Konstan and Ramelli 6: Aiônios and aïdios in Origen (Guest post, part 6)

We conclude with a glance at Origen’s use of aiônios and aïdios (in our larger project we carry our investigation down to the time of Dionysius the Ps.-Areopagite). In Origen, there are many passages that refer to the aiônios life, in the formula characteristic of the New Testament: the emphasis seems to be not so much on eternity, that is, temporal infinity, as on the life in the next world or aiôn.

A particularly clear instance is (we believe) Philocalia, where the aiônios life is defined as that which will occur in the future aiôn. Origen affirms that God gave Scripture “body for those we existed before us [i.e., the Hebrews], soul for us, and spirit [pneuma] for those in the aiôn to come, who will obtain a life aiônios.” So too, in the Commentary on Matthew, the future life (aiônios) is contrasted with that in the present (proskairos). Again, Origen in a series of passages opposes the ephemeral sensible entities of the present time (proskaira) to the invisible and lasting objects of the world to come (aiônia).

Consistent with the usage of the Septuagint and the New Testament, Origen also applies the adjective aiônios to attributes of God. In one particularly illuminating passage, Origen speaks of the eternal God (tou aiôniou theou) and of the concealment of the mystery of Jesus over aiônios stretches of time (khronois aiôniois), where the sense is plainly “from time immemorial.” So too, Origen mentions the “days of the aiôn,” and “aiônia years” (etê aiônia), that is, very long periods of time, and the phrase eis tous aiônas here signifies, “for a very long time.”

In Origen, the adjective aïdios occurs much less frequently than aiônios, and when it is used, it is almost always in reference to God or His attributes; it presumably means “eternal” in the strict sense of limitless in time or beyond time.

In On Principles 3.3.5, Origen gives a clear sign that he understands aiôn in the sense of a succession of aiônes prior to the final apocatastasis, at which point one arrives at the true eternity, that is, aïdiotês. Eternity in the strict sense pertains, according to Origen, to the apocatastasis, not to the previous sequence of ages or aiônes. So too, Origen explains that Christ “reigned without flesh prior to the ages, and reigned in the flesh in the ages” (aiôniôs, adverb). Again, the “coming aiôn” indicates the next world (epi ton mellonta aiôna), where sinners will indeed be consigned to the pur aionion, that is, the fire that pertains to the future world; it may well last for a long time, but it is not, for Origen, eternal.

In this connection, it seems particularly significant that Origen calls the fire of damnation pur aiônion, but never pur aïdion. The explanation is that he does not consider this flame to be absolutely eternal: it is aiônion because it belongs to the next world, as opposed to the fire we experience in this present world, and it lasts as long as the aiônes do, in their succession. Similarly, Origen never speaks of thanatos aïdios, or of aïdia punishments and torments and the like, although he does speak of thanatos aiônios or death in the world to come (kolaseis aiônioi), i.e., punishment in the world to come.

Origen was deeply learned in both the Bible and the classical philosophical tradition; what is more, he maintained that damnation was not eternal, but served rather to purify the wicked, who would in the end be saved in the universal apocatastasis. His careful deployment of the adjectives aiônios and aïdios reflects, we have argued, both his sensitivity to the meaning of the latter among the Greek philosophers, and the distinction that is apparently observed in the use of these terms in the Bible. For Origen, this was further evidence in Scripture for the doctrine of universal salvation.


TN said…
This is absolutely wonderful to have this study from the academic world!

I think mainline Biblical scholarship has felt this way about "aionios" for a while, but never had the full research to state their case without some hesitation.

I'm thinking of the liberal Alan Richardson's An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (page 74), and (surprisingly) the more conservative RVG Tasker's Matthew Tyndale Commentary (page 240). Both these state that the word relates to quality of the Age to Come rather than quantity of never-ending time. But I get the impression, too, that there was a slight lack of confidence in stating the case.

So thanks to David and Ilaria for this wonderful research and comforting confirmation!!

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