The many names of Christ in wisdom: reading Scripture with Origen
for a diverse world.
Aged four when my sister was born, I was asked by my mother what I
thought the baby should be called. "Spiderman Goldilocks Greggs" was my rather
bold answer. Sadly (albeit perhaps not for my sister), my mother did not take
my youthful advice. No doubt it was because this was a rather silly name, and
names say much about us. Indeed, names can be telling of our social class, our
age, our schooling. Most of
us are known by more than one name. I am always called "Thomas" by my family,
although the majority of my friends call me "Tom" and old schoolmates call me
"Greggsy". Many of us have nicknames, and those of us who are or have children
or grandchildren will be known by names which arise from relationships — such
as "Mum" or "Nana". It
should perhaps be of little surprise to us, therefore, that Christ is endowed
with many names in Scripture, and that we should attend to the plurality of
these and their significance. However, so often theologians are selective of
only a few of Christ's titles which become the norm for all of the others. This
paper seeks to consider the wisdom of the many titles of Christ in Scripture,
and to do so in formative and creative dialogue with the third century
For Origen, the multiplicity of the names
and titles of Christ marks a crucial element of his teaching on the economy of
the Son, and marks especially a function of Christ's nature as wisdom. In this
paper I assert that, for Origen, the plurality of these names demonstrates that
one should recognise that the full diversity of the world must be taken
seriously within God's plan of salvation: the universality of the One who will
be "all in all" is not such that it destroys particularity; rather it is a
universality which is brought about through a recognition of God's willingness
to be involved in the various particularities of creation through the person
and work of his Son.
This essay seeks firstly, therefore, to outline Origen's teaching on the many
titles (or epinoiai) of Christ in Scripture. In a second section of the
essay, this teaching is applied to contemporary theological concerns.
1. Origen's teaching on epinoiai
Origen's teaching on the titles of Christ is found in its fullest
form in the first book of his Commentary on John.
Elements of the doctrine are also to be found in De Principiis,
Homilies on Genesis,
Homilies on Exodus
and Contra Celsum;
and vestiges of the teaching can be found scattered throughout Origen's corpus.
At a basic level, the teaching concerns the reality that "We do not
to him [Christ] in the same way, but each one 'according to his own proper
Therefore, Christ is "named in different ways for the capacity of those
believing or the ability of those approving it."
Attention is given to the plurality of Christ's names in order to allow for the
plurality of means by which one might come to and know the Saviour.
In his Commentary on John, Origen lists and explains the
titles of Christ as a precursor to understanding what it is to speak of the
Son as logos in Jn. 1:1: a method
for enquiring into the meaning and significance of titles which might more
straightforwardly be understood is necessary if one is to understand the
complex title of logos often attended to by theologians at the exclusion
of other of Christ's names.
Origen laments the tendency of his own contemporaries to "stop in the case of
the title 'Word' alone, as if they say that the Christ of God is 'Word' alone".
In order to understand Christ more fully as logos, Origen goes on to
cite and seek to explain what it means to speak of the Christ as "light of the
world", "true light" and "light of men";
"teacher" and "lord";
"true vine"; "bread
of life"; "first
and last"; "an
angel of great counsel";
last Adam"; "a
sharp sword"; "a
chosen arrow 'hidden in the quiver' of the Father";
"a man"; "the
"Jacob" and "Israel";
"stone". Each of
these titles, Origen believes is found in Scripture, and he traces what he
understands to be names of Christ in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the New
Testament. It is attention to the superabundant complexity of Scripture that
will not allow Origen to condense Christ into a system, or to focus on merely
one aspect of title of his person. While there is order at the highest level of
the aspects of Christ (wisdom and logos), no one title of Christ is to
be so crushingly dominant as to destroy the power of any other.
sees this plurality of names as an aspect of the highest title of Christ —
The wisdom of God exists hypostatically and
eternally in Origen's thought;
and subsisting in wisdom "was implicit
every capacity and form of creation that was to be".
This is because, according to Origen's interpretation of Prov. 8.22f.,
she was created as
a 'beginning of the ways' of God, which means that she contains within herself
both the beginnings and causes and species of the whole creation.
Wisdom contains, therefore, the potentiality of all creation in its
diversity. By virtue of that, she also contains the many epinoiai of
Christ which exist for the sake of the variety of creation.
It is here that one should begin to separate the presentation of
this teaching by Origen from so-called Gnostic presentations of the concept in
the likes of the Acts of John and
the Acts of Peter.
Alongside the priority of wisdom, three other titles are given a higher status
than the rest. These are the only titles which Christ possesses by essence. In
considering which titles came first, Origen suggests:
wisdom alone would
remain, or word, or life, and by all means truth, but surely not also the other
titles which he took in addition
because of us.
Evident in this is a separation between the singularly
christological nature of certain of the titles and the economic aspect of the
vast majority of the other epinoiai. While so-called Gnostic versions of
the teaching are focused on Christ's nature, leading to some version of docetic
christology focused on the incompatibility of the logos and flesh,
Origen's version of the teaching is primarily soteriological. This is
demonstrated clearly in the likes of Commentary on John I.248 & 251
in which Origen differentiates (in his discussion of I Cor 1.30)
between that which Christ is and that which Christ is "for us". Similarly,
Origen notes that there are certain epinoiai which Christ is not "for
himself" but "for others".
The vast majority of the titles of Christ which exist in his being wisdom
exist because, in his being wisdom, there is in him the blue-print for all the
world which must be reached by the economy of God. The titles are, therefore,
the way in which the One God reaches out to the plurality and diversity of all
creation. Not in
the first place purely christological, they are an aspect of Origen's teaching
on salvation and creation (two doctrines which for Origen can never be prized
apart): rather than principally concerning the nature of Christ, Origen is
concerned with the capacity of creation to know Christ. Thus, without being
docetic, Origen can speak of how Jesus' appearance was not simply the same for
all who saw him, but varied "according to their individual capacity".
While there are titles which are prioritised (wisdom, logos,
life and truth), one should not, however, think of a rigid hierarchy in terms
of the rest of titles in Origen's presentation of the epinoiai. This is
evidenced even with those which have priority: that Origen laments an overly
exclusive focus on the title logos is surely indicative of the
significance of each of the titles, since even a higher title cannot stand
alone. Origen does speak of the titles being comparable to the steps of the
and he perceives that there are certain logical relations between certain of
them: thus, for example, one must be on the "way" to arrive at the "door".
However, Origen does not expound a clear hierarchy of how each of these related
epinoiai relates to the full plurality of the titles of Christ:
so, while a prioritised order exists between Christ as "way" and "door" and
between Christ as "shepherd" and "king", there is no indication of how Christ
as "way" might relate to Christ as "shepherd" and "king" etc. It is difficult
to determine from Origen, therefore, which of the titles corresponds to which
stage in the progression towards "the Holy of Holies". Origen's principle
concern is not the relative heights of the epinoiai but the full
plurality of titles for a diverse world, grounded in the belief that both the
titles of Christ and creation find their diversity in his being wisdom.
2. What wisdom does this doctrine yield for today's world?
In considering what use may be made of this ancient reflection on
Scripture, I wish to focus on the fact that this doctrine is not simply
an explanation of Christian progression. The emphasis in Origen on the
spiritual growth of Christians and the pedagogical work of Christ is well
it would be wrong to consider that Origen's teaching on epinoiai falls
under this category of his thought. The teaching on epinoiai should,
instead, be considered alongside his (in)famous belief in apokatastasis,
if indeed apokatastasis and spiritual growth can be separated for
The epinoiai of Christ allows Origen to speak of the economy of the
second person as it relates to the whole of humanity in all of humanity's
If priority is given to the economy of salvation (rather than to
christology) in Origen's teaching on the epinoiai, as I have advocated
above, it is not the case that one gains knowledge of Christ's nature as each
one of these titles (door, truth, life etc.), and is then able to participate
in the economic function of the title; it is quite the reverse. Participating
in Christ as these things enables one to know him under the titles. Hence,
God made 'all things in wisdom'.
Many creatures, on
the one hand, have come into existence by participation in wisdom, while they
do not apprehend her by whom they have been created. Very few, however,
comprehend not only the wisdom concerning themselves, but also that concerning
many beings, for Christ is all wisdom.
