In concluding our survey of the character and work of Origen, it will be useful to recall the leading dates in the chronology of his life to the date of his exodus from Alexandria. Born in or about 186, he became the head of the Catechetical school at the age of eighteen: About 211 he visited Rome. From that year till 231, he labored at Alexandria, with no other interruptions than short journeys into Arabia, to Caesarea, and into Greece. In 231 he left Alexandria never to return, and thenceforward the chief place of his residence was Caesarea of Palestine. In the fourth or fifth year of his sojourn there (235), Maximin’s persecution compelled him to flee to Caesarea of Cappadocia. Returning to the other Caesarea in 238, he remained there for about eleven years, that is, until the commencement of the Decian persecution. During these years, however, he made another journey into Greece, and two more into Arabia. After the cessation of the persecution he lived a short time in Jerusalem, and thence removed to Tyre, where he died in 253, or 254, in the sixty-ninth year of his age. The chief divisions of his life after attaining manhood are therefore the following:
1. The twenty years (211-231) of his Alexandrian teaching.
2. The twenty years (231-251) of his life at Caesarea.
3. The three or four years from the end of the Decian persecution (251) till his death (254.)
In our present essay we shall be concerned chiefly with the second of these periods. It was the time of Origen’s most active and dignified labor. He was now not so much the teacher of disciples as the teacher of teachers and the doctor of the whole East. The church was, on the whole, at peace, her numbers were increasing, her organization developing, and her doctrines becoming daily more and more a subject of inquiry to intellects, friendly and hostile. We have before taken notice (Dublin Review, April, 1866, p. 401) how Caesarea was an important centre, political, literary, and religious; and here Origen spent the twenty years of which we now speak, in intercourse with such bishops as Saint Alexander, Saint Theoctistus, and Firmilian, in training such pupils as Gregory Thaumaturgus, in preaching such homilies as those on Isaiah, Ezechiel, and the Canticles, in writing such apologies as the Contra Celsum, and in carrying through such an enterprise as the Hexapla. It is to this period that we must refer the emphatic testimony of Saint Vincent of Lerins. “It is impossible,” says he, “to tell how Origen was loved, esteemed, and admired by every one. All that made any profession of piety hastened to him from the ends of the world. There was no Christian who did not respect him as a prophet, no philosopher who did not honor him as a master.” The word piety is worth noticing, because something much more wide and broad was meant by it then than now; indeed, the original word would be better translated religion or religiousness. The term, prophet, is also worthy of being remarked; a prophet means one who is at once teacher of the most exalted class and an ascetic who has perfectly trampled this world under his feet. Finally, the philosophers looked to him as their master, though he professed to teach no philosophy but Christianity, and quoted the Hebrew scriptures instead of Plato and Aristotle when men came to him with difficulties about the soul, the logos, and the creator.
In the present article, therefore, we shall be concerned with his Caesarean life; and as it is impossible to compress within moderate limits all that might be said of the literary productions of this exceedingly rich period of his labors, we shall confine ourselves chiefly to the consideration of the great work Contra Celsum. First, however, let us take a glance at the events of the twenty years, for they are not void of events which give us a notion of the man.
Since his principal charge at Caesarea was to preach the Word of God to the people, perhaps the largest part of his extant writings has come to consist of the homilies that he delivered in the discharge of this honorable duty. It was the bishop himself who, as a rule, preached in the church, and no priest was substituted whose learning and piety were not beyond all question. We have before quoted the strong words in which Eusebius has handed down the opinion of Origen held by Saint Theoctistus, bishop of Caesarea. On the Sunday, therefore, as we learn from himself, on festivals, and sometimes, it would seem, on Fridays or other week-days, he stood forth from among the clergy with all the weight of his bishop’s mandate and of his own character, to interpret and comment on the Holy Scriptures. It would be interesting to be able to picture to ourselves that church at Caesarea in which the great light of the east spoke, Sunday after Sunday, to the mingled Greek and barbarian Christians of the capital of Palestine. It would probably be a building designed and founded for the purpose. Yet it cannot have been grand or sumptuous, or in any way resembling. a heathen temple, for Origen himself allows that the Christians had no “temples.” ‘What it was inside we can better guess. We know from Origen’s own hints that there existed in it the usual distinctions of position for the various ranks of faithful and of clergy that are so well known from writers of a century later. We may therefore conclude that the chancel or altar part was clearly separated from the rest of the interior, and perhaps elevated above it; that the altar itself stood at some distance from the eastern wall, and that round the apsis behind it ran the presbyters’ bench. Here, in the centre, stood the chair of the bishop, and here he sat during the sacred liturgy in the midst of his priests, all in a semicircle of lofty seats. The deacons and inferior clergy occupied the rest of the sanctuary, which was separated by a railing from the nave. In the nave, immediately outside the rails, stood the ambo or reading-desk, sometimes called the choir, for here clustered the singers and readers whose place it was to intone the less solemn parts of the liturgy. Hangings, more or less magnificent, according to circumstances, suspended above the rails, were closed during the canon of the mass; and shut out the holies from the sight of the people. Over the altar was the canopy, on four pillars, and upon the altar a linen cloth; and the chair of the bishop was usually covered with suitable drapery. When the bishop preached, he stood or sat forward, probably in front of the altar, but within the chancel-rails; it was a very unusual thing to preach from the ambo, though Saint John Chrysostom is recorded to have done so in Sancta Sophia, in order to be better heard by the people. Origen, therefore, would preach from the sanctuary on the Lord’s-day; bishop, priests, clergy, and people, in their places to hear him; the pontiff in his flat mitre with the infulae of the high priesthood; the priests in the linen chasubles that came down and covered them on every side; the deacons and others in their various tunics and albs; the singers and readers with the diptychs and books of chant laid ready open on the desk of the ambo; the faithful in the nave, men on one side and women on the other; the virgins and the widows in their seats apart; the various orders of penitents in the nave or in the narthex, and the band of listening catechumens in front of the “royal gates” (of the nave) that they hoped soon to be allowed to enter. His hearers would be of all degrees of fervor, and of many different ranks; they might include Greek philosophers and poor vernae or house slaves, patricians of Roman burghs, and Syrian porters; doubtless the bulk of them were the poor and the lowly of Caesarea. He had to say a word to all, and he found means to say it, in the word of Holy Scripture. He had, by this time, dispensed himself from previously writing his discourses; and hence many of those that have come down to us are the shorthand reports that were taken down as he spoke, and afterward corrected by himself. The text or subject of the discourse was that portion of Scripture which had just been recited by the reader, or part of it; though sometimes we find that he had a text given him by the bishop or by the presbytery, and that occasionally he selected a particular subject at the desire of “some of the brethren.” He held his own copy of the Scripture in his hand; for we find him comparing it with the version just used by the reader. His discourses were not set pieces of eloquence; they were true homilies, that is, familiar and easy addresses, almost seeming to have developed themselves out of an earlier style of dialogue between priest and people. They have all the abruptness, all the questionings and answerings, all the explanations of terms and sentences, and all the appreciation of difficulties that suggest rather the catechist with his class than the preacher with his auditory. We miss the poetry and fine fancy of Clement, but we gain in orderly and connected development. One is certainly tempted to think that more artistic and ornamental treatment might have been expected from the son of Leonides and the teacher of rhetoric. But Origen tells us more than once that he studiously avoids worldly and profane eloquence. His reason seems not far to seek. Rhetoric was the main profession of the pagan teachers that abounded in every town of the empire; and Saint Augustin’s expression, that rhetoric meant the art of telling lies, was not exaggerated. Rhetoric in those days did not mean the sound and immortal