Guilty of Genius

Origen and the Theory of Transmigration

by Panayiotis Tzamalikos 


This book is a step beyond the analyses made in my Anaxagoras, Origen and Neoplatonism, using some fundamental conclusions built therein, which confute current and long-established fallacies. I have struggled to demonstrate that not only was Origen an anti-Platonist, but also all of the accusations on which his official condemnation was based were fanciful and rancorous allegations by the well-known perennial species of certain theologians of all eras. Since 1986, when my PhD at Glasgow University was complete, my claim has been that Origen was an anti-Platonist in many respects, which appeared as tantamount to arguing that the earth is flat. For I argued that ‘beginningless creation’ is a tomfoolery laid at the door of Origen; that he maintained creation out of nothing; that the Stoic and Aristotelian axioms and phraseology in him are too striking to ignore; and that he had a clear Eschatology, which I expounded in detail. One just should imagine what would have happened, if in the ‘synod’ convened at Justinian’s behest in 553, theologians such as the three Cappadocians and Athanasius were present and they had been requested to anathematise Origen, given their distinctive loans from, and respect for, their illustrious predecessor. That is, theologians who in Origen’s genius saw the future, and opted for acknowledging rather than denying their own intellectual history. The Nicene formula was meant and ←ix | x→supposed to determine and embrace the future; but Athanasius informed that it also acknowledged the past and was entwined with that.

Plato took up the theory of transmigration of souls from Egypt (just as Pythagoras, and then Empedocles had done), but hardly did he assimilate the knowledge he amassed therefrom. For example, he claimed that sinful action causes man’s soul to transmigrate and ‘fall’ to that of a woman, then to a bird, then to a fish, and finally to an oyster. However, he never explained what is the kind of ‘sin’ that a bird could possibly perpetrate so as to incur becoming a fish, or how could a fish possibly ‘sin’ so as to ‘transmigrate’ to an oyster.1

Part of the persistent allegation that Origen was a Platonist is the banality that he maintained the theory of transmigration. This fallacy populates hundreds of ‘works’ that parrot the ancient verdict, but I have always declined to dignify such balderdash with references – except for a few cases. For example, Henri Crouzel alleged that Origen ‘succumbed to Plato’s pre-existent soul’ and the ‘theory of pre-existence … is a hypothesis’ ‘that comes from Platonism’, which is ‘the most vulnerable part of Origen’s thought’. And Marguerite Harl harped on the same string: to Origen’s theology, ‘the doctrine of pre-existence of souls is absolutely central’ (‘tout à fait central’). But she brought only a knife to a gunfight, since she simply parroted the sixth-century allegation imposed on a ‘synod’ of poltroons by a rough-cut barbarian, namely, Justinian.

However, what was ‘most vulnerable’ is the ken of those scholars rather than Origen’s perspicacity and fecundity of ideas. For that reason, those who keep abiding by such ancient and modern fatuities will be in for a surprise out of this book. Origen himself had given fair warning that his theory of soul was ‘superior to Plato’s one’ which preached that ‘the soul which has lost its wings roams about until it gets hold of something solid, when it settles down, taking upon itself an earthly body’ (Cels, IV.40; Plato, Phaedrus, 246c). Furthermore, in reference to his own theory, notably, concerning ‘the essence and beginnings of the soul’, he caveated once again that his own theory of soul ‘had nothing to do with Plato’s transmigration’ since that was ‘a more sublime theory’ (Cels, IV.17). In both cases, he cared to apprise his readers of the superiority of his own theory over that of Plato’s (Cels, IV.17: κατ’ ἄλλην τινὰ ὑψηλοτέραν θεωρίαν. Cels, IV.40: μυστικὸν ἔχει λόγον, ὑπὲρ τὴν κατὰ Πλάτωνα κάθοδον τῆς ψυχῆς).

Of these warning notifications the modern supposedly ‘authoritative’ scholars made absolutely nothing. Things could have not gone otherwise, since those ←x | xi→were theologians that had no idea of philosophy, and it was impossible for them to make out what Origen meant when he dropped a hint about his own theory.

Consequently, what this ‘more sublime theory’ was about is an issue that theologians always dodged and apprehensively sidestepped. Given ineptness to comprehend Origen’s theory, it was deemed more convenient to speak about ‘pre-existence of souls’ being ‘absolutely central to Origen’s theory’, which was postulated as his alleged weakness for that matter. In other words, all those scholars were out of their depth and unqualified to make hair or tail out of Origen’s own caveating statements banning transmigration. It turned out that they were only able to ruminate on the basis of ‘a lesson on Platonism for beginners’, and the ancient myth about the ‘Platonist Origen’ was all they were capable of making out.

Of course, never did Origen have in mind any fanciful ‘primal population of souls or minds’, nor did he ever maintain any incorporeal and yet independent individual entities hovering around from place to place. For an accomplished a philosopher as he was, he knew the fundamentals about the notion of incorporeal, wherefore spatial transition is interwoven with material existence – an elementary axiom that Porphyry copied from him to the letter, as demonstrated in Chapter 2.

However, this logically errant (indeed schizophrenic) mythology is what the uninformed have been claiming about Origen since the sixth century, although Gregory of Nyssa (and Maximus Confessor, to some extent) took up Origen theory of generation to the letter, as I have discussed in detail in the past.

All of this nonsense persistently laid at Origen’s door is but the measles of Origenian studies – only this infantile disease has lasted for far too many centuries, and has been eternised by fake ‘authorities’.

Following my study of Origen over a span of decades, I have come to be convinced that the ‘work’ of the aforementioned scholars and their like is but sheer detriment to Origen’s thought, and, from bad to worse, the scholars that have been misled by those ‘works’ are legion.

Not long ago, someone from the Midwestern United States who poses as ‘Origen scholar’, reviewing a book of mine ridiculously wrote, ‘I am not certain that Origen held that the minds or souls are truly incorporeal … everything (except God) has some kind of materiality, even souls or minds’. This person had absolutely no idea of Origen’s Aristotelian point of departure, namely, that no incorporeal can exist apart from a body – although a soul per se is incorporeal for that matter. Origen’s Aristotelian logic makes an indelible mark throughout his works, notably, that, to Aristotle, it is the First Immovable Mover alone that exists as sheer incorporeal; to Origen, it is the Trinitarian God alone that exists as sheer incorporeal, too. Nevertheless, Aristotle posited the soul (as indeed any ←xi | xii→thing’s εἶδος) as incorporeal, and Origen conveniently spoke of the soul being incorporeal at legion of points. To take those axioms as inconsistent would only take arrant ignorance and mental darkness.

Rufinus at points translated ‘minds or souls’, only because he had no inkling of Origen’s real thought. Nevertheless, as clumsy as Rufinus’ Latin translation is, at points he could not help rendering Origen’s theory concerning God’s object of creation as initia, causas, rationes, semina, which were but Origen’s terms, ἀρχαί, αἰτίαι, λόγοι, σπέρματα. Anyway, I have always argued that the Latin De Principiis should not be used as a primal source; instead, this should be used and explained in light of Origen’s extant works in Greek.

Besides, recently, a minor American scholar and unfortunately Origen’s translator, who unremittingly made Origen a ‘Platonist’ that allegedly maintained a primeval ‘world’ of ‘souls’, or of ‘intellects’, or of ‘souls or intellects’, and certainly ‘pre-existence of souls’, began to have suspicions about the soundness of such a folly, and suddenly ‘discovered’ my books and the unsettling theses I have been expounding and arguing for since 1986. However, he did so in a mood struggling to deny facts, then to deny that he denied them, and eventually to allege that he made a point although no hide or hair of this could be found, since, concerning all of the cardinal points, he remained at a loss.

Consequently, from some moment onwards, I felt that it was not possible for me to read that blowhard brag any longer. This is why the present book has been written, and I am delighted that I worked together with the open-minded and highly erudite Editor Dr. Philip Dunshea, whom I sincerely thank. No less am I grateful to the Production Manager, Jackie Pavlovic, for her unfailing help and patience throughout the process of transforming manuscript to a book.

