The Many Names of Christ in Wisdom: Reading Scripture with Origen for a Diverse World

Tom Greggs
University of Chester

Aged four when my sister was born, I was asked by my mother what I thought the baby should be called. “Spiderman Goldilocks Greggs” was my rather bold answer. Sadly (albeit perhaps not for my sister), my mother did not take my youthful advice. No doubt it was because this was a rather silly name, and names say much about us. Indeed, names can be telling of our social class, our age, our schooling. [2] Most of us are known by more than one name. I am always called “Thomas” by my family, although the majority of my friends call me “Tom” and old schoolmates call me “Greggsy”. Many of us have nicknames, and those of us who are or have children or grandchildren will be known by names which arise from relationships — such as “Mum” or “Nana”. [3] It should perhaps be of little surprise to us, therefore, that Christ is endowed with many names in Scripture, and that we should attend to the plurality of these and their significance. However, so often theologians are selective of only a few of Christ’s titles which become the norm for all of the others. This paper seeks to consider the wisdom of the many titles of Christ in Scripture, and to do so in formative and creative dialogue with the third century theologian, Origen.

For Origen, the multiplicity of the names and titles of Christ marks a crucial element of his teaching on the economy of the Son, and marks especially a function of Christ’s nature as wisdom. In this paper I assert that, for Origen, the plurality of these names demonstrates that one should recognise that the full diversity of the world must be taken seriously within God’s plan of salvation: the universality of the One who will be “all in all” is not such that it destroys particularity; rather it is a universality which is brought about through a recognition of God’s willingness to be involved in the various particularities of creation through the person and work of his Son. [4] This essay seeks firstly, therefore, to outline Origen’s teaching on the many titles (or epinoiai ) of Christ in Scripture. In a second section of the essay, this teaching is applied to contemporary theological concerns.

1. Origen’s teaching on epinoiai

Origen’s teaching on the titles of Christ is found in its fullest form in the first book of his Commentary on John . [5] Elements of the doctrine are also to be found in De Principiis , [6] Homilies on Genesis , [7] Homilies on Exodus [8] and Contra Celsum ; [9] and vestiges of the teaching can be found scattered throughout Origen’s corpus. [10] At a basic level, the teaching concerns the reality that “We do not … all come to him [Christ] in the same way, but each one ‘according to his own proper ability.'” [11] Therefore, Christ is “named in different ways for the capacity of those believing or the ability of those approving it.” [12] Attention is given to the plurality of Christ’s names in order to allow for the plurality of means by which one might come to and know the Saviour. [13]

In his Commentary on John , Origen lists and explains the titles of Christ as a precursor to understanding what it is to speak of the Son as logos in Jn. 1:1: a method for enquiring into the meaning and significance of titles which might more straightforwardly be understood is necessary if one is to understand the complex title of logos often attended to by theologians at the exclusion of other of Christ’s names. [14] Origen laments the tendency of his own contemporaries to “stop in the case of the title ‘Word’ alone, as if they say that the Christ of God is ‘Word’ alone”. [15] In order to understand Christ more fully as logos , Origen goes on to cite and seek to explain what it means to speak of the Christ as “light of the world”, “true light” and “light of men”; [16] “the resurrection”; [17] “the way”; [18] “truth”; [19] “life”; [20] “door”; [21] “shepherd”; [22] “king”; [23] “teacher” and “lord”; [24] “son”; [25] “true vine”; [26] “bread of life”; [27] “first and last”; [28] “an angel of great counsel”; [29] “wisdom”; [30] “cornerstone”; [31] “the last Adam”; [32] “a sharp sword”; [33] “a chosen arrow ‘hidden in the quiver’ of the Father”; [34] “servant”; [35] “a lamb”; [36] “a man”; [37] “the advocate”; [38] “propitiation”; [39] “power”; [40] “sanctification”; [41] “redemption”; [42] “justice”; [43] “good teacher”; [44] “great high priest”; [45] “Juda”; [46] “Jacob” and “Israel”; [47] “David”; [48] “rod”; [49] “flower”; [50] and “stone”. [51] Each of these titles, Origen believes is found in Scripture, and he traces what he understands to be names of Christ in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the New Testament. It is attention to the superabundant complexity of Scripture that will not allow Origen to condense Christ into a system, or to focus on merely one aspect of title of his person. While there is order at the highest level of the aspects of Christ (wisdom and logos ), no one title of Christ is to be so crushingly dominant as to destroy the power of any other.