precepts of Aristotle, but the vain heaping together of empty words. It was the necessity of protesting against this that has undoubtedly given much of their ruggedness to the homilies of Origen. His watchword was, edification; his rule and law, as he expressly says, was, not completeness of exposition, not parade of words, but the benefit of those who listened. Because he was a speaker, he rejected tedious and minute disquisitions, which were more suitable for “the leisure of a writer.” Because he was a speaker of the truth, he avoided, even to austerity, the imitation of profane and perverted art. He was rich in matter, and poured forth a stream of doctrine, of exhortation, of reproof. His name and character did the rest. A word from Origen had more weight than a treatise from an unknown mouth. We have no record of how his audience took his discourses, save what is implied in the general testimony to his prodigious reputation. But, on the other hand, he presents us with a few facts about his audience. We learn that some were readier to look after the adorning of the church than the beautifying of their own souls. It appears that it was difficult to get an audience together on common week-days, and that they were somewhat remiss in assembling even on festivals, though he speaks of a few as “constant attendants” on the preaching. Those who did come to church, too often came not so much to hear God’s word, as because it was a festival, and because it was pleasant to have a holiday. And some escaped the sermon altogether by going out immediately after the reading: “Why do you complain of not knowing this and not knowing that,” he says, “when you never wait for the conference, and never interrogate your priests?” Moreover, many who were present at the discourse in body, were far away in spirit, for “they sat apart in the corners of the Lord’s house and occupied themselves with profane confabulation.” He did not preach to an immaculate audience: there were many who were Christians in name, Pagans in life; many who turned the house of prayer into a den of thieves; many who preferred the agora, the law courts, the farm, before the church; and many who could provide pedagogues, masters, books, money, and time, that their children might learn the liberal arts, but who failed to see that something of the same diligence and sacrifice was necessary on their own parts if they wished to become true disciples of the word of God. But from all this it would be wrong to infer that Origen’s hearers were worse than others in their circumstances. Doubtless they listened with reverence both to his teaching and to his rebukes. Perhaps even they applauded him by acclamation; such a thing was not unknown a century or so later. It would be little to Origen’s taste to have his audience waving their garments and rocking their bodies in ecstasy or calling out “orthodox!” as they did to Saint Cyril, of Alexandria, or “Thou art the thirteenth apostle!” as the excitable Constantinopolitans did to Saint Chrysostom; like Saint Jerome, he preferred “to excite the grief of the people rather than their applause, and his commendation was their tears.” Saint Vincent, of Lerins, two centuries after Origen’s preaching at Caesarea, speaks of the way in which his “eloquence” affected himself. If his audience were as well satisfied, they must have listened to him with great pleasure and profit. “His discourse,” says Saint Vincent, in the Commonitorium, “was pleasant to the fancy, sweet as milk, to the taste; it seems to me that there issued from his mouth honey rather than words. Nothing so hard to believe, but his powers of controversy made it plain; nothing so difficult to practise, but his persuasiveness rendered it easy. Tell me not that he did nothing but argue, There has never been a teacher who has used so many examples out of the Holy Writ.” The homilies of Origen did not pass away with the voice that delivered them. Till he was sixty years old he had generally written them out beforehand. After that time the shorthand writers beside him caught every word as it fell, and so the discourses became a treasury for ever. Fortune and time have indeed destroyed far the greater part of the “thousand and more tractates” which Saint Jerome says he delivered in the church, and of what remain some only exist in abbreviated Latin translations. But though their letter is diminished, their spirit pervades the whole field of patristic exposition, and many of the greatest of the Greek and Latin fathers have not hesitated over and over again to use at length the exact words of Origen. And so the sentences first uttered in the church of Caesarea have become the public property of the church universal, and while Caesarea is a ruin and its library scattered to dust, the living word and spirit of him who spoke there, speaks still in cities far greater, and to auditories far more wide; for every pulpit utters his thoughts, and Christian people, though they may not know it, are everywhere “edified” by that which was first the offspring of’ his intellect.
Origen had been laboring at Caesarea for barely four years when one of those interruptions occurred that he had already become familiar with at Alexandria. The Emperor Maximin (235), a barbarian giant, whose unchecked propensities for cruelty and blood seem to have driven him absolutely mad before the end of his three years’ reign, followed up the murder of his benefactor Alexander Severus by a series of horrors, in which were involved both pagans and Christians alike. Any man of name, character, or wealth, in any part of the world that could be reached by a Roman cohort, was liable to confiscation, torture, and death in order to appease his frantic suspicions. Caesarea was an important Roman post, and as no one in Caesarea was better known than the head of the Christian school, we soon find that Origen is marked out for a victim. He escaped, however, by a prompt flight, and reached the other Caesarea, of Cappadocia, the see of his friend Firmilian. He had no sooner arrived there than the capricious persecution fell upon the city of his refuge, under the auspices of Serenianus the governor, “a dire and bitter persecutor,” as he is called by Firmilian. In these straits he managed to lie hid for two years in the house of a lady called Juliana – a house, indeed, to which he was attracted by other considerations beside that of safety; for this lady was the heiress of the whole library of Symmachus the Ebionite, one of those learned translators of the Hebrew Scriptures whom Origen incorporated in the Hexapla. He himself mentions with great satisfaction the advantages which his biblical labors derived from the opportunities he enjoyed in his Cappadocian retirement. We are also indebted to this period for two, not the least interesting, of his works. Maximin’s informers seem to have contrived to implicate the good Christian Ambrose in some trouble. That Ambrose was a man of wealth we have seen, and he was undoubtedly, also, in some considerable charge or employment which necessitated his journeying frequently from one Roman city to another. Whether this persecution caught him at Alexandria or Caesarea, or elsewhere, is uncertain; but he had received notice of his danger and was preparing to place himself in security when the insurrection of the Gordians broke out in Syria and Asia, and in the confusion and trouble that ensued he became the prisoner of Maximin’s troops, and was immediately sent, or destined to be sent, to Germany, where the emperor had just concluded a triumphant campaign. The news of the danger of his zealous friend and patron drew from Origen the letter that we know now as the Exhortatio ad Martyrium. It was accompanied by another, the De Oratione, which he had perhaps already composed. These two works, into an examination of which we cannot enter, show more of the interior spirit of their writer than anything else that has reached us. When a history of the early methods of prayer comes to be written, the treatise on prayer will have to be thoroughly examined. The Exhortation to Martyrdom is full of the true Adamantine vehemence and piety. Though addressed to Ambrose, it is really, and would be accepted as a general call to the Church of Palestine to stand fast and do manfully in the dangerous times on which they had fallen. The name of Protectetus, a priest of Caesarea, which is associated with that of Ambrose in the dedication, as he was also in danger of death, felicitously localizes it, and we may look upon it as a homily, delivered in writing and from a distance, and on a new and stirring subject, to that church which he had been accustomed to edify with his words during the three or four years preceding. We unwillingly omit to enter upon it at large. At Maximin’s death (238) he returned to his own Caesarea. After this, his literary enterprises, completed and undertaken, come thick and frequent. Among other works we meet with the commentaries on Ezechiel and Isaiah, on Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, on Daniel and the twelve minor prophets, and on several of the epistles of Saint Paul. It is to this time also that belongs the celebrated exposition of the Canticle of Canticles, of which Saint Jerome has said, that whereas in his other works he surpassed all other men, so in this he surpassed himself. But little of the original has come down to us, and the translation of Rufinus is too free and abridged to enable us to understand how this high praise was deserved.
