Bernard Pouderon: Review of Joseph S. O’Leary, Christianisme et philosophie chez Origène, Éditions du Cerf, 2011.
Joseph O’Leary, Irish by birth, but teaching at Tokyo’s prestigious Sophia University, is one of the too rare foreign scholars writing in French. He offers us here a synthesis on the philosophy of Origen, of which he proposes to show the fault-lines, since the alliance between faith and philosophy (“when faith seeks to articulate itself conceptually,” p. 15) is not unproblematic. He takes as his basis three works that represent three moments in Origen’s intellectual itinerary: On First Principles, in the edulcorated translation of Rufinus, where he shows himself more “ardent,” feeding on Platonism, then the Commentary on John, where he appears more contemplative, and finally the Contra Celsum, where he seeks to be more concrete, more attached to the Bible (see the conclusion, p. 242).
After a very brilliant general introductionon the relations between Greek thought and the biblical world within Christianity in its origins, the author offers “perspectives for a critical reading” (ch. 1, p. 31), dealing in particular with Origen’s school in Alexandria and the opposition between his “researchers” and the local episcopal hierarchy and the victory of the rigidity of orthodox thesis over a more speculative thinking. He notes (pp. 43-5) Origen’s deep biblical and ecclesial rootedness, which did not cause him to lose sight of the demands of reason as Greek philosophy had lit them up for him; thus Origen created a synthesis between the faith of the prophets and apostles as understood by the Church and the methods of research of Platonism: the “rational good sense,” the equivalent of the “common notions” of Stoic epistemology, insofar as his wish not to stray from the concreteness of the biblical data did not inhibit the development of the speculative framework of his thought (pp. 57-9). There remain nonetheless “tensions” between a systematic vision and a more practical and vital orientation in dealing with the elements of biblical teaching (pp. 64 ff.). In fact Origen thinks as a theologian according to the modes of thought of his Platonistic intellectual culture, which he puts at the service of elucidating the Christian message.
In chapter 2 (p. 89) treats of the Trinitarian hypostases envisaged as principles. He observes that On First Principles is “the product of courses of scholastic teaching, in which we see Origen determined to reduce to order and clarity the matter he handles” and “to introduce into church thought the demand of (rational) foundations,” taking as his point of departure Christ as truth. The chapter takes the form of a very free commentary of Princ. I, 1-3, underlining (in accord with the aim of the work) the tensions between faith and speculation that these passages reveal, with regard to the Logos-Son, and then with regard to the Spirit, which in Origen’s handling is closer than has been said to the Plotinian soul.
Chapter 3 (p. 137) is a Platonizing reading of the Fourth Gospel as found in the first two books of the Commentary on John. The author detects that “we are faced with a Platonic reading of the Johannine text” which nonetheless preserves a strong anchoring in the text of John itself, the “spiritual gospel,” the one that concerns an intimate relationship with Christ. In passing the author makes this astonishing observation: in Origen, Christ is principle in that he is Wisdom, but not as Logos, which takes us back roughly to the distinction of Logos endiathetos and Logos prophorikos of the preceding generation. As to the epinoiai, the “titles” or “aspects” attributed to the Logos-Son, some fifty in all, each of them corresponds to “a particular perspective on Christ” (pp. 153-4), he notes, after a very subtle analysis of Origen’s commentary on the Johannine Prologue. To be signaled as particularly worthy of note: the passage (p. 170) which underlines that the Son is God by participation (theos and not ho theos: CommJn II, 7), even if he is of the same essence as the Father, thus prefiguring the theses of Arius; the demonstration (p. 173) that the incarnate Word “is only a shadow of the Word in its full personal reality”; the account of how “Christ in glory carries some the traces of his passage in the flesh” (CommJn II, 61). The entire discussion shows how Origen reconciles historicity of the Johannine narrative and spiritual or allegorical sense.
Chapter 4 (p. 195) bears on the theological status of philosophy in CCels VI-VII. The author underlines Origen’s ambivalent evaluation of philosophy, from which he takes his distance more markedly than Clement, to be sure, but also than Philo, but he nonetheless maintains that in the intellectual world of Origen “Platonic forms of thinking prevail.” Thus the theoretical knowledge of God possible in philosophy is opposed to the revelation to the heart of the simple believer, which Origen judges more satisfactory (p. 202), even if the goal aimed at is evidently the same (p. 231): “Origen makes no distinction between the spirituality of Platonism and that of Christianity,” except for the fact that the God of Christians allows also to the simple of heart a life as good as possible. The formula that “Origen is as it were enveloped by Platonism, but at the same time resists it by his reference to the biblical realities” (p. 208) reflects well the position of the author, who also finds that Origen locates in “condescension” (sunkatabasis) the superiority of the Christian God over the God of the philosophers.
Here is a book that is difficult but gripping to read. My judgment can be summed up in three words: brilliant, documented, profound.
Revue des Études Grecques 125 (2012):332-3.