Of course, and since old habits die hard, I have not any illusions that entrenched convictions could be eradicated easily, no matter what the evidence I adduce.

In view of such a quality of ‘scholarship’, along with other instances of human behaviour that I have experienced, I realised that I had enough of raised eyebrows, which for too long have harped on distortions of Origen’s thought under the cover of prouptuous ignorance, or condescendence stemming from the illusion of a fantasised ‘authority’, or the smiling complacent cynicism of vacuous wry humour, sardonic supercilious sniffiness, or claptrap struggling to save the remnants of an imperious snootiness which is risible rather than disturbing. Nor indeed do I care lest my demolition of the hedonistic cradlesong about ‘a pre-existent world of intellects or souls’ would shock the brazen flouters of Origen’s true thought and spirit.←xii | xiii→

It is high time we forgot about euphemisms and sought catharsis from the theatricality of braggart imposture and the concomitant high-and-mighty autolatry and lordolatry of some well-known pooh-bahs. It is high time for the rambling bloated windbags of both braggart ‘famous’ and petty academia to evanesce and come to terms with their true stature. For quest for the truth is not a matter of niceties, especially opposite braggadocios and swelled supercilious heads: it is a laborious unyielding struggle in order to eliminate contortion, no matter whether this is owing to the ancient bigotry and subjugation to the imperial caesaropapism, or modern arrant ignorance of philosophy, the field that played a pivotal role in Origen’s formulations. For if per impossibile were it allowed that philosophy and true theology are different fields (qua non), the case would be definitely that, first and foremost, Origen was a philosopher.

As a matter of fact, he was a philosopher par excellence, who had been hailed by eminent Greeks (such as Porphyry and Proclus) for his erudition and justified renown. But it was Origen himself who wrote that ‘in philosophy, there are many ones who are fake’ (πολλοὶ ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ νόθοι). It is this kind of self-appointed modern spurious ‘philosophers’ and ‘theologians’ that simply parrot the claims of spiteful prelates of the Late Antiquity and Byzantium, who crassly strove to present Origen’s ingenious analyses and exposition as ignominious failure, such as the allegation that he was a ‘Platonist’, which modern ignorance turned to the asinine ‘Christian Platonist’, so that ‘the last deception should be worse than the first’.

What if Origen dismissed the Platonic Ideas as figments fantasised by human mind? What if Origen postulated the final abolition of Evil and eschatological Universal Restoration (let alone creation ex nihilo and a Philosophy of History – both of which were theories all too alien to Plato), contrary to Plato who had declared that ‘it is impossible for evils ever to be done away with’? (Theaetetus, 176a). Whereas to Plato souls themselves were a primary beginningless reality and could exist in themselves as incorporeal ones, to Origen these were but subsequent fallen dilapidated products, which could not exist apart from bodies – only because Origen dismissed Plato’s anthropological duality body/soul, and maintained that human being is a tripartite entity comprising body/soul/mind or nous, and embraced Aristotle’s theory of the ‘mind that comes from without’ (θύραθεν νοῦς) along with the Aristotelian (in fact, Anaxagorean) axiom that nothing except God can exist in incorporeal form and apart from a body. To both Aristotle and Origen, the soul is certainly incorporeal, but there is no soul existing per se as an incorporeal personal entity apart from an appurtenant body. Origen (just like Aristotle) maintained that, although a soul per se is certainly ←xiii | xiv→incorporeal, there is no way for this to be a self-existent being: to Aristotle, the soul is always associated with a body, and the only self-existent incorporeal being is the First Immovable Mover. Likewise, to Origen, the only self-existent incorporeal being is the Trinity; rational creatures are always endowed with bodies of different kinds (i.e. of different stuff and form). Accordingly, a human being comprises ‘body / soul / mind’, but the ‘mind’ ‘comes from without’ (θύραθεν νοῦς), which is a distinctive loan, apparently from Aristotle, but ultimately from Anaxagoras. To Origen, this ‘outside’ is God (for which he appealed to Ecclesiastes, 12:7), notably, the created Body of Logos.

What could possibly be more un-Platonic than this?

Moreover, Plato expelled Homer from his ideal State (Respublica, 387b; cf. 334a; 377d; 378d; 379c–d; 606–607; etc.), which Origen recalled in Contra Celsum, VII.54. Contrast to this, Origen cared to make a decision of his own without being swayed by Plato’s opinion: thus, while still a pagan philosopher, ‘he kept shouting and blushing and very much sweated for a good three days in order to determine whether Homer’s poetry sufficed to induce to virtuous action’. Finally, he decided that it did. Proclus reported this by reproducing Porphyry’s narrative (both of these, in their commentaries on Timaeus), but what matters is also the vocabulary: the ‘pagan’ Origen decided that no one’s speech is more lofty (τίς γὰρ Ὁμήρου μεγαλοφωνότερος;), whereas the ‘Christian’ Origen wrote that ‘there are many things in Homer which are full of loftiness of mind’ (μεγαλονοίας πεπληρωμένα, Contra Celsum, VI.7). Of course, the ‘pagan’ and the ‘Christian’ Origen were but the selfsame person, who believed that ‘Homer was an admirable poet’ (ὁ ἐν ποιήσει θαυμαστὸς Ὅμηρος, Contra Celsum, IV.91 & Philocalia, 20.18); actually, ‘Homer was the best of all poets’ (ὁ τῶν ποιητῶν ἄριστος, Contra Celsum, VII.6).

One more point attesting to the tender philosophical relationship between Porphyry and Origen comes from Gennadius Scholarius seeking to determine whether ‘ousia’ is a common genus of both corporeals and incorporeals. Actually, Gennadius did not engage in too much of reasoning; instead, he wrote, ‘I am going to say this without argument: as Porphyry believes, the first classification of ousia is that between the corporeal and the incorporeal.’2 Origen had determined that the incorporeality of the Deity and that of incorporeal things of the world ←xiv | xv→(such as notions, theorems, etc.) do not belong to the same ontological order.3 On the other hand, although both corporeal and incorporeal things of the world do belong to the same ontological status, this incorporeality is determined by them both being created. This creaturliness is the element which places both of these in the same ontological rank. Scholarius explained this to somewhat more extent, without really deviating from Porphyry: whereas corporeal and incorporeal substances belong to the same logical genus, they do not belong to the same natural genus. But this was exactly the classification Origen had made by speaking of ‘corporeals, incorporeals, and the Holy Trinity’.4

Furthermore, Origen’s theory of knowledge was sheer different from the Platonic one. True knowledge is not any sort of mythological ‘recollection’ (ἀνάμνησις) by the soul recalling the state of its pure pre-existence contemplating the Good in the realm of Ideas.5 Instead, knowledge (especially in its most sublime form, i.e. theology) is granted by God the Logos, in a context of a personal relationship with any individual man, and as a dynamic process.

Unless I learn by You, I cannot learn by any man. For whom other than God behoves teaching about God? Therefore, revelation comes from on high, following willingness accompanied by merit.6

On this, Origen reflects in Stoic terms: the soul reaches its fullness and maturity gradually. To those who struggle to discover Platonism in Origen, it should be said that nowhere does he consider the soul as something that knows everything on account of its previous incorporeal life, and now is in need of ‘recollecting’ what it ‘forgot’ following its association with matter. There is no idea of, not even hint to, ‘recollection’ (ἀνάμνησις). His logic is clearly Stoic, including his notion is ‘completion of logos’ (συμπλήρωσις τοῦ λόγου), but there were differences as to the exact age at which the ‘completion of logos’ takes place, as discussed in previous works of mine. Nevertheless, what matters is the idea, namely, one’s rationality is pervious of improvement and becomes perfect by means of diligent and devout practice. This is precisely what Origen held. To him, there is no notion of the souls recollecting any previous life, and no author did ever make more of that ←xv | xvi→Stoic idea.7 This is why, in him, also the Stoic idea of ‘progress’ (προκοπή) is abundantly present: this progress has not only a moral character, but also a cognitive one. The soul explores and learns: it does not strive to ‘recollect’ any pre-existing knowledge.8 Hence, adhering to reason does not suggest ‘recollection’, far less subjection to any assumed part of the soul, but obeying to and being guided by something external9 (namely, the Reason / Logos), which grants humans their nous or pneuma as part of their constitution.10

I believe that one of the many respects of which Origen’s thought is unique is this: since I have argued that his thought constitutes a separate chapter of its own in the history of Philosophy, I subsequently have been convinced that if an assessment and accurate rendering of his ideas have chances of being correct, this task should be carried out by philosophers well-informed in Christian theology, not by Christian theologians having some encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy.

