The notion of Logos was predestined to play a central role in Origen’s thought. The word has a wide range of meanings connected with rational thought and its expression in qspeech. In Hellenistic philosophy, Logos, elevated to a stable cosmic principle (archê) was the central mediating instance between the empirical world and the realm of ultimate reality, and at the same time the unifying rational principle of the cosmos and of human society. In the Hebrew Scriptures the creative divine Word, or Logos, had a semiautonomous existence (Isa. 55:11; Wis. 18:15) and became identified with Wisdom (Sir. 24:3), a personal or personified entity, whose mediating role in creation and salvation was assigned, in the Johannine prologue and the christological hymns of Colossians and Ephesians, to Christ, the Logos made flesh. Logos has already assumed a central place among the titles of Christ in the Apologists. Irenaeus uses the term sparingly and seeks to reground it in the biblical economy, resisting speculative accounts of the divine.
Origen also resists the Christological monopoly of the term Logos and reconnects it to some fifty other biblical titles of the Son, most of which name his saving roles toward humanity, but a few of which, such as Logos, Life, Wisdom, Truth, name his divine identity. The latter names, too, can have, or perhaps always have, a saving significance for us (ComJn 2.125-28). They name both the Son’s being in his turning to God and the relation to us that springs from this. ‘Logos,’ for example, signifies God’s own Word before it signifies the agent of revelation (ComJn 1.111; PArch 1.2.3). These names are called the aspects (epinoiai), since each corresponds to a particular human perspective on Christ (HomJr 8.2). Refusing to take the title ‘Logos’ as a transparent, literal description of the Son, which Origen thought would entail christological modalism (ComJm 1.125; 151-54), he sought to grasp its intelligibility by defining its place within the ordered set of epinoiai. All of them name the same indivisible personal entity, thus overcoming the pullulation of syzygies and emanations erected by the Valentinian system of gnostic theory, while satisfying both the spiritual need for mediators and the speculative and exegetical curiosity that, of course, made gnosis appealing.
Origen disciplines and revitalizes Logos theology by reanchoring it within Scripture but also by shaping a Platonistic hierarchization of mutually inherent aspects. He reconciles the biblical concerns of Irenaeus with the philosophical leanings of the Apologists, combining a phenomenology of the Logos in terms of its function of revelation with a dynamic speculative grasp of its divine origin: the Logos is ‘God’ by reason of his being ‘towards God’ (John 1.1; ComJn 2.10), though it is divine ‘not by participation but in essence’ (ComPs 135.2). Because it is thus constituted, the Logos can enable creatures to become ‘gods’ by participation (ComJn 2.17-20).
Compared with Clement and even with Philo, Origen’s discourse on Logos is thus more tightly organized, though still multifaceted. He carries over from them ambiguities about the ontological status of the Logos, which as mediator between God and creation exhibits both a transcendent and an immanent aspect. Though the primary role of Logos is to reveal the Father, this does not mean that the Logos is a diminished and approachable form of God (as Celsus suspects and censures), for the Logos of the supreme God shares in the ‘difficult’ and ‘unapproachable’ character of the very God it reveals (CCels 6.69). Seen from below, the Logos is one with God, above all things (ComRm 7.13 [PG 14.1140-41]), yet seen ‘from above’ (in more theoretical reflection), its subordinate status in respect to the Father is stressed. Origen leaves open whether God is himself being or whether God lies beyond being in dignity and power (Plato, Rep. 509B), and is content to say that the Logos participates in being. He suggests, but does not strongly assert, that the Logos should be called the ‘essence of essences’ (Origen’s own coinage) and the ‘idea of ideas’ (cf. Philo, Opif. 25; Migr. 103), or the beginning (archê), while God the Father is beyond all these (CCels 6.64; ComJn 13.123; 19.37). He refrains from deciding an issue left unresolved in Philonic and Middle Platonist thinking, and on which the Christian tradition had not much speculated as yet.
God is pure unity, but the Logos is a communion of plurality, the idea of ideas, the virtue of virtues (ComJn 1.119; CCels 5.39). The Logos is constituted from many ideas (theôrêmata), each of which is part of it, and embraces the principles (logoi) of the universe (ComJn 1.244; 5.5). As is usual in Middle Platonism, the Stoic terms in operation here are equivalent to the Platonic ‘ideas’ (PArch 1.2.2-3). The ideas or reasons are produced by God in generating the Son (eternally). This production is imaged by Origen as the exhalation of a word from the depths of the divine mind (Ps. 45:1; ComJn 1.280-83), an echo of the Stoic understanding of the immanent and expressed Word (logos endiathetos and prophorikos), something that we can also see in Theophilus (Autol. 2.10, which also cites Ps. 45:1). Since the ideas or logoi are the basis of creation, one can say that the Creator is never without creatures. Origen sounds at times as if, like Philo, he is identifying the Logos with the Platonic notion of the noetic world (kosmos noêtos) (ComJn 19.146-47), but elsewhere he contrasts the heavenly world with the Platonic figment (PArch 2.3.6). The Logos is seen as the founding dynamism of cosmic and spiritual harmony (koinônia or symphônia), as in Philo’s De confusione linguarum (CCels 8.69; 72). The metaphysical theme of the communion (koinônia) of all rational beings in the Logos is conspicuously absent from the Johannine prologue but is certainly prominent in Origen’s exegesis of it.
