Marriage and Virginity



Origen, like his teacher St. Clement of Alexandria, defends the lawfulness of marriage against the Encratites who are mostly the Marcionites and the Montanists. He refers to them in the words of St. Paul in 1 Tim. 4:3 as attaching themselves to demonic doctrines. Several times allusions were made to them as they forbid marriage and preach abstinence. We read in Origen’s writings against the Marcionites that nothing created by God is impure in itself, and that nothing can be defiled except by the evil thoughts and intentions of humans. They forbid marriage which is realized by the providence of God. He also opposed their distinction of the Creator God of the Old Testament and God the Father of Christ, refuting their allegation that marriage and procreation are cooperation with the former.

Origen defends Christian marriage, as a type of unity of the Church with Christ.

Since God has joined them together (a man and a woman in marriage), for this reason there is a gift for those joined together by God. Paul knowing this declares that equally with the purity of the holy celibacy is marriage according to the Word of God a gift, saying, "But I would that all men were like myself; howbeit, each man has his own gift from God, one after this manner, and another after that" (1 Cor. 7:7). Those who are joined together by God obey in thought and deed the command "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also the Church" Eph 5:25.


1. St. Clement speaks of marriage as co-operation among the couple, and leads to a kind of harmony; Origen, his disciple, sees in marriage a mutual giving.

2. He urges that the true Christian has intercourse with his wife only to have offspring, and he cautions married people against having relations once the wife has conceived. Using Seneca’s argument from the conduct of animals, he says, "Some women serve lust without any restraint." indeed I would not compare them to dumb beasts; for beasts, when they conceive, know not to indulge their mates further with their plenty. Intercourse must be suspended until the woman can conceive again."

3. Marriage is a safety valve for those who are not gifted with continence.

God has allowed us to marry wives, because not everyone is capable of the superior condition, which is to be absolutely pure.

Do not think that just as the belly is made for food and food for the belly, that in the same way the body is made for intercourse. It was made that it should be a temple to the Lord. Adam had a body in Paradise, but in Paradise he did not know Eve.

To live in marriage as a perfect Christian, with the reserve and self-control which conjugal love demands, in self-giving to the partner and the children and not in the desire to enjoy the other, is difficult for one who, like every other man, has to overcome the trend of a nature marked by selfishness. Marriage is a way of perfection that is far from easy and the grace of the sacrament is very necessary for that.



Origen does not forbid absolutely second marriages after widowhood, for the apostle permitted them (1 Cor. 7:39-40). He even harshly blames the rigorists who exclude the remarried from the assemblies as if they were open sinners. But he is far from encouraging second marriages for the following reasons:

1. His argument depends on St. Paul’s refusal to ordain those who remarried as clergymen. According to St. Paul (1 Tim. 3:1-2, 12; Tit 1:5-6), clergyman should be "the husband of one wife;" he cannot remarry if he is widowed and remarried men must not be ordained.

2. To take a second wife is not in conformity with the primitive law of Gen. 2:24, for one cannot be one flesh with a second woman.

3. Origen sees no better reason for those who get remarried than inability to live continentally and to control one's instincts. It is astonishing that Origen, like many other Fathers, never mentions any other motives for remarriage such as economic factors or the requirements of children’s education. Marriages are presented only as an extreme concession to weakness: it is better to marry than to live in sin when one cannot put up with continence.

What about the multiple unions of the patriarchs, which were even simultaneous? They symbolize "mystical economies."

Paul wishes no one of those of the church, who has attained to any eminence beyond the many, as is attained in the administration of the sacraments, to make trial of a second marriage.


Origen permits remarriage and even harshly blames the rigorists who excluded the remarried from the assemblies as if they were open sinners.



Origen insists that marriage came into existence as a result of the Fall. He believes that human beings come into existence as angelic spirits that fall from beatitude into human bodies. Sexuality, then, is an unfortunate instrument of providing bodies for the fallen spirits. St. Peter of Alexandria (c. 300-311 A.D), protested against Origen's opinion that the union of pre-existent souls with bodies was a consequence of their sin. He adds that the idea was a Greek doctrine, foreign to Christianity.



