I was listening to a great Maxwell Institute podcast in which Blair Hodges interviews Peter Martens. Among other topics, Martens briefly discussed early church father Origen who was denounced postumously for his heretical views, some of which, although they may have been anathema to Catholics, are particularly of interest to Mormons.
Origen was an early Christian scholar born around 184 A.D. to Christian parents in the city of Alexandria (the apostle Paul was killed in 68 A.D., a full 116 years prior). His father Leonides was martyred in 202 A.D. under the persecutions of Septimus Severus. In the wake of his father’s death, his family of nine was impoverished. One story claims the 18 year old wished to follow his father into martyrdom and was prevented only by his mother hiding his clothes. Origen was briefly taken into the protection of a wealthy woman, but because she also housed a heretic, the orthodox Origen left her care soon after. He was widely considered the first Christian theologian, writing over 6000 scrolls. He was held in esteem broadly throughout the Christian world, although he had a run in with his bishop, Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, causing him to relocate to another part of Christendom.
Although he was brought up in a Christian household, he was also trained in Hellenistic thought by his revered father. According to his main biographer’s accounts, he castrated himself to live in accordance with Paul’s teachings on celibacy. He was both a scriptural literalist, and an allegorist. All of his teaching came from scripture which he sought to understand in light of doctrine as he understood it.
His three main heretical beliefs were:
- The pre-existence of souls
- Ultimate reconcilation of all creatures (universalism), including (possibly) the Devil
- That Jesus Christ was subordinate to God the Father
These ideas were not only influential in early Christendom, but they were often misunderstood by Origen’s followers, resulting in teachings that were confusing and contradictory that he would have disavowed as his own. It is for the popularity of these teachings and their ensuing misunderstandings that he was denounced in 544 A.D. nearly 300 years after his death in 253 A.D. (at the ripe old age of 69). This denunciation was intended to reduce his influence and allow church leadership to ignore his teachings in favor of their own. From his wikipedia page:
Origen’s cosmology is complicated and controverted, but he seems to have held to a hypothesis of the preexistence of souls. Before the known world was created by God, he created a great number of spiritual intelligences. At first devoted to the contemplation and love of their creator, almost all of these intelligences eventually grew bored of contemplating God, and their love for him cooled off. Those whose love for God diminished the most became demons. Those whose love diminished moderately became human souls, eventually to be incarnated in fleshly bodies. Those whose love diminished the least became angels. One, however, who remained perfectly devoted to God became, through love, one with the Word (Logos) of God. The Logos eventually took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary, becoming the God-man Jesus Christ.
This bit sounds a lot like the justification for the Priesthood ban, one that seems to rear its head whenever pre-existence appears. Even the “War in Heaven” requires that we categorize pre-existent beings based on their valiance.
The diverse conditions in which human beings are born is actually dependent upon what their souls did in this pre-existent state. Thus what seems unfair, some being born poor and others wealthy, some sick and others healthy, and so forth, is, Origen insists, actually a by-product of the free-will of souls.
Origen saw the Creation story in Genesis as an allegorical version of the pre-existence or what we would call the War in Heaven. Eden is metaphorically the realm of pre-existent souls. When these pre-mortal souls are cast out, it is to their mortality on the earth. The fall is our change from pre-existent souls to mortal souls. Origen’s view was that after Adam & Eve sinned, they were made mortal and given their own human bodies or “coats of skin.” By Origen’s reckoning, human bodies were the “garments of skin” referenced. From Peter Martens’ paper, Origen’s Doctrine of Pre-Existence and the Opening Chapters of Genesis, we read:
In Contra Celsum 4,40 he denies that Adam refers to a single individual, but rather when allegorized according to its etymological sense, “Adam” refers corporately to the nature of man, i.e. the whole human race. It was, moreover, this race that sinned in paradise, Origen insists, and as a consequence it was dismissed from paradise. In what follows, he describes this dismissal by referring to the “garments of skins” (Gen 3:21) in a way that suggests that he again sees these as bodies.
