Friday, 16 November 2007

And You Were Doing So Well

I have been working on Origen for the first of my (probably) two research projects. I’ve been thinking about how the thinking about the relationship between the Father and the Son and the relationship between the Godhead and creation develops between the Apologists in the second century and Origen in the third.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks, and my opinion about Origen has been steadily growing as I read more of him, and not just rely upon common stereotypes. In particular, I think I’m fairly sceptical of his reputation that he’s a Platonist of any shape or kind. Origen clearly combines both a deep mind and a rigorously biblical mind. Many of his problems seem to appear, not because he imposes cultural ideas of his time upon Scripture, but because he’s prepared to be very radical in his exegesis and integration of Scripture. Sometimes that pays off amazingly and he helps formulate the nucleus of ideas that later Fathers develop. Sometimes it misfires badly. The following quote is in the latter camp, I stumbled across it after several pages of great stuff, and thought I’d share my disappointment.

Since the Saviour through the illumination and salvation given to him by the Father fears nothing…secretly he asked for another (death) which would have been more of an ordeal, so that by a different cup he might achieve more benefits. This was not the will of the Father which was wiser than the will of the Son or the Saviour’s vision as he ordered the economy of the events. Ex. Mart. 29

Origen here is one of the first theologians to grapple with one of the issues that Christians keep returning to—what do we make of the prayer of Gethsamane? What does it mean for Jesus to pray for something to happen which wasn’t in the Father’s will? It’s a big issue where wisdom suggests a fair degree of caution in how one approaches the matter.

And there’s something impressive about Origen’s freshness in how he reads the Bible. He doesn’t assume that asking the cup to pass from him means that Jesus is trying to avoid death. He looks at outside the box and suggests that it meant that Jesus wanted an even more intense kind of death than crucifixion. And looking outside the box is a good ability to have—if we are going to avoid just reading our own ideas into the Bible, it’ll only be because we’re prepared to take roads not just less travelled, but never travelled.

But this is one time when staying in the box would have been so much better. Origen’s concern in context appears to be the incongruity between the idea that Jesus shrank from death in contrast to the courage of Christian martyrs. Origen’s own father was martyred and (debatably) his mother only prevented Origen from joining him by hiding his clothes. (Embarrassment for a seventeen year old male was as effective then as now).

But the solution here is disastrous. The idea that deaths can be ranked and some deaths might achieve more benefits because their ordeal is greater—as though Christ’s death worked by some kind of mechanistic rule completely undercuts the Biblical idea that death is death is death. There’s no ‘good’ ‘bad’ or ‘worse’ death. We might find certain ways of dying really difficult and have our own lists of ‘ways I’d rather go’ (burning to death, for example, can’t say I’m a fan. Dying in my sleep? Or dying by being hit by a meteor by surprise. I could live with that.) But from the point of view of the meaning of death, death is death. It’s judgement. And it’s an enemy.

Even worse is that Origen explains the prayer and answer in terms of a difference in wisdom between the Father and the Son, as though the Son isn’t quite as wise as the Father is. I think for once I’m at a loss for words… MDB


cynergy said...

And yet most modern preachers agree with Origen on this one! The number of sermons that stress the gruesomeness and 'badness' of Jesus death as somehow adding to its worthiness is innumerable - despite the clear lack of goriness and the 'matter-of-fact' ness that all the gospel writers adopt.

byron smith said...

I agree that the cult of gruesomeness isn't particularly helpful, yet aren't there still better and worse deaths in the Bible? Being hung on a tree is associated with being cursed by God. Being cut off while young is a greater tragedy than living to be 'full of years'. Simeon can depart in peace once he has seen God's salvation in the infant Jesus. I do not think all death is equal, though this needn't be combined with a mechanistic view of the 'effectiveness' of suffering.

byron smith said...

And thanks for this post, Mark. I've only just discovered this blog and look forward to hearing more about your project.

Baddelim said...

Hi Byron, good to have you along. There isn't going to be any work directly on the thesis this year - I've got to get through five pieces of assessment to qualify for the DPhil. One of those is 15k words on Athanasius, so that'll help provide some food for the bigger task. But don't worry, I'm sure you'll be heartily of sick of Athanasius in a few years time...

You're absolutely right with your critique, and I was thinking I'd left myself open when I wrote that entry that way.

There is an objective sense in which theologically some deaths are graded compared to other deaths. (Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by fire from heaven as a type of eternal judgement would be another example).

I think my comment was really just trying to say, "More painful and difficult deaths don't somehow 'do' something more than less ones do." As though the real issue with the cross was the physical suffering, and that's why it atoned for us.

Good to clarify that.