About the same period he made a second journey into Greece. What occasion brought him to Athens we are not informed. We find, however, that he thought very highly of the Athenian Church. In his reply to Celsus, speaking of the influence and weight that Christians were everywhere acquiring, he instances the Church at Athens, and boasts that the assembly of the Athenian people was only a tumultuous mob in comparison with the congregation of the Athenian Christians. Since Athens was even then the central light of the whole world, we may perhaps conclude that Origen’s journey thither was caused by some phase of the conflict between Philosophy and the Gospel with which he had been all his life so familiar. On his return to Caesarea he wrote the answer to Celsus, with which we shall concern ourselves presently. It was written during the reign of Philip the Arabian. We are told by Eusebius that Origen wrote a letter to this emperor. What this letter can have been about is somewhat of a puzzle in history. Eusebius, to be sure, a couple of chapters before he mentions the letter, relates a story, rather coldly, about Philip’s coming to the church (at Antioch) one Easter time as a Christian, and his seating himself among the penitents when the bishop (S. Babylas) refused to admit him on any other terms. Saint Babylas might well reject him and place him among the penitents, for his career, which commenced, as that of most of the Roman emperors, with the murder of his predecessor, the young Gordian, had been anything but innocent. Certain it is, however, that the story was current of Philip’s being a Christian. Even if he were not, which seems the more probable, there is no improbability that he may have questioned such a man as Origen about Christianity. It must be recollected, moreover, that this Emperor Philip was by birth an Arabian, being a native of Bostra. He was the son of a robber-chief, and we are first introduced to him as taking an important part in the campaign of Gordian in which the Persians were driven out of Mesopotamia. The important Roman city of Bostra, though not within the boundaries of Arabia, was sufficiently near them to be considered the metropolis of the upper part of Arabia, as Petra was of the middle. Philip, therefore, was evidently nothing more than a powerful Bedouin Sheik, such as may be seen at this very day in the countries of which he was a native, and had succeeded his father in the possession of wide influence over the predatory tribes that ranged over all Palestine, Syria, and Arabia, except the actual spots occupied by a Roman military force. His character is significantly illustrated by the incident that raised him to the purple. When Gordian’s army was in Mesopotamia, his dangerous captain of Free Lances took care to have the whole of the commissariat supplies intercepted, and thus caused the mutiny which, terminated in Gordian’s death. Such a feat was easy and natural to a chief whose wild horsemen commanded every part of the great Syrian desert that lay between Mesopotamia and the Roman stations off the Mediterranean coast. But what is more to our purpose is, that Origen was frequently at Bostra, and was there at the very time of Gordian’s campaign and Philip’s accession. Bearing in mind the extent to which the name of Origen was known among the pagan men of letters, as well as among the Christian churches, it seems impossible but that Philip must have heard him mentioned. Only let us grant that the emperor had a leaning to Christianity, even though in no better spirit than that of an eclectic, and the occasion of Origen’s letter becomes clear. The mention of the Syrian desert reminds us of another celebrated name. Palmyra, or Tadmor of the Wilderness, was, at the time of which we write, almost in the zenith of her beauty, though it was not till twenty years afterward that her splendor culminated and collapsed under Zenobia and Longinus. Origen knew the great philosopher, who had been his auditor at Alexandria, and whom he had most probably met again at Athens. It is quite possible that Longinus may have become the guest of Zenobia before Origen left Caesarea for the last time, and, therefore, during the time he was so familiar with the Arabian Church. We know that he had more than a mere acquaintance with the author of the Treatise on the Sublime, and, perhaps, there were no two minds of the age more fitted to grapple with each other. Of their mutual influence we have no certain traces, but it may be noted that amongst the lost works of Longinus there is a treatise. Can it have had any relation to that of Origen under the same name?
It was at Caesarea, between the years 243 and the breaking out of the Decian persecution in 249, that was written the famous Contra Celsum. It is justly considered the masterpiece of its author. Ostensibly an answer to the gainsayings of a heathen philosopher, it really takes up, with the calmest scientific precision, the position that Christianity is so true and hangs together with such completeness of moral beauty, that the barkings of Gentile learning cannot confute it, nor the violence of Gentile hatred stop its inevitable march. With no rhetorical passion, with profound learning, with a knowledge of Holy Scripture truly worthy of Adamantins, with frequent passages of noble and profound eloquence, the Christian doctor builds up the monument of the faith he loved and taught; and the work that has come down to us through all those ages since it was written, has been recognized for fifteen hundred years as one of those great, complete, finished productions that are only given to the world by the pen of a genius. Eusebius, his biographer, speaks of it as containing the refutation of all that has been asserted, and, “by pre-occupation,” of all that could ever be asserted on certain vital matters of controversy. Saint Basil and Saint Gregory Nazianzen strung together a series of favorite passages mainly from it and called their work Philocalia, “love for the beautiful.” Saint Jerome, whose praise cannot be suspected of partiality, puts him by the side of two other great apologists his successors, and exclaims that to read them makes him think himself the merest tyro, and shrivels up all his learning to a sort of a dreamy remembrance of what he was taught as a boy. Bishop Bull takes the Contra Celsum as the touchstone of Origen’s dogmatic teaching; “he meant it for the public,” he says, “he wrote it thoughtfully and of set purpose, and he wrote it when he was more than sixty years of age, full of knowledge and experience.”
It must have been about the time when Marcus Aurelius was engaged in persecuting the church (160-180) that a certain eclectic Platonist philosopher called Celsus, in order to contribute his share to the good work, wrote an uncompromising attack on Christianity, and called it by the title of The True Word; or, The Word of Truth. We have called him an eclectic Platonist; but, in fact, it is very much disputed among the learned what sect of philosophers he honored with his allegiance. Some call him a Stoic, others an Epicurean, and this latter opinion is the common traditional one; and what would seem to settle the question, Epicurean is the epithet given to him by Origen himself. That Origen, when he took up The Word of’ Truth to refute it, thought he was going to refute an Epicurean, is quite evident; but it is no less evident that he had not read many sentences of the work itself before he began to doubt and more than doubt whether the name of Epicurean was a true description of its author. In one place he is amazed to hear “an Epicurean say such things,” in another he charges him with artfully concealing his Epicurism for a purpose, and in a third he supposes that if he ever was an Epicurean he has renounced its tenets and betaken himself to something more sound and sensible. What made Origen hesitate to state plainly that he was no follower of Epicurus seems to have been the broad tradition that had attached the epithet to the name of Celsus, thereby identifying the writer of The Word of Truth with the writer of a certain work against magic, well known to literary men, which was beyond all doubt from the pen of an Epicurean Celsus. This latter was also probably the same as the Celsus to whom the scoffer Lucian dedicated his Alexander, in which he shows up that impostor’s tricks and sham magic; and Lucian, in his dedication, alludes to the works against magic, just as Origen does. As Lucian died some years before Origen was born, the works against magic must have been very widely known, and their author must have been accepted as the Celsus, and as he was certainly an Epicurean, that designation fastened itself also upon the other Celsus, the author of The Word of Truth, who had not had the advantage of an admiring Lucian to fix his proper title in the memory of the literary world. But an Epicurean he certainly was not. One proof is quite sufficient. The subject of magic was a decisive test of a true Epicurean. Not believing in Providence and professing, in fact, a sort of philosophic atheism, he considered that gods and demons never interfered in the concerns of the earth and the human race. Human and mundane atoms, as they got created by a species of accident and came together fortuitously, so they continued to blunder against each other in various ways, and thus caused what men foolishly called the cosmos, or order of the universe; whilst the divine nature of the immortals, serene on Olympus
Semotá a nostris rebus, sejunctaque longè,
Jam privata dolore omni, privata periclis,
Ipsa suis pollens opibus, nil indiga nostri,
Nec benè pro meritis capitur nec tangitur irâ.
Lucretius, de Rerum Naturtâ, I. 50.
The Epicurian, therefore, laughed alike at the notion of benevolent god and malignant demon, at providence and at magic, and crowned himself with flowers and drank and sinned, if his means allowed it, under the soothing persuasion that “to-morrow” he was “to die.” When, therefore, we find that the author of The Word of Truth not only attributes miracles to AEsculapius, Aristeas, and others, and magic to Christ, but also considers that this world and its various parts are committed to the custody of demons, whom it is, therefore, proper to propitate by worship and sacrifice, we need no other evidence that he was no follower of Epicurus.
