Reading “Contra Celsum”

Origen (in)famously wrote “On First Principles” but the text is not extant except in translation (though parts of it are preserved in Greek in the “Philacolia of Origen”). Rufinus is often said to have rendered Origen’s “On First Principles” more orthodox than it really was, whereas Jerome (and others) seem often to have rendered Origen much more heterodox (even heretical) than it really was. It has also been argued that “On First Principles” is a work of Origen’s youth and that in the works of his maturity – such as “Contra Celsum” – some of his theological thought had shifted away from what it had been in “On First Principles.” It is the opinion of the author of this blog that “On First Principles” is nonetheless a reliable text to enter into Origen’s world of thought, and that Rufinus’ rendering is in fact the most reliable for that purpose. In order to avoid some of the problems listed above one can enter the thought world of Origen via his “Contra Celsum” where we have Origen’s thoughts expressed in his own words rather than the translations which are always renderings of Origen’s thoughts in other people’s words. One problem for me continues to exist: I am unable to read Origen in Greek or in Latin translation and must therefore rely on modern English translations of him. As I proceed to read the “English Origen” this important handicap must be kept in mind so that as I journey in the great Alexandrian’s world of thought it is really Origen’s world of thought entered into but through a back door as it were rather than the front door of Origen’s own Greek.

The Preface

As soon as we start reading Origen’s “Contra Celsum” we are confronted with the fact that Origen’s idea of apologetics is very different from what we might expect. We might expect that an intellectual attack on Christianity is best answered by an intellectual rebuttal. Not for Origen. In fact to Origen a mere intellectual attack could never dissuade a genuine Christian from his or her faith. To find a true rebuttal Origen turns to the example of Jesus Christ who remained silent in the face of the accusations hurled at Him at His trial shortly before His crucifixion. Jesus’ silence is the most effective apologetic because it allows the facts of His life to speak even more loudly and clearly.

It might well cause amazement among those with moderate intellectual powers that a man who was accused falsely did not defend himself and prove himself not guilty of any of the charges, although he could have done so by expatiating on the fine quality of his life and showing that his miracles were done by God, to give the judge an opportunity of giving his case a more favourable judgment.

Origen, Contra Celsum, Pref. 2., p. 3.

For Origen to provide a rebuttal in words to Celsus’ distortions of Christian Faith could possibly detract from the most powerful rebuttal of Celsus’ falsehoods as provided by the silence of true Christians. For their silence provides the most powerful way for Jesus Christ to speak:

Now Jesus is always being falsely accused, and there is never a time when he is not being accused so long as there is evil among men. He is still silent in the face of this and does not answer with his voice; but he makes his defence in the lives of his genuine disciples, for their lives cry out the real facts and defeat all false charges, refuting and overthrowing the slanders and accusations.

Origen, Contra Celus, Pref. 2., p. 4.

The false accusations are mere words not facts. The real facts are the lives of genuine Christians in the fine quality of their lives which is in fact Jesus Christ living in and through them. As Origen points out elsewhere (Comm. on Rm.) our being made righteous happens by Jesus Christ (who IS righteousness) uniting us to Himself and in that sense living in us. There is no more powerful rebuttal of false words than the facts of Christian lives manifesting forth Jesus living in and through them.

Yet because Origen received a request to provide a rebuttal in words to Celsus’ false accusations, he is willing to entertain the possibility of weak and immature Christians being confused and thrown into turmoil by reading or hearing Celsus’ false accusations. Though he, Origen himself, cannot imagine a more powerful rebuttal than living a life united with Jesus Christ, he is still willing to write a rebuttal in mere words so that the weak do not lose whatever measure of faith they do have:

This book is not written at all for true Christians, but either for those entirely without experience of faith in Christ, or for those whom the Apostle calls ‘weak in faith’; for he says this: ‘Him that is weak in faith receive ye.’

Oigen, Contra Celsum, Pref. 6., p. 6.

Experience of faith in Christ does not refer to the emotions I may or may not be able to conjure up when I read my Bible or think of Jesus. Experience in faith refers to a whole life lived in Christ which presumes the Body of Christ – the Church. Jesus Christ is objectively available in the Sacraments and the reading of Scripture in the Church is likewise sacramental. Private devotions flow forth from the ‘experience of Christ objectively’ not the other way around. Our emotions are not of primary importance here, they are to follow the objective facts of Christ in us. Feeling, no matter how strongly, accepted or loved by Jesus is a result of being united with Him in the Sacraments. The Sacraments establish Jesus’ objective presence in our lives, our feelings do not. Good feelings, if they occur, are a consequence of the objective presence of Jesus Christ. In Origenian spirituality it is not the outward things – which is what emotions and spoken words are – which speak most powerfully of the truth but rather “the real facts” of a life lived in and with Christ.

Gregory Wassen +