It’s time to talk about Origen – the third century priest that allegedly castrated himself and rivaled Saint Thomas Aquinas in writing a great number of biblical commentaries, sermons, and theological books (allegedly thousands of books according to his contemporaries).
NSTI Catholic Video Lesson on the Life and Theology of Origen, student member link here:
But today we are getting crazy and talking about Origen…and his view of predestination as it relates to pre-existent souls.
Catholics and the Problem of Predestination
We have often discussed the intramural Catholic debate about Predestination over at the New Saint Thomas Institute: Augustine, double predestination, Molinism, Thomas Aquinas, Jansenism, etc.
Most new Catholic students react by saying, “Well we’re Catholics. We don’t believe in predestination.” The problem is that it is in the Bible and so we have to account for what it means. Saint Paul refers to predestination:
Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11).
The Greek word is προορίζω (proorizó).
To lay my cards on the table, I float back and forth between Molinism and Thomas Aquinas’s solution. If you are interested in this topic in Catholic theology and history, please use the search function at taylormarshall.com or better yet watch some of our videos on Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and the topic of predestination.
Origen and Predestination
One perspective that I’ve avoided entirely is the solution to predestination presented by Origen of Alexandria. This really out there, so hang with me.
Origen, in his book Peri Archon, states repeatedly that all rational creatures were once equally ranked minds prior to the creation of the universe.
According to Origen, God created millions of minds. He then tested these minds and they strayed from God to greater or lesser degrees.
- Those that hardly strayed became angels and were arranged in an angelic hierarchy in accord to their fidelity to God.
- Those that strayed more were destined to become humans in the future.
- Those that strayed far away from God became demons and were arranged in a demonic hierarchy in accord to their hatred for God.
One of Origen’s favorites verses was Jeremiah 1:5:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
For Origen this proves that Jeremiah (and all humans) existed before they were formed in the womb – and some were already consecrated.
Another one from the canonical scriptures would be Wisdom 8:19-20:
“As a child I was naturally gifted, and a good soul fell to my lot; or rather, being good, I entered an undefiled body.”
This verse seem to hold that “a good soul feel to my lot” and that the soul pre-existed the body and entered into it.
Origen also states that out of the millions of minds, one single mind did not stray at all. This one single soul remained 100% allied with God’s will and so it was immediately united with the Divine Logos – the Second Person of the Trinity. This was the soul that would eventually assume a body in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
Now Origen, then claims that it appears entirely unjust for some people to be born as Moses, Abraham, David, or John the Baptist while others are born as heathens. That’s totally unfair and this is often a topic of debate in youth groups and philosophical symposia about God’s justice.
Origen, says: “The answer is easy! Everyone is given a perfectly crafted life in conformity to their fidelity to God in the test prior to creation.”
So if a baby dies early. If a person is born in idolatrous India. If a girls is born in 1873 into the Martin family in Lisieux, France. If a boy is born into the Polish Wojtyła family in 1920…All these scenarios follow from God’s judgment of a soul’s response to God before creation.
Origen states that every person’s life was designed for their salvation based on their previous inclination (or lack thereof) in the test prior to the creation of the galaxy.
Origen says that Taylor Marshall was born into a nominally Christian home in Fort Worth Texas and given all by set backs and privileges based on how my pre-existent mind behaved toward God zillions of years ago.
Assessment of Origen and Predestination
Mormons have taken Origen’s doctrine of pre-existent souls. They hold something similar. Catholics, however, reject these schema. It has, however, been held by Catholics:
- Origen died in good standing.
- It’s likely that Clement of Alexandria held to this view of pre-existent souls.
- Didymus the Blind (a saint in the Oriental Orthodox Churches) held it.
- Perhaps Saint Gregory of Nyssa held it.
- The early Saint Basil the Great and the early Saint Gregory of Nazianzus held it. They later reject it.
- Allegedly, Saint Jerome held to this view in his early priesthood but later condemned it loudly and insistently.
- And there is no doubt that Evagrius Ponticus held to this view of pre-existence of souls and especially held to the role of the one sinless mind that became the soul of Christ which united to the Logos.
- The doctrine of pre-existent souls was condemned by the local Synod of Constantinople (AD 543) then again by the Emperor Justinian in his Edict of AD 544.
- The 5th Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II in 553) allegedly condemned this theology, but modern scholars are divided on whether the Fathers of the Council truly ratified the rulings of the Synod of Constantinople in AD 543.
- Notably, many of the quotes condemned as “Origenist” actually come from a book written by Evagrius Ponticus.
I don’t see how a Catholic would want to follow this view of predestination by Origen. I can see why a Catholic would be attracted to it. It levels out divine justice. It’s almost like Hindu karma. It allows a Christian to say, “So you don’t like your life? Sorry, but you earned it millions of years ago in a spiritual realm where you tested and apparently you failed. If you had acted better, you’d be Saint Michael the Archangel or a cherub. As it is, you are merely you. God has given you this particular life because it is the best way for you to be saved. Offer it up!”
Despite Jeremiah 1:5 stating “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” Sacred Scripture teaches that we come into being in our mother’s womb. We don’t pre-exist. The mystery of why Moses was born Moses and Pharoah was born Pharaoh remains a mystery. The tension I read in Romans 8-10 seems to keep this tension and does nothing to resolve it.
For this reason, the Catholic tradition has sought to find alternate views of predestination. Augustine holding to an unconditional predestination. Molinism holding to foreseen merits. And then various versions of the two systems.
One final strike against pre-existent souls is that none of us remember it. It seems that if we are punished or rewarded, we should know. That alone seems unjust.