Progress in Origen and the Origenian Tradition

by Anders-Christian Jacobsen (Volume editor) Gaetano Lettieri (Volume editor) Maria Fallica (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 384 Pages
Open Access


Progress is a structural and systematic concept in the thought of Origen of Alexandria, which represents one of the most advanced syntheses of the Christian reading of the Old and the New Testaments’ legacy and the classical paideia, as well as a rational critique towards every kind of static objectification of the religious. Origen’s legacy was capable of radiating its influence through Western theology and philosophy, thus shaping its idea of theological, moral, intellectual, social and political progress. The volume follows the intellectual dynamism generated by the reception of Origen’s thought through seventeen articles, which span through the centuries, from the analysis of Origen’s thought to its reception history in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Modern Age, up until the 20th century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • Introduction (Gaetano Lettieri – Anders-Christian Jacobsen – Maria Fallica)
  • Progress: A Key Idea for Origen and Its Inheritance (Gaetano Lettieri)
  • Transgression, Regress, and Progress in the Theology of Origen of Alexandria (Anders-Christian Jacobsen)
  • Gnosticismo e mistica: una relazione complessa. Sull’anima gnostica e la genesi dell’antropologia cristiana (Francesco Berno)
  • The Tradition of Spiritual Progress in the West: The Legacy of Plotinus and Origen for Contemporary Neuroscience (Patricia Ciner)
  • The First Principles of Origen’s Logic: An Introduction to Origen’s Theology of Logic (Ryan Haecker)
  • The Use of Eros in Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on the Song of Songs (Vito Limone)
  • From reading to understanding: Profectus in Abelard and Origen (Tobias Georges )
  • Reason, Free Will, and Predestination. Origen in Aquinas’ Theological Thought (Massimiliano Lenzi)
  • Blurred Lines: Origen the Kabbalist (Pasquale Terracciano)
  • Charity and Progress: Erasmus in the Origenian Tradition (Maria Fallica)
  • The Idea of Progression between Humanism and Reformation: The Case of Sebastian Castellio (Stefania Salvadori)
  • Wait for Better Times: Eschatological Expectations in Philipp Jacob Spener, Johann Wilhelm Petersen and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (Elisa Bellucci)
  • Hamann and the Parody of Progress (Joshua Roe)
  • Origene e la tradizione alessandrina in Antonio Rosmini (Andrea Annese)
  • Two Types of Christian Apokatastasis: Origen and Karl Barth (Enrico Cerasi)
  • Origen as Hegel: The Notion of Aufhebung in Balthasar’s Interpretation of Origen (Elisa Zocchi)
  • Myth and Progress: Hans Blumenberg’s Reading of Origen of Alexandria (Ludovico Battista)
  • Bibliography
  • General Index
  • Series Index

←6 | 7→

List of Contributors

Andrea Annese

University of Bologna

Ludovico Battista

Sapienza Università di Roma

Elisa Bellucci

Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

Francesco Berno

Sapienza University of Rome

Enrico Cerasi

Università telematica Pegaso

Patricia Ciner

National University of San Juan

Maria Fallica

Sapienza University of Rome

Tobias Georges

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Ryan Haecker

Peterhouse, Cambridge

Anders-Christian Jacobsen

Aarhus University

Massimiliano Lenzi

Sapienza University of Rome

Gaetano Lettieri

Sapienza University of Rome

Vito Limone

University Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milan←7 | 8→

Joshua Roe

University of Freiburg

Stefania Salvadori

Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel

Pasquale Terracciano

University of Rome Tor Vergata

Elisa Zocchi

Westfälische Wilhelms Universität Münster

←8 | 9→
Gaetano Lettieri – Anders-Christian Jacobsen – Maria Fallica


The challenge of making a genealogy of the idea of progress – one of the most crucial driving forces of the Western culture in the modern age, brutally challenged by the twentieth century – has at its core the question about the role of Christianity. The comprehension and meta-comprehension of Western history has been intertwined with the task to define the nature of “modernity” and its (supposed) genesis as a process of “secularization” of theological-political concepts. One of the most debated theses on the genesis of the concept of progress was formulated by Karl Löwith,1 who described the interpretations of history as belated products of biblical eschatological views. This volume intends to approach this problem from another, contested genealogy, which in some sense can be seen as a heresiology: namely, Origenism.

