Assessing the Apologetical Value of Contra Celsum

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Contra Celsum is one of many works by Origen (185–254). Of his hundreds of commentaries, textual projects, and hermeneutical works, Contra Celsum is his only apologetic work. This work is 8 books and a second apologetic response would have been written if Celsus were to write a second work against the Christian faith or a rejoinder to Origen’s work (VIII.76). According to Henry Chadwick, “contra Celsum stands out as the culmination of the whole apologetic movement of the second and third centuries.”[1] With the previous centuries of apologetic responses from Christian thinkers, Origen stands heads and shoulders above those preceding him by providing a rational and intellectual defense of the Christian faith.[2]

Who is Celsus and the Role of Contra Celsum

Celsus is a pagan philosopher, who, through means of his literature, has shaken some in their faith (Praef. 4). It appears that Celsus was at one point a Christian himself (I.26). His work, The True Doctrine (Ἀληθὴς Λόγος), is one of the oldest attacks on Christianity in literary form (c.178).[3] Though no longer extant, Contra Celsum is alleged to maintain 9/10 of Celsus’ original work.[4] However, 1950’s scholarship has a much different picture.[5] Regardless, much of Celsus’ work is preserved through the careful work of Origen. Some signs of abbreviation are found (II.32; II.79; VI.22), whereas other times, Origen seems to go to great lengths to record even mundane and repetitious thoughts (Praef. 3, 6).

Contra Celsum is Origen’s response to the claims and accusations of Celsus’ True Doctrine. Origen’s method of response is a sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph retort. In this way, large quotes of Celsus are preserved, enough of the quotes provide a substantial reconstruction of Celsus’ theology, and readers are given the abilities to read Celsus’ non-extant literature. Furthermore, this line-by-line rejoinder is the means by which Origen[6] saw fit to respond to Celsus (Praef. 3). Origen does not desire all to read this work. Instead, he has in mind, besides Celsus and Ambrose, those weak in the faith or those lacking faith altogether. “This book is not written at all for true Christians, but either for those entirely without experience of faith in Christ, or for those whom the apostle calls ‘weak in faith’; for he says this: ‘As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him’ (ESV Rom 14.1)” (Praef. 6).

“Apologetics” and Origen’s Apologetic

Modern apologetics are so far removed from ancient apologetics that they may have two different aims. Yes, overlap exists, but for the most part the social demand is far more different than similar. Historicism and historical reconstruction is one mere by-product of modernism. For example Historical Jesus research, from evangelical presuppositions, is attempting to prove via historical criticism the existence of Jesus. One goal is to prove Jesus existed, either using the bible or not, in history through roman annuls, Jewish historians, eyewitness accounts, etc.[7]

Furthermore, in philosophical apologetics, the overarching goal is to prove the existence of God. Evidentialists utilize “evidences” and other proofs to argue for God’s existences. Classical apologists rely more upon rationalism to argue for the existence of God. Presuppositionalists, on the other hand, argue with the presupposed assertion of God’s existence and argue to dismantle other worldviews and demonstrate order and natural law are the product of God.

Celsus and the concerns within Contra Celsum bear very little resemblance to modern approaches to apologetics. One glaring fundamental difference is how Celsus speaks of the divine. It is not that Origen is attempting to prove God’s existence. Celsus believes in a divine being (I.23). Not only deity, but he believes in the plurality of the deities and affirms the monotheism of Jewish and Christian theology merely laughable (I.23). Furthermore, Celsus believes in the supernatural realm, including demons (I.6).

Therefore, modern apologetic concerns are strikingly different than ancient apologetics. Origen and other ancient apologetic writers are not so much concerned with proving the existence of God (though they do argue for Jesus as truly divine) as compared to modern apologetics. Ancient apologetics have different concerns. “Apologists took up the task of answering current slanders against Christianity,” argues Wallace, “—e.g., that it encouraged cannibalism and impiety, that it discouraged loyalty to state religion and therefore atheistic—and that its central doctrines were ridiculous and offensive.”[8] Furthermore, Drobner argues ancient apologetics were intended to clarify misconceptions of the Christian faith.

In terms of content, therefore, the argumentation was intended to clarify the misconceptions and wrong ideas regarding Christians among the people who fanned the flames of the persecutions. Christianity had to be presented not only as an acceptable conviction of faith that was compatible with the welfare and laws of the state but as a faith that promoted the latter when Christians prayed for the emperor, participated in public life, carefully heeded justice because of their Christian moral obligations.[9]

Apologetics, then, sought to correct the misconceptions of Christianity among the political, social, and religious world so as to legitimize the Christian faith in the public order. Apologetics had social concerns as well as providing an intellectual religious defense.