Besides, Greek philosophers of all eras, as well as Aristotle’s commentators, will be discussed abundantly, all the more so since the Commentators have come to be taken as a field liable to ‘specialism’ by scholars being spellbound by only one or a few of them while ignoring all the others.

Since 1986, I have been at odds with virtually the totality of those who are usually called ‘Origen scholars’, bar, of course, the brilliant Mark Edwards (not incidentally, also a trained philosopher) and the insightful John Behr. For all of them fantasised an ‘Origen’ of their own reverie, who supposedly posited a primeval population of independent ‘incorporeal intellects’ somehow roaming about or around God. How those ‘incorporeal beings’ were called is highly indicative of the pertinent bemusement. Some scholars fancied this primal reality as ‘a population of individual souls’. Consequently, when Gregory of Nyssa spoke of ‘scholars of old who treated the question of the first principles’ and they postulated ‘a sort of population of pre-existent souls living in their own realm, in which the Paradigms of both virtue and evil exist’, Origen’s detractors were cheerfully quick to triumphantly sing out ‘I got you!’ Actually, the gauche Justinian was ←xvi | xvii→happy to take up this statement of Gregory (otherwise, always a suspect of heresy, namely, ‘Origenism’) in his Edict Against Origen, and naturally, his ‘synod’ promptly endorsed this officially and condemned Origen.

What if Origen himself styled transmigration ‘folly’ (μωρία), ‘myth’ (μυθικὴν μετενσωμάτωσιν or μῦθον), ‘false teaching’ (ψευδῆ λόγον, ψευδοδοξίαν), ‘a doctrine which is alien to the Church of God’ (ἀλλότριον τῆς ἐκκλησίας τοῦ θεοῦ περὶ τῆς μετενσωματώσεως δόγμα)?

What if he referred to those who ‘maintain’ or ‘introduce’ the ‘myth of transmigration’ as naïve ones, who ‘have been afflicted by the inanity (ἄνοια) of this absurdity’?

What if Gregory of Nyssa cogently took up and accounted for Origen’s theory of generation, that is, the Theory of Logoi, which I have demonstrated by means of detailed accounts?

What if Origen at scores of points emphasised that ‘soul’ is not a primal reality, but a subsequent (indeed fallen) one, which has to overcome and transform itself and cease to be soul?

What if Origen wrote extensively in order to inform his audience that ‘mind’ (νοῦς), on the one hand, and ‘soul’ (ψυχή), on the other, are two ontologically different realities?

What if he made it an integral part of his thought that ‘evil did not exist in the beginning, nor is this destined to survive at the end’, hence, ‘Restoration pertains to neither soul nor body, but to mind / spirit alone’?

What if Eusebius rebutting Marcellus’ obloquy against Origen exclaimed, ‘what has Origen to do with Plato?’

Origen’s detractors have always remained recalcitrant and unflinching in their aplomb: Gregory had Origen in mind!

Thus, they formed cliques, which are never prone to dispute one another. A member of them kept arguing that Origen maintained a ‘beginningless creation’. Another took a fancy to the absurdity of souls constituting ‘a primeval world’. Another thought that there was an initial creation of ‘living personal incorporeal intellects’, which ‘fell’ and became ‘souls’ – actually, those of his lot were happy to lay at Origen’s door the (rare) pagan etymology which urged that, to Origen, ‘soul’ (ψυχή) is so called because it came to be ‘cooled’ (ἐψύχη) because it sinned. There is also a third group: those supposed-to-be ‘scholars’ who, while having no inkling of the sordid sixth-century details, spoke of Origen allegedly maintaining ‘souls or intellects’, sometimes as the object of the initial creation and sometimes as a beginningless primal reality. Why then should we bother about trifles such ←xvii | xviii→as a possible difference between ‘souls’ and ‘intellects’? After all, here is Justinian and here is his ‘synod’ that thought exactly the same way.

From this point to arguing that Origen maintained ‘transmigration of souls’ appeared all too small a step to take.

Now, if Origen was fully conscious of patently true and inescapable fundamental ‘details’, such as that any incorporeal cannot occupy a certain space or volume, but this is everywhere; or that counting independent incorporeals is impossible, since individuality is inexorably linked with materiality – this was but ‘minutiae’ that his unfortunate ‘audience’ were all but suspicious of. However, these and suchlike incommoding ‘details’ had been pointed out by Aristotle, whose philosophy (via Alexander of Aphrodisias) Origen made abundant use of.

The shenanigan about Origen maintaining (depending on each scholar’s favourite lullaby) a primeval ‘world of souls’ or of ‘intellects’, or (which is worse) of ‘souls or intellects’, or ‘pre-existence of souls’, hopefully now will receive a proper reply once and for all – all the more so since all of this humdrum is but prolix allegations by people who have no philosophical background, let alone basic philosophical training, so as to be able to recognise what underlies Origen’s legion of indomitable formulations. To my experience, once I set out to eradicate entrenched fatuities root and branch already since my Glasgow PhD thesis, I knew full well that this would earn me enemies who were loath to accept (hence, they have been in for a surprise) that their ‘works’ on Origen were hopeless and bootless stuff. But I am not writing to please cliques; I am researching in order to discover and expound the truth about the real Origen.

Concerning the specific topic of the present book, Origen had caveated that such matters were impossible to treat unless a clear theory about the soul and the principles that determine its generation had been laid down and properly grasped in the first place. But this has never happened to date, until I wrote a couple of thousand pages in my book on Anaxagoras and Origen.

Grasping Origen’s real thought is a proposition far tougher than it has been thought to be, not only because of his ingenious and creative constructions, but also because of his vast heathen background, which is present throughout his work and imbues thoroughly it, even though he allowed this to make some explicit mark only in the Contra Celsum. To believe that it is possible to understand, let alone render, his real thought without consummate knowledge of that background is simply delusion – a delusion though which has played a fatal role in the present deplorable state of Origenian studies.

This is why the structure of the present book is determined by a series of methodical steps, which are indispensable for understanding both Origen’s ←xviii | xix→theory and the reasons why he declared that this theory was sheer different from Plato’s one.

Part of the aim of the Introduction to this volume is to bring to light the representations of Origen by detractors, such as Epiphanius of Salamis and Antipater of Bostra (both of whom were gladly yet uncritically quoted by John of Damascus, indeed views that Justinian simply parroted), as well as by present day scholars, who unfortunately have been taken seriously and fatally misled modern scholarship. I should, therefore, say a few words about the logical train of my exposition and its intrinsic permeating line, which both of peer-reviewers of this book were as erudite as to point out themselves, but perhaps this should be helpful to others.

Chapter 1 builds on my previous book on Anaxagoras in relation to Origen’s concept of the soul: I demonstrate that this is impossible to grasp unless seen from the philosophical perspective (e.g. his understanding of the nature of the soul, mind, etc.), wherefore, one cannot speak about what Origen ‘believed’ while lacking knowledge of ancient philosophy, as well as the marks this made on the Patristic and Byzantine tradition, and on the contemporary philosophical tradition nonetheless.

Chapter 2 explores the notion of ‘incorporeal’, which could have been unnecessary had scholars consistently ruminated on this – but they did not, which is why Porphyry wrote a brilliant series of pithy propositions so that his contemporary and later intellectuals should come to their senses concerning this issue.

Chapter 3 discusses the issue of identity, which has suffered enormously nonetheless.

Chapter 4 is about how new souls are generated, a topic which hinges on Origen’s theory of generation, therefore, on his theory of the Body of the Logos and of the logoi as generative, cohesive, and dissolving causes, which produce, maintain, and transform all aspects of reality.