On the other hand, a prominent belief in the agencies of unseen powers was a mark of the Platonist of the day. Whatever Plato may have thought of the inferior gods and demons (and on some occasions, as in the Timaeus, he speaks of them with considerable levity), the followers, who revived his doctrine in the first centuries after Christ, gave them a very large share of their attention. A creator or first father of all things was a Platonic dogma, and man and matter must have in some way come from him; but in order to bridge over the interval between two such extremes as God and matter, recourse was had to an immense army of intermediate beings, of which the highest was so dignified as to be little more than an abstraction, and the lowest shaded off into a species of superior animal. It is this, multitude of good and bad demons that makes its appearance in modified shape and number in Platonist and Gnostic cosmogonies, and which is so puzzling to follow through all its fantastic intermarriages and combinations. When Celsus must have been writing, that is, about the time Saint Clement of Alexandria began to teach, the spirit of Plato was abroad, not only at Alexandria but at Athens and in Rome. Theurgy was openly professed by the most reputable teachers; their enemies called it sorcery; but whatever it was, it meant some intimate communion with the invisible world. A writer; therefore, who puts the moon and stars under the guardianship of heavenly powers, who pathetically defends the case of the demons and deprecates their being deprived of the gratification they derive from the “smell” of a sacrifice, and who attributes supernatural powers to friends and enemies – calling them in the one ease miracles, in the latter, magic – is evidently closer to Saceas and Porphyry than to Epicurus and Democritus. Celsus, however, though he says all this, cannot be called a real Platonist or Neo-Platonist. He came in the early days of a revival, and his philosophic pallium hung rather loosely about him; he was not above following a new leader on an occasion, provided he saw his way to a new stroke against the Christians. It must be admitted that he shows a fair share or learning, some acuteness, and some acquaintance with a variety of different peoples and customs. On the other hand, he is occasionally guilty of the most absurd and transparent sophisms, his conceit is unbounded, and his tone generally sneering and often very offensive.
It was this philosopher then, Eclectic, Platonist, and man of the world, whose Word of Truth seemed to the pious and indefatigable Ambrose to be so dangerous and damaging that no time ought to be lost in answering it. With this view, he attacked Origen on the subject, and by dint of prayers and representations made him take in hand its refutation. Origen was by no means eager to undertake the work; and we can partly enter into his objections. The book of Celsus was not a new one: it had been in the hands of the reading world and in the centres of learning, such as Athens, Antioch, Caesarea, and Alexandria, for at least sixty years, and it is to be supposed that answers to its most important objections were common enough in the Christian schools, though, perhaps it was itself ignored. Then, it was not the sort of book that could do the faithful any harm, for they could not read it, or, if they did, they distrusted it even where they could not refute it. It was too late in the day for an open-mouthed pagan to have any chance against the gospel of Christ. The dangerous people were those who, like the heretics, came with the elements of this world disguised under the sheep’s clothing of Christianity; but an honest wolf only lost his trouble; and so Origen, whilst promising to comply with the wishes of his friend, plainly says that what he has undertaken to overthrow, he cannot conceive as having the least effect in shaking the orthodoxy of a single faithful man. “That man,” he says, “would be little to my taste, whose faith would be in danger of shipwreck from the words of this Celsus, who has not now even the advantage of being alive; and I do not know what I should think of one who required a book to be written before he could meet his accusations. And, yet, because there might possibly be some professing believers who find Celsus’s writings a stumbling-block, and would be proportionally comforted by anything in the shape of a writing that undertook to crush him, I have resolved to take in hand the refutation of the work you have sent me.” The expressions, “a book to be written,” “writings,” and “hand-writing,” are noticeable, for they show clearly enough, what has not been much observed, that Origen’s chief objection to answering Celsus was that Celsus was already answered in the oral teachings of the church. In this also we have the explanation of the contempt in which he seems to hold his antagonist – a temper which is seldom advisable either in war or polemics. But Celsus had been, and was daily being answered, and the only question was, whether it was worth while to put formally on paper what every Christian catechist had by heart. Was it not better to imitate the majestic silence of Jesus Christ, who spoke no word, but let his life speak for him? “I dare affirm,” he says, “that the defence you ask me to write will be swamped and disappear before that other defence of facts and the power of Jesus, which none but the blind can fail to see.” And he adds, that it is not for the faithful he writes, but for those who have not tasted the faith of Christ, or for those weak believers who, in the apostle’s phrase, must be kindly taken up.
And yet Ambrose seems to have been quite right in insisting that Origen should answer the book of Celsus. Its arguments might be stale, and its influence small, but there it was, a formal written record of some of the ugliest things that could be said against Christianity and its founder. What seemed more becoming, than that the foremost Christian doctor of his day should take in hand, at a time when external peace and internal growth seemed to warrant it, to give a formal, written answer to an attack that was a standing piece of impertinence, even if it did no harm? Besides, some harm it must have done, at least in the shape of keeping well-meaning pagans from the truth; and though Origen is always more fond of working for the spiritual welfare of his own household than of direct proselytizing, yet Ambrose, as a convert, knew what prejudice was, and what was the importance of a work from the pen of a Christian doctor who had the ear of the Gentile world. And Ambrose, moreover, was perfectly aware, as was everyone except the Adamantine himself, that even if the refutation embraced only the common topics that were handled daily in the Christian instructions, yet the result would be as far above the ordinary catechetical lesson as the master was above the ordinary catechist. Perhaps he hardly knew, as we know, that his instances would produce a master-piece of polemical writing, from which all ages have borrowed, and in which the immense knowledge of Scripture, the beautiful and tender piety, and the sustained eloquence of expression were unrivalled until, perhaps, Bossuet wrote his Histoire Universelle.
It is by no means our intention to give a detailed analysis of this wonderful work: it is described at great length in easily accessible authors. But it will be interesting to seize on some of its most salient characters, and thus to throw what light may be possible upon the subject of our discussion. And the first remark that occurs seems to be a contradiction of Origen’s own statement. The Contra Celsum was written more for the faithful than for the philosophers, and was less aimed at the dead and gone Celsus than at the living children of the church. It may be true that it was not meant precisely to confirm tottering faith or to prop up consciences that the objections of Celsus had shaken; but its effect would naturally be to encourage the devout Christian by showing him how much could be said for his profession, and exposing to scorn with irresistible logic the best that could be said by his gainsayers. If Origen had not had in view the same audience as that to which he preached on Sundays and Fridays, he would hardly have dealt so abundantly in the citations from Holy Scripture which are such a marked. feature of the work, and he would not have cared to expand as he does the bare polemical branch into the flowers and fruit of homiletic exhortation. But the faithful were always his first thought, and the ground-color of all he has written is warm and outspoken piety. He knew much about pagan philosophy and worldly science, but when Porphyry (quoted by Eusebius) says that Plato was never out of his hands, we can only say that Plato is never mentioned in his writings save where an adversary or an error-compels him. A far truer picture of himself is given in his own words to his favorite pupil, Gregory Thaumaturgus. “You have talents,” he says, “that might make you a perfect Roman lawyer, or a leader of any of the fashionable sects of Greek philosophy; but the wish of my heart is, dear lord and my most honored son Gregory, that you make Christianity your last end” (alluding to the summum bonum of the stoics), “and that you use Greek philosophy and all its attendant sciences as handmaids to the Holy Scriptures, and as the means toward Christianity.” This was written, of course, long after Gregory had become a Christian, and, indeed, about the very time that the Contra Celsum would be in progress. Not a little, therefore, in the work which would seem to beg the question, as against an enemy, becomes an eloquent development, as toward those who already believed. And this remark will be found not unimportant in explaining more passages than one.
