Today, David Opderbeck continues his series on Origen and Adam. Two see his previous posts, click here.

Origen’s Interpretive Strategies: Impossibilities and “Stumbling Blocks”

Any discussion of Origen’s view of Adam and the Fall must begin with Origen’s strategies for interpreting the Biblical creation narratives.  Origen is often cited, and faulted, for an excessive reliance on fanciful allegorical Biblical interpretation.  But Origen’s method was crafted in significant part because of the challenges the Hebrew scriptures presented to any highly educated Greek Christian in the Second or Third Centuries.  Origen read the Biblical texts carefully and knew, well before modern historical criticism or Darwinian science, that many of the narratives could not constitute literal history.  At the same time, Origen did not simply write off those narratives as merely non-historical.[1]  Instead, Origen suggested that elements of the narratives should be taken as essentially historically accurate, while other elements should be understood as “stumbling blocks” intentionally included by the Holy Spirit.

In On First Principles, for example, Origen states that

If the usefulness of the law and the sequence and case of the narrative were at first sight clearly discernible throughout, we should be unaware that there was anything beyond the obvious meaning for us to understand in the scriptures.  Consequently, the Word of God has arranged for certain stumbling-blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted in the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not be completely drawn away by the sheer attractiveness of the language, and so either reject the true doctrines absolute, on the ground that we learn from the scriptures nothing worthy of God or else by never moving away from the letter fail to learn anything of the more divine element.[2]

These “stumbling-blocks,” Origen said, included things “which did not happen, occasionally something which could not happen, and occasionally something which might have happened but in fact did not.”[3]  In particular, Origen argued that parts of the creation narratives obviously were not literal:  “who is so silly,” he asked, “as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, ‘planted a paradise eastward in Eden,’ and set in it a visible and palpable ‘tree of life,’ of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life; and again that one could partake of ‘good and evil’ by masticating the fruit taken from the tree of that name?”[4]  Nevertheless, he thought parts of the narratives might still be historically true:  “[s]ometimes a few words are inserted which in the bodily sense are not true, and at other times a greater number.”[5]  Origen never fully articulated a method for separating the historical from the non-historical other than to “carefully investigate how far the literal meaning is true and how far it is impossible” and then to “trace out from the use of similar expressions the meaning, scattered everywhere through the scriptures of that which when taken literally is impossible.”[6]

Adam and Eve as Historical, Or Not?

Although Origen did not regard the “Trees” in the “Garden” as literal things, in On First Principles he did seem to suggest that Adam and Eve were both real individuals and symbolic of larger dimensions of humanity.  For example, in DP IV.III.7, in a complex passage commenting on Paul’s distinction between physical and “spiritual” Israel in 1 Corinthians 15, Origen traces the historical lineage of the Israelites and says Jacob was “born of Isaac, and Isaac descended from Abraham, while all go back to Adam, who the apostle says is Christ . . . .”  Origen then noted that “the origin of all families that are in touch with the God of the whole world began lower down with Christ, who comes next after the God and Father of the whole world and thus is the father of every soul, as Adam is the father of all men.”[7]  Further, Origen suggested, “Eve is interpreted by Paul as referring to the Church [and] it is not surprising (seeing that Cain was born of Eve and all that come after him carry back their descent to Eve that these two should be figures of the Church; for in the higher sense all men take their beginnings from the Church.”[8]  In texts such as these Origen seemed to assume that Adam and Eve were real people even as they symbolize larger truths.

Yet it is unclear whether in these texts Origen was simply reading off the literal sense of the Biblical text without commenting on its historicity.  In other texts, Origen seemeed to limit the historical content of the Biblical references to Adam.  Most notably, in his major apologetic work, Against Celsus, Origen responded to an early philosophical objection against what would seem a forerunner of Augustine’s biologistic view of original sin by noting that the Hebrew term “Adam” is used generically for all of humanity.[9]  Here Origen said that “the subjects of Adam and his son will be philosophically dealt with by those who are aware that in the Hebrew language Adam signifies man; and that in those parts of the narrative which appear to refer to Adam as an individual, Moses is discoursing upon the nature of man in general.”[10]   He concluded that “[f]or in Adam (as the Scripture says) all die, and were condemned in the likeness of Adam’s transgression, the word of God asserting this not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race.”[11]

