On Preexistence

… measure will be appropriately applied to a material body …

Origen On First Principles, Bk II, 9, 1.

Much has been made of Origen’s “doctrine of the preexistence of souls.” Not infrequently this is connected to a doctrine of reincarnation, or to a doctrine of a fall into bodies. The former allegation has so little ground in any of Origen’s writings that this need not detain us here. The so-called doctrine of the preexistence of souls and their fall from a dis-incarnate state into an incarnate state is a different matter. Origen’s writings have been mined for passages where he seems to teach precisely such a doctrine. Foremost among these passage is fragment 15 from On First Principles. Of which more anon.

In On First Priciples Origen asserts that only the Trinity can exist entirely bodiless. To be a creature is to be embodied whereas the Creator is without any body at all. Origen explicitly states that: “an incorporeal life will rightly be considered a prerogative of the Trinity alone (On First Principles, Bk. II, 2.2.) and statements tot this effect can be found throughout On First Principles. These are two fundamental principles in Origen’s thought. They are absolutely basic. From this fact alone the attribution to Origen of a doctrine where bare souls – souls entirely without bodies – fell from this dis-incarnate state into an incarnate state – souls imprisoned by bodies – is nothing short of ludicrous. And yet precisely such a doctrine has been attributed to Origen throughout the ages by a variety of people. Yet mere repetition of a falsity does not, at long last, make it true.

The only place in Origen’s writings where such a doctrine is to be found is – (in)famously – in On First Principles, fragment 15. How can this be? It is a matter of redaction really. Butterworth and Koetschau have done Origen (and themselves) no favours by simply assuming Origen taught such a doctrine (since everyone who is anyone said so?) and reconstructing from a variety of different (hostile) sources a text which must have belonged in On First Principles teaching precisely this doctrine. This text is known as fragment 15 and is not a text written by Origen but a pastiche from several authors who, in some cases, are not even claiming to quote from Origen but are simply repeating hearsay accusations against him!  In other words: the only text where Origen actually teaches the infamous doctrine of preexistence and fall is a text not actually written by Origen. This is should be very alarming to any reader seeking to understand Origen.

What can we find in On First Principles that was not dubiously reconstructed but written by Origen himself (even if translated by Rufinus)? This post began with a citation from On First Principles. It is the context of that citation that is all important:

Moreover, as Scripture says, God has arranged all things in number and measure; and therefore number will be correctly applied to rational creatures or understandings, that they may be so numerous as to admit of being arranged, governed, and controlled by God. But measure will be appropriately applied to a material body; and this measure, we are to believe, was created by God such as He knew would be sufficient for the adorning of the world. These, then, are the things which we are to believe were created by God in the beginning, i.e., before all things. And this, we think, is indicated even in that beginning which Moses has introduced in terms somewhat ambiguous, when he says, In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. For it is certain that the firmament is not spoken of, nor the dry land, but that heaven and earth from which this present heaven and earth which we now see afterwards borrowed their names.

Origen On First Principles, Bk. II. 9.1.

Origen, quite unambiguously, asserts that rational creatures have been embodied from the beginning. There was never a time that rational creatures (souls) were not in bodies. This squares very well with the basic Origenist doctrines of the incorporeality of the Trinity and the corporeality of creatures. What it does not easily combine with is the doctrine of preexistence and fall mistakenly attributed to Origen. Could it be that Origen never taught such a doctrine? That Justinian – never apparently having read On First Principles – attributed to Origen doctrines he never held? It seems a distinct possibility that the able codifier of laws was enough of an amateur at theology to make such a an error.

But the soul does preexist!

What should be clear at this point is that Origen teaches that only the three members of the Trinity are by nature incorporeal. All creatures are by nature embodied. Yet this does not exclude a doctrine of preexistence. What it does exclude is a doctrine of preexistence where the disembodied souls are embodied because of sin and not by nature. The doctrine attributed to Origen is the doctrine where preexistent souls fall into bodies as a direct consequence of a sin committed in the disembodied state. Why is Origen never accused of teaching mere preexistence?

One reason is perhaps that the bare hypothesis of a pre-existent soul, without the corollary of transmigration or a fall from heaven, was not a heresy. Most Christians who had any view on the origin of the soul believed that it came directly from the hand of God; even after Origen it was safe for a catholic Christian to infer that it had enjoyed an instantaneous existence before its junction with the body that had been cast for it on the wheel of generation. Modern scholars generally acquit the young Augustine of the Platonism that Robert O’Connel claimed to detect in his theory of the soul; nevertheless in an early work he spoke of the return of the soul to its birthplace in the heavens. While he deprecates the word ‘return’ in his Retractations, he assures the reader that even in his infancy as a Christian he had not meant to embrace the platonic doctrine, and that Christians of authority before him had asserted that the soul issues from heaven.

Mark J. Edwards, Origen against Plato, p. 90.

Indeed. A doctrine of preexistence as such is not contrary to an orthodox and catholic view. The doctrine of preexistence as it is condemned is combined with either reincarnation (transmigration) or with a fall from heaven. This is not found in Origen’s writings. The adoption of Justinian’s Anathemas into the text of On First Principles (Butterworth) is as questionable as is the suggested reconstruction of fragment 15.

Does the soul preexist? Yes in the sense that the soul is given from the hand of God and united to the body God created for it. No in the sense that disembodiment is not the soul’s natural condition, nor is there any form of reincarnation, nor is there any idea that the body is a prison into which the soul has fallen due to a sin committed in heaven. Souls and bodies go together. They are naturally united by God’s creational intent.

Double creation?

What of Origen’s teaching of a double creation? Within the parameters as found in On First Principles we will have to make sense of it by keeping in mind that:

  1. only the Trinity exists without any embodiment
  2. to be a creature is to be embodied
  3. creatures have been embodied from the beginning
  4. there was in fact a fall from one state to another

That leaves us with only one option. The creatures that Origen says fell from one state into another must have already been embodied from before they fell. The fall can be said to have transformed the bodies of the creatures it cannot be said to be the cause of the bodies of creatures. The transformation of those bodies was certainly for the worse and different souls find themselves in different bodies based on the degree of their fall. The glorious bodies from before the fall have become mortal, fleshly, bodies. It is also these mortal, fleshly, bodies that will become glorious bodies in the resurrection and these endure forever.

But where did Origen get the idea that there was a double creation? Are his detractors correct in accusing Origen of allegorizing away the literal meaning of Scripture? No. Not necessarily. Any reader who would be so inclined can pick up a modern commentary on Genesis and find a simple statement of fact: Genesis 1 and 2 are two not one and the same creation story. Origen, careful reader of Scripture that he is, notices that Genesis 1 and 2 are in fact two stories of creation and therefore concludes that – in a sense – man was created twice! So he naturally takes the first story of man’s creation to concern the inner man and the second story as relating the creation of the outer man: the body. Genesis 1 and 2 are not separated by sin. Origen, therefore, does not even hint that the inner man (soul) and the outer man (body) are united as a consequence of sin. Inner and outer man are a natural unity to him. It is because there are two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 that Origen presumes a double creation. If anything, Origen, read Scripture too literally!

Perhaps there should be more actual reading of Origen and less gossiping about Origen and his presumed teaching. To know his teaching we had best let him teach us.

Fr. Gregory Wassen