Origen: Are You Employing the Full Power of Your Pursuit for Christianity?

Feast of Sts Joshua Son of Nun and Symeon the Stylite

Origen_square_2.jpgGREETINGS IN GOD, my most devoted and venerable son Gregory, from Origen. As you know, the pursuit of understanding, since it calls for asceticism, can involve exertion, which leads as much as possible (if I may put it that way) toward the goal of that for which a person wishes to train. Thus your pursuit can have made you an expert Roman lawyer and a Greek philosopher to those schools which are deemed significant. But I would wish you to employ the full power of your pursuit ultimately for Christianity; therefore as a means I would beseech you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks all those general lessons and instructions which can serve Christianity, and whatever from geometry and astronomy will be useful for interpreting the holy Scriptures. Thus, what the children of the philosophers say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as handmaids to philosophy, we also say concerning philosophy itself in relation to Christianity.

And precisely this point is hinted at by the passage in Exodus written from the person of God, when the children of Israel are told to ask their neighbors and acquaintances for gold and silver vessels and for clothing, so that having despoiled the Egyptians they might find material to fashion from what they acquired for the worship of God (Ex. 11.2). For from the goods of which they despoiled the Egyptians, the children of Israel fashioned the contents of the Holy of Holies, the Ark with the covering, and the Cherubim, and the mercy-seat and the golden jar in which was put the manna, the bread of angels. These were probably made from the finest gold of the Egyptians; from the next best to that were made the lampstand of solid gold by the inner veil, and the lamps on it, and the golden table on which the showbread rested, and between the two the golden incense-pot. If there were gold of third and fourth quality, from it was made the sacred vessels. And other things were made of the silver of Egypt, for when they dwelt in Egypt the children of Israel gained this from their stay there, to make good use of such precious material for the worship of God. From the clothing of the Egyptians would have come what needed the work of embroiderers, as Scripture calls them, since the embroiderers stitch together one kind of fabric to another with the wisdom of God, so that there might be the veils and the hangings without and within.

And what should I fashion with this untimely digression, on how the things they got from the Egyptians were so useful to the children of Israel, on what the Egyptians were unable to make proper use of, but the Hebrews through the wisdom of God could employ for pious purposes? Holy Scripture knew that some would take the descent into Egypt from their own land by the children of Israel badly; indicating in mysterious fashion that dwelling among the Egyptians, that is, the lessons of the world, would be bad for some, after they had been brought up on the law of God and the Israelite service to him. Hadad the Edomite did not fashion idols (I Kg. 11.14-22), as long as he stayed in the land of Israel, since he did not eat the food of the Egyptians; but when he left Solomon the wise and went down to Egypt, he left the wisdom of God and became a member of Pharaoh’s family, marrying his sister-in-law and having a child who was raised among the children of Pharaoh. Therefore, even if he went back up to the land of Israel he went back to divide the people of God, and to make them say to the golden calf, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” So I, having learned by experience, would say to you that it is a rare person who takes what is useful from Egypt and when he has left there makes things for the worship of God; Hadad the Edomite has many brethren. They are the people who after “living Greek” produce heretical ideas, and as it were fashion golden calves in Bethel, which means “house of God” (Gen. 28.17-19). It also seems to me that in this way the Logos is mysteriously indicating that they have installed their own fabrications for the holy Scriptures in which the Word of God lives and which are figuratively “Bethel.” The Logos says that the other statue was installed at Dan, and the boundaries of Dan are the outermost, close to the boundaries of the Gentiles, as is clear from what was written in the book of Joshua (Josh. 19.40-48). So too some of the fabrications constructed by those I have termed “brothers of Hadad” are close to the boundaries of the Gentiles.

—Origen, Epistle to St Gregory Thaumaturgas

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