Recently I was asked if Origen had anything to say on “becoming like the angels.” My interlocutor, as I gathered, was tracing the use of such language in early Christian literature. I was familiar with this type of rhetoric in later authors. Chrysostom in particular makes wide use of angels in his various homilies and treatises. Nothing came to mind for Origen, however. I did, of course, recommend the TLG and the Brepols Latin database as places to look, but I also searched through the material I’ve transcribed from the new Origen codex. When I did so, I found an interesting passage in which Origen tackles the verse “τίς θεὸς μέγας ὡς ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν.” (Ps. 76:14 LXX). I would have translated this as “what god is great like our God?” but Origen seems to understand it as “what great god is like our God?” I’m not sure if grammar dictates one interpretation versus the other, but I certainly defer to a native speaker when given the chance. Given the theological difficulties created by the latter reading, I presume it seemed much more likely grammatically. Origen thus gives us a short digression on the two difficult verses of Ps 81, and then describes how the holy men of old became gods. According Origen, God made Patriarchs into gods by joining to them his name (i.e. calling himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). This made it so that they had “participation” (μετοχή) with God’s divinity (θεότης).
My translation is a bit rough in places, and I welcome suggestions. Translating θεός in a passage like this can be particularly tricky, since our language is so heavily influenced by monotheism. The Greek is placed below, as is my custom.
So then, listen to God’s scripture, which says, “all the gods of the nations are demons.” (Ps. 95:5 LXX). Since, however, God is generous with his good works, he has said, “for I have said, ‘you are gods, and sons of the Most High.’” (Ps 81:6) The scripture says this because if someone has received the word of God, he becomes a god. Moreover, the scripture says, “God stands in the assembly of the Gods, in their midst he will judge them.” Now if you are gathered as men, then God is not in the assembly. But if this assembly is an assembly of gods, then you are reckoned among the gods. God is present in this sort of assembly, by virtue of the word of God being in them, and by their not walking as men do. This then is the meaning of “God stands in the assembly of the gods, and their midst he will judge them.”
In some ways, one of these gods has a glory which is analogous to the sun. Another has a glory like the moon, and another like the glory of the stars, for the sun, moon, and stars each have a different glory. Moreover, each star differs from each other in glory. The resurrection of the dead will be the same way. I have dwelt on these passages, “God stands in the assembly of the gods” and “I have said you are gods” so that I may go from there onto “what great god is like our God?” If one must dare to speak such, then Abraham is a great god, Isaac is a great god, and Jacob is a great god. They were made into gods because God joined his own name ‘God’ with each of their names when he said, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Having said just once, “I am the god of Abraham, and the god of Isaac, and the god of Jacob,” he granted to Abraham that he should have participation with the divine nature of God. If you should come to the Savior, and confess him to be a god, since he is a god, as “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” then do not shrink from saying that the many of the righteous are also gods. If the righteous, who shall become like the angels, are gods, then how much more is this the case for the angels? I don’t mean the demons, nor do I mean the idols. I am safeguarded by the great worthiness of God’s word. Rather, our Lord and Savior incomparably surpasses all of these.
γὰρ τῆς γραφῆς τοῦ θεοῦ λεγούσης, πάντες
οἱ θεοὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν, δαιμόνια, ἀλλ᾽ ἐπειδήπερ
ἄφθονός ἐστι τῶν εὐεργεσιῶν
αὐτοῦ ὁ θεὸς, φησίν, ἐγὼ γὰρ εἶπα
θεοὶ ἐστὲ καὶ υἱοὶ ὑψίστου πάντες.
φησὶ γὰρ ἡ γραφὴ, ὅτι εἴ τις ἐδέξατο
τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ, θεὸς γίνεται. ἀλλὰ
καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἔστη ἐν συναγωγῇ θεῶν, ἐν
μέσῳ δὲ θεοὺς διακρινεῖ. καὶ εἰ μὲν
ἄνθρωποι συνήχθητε, οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ θεὸς ἐν τῇ
συναγωγῇ. εἰ δὲ αὕτη ἡ συναγωγῆ θεῶν
ἐστι συναγωγῆ, θεῶν χρηματιζόντων.
