Origen of Alexandria represents one of the most fascinating yet controversial figures of the early church. Specific details of Origen’s life are somewhat ambiguous, and we must rely largely on the efforts of the fourth-century historian Eusebius.

Origen was born around 185 c.e. in Alexandria and lived during one of the most intense periods of Christian persecution under the Roman emperor Decius. His parents raised him in a Christian home so devout that his father died willingly as a martyr around 201, and he received a strong Hellenistic education. From a young age Origen taught at the catechetical school in Alexandria, reportedly succeeding Clement as its head at just 18 years of age.

Origen led a lifestyle of strict ascetic discipline, earning him the nickname Adamantios, or Man of Steel. He gained a wide reputation for his extensive teaching and scholarship on biblical exegesis, doctrine, exhortation, and apologetics.

One of Origen’s greatest contributions to patristic theology consists of his biblical exegesis. Writing in both commentary and homily form, Origen interpreted almost every book of the Old and New Testaments.

With his characteristic style Origen usually interpreted scripture in a line-by-line, even word-by-word manner in great detail, sometimes producing multivolume commentaries on a single biblical book, such as Genesis and the Gospel of John.

Origen teaching his students
Origen teaching his students

Those commentaries that have survived offer a wealth of insight and testimony to Origen’s exegetical method, which influenced such great patristic figures as Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Basil the Great. Origen is particularly known for his use of allegory.

As Origen explains in book 4 of On First Principles, scripture, with its divine authorship, is capable of yielding meaning on many different levels, including the literal, moral, and spiritual plains. With the guidance of church teaching and the Holy Spirit, one can determine these levels of meaning as one grows in faith.

Origen’s reputation unfortunately suffered posthumously with the Origenist controversies in the fourth through the sixth centuries. Following the Council of Nicaea in 325, some of Origen’s theological views were questioned, including the tendencies to claim that in essence the Son and the Holy Spirit are less than the Father (subordinationism) and to view resurrection in terms of soul rather than body.

While these views were undeniably unorthodox, Origen lived before the ecumenical councils that established official church doctrine, and these controversies occurred long after his death.

While Emperor Justinian anathematized Origen in 553, he continues to be commended for his positive contributions, especially biblical exegesis, which was praised by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus.