If you ask preachers what they know about Origen of Alexandria, you might get one of two responses: “I think he is the one whose mother hid all his clothes so he could not go and volunteer for martyrdom”; or, “Isn’t he the preacher who used allegory?” None is likely to identify him as the first expository preacher, but I think the case can be made.

Origen was born about 185 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. His godly parents gave him a thorough education in Scripture, as well as the usual grammar, math, logic and rhetoric. Eusebius reports that Origen grew up as a devoted Christian and cultured Greek.

When Origen turned 17, his father was arrested during a bloody persecution of the church on the charge of converting to Christianity, which was forbidden by the emperor. This is when Origen sought martyrdom with his father. When his mother foiled his plans, the youth wrote a passionate letter to his father urging him to remain true and not shirk death for the sake of his family.

When his father won his martyr’s crown, all the family property was seized. The care of his mother and six younger brothers fell on the young man. He supported them by selling his library of manuscripts and teaching in a catechetical school. Soon a rich and generous lady who admired his talents came to his financial aid.

Clement of Alexandria, a remarkable Christian teacher, was Origin’s mentor and a great formative influence on his youth. When Clement withdrew from the school, the direction of the work fell to Origen. This early responsibility convinced Origen to further his education. He devoted himself to the study of Plato, the Stoics and other philosophers. When Heracles joined him in the catechetical school, he studied Hebrew with him.

He interrupted his labors in the school to make several journeys, the first being to Jerusalem. When he was 30 years old, he fled Jerusalem. The governor of Arabia (modern Jordan) invited him there and sent a military escort. While there the governor invited him to preach, though he was still a layman. Later as he traveled into Greece, Origen passed through Caesarea; the bishop of that city, with the help of the Bishop of Jerusalem, elevated Origen to the priesthood.

His own bishop, Demetrius, took offense at the slight. Origen found a cool reception when he returned home to Alexandria. He soon thought it best to move on to Caesarea in Palestine. When he was gone, his bishop called two church councils at Alexandria. The first banished Origen from the city, and the second revoked his ordination as a priest. St. Jerome made it clear that there was no point of doctrine at issue in either sanction.

Many regarded Origen as a religious fanatic. He slept on the floor, ate no meat, drank no wine and fasted twice a week. He owned no shoes.

The years following were devoted almost without interruption to the composition of his Commentaries. Eusebius mentions a few excursions to holy places—a journey to Athens and two voyages to Arabia—one in order to convert prominent official Beryllus and the other was to refute certain heretics there who denied the resurrection. Both missions were successful.

We’re reminded that “Origen’s very unworldly career took place against a backdrop of plagues, inflation, civil wars, foreign invasions, oppressive taxation, depressed trade and the abandonment of productive land.” Somehow people managed to live reasonably tranquil lives in tempestuous times. Origen’s most productive years were 231-254 A.D. at Caesarea, years that included the time of great turmoil in the administration of the Roman Empire.

At age 46, he founded a catechetical school and taught the advanced students. At Caesarea in Palestine (232 A.D.), with his protector and friend Theoctistus, he founded a new school and resumed his Commentary on St. John from the point where it had been interrupted.

In his 50s, Origen traveled a great deal and began to suffer persecution. When Decius became emperor in 239 A.D. and ordered the restoration of Roman religion, he declared that everyone in the empire sacrifice to the gods and produce a certificate verifying they had done so. Origen’s judge thought the cause would be better served by making him recant, so he ordered the rack and threatened fire. Origen survived the ordeal and outlived the emperor, but he was disabled for the rest of his life. His courage, however, was unshaken. From his prison he wrote letters breathing the spirit of the martyrs. He died at the age of 69.

Origen’s Hermeneutic and Homiletic
Origen created the classical form of the homily. He devoted three kinds of works to the explanation of the Scriptures: commentaries, homilies and scholia. The commentaries were a continuous and well-developed interpretation of the inspired text. They were massive as one may see from the fact that one whole scroll was devoted to the first six words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.” Only eight books in Greek of the Commentary on St. Matthew and nine books of the Commentary on St. John survive.

The writings called scholia were annotations or brief notes of exegetical, philological or historical nature on words or passages of Scripture. None of these have survived except for some few short fragments.

Our main interest is in the homilies. Origen has been called the father of the homily and did more than anyone to make popular this class of literature. The homily generally is understood as a verse-by-verse interpretation and application of a biblical passage. Origen preached almost every day during his prime, so his homilies were often extemporary.

He favored literal interpretation of Scripture. Origen described his basic hermeneutic in his systematic theology On First Principles. Just as a person is body, soul and spirit, so Scripture has the same three levels of meaning. The bodily meaning is the literal meaning. The soul meaning is for those who have progressed in the faith beyond the simplicity of the literal. The spiritual meaning, closely identified with the soul meaning, is the highest and most important level. Though Origen considered them simple and ignorant who could not go beyond the literal meaning, he himself considered this the foundational level of understanding.

