On the Book of Mormon as Interpretative Guide to Pre-Apostasy Christianity
Scholars of ancient Christianity –more so in Eastern Orthodoxy than in Roman Catholicism or Protestantism— have continuously been fascinated with Origen, a third century Christian thinker.
This fascination has been shared by distinguished Mormon scholars such as Truman Madsen and B.H. Roberts as examples. With other demands, they had just time enough to mark the spot where to dig.
In this column I attempt a first look at how Origen of Alexandria understood the ministry of the Holy Spirit. To interpret Origen my method will be to use the teachings of the Book of Mormon to take a preliminary look, to compare and contrast commonalities.
The Exit of the Holy Spirit from Christendom
Origen’s intellectual honesty made him a rarity among Christians of his day. In particular, he recorded his perception that the Holy Spirit was diminishing. Origen wrote:
“It is general knowledge that the Holy Spirit has forsaken the Jews because they were guilty of impiety[.]
“But signs of the Holy Spirit were manifested at the commencement of the teaching of Jesus, and more still after His ascension, though later they became less.”
Origen adds, “There are indeed to this day traces of the Spirit in a few men whose souls have been purified by the Word and the actions which He inspires.” From a broader historical perspective, the distinguished Chadwick agrees generally with Origen’s experience. Chadwick notes the only “occasional survival” of what Origen terms “signs of the Holy Spirit” continued to exist as of Origen’s time.
The approaching drought did not affect Origen himself. In fact, John Gager in a class on Origen at Princeton told the story of how once in teaching a seminar on the Gospel of John, Origen stopped the class. He then rather abruptly led the class in prayer for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (To further confirm the point being made here, after Professor Gager told this anecdote, student laughter followed.)
That We May Always Have the Holy Spirit
“That the working of the Father and the Son applies to both saints and sinners is evident—all bear about implanted within them certain seeds, as it were, of Wisdom and Righteousness, which is Christ,” wrote Origen in his trial run at a Christian systematic theology, On First Principles (V).
“[T]he Holy Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands after the grace and renewal of baptism.” First Principles at VII. Further . . . only the Holy Spirit “proceedeth from the Father.”
But Origen also understood from John 1:13 that the gift of the Spirit would not always abide, except for Jesus who, because He was sinless, when the Spirit descended on Him, it remained in its fullness. As best I can report, Origen does not comment on the trial each Saint experiences when without the cause of the gift of the Spirit being “abused or disparaged,” the heavens are as brass.
Origen makes a curious point about the Spirit—I chalk this up to Origen’s personal opinion–when he states that “nor is any lawful human institution (e.g. marriage) such that the Spirit can grace its whole course with His presence.” “There are many actions in which human ability suffices on its own, and the presence of the Holy Ghost is neither necessary nor desirable.” (For present purposes I leave for another occasion the restatement of the doctrinal errors of Origen.)
Origen realized even with the Spirit trying to help, we remain human, citing the Old Testament. “If the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, how did Jephthah come to make an inappropriate vow? Did the Holy Spirit commit an error? Certainly not! The Holy Spirit came to him to help him, not to suggest the objectionable vow. It was Jephthah who went wrong . . . . “
Origen warned of failure to follow-through on an impression of the Spirit. When, either through baptism, or through the grace of the Spirit, the word of wisdom or of knowledge or of anything else given freely, and later abused [,] the gift of the Spirit will straightaway be taken from the soul, and the part that is left will be separated from the Spirit, with whom, by joining itself to the Lord, should have been “one spirit.” (I Cor 6:17.)
In his Commentary on Genesis, Origen further warns “[b]ecause the divine fire can from time to time [be] extinguished even in the Saints, hear the apostle Paul prescribing for those who have deserved to receive the gifts and graces of the Spirit—“Quench not the Spirit.” (I Thess 5:10.)
Composition of the canon and the role of the Spirit were addressed thusly. In his Homily on the Book of Numbers, Origen explains that “the Scriptures were composed, and have come down to us, from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by the will of the Supreme Father, through Jesus Christ.”
