So far all of the authors we have encountered have emphasized the nonviolent teachings of the New Testament, particularly those of Jesus. They were convinced that followers of Jesus could not harm others (and they speak as though their contemporary Christians did well in following that path). However, there has not been a huge attempt to reconcile the violence of the Old Testament with the peaceful calling they speak of. Tertullian did some when he addressed Marcion, but it is Origen, as far I as know, who is the first to thoroughly tackle this problem.
Origen has been controversial from his own time all the way up through to today. Here is not the place to discuss these controversies, but it must be addressed in some form so the reader understands the relevance of including him in this series. How is including Origen in this series any different than someone such as Marcion, who is considered an ‘arch-heretic’?
Origen was widely read throughout the days of the early church, even centuries after his death. He led a powerfully pious life and was probably the most prolific writer in all of ancient times. His greatest accomplishment was the Hexapla: a critical edition of the Hebrew scriptures with a Hebrew translation and five different Greek translations side by side for easy comparisons. He also wrote hundreds of homilies on almost every book of the Bible. Near the end of his life, his patron Ambrose requested that he write a response to a treatise written by a pagan named Celsus about a hundred years earlier. The treatise by Celsus, called The True Word was a scathing attack on Christianity. Origen countered each point one at a time. For many, it was this work that brought Christianity from a folk religion to an authentic philosophy. Due to Celsus’ attack on Christians’ refusal to partake in the state, particularly the army, many of the quotes given in this post will reference Against Celsus.
Origen is sometimes considered the first major Christian theologian and has influenced every Christian theologian who has come after him at least in some way, and was seen as a “bastion of Orthodoxy” for centuries after his death. So why was he never considered a saint?1 Why are some of views considered heretical? Well, it’s hard to say exactly. Many of the heretical views come from his followers, such as overemphasizing subordinationist views so much that they deny the trinity. There is controversy over what exactly was deemed heretical in Origen (and which of that was actually his teaching), but it basically comes down to his belief in the pre-existence of souls and a certain type of universalism. Since neither of those has any bearing on our subject, you can rest easy as we take a very brief look at the most brilliant theologians of the early church.
Origen read everything through the lens of a crucified Christ. He appealed to scripture for everything that he wrote. However, he believed that there were different levels of scripture.
He saw three levels, or layers, of scripture though he often didn’t distinguish much between the deeper two. The outermost layer was the literal meaning. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll get the moral meaning. The core of the scriptures were in the spiritual understandings of them. He likened these three levels to a wedding. The literal meaning is the actual wedding reception. The moral or emotional level was the form of a union of Christ within the church. The spiritual was the image of the soul’s union with the Logos. He did not explain each meaning for every passage, sometimes only one or two meanings were brought out. One of his supports for this method was Paul’s declaration that the “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).
Origen did not see violence as being compatible with Christians, yet he held all of the scriptures as “inspired by the Holy Spirit”2. How did he approach the violent portions of the Old Testament then? He did not throw out the old violent scriptures like Marcion did, but instead let “Jesus read it” to him.<sup3
Joshua, Chapter 9
For we who are of the catholic (universal) Church do not reject the Law of Moses, but we accept it if Jesus reads it to us. For thus we shall be able to understand the Law correctly, if Jesus reads it to us.”
The literal reading of the scriptures was often not be be followed. It was the spiritual that followers of Jesus were supposed to take to heart.
Appealing to several verses in the New Testament, Origen makes it clear that we are not to follow suit in the wars waged in the Old Testament. We are not to harm anyone, not even for vengeance. What else would we expect from followers of Jesus who said that he was leaving his peace with us?
Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ, who came to teach peace, so that they could be read in the churches. For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, “My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you” (John 14:27), and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, “Not avenging your own selves” (Rom. 12:19), and, “Rather, you receive injury,” and, “You suffer offense” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:7)? In short, knowing that now we do not have to wage physical wars, but that the struggles of the soul have to be exerted against spiritual adversaries, the Apostle, just as a military leader, gives an order to the soldiers of Christ, saying, “Put on the armor of God, so that you may be able to stand firm against the cunning devices of the Devil” (Eph. 6:11). And in order for us to have examples of these spiritual wars from deeds of old, he wanted those narratives of exploits to be recited to us in church.
