Discussion of Origen’s treatment of grace (charis) has always turned on the question whether he allows too much autonomy to freedom, underplaying the necessity of grace. As far as Jerome was concerned, Origen was the father of Pelagianism; in the Lutheran perspective he was a preacher of justification by works; while for Jansenius he is in the dock as the worst enemy of divine grace. However, being cautious about bringing later Augustinian criteria to bear upon his writings, we should recognize that though he does not formulate strong theses about grace, Origen’s writings are, in fact, suffused with a multifaceted sense of divine grace, which might even serve to correct a certain narrowness of focus in the Augustinian tradition on the issue. If Origen stresses freedom somewhat at the expense of grace, it might equally be claimed that Augustinianism defends grace at the expense of freedom.
In constant dialogue with Scripture, Origen orchestrates the biblical sense of grace, allowing it correct and overturn the ‘Pelagian’ or rationalistic elements in his initial outlook, which had been constructed under the overwhelming stimulus of the desire to oppose the various ‘fatalisms’ of late antique religion. In fighting the Valentinian doctrine of ‘natures’ predestined to salvation or damnation (ComMt 10.11), which denies both freedom and grace, Origen is a staunch champion of both. He also explicitly defends freedom against Epicurean chance, Stoic necessity (PArch 3.5.5), and determinism based on astrology or divine omniscience (Philoc 23).
For Origen, freedom has the principal role both in the fall and the conversion of rational creatures (CCels 3.66-69). Salvation depends on how well we use our free will, in synergy with the assistance of divine grace, or perhaps even independently of grace: God gives us the capacity to conquer temptation, not the conquest itself, for then there would be no struggle and no merit (PArch 3.2.3). ‘To destroy the voluntariness of virtue is to destroy its essence’ (CCels 4.3). The soul of Jesus is seen (almost in ‘Nestorian’ style) as exemplar of the conjoint triumph of freedom and grace, meriting by its loving fidelity to become inseparably united with the Logos in a supreme participation (PArch 2.6.3-7; CCels 6.47-48; ComJn 32.325-26). For Origen, it depends on our choice of virtue or vice whether we know God as kind or as severe (HomJr 4.4). We all have freedom of choice by which we can be converted to the good, and all souls are made good or bad by the power of free choice (PArch 3.1.1; ComRm 8.11).
In his early writings, especially in the First Principles, Origen tends to intellectualize sin and grace. Anxious to give a rational explanation for biblical examples of disparity of divine favor, such as that between Esau and Jacob, he sees them as determined by choices in a previous existence; originally God created all spirits equal and alike, and their diversity results from good and bad uses of free will (PArch 2.9.6-8). Here predestination is systematically subordinated to divine prescience (see also ComRm 8.7). God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 4:21), cited as an ‘objection’ to free will, is explained as meaning that God’s command provoked Pharaoh’s own willful reaction of disobedience to it, even though it was meant for the universal good (PArch 3.1.10). Like a good and kind master who looks upon a spoiled and reckless servant and sadly concludes, ‘It is I who made you wicked,’ so does God appropriate, as it were, the sin itself. Such texts do not mean God caused the hardening into wickedness, rather that God’s prescience had foreseen it, and that God grieves over it, still seeking the conversion of the soul to the good (PArch 3.1.11).
Origen largely echoes Philo’s sense of radical dependence on grace for our basic activities of perception and thought (PArch 3.1.12), but qualifies his total acceptance of this by adding that it ‘is in our power whether we use [our God-given faculties] for good or for bad’ (ComRm 9.26). He carefully notes biblical statements that our victory comes not from our own strength but from God’s grace (HomEx 6.1) and that God lifts up the fallen sinner (HomPs 37.2.1), but on other occasions speaks as if sinners lifts themselves up by their own efforts (HomPs 36.4.2). In his response to Scripture, particularly the Psalms, he often ‘misses chances’ of stressing the sinner’s total dependence on God for the grace of conversion. Athletic imagery, reminiscent of Philo, is a noticeable way Origen emphasizes human effort and energy in the moral struggle (HomPs 36.4.1; ComMt 15.22).
