Friday, October 9, 2020

Origen, Arius, and Unitarian Universalism

Arius and Origen are probably more appropriate for modern-day Unitarian Universalists to identify with than they were for the Unitarians and Universalist of the 18th and 19th centuries. The trinitarianism of Arius and the universal redemption of Origen don’t fit well with the historic theologies of Unitarians and Universalists in the United States, but their heterodoxy certainly would find a welcome place in UU congregations today. Still, contemporary Unitarian Universalist congregations might not be as interested in this type of theology as anything other than a historic curiosity. The thing is, the views of Arius and Origen suffered the development of what became 'orthodox' Christianity.

“Theology takes a long time to develop, and once it does, earlier views, even intelligently expressed ones, can appear unrefined and even primitive.” (Ehrman, 2014)

When it comes to the theology of the early church, what was orthodoxy for one generation could easily be condemned as heretical in the next. Justin Martyr, for example, has long been claimed as a champion of orthodox theology, even though by a strict application of later developments his perspective was sorely lacking, not even incorporating the Holy Spirit into his descriptions of the Godhead. The weaknesses of his more rudimentary theology were likely overlooked by following generations of theologians because of his status as a hero of the faith. Neither Origen or Arius received this benefit of the doubt.

“Origen delved into theological areas that had not yet been examined by any of his predecessors in the faith, and as a result he came up with many distinctive and highly influential ideas. Later theologians questioned his orthodoxy, and he was faulted for developing ideas that subsequently led to … the Arian controversy. But he was working in virgin territory.” (Ehrman, 2014)

This is the risk of breaking into 'virgin territory' for a theologian. While it can be satisfying to sort through big questions that no one has yet addressed, there’s also no guarantee that one’s perspective will ultimately win the day. In the early church there were multiple different theologies in circulation, and the canonical New Testament was only really defined in the 300s. In that environment, there was never a guarantee that what we now know as Nicene Christianity would end up being the established orthodoxy for the church. 

Speaking of scripture, consider how Origen interpreted holy writ.

“Allusions to this are found also in the holy scriptures. For instance, in Deuteronomy the divine word threatens that sinners are to be punished with ‘fevers and cold and pallor,’ and tortured with ‘feebleness of eyes and insanity and paralysis and blindness and weakness of the reins’ (cf. Dt 28:22, 29). And so if anyone will gather at his leisure from the whole of scripture all the references to sufferings which in threats against sinners are called by the names of bodily sicknesses, he will find that through them allusion is being made to either the ills or the punishment of souls.” (McKanan, 2017)

It would be very difficult to find a contemporary evangelical theologian or preacher who would go out on a limb with such an application. The grammatical-historical approach in current use requires that the original meaning, intent, audience, and context of scripture has to be taken into consideration before anything else. Origen, like others of his time, had a more Hellenistic, philosophical approach to the Bible. Origen specifically held to an allegorical interpretation of the scriptures, in which he divided it into three levels: flesh, soul, and spirit. The fleshly level was that which took the text more literally as history and commandments. Origen believed that this level could produce only nonsense interpretations, and that the only way to understand scripture was allegorical. Although the specifics of this approach were very much those of Origen, that are not without precedent. In the Second Temple Period, when the writers of the canonical New Testament lived, it was common to interpret Scripture using midrash.

“What has been a recurring problem, however, for many Christians is how the New Testament authors themselves handled the Old Testament. This phenomenon is somewhat troubling, for it seems to run counter to the instinct that context and authorial intention are the basis for sound interpretation.” (Enns, 2005)

Reading the New Testament we can end up with the same sort of head-scratching interpretations that we find in Origen and others of his time.

“Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, ‘Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.’ Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.’ So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.” — Galatians 4:21-31 NRSV

Had I ever submitted a paper exegeting scripture like that when I was studying for my BMin, I would have gotten an F and probably been referred for counseling. And yet, the reasoning in that passage made sense both to the writer and their readers at that time, because this is how their interpretive framework functioned.

“Still, we have a broad but accurate sketch of Second Temple interpretation in both the exegetical techniques they employed and the interpretive traditions they adopted. These biblical interpreters exhibit for us an attitude toward biblical interpretation that operates on very different standards from those of modern interpreters. They were not motivated to reproduce the intention of the original human author. They were much more concerned to dig beneath the surface to reveal things (“mysteries” as the Qumran scrolls put it) that the untrained an impatient reader would miss.” (Enns, 2005)

Even taking into account the looser interpretive model he was working with, Origen really goes out on a limb even for his time in his “One First Principles” with affirmations like this one:

“We must not think, however, that it will happen all of a sudden, but gradually and by degrees, during the lapse of infinite and immeasurable ages, seeing that the improvement and correction will be realized slowly and separately in each individual person.” (McKanan, 2017)

How he managed to come up with this is beyond me, as I don’t find anything directly like it in the Hebrew Scriptures or the canonical New Testament. Then again, Origen was operative in the 200s of the Common Era, prior to the New Testament canon being defined. Perhaps he drew from other sources. As we’ve seen, though, he could well have been using familiar texts in ways we would now find quite unusual. In any event, his view on progressive progression of souls through the ages solves the problem of history being interrupted as Pauline theology would have it with a bodily resurrection, new heavens and new earth. At the same time, it would be part of what got his work condemned decades later.

Speaking of condemnation, we also have Arius to consider.

“Arius’s interpretation was one that may well have been acceptable in the theological climate of orthodox Christianity during the century or so before his day, but by the early fourth century proved to be highly controversial.” (Ehrman, 2014)

Arius didn’t have the benefit of writing at a time when trinitarianism was more vaguely defined. His perspective, although definitely a type of trinitarianism, ran counter to the favored interpretations of his age.

“Or rather there is a Trinity with glories not alike; their existences are unmixable with one another; one is more glorious than another by an infinity of glories.” (McKanan, 2017)

In just this one tiny snippet from his “Thalia” we can see a monumental problem for what would become orthodox trinitarianism. While the part about the divine persons being ‘unmixable’ would be acceptable, they could not be described as any being greater than or less than the others. Certainly he saw the Son as subordinate to the Father, not just in role but in nature, and so I assume he had the Holy Spirit at the bottom rung of that ladder. In that one element of Arius’ thought I have all the explanation I need for why his teachings were declared heretical.

As I said at the outset, I don’t think that the specifics of the theologies of either Origen or Arius could have received general acceptance among Universalists and Unitarians of earlier generations in the United States. However, it makes sense to me that advocates of these faiths would have identified with Origen and Arius in order to obtain a sheen of legitimacy from their antiquity. As for now, I feel like what Origen wrote is something I might hear from a visitor at coffee hour, and the theology of Arius the topic of a study group. Either would be welcome, but neither would really represent Unitarian Universalism. Those two certainly seem like they'd fit in with our merry band of heretics, though.


New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ehrman, B. D. (2014). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Harpercollins.

Enns, P. (2005). Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism Vol. 1: From the Beginning to 1899. Skinner House Books.