Chapter 5 ponders on how did Origen understand the notion of causality in relation to souls and human identity, and how do these function ontologically rather than temporally. The point is that Origen maintained a notion of antecedent worlds and antecedent causes, but he flatly rejected any notion of pre-existent souls.

Chapter 6 is about how a soul is related to the body.

Given that Origen dismissed the Platonic duality body/soul, and maintained the Aristotelian body/soul/mind or nous, Chapter 7 considers the notion of soul as ‘priest’ serving the mind. This analysis is called for since what scholars, such as H. Crouzel and M. Simonetti, read in De Principiis was that ‘the mind is the ←xix | xx→superior part of the soul’[!] (v. 2, p. 202: ‘C’est-à-dire, νοῦς, mens, intelligence, partie supérieure de l’âme’), which evinces complete and hopeless ignorance of Origen’s anthropology.

Chapter 8 is about Origen’s (Anaxagorean, then, Aristotelian) concept of ‘the mind from without’ (θύραθεν νοῦς), which is critical in order to comprehend why could he have never gone along with the (inconsistent, anyway) Platonic anthropology and its capricious ramifications, which never managed to stand up to elementary logical analyses.

The short and the long of it is that the structure of this book aims to show that determining Origen’s views of the present topic is a tough proposition and can be carried out by means of sound methodology, not dogmatic proclamations, never mind bigotry, or parroting ancient nonsense, and to this purpose, knowledge of not only the entire Patristic thought but also Greek philosophy is impossible to circumvent, let alone evade.

To put this flat out: Origen should be studied by philosophers and by theologians who have a good command of philosophy (and indeed there are such scholars). For Origen wrote his own chapter in the history of philosophy, of which theologians have no inkling whatsoever, since among them knowledge of philosophy is an extremely rare commodity. Their general attitude is that Origen was a virtuous man and a theologian – yet at the end of the day he is a damned heretic, who was rightly anathematised.

In all of my books, I have tried to call attention to the need for studying primary sources and deliverance from the distorting glasses, through which scholars that are venerated as ‘authorities’ saw Origen’s thought, and their unstudious works keep on tormenting Origenian studies. In this book, I discuss allegations made by scholars such as H. Crouzel, M. Simonetti, M. Harl, C.P.H. Bammel, coupled with H. Chadwick’s dangerous translation of Contra Celsum, which (as I have shown since the years of my PhD thesis) tacitly takes for granted the old fatuities – let alone the conspicuously shameful case of old, P. Koetschau. Such people made incredible allegations only because they lacked either the perspicacity or the philosophical background, or both, in order to grasp Origen’s vast erudition, which is abundantly present throughout his exposition and determines his arguments almost in every line of his oeuvre. But the problem was that, once Origen had caveated that his theory of soul was superior to that of Plato’s, the onus he placed upon his readers was to try and fathom what his theory was about – and it is exactly this that turned out a long row to hoe to his ancient and modern students alike.←xx | xxi→

Whereas modern theologians, who unfortunately were taken seriously and swayed modern Origenian studies, have argued that ‘to Origen, pre-existence of souls is absolutely central’ and the ‘theory of pre-existence … is a hypothesis that comes from Platonism’, which is ‘the most vulnerable part of Origen’s thought’, I will be arguing that (1) to Origen, pre-existence of souls was far too alien a theory; and (2) although Origen declared that his theory of soul had ‘nothing to do with Plato’s transmigration, but it was a more sublime theory’, modern as well as earlier scholars have had recourse to the ancient folly, only because of inability make out what Origen’s ‘more sublime theory’ was about. However, the vast majority of modern works more or less keep counterfeiting the sixth-century allegations imposed by Justinian’s barbarous caesaropapism and have been uncritically regurgitated by modern ‘scholars’ who unfortunately have been taken as ‘authorities’ and (which is the most ridiculous yet tragic irony) one of them was styled ‘patriarch of Origenian studies’.

Therefore, the ongoing detriment to Origen’s real thought stems from the fact that knowledge of philosophy, bar a few brilliant exceptions, is far too rare a commodity among modern theologians. One of my arguments in the present book is that Origen’s enormous and demanding Greek philosophical background should be part of syllabus in faculties of philosophy and hauled from the hands of uninformed scholars, in which Origen’s tragic fate has been perpetuated.

However, this is not the full story. For indeed modern brilliant intellectuals have taken exception to the caricature of Origen concocted since the times of Epiphanius of Salamis and Antipater of Bostra (which served as the basis for Origen’s anathematisation).

As an example, I should note the brilliant works by Mark Edwards, who did not hesitate to stand up to current universally maintained follies about Origen, and was criticised for that matter by some scholars who either stuck to the ingrained hogwash about ‘a Platonist Origen’, or argued for the unscholarly drivel ‘Christian Platonism’ – yet none of his critics did ever manage to do away with or abate the force of Edwards’ perceptive analyses.

A second example is John Behr’s excellent new translation of De Principiis: not only his learned rendering of the Latin text itself, but also his perspicacious comments clearly evince a scholar who realised that the caricature of Origen from his earliest detractors to the present day was entirely wrong. At least, we should be grateful to this scholar for ridding the text of De Principiis from some amalgams of ancient calumnies that Koetschau promptly interpolated, as if those were ‘Greek’ excerpts from Rufinus’ Latin translation. On that account, Behr’s learned rendering puts to rest G. Butterworth’s translation, which (although not bad on ←xxi | xxii→its own merit) printed Koetschau’s unschooled interpolations that he had taken up from all sorts of detractors and calumniators – wherefore, Butterworth’s book (along with his own atrocious comments) misled some generations of scholars.

If, to some, reading and studying primary sources appears far too hard a proposition and probably impossible to carry out, and having recourse to second-hand entrenched follies of old seems a more convenient practice, then, the best for them to do is abandon and stay away from Origen’s works and thought altogether. As for myself, over many years, I have read ‘reports’ by ‘readers’ craving to enforce references to their ‘work’ under the pretext of foisting ‘guidance to modern scholarship’. To this purpose, on the one hand, they demanded from publishers not to reveal their names, while, on the other, they ‘signed’ their reports by anxiously demanding references to their own works, and declaring themselves ready to assent to publication only if they read my work again, in order to make sure that their ‘works’ have been referenced. Never did I cave in to such a blackmailing, which unsuccessfully went underground by means of taking refuge to anonymity, and none of such a quality of ‘readers’ did ever manage to impede a single book of mine from being published.

In this treatise, as it happened with my previous ones, I will not dignify such presumptuousness with references, far less would I converse with trespassers that are infesting the Origenian studies. I am not in the least interested in offering either the facility, which is priggishly styled ‘guidance to modern scholarship’, or the enjoyment of truffle hunting from a concomitant ‘reference preying’. I know that this is not the way things are supposed to be done. But I am not doing things the way they are supposed to be done, nor do I dignify the trite practice that strives to conceal ignorance of the glorious world of ancient philosophers and of the Commentators by means of ‘mutual’ (or, reciprocal) ‘references’ backhandedly exchanged between modern authors. Instead, ample space will be given primarily to exposition and discussion of ancient scholars, which is a methodology that I have prescribed and defended in my book on Anaxagoras.

Opposite this throng, I know of no true scholar who would not be happy, indeed eager, to see the pestilent characteristics that scourge Origenian studies being chucked out not only from the specific field, but also from the cultural physiognomy of any genuine quest for the truth.

For as Shakespeare’s Edgar said upon the conclusion of King Lear, when the tragedy had been consummated, The weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most.


Tzamalikos is my hero!

Origen’s heresy or par excellence Christian philosophy?

