No list of prominent Christian preachers would be complete without adequate attention being given to Origen (A.D. 185-254).
Origen was born in Alexandria of Christian parents. When he was 16 years old a great persecution broke out and Origen’s father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. Origen wanted to join his father in prison and into what was presumed to be the martyrdom to follow, but his mother—unwilling to see this—hid all of Origen’s clothes when he was undressed, so that he couldn’t leave the house. Unable to leave, he wrote to his father, pleading with him to have courage and not give up his faith. Leonides stood by his faith and was beheaded. All of his property was confiscated.
Origen began to provide for his family financially at that time by beginning to teach.Because of the persecution, Origen’s teacher, Clement of Alexandria abandoned his work as head of the catechetical school at Alexandria and Origen took it up, even though he was only 18 years old.
Origen continued to live in ascetic poverty. He used no wine. He slept on the ground. He fasted constantly — to the injury of his health. He wore no shoes. He possessed only one coat. He spent day and night in study. According to some authorities, Origen’s zeal for dedication and purity led him to self-mutilation. Whether or not he was ever actually castrated is an issue difficult to establish on the basis of existing evidence. But the story does reflect something of his image among his contemporaries as a zealous — almost fanatical — Christian. (Fant & Pinson, A treasury of great preaching, vol. 1, p. 30)
His fame as a teacher grew and for a time he was summoned to Antioch to teach Julia Mammaea, the mother of Emperor Alexander Severus.
After his return to Alexandria, and with the rise of a new emperor, a new persecution arose and Origen was forced to flee his home city. He wandered until finally ending up in Caesarea in Palestine. While the bishops in Caeasarea were delighted to have Origen teaching there, his own bishop in Alexandria was furious over it (because Origen was not ordained) and ordered Origen to return to Alexandria.
Origen’s relationship with Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria was continually antagonistic. “Demetrius apparently was jealous of anyone whose ability threw him entirely into the background, whose opinions were beyond his understanding, and whose methods he did not approve.” (Fant & Pinson) Demetrius called a synod to seek excommunicate Origen, but the synod refused. Demitrius, therefore, called a second synod, who complied and excommunicated Origen, but most of the churches ignored the action.
Origen spent the next twenty years in Palestine researching, writing and teaching. After another persecution arose, he was forced to live in hiding, but he continued his work, even clandestinely.
Eventually a persecution arose that caught Origen in it’s web. He was arrested in Tyre, imprisoned and tortured. He was eventually released, upon the death of Emperor Decius, but Origen was so broken that he soon died there in Tyre at the age of 69.
Origen heavily influenced preaching during these years. He is most famous for his incredible flights of allegorical fancy in his biblical interpretation. He formulated that all scripture had three senses: grammatical, moral, and spiritual (or allegorical) and the last was the most important.
Part of this arose because of two factors: the allegorical method was widely used in the culture at that time. But second (and more important) Origen had no understanding of the concept of progressive revelation. Therefore he struggled with harmonizing the laws and regulations of the Old Testament with the faith and ethic of the gospel.
Origen sought to save the whole structure of Scripture as a unity by discovering a mystical or spiritual meaning within every obscure and difficult passage. This desire for unity between the Old and New Testaments led him into many of his fantastic comparisons between Old Testament regulations and New Testament principles. (Fant & Pinson, 1:36)
But that judgment overshadows the three greatest contributions of Origen:
- Origen was the first preacher to establish the form of the sermon as a discourse on a specific biblical text, where that text should be explained and applied. Up until this time every Christian saw him/herself as a preacher and sermons were often little more than personal testimonies. Because of the repeated persecutions during this period, Origen felt it was vital that preachers preach the content of the Bible and be able to defend it intellectually.
- Origen was the first preacher to lay great stress upon the importance of a careful exegesis of the historical and grammatical significance of the sermon text.
- Related to the above, Origen contributed to the structure of the sermon. Before this time, sermons had been (as already stated) little more than personal testimonies with random thoughts, seldom related either to one another or to scripture. But Origen insisted that preaching must be expository: a continuous narrative based on one particular passage of scripture. Generally there was no single theme to the sermon: it was simply a running commentary on the passage of scripture. The only unity in the sermon could be found in whatever unity was found in the text being addressed.
Ambrosius, one of Origen’s converts, sponsored seven or more scribes who would take down Origen’s sermons in shorthand as they were being preached and then put them into publishable format. (I suspect that something similar to that must be happening with D.A. Carson today, so prolific is his output). Even to today, we have over 200 of Origen’s homilies recorded.
Origen believed that it was God who called and qualified the preacher. It was, however, the preacher’s responsibility to acquire and improve the gift of prophecy.
Origen was not a orator: he was a teacher. But it was not just his academic prowess that attracted students. The historian Eusebius notes that “his warmth of nature, his enthusiasm and his sympathy won men to him.”
Through his teaching and through his life, Origen impacted the theory and practice of Christian preaching for millennia to come.