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from issue no. 06 - 2011

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An imprudent idealism

In the ‘Twenties Jules Lebreton wrote two articles on Origen.

The theology of the Master of Alexandria is “an idealism that believes it gets closer to God but losing sight of the humanity of Christ”

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

The representation of the Art of Grammar, cloistered convent of the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro Coronati, in Rome

The representation of the Art of Grammar, cloistered convent of the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro Coronati, in Rome


In the 1922 issue no.12 of Recherches de science religieuse (a magazine he founded in 1910 with Father De Grandmaison), Father Jules Lebreton published an article entitled Les degrés de la Connaissance religieuse d’après Origène. On the same subject, in the years 1923 and 1924, the Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique published a long article (in two parts), again by Father Lebreton, entitled Le désaccord de la foi populaire et de la théologie savante dans l’Eglise chrétienne du III siècle. Despite more than seventy years having passed since its publication, the lucidity with which Lebreton interprets Origenism, emphasizing its distance from the depositum fidei, remains unsurpassed; a very relevant lesson, furthermore, because in the meantime Origenism has certainly not gone away.

The page numbers in brackets refer to the Italian translation published by Jaca Book in 1972.


1. From philosophy to heresy

“For the ordinary faithful, as once for St Clement of Rome, the mystery of the Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit, is the faith and hope of the elect; they see everything from the point of view of salvation and, in the center, the cross of Christ, and His redemptive death, His resurrection, the pledge of their own. They may say, as Origen reproved them, that they know only Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ crucified. The learned see in the same mystery the solution to all the puzzles of the world: how could an infinitely perfect God create? It was with His Word. How did this invisible God make Himself known? Again with His Word. Creation with the Word, revelation with the Word: these are without doubt authentic Christian doctrines, but in earlier writers they are considered especially in their relations with the dogma of salvation: if God has created the world it is for His Church, it is for His saints; these considerations are less obvious here [among the Alexandrines], what is foregrounded is the philosophical problem that preoccupied all thinkers. ... Lured onto the terrain of philosophers, Christian theologians suffered their influence: the generation of the Word of God was described by them as a function of the cosmological problem: to create the world, God, who from eternity has within Him His Word, proffers it to the outside” (pp. 42-43).


St Peter on the shoulders of the personification of the virtue of Charity, beneath whose feet is the vice of Hatred represented by Nero, cloistered convent of the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro Coronati, in Rome

St Peter on the shoulders of the personification of the virtue of Charity, beneath whose feet is the vice of Hatred represented by Nero, cloistered convent of the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro Coronati, in Rome

