This review appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

Origen’s Revenge: The Greek and Hebrew Roots of Christian Thinking on Male and Female
By Brian Patrick Mitchell
Pickwick Publications, 2021

What does it mean to be male and female? Is being male or female accidental to our identity or to our soul, which, after all, transcends our bodies? Or are bodies central to our identity—and hence inescapable features of human identity? These are weighty, rarely asked questions.

Brian Patrick Mitchell shows how the Christian tradition supports multiple views of what it means to be male and female. The Greek view, informed through gnostic teachings, as Mitchell presents them, conceives of sex as an accident to be worn away through a perfected or sanctified life, while the Hebrew view finds human life sexed to its core. After establishing that, Origen’s Revenge stages a battle of the books among early church theologians to show how the Hebrew-Christian view captures Christian truth more than the Greek view does.

Mitchell’s exegesis is no mere act of antiquarianism. The exemplar of the Greek view, Origen (184-253), is taking revenge now, though not exactly on the grounds that Origen himself defended. Origen of Alexandria and other Neoplatonist theologians held that a human being is “a sexless spirit made in the image of God but burdened with a male or female body that prevents the spirit from enjoying its original unity with God.” All institutions traceable to bodily “coats of skin”—like marriage and differently gendered paths for the sexes—are traceable to our sinful condition and hence must be de-emphasized or denigrated in a church aiming to overcome the consequences of sin. A more sanctified life would, on this reading, celebrate humans as godlike rational beings with a preference for celibacy, perpetual virginity, and spiritual contemplation.

Today’s ideologues, seeking to bend Christianity to the principles of modern feminism and to ideas of autonomy more generally, find Origen’s thought congenial to their purpose. Lurking in many church bodies are those taking Origen’s revenge on orthodoxy. Does Origen’s thought point to the “liberation of humankind from the tyranny of gender categories,” as one liberalizing theologian hopes?

Most crucial, in Mitchell’s view, are the consequences of the idea that human beings are made in the image of God. God is neither a bodily being nor sexed. Therefore, the core of human identity has nothing to do with sex. Sanctification means transcending sex and gender. Communions who would defend Christianity’s traditional sexual and gender orders face today’s modern challenges from a position of weakness if they grant Origen’s teaching. Greek Christianity seems vulnerable to the secularizing teachings of autonomy, though Greek Christian otherworldliness is not the modern conquest of nature. The latter is at root a Western project.

Hebrew Christianity is an antidote to Origen’s Greekness. The Hebrew Christian recognizes that the distinction between male and female is central to creation and that it endures in the afterlife. Hence it is meet and right that men and women practice different virtues and live different lives within the faith. Traditional Christianity puts marriage at the heart of a faithful life and provides no little direction for the organization of family life and marriage. Scripture declares marriage honorable and the marriage bed undefiled (Hebrew 12:4), for instance, and puts forward a responsible, patriarchal arrangement for marriage itself (Ephesians 5). There are intergenerational responsibilities, as older women are to teach the younger (Titus 2:4-5). There are even different responsibilities for men and women within the Church (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35). This teaching may not “meet present standards of gender equality” and is “diametrically opposed to today’s rebellion against the binary of male and female,” but it is “more reasonable, more equitable, and more humane” than the culture of pedophilia and sexual slavery that it displaced and more consistent with human life than the anti-sexual gnosticism of the Greeks.

For all of this, however, the one needful thing is a powerful rejoinder to the Greek view from within Christianity. Mitchell provides this in his compelling conclusion. Human beings are indeed made in the image of God. The Fathers of the Church avoid describing God as a male or female, precisely to avoid sexualizing God as Gnostics or pagans did. What, then, does it mean for men and women to be made in the image of God? Mitchell searches Scripture for descriptions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in order to consider how man and woman might reflect them. The image of God is complex precisely because God is Triune—one God in three parts. Father and Son are coequal, but different. The diversity within God allows complex images to direct sexed human beings. Generally, the Father gives, knows, shows, teaches, and commands, while the Son thanks, humbles, petitions, obeys, and pleases. The Greek Christian rebellion cannot crack God’s Triune nature, which is itself a reason to respect the incarnate difference between men and women.

The related modern rebellion, always lurking underneath the surface of Mitchell’s book, not only involves the leveling of the human experience but it also forgets man’s sinfulness, God’s sovereign goodness, and the bodily resurrection. Origen’s revenge in its modern guise aims at the heart of Christianity—and accommodating the heresy’s teachings, as so many Christian bodies do, marks a fundamental betrayal of the faith. Mitchell’s fine treatment of this intra-Christian conflict can serve as a guide for those interested in seeing precisely how the Christian tradition can be worn away by ancient errors reintroduced in our modern context.

Scott Yenor is a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and author of Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies.