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Philosophy and Theology in Cambridge Origenism Old and New

last modified Jan 22, 2019 03:15 PM

The second postgraduate seminar Philosophy and Theology in Cambridge Origenism Old and New hosted by the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism revolved around the hermeneutics of Christian Platonism. On the basis of the introductory chapter of Werner Beierwaltes’ classic Platonism in Christianity, the papers on Origen and his reception history addressed the ways in which key authors of the Origenist tradition make use of Platonic ideas to express Christian doctrines.

In an autobiographical introductory paper, Douglas Hedley (Cambridge) traced his teacher Beierwaltes’ intellectual career in Würzburg, Münster, Freiburg and Munich, placing him into the context of the golden age of German philosophy. First meeting him in a seminar on Nicholas of Cusa when about to begin his own research on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hedley identified Plotinus as the single most important author in Beierwaltes’ oeuvre. As became clear in that first seminar and in a subsequent one on F.W.J. Schelling’s The Deities of Samothrace held in Cambridge, Beierwaltes’ is a Neoplatonism deeply informed by German Idealism. Surprisingly, Beierwaltes was also sympathetic towards the scepticism of Hans Blumenberg, his colleague in Münster, and the Catholicism of the likes of Roman Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar with both of whom he was personally acquainted. And while irritated at his ignorance of the Neoplatonic tradition, Beierwaltes also felt a deep empathy with Martin Heidegger. Finally, he shared with Hans Georg Gadamer the keen interest in hermeneutics, of which his magisterial editions and translations of Plotinus’ Treatises On Eternity and Time and On Self-Knowledge furnish impressive evidence. Beierwaltes’ introduction to his Platonism in Christianity delineates his careful methodology. It carefully avoids the many false antitheses so popular in theological literature on the Platonist tradition in which the latter’s alleged lack of concepts of personhood and history is unfavourably juxtaposed with the supposedly more dynamic categories of biblical thought. Instead, Platonism must be viewed as an essential part of the Christian dogma which it has helped to express from the early beginnings to this very day. Unfortunately, among the few Christian Platonists whom Beierwaltes failed to treat in his many works devoted to the subject is Origen himself.

Picture2The subsequent papers dealt with key aspects of the Origenist tradition and Origen’s and his successors’ use of Platonism in the service of the Christian dogma. A first paper by Ryan Haecker (Cambridge) addressed Origen’s angelology in which the dialectics of the Trinitarian persons is reflected and refracted in the angels as first creative essences. Andrea Bianchi (Milan) revealed the significance of the biblical hermeneutics of Jean Le Clerc in Origen’s reception history. Not only was Le Clerc instrumental in popularizing seminal currents of English thought in Europe, notably the works of the Arminian Henry Hammond and the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, but he also built on Origen’s philology, as evidenced by his monumental Hexapla and interest in the Hebrew language. Bogdan Deznan (Bucharest) described the deep Origenist dimension of Henry More’s principal theological work, the Grand Mystery of Godliness. Both More’s Christology of Christ’s deiform humanity and his tripartite anthropology of the soul’s animal, rational and divine lives clearly bear the imprint of Origen’s metaphysics. As was shown by Remus Menoila (Bucharest), a reading of Isaac Newton’s notebooks reveals the famous physicist and theologian to be another major English reader of Origen whose metaphysical doctrine of the Trinity is subjected to critical scrutiny in the posthumously-published work mentioned. Marilyn Lewis (Bristol) detailed the deep Arminian and Origenist influence upon the Cambridge Platonist Henry Hallywell who quotes Origen’s celebrated interpretation of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in support of his staunch anti-Calvinism. In the final paper, Joshua Roe (Münster) proposed a new postmodernist hermeneutics to account for the elusive influence which Origen may have exerted upon the German idealist F.W.J. Schelling who cites the Alexandrian as a representative of Christian Neoplatonism.

The papers and subsequent discussions bore testimony to the ubiquity of Origen in early modern western intellectual history, and proved the importance of a Beierwaltian hermeneutics to a historically valid and systematically fruitful analysis of Christian Platonism. Building upon our debates at this second seminar, a third one will deal with Beierwaltes’ history of Christian Platonist readings of God’s name in Ex. 3:14 in his magisterial Platonism and Idealism. Everyone interested in Origenism and Christian Platonism is most cordially invited to participate. Please contact Christian Hengstermann: or


Christian Hengstermann

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