The attack of Celsus is that of a clever, well-informed, travelled man. It is to be feared that we cannot call him a well-meaning one. The extra-ordinary impudence of one or two of the leading sophisms and a general tone of rancor and rabidness, very different from the politeness of Numenius and Porphyry, seem to force the conclusion that we are dealing with a man who ought to have known better but whose heart had been hardened by the world and the flesh. He goes over a large variety of topics, is not at all remarkable for order (as his opponent complains), and repeats himself more than once. Several German writers have published accurate accounts of his philosophic tenets, as far as they can be ascertained. For the present, in order to arrive at some definite knowledge of the sort of people who opposed Christianity from the time of Saint Clement to the Decian persecution, we shall present Celsus in a few of the chief characters that he assumes in his onslaught on Christianity. For he is very many-sided in his anxiety to get at all the vulnerable points of his enemy, and perhaps it might be said that his memory is not so good as a polemic’s memory ought to be, and that he contradicts himself once or twice. At any rate he acts with some success more parts than one.
The Scoffer was a character in which Celsus had the advantage of a few recent traditions. Perhaps the thorough pagan scoffer, who really laughed at Christianity because he believed it deserved to be laughed at, was rather out of date. But Lucian (and he may have known Lucian) could have let him see how a man of genius may scoff impartially at religion in all its shapes. Celsus was not a scoffer of this latter sort. Either he was really too conscientious, or else he instinctively hated Christ more than Zeus, and therefore tried to ridicule and crush the former, while he waived hostilities against the latter. The scoffer, as impersonated by him, is a decent, lawfearing citizen, who is quietly engaged in doing his duty to society and making what he can out of the queer problem called Life, when suddenly a man that calls himself a Christian bursts in upon his calm existence with the intelligence that he must believe in a person called Christ, or expect to burn everlastingly. Of course, the first thing the amazed Gentile does is to think the man mad. His second, and more charitable idea, which is the result of some little inquiry and of a comparison of notes with other amazed acquaintances at the bath and the theatre, is, that the obtrusive person is an adherent of a new and peculiar sect of philosophers. He, therefore, resolves to examine the tenets of these philosophers with the serene impartiality of one who sets small store by any tenets of philosophy. He finds that their doctrines are not new, but most of them quite old – the immortality of the soul and a future life, a rather strait-laced verbal morality, and so on; ideas which many respectable philosophers have held, and do hold. But is there any reason in the world for making such a parade, and noise, merely because another philosopher, called Christ, has chosen to teach them also? How impertinent, absurd, and unpleasant it is for these people, instead of keeping their doctrines to the schools, to force them with threats upon practical men! Of course, practical men and good citizens do not regard them. If the gods do interfere in the concerns of the earth (a doctrine which Celsus, in his character of scoffer, is inclined to waive rather than to admit), why all this indispensable dogmatism about a Son of God? Let it be enough that we do admit that there is a God, who in some way is supreme; as sensible people you can demand nothing more. We call him Zeus; you call him the Most High, Sabaoth, Adonai, or what else you please, just as the Egyptians call him Ammon, and the Scythians, Pappaeus. Doubtless you talk of miracles; so do all these new-fangled sects, but they mean in reality Egyptian magic. You appeal, moreover, to your intellectual teaching; we know about that also: no sect is good for much in these days which does not hang on to the skirts of Plato. Besides, what is this we hear about disputes among yourselves? This makes the absurdity of the thing better still! The Jews say the Messiah is to come; the Christians declare he has come. Pray, which are we to believe? On what side are we solemnly to arrange ourselves in this momentous dispute about a donkey’s shadow? Why, here we have a squadron of bats – or an army of ants swarming from their nest – or a congress of frogs in solemn session on the banks of their ditch – or a knot of worms assembled in full ecclesia in a corner of their native mud, in hot controversy which of the lot are the wickedest. We are the ones, they keep saying, to whom God has foreshown and announced all things; he has left the whole universe, the broad heavens, and the earth, to look after themselves, and makes his laws for us alone; to us alone he sends his heralds, and us he will never cease to prompt and to provide for, that we may be united with him for ever. He is God; and we are next to him, as being his sons and like him in all things. We are lords of all things, earth, water, air, and stars; on our account is everything, and all is ordained to minister to us. If some of us sin, God will come, or he will send the Son, to burn up the wicked, that the rest may live with him eternally. One could listen to worms and frogs going on in this fashion with more composure than to you Jews and Christians.
It is not Origen’s object to prove directly the importance of Christianity. He says that it was no barbarous system of doctrine, and challenges any philosopher, fresh from the teachings and the schools of Greece, to come and examine it. “He will not only pronounce it true,” he says, “but he will work it up into a logical system, and will be able to supply it with a complete demonstration, even to a Greek. But I must also add this: our doctrine has a certain method of demonstration peculiar to itself, and far more divine than any that the Greeks have in their schools. It is that which the apostle calls the demonstration of spirit and of power; of spirit, that is, by prophecies, which abundantly prove our whole system, especially those parts of it which concern Christ; of power, by the miracles which can be shown to have taken place among us, and traces of which still remain among those who live according to the will of the Word.” And as Christianity was now well known to the whole world, to scoff at it either for its insignificance or its absurdity seemed very foolish: it was a standing fact, and challenged examination. This is partly taken for granted partly incidentally expressed throughout the reply. But the impudent scurrility of the passage about the bats, frogs, and worms, rouses Origen’s indignation. “The Jews and the Christians,” he says, “because they hold dogmas which Celsus does not approve, and which he does not seem to be very well acquainted with, are worms and ants, are they? The peculiar opinions in which the Jews and Christians differ from other men, are not unknown to the world. If a man, therefore, feels inclined to call a part of his fellow-men worms and ants, I will show him whom to call so. The men who have lost the true knowledge of God, whose religion is all a sham – the worshipping brute beasts and graven stocks, and lifeless matter – creatures whose beauty should have led them to glorify and adore their Creator – these are the worms and ants. But those who, led on by reason, have risen above stocks and stones, above silver and gold, and everything material; who have risen above this whole created universe unto him that made all things; who have confided themselves wholly to him; who recognize him almighty over every creature, seeing every thought and hearing every prayer; who send up their prayers to him only, doing all that they do as though he saw it, and speaking all their words that none may be displeasing to him who heareth them all – these, surely, are men; nay, if it were possible, more than men. They may have, been worms once, but shall not such religion as this, that no trials can shake, no danger, not even death itself, destroy, no persuasiveness of words overcome, be their shelter against such jibes for the future? What! shall they who restrain the appetites that make men soft and yielding as wax – and restrain them because they know that by continence alone they can obtain familiarity with God – shall they be called the brothers of worms and the kindred of ants and the near neighbors of frogs? Forbid it Justice! glorious Justice, that gives social rights to fellow-men, that guards the equitable, the humane, and the kind – forbid that such men as these should be likened to birds of night! Call those worms of the slime, who wallow in lust – the common herd of men, who do evil and call it right – but surely not those who have been taught that their bodies, inhabited by the light of reason and the grace of the omnipotent Lord, are the temples of the God whom they adore.'” It is a subject that warms him, and he pursues it at some length. He does not imitate the scurrility and abusiveness of his adversary, though he must have been sorely tempted sometimes, to say some plain things about paganism. Celsus shows all the liveliness of language of a man who carries on a personal quarrel. He is not above calling his enemies “drunken” and “blear-eyed;” he hardly takes the trouble to mention that they are irrational fools; and for a specimen of his more fanciful bad language the passage quoted above will suffice. Origen sometimes complains of this, as well he may. He says that Celsus “scolds like an old woman,” that he shouts calumny like the lowest of a street-mob, and, as a sort of climax, that he reminds him of a couple of “women slanging each other in the street.” But the scoffer and the reviler is after all not our philosopher’s favorite rôle. Perhaps he will show better as the man of intellect.
