This is the fourth post in David Opderbeck’s series on Origen and “Adam.”

A Postmodern Christian Platonism?

In the Introduction to this series I noted the philosophical, critical, and scientific problems with an “Augustinian” view of Adam, the Fall and original sin.  Origen’s approach to the problem can help us navigate through these treacherous shoals.  Philosophically, the ontological idealism suggested by Origen’s selective use of Greek thought can help us articulate how the universal of “human nature” is to some extent corrupted by the sin of the “one man,” Adam.  In response to modern historical criticism, Origen’s hermeneutic centered on the Rule of Faith can help us understand how Paul, and the later Patristic tradition, “read backward” into the Hebrew Scriptures and saw the sign both of universal human depravity and universal human redemption in the “one man,” Adam.  And, scientifically, Origen’s affirmation of “matter” as the created temporal substrate of higher levels of reality located ultimately in the Divine Ideas can help us affirm the scientific evidence concerning development of the human body and genome from our hominid ancestors while refusing the reductionism entailed by modern materialism.

Before unpacking these three claims, it is important to note that there is no suggestion here of a return to the actual details of Origen’s Platonic-Christian synthesis.  The Tradition was right to reject the Gnostic speculations of later Origenism concerning the preexistence of souls, the diversification of souls into humans, angels, demons, and other beings, and the necessary apokatastasis in which all souls return to their original source (different, it should be noted, from the hopeful notion ofapokatastasis generally), whether or not Origen actually held those views firmly himself.  The Biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption is vastly different from the neo-Platonic and Gnostic ideas that were at issue in the fourth century debates over Origin’s legacy.  Nevertheless, Origen correctly saw that the Biblical texts that outline this grand narrative extend outward from themselves, out from the gritty history in which they are grounded, and point toward transcendent truths, without losing their grounding in the literal sense, precisely because they are both human and divine texts.  The same is true, Origen saw, in human nature:  what makes us “human” is the donation of matter-with-Logos by the eternal wisdom of the transcendent God, that the fall is a turn away from this transcendent Logos and a dissolution into mere matter, and that our redemption entails our return to participate in God’s transcendent life and to receive his Logos again. [editor’s note: I love the last sentence so I underlined it]

Anthropology, Christology, and Justice

In more contemporary terms, Origen rightly concluded that theological anthropology is really Christology.  Indeed, the link between the theology of creation, anthropology, and Christology is particularly evident in Origen’s first Homily on Genesis.[1]  There Origen linked the “in the beginning” of Genesis 1:1 with the “in the beginning” of John 1 and suggests that “[s]cripture is not speaking here of any temporal beginning, but it says that the heaven and the earth and all things which were made were made ‘in the beginning,” that is, in the Savior.”[2]  Concerning the “image of God” in humanity, he asked rhetorically, “what other image of God is there according to the likeness of whose image man is made, except our Savior who is ‘the firstborn of every creature’ . . . .”[3]

The link between anthropology and Christology helps mediate the philosophical tensions within the doctrine of Adam’s fall and original sin.  Western theology after Augustine and prior to modernity generally drew on juridical and political categories to explain why it is just for God to hold all of humanity to account for Adam’s sin.  At a time when political authority was understood to inhere in the absolute rule of Kings, it made sense to suggest that the King directs the commonweal, for good or ill.[4]  For Western people today who reside in Constitutionally ordered nation states, this kind of analogy does not resonate so deeply.  Nevertheless, we still recognize the justice of some kinds of collective political responsibility even if a sanction produces injustice in individual cases.  For example, if the leader of a modern nation-state engages in acts of genocide, we might expect the United Nations to enact sanctions and perhaps to authorize military intervention, and most people likely would think such action in general is just, even though we know some innocent civilians will be negatively impacted.[5]  But even if we can understand the broader justice of upholding the international rule of law and stopping a genocidal leader, we usually do not think justice has truly been served in the individual circumstance of a civilian who loses his livelihood or life as a result of the sanctions.  The individual innocent civilian did not deserve this fate, even if it was unavoidable to stop the genocide.[6]