Even here, Origen seemed to hedge his bets about the historicity of Adam.  The apparent qualification in the translation quoted above from Contra Celsus that scripture asserts the universality of sin “not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race” is interesting. This could suggest that the historical reference is real, or probably real, but of secondary importance.  In Migne’s Greek version text, this phrase reads “οὐχ οὕτως περὶ ἑνός τινος ὡς περὶ ὅλου τοῦ γένους” – “truly in this way about anything belonging to the former as about the entire race” (my literal translation).[12]  Whether Origen meant here that the reference to Adam signifies primarily the entire human race and only incidentally a historical man, or that the reference is “truly” only symbolic of the entire human race, is unclear. In any event, as Bouteneff notes, Origen could on different occasions speak of “Adam” both as a generic term for humanity and as an actual person in the genealogical line of Israel.[13]  It is probably best to conclude that Origen saw no reason to think a historical Adam was “impossible” and that therefore that the literal sense should be taken as historical.

A Dual Fall, Or Not

At the same time, in this passage in Contra Celsus Origen also hints at a notion of the human fall that extends beyond the “historical”:

And the expulsion of the man and woman from paradise, and their being clothed with tunics of skins (which God, because of the transgression of men, made for those who had sinned), contain a certain secret and mystical doctrine (far transcending that of Plato) of the souls losing its wings, and being borne downwards to earth, until it can lay hold of some stable resting-place.[14]

References such as this one led many ancient critics, and still convince many modern scholars, to conclude that Origen believed in a two-stage Fall:  a first fall of preexistent souls from paradise and “into” physical bodies, and a second fall of physical “Adam.”[15]  Bouteneff, however, sides with another line of scholarship that views these apparent “stages” of the human fall simply as different modes of discourse through which Origen seeks to explain the spiritual meaning of the diverse Biblical texts.[16]

A full effort at resolving this interpretive disagreement is beyond the scope of this post, but there are passages in On First Principles that could support either or both views.  For example, at one point Origen seems to understand the cycle of fall and return as an allegory of every person’s spiritual journey: “when each one, through participation in Christ in his character of wisdom and knowledge and sanctification, advances and comes to higher degrees of perfection,” God is glorified. [17]   Because God always offers forgiveness, “[a] fall does not therefore involve utter ruin, but a man may retrace his steps and return to his former state and once more set his mind on that which through negligence had slipped from his grasp.”[18]  In other places, though, Origen’s text seems to echo the Platonic mythology more literally.  For example:  “All rational creatures who are incorporeal and invisible, if they become negligent, gradually sink to a lower level and take to themselves bodies suitable to the regions into which they descend; that is to say, first, ethereal bodies, and then aeriel.”[19]

The Importance of “Matter”

One hint at a constructive resolution of the ambiguities in Origen’s views about the Fall might lie in Origen’s lengthy discourse on “matter” in Book IV, Chapter IV of On First Principles, which serves as a summary of the entire treatise.  Origen understood “matter” to be “that substance which is said to underlie bodies.”[20] Origen noted that humans exist bodily in various states, such as “awake or asleep, speaking or silent,” that do not comprise a human person’s “underlying substance.”[21]  The philosophical problem Origen was confronting here is the relationship between the “one” and the “many” (or the “universal” and the “particular”), which is so central Greek thought, and his division between substance and particulars was classically Platonic.[22]  However, in this part of his treatise, Origen also was attempting to show how the Christian doctrine of creation differed from the Aristotelian idea, which may also be present in Plato’s Timaeus, of the eternity of the cosmos.[23]  Origen, like other early Christian writers, sought to counter this reasoning in light of the Biblical revelation about the temporality of the immaterial creation.[24]

Although Origen wanted to deny the eternity of the material cosmos, he recognized that a radical disjunction between God’s eternal being and the purposes of creation – as though at some defined point in time God suddenly decided to create matter – would compromise God’s eternity and simplicity by introducing a temporal sequence into God’s own life.  Origen therefore borrowed another move from Platonism that would become a classically Christian – indeed, eventually an Augustinian – move:  he located the unchangeable substance, the “one,” in the eternal mind of God, and separated it from the created matter that will receive its form.  Here is how Origen summarized his conclusion:

since, then, as we have said, rational nature is changeable and convertible, so of necessity God had foreknowledge of the differences that were to arise among souls or spiritual powers, in order to arrange that each in proportion to its merits might wear a different bodily covering of this or that quality; and so, too, was it necessary for God to make a bodily nature, capable of changing at the Creator’s will, by an alteration of qualities, into everything that circumstances might require.  This nature must needs endure so long as those endure who need it for a covering; and there will always be rational natures who need this bodily covering.[25]