The man of intellect has a face of severely classic mould, whereon sits normally a thoughtful frown, as though he were ever asking himself the reason of things, varied by a pitying smile when he finds it necessary to recognize the existence of a non-intellectual being. His hands are very white, his pallium neat, his hair scented, and his whole appearance bespeaks him to be on the most distant terms with the profane multitude. When Christianity first had the bad taste to talk to him of penance and hell-fire, he did not deign to speak, but only scowled disgust; but in a century or two he began to see he must say something for his own credit. He therefore began to utter lofty sentences and to employ his smile of pity, though the early look of disgust was so very deeply printed on his countenance that it never afterward left him. This is the sum of his case: – “This foolish system called Christianity makes some little noise, it is true. But a philosopher has only to glance at it, to despise it. I have read and examined the books and writings of the sect; I have conversed with its learned men, and I find that it is essentially low, grovelling, and vulgar. It repudiates wisdom altogether; it formally forbids the educated, the learned, and the wise to be numbered among its members. On the other hand, it energetically recruits its ranks from among the uneducated, the weak-headed, and the imbecile. These are the sort of men the Christian teachers declare to be most acceptable to their God, thus showing clearly that they have neither the ability nor the wish to make converts of any but the feeble-minded, common people, and country boors, slaves, women, and children. They are wary; they are like the quacks and cheap-jacks of the agora, who take care not to obtrude themselves upon those who could find them out, but show off before the children in the streets and the loitering house-slaves and an admiring mob of any fools they can collect. They are mean and underhand. You shall see, in a private house, your slave, your weaver, your sandal-maker, or your cloth-carder – a fellow wholly without education or manners, and silent enough before his master and his betters – the moment he finds himself alone with the children and the women, beginning to hold forth in marvellous style. Parents and preceptors are no longer to be obeyed, but he is to be believed implicitly; they are mad and doting, immersed in fatuous trifles, and incapable of seeing or doing what is really good, he alone can impart the secret of virtue; let the children believe him, and they will be happy themselves and bring a blessing on the house. Meanwhile, let father or tutor make his appearance, he mostly gets frightened and stops; but if he be a determined one, he just whispers in parting, that children of spirit should not submit to parental tyranny; that he has much to explain which the presence of others will not allow him to utter; that he cannot bear the sight of the folly and ignorance of such corrupted and lost men, who moreover are seeking every pretext for punishing him; finally, that if the dear children want to hear more, they must come, with the women and as many of their companions as they know of, into the women’s apartment, or into the carding-room or the leather-shop – and so he contrives to get hold of them.”
Perhaps there was nothing in Christianity that disgusted the philosophers so much as the fact that it went out after the poor, the lowly, and the sinful, and offered them a share in all that it could teach or promise. That the common herd had no need and no right to philosophy was an accepted tenet with the new Platonists. The passage just quoted is interesting; through its transparent misrepresentation we can see the poor man and the slave, in the second century, in the actual process not only of having the gospel preached to them, but also actively preaching it as well as they could to others. The sophism of Celsus, that Christians prefer fools and sinners for converts, therefore they must be all a foolish and wicked set, must have been stale, we may hope, by the time Origen undertook to answer it. He enters into the whole accusation, however, and refutes, almost word for word, the whole of what we have just given and more to the same purpose.
But the intellectual objector has something positive to say, as well as something negative. He announces, therefore, with almost ridiculous solemnity, that he will have pity on these poor Christians, and tell them how they are to obtain union with God, what masters they are to follow, and what heroes they are to imitate; in short, he will provide them with a theology, a gospel, and an assemblage of saints. For the saints, they are our grand Grecian heroes – Hercules, Orpheus, AEsculapius, and the rest, from Anaxarchus, who encouraged the tyrant who was having him bruised in a mortar to “pound away on the mortal coil of Anaxarchus,” to Epictetus, who made a cheerful remark when his master broke his leg. For the gospel, it is the most powerful teaching of the divine and immortal Plato; and for the theology, it is the following sentence from the Timaeus: “To discover the maker and the father of the universe is a hard thing; to make them known to others, when discovered, is impossible.” This last doctrine he is afraid the wretched Christians will not be able to take in. They are such a poor frightened set that the sublimity of Platonic dictum scares them into their holes; they are such a body-loving race that they must have a God with a body, and be able to see him with the eyes of their flesh, which all philosophers pronounce to be impossible. Origen, in his reply, first of all disposes of these two sneers: “The Christians a timid set! when, rather than renounce a syllable of their Christianity, they are prepared to suffer torture and death in its worst shapes! The Christians a body-loving race! when they are readier to lay down their bodies for piety’s sake than a philosopher is to put off his pallium! and when the injunction to be dead to sense and living to soul lies upon the very surface of their teaching! But let it pass. We must speak to Plato’s theology.” Here is the answer, as terse as an epigram, as luminous as the sunlight. “Plato, when he said God was hard to find, impossible to impart, said a sublime and a wonderful thing; but our Scriptures give a message from God to man that changes all the facts, and it is this: God the Word was with God in the beginning, and the Word was made flesh. It is not only hard for man to find God; it is impossible for him to seek him at all, or to find him in an elevated order unless he whom he seeks assist him. The knowledge of God is indeed far above man’s nature; but God, out of his kindness and philanthropy” (Origen’s usual expression when speaking of the incarnation), “through his wonderful and godlike grace, has willed that his knowledge appear unto those whom he foresees will live worthily of it, and whose piety will be firm even against death itself, though they who know not what piety is may jeer and ridicule. God, I think, seeing the arrogance and the insolence of those who, with all their boasted philosophical knowledge of the divine nature, are idol-ridden and temple-ridden and mystery-ridden as much as the most ignorant of the mob, has chosen the foolish things of this world, the poor, simple Christians, whose life is purer than the lives of most philosophers, to put to the blush those wise men who can unblushingly treat a lifeless thing as a god or the likeness of a god. Surely the man of sense must laugh to see the philosopher, after all his sublime talk about God and things divine, go and ogle his idol and pray to it, or think there is some being behind it that requires prayer to be offered up with such a ritual as that. But the Christian knows that God is everywhere; no image limits his vision, no temple bounds his power, for the whole world is his temple; and his servant, therefore, shutting the eyes of his body, raising on high the eyes of his soul – transcending all this world, piercing the concave of heaven itself, out of the world and above the heavens – makes his prayer to God: no sordid or grovelling prayer, for he has learnt from Jesus to ask for nothing little or sensible, but he prays only for what is great and really divine – for such things as lead to that blessedness which is in him, through his son, the Word, who is God.” He has no wish to disparage Plato; Plato has spoken very beautifully, but the Christian Scriptures have not only beauty; but they have, what is much more important, plain morality and the divine virtue of changing the heart. The “ambassadors of the truth” propose to themselves to convert the whole world, the clever and the dull, the Greek and the barbarian; not a rustic, not a poor unlettered simpleton will they consent to abandon. Of what use is Plato in such a work as this? His brilliant and polished periods may possibly be of use to the few literary men that can understand them; but in the art of attracting the attention of the rude populace he is outdone even by Epictetus. But the Scripture has something in it that not even Epictetus can show. Its doctrines may possibly in certain cases seem to repeat the teachings of Grecian philosophy; but it has the power of making men act on those doctrines, which never a Greek philosopher yet could boast of. And now as to the heroes and philosophers, the fathers and saints of paganism. “Let us see what leaders Celsus wishes us to follow, to the end that we may not be without ancient and reverend models of heroism. He sends us to God-imbued poets, as he calls them, the sages, and the philosophers, whom he indicates in a general way, without naming particular names. He sends us, also, to Hercules, AEsculapius, and the rest, to learn heroism from their brave contempt of death, not unfittingly rewarded by the myth that has deified them. Where he does not mention names it is hard to refute him. Had he named his divine poet or sage, I should have tried to show him to be a blind guide; but since he has not done so, I must content myself with appealing to what everyone knows of the divine poets as a body, and asking whether they can be compared for a moment to Moses, for instance; to the prophets of the creator of all things; above all, to him who has shone forth on all the race of man, and announced to all the true way in which God would be served; who, as far as lay in him, has willed that none should be ignorant of his secret teachings, but, in his super-abounding philanthropy, has both given to the learned a theology that can raise their souls above all things here below, and yet at the same time condescends