‘Origenism’, primarily meaning a Christian doctrine teaching the pre-existence of the souls in an incorporeal state before their birth in the body and the doctrine of universal salvation (apocatastasis panton),  has become an ugly term in the Church tradition as these ideas were repeatedly condemned by Church councils of the fifth-sixth centuries, connected to the person of the greatest Christian thinker of the second-third century, Origen. Yet, starting with Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Western Christian tradition of humanist inspiration increasingly rehabilitated Origen and has shown Origen’s immense personal role in shaping early Christian thought. It has also shown that Origen’s sophisticated personal thought had little to do with the rough doctrines attributed to him in the condemnations.  More recent research has demonstrated that, while the pre-existence of the souls as understood by the condemnations was a marginal doctrine, on the contrary, the pre-existence of the human nature and the connected doctrine of universal salvation was rather the rule than the exception in early Christianity, had a structural part in forming Christian theology and that such authors as Antony, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Isaac of Niniveh, Maximus the Confessor, John Scot Eriugena, Symeon the New Theologian etc. are part of this grand tradition. Yet, there remains the task to bring together structurally the results of the individual researchers and to establish the philosophical content of the tradition that had received the misnomer ‘Origenism’.

—Dr Ilaria Ramelli, source

As a man of faith, you are troubled by the thought—what will Providence do with Gandhi?


by St Nikolai Velimirovich

As a man of faith, you are troubled by the thought—what will Providence do with Gandhi? And what is the meaning of the appearance of this strange person among the statesmen and politicians of our time?

A warning from God. That is surely the meaning of the leader of the great Indian nation. Through that person, Providence is showing politicians and the statesmen of the world, even Christian ones, that there are other methods in politics than skill, wiliness and violence. Gandhi’s political method is very simple and obvious: he does not require anything except the man who cries out and the God Who hearkens. Against weapons, ammunition and army, Gandhi places fasting; against skill, wiliness and violence, prayer; and against political quarrel, silence. How puny and pathetic that looks in the eyes of modern men, right? In modern political textbooks, these three methods are not even mentioned in footnotes. Fasting, prayer and silence!

There is hardly a statesman in Europe or America who would not ironically see these three secrets of the Indian statesmen as three dry twigs pointed on the battlefield against a heap of steel, lead, fire and poison. However, Gandhi succeeds with these three “spells” of his; he succeeds to the astonishment of the whole world. And whether they want to or not, political lawmakers in England and other countries will have to add a chapter into their textbooks: “Fasting, Prayer and Silence as Powerful Weapons in Politics.” Imagine, would it not be to the fortune of all mankind if these methods of the unbaptized Gandhi replaced the methods of the baptized Machiavelli in political science? But it is not the Indian’s method in itself that is such a surprise to the world, as it is the person using the method. The method is Christian, as old as the Christian faith, and yet new in this day and age. The example of fasting, prayer and silence was shown by Christ to His Disciples. They handed it down to the Church, along with their whole example, and the Church hands it to the faithful from generation to generation until this day. Fasting is a sacrifice, silence is inward examination of oneself, prayer is crying out to God. Those are the three sources of great spiritual power which make man victorious in battle and excellent in life. Is there a man who cannot arm himself with these weapons? And which crude force in this world can defeat these weapons? Of course, these three things do not include all of the Christian faith, but are only a part of its rules, its supernatural mysteries. Sadly, in our time, among Christians, many of these principles are disregarded, and many wonder-working mysteries are forgotten. People have started thinking that one wins only by using steel, that the hailing clouds are dispersed only by cannons, that diseases are cured only by pills, and that everything in the world can be explained simply through electricity. Spiritual and moral energies are looked upon almost as working magic. I think that this is the reason why ever-active Providence has chosen Gandhi, an unbaptized man, to serve as a warning to the baptized, especially those baptized people who pile up one misfortune on another upon themselves and their peoples by using ruthless and harsh means. The Gospel also tells us that Providence sometimes uses such warnings for the good of the people. Your Grace will immediately realize that I am alluding to the Roman captain from Capernaum (Matt. ch. 8). On the one hand, you see the Elders of Israel who, as chosen monotheists of the time, boasted of their faith, meanwhile rejecting Christ, and, on the other hand, you see the despised Roman pagan who came to Christ with great faith and humility, asking Him to heal his servant. And when Jesus heard it, He was astonished and said to those who followed Him, “Truly I say to you, not even in Israel have I found faith like this.” The Christian world is the new, baptized Israel. Listen! Is Christ not telling the same words today to the consciences of the Christian Elders by pointing to today’s captain of India?

Peace and health from the Lord to you.

Source: Missionary Letters of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich: Letters 1-100, trans. Hierodeacon Serafim (Baltic), Vol. VI in A Treasury of Serbian Orthodox Spirituality (Grayslake, IL: New Gracanica Monastery, 2008), pp. 171-173. Certain small emendations to the translation made by Bishop Auxentios).

Can Persons Be Saved

by David Bentley Hart

Read part one and part two of series.

Before resuming my “itinerary” of the argument of That All Shall Be Saved, one additional point seems worth stressing. Though in the last installment the issue was raised of whether God intends or permits evil, the book’s argument has nothing to do with the traditional problems of rational theodicy. The question is not “Why does God permit evil if he is both omniscient and omnipotent?” or “Why is the possibility of evil necessary for creation?” or even “Is this the best of all possible worlds?” All of those are perfectly interesting queries in their proper place (or so I hear); but that place is not this book.

It is a good mereological rule that to try to understand the whole in terms of its parts and to try to understand the parts in light of the whole are two very different operations of reason (induction and deduction, to be precise). It is one thing to attempt to judge the relative goodness or badness of a discrete evil in relation to some final purposes we cannot see, but another thing altogether to judge the goodness or badness of a supposedly total narrative that pretends to describe the whole rationality of all its discrete events. The former judgment can never be more than conjectural; the latter is a matter of logic. There may logically be such a thing as an evil that is redeemed in the greater good toward which it leads; there is no such thing as an unredeemed evil that does not reduce any good end toward which it might lead to a mere relative value. In the former case, it is logically possible that evil may be non-necessary in the ultimate sense, but a real possibility in a provisional sense—though even then only as a privation that will ultimately be effaced from the “total picture.”

We may, at least, stipulate as much for the nonce, and assume that the possibility of transient evils is part of the progressive process whereby free spiritual beings are called into existence out of nothingness. But the final state of creation, as a finished totality, will not be redeemed in some yet more ultimate end; in its sheer permanence and finality, it must be accounted as itself the end for the sake of which all the conditional evils and imperfections leading to it were provisionally and temporarily tolerated. So my question remains: does the story Christians habitually tell about God oblige us to believe that he directly intends evil as evil, even if only as a possibility, as a permanent part of his final design for creation.  And the reason for asking this is obvious: if God can will any evil as a final unreconciled evil, then he is not the transcendent Good, but only a finite agent possessed of an only relative moral status. And my argument is as simple as it is undeniable: even if God wills a final evil only as a possibility within creation’s design, he has already positively willed it as an intrinsic feature of that pattern, and it is this that touches on who God is.

Which brings me to the book’s fourth major “theme,” which concerns precisely what, according to the actual language of Christian scripture, that final intentional horizon might be. And here I defend one classical universalist reading of the texts of the New Testament—especially of 1 Corinthians 15—over against what I take to be clearly inferior readings. After dealing with various hermeneutical issues, such as what the text actually says about “hell” or its eternity, I move on toward something like Origen’s or Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of eschatology as involving a twofold judgment: first a judgment on the immanent shape of human history and on each of us as historical subjects, then a more encompassing and ultimate judgment on the eternal shape of creation in the divine intentions “The eschatological discrimination between heaven and hell is the crucifixion of history, while the final universal restoration of all things is the Easter of creation”—or so my book claims.

It is also its claim that only this eschatological language is able to synthesize all the theological claims of the New Testament (including the surprisingly large number of explicitly universalist statements) into a single theological picture without evasion, contradiction, or duplicity. This part of the argument deals with such issues as the immanent eschatology of John’s gospel, and of “preterist” readings of Christ’s prophecies in the synoptic gospels, and how the two might be reconciled in an “eschatological” understanding of the triduum of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It deals as well with Paul’s understanding of the relation of the Church to Israel in God’s eternal counsels, and the eschatological grammar of the book of Revelation. It also advances sundry exegetical claims, such as the assertion that, in the New Testament, the word aiōnios—usually rendered as “eternal,” and of relevance to this discussion only with respect to a single verse—might better be understood in many instances as being a reference to the “Age-to-Come” and in other instances as a reference to the divine reality “above” the world of “time” (chronos). On the whole, however, this part of the book cannot really be very effectively summarized.