Origen sees this plurality of names as an aspect of the highest title of Christ — wisdom. [52] The wisdom of God exists hypostatically and eternally in Origen’s thought; [53] and subsisting in wisdom “was implicit every capacity and form of creation that was to be”. [54] This is because, according to Origen’s interpretation of Prov. 8.22f.,

she was created as a ‘beginning of the ways’ of God, which means that she contains within herself both the beginnings and causes and species of the whole creation. [55]

Wisdom contains, therefore, the potentiality of all creation in its diversity. By virtue of that, she also contains the many epinoiai of Christ which exist for the sake of the variety of creation.

It is here that one should begin to separate the presentation of this teaching by Origen from so-called Gnostic presentations of the concept in the likes of the Acts of John and the Acts of Peter . [56] Alongside the priority of wisdom, three other titles are given a higher status than the rest. These are the only titles which Christ possesses by essence. In considering which titles came first, Origen suggests:

wisdom alone would remain, or word, or life, and by all means truth, but surely not also the other titles which he took in addition because of us . [57]

Evident in this is a separation between the singularly christological nature of certain of the titles and the economic aspect of the vast majority of the other epinoiai . While so-called Gnostic versions of the teaching are focused on Christ’s nature, leading to some version of docetic christology focused on the incompatibility of the logos and flesh, [58] Origen’s version of the teaching is primarily soteriological. This is demonstrated clearly in the likes of Commentary on John I.248 & 251 in which Origen differentiates (in his discussion of I Cor 1.30) [59] between that which Christ is and that which Christ is “for us”. Similarly, Origen notes that there are certain epinoiai which Christ is not “for himself” but “for others”. [60] The vast majority of the titles of Christ which exist in his being wisdom exist because, in his being wisdom, there is in him the blue-print for all the world which must be reached by the economy of God. The titles are, therefore, the way in which the One God reaches out to the plurality and diversity of all creation. [61] Not in the first place purely christological, they are an aspect of Origen’s teaching on salvation and creation (two doctrines which for Origen can never be prized apart): rather than principally concerning the nature of Christ, Origen is concerned with the capacity of creation to know Christ. Thus, without being docetic, Origen can speak of how Jesus’ appearance was not simply the same for all who saw him, but varied “according to their individual capacity”. [62]

While there are titles which are prioritised (wisdom, logos , life and truth), one should not, however, think of a rigid hierarchy in terms of the rest of titles in Origen’s presentation of the epinoiai . This is evidenced even with those which have priority: that Origen laments an overly exclusive focus on the title logos is surely indicative of the significance of each of the titles, since even a higher title cannot stand alone. Origen does speak of the titles being comparable to the steps of the temple, [63] and he perceives that there are certain logical relations between certain of them: thus, for example, one must be on the “way” to arrive at the “door”. [64] However, Origen does not expound a clear hierarchy of how each of these related epinoiai relates to the full plurality of the titles of Christ: so, while a prioritised order exists between Christ as “way” and “door” and between Christ as “shepherd” and “king”, there is no indication of how Christ as “way” might relate to Christ as “shepherd” and “king” etc. It is difficult to determine from Origen, therefore, which of the titles corresponds to which stage in the progression towards “the Holy of Holies”. Origen’s principle concern is not the relative heights of the epinoiai but the full plurality of titles for a diverse world, grounded in the belief that both the titles of Christ and creation find their diversity in his being wisdom.

2. What wisdom does this doctrine yield for today’s world?

In considering what use may be made of this ancient reflection on Scripture, I wish to focus on the fact that this doctrine is not simply an explanation of Christian progression. The emphasis in Origen on the spiritual growth of Christians and the pedagogical work of Christ is well documented. [65] However, it would be wrong to consider that Origen’s teaching on epinoiai falls under this category of his thought. The teaching on epinoiai should, instead, be considered alongside his (in)famous belief in apokatastasis , [66] if indeed apokatastasis and spiritual growth can be separated for Origen. [67] The epinoiai of Christ allows Origen to speak of the economy of the second person as it relates to the whole of humanity in all of humanity’s variety.

If priority is given to the economy of salvation (rather than to christology) in Origen’s teaching on the epinoiai , as I have advocated above, it is not the case that one gains knowledge of Christ’s nature as each one of these titles (door, truth, life etc.), and is then able to participate in the economic function of the title; it is quite the reverse. Participating in Christ as these things enables one to know him under the titles. Hence, Origen writes:

God made ‘all things in wisdom’.

Many creatures, on the one hand, have come into existence by participation in wisdom, while they do not apprehend her by whom they have been created. Very few, however, comprehend not only the wisdom concerning themselves, but also that concerning many beings, for Christ is all wisdom.