Origen is one of the Christian authors who developed the idea of an impurity inherent in sexual relationships. The only difference between the impurity of carnal conditions and that of sexual relations is one of intensity. As an ascetic and mystic, Origen was very sensitive to the danger of enjoyment of sexual relations. The defilement of marriage can be overcome to a certain extent if the love of the spouses imitates that of Christ for the Church, and avoids all selfish passion. Carnal love is only an abuse of the love which God has put in our hearts in order that we should love him. Conjugal love, though carnal, must tend more and more toward the spiritual by the harmony between the spouses which would be disturbed by passion, a selfish love seeking the satisfaction of enjoyment, not the good of the partner.

Origen considers the physical pleasure of sexual bonding in marriage as a bland displacement of true feeling, a deflection of the spirit’s capacity for delight into the dulled sensation of the body.

Several of Origen’s writings point to an impurity in sexual relations, even through legitimate marriage. The child is impure at birth; this original impurity is transmitted by generation as linked to the sexual intercourse of the parents with the passion which accompanies it. Origen's idea to the impurity of even lawful sexual relations is derived from his interpretation of 1 Cor. 7:5; abstention from conjugal relations for the sake of prayer is temporary, to be sure, and agreed between them, but is understood as an annihilation.

The idea is drawn also from his own understanding of passages of the Old Testament. The woman who has given birth is impure because of the flow of blood, whereas she was not impure during nine months as she was far from the sexual relationships which took place previously. Elsewhere, Origen directs that the conjugal bedroom is not a convenient place for prayer, because "those who indulge in the pleasures of love are to some extent defiled and impure." One cannot think of the Holy Spirit during the conjugal relation. Origen says, "Lawful marriages are not sinful; but at the time when the sex act is performed, the Holy Spirit will not be present, even if it were a prophet doing the act of generation."

Origen, however, endeavors to distinguish the impurity of conjugal relations from sin. It only exists "in some way", and it is only "a certain" impurity. This kind of impurity does not prevent married people from offering to God their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God (Rom. 12:1).


Carnal love is only an abuse of the love which God has put in our hearts so that we should love Him. To be sure, Origen scarcely distinguishes between the movement of the gift from the movement of the desire, the distinction that our contemporaries denote by the Greek words agape and eros.



The impurity of even lawful sexual relations also emerges from Origen's interpretation of 1 Cor. 7:5: that which is in Paul a piece of advice or a permission aimed at the withdrawal of the married couple for prayer becomes for Origen an obligation, temporary, to be sure, and agreed between them, but extended to religious fasts and to the reception of the Eucharist.



Love must be ordered: this theme is developed in the Commentary on the Song of Songs at Cant. 2, 4 LXX "Order the love that is in me," and likewise in the Homily on Luke 25 and is the beginning of a whole tradition.

1. Only God and His Christ, who are subjects and objects of the same love, must be loved "with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength" (Matt. 22:37): to love a creature like that is to confer on it what must only be given to God, it is idolatry. God alone is to be loved without limit.

2. The neighbor must be loved "as ourselves" (Matt. 22:39).

First among neighbors is the wife whom the husband must love as his own body, just as Christ loves the Church: this love "is of a particular nature and is separate from all other'. Next come the other affections in the family. But none of these loves are to be preferred to the love of God, when the choice must be made, for example by the martyr: to put those one loves before God would not be truly to love them.




R. Crouzel says,

In Hebrew legislation and in Roman law there was no equality of the spouses in the matter of adultery. A married man who allowed himself extramarital relations with an unmarried girl was not an adulterer; he in no way wronged his wife, who had no rights over him. On the contrary, the married woman who did the same was an adulteress and was punished severely by the law as was her accomplice, for she was her husband's property. While in Roman circles the wife could take the initiative to end the marriage, in Jewish circles she could not. When Paul writes: "For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise, also, the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does" (1 Cor. 7:14), he is re-establishing equality, giving the wife a right over her husband’s body similar to the one he has over hers.