to the weak intellect of the untaught man, of the simple woman, and the household slave – himself assisting them to lead a better life, each in his degree, according to the teachings about God that every one of them has been enabled to share. He mentions Hercules. Has he forgotten the ugly story about that hero’s base servitude to Omphale. It would take some persuading to make us pay divine honors to the ruffian that seized the poor farmer’s ox by main force, and devoured it before his eyes, whilst the owner cursed him, and he seemed to enjoy the curses as much as the meal itself; whence is derived the edifying custom of accompanying his sacrifices by a rite of powerful execrations. He mentions AEsculapius. I have already dealt with AEsculapius: he was a clever doctor, but he did nothing very extraordinary. He puts up Orpheus. Of course, Celsus is aware that Orpheus wrote about the gods far more impiously and fabulously than Homer ever did. Now, he considers, with Plato, that Homer’s poems are unfit to be permitted in the model republic; so that it is perfectly evident that he introduces Orpheus here for the sole purpose of defaming us and disparaging Jesus. Poor Anaxarchus in his mortar undoubtedly affords a great example of fortitude; but as this happens to be the solitary fact that is known about Anaxarchus, it would be difficult to make him a model hero and absurd to make him a god. Then, as to Epictetus: there is no need of depreciating him; it is enough to say, that his words and deeds are not worthy of the most distant comparison with the words and deeds of one whom Celsus despises; for the sayings of Jesus convert the wise and the simple. Celsus asks: ‘What did your God say in his sufferings, like to this?’ I answer that his patience and his bravery in his scourgings and his thousand ignominies were better shown by his silence than by any word ever uttered by suffering Greek. But he did speak.” And then he touches on some of the words of Jesus in his agony. It is to us like a new revelation of the gospel, like a new Epiphany, to read the comparison of the life of Jesus with the lives of the best and noblest of antiquity. It brings vividly to our imagination the brilliancy of the dawn of that day of Christ Jesus (into whose light we are baptized, and in which we live with little appreciation), when we can call back again the shades of paganism, and watch the gross darkness as it lifts and moves slowly off before the sun of justice. We can realize something of the feelings of earnest hearts as they came within the reach of that light, and share a little in the excitement of a conflict wherein the victor overcame, not, like Perseus, by displaying the horrors of a Gorgon’s head, but by unveiling, philosophically, artistically, enthusiastically, the charms of a “theology” upon whose beauty and truth there were no drawbacks, and in whose abysses of gladdening hope there were resting places for every want and wish of a human heart. Origen lets the light in upon the poor heroes and purblind sages of a Cimmerian night, and he forgets the scoffings of wretched philosophy, as he expiates on the love, the kindness, the philanthropy, the condescending grace of the Word, who is God. We cannot follow him far. The intellectual objector has much to say about the unreasonableness of faith; and the Christian doctor vindicates scientific theology, whilst he shows how the crowd of men must simply believe or be without any teaching whatever. He says deep and pregnant things about faith, science, and wisdom, that would bear fruit if reproduced in an age like ours. Then he enters at great length into the critical objections of the man of intellect against the life and actions of Jesus, more especially against the great corner-stone of faith, the resurrection. And throughout the whole of his demonstrations on intellectual grounds, he is fond of calling attention to two grand arguments of fact, that no amount of subtlety can explain away, and that the dullest wit cannot help seeing: first; that Christianity has changed and reformed men’s morals in a way totally unexampled; second, that such a system of dogma and morality can never by any possibility have been the product of human thought, especially seeing what sort of men have propagated and professed it, “not many wise, not many noble;” therefore its origin is divine, and its author is the great creator of whom Plato spoke in stammering words, and whom all philosophy has sought.
Celsus, after having laughed at Christianity, and argued against it, and having sometimes laughed argumentatively, and at other times argued by a laugh, appears toward the end of his book in the entirely new character of the citizen, or patriotic opponent of impious innovations. He defends the old faith in the gods and the myths, the old sacrifices, in a word, the old civilization, from the awful radicalism of a sect that were upsetting the very foundations of social order, and endangering what little religion the common people could be got to practise. “All this private association and sectarianism is clearly against the law of the empire. They repudiate temples, they despise statutes, they mock at the offerings of incense and the sacrifices of living things; and they tell decent temple-goers and frequenters of the sanctuaries that they are doing an abomination and worshipping devils. Now, the proper, sensible, and right thing is, that each nation preserve its own customs and laws. One people has found the advantage of one set of institutions, another of another; let each keep what is once established by due and competent authority. The Jews are perfectly right in being tenacious of their particular laws.” (This is cool, in one who had just been abusing the Jews with all his powers of ridicule and logic – but then he is now speaking in a different character.) “Besides, there is another and a deeper reason for this. It is probable that in the beginning of things the diverse parts of the earth were committed to diverse powers and dominations to be presided over and governed according to their pleasure; it must therefore be wrong to attack those institutions which they have established from the beginning in their several prefectures. It seems, indeed, perfectly certain that there is nothing in the world that is not given in charge to some demon. Man himself, the moment he enters the prison of his body, passes under the power of the keepers of this prison-house. Nay, the Egyptians, who are unexceptionable authorities here, tell us that to look after the various parts of a man’s body, there are told off no less than six-and-thirty demons or aerial powers (some say more); and they even mention their names, as Chnoumen, Chnachoumen, Cnat, Sieat, and others, by invoking whom you obtain health in your various limbs. Certainly, therefore, if a man prefer health to sickness, and happiness to misery, there is no reason why he should not deliver himself from evil by propitiating these beings who have him in charge. One or two things, therefore; either the Christians must live in this world and worship those who rule this world, or they must abjure marriage, never have children, take no part in the affairs of men, in fact depart from the earth altogether, and leave no seed behind them. If they are to share in the goods, and to be protected from the evils of this world, then it is both unreasonable and ungrateful not to render tribute to the guardians of what they enjoy and the powers from whom they have so much to fear.” The proud and fastidious philosopher has fallen low. What an interval between the grand sentences of Plato and the humiliating confessions of the apologist of idol-worship! And yet both extremes must be duly considered, before we can realize the Paganism of the Neo-Platonic revival. The demonology of Zoroaster, which was the practical religion of the whole East, had encountered the Platonic philosophy and engrafted itself upon it; and the sages of such Greek cities as Caesarea found themselves seriously defending the devil-worship of the wandering Arabs that roved over the plains of Syria and Asia, ignoring the centres of civilization that Alexander’s conquest had erected in their midst.”
The first part of the objectors patriotic appeal on behalf of established “institutions” is easily disposed of. The argument, carried to its lawful lengths, becomes ridiculous. “The Scythian law kills all the old men; the Persian law sanctions incest; the Crimeans sacrifice strangers to Diana; in one part of Africa they immolate their children to Saturn. One national law makes hanging a virtue, another commends death by fire. Some nations reckon it pious to worship crocodiles, others pay divine honors to cows, others again make gods of goats, and one people adores what another eats. This is making religion, not a truth, but a whim and a fancy. This is making piety, holiness, and righteousness, affairs of opinion, and not ascertainable, fixed realities. Suppose some one were to get up and say the same of temperance, prudence, justice, or fortitude, would he not be considered an imbecile? The truth is, there are two sorts of laws; the unwritten law of Nature, of which the author is God, and the written law of the state. If the state-law is not at variance with God’s law, it ought to be kept and to be preferred before the laws of strangers; but if it oppose the law of God, it must be trampled upon, even though danger, ignominy, and death be the consequence.” Thus much for the sentiment of nationality, and the common and obvious reasons, as Origen calls them, that will make plain men repudiate it. But the demon-theory and the alleged distribution of things to the aerial powers, leads to a deeper and more serious question. Knowing, therefore, that his book will fall into the hands of some who will be inclined to examine such questions to the bottom, he undertakes to speak more at length on the matter. This gives him an opportunity of showing, by the history of the dispersion of Babel, how it is that we find such diversity of peoples in different parts of the earth. Their dispersion was a punishment; the ministers of this punishment are the wicked spirits, acting as the instruments of God. One nation alone remained in God’s favor, and even it had to be punished through the “princes” or spirits of other nations. Of God’s mysterious dealings with this nation, and of the redemption that was to come through it to all the other nations, he says he cannot speak out, an account of the disciplina arcani, which forbade the Christian teacher to enter into explicit details about the evil spirits, and this far the sake of not affording encouragement to idolatry.
