On First Principles, 2 Volume Set

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John Behr
Oxford Early Christian Texts
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     784 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I dare not comment on the text of Origen of Alexandria’s de Principiis(“On First Principles”), which is clearly a classic, yet this new edition deserves attention. John Behr has proven himself to be an able commentator and analyst of early Christian theology in both its Latin and Greek varieties. Here he shows himself also to be a splendid translator of one of the most acclaimed and yet too often unread works of early Christian theology. 

Why is this text acclaimed? Origen’s many commentaries on Scripture make him the most influential of third century exegetes. This text gives a number of exegetical excurses that probe gospel periscopes or early accounts of Genesis with depth. Origen also works to develop a Trinitarian theology that addresses both theology (God’s own being) and economy (God’s works) as well as an anthropology that regards human nature and ends. Origen’s stature ecclesiastically is mixed, as he was condemned long after his death, and the reader of this text will see threads herein that point both towards his obvious influence in the growth of early Christian theology as well as the seeds of what would prove to be controversial receptions of his work in later centuries. Both are worthy of attention and perhaps nowhere else are they as clearly conveyed as in de Principiis

This new edition includes the Latin translation of Rufinus and the original Greek excerpted from Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus’s Philocalia. Both sources appear with the original text on the left facing page, with English renderings on the right facing page. Where a Greek excerpt does exist, the pages take the form of two rows on top of each other (Latin on the top half of the page, and Greek on the bottom half of the page). Behr mentions that his translation attempts a literal rendering, involving “longer sentences, more numerous sub-clauses, and a greater use of the passive, than will please some” (xcviii). This reader found that his observation about sentence length and numerous sub-clauses was evident, though the use of the passive was not as pervasive. 

The edition also includes a sizable introduction (xv-xcviii) that gives background information on Origen of Alexandria, the text history of de Principiis, the structure of the work, and its teaching on theology proper, the divine economy (or works), and eschatology. The introduction fixes carefully upon this text, such that it is a wonderful introduction to the volume in particular; however, it should be noted that it is not exactly serviceable as a first point of contact for the novitiate turning to Origen more broadly. That said, this new edition should prove to be a constant reference point for students of early Christian theology and exegesis and—one might hope—an instigating force for further research upon Origen’s contribution to theological developments in the third century Christian church.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Behr is the Dean of St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and Professor of Patristics and Metropolitan Kallistos Chair in Orthodox Theology at Vrije Universiteit. His previous publications include Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement (2000), The Case Against Diodore and Theodore: Texts and Their Contexts (2011), and Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity (OUP, 2013). He is also the co-editor of The Role of Life in Death: A Multidisciplinary Examination of Issues pertaining to Life and Death (Wipf and Stock, 2015; with C. Cunningham).


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