This equality in respect of the fundamental rights which is to be found fairly clearly in the works of Origen does not prevent the man from remaining the head of the family nor from being likewise within the family the one who leads prayer. Paul’s rule "That the women should keep silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:35) is used by Origen against the Montanists, by reason of their prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, to show that their Church was not the Bride of Christ.

Let the wives learn from the examples of the patriarchs, let the wives learn, I say, to follow their husbands. For not without cause is it written that "Sara was standing behind Abraham," but that it might be shown that if the husband leads the way to the Lord, the wife ought to follow. I mean that the wife ought to follow if she see her husband standing by God.



R. Crouzel says,

Origen is strongly opposed to unions between believers and unbelievers. They are "unequally yoked" to use a Pauline term, heterozygountes, and Origen cannot see in that a true marriage of which God is the author: the accord that comes from the Lord is lacking. Some Christians consider themselves authorized to marry pagans by what Paul says in I Cor. 7, 14: they will sanctify their partners. But for one thing the case envisaged by the apostle is not the same: it is that of a marriage between two unbelievers, one of whom is converted subsequently, and not that of an inter-faith marriage contracted between a Christian and a non-Christian. For another thing, when he said that the believer would sanctify his partner, Paul only mentioned the more favorable solution, for the other possibility also exists: that the Christian is soiled by the pagan partner and that there ensues a struggle starting from the 'abundance of the heart, that is to say from the strength of the convictions of each; it is not certain that the Christian will win and keep his faith. As Paul requires of the widows, marriage must be 'in the Lord', which Origen, in common with most but not all the Fathers, interprets to mean with a Christian partner.



Origen assures that marriage cannot be dissolved by every cause, but only by committing fornication (Matt. 19:3).

We must say that Christ’s saying, "What God has joined together let no man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6), did not put away the former synagogue, His former wife, for any cause than that wife committed fornication, being made an adulteress by the evil one, and along with him plotted against her husband and slew Him, saying, "Away with such a fellow from the earth, crucify Him" (John 19:6,15; Luke 23:18).



 To express Origen’s view on virginity, I quote almost R. Crouzel who deals with this topic in two of his works.

Origen did not write a treatise on virginity: his teaching about it is scattered through his works and contained especially in the fragments that survive of his exegesis of the first Epistle to the Corinthians.



Origen considers virginity as the most perfect gift after martyrdom. In the sacrifice of virginity, man is at once, by his intellect, the priest, and in his flesh the victim, like Christ on the Cross. Virginity is presented as a privileged link between heaven and earth; for God was able to unite Himself to humanity only through a "holy" body of a virgin woman without marital relations.




St. Mary among women is the first fruit of virginity as the Lord Jesus is among men.

Origen affirms St. Mary's perpetual virginity in his Homilies on Leviticus. In another place he says:

A certain tradition has come to us to this effect... Mary, after giving birth to the Savior, went in to adore and stood in that place for virgins (in the Temple). Those who knew that she had borne a son tried to keep her away, but Zachary said to them: She is worthy of the place of virgins, for she is still a virgin.

In Homily VII on Luke, preserved in a translation by St. Jerome and in several Greek fragments which correspond closely to the translation and cover more than half of it, Origen is incensed against a heretic who, probably on account of Matt. 12:46-50, maintained that Mary had been renounced by Jesus for having had children by Joseph after his birth. Where Origen simply says: "Some one dared to say' (etolmese tis eipein), Jerome translates: 'Some one, I know not who, let himself go to such a point of madness that he said: (In tantum quippe nescio quis prorupit insaniae, ut assveveret . . .) .

Origen represents St. Mary as the patroness of the virgins, or the Virgin of the virgins: "It would have been unbecoming to attribute to anyone other than Mary the title of 'The First of Virgins.'"



