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The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate


Around the turn of the fifth century, Christian theologians and churchmen contested each other's orthodoxy and good repute by hurling charges of "Origenism" at their opponents. And although orthodoxy was more narrowly defined by that era than during Origen's lifetime in the third century, his speculative, Platonizing theology was not the only issue at stake in the Origenist controversy: "Origen" became a code word for nontheological complaints as well. Elizabeth Clark explores the theological and ...

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Around the turn of the fifth century, Christian theologians and churchmen contested each other's orthodoxy and good repute by hurling charges of "Origenism" at their opponents. And although orthodoxy was more narrowly defined by that era than during Origen's lifetime in the third century, his speculative, Platonizing theology was not the only issue at stake in the Origenist controversy: "Origen" became a code word for nontheological complaints as well. Elizabeth Clark explores the theological and extra-theological implications of the dispute, uses social network analysis to explain the personal alliances and enmities of its participants, and suggests how it prefigured modern concerns with the status of representation, the social construction of the body, and praxis vis--vis theory. Shaped by the Trinitarian and ascetic debates, and later to influence clashes between Augustine and the Pelagians, the Origenist controversy intersected with patristic campaigns against pagan "idolatry" and Manichean and astrological determinism. Discussing Evagrius Ponticus, Epiphanius, Theophilus, Jerome, Shenute, and Rufinus in turn, Clark concludes by showing how Augustine's theory of original sin reconstructed the Origenist theory of the soul's pre-existence and "fall" into the body.

Originally published in 1992.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691603513
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/14/2014
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 1,000,315
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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The Origenist Controversy

The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate

By Elizabeth A. Clark


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03173-6


Elite Networks and Heresy Accusations: Towards a Social Description of the Origenist Controversy

One night in A.D. 397, the Roman nobleman Macarius had a dream. Macarius, who had been attempting (without apparent success) to compose a refutation of astrological determinism through an appeal to God's benevolence, saw a ship approaching across distant seas that would, God promised, solve his difficulties with the mathematici. Macarius later realized that his dream had portended Rufinus of Aquileia's arrival from Palestine and translation, at his request, of Origen's On First Principles. Jerome, Rufinus's chief antagonist in the Origenist controversy, took a different and dimmer view: the trireme carrying that vast treasure of Egyptian and Eastern teaching might better have sunk en route, for although it had come to Rome to "solve the puzzle of the mathematici," it had in fact "unloosed the faith of Christians."

As is well known, Origen's Peri Archon entertained a variety of theories that fourth-century Christians found reprehensible. Jerome catalogues them as follows: that within the Godhead, the Son was subordinated to the Father and the Holy Spirit to both; that rational creatures fell from a heavenly, incorporeal preexistence to acquire bodies, identified with the "coats of skins" of Genesis 3:21; that the devil could resume his angelic status and be saved; that demons could be transformed into humans, and vice versa; that since bodily substance was destined to pass away, there would be no physical resurrection; that a succession of worlds may have already existed and may exist in the future; that hellfire is not external to us, but the pangs of guilty conscience; that Christ may come again to suffer for the demons; and that allegorical exegesis is preferable to literal for those of advanced spirituality. These theories and others—most notably, an approach to the material body that implied a denigration of reproduction—constituted the main grounds for the attack on Origenism by Jerome, Epiphanius, and Theophilus, as is detailed in Chapter Three.

When charged with Origenism Rufinus's first response was to affirm Nicene doctrine, which Jerome scathingly rejected as a totally irrelevant affirmation. Rufinus next confessed his belief in a bodily resurrection. He refused to pronounce on the origin of souls, however, asserting (correctly) that since the Church had not declared any one opinion as orthodox to the exclusion of others, Christians were entided to continue debate. As a further defense, Rufinus claimed that dubious theological motifs in Origen's books had been inserted there by heretics and did not reflect Origen's considered opinion. Moreover, he charged, Jerome himself had earlier engaged in extensive translation of and commentary upon Origen's works. Had not Jerome deceived his readers, who expected on the basis of his extravagant encomia to encounter Origen in the heavenly halls after they died?

Most important, Rufinus—unlike Jerome—vigorously affirmed that the motivation undergirding Origen's enterprise should be lauded: he had wished to uphold both God's justice and benevolence, and human free will, against the determinism of Gnostics and astrologers. Under attack, Rufinus maintained that any theology worth credence must protect these teachings of the Christian tradition at all costs. Thus for Rufinus, the scheme of On First Principles was as relevant to Macarius's dilemma in 397 as it had been in Origen's milieu.

