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Chapter XVII.

The Error of Origen a great Trial to the Church.

[42.] We said above that in the Church of God the teacher’s error is the people’s trial, a trial by so much the greater in proportion to the greater learning of the erring teacher. This we showed first by the authority of Scripture, and then by instances from Church History, of persons who having at one time had the reputation of being sound in the faith, eventually either fell away to some sect already in existence, or else founded a heresy of their own. An important fact truly, useful to be learnt, and necessary to be remembered, and to be illustrated and enforced again and again, by example upon example, in order that all true Catholics may understand that it behoves them with the Church to receive Teachers, not with Teachers to desert the faith of the Church.

[43.] My belief is, that among many instances of this sort of trial which might be produced, there is not one to be compared with that of Origen,481481    Origen was born of Christian parents, at Alexandria, about the year 186. His father, Leonidas, suffered martyrdom in the persecution under Severus, in 202; and the family estate having been confiscated, his mother, with six younger children, became dependent upon him for her support. At the age of eighteen he was appointed by the bishop Demetrius over the Catechetical School of Alexandria, the duties of which place he discharged with eminent ability and success. He remained a layman till the age of forty-three, when he was admitted to priest’s orders at Cæsarea, greatly to the displeasure of Demetrius, by whose hand, according to the Church’s rule, the office ought to have been conferred, and he was in consequence banished from Alexandria. Returning to Cæsarea, he taught there with great reputation, and had many eminent persons among his disciples. He suffered much in the Decian persecution in 250, when he was thrown into prison and subjected to severe tortures. His works, as Vincentius says, were very numerous, including among them the Hexapla, a revised edition of the Hebrew Scriptures and of the Septuagint version, together with three other versions, the Hebrew being set forth in both Hebrew and Greek characters. His writings were corrupted in many instances, so that, as Vincentius says, opinions were often imputed to him which he would not have acknowledged. He died in his sixty-ninth year at Tyre, and was buried there. in whom there were 144many things so excellent, so unique, so admirable, that antecedently any one would readily deem that implicit faith was to be placed all his assertions. For if the conversation and manner of life carry authority, great was his industry, great his modesty, his patience, his endurance; if his descent or his erudition, what more noble than his birth of a house rendered illustrious by martyrdom? Afterwards, when in the cause of Christ he had been deprived not only of his father, but also of all his property, he attained so high a standard in the midst of the straits of holy poverty, that he suffered several times, it is said, as a Confessor. Nor were these the only circumstances connected with him, all of which afterwards proved an occasion of trial. He had a genius so powerful, so profound, so acute, so elegant, that there was hardly any one whom he did not very far surpass. The splendour of his learning, and of his erudition generally, was such that there were few points of divine philosophy, hardly any of human which he did not thoroughly master. When Greek had yielded to his industry, he made himself a proficient in Hebrew. What shall I say of his eloquence, the style of which was so charming, so soft, so sweet, that honey rather than words seemed to flow from his mouth! What subjects were there, however difficult, which he did not render clear and perspicuous by the force of his reasoning? What undertakings, however hard to accomplish, which he did not make to appear most easy? But perhaps his assertions rested simply on ingeniously woven argumentation?  On the contrary, no teacher ever used more proofs drawn from Scripture. Then I suppose he wrote little? No man more, so that, if I mistake not, his writings not only cannot all be read through, they cannot all be found;482482    “Quis nostrum,” says St. Jerome, “potest tanta legere quanta ille conscripsit.”—Hieron. ad Pam. et Occan. for that nothing might be wanting to his opportunities of obtaining knowledge, he had the additional advantage of a life greatly prolonged.483483    He died, as was said in the preceding note, in his sixty-ninth year. But perhaps he was not particularly happy in his disciples? Who ever more so? From his school came forth doctors, priests, confessors, martyrs, without number.484484    Among these were Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of NeoCæsarea in Pontus, and Firmilian, Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia. Then who can express how much he was admired by all, how great his renown, how wide his influence? Who was there whose religion was at all above the common standard that did not hasten to him from the ends of the earth? What Christian did not reverence him almost as a prophet; what philosopher as a master? How great was the veneration with which he was regarded, not only by private persons, but also by the Court, is declared by the histories which relate how he was sent for by the mother of the Emperor Alexander,485485    Mammea. moved by the heavenly wisdom with the love of which she, as he, was inflamed. To this also his letters bear witness, which, with the authority which he assumed as a Christian Teacher, he wrote to the Emperor Philip,486486    These are St. Jerome’s words, from whose book, De Viris illustribus c. 54, Vincentius’s account of Origen is taken. The vexed question of Philip’s claim to be ranked as a Christian is discussed by Tillemont.—Histoire des Empereurs, T. iii. pp. 494 sqq. the first Roman prince that was a Christian. As to his incredible learning, if any one is unwilling to receive the testimony of Christians at our hands, let him at least accept that of heathens at the hands of philosophers. For that impious Porphyry says that when he was little more than a boy, incited by his fame, he went to Alexandria, and there saw him, then an old man, but a man evidently of so great attainments, that he had reached the summit of universal knowledge.

[44.] Time would fail me to recount, even in a very small measure, the excellencies of this man, all of which, nevertheless, not only contributed to the glory of religion, but also increased the magnitude of the trial. For who in the world would lightly desert a man of so great genius, so great learning, so great influence, and would not rather adopt that saying, That he would rather be wrong with Origen, than be right with others.487487    Errare malo cum Platone quam cum istis vera sentire.—Cicero, Tuscul. Quæst. 1.

What shall I say more? The result was that very many were led astray from the integrity of the faith, not by any human excellencies of this so great man, this so great doctor, this so great prophet, but, as the event showed, by the too perilous trial which he proved to be. Hence it came to pass, that this Origen, such and so great as he was, wantonly abusing the grace of God, rashly following the bent of his own genius, and placing overmuch confidence in himself, making light account of the ancient simplicity of the Christian religion, presuming that he knew more than all the world besides, de145spising the traditions of the Church and the determinations of the ancients, and interpreting certain passages of Scripture in a novel way, deserved for himself the warning given to the Church of God, as applicable in his case as in that of others, “If there arise a prophet in the midst of thee,”… “thou shalt not hearken to the words of that prophet,”…“because the Lord your God doth make trial of you, whether you love Him or not.”488488    Deuteronomy xiii. 1. Truly, thus of a sudden to seduce the Church which was devoted to him, and hung upon him through admiration of his genius, his learning, his eloquence, his manner of life and influence, while she had no fear, no suspicion for herself,—thus, I say, to seduce the Church, slowly and little by little, from the old religion to a new profaneness, was not only a trial, but a great trial.489489    “The great Origen died after his many labors in peace. His immediate pupils were saints and rulers in the Church. He has the praise of St. Athanasius, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzen, and furnishes materials to St. Ambrose and St. Hilary; yet, as time proceeded a definite heterodoxy was the growing result of his theology, and at length, three hundred years after his death, he was condemned, and, as has generally been considered, in an Œcumenical Council.”—Newman on Development, p. 85, First Edition.

[45.] But some one will say, Origen’s books have been corrupted. I do not deny it; nay, I grant it readily. For that such is the case has been handed down both orally and in writing, not only by Catholics, but by heretics as well. But the point is, that though himself be not, yet books published under his name are, a great trial, which, abounding in many hurtful blasphemies, are both read and delighted in, not as being some one else’s, but as being believed to be his, so that, although there was no error in Origen’s original meaning, yet Origen’s authority appears to be an effectual cause in leading people to embrace error.


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