Origen preached verse-by-verse through Bible books. When Origen preached at Caesarea, stenographers transcribed his sermons (or homilies); more than 200 of them have survived largely intact. These are only a fraction of the total he preached. Practically all of these sermons, preached 239 or 240 A.D. in Caesarea, belong to series that provide a continuous commentary on particular books of the Bible. This verse-by-verse preaching through books of the Bible is the way of the expositor, though this alone would not make him an expositor. He explained the Bible by the Bible with an amazing command of Scripture.

What about Origen’s use of allegory? To read some of his critics, one would gather that Origen always interpreted everything in the Bible allegorically. Allegory is the method of interpretation that claims to yield the hidden, symbolic meaning of a text. It was everywhere in use in Origen’s time and long before. Joseph Trigg thinks it was “Origen who, more than anyone else, made allegory the dominant method of interpretation down to the end of the Middle Ages.” Perhaps so; perhaps not.

Understandably Origen used the hermeneutic he learned in the Alexandrian tradition; but while everyone in his day used allegory, Origen favored the literal meaning. If a text made no sense to him taken literally, he resorted to allegory.

For example, “Homily Three on Leviticus 5” discusses the guilt offering for unintentional sins, but what if someone was a pauper and did not have “a sacred shekel”? Origen argues, “Is this the moderation of the Lawgiver that unless someone has a certain kind of money he cannot have his sin absolved? This clearly, according to the letter, indeed seems absurd.” So he used allegory, which he called “a certain spiritual understanding” and declared the meaning to be: “No one will receive remission of sins unless he should bring a sound, genuine and holy faith through which he can purchase ‘a ram.'” The shekel becomes a metaphor for saving faith. Origen was diligent to extract the meaning of Scripture in his preaching by careful study of all possible meanings, literal and figurative.

In commenting on the Genesis account of creation, he found it unreasonable that light was created on the first day, but the sun, moon and stars did not come until the fourth day. He could not accept that literally, so he spiritualized that passage.

He excelled in scholarly word studies. “It is his use of grammar, especially etymology of words and their definitions that gives his work a genuine kinship with modern biblical scholarship”. John Clark Smith, a scholar and translator of Origen’s homilies on Jeremiah declared, “His scholarly word-studies of the Scriptures were astonishing for his time.”

He attended to the order and choice of words in the text. He sought precision in explaining the meaning of the words by noting the etymology and pointing out other passages using that word. Many preachers still use his methods. Origin accepted the Bible as inspired word for word. In a sermon on the Song of Songs, Origen says characteristically, “Holy Scripture never uses any word haphazardly and without a purpose.”

Trigg argues that “Origen’s Hexapla is a milestone in biblical scholarship that makes him the father of textual criticism of the Bible in the Christian tradition. He also judges that “Origen’s understanding of biblical inspiration was entirely consistent with a rigorous critical approach to the text.” According to Robert M. Grant, Origen was “the first great theologian of the church.”

Origin was in his 50s when he first became a preacher and only preached about three years. Still, he was by far the most prolific scholar of his age with hundreds of works to his credit. Some estimate 2,000 to 6,000 titles. This may be too high, but he was a prolific scholar by any reckoning. He was a first-rate Christian philosopher and a profound student of the Bible. Age did not diminish his activities. He was more than 60 when he wrote his Contra Celsium and his Commentary on St. Matthew. He still is regarded as the first Christian systematic theologian.

Origen was a memorable scholar and preacher. Historian of preaching O.C. Edwards says Origen was “one of the two or three greatest minds in the history of the church.” Edwards also says, “the goal of all Origen’s preaching was the spiritual formation of the congregation.” No matter what his text, he managed to end each sermon with a doxology to Jesus Christ based on 1 Peter 4:11: “To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever.”

While he did use allegory, he regularly used sound hermeneutical principles, including historical criticism. He took care to apply the Scripture to life and deserves to be recognized as the original expository preacher.

For Further Study:
• Crouzel, Henri. Origen. Trans. by A.S. Worrall. San Francisc Harper and Row, 1959.
• Edwards, O.C., A History of Preaching. Vol. 1, Nashville: Abingdon, 2004.
• Origen. The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies. Trans. and annotated by R.P. Lawson ACW. Westminster, Md., Newman Press, 1957.
• Origen. The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies. Trans. and annotated by R.P. Lawson ACW. Westminster, Md., Newman Press, 1957.
• Trigg, Joseph Wilson. Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-Century Church. Atlanta, John Knox, 1983.

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