Origen on Soul-Kidneys (Pt. 4)

The fourth part of a series I originally published in 2017.


Origen continues his discussion of human souls by countering the gnostic division of humanity into “earthly” “soulish” and “spiritual.” For the gnostics these divisions seem to be iron clad and determined from birth. Origen responds by arguing that all souls are “soulish” at birth, i.e., morally neutral, and only become earthly or spiritual through subsequent action.

English Translation

(4) “I would behold the Lord before me continually.” It was not that he sometimes was and sometimes was not, but “the Lord is continually before me, because he is at my right hand.” For help was always present in the more honorable and fitting place of the soul, that is, either the Father was present or the Firstborn of All Creation was present in its union to his soul, so that the soul could say, “so that I may not be shaken.” Since if he had not “seen the Lord before him continually, because he was at his right hand” even he would have been shaken. For all within the realm of soul’s nature can be shaken. Some say in their ignorance of the true account of the soul that the soul is a mediating element, and that the body belongs to things below, and the spirit to things above. And they say that some are “soulish” without realizing that, (by an account different from our usual one)1 all people are first born soulish on account of their soul, and after their birth they are soulish because of their soul, as they are soulish before sinful or virtuous action. To speak more boldly, they become earthly because of sin, or they become spiritual because of virtue. As such, the soulish one is not yet earthly (for only in its fall does it become earthly), nor is the soulish one yet spiritual. For he becomes spiritual through virtuous action. Therefore “I would behold the Lord before me continually, because he is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken.” That is why my heart rejoiced, since “my kidneys taught me in the night,” since “I was beholding the Lord before me continually, because he was at my right hand, that I would not be shaken.” That is why “my heart rejoiced,” that is why my “tongue was glad,” that is why my glory was made glad, since if these first things had not been the case, the following would not have been either.

And when you hear Jesus saying these things, listen also to Paul when he bids you in the passage, “become imitators of me as I imitate Christ.” Whom should I imitate? Should I imitate the Firstborn of All Creation, who is Wisdom, Word, and Truth? Or, as I am a man, ought I to imitate the human Jesus and imitate his humanity? I do not deny that it is possible to imitate his divinity. For by ascending I may advance and by the grace of God be able even to imitate the divinity of Christ and even too the God of All. For he says, “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” and “be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” and again, “be perfect before the Lord your God.”

Therefore let us be imitators of Christ, and let us keep in high esteem everything that the humanity of Christ said. After all, he said these things so that we might have an example to imitate, and so that we too may say, “and even in the night my kidneys taught me.” For we also came2 having certain principles of good and have tended like farmers to the seeds of good that we bore. Because of these seeds that we have, they are said to be in the kidneys.

Greek Text

(4) Προωρώμην τὸν κύριον ἐνώπιόν μου διὰ παντός· οὐ ποτὲ μὲν ποτὲ δ’ οὐ, ἀλλὰ διὰ παντὸς ἐνώπιόν μου, ὅτι ἐκ δεξιῶν μού ἐστιν. Ἀεὶ γὰρ ἐν τῷ τιμιωτέρῳ καὶ δεξιῷ τόπῳ τῆς ψυχῆς ἦν παρὸν τὸ βοηθοῦν, παρὼν ὁ πατὴρ ἢ παρὼν ὁ πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, ἑνούμενος τῇ ψυχῇ, ἵνα εἴπῃ ἡ ψυχὴ τὸ ἵνα μὴ σαλευθῶ. Ὡς εἰ μὴ προεώρα τὸν κύριον ἐνώπιον διὰ παντός, ὅτι ἐκ δεξιῶν ἐστί, κἂν ἐσαλεύθη. Ὅσον γὰρ ἐπὶ τῇ φύσει τῆς ψυχῆς, δύναται σαλευθῆναι. Λέγουσί τινες, μὴ νοήσαντες τὸν ἀληθῆ περὶ ψυχῆς λόγον, ὅτι ἡ μὲν ψυχὴ μέση τίς ἐστιν, τὸ δὲ σῶμα τῶν κάτω ἐστίν, τὸ πνεῦμα τῶν ἄνω. Καὶ λέγουσι τινὰς εἶναι ψυχικοὺς οὐχ ὁρῶντες ὅτι, κατά τινα λόγον ἕτερον παρ’ ὃν πολλάκις εἴπομεν, πάντες ἄνθρωποι πρῶτον γίνονται ψυχικοὶ διὰ τὴν ψυχὴν καὶ μετὰ τὸ γενέσθαι ψυχικοὶ διὰ τὴν ψυχήν, πρὸ ἁμαρτίας καὶ πρὸ κατορθώσεως ὄντες ψυχικοί, ἵνα τολμηρότερον εἴπω, διὰ μὲν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν γίνονται χοϊκοί, διὰ <δε>3 τὴν ἀρετὴν γίνονται πνευματικοί, ὡς εἶναι τὸν ψυχικὸν μήπω χοϊκόν— πεσὼν γὰρ γίνεται χοϊκός—, τὸν ψυχικὸν μήπω πνευματικόν· κατορθώσας γὰρ γίνεται πνευματικός. Προωρώμην οὖν τὸν κύριον ἐνώπιόν μου διὰ παντός, ὅτι ἐκ δεξιῶν μού ἐστιν, ἵνα μὴ σαλευθῶ· διὰ τοῦτο ηὐφράνθη ἡ καρδία μου, ἐπεὶ ἐπαίδευσάν με οἱ νεφροί μου ἕως νυκτός, ἐπεὶ προωρώμην τὸν κύριον ἐνώπιόν μου διὰ παντός, ὅτι ἐκ δεξιῶν μού ἐστι διὰ παντός, ἵνα μὴ σαλευθῶ· διὰ τοῦτο ἡ καρδία μου ηὐφράνθη, διὰ τοῦτο ἠγαλλιάσατο ἡ γλῶσσά μου, διὰ τοῦτο ἠγαλλιάσατο ἡ δόξα μου, ὡς εἰ μὴ τὰ προειρημένα ἦν, οὐκ ἂν τὰ ἐπιφερόμενα ἐγίνετο.

