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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol I:
The Church History of Eusebius.: Note 16

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On Bk. VI. chap. 8, § 5 (note 4). Origen and Demetrius.

The friendship of Demetrius for Origen began early and continued, apparently without interruption, for many years. In 203 he committed to him the charge of the catechetical school (chap. 3); in the present chapter we find him encouraging him after learning of his rash deed; some years afterward, upon Origen’s return from a visit to Rome, where his fame as a teacher had already become very great, Demetrius still showed the very best spirit toward him (chap. 14); and a little later sent him into Arabia to give instruction to an officer in that country (chap. 19). It is soon after this that the first sign of a difference between the two men appears, upon the occasion of Origen’s preaching in Cæsarea (ibid.). There seems, however, to have been no lasting quarrel, if there was any quarrel at all; for in 231 we find Demetrius giving Origen letters of recommendation upon the occasion of his visit to Achaia (see below, p. 396). The fact that he gives him these letters, thus recognizing him as a member of his church in good standing, and sending him upon his important mission with his official approval, shows that no open break between himself and Origen can as yet have taken place. But in his commentary on John (Tom. VI. præf.) Origen shows us that his last years in Alexandria were by no means pleasant ones. He compares his troubles there to the waves of a stormy sea, and his final departure to the exodus of the children of Israel. We know that he had been engaged for some time in writing commentaries, and that the first five books of his commentary on John—epoch-making in their significance, and sure to cause a sensation in orthodox, conservative circles—had recently appeared. We know that his reputation for heterodoxy was already quite widespread and that the majority of the Egyptian clergy were by no means upon his side. The trials to which he refers, therefore, may well have been a result of this hostility to his teachings existing among the clergy about him, and Demetrius may have shared to an extent in the common feeling. At the same time his disapproval cannot have been very pronounced, or he could not have given his official sanction to Origen’s important visit to Achaia. But now, things being in this condition, Origen set out upon his mission, leaving Heraclas in charge of his school, and undoubtedly with the expectation of returning again, for he left the unfinished sixth book of his commentary on John behind him (see preface to the sixth book). He stopped in Palestine on his way to Athens, and there was ordained a presbyter by the bishops of that country (upon the motives which prompted him in the matter, see below, p. 397). The result was a complete break between Demetrius and himself, and his condemnation by an Alexandrian synod. To understand Demetrius’ action in the matter, we must remember that both Eusebius and Jerome attribute the change in his attitude to jealousy of p. 395 Origen. They may be too harsh in their judgment, and yet it is certainly not at all unnatural that the growing power and fame of his young catechumen should in time affect, all unconsciously, his attitude toward him. But we must not do Demetrius an injustice. There is no sign that his jealousy led him to attack Origen, or to seek to undermine his influence, and we have no right to accuse him, without ground, of such unchristian conduct. At the same time, while he remained, as he supposed, an honest friend of Origen’s, the least feeling of jealousy (and it would have been remarkable had he never felt the least) would make him more suspicious of the latter’s conduct, and more prone to notice in his actions anything which might be interpreted as an infringement of his own prerogatives, or a disregard of the full respect due him. We seem to see a sign of this over-sensitiveness (most natural under the circumstances) in his severe disapproval of Origen’s preaching in Cæsarea, which surprised the Palestinian bishops, but which is not surprising when we realize that Demetrius might so easily construe it as a token of growing disrespect for his authority on the part of his rising young school principal. It is plain enough, if he was in this state of mind, that he might in all sincerity have given letters of recommendation to Origen and have wished him God speed upon his mission, and yet that the news of his ordination to the presbyterate by foreign bishops, without his own approval or consent, and indeed in opposition to his own principles and to ecclesiastical law, should at once arouse his ire, and, by giving occasion for what seemed righteous indignation, open the floodgates for all the smothered jealousy of years. In such a temper of mind he could not do otherwise than listen willingly to all the accusations of heresy against Origen, which were no doubt busily circulated in his absence, and it was inevitable that he should believe it his duty to take decided steps against a man who was a heretic, and at the same time showed complete disregard of the rules and customs of the Church, and of the rights of his bishop. The result was the definitive and final exclusion of Origen from communion with the Alexandrian church, and his degradation from the office of presbyter by decree of the Alexandrian synods described above, p. 392 sq. The two grounds of the sentence passed by these synods were plainly his irregular ordination to the priesthood when constitutionally unfit for it (cf. what Eusebius says in this chapter), and his heterodoxy (cf. e.g. the synodical epistle of the Egyptian bishops given in Mansi’s Collect. Concil. IX. col. 524, and also Jerome’s epistle ad Pammachium et Oceanum, § 10, and Rufinus’ Apologi in Hieron. II. 21). That the ordination to the priesthood of one who had mutilated himself was not universally considered uncanonical in the time of Origen is proved by the fact that the Palestinian bishops (whom Origen cannot have allowed to remain ignorant of his condition) all united in ordaining him. But the very fact that they all united (which has perplexed some scholars) leads us to think that they realized that their action was somewhat irregular, and hence wished to give it sanction by the participation of a number of bishops. The first canon of the Council of Nicæa forbids such ordination, and the canon is doubtless but the repetition of an older one (cf. Apost. Canons, 21 to 24, and see Hefele, Conciliengesch. I. p. 377), and yet Origen’s consent to his ordination makes it improbable that there was in force in his time, even in Alexandria, a canon placing absolute and unconditional clerical disabilities upon such as he. That the action, however, was considered at least irregular in Alexandria, is proved by the position taken in the matter by Demetrius; and the fact that he made so much of it leads us to believe that the synod, called by him, may now have made canon law of what was before only custom, and may have condemned Origen for violating that custom which they considered as binding as law. Certainly had there been no such custom, and had it not seemed to Demetrius absolutely binding, he would have ordained Origen to the priesthood long before. His ordination in Palestine was in violation of what was known to be Demetrius’ own principle, and the principle of the Alexandrian church, even if the principle was not, until this time or later, formulated into a canon.

Next: Note 17