But each of the
wise participates in Christ to the extent that [s]he has capacity for wisdom,
insofar as Christ is wisdom
Many things could be said about the logic and content of this short
passage, but what one must recognise for these purposes is a variable
participation in Christ dependent on the capacity one has for wisdom. This,
however, is the important thing to note: it is not participation in Christ
which leads to participation in wisdom, but the varied participation in wisdom
(in creation) dependent upon capacity which enables varied participation in
Christ who is "all wisdom". It is a participation in the economy which brings
us to knowledge of the person (mediated through the title "wisdom"), not
knowledge of the name which brings us to the economy. To use an analogy,
building on the starting point of this paper, I call my mother "mum" because I
participate in a relationship with her of mother and son. If I called a
stranger I had just met on the street "mum", it would be to a large extent
meaningless. Even if I called her "mum" for the remaining days of my life, if I
never participate in the mother-son relationship with her, she will never be my
mother. What makes my mother my mother and allows me to call her by that title
is that she is my mother and we participate in a mother-son relationship.
As a result of that relationship, I name her thus: the already extant relation
determines the name, and not the name the relation. For Origen, Christ's titles
are not simply epithets I give to him; they are names that I may call him by because
I already participate in that relation to him.
The previous example given was a positive one from the perspective
of Christian faith — Christ's title of wisdom. However, one can also see the
same logic employed with those titles which must surely be understood to be
further down the scale. Origen writes:
We must also
consider whether he [Christ] would not have become a shepherd if man had not
been compared to 'senseless beasts nor become like them.' For if 'God saves men
and beasts,' he saves what beasts he saves by granting a shepherd to those who
have not the capacity for a king.
Here the language is of "beasts" (
κτήνη) who need a shepherd because their limited capacities make them
unable to participate in Christ's title of "king". The word
κτήνη was even used of swine.
Given the exacting nature of the catechumenal process, one might find this a
rather odd description for a fully fledged baptised "Christian". Thus, Christ's
title of "shepherd" enables those who only have the capacity of "beasts" still
to be reached by the economy of God contained in God's wisdom. They do not have
to progress to the level of those with the capacity for a "king" to find a way
to participate in God's salvation in Christ. They are reached, instead, in
their particularity. It might even be the case that Origen takes this a step
further. In his Commentary on Romans,
Origen discusses what he conceives to be the rather "astonishing" title
of "a stone of stumbling and a rock of scandal".
However, Origen believes this title is an important aspect of Christ's economy:
Christ is the one who is able in this capacity and under this title in
Sciprture, to allow those who are "running down the road of destruction with
swift feet" to participate in his salvation.
Thus, Christ is even able to encounter people running away from him as the
stone that trips them up in front of hell. Similarly, he is a "rod" to those in
need of his punishment.
Christ has many names in Scripture because there are many and diverse ways in
which humans relate to him, and many and diverse ways in which he relates to the
rest of humanity.
When faced as a Christian with a world which is complexly secular
and religious, such a
teaching has much to commend it. Rather than throwing the truth of Christ like
rocks at people's heads regardless of the capacity for someone to catch it or
Origen's teaching on the epinoiai presents us with a view of the economy
of God which takes on board the variety of human capacity, differing situations,
and complexity of human life. He allows for a picture of God's salvation which
is not starkly black or white, and which avoids binary language about salvation
in order to escape simple categorisation of people as either inside or outside
the plan of God. Instead, he recognises that the plan of God is a plan for all.
But this universal does not come at the expense of obliterating all
particulars. For Origen, there is a sense of the varied participation that
humans have in the economy of God's salvation. Some people can only experience
Christ as a "stumbling block" while others may know him as "flower"; others may
know him as a "teacher"; and still others will know him as "Lord". But in it
all, each learns something of Christ in his many titles from participating in
the economy and function of those titles, which are prefigured in his eternal
and hypostatic existence as wisdom.
In an age apparently of so much religious conflict between elements
of each of the Abrahamic faiths, to look to the many titles of Christ
may be wise. We may be united with the other in certain of the titles of
Christ. Furthermore, this need not only be in terms of our participation in his
economy, without naming the title. In naming Christ (among all of his other
titles) at least as "Prophet" or as "Rabbi", we may participate in and name an
aspect of Christ's economy, recognised in these titles, alongside Muslims and
Jews respectively. As Christians, we may be frustrated that this is not all
that there is to Christ whom Origen rightly realises is first and last. But,
with Origen, perhaps we ought also to remember that this does not mean that
Christ is not all that lies between, but has instead "become 'all things'".