The history of the reception of Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–c. 253), the exegete and philosopher who shaped the history of Christian hermeneutics from the third century onwards, is characterised by the continuous debate surrounding the legitimacy of his doctrine inside the Church, the boundaries of which were only then in the making. At the same time, the almost inevitable confrontation with his theological model took place. By invoking the name of the master of Alexandria, this journey through the Christian traditions over the centuries, from Late Antiquity to contemporary times, offers the possibility of appreciating a more nuanced understanding of the “history of the Christian idea of progress”. This is done through the lens of a perspective which is at the same time marginal and hegemonic as well as both heretical and at the heart of orthodoxy.

The volume builds on the results of the international conference on Origen and the Origenian Tradition on Progress, held in Rome from the 14th to the 16th of May 2018. The conference was organised in collaboration between the Marie Skłodowska-Curie ITN Project The History of Human Freedom and Dignity in Western Civilization and the Sapienza University of Rome, with its funded project La Wirkungsgeschichte di gnosi e origenismo in età moderna.

We, as organisers, shared the idea that the notion of progress (attested especially in the terms προκοπή, προκόπτω, πορεύω, προσάγω / profectus, ←9 | 10→proficio, procedo) is a structural concept in the thought of Origen, who deploys it systematically.2 The strategy of following the Nachleben of the idea of progress rests on the presupposition of the systematicity of Origen’s thought and the complex symmetry between the beginning, found in the pre-existence of the intellects, and the end, found in the apocatastasis. This symmetry is studied in the first papers of the volume (i.e. by Gaetano Lettieri and Anders-Christian Jacobsen), which offer respectively a broad panorama of the theme and a detailed reference to one aspect of this theology of progress. As a result of the need of persistently being vigilant of the risk of “overexposing the continuity between discrete phenomena,” as Francesco Berno puts it in his paper, the contributions attempt to describe a history of the concept of progress as found in the Origenian inheritance marked by a thorough philological, historic-critical analysis of key texts and authors. Therefore, we use the marker of “Origenism”, further specified by the key concept of “progress”, as a historical concept,3 fully convinced of the potential of these categories to disclose new meaning of the history of progress and the history of Western thought, leaving the field open to new investigations. As one of the most refined critics of the idea of progress, Theodor Adorno, once wrote, it is necessary to continue to interrogate history – and the concept of progress itself – knowing that “discontinuity and universal history have to be thought together”; if not so, the risk would be to elevate “mere facticity” to the rank of “the only thing to be recognized and accepted”,4 thereby risking a theodicy of the present.

After the Origenian beginnings with the two already mentioned contributions (Lettieri, Jacobsen), Berno shows a disambiguation of the mystical semantic field in Greek Valentinianism. Berno retraces the thesis of a Gnostic origin, albeit reinvented and radically modified, of the later Christian mystics. The Catholic Alexandrian school of Clement and Origen “selected and ←10 | 11→enriched, with extraneous themes” the Gnostic reflection, thus presenting it in a modality that the latter intended to transcend, the mystical one, seen by the Gnostics as psychic and imperfect. Thus, while Berno’s contribution tends to distinguish and separate, Patricia Ciner’s essay recovers the Platonic common ground between Plotinus’ and Origen’s mystical anthropologies. Ciner proposeses an actualisation of the models of Plotinus and Origen in the light of some currents of contemporary neuroscience. Ryan Haecker’s reflection closes this first section on Origen and his context, building the case for the full inclusion of Origen in the history of logic. Haecker links Origen’s first principles of theology with his understanding of logic as a formalisation of the divine Logos into logoi, which is refracted images of the Eternal speech.

