I currently attend a History of Christianity class and one of the subjects we learn about are the early Christian fathers. In LDS doctrine, we believe in a great, final, widespread apostasy that occurred shortly after Christ’s death. However, when exactly this apostasy became complete, or even why and how it occurred in the first place is subject to great, passionate debate within our ranks. I had one missionary tell me his firm belief that the founding of Islam was the final nail in the coffin; I pulled a face in response.
It’s interesting to me that many of the people in our Church (including me) know very little of the early Church. We’re well versed in our own recent Church history (What year did Joseph Smith receive the First Visitation? 1820! When was the Church founded? April 6, 1830!) and heaven knows we speculate greatly of Old and New Testament churches, but after about 70 AD, our interest in Church history immediately ceases, which I feel is a great loss to us.
For example, Origen is considered an incredible figure in Christian history. This early Christian scholar and theologian was born in 185 AD and lived to 254 AD, when the Church was still under a rapid evolutionary phase from the original, scattered Apostolic Church to the eventual cultural force that powered the crumbling Roman Empire. He worked tirelessly to reconcile Hellenistic culture with Christian theology and took over the Catechical School in Alexandria from Clement, another tireless early Christian theologian.
Origen became quite famous, wrote a vast body of Church literature, and buttressed the growing Church from criticisms from Greek intellectuals who condemned Christianity as intellectually vapid, illogical, and superstitious. Origen believed that intellectualism and the Gospel could co-exist; in fact, while Origen defended the uneducated masses that joined the Church in droves, he also asserted that a simplistic understanding of the Gospel didn’t suffice.
While lauded as a great thinker during his time, many of Origen’s speculative theological ideas were rejected by the main body of the Church in the 6th century by an ecumenical council. Which of these teachings did they repudiate? Origen taught that the soul was eternal – in fact, there was a pre-existence of the human soul. When a person was born, that soul joined with a tabernacle of flesh and continued along its progression. Origen taught that there was a spiritual creation before a physical creation. Mormons would find it ironic that the Church explained its declaration of Origen’s teachings as heresy by accusing these teachings of being strictly derived from Greek philosophy rather than the Gospel. In short, according to mainstream Christianity, Origen’s interesting views of man’s pre-existence and the split between spiritual and physical creation resulted directly from the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.