To focus on but one aspect or epinoia of Christ is to fail to attend to
"the fullness of him who fills all
 This essay seeks to honour David Ford on his sixtieth birthday by
focusing on various of his theological interests — wisdom, the reading of
Scripture, the diversity of the world, and (in line with his current research)
 This is a theme on which the playwright, Alan Bennett, muses a
great deal. See, for example, his Telling
BBC Books, 2001),in which he observes the differing social standings
and generations that names indicate.
 Here and at other points, I must acknowledge a debt to Dr. Janet
Martin Soskice, who has not only stimulated much thought on the process of
naming through conversations with her and her lectures at the University of Cambridge,
but also read and commented on an early draft of this paper.
 One may see here a parallel to elements present in David
F. Ford, Self and Salvation: Being
Transformed (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), especially chapters 7 & 8. If Ford's concerns are to present
the face of Jesus Christ as the foundation for face to face, person to person
relationships of which humans cannot have a total overview, Origen's concern is
to present the names of Christ as the foundation for a superabundant number of
interpersonal relations with the Son of which humans cannot have a total
 CommJoh. I.9-11,22-42. Origen, like David Ford who is
presently writing a commentary on John's Gospel, was deeply fascinated by the
fourth gospel. Sadly, only sections of Origen's commentary remain; but even
these sections mark some of his most exciting and creative work.
 De Princ. I.2.1&4
 HomGen. I.7; 14.1
 HomEx. 7.8
 CCel. 2.64ff.
 For a list of further passages in Origen's corpus concerning
Christ's epinoiai, see Benjamin Drewery, Origen and the Doctrine of Grace
(London: Epworth Press, 1960), pp.115-117.
 HomGen. 1.7
 HomEx. 7.8
 This is a feature of Christianity which is given little attention,
a fact that troubles Origen: "I frequently marvel when I consider the things
said about the Christ by some who wish to believe in him. Why in the world,
when countless names are applied to our Saviour, do they pass by most of them
in silence? Even if they should perhaps remember them, they do not interpret
them in their proper sense, but say that these name him figurally"(CommJoh. I.125).
Christian theology must attend to the many names and titles of Christ, rather
than simply attending to one or a certain few.
 CommJoh. I.153-157
 CommJoh. I.125
 CommJoh. I.168-180
 CommJoh. I.181
 CommJoh. I.183
 CommJoh. I.186f.
 CommJoh. I.188
 CommJoh. I.189
 CommJoh. I.190
 CommJoh. I.191-200
 CommJoh. I.201-203
 CommJoh. I.204
 CommJoh. I.205-6
 CommJoh. I.207-8
 CommJoh. I.209-225
 CommJoh. I.218. On this title, see further, Joseph
W. Trigg, "The Angel of Great Counsel: Christ and the Angelic Hierarchy in
Origen's Theology," Journal of
Theological Studies 42, no. 1 (1991).
 CommJoh. I.221-223&243-246
 CommJoh. I.225
 CommJoh. I.225
 CommJoh. I.228&229
 CommJoh. I.228&229
 CommJoh. I.228&230-3
 CommJoh. I.233-4
 CommJoh. I.236-239
 CommJoh. I.240f.
 CommJoh. I.240f.
 CommJoh. I.242
 CommJoh. I.247-251
 CommJoh. I.247-251
 CommJoh. I.252-4
 CommJoh. I.254
 CommJoh. I.255-258
 CommJoh. I.259
 CommJoh. I.260
 CommJoh. I.261
 CommJoh. I.261-264
 CommJoh. I.263f.
 CommJoh. I.265
 He writes: "And if we should carefully consider all the concepts
[to Christ], he is the beginning only insofar as he is wisdom. He is
not even the beginning insofar as he is the Word, since 'the Word' was 'in the
beginning,' so that someone might boldly say that wisdom is older than all the
concepts in the names of the first-born of creation." (CommJoh. I.118).
However, one should note that elsewhere Origen sees Wisdom and Word as
basically synonymous (De Princ. I.2.3).
On the order of epinoiai, see Ronald
E. Heine, "Epinoiai," in The
Westminster Handbook to Origen, ed. John A. McGuckin (Louisville &
London: Westminster John Knox, 2004), pp.93f.