Brief Comments on the Arguments of Celsus and Origen’s responses[10]

While oversimplifying, Origen very rarely went on an offensive explanation of the Christian (and at times Jewish) faith. Rather, he was responsive to the claims of Celsus. He viewed Celsus as a misinformed critic who is unable to observe the logical fallacies and hypocrisy of his own arguments.

In Book 1, Origen responds to Celsus’ claims about the secrecy of the church (I.1–5, 7) and their irrational defense of Christianity (I.9–13). Celsus mockingly criticizes Origen and others for their monotheism and, thereby, inferiority of religion (I.23–24). Celsus accuses them of sorcery and angelic worship (I.25); this is a reoccurring theme Origen identifies later in the book but rarely repeats his original arguments.

Clesus admits to “knowing all things” about the Christian faith (I.12) and will then frequently misrepresent history, sayings, and events through the biblical storyline. In response, Origen freely admits to not knowing all there is to know about the Christian faith, yet he loves the truth. Secondly, Origen turns the table and criticizes Celsus other others believing in Platonism. Do they know everything about Plato and Platonist thought? Then why do you still believe in Plato’s teaching?

I find Origen’s argument interesting when revisiting the topic of historicity (I.42). Celsus has gone on and on about different stories about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and other related events; mishandling the biblical narrative (cf. I.28). Origen admits, “we must say that an attempt to substantiate almost any story as historical fact, even if it is true, and to produce complete certainty about it, is one of the most difficult tasks and in some cases is impossible” (I.42).

Historical certainty is impossible, according to Origen. He then begins to retell the story of the Trojan War, Achilles, and other related Greek stories.  “Anyone who reads the stories with a fair mind, who wants to keep himself from being deceived by them, will decide what he will accept and what he will interpret allegorically, searching out the meaning of the authors who wrote such fictitious stories, and what he will disbelieve as having been written to gratify certain people.” This historical interpretation was to set up how to approach the Gospels. Origen then responds with a lesser to greater argument by appealing to the inferiority of these previous stories, and a “what-if” scenario of Ezekiel’s and Isaiah’s inaccuracy to demonstrate Jesus is better than these people. Moreover, even if Celsus finds some historical improbability, Origen admits to the impossibility of historical certainty, but when they are found, the authors intended allegorical interpretations (I.48). Therefore, the Gospels are true in all they assert, but even if they talk of historical improbabilities, the authors had other spiritual ends in mind.

Conclusion

Contra Celsusm is not a legitimate theological treatise to uphold and articulate the Christian faith—that is, a doctrinal treatise of systematized orthodoxy or creedal confessions. That isn’t necessarily the pure aim of Origen’s work. However, Contra Celsum is an acceptable apologetic work in the defense of the Christian faith prohibiting the onslaught of logical and theoretical inconsistencies that aim to overthrow Christianity. And that is the aim and goal of ancient apologetics: provide a corrective to the atrocious misconceptions of the Christian faith.


[1] Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick (London, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1953), ix.

[2] Origen, Contra Celsum, ix.

[3] F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., “Celsus,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford Unversity Press, 1974), 260.

[4] Cross and Livingstone, “Celsus,” 260.

[5] Origen, Contra Celsum, xxii–xxiv.

[6]Here in Praef. 3, Origen uses a first-person plural pronoun “We.” I’m unsure what the implications of this will be. Did Origen co-write with someone? Does Origen use “we” to include Ambrose in the response to Celsus? If Origen is the sole author, why the use of this first-person plural pronoun?

[7] Consult the works by John P. Meier in his multi-volume work on the Historical Jesus. Meier wants to produce a work as if a Catholic, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an agnostic—all as adequate historians—are locked in a Harvard Library and cannot leave the room until a consensus document is formed after reviewing all the resources on the “Historical Jesus.” Meier, Marginal Jew, 1:1; 2:4–5; 3:9; 4:12. Accordingly, Meier’s goal is to affirm existence of Jesus as a person that multiple worldview, spiritual, and confessional presuppositions will affirm.

[8] Ronald S. Wallace, “Apologetics,” in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J.D. Douglas, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1978), 56.

[9] Hubertus R. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 72.

[10]A much longer treatise is needed to give interaction with a detailed analysis of some of Origen’s argument and defense.

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