Vito Limone’s contribution focuses on one of the most decisive heirs of the Origenian tradition, namely Gregory of Nyssa. Limone examines Gregory’s notion of “intensified agape” – which, as Limone shows, is a reformulation from Origen. Furthermore, Gregory identifies a force which drives the human soul in a movement that can now be truly progress without end. The conciliation between opposite principles in the soul – namely its passionate desire and its goal, impassibility – happens in the endless intensification of this desire. In Gregory, therefore, the contradiction of one of the major tenets of Origen’s system, i.e. the finite nature of God, is the paradoxical possibility of perfecting the system without postulating an end to its driving force, i.e. the ascensional movement of progress.

With Tobias Georges’ essay we enter the Middle Ages. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously compared his system to a “jar breaking into a thousand pieces,” so that, while “the name of the master was being overwhelmed and stoned”, “the fragrance of the ointment” poured all over the house. Von Balthasar told the fate of Origen’s inheritance which was under attack from the very beginning.5 In the Middle Ages, the heterodox parts were removed and Origen’s inheritance was made “completely harmless”.6 Origen’s powerful image, originating in the Song of Songs, expresses the dissemination and the simplification of Origenian ideas in the mediaeval cloisters and ←11 | 12→universities. Georges’ portrait of Abelard is an example of this cautious and “tactical” approach to Origen, mediated by the now overwhelming authority of Augustine. The critique of Origen, dependent on an Augustinian stance, is the subject of Massimiliano Lenzi’s contribution. Lenzi analyses Thomas Aquinas’ theology of predestined grace as an anti-Origenian device. Lenzi, furthermore, shows us a coherent Augustinian perspective in Aquinas’ soteriology, albeit expressed in the language of medieval Aristotelianism. The advantage of following Aquinas’ perspective consists in seeing the systematic nature of Origen’s system clearly evaluated (and rejected) by another famously systematic thinker, namely Aquinas, who judged inadequately and thus condemned both Origen’s ontology and soteriology.

Pasquale Terracciano illustrates in his contribution one of the ways Origen entered the Modern Age, namely through the quest for an original, ancient, and unitary wisdom, which for many scholars and theologians took the form of the study of the Kabbalah. Terracciano reads Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s famous defense of Origen through this innovative key. He then proceeds to complete the portrait of Origen, “Cabalae studiosus,” in a very comprehensive picture with the works of Francesco Zorzi, Cornelius Agrippa, and Jean Bodin at its center. The last link of the chain, evoked in the final pages of Terracciano’s essay, brings us to one of the most audacious evocations of Origen’s authority, made by Giordano Bruno, which underscores the radical potentiality of Origen’s thought in the hands of one of the most innovative, meta-dogmatic thinkers of the Early Modern Age.

While the sixteenth century signified the rediscovery of Origen as a master of esotericism, it was also the age of one of the most integral attempts to recover Origen’s authority – and superiority over Augustine – in terms of biblical exegesis, anthropology, and soteriology, namely that of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus’ Origenism, as pointed out in Maria Fallica’s essay, is an integral recovery of the category of progress, which leaves out Origen’s most audacious doctrines revived by the “kabbalist” vein and instead leads in the direction of a metaphorisation and spiritualisation of the revelation.

Erasmus’ reception of Origen mediated other fertile receptions of humanists and theologians across Europe, especially in figures who remained at the borders of the new confessional identities. Stefania Salvadori’s contribution analyses the case of Sebastian Castellio, one of the fathers of the modern idea of tolerance, who takes up and radicalises Erasmus’ position. He thereby uses Origen in the construction of “a new dynamic, progressive and universal model of salvation, a complex soteriological device whose direction is entrusted to human reason.”

The seventeenth century sees the development and the interplay of the various modes of reception of Origen already experimented with between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age: Origen the defender of free will, ←12 | 13→Origen the rationalist, Origen the Kabbalist are all possible and compoundable models. Elisa Bellucci’s contribution confronts the eschatological paradigms of Philipp Jacob Spener, the Petersen spouses, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz on the crucial theme of the Nachleben of one of the most disconcerting and yet fully coherent doctrines of Origen: the expectation of the apokatastasis, the recapitulation of all things in God, which is now, as Bellucci explains, a widely diffused tenet in the Kabbalistic tradition. Following the Petersens’ exegesis, the faith in the progressive action of a merciful God, manifesting Himself through the apparent contradictions of history, makes possible the conciliation between Luther and Origen, weighted in the latter’s favor: the action of the Spirit in history is directed toward a progressive, total revelation of the kingdom of love.

Joshua Roe’s contribution follows from a very peculiar viewpoint the history of the idea of progress in its most fortunate era, the Enlightenment, adopting the critical stance of Johann George Hamann. In his attempt to revisit and complicate current discourses on progress by showing their dark spots, the Prussian philosopher paradoxically uses the “progressive” Origen as a proof of the impossibility of eliminating the historical, sensitive, and irrational parts of human existence from the glorious account of its progressive destiny.

Andrea Annese’s essay brings us to the post-Enlightenment Italian Church of the XIX century. Annese examines the difficult confrontation with modernity in the figure of Antonio Rosmini, the creator of a new “Christian apologetics” with the retrieval of the Church Fathers and Origen at its core. As John Henry Newman states, Rosmini’s way to conjugate tradition and free theological discussion rested on the principle of the development of dogma: the history of the Christian doctrine as a seed, which needs the development intrinsic to a living entity to fully disclose its profoundest meaning. Rosmini’s perspective shows the reformist aspect of theological progress, rejected by the Catholic Church of its time and reevaluated in the twentieth century; an Origenian fate, one might say.

The last three essays of our volume reflect on three of the most important figures of the twentieth century who critically retrieved Origen’s role in the history of Christian theology: Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Hans Blumenberg. Enrico Cerasi returns to a subject frequently discussed in the volume: the possible convergence between Origenism – here in the form of the doctrine of apokatastasis – and the Reformed tradition, heavily influenced by Augustine’s theology. Cerasi interprets this convergence in Barth as only apparent, founded as it is in a very different theological focus, and indeed diverging in the idea of progress, which proves to be a litmus test for discerning ideological trajectories. Spirit and progress make their appearance again with Elisa Zocchi’s study on von Balthasar’s complex parallel ←13 | 14→between Origen and Hegel, in which the long shadow of another, powerful theology of history emerges: that of Joachim of Fiore. Progress is Aufhebung, dialectical synthesis, and this progress is moved into God. Notwithstanding the disturbing similarities, Balthasar redeems Origen’s theology from what he considers the sin of Hegelianism, i.e. the reduction of divine freedom to a logical necessity and of human freedom to titanic effort. Ludovico Battista’s essay, lastly, bring us to the theme with which we have started this brief introduction, namely the reconstruction of Western secularisation. Battista does this with the help of one of the most radical opponents to Christian genealogies of modern thought: Hans Blumenberg. Given Blumbenberg’s intense confrontation with Augustinism and its theological absolutism, Battista shows his cursory and “strained re-interpretation” of the Origenian tradition, considered anti-Christian in its results. Blumenberg’s firm refusal of any kind of Christian origins of the rationalist, enlightened, and liberal modernity is perhaps the best way to close a volume devoted to tracing a genealogy of a theology of progress.

