Origen and the “Nothing that was Made”

Here is a remarkable statement from Origen on the passage in John 1:3 which reads: “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made”. The problem here is that in ancient common Greek the wording of the text is open to interpretation so that it can be understood as saying that apart from the Logos ‘nothing’ was made, nothing being darkness and evil, by another entity. Origen was willing to meet the heretics half-way; and he wrote in his Commentary on John:

“Let us see, however, why the words are added, “And without Him was not anything made.” Some might think it superfluous to add to the words “All things were made through Him,” the phrase “Without Him was not anything made.” For if everything whatsoever was made through the Logos, then nothing was made without Him.

“Yet it does not follow from the proposition that without the Logos nothing was made, that all things were made through the Logos. It is possible that though nothing was made without the Logos, all things were made, not through the Logos only, but some things by Him. We must, therefore, make ourselves sure in what sense the “all things” is to be understood, and in what sense the “nothing.” For, without a clear preliminary definition of these terms, it might be maintained that, if all things were made through the Logos, and evil is a part of all things, then the whole matter of sin, and everything that is wicked, that these also were made through the Logos. But this we must regard as false. There is nothing absurd in thinking that creatures were made through the Logos, and also that men’s brave deeds have been done through Him, and all the useful acts of those who are now in bliss; but with the sins and misfortunes of men it is otherwise.

“Now some have held that since evil is not based in the constitution of things— for it did not exist at the beginning and at the end it will have ceased— that, therefore, the evils of which we spoke are the Nothing; and as some of the Greeks say that genera and forms, such as the (general) animal and the man, belong to the category of Nothings, so it has been supposed that all that is not of God is Nothing, and has not even obtained through the Word the subsistence it appears to have. We ask whether it is possible to show from Scripture in any convincing way that this is so. As for the meanings of the word “Nothing” and “Not-being,” they would appear to be synonymous, for Nothing can be spoken of as Not-being, and the Not-being can be described as Nothing. The Apostle, however, appears to count the things which are not, not among those which have no existence whatever, but rather among things which are evil. To him the Not-being is evil; “God,” he says, Romans 4:17 “called the things that are not as things that are.” … The good, then, is the same as He who is. Over against good is evil or wickedness, and over against Him who is that which is not, whence it follows that evil and wickedness are that which is not.

“This, perhaps, is what has led some to affirm that the devil is not created by God. In respect that he is the devil he is not the work of God, but he who is the devil is a created being, and as there is no other creator but our God, he is a work of God. It is as if we should say that a murderer is not a work of God, while we may say that in respect he is a man, God made him. His being as a man he received from God; we do not assert that he received from God his being as a murderer. All, then, who have part in Him who is, and the saints have part in Him, may properly be called Beings; but those who have given up their part in the Being, by depriving themselves of Being, have become Not-beings. But we said when entering on this discussion, that Not-being and Nothing are synonymous, and hence those who are not beings are Nothing, and all evil is nothing, since it is Not-being, and thus since they are called Not-being came into existence without the Logos, not being numbered among the all things which were made through Him. Thus we have shown, so far as our powers admit, what are the “all things” which were made through the Logos, and what came into existence without Him, since at no time is it Being, and it is, therefore, called “Nothing.””

And then regarding the teaching of Heracleon:

“It was, I consider, a violent and unwarranted procedure which was adopted by Heracleon, the friend, as it is said, of Valentinus, in discussing this sentence: “All things were made through Him.” He excepted the whole world and all that it contains, excluding, as far as his hypothesis goes, from the “all things” what is best in the world and its contents.

“For he says that the aion, and the things in it, were not made by the Logos; he considers them to have come into existence [after] the Logos. He deals with the statement, “Without Him was nothing made,” with some degree of audacity … for to the “Nothing” he adds: “Of what is in the world and the creation.” … for what he considers divine is excluded from the all, and what he regards as purely evil is, that and nothing else, the all things, we need not waste our time in rebutting what is, on the face of it, absurd, when, without any warrant from Scripture, he adds to the words, “Without Him was nothing made,” the further words, “Of what is in the earth and the creation.”

“In this proposal… He had, also, a private interpretation of his own of the words: “All things were made through Him,” when he said that it was the Logos who caused the demiurge to make the world… For he says: “It was not the Logos who made all things, as under another who was the operating agent,” taking the “through whom” in this sense, “but another made them, the Logos Himself being the operating agent.” This is not a suitable occasion for the proof that it was not the demiurge who became the servant of the Logos and made the world; but that the Logos became the servant of the demiurge and formed the world.”

Quoted from Origen, Commentary on John, 2:7-8

I should mention that I deleted a number of disparaging and prejudicial remarks from 2:8 which muddle the text and make it difficult to understand what Heracleon’s doctrine actually was–as if Origen is talking over himself in his own presentation.

An important detail is that Origen makes reference to certain ideas in Greek philosophy which make a distinction between the things that are, and the things that are not, e.g. Plato, Theaetetus, 152d “…but it is out of movement and motion and mixture with one another that all those things become which we wrongly say “are”—wrongly, because nothing ever is, but is always becoming”. This could very well be the idea behind the phrase in John 1:3. Thus the “nothing that was created” refers to a world that is in a constant state of flux, is constantly in the process of an imperfect becoming as opposed to the Divine reality which is unchanging and is that which Is. (Note: the passage cited from Theaetetus is not entirely in context with the present subject. But I do believe that this concept is implicit in Plato’s system overall: which is that the created world is in a constant state of flux, and that the realm of Forms is eternal and unchanging.)

Thus the Logos made all the eternal and perfect things that are; whereas something else created all those things that are in a constant state of becoming, but never reach their perfection, because of darkness and evil. This is the real meaning of the odd wording in John 1:3. It is a subtle confession that the Logos did not create the world (“kosmon” Jn. 1:9).

By Jim West. Copyright © June 25, revised July 1, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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