The time had now come when all the nations were called to the one saviour, the one lawgiver Jesus Christ, who “issuing a master and a teacher from the midst of the Jews, feeds with the word of his teaching the universal world.” For punishment, therefore, were the peoples of the earth delivered to demons; for salvation they must all return to the law of God, through Jesus. Then, as usual, the Christian doctor lays down the grand principle that withers with its first breath all this base and futile service of devils. “The Lord our God do we adore, and him only do we serve.” If demons punish men, or if angels rule this lower world, it is by his supreme will that they act. “God, therefore, the one Supreme Lord of all – him we must conciliate and make propitious, by religion and all virtue. Is not this simple? Is it not reasonable? Bethink you for one moment. There are two men, of whom one devotes himself entirely to the Almighty God, the other busies himself in searching out the names of the demons, their powers and their deeds, the rhymes that raise them, the plants that please them, the magic gems and the wizard characters that will elicit their answers; which of these two, think you, will be most pleasing to the Lord of All? But little wisdom is required to see that the former, in his simplicity and trust, will be accepted of the Almighty God and his familiars; whilst he who for the sake of his health and his comfort and his base and mean wants, deals, in demon-worship and magic, will be rejected as evil and impious, and be left to the tender mercies of the devils he invokes, to the confusion and despair of diabolical suggestions, and to infinite evils. For Celsus himself owns that these demons are wicked, that they are covetous of blood, of the savour and smoke of a sacrifice and of the singing that evokes them; let their worshipper, then, beware lest they prove slippery in their faith to him, and lest the adorer of yesterday be abandoned or ruined in favor of the more ample offerings of blood and of burnt odors that are brought by the adorer of today. And let not Celsus accuse us of ingratitude. We know perfectly well what true gratitude is, and to whom we ought to be grateful for all that we possess; and we fear not to be ungrateful to the demons, our adversaries and our enemies; but we fear to be ungrateful to him with whose benefits we are laden, whose workmanship we are, whose Providence has placed us in our varied lots in life, and at whose hands we look for life eternal when this life shall be ended. And we have a symbol of this our thankfulness; it is the bread that we call the Bread of thanksgiving – the Eucharistic Bread.” This last sentence would read commonplace to the infidel or the catechumen that might fall upon this answer of Origen to Celsus. They could not know what the faithful Christian knew, and what the writer himself knew and must have felt to his innermost heart, that these passing words were a veil that covered nothing less than the Tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament. The great central mystery, for well-known reasons, does not meet the eye in the pages of Origen, save in suggestive passages like this; but we Christians of today can pierce the mystery because we have its key, and can respond with our Catholic sympathies to a Catholic voice that speaks to us in veiled accents across the expanse of sixteen centuries. “For our citizenship,” he concludes, “we are no rebels or traitors. You say, quoting the words of an ancient –
‘King there is but one,
whom Saturn’s son hath established,’
We say with you, King there is but one; but in the place of Saturn’s son’ we put him who ‘raiseth up kings and deposeth them,’ and ‘who provideth a wise ruler in his season upon the earth.’ The kingly power is from God, and by God’s will we obey it; would that all believed this as we do! You exhort us to enter the imperial armies and fight for the state. But no men serve their country as the Christians do. They are taught to use heavenly arms in behalf of their rulers, and to pray to heaven for ‘kings and all those who are in high places;’ and their prayers, their mortifications, and their self-restraint are of more avail than many soldiers set in array of battle. And beyond all this, they teach their countrymen the worship of the Lord of All, and there is no earthly city so little and mean but they can promise its citizens a heavenly city with God. You exhort us to enter the magistracy and protect our country’s laws and religion. We have in every city an organization that is to us a second patria, created by the word of God, governed by those who are powerful in word and sound in work; excuse us if we concern ourselves mainly with the magistracy of the church. The ambitious we reject; those whose modesty makes them refuse the solicitude of the church of God, these we compel to accept it. The presidents of God’s state are called by God’s will to rule, and they must not defile their hands with the ministry of human laws. Not that a Christian refuses his share of public burdens; but he prefers to reserve himself for burdens and for a service of a diviner and more necessary sort, wherein is concerned the salvation of men. The Christian magistrate has a charge over all men; of those that are within, that they live better every day; of those that are without, that they may be numbered among those who act and speak the things of God-service. Serving God in very truth, instructing whom he may, he lives full of the divine word and law, and so he is able to lead to the Lord of All every one that is converted and wishes to live in his holy law, through the divine Son of God that is in him, his word, his wisdom, his truth, and his righteousness.”
With this description of the Christian bishop, we conclude our remarks on Origen. It will doubtless have occurred to most of our readers that we have too completely ignored the charges of heterodoxy that have so often been made against the name of Origen. But we do not admit that Origen was unsound in faith, much less that he was formerly heretical. Although not unprepared to justify this conviction, we cannot do more at present than invoke the authority of a new and important contribution to the Origen controversy, which was notified in our last number. Professor Vincenzi, it is confessed by competent and impartial critics, has totally dissipated the notion that Origen denied the eternity of punishment. As to the other accusations, he goes through them one by one and confutes them, without admitting anything whatever in the genuine works of Origen to be theologically unsound, “excepting a few points on which the fathers of his age were as doubtful and uncertain as himself, since the Church had not then defined them.” Thirdly, he undertakes to prove that Saint Jerome was completely mistaken, through no fault of his, with regard to the merits of a controversy in which he played so memorable a part; and, lastly, he maintains that Origen was never condemned by Pope or council, discussing especially the alleged condemnation by the fifth general council. Under shelter, then, of the authority of a work that comes to us with the approval of the Roman censorship, and which on two separate occasions has been warmly praised in the Civiltà, we cannot be wrong in waiving, at least, all discussion, in articles like the present, on the alleged errors of Origen. What has been said, though it has left the greater part of his work unconsidered, may perhaps have served to draw attention to one who is in some respects the greatest of the Greek fathers. He did not live long after the completion of the Contra Celsum. As he had been the faith’s champion from his orphaned boyhood to his old age, so he merited at least to suffer as a martyr for the Truth he had served so long. His tortures in the Decian persecution did not immediately cause his death, but they hastened it. He died at Tyre in 253 or 254. The cities where he taught are now mere names. Alexandria is a modern Turkish town, Caesarea is a heap of broken columns and ruined piers, Athens is the capital of a pitiful nation of mongrel Hellenes, Bostra and Petra are tombs in the deserts of Arabia. But two things are not likely to grow less in their greatness or to lose the vividness of their importance, the faith of Christ and what Origen has done for it. In another region of the world, and in cities with names that are different, yet with histories as grand as belonged to the cities of the East, unbelief seems to be bringing back a condition of mind, to encounter which the Catholic writer will have to put himself into the circumstances of those ancient giants who met and overthrew scientific paganism in the second and third centuries. Faith, and what is faith, and why men must believe, occupied Clement and Origen. The same questions are occupying the thought of our own day; and many a hint may be gathered and many a suggestive argument started, by those who will take the Alexandrian stand-point and look at faith as it is looked at in the polemical works of the great Alexandrian school.
– text taken from magazine, March 1867