The philosophical gesture of Blumbenberg, so charged with its Nietzschean accents, brings us back again to the ambiguities of a history of progress and history itself. Indeed, as many of the essays gathered in this volume will show, another name for progress can be accommodation, the classical rhetorical and legal principle which was incorporated into Christian theology and rabbinic thought. As Amos Funkenstein’s masterpiece, which corrected and resumed Löwith’s analysis, has shown that “grand historical speculations, which saw in the whole of history an articulation of the adjustment of divine manifestations to the process of intellectual, moral, and even political advancement of mankind” grew from the shared Jewish and Christian hermeneutical presupposition that “God adjusted his acts” to the capacity of the human recipient to understand them.7 In the shift from apocalyptic thought (with the idea of the irruption of novelty, crucial to the birth of the concept of history) to eschatology, revolutionary thought became “evolutionary”, and thus progressive.

Progress and apocalypse will continue to be alternatives, mediated in the neo-apocalyptic thought of Augustine;8 but it will be the Origenian tradition ←14 | 15→that will enhance this model. The heirs of Origen’s theological quest – e.g. Gregory of Nyssa, Eriugena, Eckhart, Cusanus, the Florentine humanists, Erasmus, Bruno, the Cambridge Platonists, Leibniz, Lessing, Kant, Fichte, the German Liberalität, Newman, Jaspers, Pareyson, Ricoeur, and Marion as well as the constant fidelity to Origen in the Jesuits from the sixteenth to the twentieth century –9 will build a theological alternative to the emerging hegemony of the absolute voluntarism of Augustine, based on the confession of the elective omnipotence of God, on the mono-energistic interpretation of the gift of grace, and on the tragically negative anthropology which forms its counterpoint. In building an “open”, speculative, rationalistic mysticism, Origenism will open the borders of religion while insinuating a progressive, ←15 | 16→tendentially meta-dogmatic stance, characterised by its liberal and “humanistic” traits and optimistic with regard to human freedom, reason, and the inalienable dignity of the human being. The pages that follow will tell some of this story.

In conclusion, we would like to thank Teresa Piscitelli (University of Napoli Federico II), Luca Arcari, and Marco Rizzi – respectively, the former president, the treasurer, and the new president of GIROTA (Gruppo Italiano di Ricerca su Origene e la Tradizione Alessandrina) – for the support to the conference and this publication. The support of one of the most important groups of research on Origen and the Alexandrian tradition was truly important and significant for our endeavour. Further, we express our gratitude to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie ITN Project The History of Human Freedom and Dignity in Western Civilization for supporting the conference as well as the publication of the volume. Finally, we owe Margrethe Birkler a debt of thanks for her huge effort in correcting and aligning the footnotes and the bibliography as well as creating the index for this contribution.

←16 | 17→
Gaetano Lettieri

Progress: A Key Idea for Origen and Its Inheritance

Abstract: The essay presents the theme of progress in a systematic way in Origen’s production, as a key word to understand all his works and his Nachleben. Origenism is here intended as an interpretation of Christian religion as universal religion of enlightened reason, which is rationalised and interiorised.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2023 (January)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 384 pp., 1 fig. col., 2 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Anders-Christian Jacobsen (Volume editor) Gaetano Lettieri (Volume editor) Maria Fallica (Volume editor)

Gaetano Lettieri is Full Professor of History of Christianity and Director of the Department of History, Anthropology, Religions, Art History, Media and Performing Arts at Sapienza University of Rome. He is specialized in the history of Christian theological thought from the origins to the contemporary age and the genesis of speculative theology at Alexandria. Maria Fallica (Ph. D., Sapienza) is a Post-Doc researcher in the history of Christianity at Sapienza University of Rome. Her research interests lie in the reception of the Fathers of the Church in the modern age, the history of the Reformations, the Italian Reformation of the 16th century, the history of methodism. Anders-Christian Jacobsen is Full Professor of Theology at Aarhus University. His research interests are Greek and Latin Patristics, reception of Patristic theology, theology of the Reformations, and modern systematic and constructive theology.


Title: Progress in Origen and the Origenian Tradition
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386 pages