Origen has a strong rhetoric of original sin, but it is skewed by his theory of the fall of pre-existent spirits into matter. Human birth is itself a result of sin in a previous existence and adds to that sinfulness the ‘shameful’ contamination of sexuality and materiality (HomLev 8.3; 12.4; HomLc 14; HomPs 37.1.6; ComRm 5.9 [PG 14.1046-47]; 6.12 [1094-95]). It is conceivably possible that these texts may be a source for the later Augustine’s thinking on original sin. However, for Origen sin is transmitted less by generation than by bad teaching and example; hence Christ’s regeneration comes with good teaching (ComRm 5.2 ). Sin reigns only with the consent of free will (ComRm 5.2  and not all who commit sins, but only ‘many’ (Rom. 5:19), are ‘sinners’ in the full sense. The Pauline vision of universal sinfulness is further diluted by Origen’s talk of degrees of sinfulness and of justification (ComRm 3.3-5). Paul’s stark cry, ‘No one shows kindness’ (Rom. 3:12), is taken by Origen to mean that no one completely succeeds in accomplishing the good (ComRm 3.3), or that we perform only a ‘shadow of good’ in obeying the Law, which is itself a shadow of future goods (ComPs 52:2; cf. Heb. 8:5; 10:1; ComRm 5.1 ).
Origen regularly associates the power of grace with the saving presence of the Logos. Dead through sin, we are miraculously restored to life by the command and synergeia of the Logos (ComJn 28.49-50; 72). Grace is abundant, for the Logos has been revealing himself since the beginning of time and, for those sharing his sonship, the power of his Spirit is a constant energy of conversion and sanctification (HomJr 9.4). He sees the healing potency of the Logos as so great that in the end all souls will be perfected by using their free will to choose what the Logos requires (CCels 8.72).
Just as in Philo the indwelling Logos controls our passions, so with Origen the indwelling Good Shepherd subdues our souls to himself (HomJr 5.6). The Logos is present in the words of Scripture, provided as medicaments against our weakness and as educational discipline (HomPs 37.1.1). The most vital experience of grace is the breakthrough of spiritual reading of Scripture, in which the veil of the letter is lifted and one encounters the Logos, Christ, speaking in the pages of the Old Testament. Successful reading of Scripture, therefore, is itself a grace. Thus Origen prays, and asks the people’s prayers, calling on Christ to ‘unseal’ the text (ComPs Praef [PG 12.1080]; HomGen 9.5; HomEx 12.4; HomLev 1.1; 6.1; 12.4; 13.1-2; 15.4; HomNum 26.3; HomJos 26.2; Hom1R 1.3; HomIs 9; HomPs 36.4.3; ComCt 2 [PG 13.135]; ComRm 1.18 [865-66]).
As a careful exegete of Romans, Origen upholds the notion of justification by faith alone, to which the works of the Law make no contribution (ComRm 3.9). (This text, incidentally, was quoted by Cervini at the Council of Trent and by Ursinus in expounding the Heidelberg Catechism.) For Origen, the root of righteousness acquired by faith in God who justifies the sinner is acceptable to God even without the works that normally spring from it (ComRm 4.1), another passage approved by no less than Melanchthon. The good thief’s confession of faith (without works) associates him with the communion of Christ, the tree of life, embodying all righteousness and virtue (ComRm 5.9). However, this is not a forensic righteousness that is clearly differentiated from the sanctification that follows on it. Justification and sanctification are conflated in Origen’s understanding, so that justification is truly complete only when moral perfection is attained, and is never ‘completed’ in this life alone (ComRm 3.2 [932-33]). It is the deeds of virtue that make the soul healthy or great (HomLev 12.2). If some (such as Jeremiah or John the Baptist) are sanctified in the womb or even earlier (HomJr 1.11), even this grace may be due to pre-existent merit.