τῷ τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ εἶναι ἐν
αὐτοῖς καὶ μὴ κατὰ ἄνθρωπον αὐτοὺς περιπατεῖν,
ἐν τοιαύτῃ ἐστὶν ὁ θεός. καὶ
ἐνθάδε ἐστὶν, ὁ θεὸς ἔστη ἐν συναγωγῇ θεῶν,
ἐν μέσῳ δὲ θεοὺς διακρινεῖ. πῆ
τίς μὲν τούτων θεῶν, ἀνάλογον δόξῃ
ἡλίου, δόξαν ἔχει. τίς δὲ ἀνάλογον δόξης
σελήνης, δόξαν ἔχει. τίς ἀνάλογον
δόξης ἀστέρων δόξαν ἔχει. ἄλλη γὰρ
δόξα ἡλίου, καὶ ἄλλη δόξα σελήνς,
καὶ ἄλλη δόξα ἀστέρων. ἀστὴρ γὰρ ἀστέρος
διαφέρει ἐν δόξῇ. οὕτω καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις
τῶν νεκρῶν. ταῦτα πρὸς τὸ
παραστῆσαι ὅτι ὁ θεὸς ἔστη ἐν συναγωγῇ
θεῶν, καὶ ἐγὼ εἶπα θεοὶ ἐστὲ, ἵν᾽ ἐκεῖθεν
μεταβῶ εἰς τὸ τίς θεὸς μέγας ὡς
ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν; μέγας γὰρ θεὸς εἰ δεῖ οὕτως
τολμήσαντα εἰπεῖν, ἁβραάμ,
μέγας θεὸς ἰσαάκ, μέγας θεὸς ἰακώβ
καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἐθεοποιήθησαν ἐκεῖνοι,
ἐπειδήπερ συνῆψεν ὁ θεὸς τὸ ἑαυτοῦ
ὄνομα τὸ θεὸς, τῷ ἐκείνων ὀνόματι
λέγων, ἐγὼ θεὸς ἁβραὰμ, καὶ θεὸς ἰσαάκ,
καὶ θεὸς ἰακώβ. ἅπαξ δὲ
εἰπὼν, ἐγὼ θεὸς ἁβραὰμ καὶ θεὸς ἰσαάκ,
καὶ θεὸς ἰακώβ, ἐχαρίσατο καὶ τῷ
ἁβραὰμ, ἐπειδήπερ μετοχὴ αὐτῷ
γίνεται ἀπὸ τῆς θεότητος τοῦ θεοῦ.
κἂν ἐπὶ τὸν σωτῆρα δὲ ἔλθῃς, καὶ θεὸν
τοῦτον ὁμολογήσῃς, ἔστι γὰρ θεὸς, ἐπεὶ
ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ θεὸς ἦν πρὸς
τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος, μὴ ὄκνει
λέγειν, ὅτι πολλοὶ μὲν δίκαιοι θεοί εἰσιν.
εἰ δὲ οἱ δίκαιοι, οἱ ἐσόμενοι ἰσάγγελοι, πολλῷ
πλέον ἄγγελοι. οὐ λέγω τὰ δαιμόνια,
οὐ λέγω τὰ εἴδωλα. ἀσφαλίζομαι
γὰρ, διὰ τὸ εὐπρεπὲς τοῦ θεοῦ λόγου. ἀλλ᾽ ὁ
σωτὴρ καὶ κύριος ἡμῶν ἀσυγκρίτως ὑπερέχει
In some ways, the passage is troubling. Origen tells us that we shouldn’t shrink from calling the righteous saints of old “gods”, since we already acknowledge that the Word is a god. This seems to break down any distinction in essence between Jesus and the saints. My theological vocab may be a bit rusty, but I do think there’s a way out of the conundrum. First, notice that final sentence, “Our Lord and Savior incomparably surpasses all of these [sc. gods].” I think Origen means both the gods of the nations (i.e. demons and idols), as well as the “deified saints.” He reserves a special place for the Word. Second, I’d suggest that “participation” in divinity is different than sharing divine essence. 2 Pet 1:4 tells us that great promises were given “that you may become fellow partakers of the divine nature.” This lies behind the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis, wherein God’s goal in salvation is nothing less than our divinization. Sharing in the divine nature, however, is different than being divine in and of oneself. Here, Origen is not collapsing the boundary between the Word and the saints. The saints are not divine by essence (οὐσία), but rather by God’s gracious allowance, they share in his divinity. This distinction is prominent in the Arian debates, if I recall correctly, and remains a lively source of reflection in Eastern theology. I’m not a theologian though, so comments are welcome!