What can be stated with considerable certainty, and with quite a good deal of scriptural evidence, is that wherever the narrative of salvation becomes most developed, especially in Paul’s theology, it necessarily expands into an affirmation of the universal and cosmic scope of God’s saving work in Christ. Whether or not Paul was ever explicitly a universalist, it is obvious that his understanding of the logic of salvation in Christ becomes completely internally coherent only as a universalist narrative. Thus, such famously difficult verses as Romans 5:18 or 1 Corinthians 15:22 (difficult, that is, for proponents of eternal perdition) ought not to be treated as incautious hyperbole or rhetorical excess, but as moments of extreme clarity in the unfolding of the Pauline vision. So too, verses such as Romans 11:32 and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 cannot be confined within the logic of limited election without dissolving into empty babble.

In part, this is because—as Gregory of Nyssa so clearly saw—the very concept of what a saved “person” might be makes no sense within such limits.

This, at any rate, is the substance of the book’s fifth theme: what the nature of finite personhood is, and what it would really mean (morally, in this world or any world to come) for any soul to reconcile itself to the bliss of union with God in the absence and on the condition of the perpetual torment of any other soul. The principal claim here is that, whether we consider the most intimate relationships we have with others or consider instead the most remote and perhaps abstract of our human connections, we will find that ultimately it becomes meaningless to assert the salvation of any personapart from all others. Whether something else might be saved—some anonymous spark of spiritual identity, something more primordial or more ultimate than personality as such—is another matter altogether, and one that falls largely outside Christian tradition.

Some things are obvious: it is difficult to imagine what becomes of the actual person who was, say, a mother if she enjoys eternal beatitude despite the eternal dereliction of a child whom she loved and who loved her and whose presence in her life (most importantly) constitutes an essential part of who she is as a person. In a sense, however, it is no less difficult to understand how, say, a man who never knew that child, and perhaps never even really knew that mother, remains the person he was if he must become indifferent not only to that child’s fate, but to her grief as well, in order to enter into the bliss of the Kingdom. The issue here is not merely one of the extrinsic association that exists between persons, but of the very ontology of personhood itself. Our relations to others in fact constitute us as the persons we are, and there is no such thing as a person in perfect isolation. If any person is in hell, so too is some part of every person whose identity was shaped by his or her relation to that damned soul.

But these attachments necessarily belong to a continuum of relations and interrelations that simple logic tells us extends to all persons everywhere.  In order to affirm the true beatitude of the saved, one must introduce partitions into that continuum, invariably arbitrary, in order to define areas of morally and emotionally acceptable indifference; but, as soon as one does that, one discovers that that region of indifference is actually limitless, since it must potentially accommodate not only any person who might fail to be saved, however proximate or remote, but also anyone related by bonds of love or fidelity to that person, and so on ad infinitum.  And this means that one has, morally speaking, proleptically detached one’s happiness from the well-being of everyone else, since—as demonstrated earlier in the text—what one is willing to sacrifice to achieve one’s end, even if only as a possibility, is something one has already absolutely surrendered.

At the last, the realm of one’s concern must in principle contract until nothing but the isolated self remains; and thus the ethos of heaven proves to be the same as the ethos of hell: every soul for itself. And this remains true—more so, in fact—if one argues that God might spare the redeemed the knowledge of the lost by expunging them from memory (as one especially absurd argument goes).  For then, of course, what would then be saved could not really, in any meaningful sense, be a person any longer; it would be only the remnant of a person. In fact, it would be some other creature altogether. In which case, one’s “salvation” would really be one’s annihilation as a particular person within the community of created persons.

Finally, the sixth theme concerns the nature of human freedom and the incoherence of attempts to defend the reality of an eternal hell as a correlate of that freedom. This, however, is where I began this report, so I need not revisit the topic. 

I do, however, have one more thing to say.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian, cultural commentator, and author. His book That All Shall Be Saved was published in 2019 by Yale University Press.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

What Is a Truly Free Will?

What Is a Truly Free Will? Part One of an Interim Report on That All Shall Be Saved

by David Bentley Hart

Woman with a tiger


I should explain. I am in the process of preparing a kind of “interim report” on my recent book That All Shall Be Saved, in preparation for a number of public events, and perhaps in anticipation of a second edition of the text. And the editors of Public Orthodoxy have kindly offered me a venue in which to issue installments of that report, in the hope of refining it in the process. A good part of that report will consist in a kind of itinerary of its overarching argument. When writing the book, I had not properly appreciated how deep an emotional attachment some of us have to the idea of a hell of perpetual torment for the derelict and unenlightened. And so I had not imagined that the final product would provoke critiques so dazzlingly unrelated to my actual argument that I would be obliged repeatedly to recapitulate the book’s basic structure. Such, however, has been the case.

In the normal course of things, of course, an itinerary begins at the beginning and ends at the end. But I want to leap ahead. The book is organized around roughly half a dozen themes, the last of which concerns the nature of human freedom and attempts to defend the reality of an eternal hell as a correlate of that freedom. This part of the argument has proved the most difficult for some readers to grasp, and so I want to dilate upon at a somewhat more deliberate pace than the others. Hence it is also the one with which I should like to begin.

Among the more curious reactions to this aspect of my book has been the occasional suggestion that I have somehow revised the meaning of freedom. Another has been the accusation that I am arguing for some form of total determinism. One critic described my view as a form of “compatibilism” (see below), which is a term fraught with difficulties. Actually, though, on this matter my argument is nothing more than a fairly straightforward restatement of what Christ says in John’s Gospel: that “everyone committing sin is a slave to sin” (8:34), but that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:32).

Admittedly, I do reject any simple late modern libertarian model of freedom—the idea, that is, that the will is free to the degree that it can spontaneously posit any end for itself whatsoever, without any prior or more general motive or rationale—but that is only because such a model is clearly nonsensical. I start from the assumption that rational liberty and freedom of the will genuinely do exist, and for just this reason I conclude that the “free-will” defense of the idea of an eternal hell is logical gibberish. Far from constituting some sort of outlandish revision of our understanding of freedom, my argument hews faithfully to classical and Christian tradition, and to every coherent account of free will from Plato to Iris Murdoch. That is to say, I define perfect freedom as the unhindered realization of a rational nature in the end that fulfills it as rational. I assume also that, for finite intellects, such freedom involves a deliberative ability to choose among different courses of action. All I reject are two logically impossible notions: that there can be rational freedom that is not first set into action by a “transcendental” final cause, and that freedom can exist in any way except in direct proportion to the rational competency of the agent.

Thus, it is somewhat misleading to call mine a “compatibilist” view of free will (except with some very precise definitions being attached). Daniel Dennett, for instance, is a true compatibilist in the best modern analytic sense: that is, he is a physicalist determinist as regards human actions, but he also believes that, at the level of empirical consequences, the sheer complexity of the physical causal chain that produces human actions can also be described as free choice. That is, he believes there are two very different but compatible ways of describing a single empirical reality, one blindly “mechanical” the other intentionally “purposive”; nevertheless, he is still certain that this empirical reality can in principle be reduced without remainder to purely empirical physical forces that only appear to be purposive. There are two different levels of reference, but not two different levels of operation. For Dennett, every “free” act is the emergent result of an incalculable sequence of small, mindless, material causes.  In the same way, he allows that one may say that one has a “soul,” but only so long as one grasps that this soul is composed of millions of tiny robots. I believe exactly the opposite: that the will really does act purposively, towards an end that operates upon it as a real final cause of rational liberty. Rather than believing that the will is empirically determined and lacks any transcendental teleology, I believe that the will is empirically indeterminate precisely because it is transcendentally determined to an actual transcendent end; and, under the canopy of that orientation, the mind and will are able to pursue various finite goods freely, choosing between them as realizing different aspects of the Good in itself.

 What, after all, makes any choice free? Principally, a telos. To act freely, one must conceive a purpose or object and then elect either to pursue or not to pursue it. But for this purposiveness—this final causality—the will’s operation would be nothing but a brute event, wholly determined by its physical antecedents, and therefore “free” only in the trivial sense of “random,” like an earthquake or a purely neural impulse. To be free, one must be able to choose this rather than that according to a real sense of which better satisfies one’s natural longing for, say, happiness or goodness or truth or beauty. What allows one to choose between different possible objects of rational volition is an intellectual orientation toward some rational index of ends that are desirable in and of themselves.