But each of the wise participates in Christ to the extent that [s]he has capacity for wisdom, insofar as Christ is wisdom [68]

Many things could be said about the logic and content of this short passage, but what one must recognise for these purposes is a variable participation in Christ dependent on the capacity one has for wisdom. This, however, is the important thing to note: it is not participation in Christ which leads to participation in wisdom, but the varied participation in wisdom (in creation) dependent upon capacity which enables varied participation in Christ who is “all wisdom”. It is a participation in the economy which brings us to knowledge of the person (mediated through the title “wisdom”), not knowledge of the name which brings us to the economy. To use an analogy, building on the starting point of this paper, I call my mother “mum” because I participate in a relationship with her of mother and son. If I called a stranger I had just met on the street “mum”, it would be to a large extent meaningless. Even if I called her “mum” for the remaining days of my life, if I never participate in the mother-son relationship with her, she will never be my mother. What makes my mother my mother and allows me to call her by that title is that she is my mother and we participate in a mother-son relationship. As a result of that relationship, I name her thus: the already extant relation determines the name, and not the name the relation. For Origen, Christ’s titles are not simply epithets I give to him; they are names that I may call him by because I already participate in that relation to him .

The previous example given was a positive one from the perspective of Christian faith — Christ’s title of wisdom. However, one can also see the same logic employed with those titles which must surely be understood to be further down the scale. Origen writes:

We must also consider whether he [Christ] would not have become a shepherd if man had not been compared to ‘senseless beasts nor become like them.’ For if ‘God saves men and beasts,’ he saves what beasts he saves by granting a shepherd to those who have not the capacity for a king. [69]

Here the language is of “beasts” ( κτήνη ) who need a shepherd because their limited capacities make them unable to participate in Christ’s title of “king”. The word κτήνη was even used of swine. [70] Given the exacting nature of the catechumenal process, one might find this a rather odd description for a fully fledged baptised “Christian”. Thus, Christ’s title of “shepherd” enables those who only have the capacity of “beasts” still to be reached by the economy of God contained in God’s wisdom. They do not have to progress to the level of those with the capacity for a “king” to find a way to participate in God’s salvation in Christ. They are reached, instead, in their particularity. It might even be the case that Origen takes this a step further. In his Commentary on Romans , Origen discusses what he conceives to be the rather “astonishing” title of “a stone of stumbling and a rock of scandal”. [71] However, Origen believes this title is an important aspect of Christ’s economy: Christ is the one who is able in this capacity and under this title in Sciprture, to allow those who are “running down the road of destruction with swift feet” to participate in his salvation. [72] Thus, Christ is even able to encounter people running away from him as the stone that trips them up in front of hell. Similarly, he is a “rod” to those in need of his punishment. [73] Christ has many names in Scripture because there are many and diverse ways in which humans relate to him, and many and diverse ways in which he relates to the rest of humanity.

When faced as a Christian with a world which is complexly secular and religious, [74] such a teaching has much to commend it. Rather than throwing the truth of Christ like rocks at people’s heads regardless of the capacity for someone to catch it or not, [75] Origen’s teaching on the epinoiai presents us with a view of the economy of God which takes on board the variety of human capacity, differing situations, and complexity of human life. He allows for a picture of God’s salvation which is not starkly black or white, and which avoids binary language about salvation in order to escape simple categorisation of people as either inside or outside the plan of God. Instead, he recognises that the plan of God is a plan for all. But this universal does not come at the expense of obliterating all particulars. For Origen, there is a sense of the varied participation that humans have in the economy of God’s salvation. Some people can only experience Christ as a “stumbling block” while others may know him as “flower”; others may know him as a “teacher”; and still others will know him as “Lord”. But in it all, each learns something of Christ in his many titles from participating in the economy and function of those titles, which are prefigured in his eternal and hypostatic existence as wisdom.

In an age apparently of so much religious conflict between elements of each of the Abrahamic faiths, to look to the many titles of Christ may be wise. We may be united with the other in certain of the titles of Christ. Furthermore, this need not only be in terms of our participation in his economy, without naming the title. In naming Christ (among all of his other titles) at least as “Prophet” or as “Rabbi”, we may participate in and name an aspect of Christ’s economy, recognised in these titles, alongside Muslims and Jews respectively. As Christians, we may be frustrated that this is not all that there is to Christ whom Origen rightly realises is first and last. But, with Origen, perhaps we ought also to remember that this does not mean that Christ is not all that lies between, but has instead “become ‘all things'”. [76] To focus on but one aspect or epinoia of Christ is to fail to attend to “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” [77]


[1] This essay seeks to honour David Ford on his sixtieth birthday by focusing on various of his theological interests — wisdom, the reading of Scripture, the diversity of the world, and (in line with his current research) John’s Gospel.