2. The humanity of Jesus Christ

Thus the flesh that the Son took from Mary and that she gave birth to is not stressed as the locus of salvation but is functional to the resolution of a philosophical problem. “Because we are driven”, says Origen, “by a heavenly and more than heavenly virtue to worship only our Creator, we neglect the teaching of the beginningsof Christ, namely the elementary teaching, and let us elevate ourselves to perfection so that the wisdom that is manifested to the perfect may be manifested to us” (cf Periarchon 4,1,7). This “heavenly” virtue is what enables us to go beyond the elementary teaching, to reach the intelligible realities, the “heavenly” world’ (pp.97-98). Lebreton is quick to point out that: “Without doubt this is a very false and dangerous conception of the incarnation of the Son of God and of His reduction; but this error is inherent to Origenism, an imprudent idealism that believes it gets closer to God but losing sight of the humanity of Christ” (p. 89). Beware! In Origen spiritual Christianity does not exclude the bodily kind, secret Christianity does not exclude the manifest one, the everlasting Gospel does not exclude the Gospel as understood by ordinary Christians. Indeed Lebreton writes that for Origen “the simple faith, that has as its central object Jesus Christ crucified, is without doubt saving knowledge, but it is an elementary knowledge, like children’s milk; the mercy of God offers it, in the absence of better, to those who are too weak to raise themselves higher to ‘know God in the wisdom of God’. So it is no surprise to see Origen (cf Contra Celsum 3, 79) defending the faith of the simple claiming that it is not the absolute best, but the best possible given the infirmities of those to whom it must be offered” (p. 73). But precisely this argument, brought in to defend the faith of the simple, nullifies it. Lebreton cites what Origen writes in his Commentary on John: “Origen says: ‘The Gospel which the simple believe they understand contains the shadow of the mysteries of Christ. But the everlasting Gospel, of which John speaks, and which we should properly call the spiritual Gospel, clearly presents, to those who understand everything about the Son of God, both the mysteries that His speeches give a glimpse of, and the realities of which His actions were the symbols. ... Peter and Paul, who beforehand were obviously Jews and circumcised, then received from Jesus the grace to be so in secret. They were visibly Jews for the salvation of the crowd; not only did they confess it in their words but they manifested it in their actions. The same must be said of their Christianity. And, as Paul cannot succor the Jews according to the flesh, if, when reason requires it, he does not circumcise Timothy, and if, when the time comes, he does not cut off his hair and does not make the offering, in a word, if he does not make himself a Jew with the Jews to win over the Jews, so he who dedicates himself to the salvation of many [Origen is speaking of himself] cannot effectively help with secret Christianity those who are still tied to the elements of manifest Christianity, make them better and make them achieve what is more perfect and higher. Thus it is necessary that Christianity be spiritual and corporeal, and when it is necessary to proclaim the corporeal Gospel, and say amongst those who are carnal that no other than Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ crucified is known, it must be done.

But when one finds them perfected by the Spirit, bearing fruit in Him, and in love with heavenly wisdom, one must let them know of the discourse that rises up from the incarnation up to what was with God’” (pp. 77-78).


3. The secret tradition

The single tradition of the Church, of which Irenaeus speaks and which is primarily entrusted to the custody of the Bishop of Rome, splits inevitably, following Origen, into a twofold tradition. “On the one hand, the visible Church, which shows, as in Irenaeus and Tertullian, the episcopal succession that binds it to Christ through the apostles; on the other an elite, known only to God, hidden from the eyes of men, which also refers back to an apostolic tradition, a restricted one, however, secret and transmitted in clandestine fashion” (p. 94). If one goes into it one finds that not only do the traditions become dual, an exoteric (public, that is, Catholic), the other, the one that counts, esoteric (secret, that is, gnostic), but also that they do not transmit the same depositum.

Nor in purpose either: “The teaching reserved to the simple is moral; the revelation of mysteries, particularly of the Trinity, is the secret of the perfect. ... The two teachings, one offered to the mass, the other reserved for the perfect, are distinguished by their purpose: for the former the injunction of moral precepts, for the latter the revelation of divine secrets. ... Origen often contrasted the knowledge of Christ’s humanity with that of His divinity: one can only preach Jesus Christ crucified to the carnal, but to those who are in love with heavenly wisdom the Word who is with God will be revealed ... In the foreground he sets those ‘who participate in the Logos that was in the beginning, which was with God, the Logos God’, then those ‘who know only Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ crucified, thinking that the Logos made flesh is all the Logos; they know Christ only according to the flesh: and it is the mass of those who are called believers’”(pp. 79-80).

Nor as to method. The truths, as different as the purposes, are also so in terms of the fashion of knowing: “The former believe, the latter know, the former refer to a higher authority guaranteed by miracles and their faith is frail, the latter contemplate the religious truths to which they subscribe, and their adherence is steadfast” (p. 81).

Indeed, one can go as far as to say that in the public tradition no truth is passed on, but only pious lies: “But are the elementary truths that the simple people are taught always at least truths in the strict sense? Origen very often says so and in this is opposed to the Gnostics, but we also find some disturbing pages where the elementary teaching seems to be a salutary lie: God deceives the soul in order to shape it” (p. 95).

In short, in the relationship of subordination of elementary truths to higher truths, the former end up as tales. In his sermons on the prophet Jeremiah, Origen compares God’s doings with the teaching adults give to children. According to Origen, “We deceive them with bogeys that are necessary at first, but of which they later recognize the futility” (p. 99).