Hence there can be no real empirical freedom except under the canopy of a prior transcendental determinism. There must be a “why” in any free choice, a sufficient reason for making it. You prove this every time you choose a salad at lunch rather than a plate of broken glass. I long for a particular work of art, say, because I have a deeper and more original longing for beauty that it can partially satisfy; and this ultimate horizon of desire gives me a context for evaluation, judgment, and choice. We need not even posit the ontological reality of those transcendental ends to affirm this (though, of course, Christians are obliged to believe in the reality of Truth and Goodness and so forth). We need only recognize that such an orientation is the necessary structure of thinking and willing, and that every finite employment of the will, to the degree that it free, depends upon this deferral of rationales toward ends beyond the empirical.

Which brings me back to my book. There my argument is not that we cannot reject God. It is that we cannot do so with perfect knowledge and perfect freedom, and so the “free-will defense” of an eternal hell rests upon a logical fiction. Sheer choice in and of itself is not freedom. The more irrational a choice, the less free it must be; but, the more one knows, the more rational one’s choices become. But, then, the more free one becomes, the more inevitable become the choices one will make.  In a sense, a lunatic has a far larger range of real options than does a sane person, but only because he or she also has far less freedom. The lunatic might choose to run into a burning building on impulse, to see what it will feel like to die in flames; a sane man, because he can form a rational judgment of what can and cannot satisfy his nature, lacks so expansive a “liberty.”

Consider, for instance, Frank R. Stockton’s classic story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” A handsome young courtier who has had the effrontery to conduct a romance with his king’s daughter is sentenced to the arena, where he must open one of two doors (as he chooses). Behind one waits a fierce and famished tiger, ready to devour him; behind the other, a beautiful maiden, ready to become his wife. These are the only two fates permitted him.  And he does not know which door is which. The princess, however, who is watching from the gallery, has discovered which door leads to which fate, and she discreetly signals to him to open the door on the right. The question the story leaves hanging is whether she has yielded to jealousy and directed her lover to his death, or whether she has yielded to her love for him and sent him to the arms of another woman. But we can simplify the tale.

Let’s say instead that the young courtier, with no one to guide him, has a choice between a door behind which that tiger is still crouching and another behind which the girl of his dreams (say, the princess herself) is waiting. First of all, which door should he want to open?  If he is perfectly sane and healthy, the latter, obviously. We can agree, I hope, that one of the conditions that allows him to make a truly free decision in these circumstances is that he is not captive to some sort of dementia that would render him incapable of judging whether it is better to be torn to shreds by a wild beast or to be happily wedded to one’s beloved. But that means that his freedom—his liberty from delusion, that is—has already reduced the range of his possible preferences toward one of the two outcomes.

Then, secondly, under which conditions can he better make a truly free choice between the two doors: In a state of perfect ignorance regarding which door is which (such that whatever choice he ultimately makes will be primarily a result of chance), or with a secret knowledge of which door is which, perhaps procured from a friend in the court (which allows him to choose with full rational liberty)? Obviously, the latter. The more he knows, the freer he becomes. But, then also, the more inevitable becomes the choice he will make. In fact, what follows is not really a “choice” at all; it is a purely free movement of thought and will toward a rationally desired object. He has been liberated from the need to choose arbitrarily, and has thus been determined toward an inevitable terminus by the reality of his own freedom.

It is easy to see how such considerations apply to the popular but ultimately vacuous claim that hell could be the ultimate free choice of a rational spiritual nature. Such a claim, momentarily beguiling though it be, cannot survive serious scrutiny. To the very degree that a rational creature might reject the one transcendent reality that can alone satisfy its deepest needs and desires, that creature is in bondage. An injured, damaged, deluded person might behave in such a manner; but never a free person. Freely, sanely, deliberatively to elect misery forever rather than bliss is a form of madness. To call that madness freedom, in order to soothe our consciences and continue to reconcile ourselves to a picture of reality that is morally absurd, is to talk nonsense. And, too, there is a deeper metaphysical logic here to be considered. It turns out, on any careful consideration of the matter, that only God himself—the infinite and transcendent Being, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty that is the source and end of all reality—can be the necessary “final cause” that makes rational freedom logically possible. So no perfectly free will can choose any ultimate end other than God, and to the degree that a rational nature attempts to reject God it is simply deluded. In fact, an attempt at final rejection is the most that any such nature could ever accomplish, since a spirit’s ever deeper and more primordial longing for God is the whole substance of its rational volition. God—unlike a creature—could never appear to a spiritual nature as merely one option among others, which could be rejected without intentional remainder. What makes all election or rejection on the part of a finite agent possible at all is his or her unremitting transcendental longing for God. Thus, God himself is the transcendent orientation in respect of which any merely finite object can be rejected, and so even in trying to reject God one is expressing a still deeper longing for God. So, just as God cannot positively will evil precisely because he is infinitely free, neither can we will evil in an ultimate sense, inasmuch as his infinite liberty is the source and end of our liberty too. Only in him are we truly free.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian, cultural commentator, and author. His book That All Shall Be Saved was published in 2019 by Yale University Press.


A rational nature seeks a rational end

The more one is in one’s right mind—the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes—the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all the adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proxi­mate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circum­stance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of the delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burn­ing building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom.

—Dr. David Bentley Hart 


A Pakaluk of Lies | David Bentley Hart | First Things

— Read on

A Pakaluk of Lies By

It is tempting to see a pattern here. Two attacks on my recent book That All Shall Be Saved have already been published by First Things, both exhibiting certain conspicuous commonalities. Each consisted principally in a series of misrepresentations of what the book actually says, punctuated by expressions of indignation or incredulity. Neither accurately described or even obliquely touched upon its actual argument. The first, by Douglas Farrow, was the more extravagantly “inventive” of the two. Michael McClymond’s somewhat torpid sequelwas no more accurate, but less adventurous (though it did abound in righteous dudgeon). Now comes a third, from Michael Pakaluk, and it is at once the most violent and the most picayune of the assaults on my book to have appeared in the journal. It does, however, have the virtue of economy; it relies on a single gross misrepresentation, and it gets right to the point.

The issue is a passage from the writings of St. Basil the Great* (or, at least, a passage from his Regula generally attributed to him) where, as I correctly note, the author states that the broad majority of Basil’s Christian contemporaries believed that the punishments suffered by the wicked in the next life will eventually come to an end. Pakaluk accuses me of suggesting that, in this passage, Basil is promoting the beliefs he describes. This is false. Nowhere in my book do I assert or suggest or imply or even vaguely hint that Basil was sympathetic to the universalists, much less that he supported their views. I am quite clear throughout the text about which of the Church Fathers I think believed in universal salvation and Basil appears nowhere on the list. One need only look at the two sentences he plucks from my book in their original context to see that Pakaluk misrepresents them in order to create the impression he wants.

In the case of the first quotation, for instance, Pakaluk neglects to mention that, in the book, I immediately go on to say that Basil’s claim might well be a hyperbole. I also note that, whatever the case, Basil was familiar only with his own part of the Eastern half of the empire (and, I might add here, he happened to live in a part of the Christian world where there was, we know, a strong universalist theological tradition in place). In the case of the second quotation, on the issue of how Basil dealt with the meaning of the word “aiōnios” when speaking of postmortem punishment, Pakaluk correctly quotes me as saying that Basil does not raise an objection to the universalist construal of that word on grounds of lexicography. What Pakaluk omits to mention is that that part of the book was not about Basil at all, but about the fluidity and ambiguity of preciselythe lexicography of the word, and that passing reference was made to Basil only as an illustration of the fact. But Pakaluk, by suppressing the context of my words, uses them as an opportunity to pretend that I claim that Basil in fact endorsed the universalist reading of the term. The sleight of hand is maladroit, but no doubt effective enough for those who have not read the book.

So it goes.

