of the paradox of his own behavior in this matter, which he does. After all, Origen points out that the Apostles themselves wrote little: “What are we to say of him who leaned on Jesus’ breast, namely John, who left but one Gospel, though confessing that he could make so many that the world would not contain them? But he wrote also the Apocalpyse, being commanded to be silent and not to write the voices of the seven thunders. But he also left an epistle of very few lines. Suppose also a second and a third, since not all pronounce them to be genuine; but the two together do not amount to a hundred lines (92).”
How badly did Origen fare in comparison to the apostles? Well, John wrote five books of the Bible, all of them fairly short, but to write a commentary of the first two chapters of the Gospel of John, Origen took 200 pages, which would mean that, if this same pace were continued throughout, it would have required some 2000 pages to get through that one Gospel alone. And Origen wrote numerous other books and letters as well, being a rather prolific writer as many intellectually inclined people are. It would seem that by Origen’s own reckoning that he would be forced to condemn himself for speaking many words, and that similarly he would be condemning all of those who are of many words themselves. By such a standard I would certainly stand under condemnation or at least rebuke for being a person of many words myself, for no one who is remotely familiar with my own writings would doubt that I wrote often, generally in the neighborhood of 2000 or more words per day, which is a pace that cannot fail to involve many books. Nor can it be said that I have but a small library of only the best books myself, for I have a large library of books that I have acquired over the course of my life and quite a few of those books are not even very good ones, so yes, if reading many books is wearisome then certainly that would apply to me also.
How, then, does Origen defend himself from the obvious implication that his own prodigious intellectual output is wearisome and therefore worthy of some negative comment, since we know that he did not slow down his prolific output of writing despite the fact that he lived in the ancient world where it was not so easy or convenient to write as it is today? He does so by the following: “It appears, then, that the much speaking which is condemned is judged to be so rather from the nature of the views propounded, than from the number of the words pronounced. Let us see if we cannot conclude in the same way that all the sacred books are one book, but that those outside are the “many books” of the preacher (93).” Is this a fair self-defense? After all, the book that we are considering itself contains nearly 200 pages, as we have noted, which but barely scratch the surface of the book of John.
Origin, after bringing up a problem that would appear to condemn him for being a person of many words, a problem that others may very well share, myself included, seeks to defend himself by defending those who speak sacred words and only including those who speak against God’s word being those who weary by many words. But will Origen’s own writing meet that standard? Can we show that Origen himself was not the sort of saintly and inerrant textual critic whose words about the Bible, if many, were in support of the Word of God, and therefore above reproach? We may agree with Origen that those whose many words of writing are themselves the Gospel truth are not worthy of blame for having written wearisome words, but we may not agree that Origen himself can be defended by the view that he puts forth in his own defense. And it is to that question that we will now turn in our second part of this discussion, whether Origen can be defended from criticism on the grounds of his fidelity to scripture.
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