Ταῦτα δὲ ἐπὰν ἀκούῃς λέγοντος τοῦ Ἰησοῦ, ἄκουε καὶ Παύλου προστάσσοντός σοι τὸ μιμηταί μου γίνεσθε καθὼς κἀγὼ Χριστοῦ. Τίνος μιμητήν με δεῖ γενέσθαι; Ἆρα τοῦ πρωτοτόκου πάσης κτίσεως, τῆς σοφίας, τοῦ λόγου, τῆς ἀληθείας ἢ μιμητὴς προστάσσομαι γενέσθαι, ἄνθρωπος ὤν, τοῦ ἀνθρώπου Ἰησοῦ, ἵνα μιμήσωμαι τὸ ἀνθρώπινον αὐτοῦ; Οὐ λέγω ὅτι ἀμήχανόν ἐστι μιμήσασθαι τὴν θεότητα αὐτοῦ· ἀναβαίνων γὰρ προκόπτω καὶ χάριτι θεοῦ φθάσαι δύναμαι ἐπὶ καὶ τὸ μιμήσασθαι τὴν θεότητα τοῦ Χριστοῦ, εἴ γε πρόκειται μιμήσασθαι τὴν θεότητα τοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ <τοῦ> θεοῦ τῶν ὅλων· γίνεσθε γάρ, φησί, τέλειοι καθὼς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ ἐν οὐρανοῖς τέλειός ἐστι, καὶ ἅγιοι ἔσεσθε, ὅτι ἐγὼ ἅγιός εἰμι, κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὑμῶν· καὶ πάλιν, τέλειοι ἔσεσθε ἔναντι κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ ὑμῶν.

Μιμηταὶ οὖν τοῦ Χριστοῦ γινόμενοι καὶ ἡμεῖς, ὅσα λέγει τὸ ἀνθρώπινον τοῦ Χριστοῦ φιλοτιμούμεθα εἰπεῖν. Διὰ τοῦτο γὰρ ταῦτα λέγει, ἵν’ ἔχωμεν ὑπογραμμὸν τί μιμησόμεθα καὶ ἡμεῖς εἴπωμεν· εὐλογήσω τὸν κύρι τὸν συνετίσαντά με, ἵνα καὶ ἡμεῖς εἴπωμεν· ἔτι δὲ καὶ ἕως νυκτὸς ἐπαίδευσάν με οἱ νεφροί μου. Ἤλθομεν γὰρ καὶ ἡμεῖς ἔχοντες τινὰς ἐν τοῖς νεφροῖς ἀγαθῶν ἀρχὰς καὶ γεωργήσαντες τὰ τῶν ἀγαθῶν ὧν ἠνέγκαμεν σπέρματα, <καί>4 διὰ ταῦτα ἃ ἔχομεν, ἐν τοῖς νεφροῖς λέγεται.

  1. It seems that in Origen’s normal account he would say that souls are “spiritual” at their creation, that is, morally pure and good. That creation would refer to the souls’ creation at the beginning of time (Origen holds to a form of preexistence of the soul). Here, however, he seems to refer to the soul’s union with body. People are born morally neutral and can, through their free will, act in virtuous or sinful ways.
  2. Given the analogy to Christ, this does seem to imply that human souls preexisted their birth, though it is certainly oblique. For a recent discussion of Origen’s views on the preexistence of the soul, see Peter W. Martens, “Embodiment, Heresy, and the Hellenization of Christianity: The Descent of the Soul in Plato and Origen,” Harvard Theological Review; Cambridge 108, no. 4 (October 2015): 594–620.
  3. It seems to me we need a δέ to answer the μέν above.
  4. It seems we need a conjunction here to link the two finite verbs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s