 De Princ. I.2.2
 De Princ. I.2.2
 De Princ. I.2.2
 On this topic, see John
A. McGuckin, "The Changing Forms of Jesus," in Origeniana Quarta, ed. Lothar Leis (1987).
 CommJoh. I.123. Emphasis added
 See McGuckin,
"The Changing Forms of Jesus," pp.215-217
 "He is the source of
your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness
and sanctification and redemption
 CommJoh. II.125f.
 Danielou notes "
the argument that between absolute unity and the
multiplicity of creatures there must be a being who is one and yet shares in
that multiplicity" as a crucial aspect of Origen's thought. Jean
Danielou, Origen, trans. Walter
Mitchell (London & New York: Sheed & Ward, 1955)Rowan
Williams, "The Son's Knowledge of the Father in Origen," in Origeniana Quarta, ed. Lothar Leis
D. Williams, "Origen: Between Orthodoxy And Heresy," in Origeniana Septima: Origenes in den
Auseinandersetzungen des 4. Jahrhunderts, ed. W. A. Bienert and U. Kühneweg
(Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999), pp.12f.
 CCel. II.64 cf. HomGen. 7.8
 CommJoh. 19.38
 CommJoh. 19.39
 Regarding growth, Danielou,
Origen , argues that, in this way, Origen prepares the way for Gregory of
Nyssa (p.213). This is fundamentally different to the development of the
thought of Maximus the Confessor who seeks to speak of "rest" in eternal life,
despite the parallels with Origen noted by A.
Louth, Maximus the Confessor (London:
On Christ's pedagogical work, see Karen
Jo Torjesen, "Pedagogical Soteriology from Clement to Origen," in Origeniana Quarta, ed. Lothar Leis
M. Young, The Use of Sacrificial Ideas in
Greek Christian Writers from the New Testament to John Chrysostom, vol. 5, Patristic Monograph Series (Cambridge,
MA: The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1979) sees Origen's understanding of God's wrath and propitiation as an
aspect of this pedagogical work (pp.168ff.).
 On apokatastasis, see Tom
Greggs, "Exclusivist or universalist? Origen 'the wise steward of the
word' (CommRom V.1.7) and the issue of genre.," International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no. 3 (2007).
 See here Brian
E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church. A
Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), who advocates that Origen "demythologises" eschatological thought
in a pastoral direction to ensure that Christians realise that there is a
continuity between the present life and the future, as all humans grow towards
union with God (p.48).On the relationship between growth towards God and a
doctrine of divine punishment, see Morwenna
Ludlow, "Universal Salvation and a Soteriology of Divine Punishment,"
Scottish Journal of Theology 53, no.
Kannengiesser and William L Petersen, eds., Origen
of Alexandria. His World and His Legacy (Notre Dame: University of Notre
P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event. A Study
of the Sources and Significance of Origen's Interpretation of Scripture
(London: SCM, 1959),
pp.336-340; and F.
W. Farrar, Mercy and Judgment: A Few Last
Words on Christian Eschatology with reference to Dr. Pusey's "What is of
faith?" (London: McMillan, 1881), p. 330. To compare Origen's understanding to that of Gnostics and
Clement of Alexandria, see Daley,
The Hope of the Early Church, pp.25ff.&45ff.
 CommJoh. I.245f.
 CommJoh. I.122
and Scott, eds., Greek-English Lexicon
Ninth Edition, revised by Jones and McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
 CommRom. 7.19.8
 CommRom. 7.19.8
 CommJoh. I.262f.
 On this, see David
F. Ford, "Gospel in Context: Among Many Faiths" (paper presented at
the Fulcrum Conference, Islington, Friday 28th April 2006); David
F. Ford, "Abrahamic Dialogue: Towards Respect and Understanding in Our
Life Together," (Cambridge: Inauguration of the Society for Dialogue and
 This was Tillich's criticism of Barth. See J. Heywood Thomas, Tillich (London: Continuum, 2000), p.56. Such
criticism also perhaps reflects Ford's concern that Christ fulfils the role of a
Bildungsroman in Barth's Church Dogmatics. See David
F. Ford, Barth and God's Story: Biblical
Narrative and the Theological Method of Karl Barth in the Church Dogmatics
(Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1985), pp.91f. For a sample
of Barth's reflections on the name
"Jesus Christ", see Karl Barth, Church
Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936-1969) I/2, pp.10-25; IV/1,
pp.16-21; and IV/4, pp.91-100.
 CommJoh. I.219
 Eph. 1.23. Taken from The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).