A thumbnail sketch of the conflict between Jerome and Rufinus—as traditionally conceived—might go as follows: the first round of dispute occurred in the mid-390s in Palestine, when Epiphanius of Salamis charged John of Jerusalem with Origenism, and Rufinus aligned himself with John. John appealed to Theophilus of Alexandria—not yet an opponent of Origenism—who sent an emissary, Isidore, to assess the situation; but Isidore's partisan support of John served only to arouse Jerome's ire when he heard of it. Jerome, rallying to Epiphanius's side, translated his admonitory letter to John for a private readership, but (according to Jerome) Rufinus's allies bribed someone for a copy and misused it to promote controversy. Jerome then began composing a fiercely anti-Origenist tract against John, but abandoned it when he and Rufinus patched up their relationship just before Rufinus's departure for the West in 397. When Rufinus arrived in Italy, Macarius prevailed upon him to translate Origen's On First Principles into Latin, as described above. An uproar resulted among Jerome's Roman friends, who sent Jerome a copy of the translation and requested that he act. Now under attack, Rufinus defended his theological orthodoxy in a statement to Pope Anastasius and in a treatise, the Apology against Jerome. Before Jerome had the text of Rufinus's Apology in hand, he wrote two books against Rufinus on the basis of reports reaching Palestine; a third book followed after Jerome had obtained a complete copy of Rufinus's work. Only through the intervention of other parties and the passage of time did the controversy abate.

Rufinus continued to translate Origen's writings until the time of his death in about 410. Jerome, who could not relinquish a grudge, continued to slander Rufinus, dubbing him with nicknames such as "Grunnius Corocotta Porcellius" ("Porky the Grunter"). Only belatedly, more than a decade after the controversy's height, did Jerome realize that Evagrius Ponticus's theology had been central to its outbreak and that some important issues of the Origenist dispute were resurfacing in the then-developing debate between Pelagian and Catholic Christians. These two recognitions, essential for a wider understanding of the Origenist controversy, claims our attention in Chapters Two and Five. Yet theological issues were not all that was at stake.

Students of early Christianity can readily guess that other, nontheological issues lay only slightly beneath the surface of the controversy. Not surprisingly, only portions of Jerome's and Rufinus's diatribes on these subjects actually concern Origen. We hear much, for example, about a struggle over ecclesiastical jurisdiction: had bishop Epiphanius of Salamis overstepped his rights when he ordained Jerome's brother Paulinianus in Palestine, allegedly within the episcopal jurisdiction of John of Jerusalem? A second disputed question was who had authored the famous Apology for Origen—the blessed martyr Pamphilus (as Rufinus claimed) or the wretched Arian historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (a view Jerome found attractive).

A third point concerned correct principles of translation. Jerome and Rufinus each thought his own style of translation to be correct, if not always literal, and each wished to impugn the translating abilities of the other. Jerome faulted Rufinus for altering the Peri Archon in the direction of orthodoxy and ridiculed the clumsy yet pretentious style of his opponent. Rufinus countered that Jerome, in his earlier translations of Origen's works, had sometimes proceeded in less than literal fashion. More nastily, he insinuated that Jerome's study of Hebrew and subsequent translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin was a covert condemnation of the Septuagint, an attempt to sneak "Jewish" views into the purity of Christian teaching. Fourth, Rufinus assumed the role of Tertullian redivivus and challenged Jerome's constant citation of secular literature, contending that Cicero, Virgil, and Horace had nothing to do with Christian truth. Jerome's snide rejoinder was to claim that Rufinus's writings made obvious that he had never studied literature at all: Origen's souls falling from the heavens to be clothed with bodies on earth were less knocked about, said Jerome, than the souls Rufinus described, struck on all sides by his barbaric phrases.

Last, the quarrel over asceticism resurfaced. Rufinus pounced upon the "Manichean" tone of Jerome's Epistle 22 to the virgin Eustochium and his Against Jovtntan, delighting to remind his readers that Jerome had been so transported by ascetic enthusiasm that he had blasphemously called his friend Paula, the mother of the letter's recipient, "the mother-in-law of God." Jerome's response was to question Rufinus's ascetic rigor, comparing his wealth to that of Croesus and Sardanapalus, and hinting that the soft life prevailed in Rufinus's and Melania the Elder's Jerusalem monasteries. That Jerome later came to a different insight on Origenism's ascetic stringency is revealed in his attack on Evagrius Ponticus's advocacy of apatheia, the attainment of an equanimity undisturbed by the passions. As we shall see, Jerome's critique of Origenism was strongly influenced by his claim that superlative merit accrued to ascetic renunciation, both here and in the hereafter: hierarchy had to be preserved at all costs.

Yet beneath the theological and extratheological issues mentioned above lies another consideration that would be considered decisive by many social scientists: the principals in the controversy, who had known each other for many years, had their coteries of supporters well in line before the controversy ever erupted. If there is anything surprising about the way the conflict developed, it is the degree to which the factions lined up precisely on the basis of old friendship and association. Only a few "switch" characters can be noted in the entire complex drama, Theophilus of Alexandria being the most important. In fact, some might argue that the multifaceted relations to be examined—kinship, marriage, hospitality proffered and received, religious mentorship, gift-giving, and literary and financial patronage—illumine the developing antagonisms with less recourse to theological debate than students of Christian history would have imagined.