[2] This is a theme on which the playwright, Alan Bennett, muses a great deal. See, for example, his Telling Tales (London: BBC Books, 2001),in which he observes the differing social standings and generations that names indicate.

[3] Here and at other points, I must acknowledge a debt to Dr. Janet Martin Soskice, who has not only stimulated much thought on the process of naming through conversations with her and her lectures at the University of Cambridge, but also read and commented on an early draft of this paper.

[4] One may see here a parallel to elements present in David F. Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), especially chapters 7 & 8. If Ford’s concerns are to present the face of Jesus Christ as the foundation for face to face, person to person relationships of which humans cannot have a total overview, Origen’s concern is to present the names of Christ as the foundation for a superabundant number of interpersonal relations with the Son of which humans cannot have a total overview.

[5] CommJoh. I.9-11,22-42. Origen, like David Ford who is presently writing a commentary on John’s Gospel, was deeply fascinated by the fourth gospel. Sadly, only sections of Origen’s commentary remain; but even these sections mark some of his most exciting and creative work.

[6] De Princ. I.2.1&4

[7] HomGen . I.7; 14.1

[8] HomEx. 7.8

[9] CCel. 2.64ff.

[10] For a list of further passages in Origen’s corpus concerning Christ’s epinoiai , see Benjamin Drewery, Origen and the Doctrine of Grace (London: Epworth Press, 1960), pp.115-117.

[11] HomGen. 1.7

[12] HomEx. 7.8

[13] This is a feature of Christianity which is given little attention, a fact that troubles Origen: “I frequently marvel when I consider the things said about the Christ by some who wish to believe in him. Why in the world, when countless names are applied to our Saviour, do they pass by most of them in silence? Even if they should perhaps remember them, they do not interpret them in their proper sense, but say that these name him figurally”( CommJoh. I.125). Christian theology must attend to the many names and titles of Christ, rather than simply attending to one or a certain few.

[14] CommJoh. I.153-157

[15] CommJoh. I.125

[16] CommJoh. I.168-180

[17] CommJoh. I.181

[18] CommJoh. I.183

[19] CommJoh. I.186f.

[20] CommJoh. I.188

[21] CommJoh. I.189

[22] CommJoh. I.190

[23] CommJoh. I.191-200

[24] CommJoh. I.201-203

[25] CommJoh. I.204

[26] CommJoh. I.205-6

[27] CommJoh. I.207-8

[28] CommJoh. I.209-225

[29] CommJoh. I.218. On this title, see further, Joseph W. Trigg, “The Angel of Great Counsel: Christ and the Angelic Hierarchy in Origen’s Theology,” Journal of Theological Studies 42, no. 1 (1991).

[30] CommJoh. I.221-223&243-246

[31] CommJoh. I.225

[32] CommJoh. I.225

[33] CommJoh. I.228&229

[34] CommJoh. I.228&229

[35] CommJoh. I.228&230-3

[36] CommJoh. I.233-4

[37] CommJoh. I.236-239

[38] CommJoh. I.240f.

[39] CommJoh. I.240f.

[40] CommJoh. I.242

[41] CommJoh. I.247-251

[42] CommJoh. I.247-251

[43] CommJoh. I.252-4

[44] CommJoh. I.254

[45] CommJoh. I.255-258

[46] CommJoh. I.259

[47] CommJoh. I.260

[48] CommJoh. I.261

[49] CommJoh. I.261-264

[50] CommJoh. I.263f.

[51] CommJoh. I.265

[52] He writes: “And if we should carefully consider all the concepts applied … [to Christ], he is the beginning only insofar as he is wisdom. He is not even the beginning insofar as he is the Word, since ‘the Word’ was ‘in the beginning,’ so that someone might boldly say that wisdom is older than all the concepts in the names of the first-born of creation.” ( CommJoh. I.118). However, one should note that elsewhere Origen sees Wisdom and Word as basically synonymous ( De Princ. I.2.3).

On the order of epinoiai, see Ronald E. Heine, “Epinoiai,” in The Westminster Handbook to Origen , ed. John A. McGuckin (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox, 2004), pp.93f.

