Origen and Supersessionism

Written by Michael Vlach.

The influential church father, Origen (c. 185–254), was important to the development of supersessionism. He taught that Israel was permanently rejected by God and that the church was the new Israel.

 

Concerning Israel’s rejection, Origen promoted a punitive supersessionist approach in which the people of Israel were forever “abandoned because of their sins.”[1] He also declared: “And we say with confidence that they [Jews] will never be restored to their former condition. For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind, in conspiring against the Saviour of the human race in that city where they offered up to God a worship containing the symbols of mighty mysteries.”[2] According to Origen, “The Jews were altogether abandoned, and possess now none of what were considered their ancient glories, so that there is no indication of any Divinity abiding amongst them.”[3]

 

In addition to believing that Israel had been forever rejected, Origen held that the church was now the new people of God. In his debate with Celsus, for example, Origen stated, “Our Lord, seeing the conduct of the Jews not to be at all in keeping with the teaching of the prophets, inculcated by a parable that the kingdom of God would be taken from them, and given to the converts from heathenism.”[4] N. R. M. De Lange summarizes Origen’s supersessionist perspective: “Crucial to the whole argument [of Origen] is the paradox that Jews and Gentiles suffer a reversal of roles. The historical Israelites cease to be Israelites, while the believers from the Gentiles become the New Israel. This involves a redefinition ofIsrael.”[5]

In addition to making specific supersessionist statements, Origen helped lay a foundation for supersessionism. Diprose points out that Origen “strengthened the theoretical basis of replacement theology by grounding it in biblical exegesis.”[6] This “theoretical basis” is linked to Origen’s use of allegory to understand Scripture.

 

Origen gave Christian allegory its theoretical foundation and he was central in making the allegorical method the Christian approach to interpreting Scripture texts regarding Israel. In his De Principiis he argued for a threefold meaning of each Scripture passage.[7] While acknowledging the importance of the literal meaning at times, Origen argued that the spiritual meaning behind the literal sense was most important. For example, in reference to Jesus’ statement, “I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mat 15:24), Origen denied that Jesus had ethnic Israelites in view. For Origen, the title Israel referred to anyone who truly knows God: “We do not understand these words [Mat 15:24] as those do who savour of earthly things . . . but we understand that there exists a race of souls which is termed ‘Israel,’ as is indicated by the interpretation of the name itself: for Israel is interpreted to mean a ‘mind,’ or ‘man seeing God.’”[8]

Origen also held to a distinction between carnal Israel and spiritual Israel. Carnal or physical Israel, for Origen, was never intended to inherit the promises of the Old Testament because she was unworthy and could not understand them. At best, physical Israel functioned as a type for the spiritual Israel—the church, to whom the promises would find their complete fulfillment.[9] The result of this view, according to Diprose, was that “Origen effectively disinherits physical Israel.”[10]



[1] Origen, Against Celsus 4.22, ANF 4:506.

 

[2] Origen, Against Celsus 4.22, ANF 4:506.

 

[3] Origen, Against Celsus 2.8, ANF 4:433.

 

[4] Origen, Against Celsus  2.5, ANF 4:431.

 

[5] N. R. M. De Lange, Origen and the Jews: Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-CenturyPalestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 80.

 

[6] Ronald E. Diprose, Israel in the Development of Christian Thought (Rome: Istituto Biblico Evangelico Italiano, 2000), 86.

 

[7] See Origen, De Principiis 4.1.11, ANF 4:359. See also “Early Christian Interpretation,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 311–12. Kaiser says Origen “championed the allegorical system of interpretation as the best way to handle most of the Old Testament.” Walter C. Kaiser, “An Epangelical Response,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 363. 

 

[8] Origen, On First Principles 4.1.22 ANF 4:371.

 

[9] Origen said “corporeal Israelites” [Jews] were “the type” for  “spiritual Israelites” [the church]. On First Principles 4.21 ANF 4:370; See also Diprose, Israel in the Development of Christian Thought, 89.

 

[10] Diprose, 89.

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