Concerning Adam, in other words, from eternity past God knew Adam would fall, and therefore God created a material body for Adam appropriate to a fallen creature.  While “Adam” is a changeable and imperfect being, God’s intellect and foreknowledge are perfect and unchanging.  Consistent with the “two-stage fall” reading of Origen, then, it is probably true that Origen envisioned the pre-material fall of Adam as an actual event in the ontology of creation, but there is also a sense in which that pre-material ontology of creation for Origen is anideal in God’s eternal mind rather than a series of events in the “historical” timeline of creation.  The “pre-material” fall therefore was not so much part of a sequence of “historical” events as a trans-historical reality that is manifested in history.  As discussed in my next post, this ontological connection between the trans-historical and the historical ties directly into the relationship between Christology and theological anthropology.


[1] See Bouteneff, Beginnings, 103-107.

[2] Origen, On First Principles, trans. G.W. Butterworth (Notre Dame:  Ave Maria Press 2013), IV.II.9.  Following scholarly convention, this text will be referred to hereafter as DP, the initials for the Latin title of the text, De Principiis.  The Section, Chapter and Paragraph numbers to the standard scholarly division of the text will be provided.  Unless otherwise indicated, Butterworth’s translation is from a Greek version of the text.

[3] DP IV.II.9.

[4] DP IV.IV.1.

[5] DP IV.II.9.

[6] DP IV.III.4.

[7] DP IV.III.7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Origen, Contra Celsus, trans. Frederick Crombie (Buffalo:  Christian Literature Publishing 1884), available at, 4:40.  Citations to this text will use the standard scholarly abbreviation C. Cels. and will refer to the standard scholarly section and paragraph divisions.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jaques-Paul Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca (Parise:  Imprimerie Catholique  1857), Vol. 11, available on Google Books at  A Greek text file from Migne, from which I made my translation, is available at  A good article describing Migne’s collection is available on Wikipedia at

[13] Bouteneff, Beginnings, 111.

[14] C. Cels. 4:40.

[15] See Bammel, Caroline P. Hammond, “Adam in Origen,’ in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy:  Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick, 62-93 (Cambridge:  CUP 1989).

[16] Bouteneff, Beginnings, 108.

[17] DP I.III.8.

[18] Ibid.

[19] DP I.IV.1.  He continues:  “And when they reach the neighborhood of the earth they are enclosed in grosser bodies, and last of all are tied to human flesh.”  Ibid.

[20] DP IV.IV.6.

[21] DP IV.IV.7.

[22] For a discussion of this problem in Platonism generally, see Gerald A. Press, “Plato” and Lloyd P. Gerson, “Plotinus and Neo-Platonism” in Richard H. Popkin, ed., The Columbia History of Western Philosophy (New York:  Columbia Univ. Press 1999).  For a discussion of the problem of particulars and universals in Platonism, see Balaguer, Mark, “Platonism in Metaphysics”, in Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition, Sec. 3 (“The One Over Many Argument”), available at

[23] See ibid. (noting that “we absolute deny that matter should be called unbegotten or uncreated”).  For Aristotle’s discussion of the eternity of the cosmos see Aristotle, On the Heavens, trans. J.L. Stocks (Oxford:  Clarendon Press 1927), Books I and II, available at  The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo, with whose work Origen was well-acquainted, was also very concerned about this question.  See Philo, On the Eternity of the World, in The Works of Philo, trans Charles Duke Yonge (London: H.G. Bohn 1854-1890), available at  For a discussion of the relationship between Origen’s thought and Philo’s, see David T. Runia, Philo and the Church Fathers:  A Collection of Papers, Chapter Six (New York:  E.J. Brill 1995).

[24] See, e.g., Harry A. Wolfson, Patristic Arguments Against the Eternity of the World, Harvard Theological Review 59:4 (Oct. 1966), 351-367.

[25] DP IV.IV.8.