Early Christians considered their faith a “philosophy.” Christian philosophy developed first in the form of apologetics, through which Christians entered the intellectual conversations of the Roman Empire. By the time of Origen, apologetics began to open into systematic theology. Christian philosophy was formed in conversation with gnostics and Platonists – using the same language to describe God, matter, the soul, and creation.
Marcus Aurelius’ reign was at the apex of the Roman Empire’s power during the second century, a time that Edward Gibbon called “the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was the most happy and prosperous.” Marcus Aurelius ascribed to the philosophy of Stoicism. Stoics sought to be immovable, emotionless, and controlled by reason, believing that duty outweighs pain and death. Stoicism was a fundamentally materialist philosophy; adherents believed that everything is made of four elements and that upon death the body simply dissolves into those elements. They believed that even if outside events were out of their control, they could still control their own reaction to such events through reason.
Stoicism gained popularity during Marcus Aurelius’ reign but lost ground to Platonism after the second century. Those who adopted the Platonic tradition believed in one transcendent God outside of time and space and an immaterial and immortal human soul. At the same time, Christianity and other mystery religions, religions that promised salvation and transformation, were gaining followers.
Origen was born in 185, shortly after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180. He was a preacher, a writer, an apologetic, and he gained renown as one of the foremost Christian philosophers of the ancient world. Persecution intensified while Origen was beginning his studies, and he saw his own father imprisoned. The persecution of Christians is an important element of the backdrop of Origen’s life and writing.
Origen took Christ’s and Paul’s teachings seriously. Influenced by 1 Corinthians and Jesus’ teachings on eunuchs, he castrated himself. This action reflected not just Christian teachings but also a Platonic distrust of the body. Christianity was struggling to decide which of Plato’s teachings it would integrate and which it would reject. Christians would eventually reject Gnosticism as heresy, but not every question was answered in the rejection of Gnosticism. During Origen’s time orthodoxy had not solidified. Churches were looking to the teachings of the Apostles to decide what was right belief; the apostles had only been abundantly clear on some matters.
In On First Principles Origen acknowledges that the apostles had not been clear on every issue and that those who profess Christ often disagreed on major doctrinal issues. So, he sets out to define the things that are made clear through scripture and apostolic and ecclesiastical authority: that God is one, that Jesus is God incarnate, and that the Holy Spirit is associated with the Father and the Son. The nature of angels and demons, the existence of matter before the creation of the world, and the question of evil – how God could be good while letting evil happen – were matters of debate. Origen used Philo’s approach of allegorically interpreting scripture to think about the problem of evil.
Origen believed that Christianity, to be a powerful force, must be a rational belief system. Although some of his ideas were rejected, his method of systematic theology was widely adopted.