Prayer and the Spirit
Origen taught “the grace of the Holy Spirit in Prayer,” notes one commentator. Ideally, in obeying the command to pray always, our minds are not barren but inspired by the Spirit of true and saving thoughts. Origen explained that it was from St. Paul in Galatians “whence the deficiency may be made good for the [Saint] who, although he lacks this knowledge, yet tries to make himself worthy” by relying on the Spirit to whisper thoughts we might of ourselves lack.
In Galatians, stated Paul, “The Spirit itself makes intercessions for us to God with groanings.” The Holy Spirit cries in the hearts of the blessed “Abba, Father.” “I will pray and sing with the Spirit, and I will pray [and sing] with the understanding also,” adds St. Paul in I Corinthians 14:15.
Origen’s own prayer for speaking about prayers echoes many a preface to a Sacrament Meeting talk. “Since then to expound prayer is such a difficult task, one needs the Spirit to work within us that we may understand and speak worthily[:] I beseech the Spirit, praying as a man, before I begin to speak of prayer, that it may be granted me to speak fully and spiritually.” Origen here makes reference to how the disciples, having heard the Lord pray in Luke 11:1 asked, when the Lord was finished, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
“All knowledge of the Father, whom the Son reveals, is gained in the Holy Spirit.” First Principles 4 (quoting Matthew 11:17 for the revelation by the Son, and I Corinthians 2:10 for the revelation through the Holy Spirit). From First Principles 5, according to a Greek fragment, “The God and the Father, who holds the universe together, works on every existing being, for he imparts to each one from His own being the existence that he has,” which appears as if part of King Benjamin’s sermon in Mosiah 2.
To bring us up to the next section, Origen also taught the importance of loving obedience to the Lord by suggesting in the Lord’s intercessions with the Father, intercessions could vary in intensity with our ethical deserts.
This point never caught on in the Augustinian West. Origen relied here on Romans 8.
Conduct and the Spirit
“The Father creates, the Son redeems, but the Holy Spirit within us,” Origen wrote in First Principles, “quickens our souls that we may bear ethical fruits.” “The Holy Spirit comes only to the virtuous and stays far from bad men.
“The Spirit searches for any souls worthy and fitted for his revelation of God’s Love,” he states in the Commentary on the Song of Songs. “It is better to display the fruits of the Holy Spirit when circumstances make it difficult than when everything is easy,” he says of Matthew 5:44f (“Love your enemies” and etc.) In his Homily on Luke, “Everyone without faith is a deep and hollow “valley”: belief in Christ fills him with the fruits of the Spirit—that is with the virtues.”
To Origen, notes one authority, “[t]he cosmic drama of redemption, cast on the stage of history and recorded in the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, is reproduced in the life” of every member (Origen limited the gift of the Holy Spirit to membership).
“It is to the Holy Spirit the Father entrusts [us]: it is he who nurtures our yearnings for the divine (see II Nephi 2), and who inspires every upward movement . . . . nurturing with deepening root until the final goal of sanctified perfection is achieved.”
Initial Conclusions of the Exploration
Origen underplayed forgiveness without omitting forgiveness completely—Origenism is not in an identity relation with Mormonism. Finally, Origen from a Book of Mormon perspective is an innocent heretic. Cast in the best possible light in this article, Origen’s mistake of emphasis on forgiveness is minor compared to much more substantial errors (that would take us beyond the scope of the present undertaking).
Still, as Origen sums up his “concord” with the Book of Mormon, both Origen and the prophets of the Book of Mormon knew of the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit. For all his incandescent intellectual Christian commitment, my tentative conclusion awaiting a more equipped L.D.S. scholarship, Origen never lost sight of the simple faith and trust in the Lord that is behind every upward movement until the perfect day.
Origen, for the moment, is on the side of the angels.
As he wrote, and here I conclude, “[t]he Holy Spirit becomes . . . just what is needed by the man who has earned the right to participate in Him . . . . Entry into the kingdom will thus be possible only to those who have turned from earthly things and been likened to the children who have within them the Holy Spirit.”
*Owing to a health issue, I relied on my wife Heidi’s insights and help, more than usual, in writing this column.