Origen Invented the Language of the ‘Fall’: And Other Miscellanies

The Fall. Not a biblical word, per se[1]; did you ever wonder where it came from? I am currently rereading one of my all time favorite books, Julie Canlis’s[2]: Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. In one of her beginning sections she offers sketches of various early thinkers who helped contribute to a theology of ascent and ascension, respectively. In her coverage of Origen she identifies something interesting—at least to me—in regard to the taxonomy of the verbiage ‘fall.’ I’ve used this language ever since a wee one, being weaned in the church as I was. I have now been studying theology formally and informally for decades, and yet in all that time this reality escaped me; even the first time I read through Canlis’s book (it didn’t stand out to me like it is this time). Who would have ever thought that the heretic[3], Origen, was the originator of the language of fall. Indeed, Origen had a certain ideational context for the whence of his thinking on: fall. Here Canlis helps us understand what in fact that context was, and how it gave irruption to the notion of Fall; for Origen, as we will see, it is a very descriptive and ‘verbial’ conception. Canlis writes,

Origen’s cosmology is played out amidst the drama of fallen intellects who, in committing the first sin, “fell” into embodiment (De principiis 2.9). (Origen was the first to coin the word “fall” for original sin, because he regarded it as a literal fall from the higher spirit world to our lower world of materiality.) Having fallen, these intellects follow a threefold Platonic-style pedagogy to return to God: purification, illumination, and contemplative union. Given this cosmic tutorial, Origen’s soteriology follows suit and styles the person of Christ as the cosmic educator of these misplaced souls. (The Spirit is, not surprisingly, the Spirit of Wisdom.) In this scheme, the physicality of the Savior can be read as more or less a stage for the soul to pass by as it ascends to less and less mediated knowledge of the eternal Logos — for how could God’s limitation be his ultimate expression? In comparison to his near-contemporary Irenaeus, we see in this Alexandrian (and many after him) a subtle shift in accent away from the salvation of the flesh to the pedagogy of the soul.[4]

As an aside, look up Maximus the Confessor’s On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ as an antidote to Origen’s exitus/reditus Platonic schema of salvation.

Without getting into the nitty gritty of all the intellectual antecedents present in Origen’s world, even as those are highly interesting and important to the task of understanding his motivation for using the language of Fall, I thought it was interesting to simply note the word’s genetic line. It does make me think more astutely about using the word ‘fall’ going forward. It’s not that the word has inherent meaning, but as with any symbol it gains meaning through its context of usage. It is possible to use the language of fall in reified form without affirming its original usage of meaning as that is provided for in Origen’s thought-universe. Anyway, interesting.


[1] At least in its technical theological sense.

[2] By the way, Julie is a contributor to our first Evangelical Calvinism book.

[3] Although in many ways it is anachronistic or after the fact to label Origen a heretic; he is being somewhat recouped, as it were, in regard to his valuable status for the church. Even if his insights weren’t colored as post-Nicenely as we’d all like.

[4] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 367, 371. On the latter clause of the Canlis quote we might think of David Bentley Hart as a contemporary proponent of an Origenist outlook on soteriology; see his piece: The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients.



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