Archpriest John Behr Completes Significant New Edition of Origen’s On First Principles

Father John Behr delivering a Patristics lecture series on “The School of Alexandria” at St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox College in AustraliaFather John Behr delivering a Patristics lecture series on “The School of Alexandria” at St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox College in AustraliaArchpriest John Behr, the Father Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, has published a new critical edition and translation of Origen’s On First Principles, together with a lengthy introduction, which is sure to become a significant new resource in the fields of dogmatic theology, church history, and patristic studies. The book is published by Oxford University Press, as part of their Oxford Early Christian Texts series.

Origen’s On First Principles, written around AD 220—230, is one of the most important, and controversial, of early Christian writings. It provided a frame of reference for many of the debates in the following centuries. Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian included lengthy passages of it in their Philokalia—almost of third of Origen’s On First Principles, in total. But it also provoked controversy when written; further debate when translated into Latin by Rufinus at the end of the fourth century; and was the subject, together with its author, of condemnation in the sixth century. The edition and English translation that remained standard for the twentieth century was based on this condemnation, together with statements reportedly coming from the work.

However, through a careful examination of the original work and its structure, Fr. John argues for a different understanding of the text, with significant implications for how the text is to be read and for how the character of theology in the early Christian tradition is to be understood. He argues for a more sympathetic understanding of Origen’s work, viewed through the lens of the liturgical worship of the Church, a timeless celebration of the eternal Eucharistic offering and sacrifice. Within that context, Fr. John claims, readers can see the accusations made against Origen in his own time and thereafter in a new light.

“Origen of Alexandria has always been a perplexing figure, for the centuries that followed him just as much as for our own,” noted Fr. John. “I have proposed a different structuring to the work,” he went on, “and in doing so suggest, in the introduction, that Origen should be read in a different key altogether, that is, an apocalyptic key.

For example, Origen’s alleged belief in pre-existent intellects descending into ranks of increasingly dense bodies via a pre-cosmic fall—“ideas that were (rightly!) anathematized in the sixth century” remarks Fr. John—do not actually occur within the work. “I argue,” Fr. John explained, “that Origen was not ever talking about pre-existent souls falling into bodies, a mythology based in his supposedly wild allegory, as he is usually caricatured, but rather about our participation, even now, in the eschatological liturgy, expounded by an ‘apocalyptic’ reading of Scripture that is intrinsic to the proclamation of the gospel from the beginning.”

Re-reading Origen’s densely layered writing, Fr. John painstakingly works through the text, to see it in the framework of the ancient patristic and scriptural worldview, in order to view it in its original context. He uncovers a worldview in which the heavenly and the earthly coexist together, in a dimension outside of historical time and divided space. In doing so, he not only offers readers a better understanding of Origen’s text (akin to Scriptural apocalyptic literature) but also the heart of understanding early Christian theology—and the methods employed therein—and, for that matter, the nature of Christian theology altogether.

Pre-order Origen: On First Principles here.