[53] De Princ. I.2.2

[54] De Princ. I.2.2

[55] De Princ. I.2.2

[56] On this topic, see John A. McGuckin, “The Changing Forms of Jesus,” in Origeniana Quarta , ed. Lothar Leis (1987).

[57] CommJoh. I.123. Emphasis added

[58] See McGuckin, “The Changing Forms of Jesus,” pp.215-217

[59] “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption…”

[60] CommJoh. II.125f.

[61] Danielou notes “… the argument that between absolute unity and the multiplicity of creatures there must be a being who is one and yet shares in that multiplicity” as a crucial aspect of Origen’s thought. Jean Danielou, Origen , trans. Walter Mitchell (London & New York: Sheed & Ward, 1955)Rowan Williams, “The Son’s Knowledge of the Father in Origen,” in Origeniana Quarta , ed. Lothar Leis (1987)Rowan D. Williams, “Origen: Between Orthodoxy And Heresy,” in Origeniana Septima: Origenes in den Auseinandersetzungen des 4. Jahrhunderts , ed. W. A. Bienert and U. Kühneweg (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999), pp.12f.

[62] CCel. II.64 cf. HomGen. 7.8

[63] CommJoh. 19.38

[64] CommJoh. 19.39

[65] Regarding growth, Danielou, Origen , argues that, in this way, Origen prepares the way for Gregory of Nyssa (p.213). This is fundamentally different to the development of the thought of Maximus the Confessor who seeks to speak of “rest” in eternal life, despite the parallels with Origen noted by A. Louth, Maximus the Confessor (London: Routledge, 1999), p.67.

On Christ’s pedagogical work, see Karen Jo Torjesen, “Pedagogical Soteriology from Clement to Origen,” in Origeniana Quarta , ed. Lothar Leis (1987)Frances M. Young, The Use of Sacrificial Ideas in Greek Christian Writers from the New Testament to John Chrysostom , vol. 5, Patristic Monograph Series (Cambridge, MA: The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1979) sees Origen’s understanding of God’s wrath and propitiation as an aspect of this pedagogical work (pp.168ff.).

[66] On apokatastasis , see Tom Greggs, “Exclusivist or universalist? Origen ‘the wise steward of the word’ (CommRom V.1.7) and the issue of genre.,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no. 3 (2007).

[67] See here Brian E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church. A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), who advocates that Origen “demythologises” eschatological thought in a pastoral direction to ensure that Christians realise that there is a continuity between the present life and the future, as all humans grow towards union with God (p.48).On the relationship between growth towards God and a doctrine of divine punishment, see Morwenna Ludlow, “Universal Salvation and a Soteriology of Divine Punishment,” Scottish Journal of Theology 53, no. 4 (2000)Charles Kannengiesser and William L Petersen, eds., Origen of Alexandria. His World and His Legacy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1988)R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event. A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen’s Interpretation of Scripture (London: SCM, 1959) , pp.336-340; and F. W. Farrar, Mercy and Judgment: A Few Last Words on Christian Eschatology with reference to Dr. Pusey’s “What is of faith?” (London: McMillan, 1881), p. 330. To compare Origen’s understanding to that of Gnostics and Clement of Alexandria, see Daley, The Hope of the Early Church , pp.25ff.&45ff.

[68] CommJoh. I.245f.

[69] CommJoh . I.122

[70] Liddell and Scott, eds., Greek-English Lexicon Ninth Edition, revised by Jones and McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p.1002.

[71] CommRom. 7.19.8

[72] CommRom. 7.19.8

[73] CommJoh . I.262f.

[74] On this, see David F. Ford, “Gospel in Context: Among Many Faiths” (paper presented at the Fulcrum Conference, Islington, Friday 28th April 2006); David F. Ford, “Abrahamic Dialogue: Towards Respect and Understanding in Our Life Together,” (Cambridge: Inauguration of the Society for Dialogue and Action, 2006).

[75] This was Tillich’s criticism of Barth. See J. Heywood Thomas, Tillich ( London: Continuum, 2000), p.56. Such criticism also perhaps reflects Ford’s concern that Christ fulfils the role of a Bildungsroman in Barth’s Church Dogmatics . See David F. Ford, Barth and God’s Story: Biblical Narrative and the Theological Method of Karl Barth in the Church Dogmatics (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1985), pp.91f. For a sample of Barth’s reflections on the name “Jesus Christ”, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936-1969) I/2, pp.10-25; IV/1, pp.16-21; and IV/4, pp.91-100.

[76] CommJoh. I.219

[77] Eph. 1.23. Taken from The New Revised Standard Version , (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).