At the same time, in our globalized, post-modern context, we have once again become more sensitive to the things that bind us together as human beings beyond juridical categories.  As the Rio Olympics recently reminded us, we can speak of a universal “human spirit” that brings people together in a celebration of excellence that exceeds political, tribal and racial boundaries.  And as terrible events like the mass shooting in Orlando likewise recently reminded us, we can experience depths of grief and loss together that exceed even our hottest culture war issues.  Notwithstanding the claims of “new atheist” leaders like Richard Dawkins and Michael Graziano, who claim (ultimately, in contradiction with each other) that we are nothing but genes or brain chemicals, most people know there is something transcendent and universal about human nature.[7]

Classical Christian theology, including Origen’s theology, reading from the Biblical concepts of the “image of God” and of the universal efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection, understood this universal to reside ultimately in God’s own “mind.”  Of course, classical Christian theology also emphasized God’s simplicity, so that the use of a term like “mind” here was analogical.  The point is that the source of human nature transcends materiality and indeed that materiality itself derives from this transcendent source.  This is why Christian anthropology ultimately is Christology:  only in Christ, the incarnate Son, do we really see the meaning of “Adam.”  As Orthodox theologian and Patristic scholar John Behr reminds us, “[t]heologically speaking, creation and its history begins with the Passion of the Christ and from this ‘once for all’ work looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light, making everything new.”[8]

This approach can help us see that the implications of Adam’s sin for universal human nature are not so much about juridical categories of “justice” as they are about ontology.  If Adam’s sin distorts the relationship between the particulars of human experience and the universal ideal form of human nature, and if we each take some of that distortion as derived from Adam, it is easier to see why Adam’s sin impacts us all.  We could even use here an Augustinian-sounding analogy from modern genetics, though we must be careful to emphasize that the “transmission” of original sin is not “biological.”  The human genetic code must conform to certain forms, certain sequences of amino acids, if it is to produce a properly functioning human being.  If the form is disrupted through a mutation, such as a missing or changed amino acid, a disease can result, and that disrupted form can be passed down through generations and affect an entire community of people.  Such is the case, for example, with sickle cell anemia among some people of African ancestry or with “Fragile X Syndrome” and other genetic conditions among people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.[9]  In a roughly analogical way, Adam’s original disruption of human participation in the Divine life distorts the “moral field” of the human life in which we all subsequently find ourselves as the community of humanity.[10]  And Christ, the second Adam, repairs that field and reunites human nature with God.

This is a repost from David’s blog Through a Glass Darkly


[1] See The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation, Vol. 71, Origen:  Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, D.C.:  The Catholic University of America Press (1982), 47-71.

[2] Ibid., 47

[3] Ibid., 65.

[4] See, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship, Book 1, trans. Gerald B. Phelan and I.T. Eschmann (Toronto:  The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies 1949), available at This statement is admittedly a significant oversimplification of long and complex historical trajectories in both the Christian East and West about the relative authority of Emperors, Princes, and Popes.  See generally Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, eds., From Irenaeus to Grotius:  A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans 1999).

[5] For a list of current U.N. sanctions, see Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List, available at

[6] For a general discussion of contemporary notions of justice, see Michael J. Sandel, Justice:  What’s the Right Thing to Do (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2010).

[7] See, e.g., Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene:  40th Anniversary Edition(Oxford:  OUP 2016); Michael S. Graziano, God, Soul, Mind, Brain:  A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World (Freedonia:  Leapfrog Press 2010).

[8] Cf. John Behr, The Mystery of Christ:  Life in Death (Crestwood:  St. Valdimir’s Seminary Press 2006), 90.

[9] See The Mayo Clinic, “Sickle Cell Anemia,” Causes, available at; Genetic Jewish Disease Consortium Website, available at

[10] For a compelling use of the “moral field” metaphor, see Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World and Time:  Volume 1:  Ethics as Theology:  An Introduction (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans 2013) and Finding and Seeking:  Ethics as Theology:  Volume 2 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans 2014).