As in Philo, one of the functions of the Logos is to cushion God against naked contact with the debased material world. The Logos creates the world at God’s behest (ComJn 1.110; CCels 2.9); he is its immediate creator while the Father is the creator-in-chief (CCels 6.60); he can even be seen as an instrument used by God in creation (ComJn 2.70-2). The Logos’s role in creation is such that the Logos can be seen as an instrument at the service of the creative task. The words (logoi) of Christ that will not pass away (Matt. 24:35) are associated with the permanent seminal principles (logoi) of created things (CCels 5.22), which Origen even identifies with the Logos (ComPs Praef. [PG 12.1097]). The variations in Origen’s accounts of the status of the Logos both in respect to God and in respect to creation occur within the subordinationist context that was that of mainstream ante-Nicene theology. In the later third century, Logos speculation would flounder amid incertitudes, until the Arian crisis precipitated the orthodox position enshrined in the Nicene Creed, which more or less spelled the end of ‘Logos’ as a vibrant theological notion.
Another tension Origen inherits from his predecessors is that between the Logos as synthesis of the ideas and powers of God and the Logos as a personal being, what he calls the ‘second God’ (deuteros theos) (CCels 5.39; ComJn 6.202; Philo QG 2.62; Justin, Dial. 56.4). This tension is negotiated in Origen’s original thesis of the eternal generation of the Logos (PArch 1.2.4; HomJr 9.4; ComJn 1.204), which is correlated with the Logos’s eternal contemplation of the Father (ComJn 2.18; cf. Plotinus, Enn. 5.1.6). The name of Son is the principal name of Christ, the one identifying him as a person in relation to the Father. The other names nest within this, as it were. In the chain of epinoiai the title Wisdom precedes that of Logos. Their relation again suggests the Stoic concept of immanent and expressed Logos. Origen notes that God creates all things in Wisdom but through the Son (ComJn 2.90). Wisdom is the principle (archê) in which the ultimate patterns of things are contained. It is a hypostasis, a personal, wise, and living being (animal quoddam sapiens) (PArch 1.2.2), a phrase perhaps suggested by Plato’s account of the cosmos as an ‘intelligible animal’ embracing all other intellective life-forms (noêta zôa) (Plato, Timaeus 30C-D; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 5.94.2), as well as by the words ‘the word is a living being’ (verbum animal vivens), which he quotes from an apocryphon (PArch 1.2.3).
Logos, or Wisdom as communicated to the world, is a more personal name than Wisdom, especially when Origen deploys the image of the Logos as messenger (ComJn 1.277-8). The distinction that Wisdom has its subsistence in the Father, whence it is born (PArch 1.2.5), whereas Logos has its subsistence in Wisdom (ComJn 1.292), is not a reflection that can be pursued very far. All it means is that the Son receives his being from the Father, and that though each of the predicates of the Son names the Son when used as a subject, there is a logical subordination of one predicate to another. ‘Logos’ presupposes ‘Wisdom,’ for example, and ‘Way’ presupposes both titles, so that the subordinate predicate may be said to subsist in the predicate that logically mediates its subsistence in (or as) the hypostasis of the Son.
The title ‘Logos’ is not allowed to dominate unquestioned, as it perhaps tended to in earlier Christian usage. Origen seeks to grasp the intelligibility of the title and to define its specific place in the chain of epinoiai (see ComJn I-II; PArch I 2, which along with CCels are the central texts for Origen’s Logos-thinking). The notion of wisdom precedes that of Logos (ComJn II 90). Wisdom is the arche in which the ultimate patterns of things are contained.
Biblical texts are given a double reading, as referring to an impersonal universal Logos (reason) and to the personal Logos. While the Logos is personalized as the sower of all good logoi in the soul (ComMt 10. 2), and thus the source of all good acts (CCels 6.78), this image is demythologized by reduction to the idea that all logikoi participate in Logos (PArch 1.3.6); or one could say, conversely, that the metaphysical cliché is given new dynamism in Origen by the more personal and dynamic biblical image that he invokes. The personal coming of the Logos to the soul in the history of salvation is conflated (as Justin had much earlier done with his identification of Logod and Nomos) with the universal metaphysical presence of the Logos within us as the natural law that speaks to the adult conscience. The reference of John 15:22 shifts from one to the other (PArch 1.3.6; ComJn 1.270; ComRm 3.2; and cf. John 12:48 as it appears in ComJn 2.109-11). Universal values of truth and justice are treated as epinoiai of Christ in a similar to-and-fro between metaphysical and biblical registers (PArch 1.2.4; HomJr 14.3; 17.4; HomPs. 36.2.1; ComMt 12.11; 24-25). A lurking ambivalence attends this treatment of the eternal Son as immanent principle of the ethical and physical cosmos; it is one that was ready to burst forth (and did so with great impact) in the later Arian and Origenist crises.
See D. Pazzini. In principio era il Logos: Origene e il prologo del vangelo di Giovanni (Brescia, 1983); J. Letelier, ‘Le Logos chez Origene,’ Revue des sciences philosophiques et theologiques 75 (1991); J. Wolinski, ‘Le recours aux epinoiai du Christ dans le Commentaire sur Jean d’Origène,’ Origeniana Sexta (Leuven, 1995).
Joseph S. O’Leary
From John A. McGuckin, ed. The Westminster Handbook to Origen, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.