Pakaluk also seems to think that I err in speaking of Basil’s remark as an “observation” or “report”—this because it is in fact, as Pakaluk says, a “warning.” I assume that no one really needs to be told that these are not mutually exclusive designations.

And then, as well, Pakaluk makes quite a hash of the phrase that Basil used to indicate the number of those he claimed believed in a finite hell: hoi polloi tōn anthrōpōn. Not that Pakaluk can do much here. True, the phrase has been rendered as “many persons” or something like that (which would be polloi anthrōpoi) in a few less literal translations of the text. But, when polloiis given with the definite article, so that it functions as a substantive, this yields the familiar idiom “themany,” which is always opposed to “the few,” “the minority,” “the rare,” or “the one.” When specified by the plural articular genitive of anthrōpos, the meaning is not really debatable: “the large majority of persons,” “the great mass of men,” “the crowds.” Pakaluk is quite correct that the phrase hoi polloi, then as now, often had an opprobrious connotation—“the masses,” “the rabble,” “the profanum vulgus”—but so what? Again, I never suggested that Basil was sympathetic to the universalist cause.

More absurdly, Pakaluk wants to argue that the phrase is not a reference to Basil’s fellow Christians, as I say it is, but is rather only an observation about humanity in general, taking in perhaps the pagan population and others outside the faith. Here Pakaluk’s obvious historical ignorance does him in, but so does plain logic; in fact, Pakaluk himself provides all the evidence needed to show that he is speaking nonsense. For one thing, there simply were not very many actual pagans left in Basil’s part of the empire, and certainly no appreciable number who would have been “universalists” of some kind and who believed in the purgatorial reconstitution of the soul in the afterlife. More importantly, though, as Pakaluk himself records, Basil argues against the belief of “the broad majority” by reference specifically to Christian scripture, and particularly to the parallel construction of Matthew 25:46. Had he been speaking of and to anyone but his fellow Christians, it would have been ridiculous to have done that.

So, where does this bring us? It seems clear that what Basil is saying in the passage in question is exactly what I claim he is saying. It is even more clear that Pakaluk has ascribed to me assertions that as a matter of objective fact appear nowhere in my book, in order to create a counterfeit scandal that will distract readers from what the book really does say. And yet, one cannot help but notice that, even if Pakaluk had really had any case to make, it would have been one that, once stripped of the theatrically exorbitant rhetoric of fraud and satanic deception, would have concerned only a contestable exegetical point regarding a vanishingly minor matter of little consequence for the book’s argument.

Perhaps, though, this too is in keeping with a certain pattern.

One would never know it from reading the reviews in First Things, but That All Shall Be Saved is in fact a closely argued and continuous philosophical and theological argument. Its central contention is that the sort of universalism that one finds in Gregory of Nyssa is the sole version of the classical Christian narrative of God and creation that does not—if subjected to the most rigorous logical scrutiny—become incoherent at one or another crucial juncture. The demonstration of this proposition is built around roughly half a dozen interlocking themes. To wit: 1) The possibility of intelligible analogical language about God in theological usage and the danger of a “contagion of equivocity”; 2) The total analogical disjunction that the idea of an eternal hell necessarily introduces into certain indispensable theological predicates and the destruction this can wreak on doctrinal coherence; 3) The relation between the classical metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo and eschatology, the necessary collapse of the distinction between divine will and divine permission at the eschatological horizon that this entails, and the consequent implications regarding the relative goodness of God’s action in creation and, by inevitable logical extension, of God in himself; 4) The relation between time and eternity, or between history and the Kingdom, or between this age and the next in biblical eschatology, and whether any synthesis other than a universalist one (and especially one that, like Gregory’s, uses 1 Corinthians 15 as a master key) can hold all of the scriptural evidence together in a way that is not self-defeating; 5) The ontological and moral structure of personhood; and 6) The necessary logical structure of rational freedom in relation to divine transcendence, especially as inflected by orthodox Christology, and the implications this has for the “free will defense” of eternal perdition.

I cannot unfold the argument here, of course, but happily it requires only a little more than 200 compact pages to do so, and those pages can be found between the covers of my book. If anyone is reallyinterested in my argument, rather than in merely denouncing it unexamined, this list at least provides a kind of chart of navigation. And it is not really that hard to follow, if one is willing to try.

I have made no secret of my conviction that the book’s argument is more or less invincible. Call me arrogant if you wish. But my confidence is not based on some delusion on my part that I uniquely have seen the truth. Rather, I simply think that—a little like the mathematician Andrew Wiles, when he discovered the proof of Fermat’s last theorem—I have provided the correct demonstration of something that many of us have always already known to be true. And, having seen it, I cannot now un-see it again. It is a demonstration that can be supplemented and enlarged, but I do not believe it can be refuted. And this explains much, if I am right. The reason that Farrow, McClymond, Pakaluk and others cannot address the book’s real argument, but must instead indulge in flamboyant diversionary tactics and flights of frenzied polemic, is that they are incapable of answering it. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they know that it is an argument that they have already lost.

—David Bentley Hart is a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies.

* BASIL AND APOKATASTASIS: NEW FINDINGS Ilaria L.E. Ramelli Catholic University Milan; Angelicum University; Erfurt University

One God Father Almighty

By Protopresbyter John Behr


“One God Father Almighty” is among the most basic Christian confessions. In this article, John Behr argues that the precise order of these four words is not random. In his works, Origen reflects on the scrip- tural titles for God and Christ, and concludes that “Almighty” does not precede the title “Father,” since the Father is Almighty through the Son, in whom all things were made. Building on Origen’s scriptural exegesis, Gregory of Nyssa interprets the word “God” as designating specifically the Father, whereas the Son and the Spirit receive their (eternal) identity only in relation to “God the Father.” For Origen, Jesus is the Son of God, rather than God the Son. The one “God over all” is the Father, made known through the Son and the Spirit.

SOURCE [pdf]



On First Principles



20 February 2020

  • A new translation of one of the most important and controversial texts from early Christianity
  • Offers a more sympathetic understanding of the text than that currently available in the only English translation
  • Provides new insights into the structure of the work and the nature of theology as it was practiced in early Christianity

On First Principles by Origen of Alexandria, written around 220-230 AD, is one of the most important and contentious works of early Christianity. It provoked controversy when written, provoked further debate when translated into Latin by Rufinus in the fourth century, and was the subject, together with its author, of condemnation in the sixth century. As a result, the work no longer survives intact in the original Greek. We only have the complete work in the Latin translation of Rufinus, and a few extensive passages preserved in Greek by being excerpted into the Philokalia of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus.

John Behr offers a translation of one of the most important texts from early Christianity. He includes an invaluable introduction, which provides a clear structure of the work with significant implications for how the text is to be read and for understanding the character of theology in the early Christian tradition.

Table of Contents

1. Origen and his On First Principles
I. Origen in Alexandria
II. On First Principles
2. The Structure of On First Principles
I. The Two Cycles
II. The Division into Chapters
III. Theology and Economy
IV. The Apostolic and the Ecclesiastical Preaching
V. Scripture, Book Four, and the Purpose of On First Principles
VI. Conclusion and the Context of On First Principles
3. Theology
I. An Eternal Creation?
II. The ‘Foundation’ of the World
4. Economy
I. Incarnation
II. The ‘Pre-existence’ and Incarnation of Christ
5. ‘In My End is My Beginning’
Origen, On First Principles
Manuscripts and Other Sources, Abbreviations and Sigla


John Behr, Dean and Professor of Patristics, St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, New York, and Metropolitan Kallistos Chair in Orthodox Theology, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

John Behr is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Professor of Patristics and Metropolitan Kallistos Chair in Orthodox Theology at Vrije Universiteit. His previous publications include John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (2019), Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement (2000), The Case Against Diodore and Theodore: Texts and Their Contexts (2011), and Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity (2013). He is also the co-editor of The Role of Life in Death: A Multidisciplinary Examination of Issues pertaining to Life and Death (Wipf and Stock, 2015; with C. Cunningham)

448 Pages

9.2 x 6.1 inches

ISBN: 9780198845317

Oxford University Press (OUP)