Of course, imagining our own flesh as the Coats of Skins referenced in Genesis reminds me of the scene in Silence of the Lambs where the killer says: “It puts the lotion on its back” then bleats like a lamb at his victim. Oh yeah, spoiler alert.
Although the concept of a pre-existence is very familiar to us, the idea of the garments referring to anything other than clothing to protect us is new. From Steve Evans’ excellent post on Coats of Skins:
“I imagine that those first garments were made for them lovingly, made of sturdy stuff to face that lone, dreary world.”
Maybe the sturdy stuff was the human body. He continues:
“And then the world changed for them, into a hostile, angry place. Their prayers aren’t answered by talking with God face to face anymore.”
Or they experienced the world for the first time, and they discovered that the physical world is inhospitable. They were only experiencing it as unfamiliar and strange, not yet comfortable in their own human skins. They experienced separation from God because we have to live by faith on the earth, not having direct access to the divine.
Where does Origen get his ideas about garments of skins meaning bodies? Martens theorizes from Plato:
Origen refers his readers to a similar (though less impressive) Platonic doctrine. In the section of the Phaedrus to which Origen alludes, Plato tellingly speaks of the soul shedding its wings through some “foulness and ugliness” and then wandering until it lands on something solid, “where it settles and takes on an earthly body.” This reference to Plato’s doctrine of the soul’s embodiment intimates how Origen thought about the mysterious garments: as symbols of bodies given by God, they would have facilitated the soul’s descent from paradise into this corporeal world, as Origen (and not Plato) understood this primordial event.
So if Origen is right, then we are all wearing garments at all times, and we only take them off (temporarily) at death. Or they melt off when we accidentally look at the Ark of the Covenant.
Garments are forever linked in our minds with modesty because of the sequence of events in Genesis 3:
v. 7: And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
Just FYI – fig leaves are very itchy. Not exactly great underwear material. Then again, aprons are symbolic of priestly power. Maybe this is a parallel to taking power.
v. 10: . . . I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
v. 11: . . . Who told thee that thou wast naked? . . .
A bunch of other stuff happens that’s pretty dramatic. Buck passing regarding fruit eating (if Adam doesn’t like what she’s serving, he can make his own damn dinner), Satan getting in trouble and being cursed. Adam & Eve being cursed. Both being expelled from the Garden. Eve is named (to make it easier to blame her in future rather than just calling her “the woman thou gavest to be with me”).
v. 21: . . . Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.
No additional information is given. It doesn’t specify that God kills animals to make these skins, how much they cover them, or the purpose of them. We infer that it’s to cover their nakedness because we assume that they are already flesh and bone.
If the coats of skins are our mortal flesh, what is the value of wearing garments?
If we consider the symbolism of garments (clothing) in terms of Origen’s teaching, their symbolic value is that they remind us of our mortality, that coming to earth was designed to protect our spirits and enable spiritual progression (by having a mortal experience). So garments remind us we are mortal, that we are having a human experience, but that we are the eternal spirit blob that existed before the flesh and will continue after the flesh and then when we are re-clothed in flesh. Garments remind of our pre-existence, the temporary nature of life, and the eternal nature of our soul.
Additionally, physical garments hold spiritual value and empower the wearer when they are imbued with meaning. I wrote about this in an OP a few years ago here. Wearing any “special” clothing, clothing with psychological significance, improves our ability to perform certain tasks. In a study published in 2012 in the New York Times, participants who wore a lab coat were able to more accurately track and record results. Wearing the lab coat seemed to heighten their focus and sense of responsibility for outcomes. If garments are a symbol of our worthiness, our relationship with God, then they can empower us to act in faith or remind us of our spirituality. Without a belief in the power of the clothing, they cease to create a psychological benefit.
If Origen’s view of the Creation story is valid, we are already wearing the garments spoken of from birth until death.