Joshua, Chapter 14
So what are we to do with these numerous passages of war we find in the Old Testament then? We are to see them as describing spiritual wars. This is not to say that they did not actually happen, but that Christians are not to follow suit.
When that Israel that is is according to the flesh read these same Scriptures before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, they understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood… But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is “our peace,” (Eph. 2:14) he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies – sins and vices- are expelled from it. Therefore… when we indeed read these things, we also equip ourselves and are roused for battle, but against those enemies that “proceed from our heart”.
Views on (Physical) War
Origen believed that the wars were necessary for Israel, but never for a Christian.4
The following passage shows the classic brilliance of Origen. He finds meaning in every word and phrasing of scripture. So he doesn’t just say that all Christians were disarmed with Peter, but that we are to remain armed, just in a very different way.
Commentary on Matthew 26:52
Soon Jesus said to him who had used the sword and cut off the right ear of that servant, “put up your sword into its place”—not “take away your sword”; there is therefore a place for a sword from which it is not lawful for anyone to take it who does not wish to perish, especially by the sword. For Jesus wishes his disciples to be “pacific,” that putting down this warlike sword they should take up another pacific sword, which Scriptures call “the sword of the spirit.” (Eph. 6:17) In a similar way he says, “all who take the sword shall perish by the sword,”(Matt. 26:52) that is, all who are not pacific but inciters of wars, shall perish in that very war which they stir up. . . . But taking simply what He says, “those who take the sword shall perish by the sword,” we should beware lest because of warfare or the vindication of our rights or for any occasion we should take out the sword, for no such occasion is allowed by this evangelical teaching, which commands us to fulfill what is written, “with those who hated me I was pacific.” If therefore with those that hate peace we must be pacific, we must use the sword against no-one.
Against Celsus 3.7
The following passage shows that the Christians up to Origen’s time had not rebelled nor even acted in a way in which “savors” rebellion. Also note that he acknowledges that the Jews before Christ were permitted to fight and kill.
Neither Celsus nor they who think with him are able to point out any act on the part of Christians which savors of rebellion. And yet, if a revolt had led to the formation of the Christian commonwealth, so that it derived its existence in this way from that of the Jews, who were permitted to take up arms in defense of the members of their families, and to slay their enemies..
He continues with an explanation that Christians are forbidden “to offer violence to anyone”. What’s particularly interesting here is that he sees more than just teaching and example from Jesus. For him, Jesus ushered in a new age. Jesus’ laws came “from a divine source” and had Jesus or his followers achieved the numbers they had by Origen’s time by a violent rebellion, they would not have had the “exceedingly mild character” that they did. For Origen, Jesus’ entire nonviolent defeat of the forces of evil was setting the path for how his followers should live.
..the Christian Lawgiver would not have altogether forbidden the putting of people to death; and yet He nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For He did not deem it in keeping with such laws as His, which were derived from a divine source, to allow the killing of any individual whatever. Nor would the Christians, had they owed their origin to a rebellion, have adopted laws of so exceedingly mild a character as not to allow them, when it was their fate to be slain as sheep, on any occasion to resist their persecutors.
Views on Kings and Rulers
In The True Word, Celsus argued that if everyone was to reject military service like the Christians did, then the empire would fall to the barbarians. Origen’s reply to this is in Against Celsus book 8, chapters 65-75. He starts off by explaining that Christians “despise ingratiating ourselves with kings or any other men, not only if their favour is to be won by murders, licentiousness, or deeds of cruelty, but even if it involves impiety towards God, or any servile expressions of flattery and obsequiousness” (ch. 65). However, he continues on to say that “whilst we do nothing which is contrary to the law and word of God, we are not so mad as to ‘stir up against us the wrath of kings and princes, which will bring upon us sufferings and tortures, or even death.” He supports this decision by referencing Romans 13:1-2. He explains further that Christians refuse to “swear by the fortune of the King” because that would either be swearing by nothing itself (if the term fortune is nothing but an empty saying) or by demons. According to Origen, Christians would sooner die than to swear by demons.