Origen as an Alexandrian explains virginity as a royal inner way, through it the believer’s soul examine the union with her Heavenly Groom, Jesus Christ

R. Crouzel says,

Virginity makes the union of Christ and the soul more possible. It is thus a witness both to the first and the last things because it evokes the perfect marriage of Christ and Church which was present in the pre-existence and will be again at the Resurrection. The Church, Bride and Virgin, holds her virginity from the chastity of her members leading a life either of virginity or of chastity according to the state in which they find themselves. So chastity appropriate to the state of marriage is an element in the virginity of the Church.



Virginity of the body is not desired for its sake, but as a way that leads the soul to practise the inner virginity, that is to devote herself as a pure bride to her Heavenly Groom. This is what Origen assures in his speech on virginity.

R. Crouzel in his book on "Origen" says,

Virginity of faith is more important than virginity of morals, which has no value if the doctrine is false.

Virginity of body only has meaning where there is virginity of heart: violation of the first is important when there is also violation of the second. Finally, Christian virginity is a voluntary decision: it must not be confused with the factual virginity of a woman who has not found a husband or a man incapable of marriage, unless that factual virginity has been freely undertaken from a religious motive. Christian virginity is a deliberate decision to preserve celibacy for the service of God.

Just as marriage involves a mutual giving of the spouses to one another, so virginity takes its place in the theme of mystical marriage because there is a mutual self-giving between God and His creature.




Perhaps some men can live in celibacy, as they refuse marriage for a reason or other. But inner virginity is a divine gift, and nobody can practice it without God’s help. R. Crouzel says,

Virginity is then a gift of God to the soul which must receive it in faith and prayer. But virginity is also a gift that the soul makes to God, the most perfect after martyrdom, a gift made in response to the first gift which comes from God. In the sacrifice of virginity the man is at once by his intellect the priest who immolates, and in his flesh the victim which is immolated: thus he imitates Christ on the Cross, at once priest and victim. A fragment of Origen's exegeses of the first Epistle to the Corinthians clearly distinguishes two kinds of commandments, the kind imposed on all and necessary to salvation, and the kind, including virginity and poverty, which go beyond what is imposed and necessary for salvation. Such was the celibacy lived by Paul out of devotion to the Church. If chastity appropriate to one's state of life is a commandment imposed on all, virginity goes beyond what is imposed on all.


We mentioned before that for Origen all Christian life is interpreted as a holy sacrifice, for it is a new life in the Crucified and Risen Christ. Virginity as a high Christian life is a true spiritual sacrifice, acceptable to God.

R. Crouzel says,

Virginity imposes a sacrifice, a mortification of the flesh which does not consist in refusing it what is needful, but not serving its evil desires. The measure and the manner of this mortification are not the same for all, for all do not have the same difficulties. Some are naturally chaste and have little difficulty in keeping themselves free of evil imaginations; with others this is not so, and they have to struggle constantly. The means vary, but in no way can one attain here below a chastity which would take away all danger of falling and make precautions unnecessary. The actions of the saint, even the best of them, are not exempt from stain. Closely linked with chastity are the keeping of the heart and the senses, consisting in the avoidance of dangerous thoughts and sensations, flight from occasions where that could happen, fasting with abstinence from certain kinds of food and drink considered particularly rousing, prayer in the Storm of temptation with the effort to keep calm and confident. However, temptation is normal for man in this lower world: it takes many forms and spares no age or state of life, the healthy no more than the sick. It is for the Christian yet another opportunity to offer to God his chastity.



Origen believes that Christian marriage and virginity are divine grace, granted to believers according to their gifts, and have the same spiritual aim.

R. Crouzel says,

With Jesus, all the virtues that are identified with Him grow in the soul. Unlike the married person, who is in a sense, the slave of his partner, for he has surrendered rights over his own body, the virigin is free, not with a freedom to give rein to selfishness, but with a freedom that finds its justification in a more complete service of God. We saw above that we must distinguish in Origen free-will, that is the power of choice, from freedom.

Thus it can be understood how the freedom of virginity undertaken for God's sake is identified with the service of God.