St Paul on the shoulders of the personification of the virtue of Harmony, beneath whose feet is the vice of Discord represented probably by Ares, cloistered convent of the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro Coronati, in Rome

St Paul on the shoulders of the personification of the virtue of Harmony, beneath whose feet is the vice of Discord represented probably by Ares, cloistered convent of the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro Coronati, in Rome

4. Rome custodian of the faith

Lebreton highlighted the way in which Rome resisted this pollution of the faith from the beginning. He sets out the opposition of Hyppolitus to Zephyrinus and then to Callixtus (out of which the first schism in the See of Rome arose early in the third century) as the opposition of a learned faith to a simple faith. Lebreton recalls how in the Philosophoumena Hyppolitus put into the mouths of his enemies expressions he meant to be disqualifying, “Zephyrinus repeats: ‘I know but one God, Jesus Christ, and, beyond him, no generated God that has suffered’; and at other times, ‘It is not the Father who died, but the Son’. These steps are confirmed by the treatise as a whole: Hyppolitus is a theologian, proud of his knowledge, a great reader of the Greek philosophers, who he denounces as fathers of all heresies [this unbending condemnation of heresy not out of the simplicity of the ecclesial tradition but out of culture is also – may we be allowed to point out – very instructive: it was to be the same in Origen and in many others who were to deviate from the faith]. He presents his opponents: Zephyrinus, a limited spirit, Callixtus, an intriguer, their followers, vulgar of mind and sordid of soul” (p. 9).

Now, Origen was not extraneous to this schismatic opposition to the legitimate bishops of Rome. Origen arrived in Rome, in fact, at the time Zephyrinus was bishop (199-217) and joined, it seems, in the schism of Hippolytus. This is probably the reason why a few years later, in 230, when Origen was deposed by his Bishop of Alexandria, Pope Pontian promptly convened a synod in Rome to approve that decision, also condemning Origen. Which a great many other bishops in Arabia, Palestine, and Cappadocia did not.

A few years passed and Dionysius, the then Bishop of Rome, denounced the dangerous argument of a disciple of Origen, another Dionysius, who had become Bishop of Alexandria in 247. Lebreton writes: “The position taken by Dionysius of Rome and his council against these theses was the traditional position of the Church of Rome. ... Here, as in other Roman documents, what one finds is the authentic expression of faith: no theological speculation, no dialectic subtleties, little scriptural erudition, but a categorical statement of the faith professed by the Church. Dionysius of Rome was also a man of great personal worth: Dionysius of Alexandria testifies to it, and St Basil also made a great eulogy, but in this it was neither the scholar nor the theologian who spoke, it was the Pope.

He is not pleased with his part in theological speculation and cares little about those of others. It has been noted that his argument ignores the subtle Alexandrian distinctions on the three persons and on the double status of the Logos. He is not concerned with anything but the more obvious conclusions, whether they were formulated by the authors of these doctrines, or whether they seem to him to arise spontaneously; and since these findings are a danger to the faith he rejects them, and also rejects the theology that has given rise to them.

The letter of Dionysius of Alexandria, despite its indiscretions and its clumsiness, was certainly far from the teachings of Arius; but the letter of Dionysius of Rome already has the tone of Nicaea: the same concern with divine unity, the same sovereign and categorical firmness in the definition of the faith. This insurmountable barrier, against which the heresy was to be shattered sixty years later, was already a block to venturous theology. The fragments of Dionysius of Alexandria, as we have already noted, are of a quite different character from the letter of Dionysius of Rome: what one finds in him is not a judge of faith, but an exegete and above all a metaphysician in love with his fine speculation. He flatters himself again in this Apologia wholly intended to highlight his orthodoxy, and of which most of the fragments we know through the respectful and careful choice made by St Athanasius. If, despite the concern of the writer himself and his defender, his thinking seems much less steady and exact than that of the Bishop of Rome, we shall conclude that his speculation was for him a less safe guide than shared faith was for Dionysius of Rome” (pp. 35-36).

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