Two points need emphasis before we unravel the social webs undergirding the controversy. First, although contemporary social scientists assume that network description proceeds through direct observation, interviews, and questionnaires, the literature from the Origenist controversy is so abundant that a scholar working fifteen centuries later need not despair at ferreting out the relationships through which the controversy evolved. Although some pieces of evidence have been lost and other points remain obscure in the extant materials, more documents pertinent to social analysis remain for the Origenist debate than for any other early Christian controversy.

In part, the abundance of our material stems from the letter-writing proclivities of the disputants: here, Jerome's letters (and his translation of some of Epiphanius's and Theophilus of Alexandria's) comprise an invaluable source for the reconstruction of the networks. Unfortunately, neither the letters written by women to Jerome nor those composed by Rufinus are extant. Moreover, letters often went astray: the Origenist controversy constitutes an exemplary case of a dispute fueled by letters that never reached their destination. It must also be admitted that ecclesiastical "men of letters," like their secular counterparts, sometimes wrote to people whom they knew little, if at all. Such letters cannot always be taken as evidence of close relationships, but perhaps are better understood as a manifestation of ancient patronage systems in a new Christian environment.

Throughout the Origenist controversy, the giving and receiving of favors was sustained among a highly "internationalized" Christian elite by means of exchanging letters. From the remains of such correspondence, we learn how wealthy men and women provided funds for the building of churches and monasteries, commissioned (usually by "requesting") works of Christian literature, and lent social prestige to the activities of theologians who were low on cash but high on learned reflection. Despite the problems that separate the analysis of ancient networks from that of modern ones, the abundant literary remains from the Origenist controversy provide sufficient material to inspire at least limited confidence in the reconstruction of the social networks involved.

Second, the amenability of the Origenist controversy to exploration through a network analysis most associated with the social sciences in no way dampens its high drama: the relationships revealed are replete with friendships gone awry, jealousy, betrayal, larceny, bribery, vanity, and sheer pigheadedness. Above the prejudice and calumny soars Origen's admittedly heterodox genius, a genius that produced the first coherent piece of speculative theology in the Christian tradition.

The considerations that sparked the development of social network theory make it a particularly productive approach to the types of relationships involved in the Origenist controversy. Abandoning structuralist/functionalist analysis as inadequate for examining relations within groups and faulting its assumption of a static social model, social scientists sought an approach that better lent itself to the consideration of societies and relationships characterized by hierarchy, asymmetry, and inequality, without reverting to an individualistic, psychological analysis. The examination of networks was the result of this quest, and sociologists agree that the method has proven especially fruitful in the study of friendships, disputes, and patronage—precisely the topics relevant to an examination of the Origenist controversy.

The determining concept of network theory is, as J. Clyde Mitchell explains, that "the variations in behaviour of people in any one role relationship may be traced to the effects of the behaviour of other people, to whom they are linked in one, two or more steps, in some other quite different relationship." Structures of relationships—who is linked to whom and how, and which persons are linked to each other through third parties—are held to be more decisive than issues of motivation or belief in explaining behavior. Thus researchers such as Rodney Stark have argued, with good evidence, that in some contemporary religious groups, interpersonal ties are far more effective than ideology both in recruitment to the group and in maintenance of commitment.

Network analysts, measuring the density of a network (i.e., "the number of links that actually exist expressed as a proportion of the maximum number of links that could possibly exist"), claim that dense networks, in which many persons are connected with each other, make probable that an individual's actions are as strongly conditioned by relationships with others in the network as by the ideas that constitute the alleged matter at hand—in the case of the Origenist controversy, by points of theology. Asking whether individuals in a network are linked with each other in one role or in many, network analysts argue that the greater the multiplexity of ties, the stronger the likelihood that a person's action in any particular situation is conditioned by his or her links with others in the network. Thus in the Origenist controversy, the sheer multiplicity of ties existing among network members—ties of kinship, friendship, hospitality given and received, literary and financial patronage, religious mentorship, traveling companionship—helps to predispose the theological positions they will adopt.


Excerpted from The Origenist Controversy by Elizabeth A. Clark. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Introduction 3
Ch. 1 Elite Networks and Heresy Accusations: Towards a Social Description of the Origenist Controversy 11
Ch. 2 Image and Images: Evagrius Ponticus and the Anthropomorphite Controversy 43
Ch. 3 The Charges against Origenism 85
Epiphanus's Version of Origenism and His Anti-Origenism Charges 86
Theophilus's Version of Origenism and His Anti-Origenist Charges 105
Jerome's Version of Origenism and His Anti-Origenist Charges 121
Shenute's Version of Origenism and His Anti-Origenist Charges 151
Ch. 4 Rufinus's Defense against Charges of Origenism 159
Ch. 5 From Origenism to Pelagianism 194
The Issues 194
"Pre-Pelagian" Concerns 198
The Pelagians 207
Jerome 221
Augustine 227
Theodicy 244
Conclusion 245
Afterword 248
Bibliography 251
Index 281
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