Origen invokes 2 Corinthians 6:14 to stress that justifying faith cannot coexist with sin (ComRm 4.1 ; 7 ) and also teaches that only when purged of sin can we receive the Word (HomJr 1.16). The radical opposition of good and evil, life and death, excludes any dynamic of the soul being ‘simultaneously just and sinful’ (simul iustus ac peccator) (HomLev 12.3); instead, there is a rather unsatisfactory concession that most people are ‘neither just nor sinful’ (nec iustus nec peccator) (HomEx 2.3) but something in between (HomGen 5.1; 3; HomLev 8.11). In the Commentary on Romans, however, Origen tries to focus more precisely on the situation of the justified, arguing that they can already be called saints if they do not waste the grace of justification by unholy lives, and that that grace is not lost by the commission of minor sins. For Origen, the meritorious value of deeds is not in rivalry with faith, but rather is rooted in the grace of justification that it brings to fruition. Yet works are not outweighed by faith: the works of pagans are rewarded, even if they are condemned for their lack of faith, while the bad deeds of believers are punished (ComRm 2.7). Works express faith, and without them faith cannot be real. Faith itself is sometimes seen as a work, and sanctification as the practice of virtues.
At one point, Origen refers Paul’s phrase ‘no longer on the basis of works’ (Rom. 11:6) to the ceremonial Jewish law, implicitly clinging to the idea of salvation by moral works, and he adds that those who adorn the gift of grace with works of virtue are saved not only ‘by grace’ but ‘by the election of grace,’ suggesting a two-tier process of salvation, with freedom playing a greater role in the salvation of the spiritual elite (ComRm 8.7). Origen’s habitual concerns sometimes distract him from the thread of Pauline argument: he interprets ‘the flesh’ (Rom. 8:3) as a reference to literalist interpretation of the Scripture (ComRm 6.12) (much to the annoyance of Melanchthon), and his quest for the interior sensus of Romans 3:25 (ComRm 3.8 ) takes a spiritualizing turn that is ill-suited to the text.
Even so, whatever the defects in his grasp of Paul’s original sense, and whatever further loss of contour occurs in the Latin translation of the commentary that Rufinus prepared, Origen nonetheless engaged the Pauline problematic on grace more closely than any Christian thinker before him and did it with such dynamic interest that his views, as relayed by Rufinus, became an unavoidable reference point, either in praise or in blame, on both sides of the Pelagian controversy and its later sequels. Even when the Christian Church, after the fifth century, followed a deeply beaten Augustinian track on the issue of grace, Origen’s voice continued to be heard, sounding in a slightly different modality. It was a form of approach not as scholastically tight as the Augustinian version that predominated, and one that more heavily influenced the approach to the problematic of freedom in salvation in the Eastern Christian world (where Augustine’s influence was never strong). In many senses it played out its most active role in underpinning a developing theology of asceticism. It may still have much to offer today.
R. Roukema, ‘Origenes’ visie op de rechtvaardiging volgens zijn Commentaar op Romeinen,’ Gereformeerd Theologisch Tijdschrift 89 (1989); C. P. Bammel, ‘Philocalia IX, Jerome, Epistle 121, and Origen’s Exposition of Romans VII,’ Journal of Theological Studies 32 (1981), 50-81; ‘Augustine, Origen and the Exegesis of St Paul,’ Augustinianum 32 (1992), 341-68; ‘Justification in Augustine and Origen,’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47 (1996), 223-35; T. P. Scheck, ‘Justification by Faith Alone in Origen’s Commentary on Romans and its Reception during the Reformation Era,’ Origeniana Octava (Leuven, 2003), 1277-88.
Joseph S. O’Leary
From John A. McGuckin, ed. The Westminster Handbook to Origen, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.