In claiming that barbarians would conquer Rome if everyone became a Christian, Celsus scoffed at the idea that God would save them and he used the Jews’ current subjection to the Romans as proof. Origen confirmed that he did believe God would protect them. “But if all the Romans.. embraced the Christian faith, they will, when they pray, overcome their enemies; They will not war at all, being guided by that divine power which promised to save five entire cities for the sake of fifty just persons.” God would do this, he continues, because “people of God are assuredly the salt of the earth; they preserve the order of the world.” (ch. 70)
He explains this further in chapter 69:
We say that “if two” of us “shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of the Father”[Matt. 18:19] of the just, “which is in heaven;” for God rejoices in the agreement of rational beings, and turns away from discord. And what are we to expect, if not only a very few agree, as at present, but the whole of the empire of Rome? For they will pray to the Word, who of old said to the Hebrews, when they were pursued by the Egyptians, “The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace;”[Exod. 14:14] and if they all unite in prayer with one accord, they will be able to put to flight far more enemies than those who were discomfited by the prayer of Moses when he cried to the Lord, and of those who prayed with him.
So what about Celsus’ claim that God never protected the Jewish people? Origen claims that it was not due to God, but to the people not obeying God. If the Romans were to all obey God, which was essentially the claim, then God would protect them and they would not need to war(69). He also claimed:
Against Celsus 8.68
In these circumstances the king will not “be left in utter solitude and desertion,” neither will “the affairs of the world fall into the hands of the most impious and wild barbarians.” For if, in the words of Celsus, “they do as I do,” then it is evident that even the barbarians, when they yield obedience to the word of God, will become most obedient to the law, and most humane; and every form of worship will be destroyed except the religion of Christ, which will alone prevail. And indeed it will one day triumph, as its principles take possession of the minds of people more and more each day.
When criticized for not helping the King and empire maintain it’s safety and power, Origen simply claimed that Christians did support the King, and more effectively than soldiers. To Origen, Christians were priests to the one true God, “keeping their hands pure” to ensure God’s favor and support. So whereas a few centuries later fighting was seen as a way to enforce the favor of God, Origen taught that restraint from fighting was the way to do it. (ch. 73)
..We do, when occasion requires, give help to kings, and that, so to say, a divine help, “putting on the whole armour of God.” And this we do in obedience to the injunction of the apostle, “I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority;”[1 Tim. 2:1-2] and the more any one excels in piety, the more effective help does he render to kings, even more than is given by soldiers… And to those enemies of our faith who require us to bear arms for the commonwealth, and to slay men, we can reply: “Do not those who are priests at certain shrines… as you account them, keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods; and even when war is upon you, you never enlist the priests in the army. If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!”
And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army–an army of piety–by offering our prayers to God.
Commentary on John: 20.292
And if the only way one becomes a son of the Father who is in heaven is by loving one’s enemies and praying for those who persecute one, it is clear that no one hears the words of God because he is of God by nature, but because he has received power to become a child of God and has made proper use of this power, and because he has loved his enemies and prayed for those who abuse him, and has become a son of the Father who is in heaven.
Exodus 14:14; Psalm 101:8; Matthew 5:39, 44-45, 10:29-30, 18:19 (Masses of Christians praying together is effective), 26:52;Luke 14:34-35, 24:27, 44-45; John 14:27, 16:33; Romans 12:19; 1 Corinthians 6:7; 2 Corinthians 3:6 (Used to interpret violent passages of the OT); Ephesians 2:14, 6:11; Philippians 4:13; 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (We should support Kings by prayer)
On First Principles: 4.18; Homilies on Joshua: In particular 14, 15; Commentary on Matthew: Commentary on 26:52; Against Celsus: 1.1, 2.3, 3.7,3.8, 4.82, 4.83, 4.9, 5.33, 7.18-20, 7.22, 7.26, 7.58, 7.59. 7.61, 8.35, 8.55, 8.65-75; Commentary on John: 20.290, 20.292