M. Harl on Origen and the Heavenly Jerusalem

In my research for my MDiv thesis I came across an article referenced by Fr. John Behr in  his The Way to Nicea written by M. Harl. In it an interesting suggestion is made concerning Origen and the often repeated claim that he taught a preexistence of the disembodied soul and that embodiment is a result of sin in this preexistent state. My friend Fr. Christopher (a monk from St. John the Wonderworker Monastery, California) translated the passages in question and I have edited them for publication on my blog (I thought it might be interesting). The article is an older one and does not exist in an English translation (to my knowledge).

Fr. Gregory

The preexistence of souls or divine foreknowledge?

What does one of the most famous texts say which Origen cites to evoke the heavenly Jerusalem, (Hebr. 12 22-23), this place where the just shall be “gathered together/assemble” (and not dispersed), to wit, “the firstborn are inscribed there ekklesia prototokon apogegramemmenon en ou ouranois? Are we dealing here with a “preexisting” Jerusalem or Church in the sense in which the expressions of late Judaism are often understood? 1 and which the Christians take up again on behalf of the Church borrowing from Psalm 73, 2 LXX according to which God “aquired for himself” his assembly “from the beginning,” ap’arches? Certainly one can say of this “heavenly Jerusalem,” which is “the City of God” (Ps. 47, 2-3 et al.), that according to the prophets, men have distanced themselves from this city and that they will be “re-established” there (apokathistamenon, in Ccels 7, 29). What is the meaning of this? Origen says that he has explained it in his commentaries on Psalms 45 and 47 (Ccel 7 31), which we do not possess. For him, if we accept the distinction between ktisis and katabole kosmou, all of the texts which say “before the constitution of the world,” or even “starting from the beginning,” can refer to the beginning of human history, to the beginning of this aion which is inscribed in time. He [Origen] uses Psalm 73 vs 2 to say that the Church did not begin with the coming of the Savior but rather that it has existed from the beginning of the human race which, however, does not refer back to a pre-cosmic or preexisting world. The Church is founded not only on the Apostles but also on the prophets and all the saints since the beginning of this world (Com. SoS p. 157, 13 s. GCS). Even though St. Paul says that God has chosen his saints “before” the katabole kosmou (Eph. 1, 4), this predetermination is not situated in a preexisting world but at the beginning of the history of the “world,” that is to say, of men. Origen places on the same level the following two expressions of Psalm 73, 2 (constitution of the Church) and Romans 8, 29 (the foreknowledge and predestination by God of those who will be in conformity with the Son’s image) (Com. SoS p. 157, 11-158, 13 and Comm. Mat. 17, 4). Does foreknowledge (or predetermination, for that is the problem) not explain that those who are destined to form the Lord’s assembly “shall be inscribed in heaven”? In his treatise On First Principles, Origen was unable to insist upon divine election, for this would offer an argument to the Gnostics in support of the determinism of natures, as one sees in P Arch II.9.7: that beings have various states not as a result of their works but “by the will of him who called them” “according to election.” In this context, Origen responds with “anterior causes,” which God knows and which direct the distribution of fates/destinies in a “just” manner; he thus touches on the theme of sins committed before birth in a way which remains in the realm of allusion and theory. In his later texts when he takes into account the theological meaning of the Epistle to the Romans which cites the example of Jacob and Esau (Rom. 9.10-13 with the citation of Ml 1.2 s.), he no longer speaks of “anterior causes,” but only – so it seems to me – of divine foreknowledge: in the large fragment on Rom. 1.1 preserved in Philokalia XXV, in Chapters 5 and 6 of the treatise On Prayer, and in the Commentary on Rom. 9, he says that “since the moment that infants come to birth” (from before they come thither) God knows the choice they shall make and organizes their fates in correspondance with these choices. “Before birth” may mean not in a previous life (which is no longer the question) but “from the maternal bosom,” as other biblical texts say. Likewise, “before the constitution of the world” (Eph. 1.4) means “since the beginning of this world (ab initio saeculi).” The “causes” that reconcile the inequality of human destinies with the affirmation of God’s “justice” are not in a pre-cosmic pre-existence, but in the foreknowledge, beyond this world, of all the history of men. I wish neither to affirm the disappearance of the thesis of the pre-existence of souls, nor its reconciliation with divine foreknowledge or election; rather, I wish to highlight two types of languag which emphasize different ideas.

1(God created the patriarchs ‘before the creation of the world,” all the souls “were prepared before the constitution of the earth”: 2 Enoch 23, 5 according to the long version[Note 13])