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Project description

The ITN Project

The ITN has two major aims: To train ESRs and to investigate the philosophical and theological traditions behind the modern Western conception of humans as free, valuable, and dignified beings, and how these traditions developed chronologically and geographically. The network will focus on the reception and assimilation of the theological ideas expounded by the church father Origen from the 3rd century Alexandria. He argued, among other things, for human freedom, dignity, and capacity to master sin, but his views lost to those of Origen’s mighty opponent – Augustine of Hippo – whose conception of humans was based on the doctrine of original sin, and who emphasized a predetermined fate, no free will, and human servitude.

Origen was officially condemned in the 6th century, while Augustine was considered one of the greatest church fathers. Yet, Origen’s views and arguments continued to affect and inspire philosophers and theologians all the way up to the modern period, despite the continued struggles against them.

The ideal modern Western Europeans have the right to think, believe, and express themselves freely about political, religious, and other matters without fearing official retribution; they participate dynamically in policy-making processes and are not subject to other political authorities than those which he or she has chosen freely and democratically, nor to religious or moral norms that he or she has not freely accepted. This view on human beings is so fundamental for Westerners that they are willing to spread it by almost any means, even by means that may in themselves be contrary to this view on humans, e.g., war and power. Thus, the idea about human freedom and dignity is fundamental for the concept of human rights. These ideas and those of individual autonomy are also fundamental for the welfare state model on which most European countries build their societies. Thus, the insistence on human dignity and autonomy is the basic reason for an individual person’s right to be supported by the state in case of personal crises in order to be able to maintain a certain level of personal and social welfare. The long history and developments of this conception of humans have never undergone a comprehensive large-scale analysis.

However, such a project is highly relevant today since the modern Western conception of humans as free, valuable, and dignified beings is among the fundamental pillars of Western democracies and human rights today – and these pillars are under pressure, both from political and, especially, nationalist or fundamentalist religious movements that question the societal structures that build on the ideas about humans’ freedom and dignity, and by global crises and structures (like economy and environment) that limit the individual’s complete autonomy. These trends express a crisis of the modern Western European concept of human beings that can be fatal to its construction of society. A possible breakdown of this community structure is a prospect mourned by many and welcomed by others. In any circumstances, such a collapse will lead to radical changes for both the individual and for the society in Western Europe as a whole. This makes this network highly relevant: Only when we have a historically informed and comprehensive understanding of these fundamental values and their origins, development, and the fights they have already gone through, can we argue authoritatively for their continued existence and value against those who pose a threat to them.

It is generally assumed (however not unanimously agreed upon) that some of the most important roots and traditions of the ideas of human autonomy and dignity are to be found in Christianity, but its heritage is in fact far more complex. Christianity itself took over and transformed earlier ideas about these concepts from a Classical Greek philosophical environment, and a number of later traditions used and developed the concepts in a primarily philosophical milieu. By unlocking the patterns of reception, we can use them as a hermeneutical key to understand later, modern debates of human freedom, free will, and dignity.

The network will continuously circle around the battle between the two opposing negative and positive views on humanity which we can encounter throughout from antiquity to our modern society. It will trace the historical roots and transformations of this modern concept of the human being, especially in theological and philosophical traditions, and expound the function of the transcendent and philosophical dimension in relation to human dignity and freedom. Thereby, it will raise awareness of how ancient philosophical and religious tenets still shape political, moral, and anthropological categories and modes of thinking as well as principles of human conduct. Further, the network will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of various notions and concepts of human freedom and their consequences in concrete philosophical, legal, and ethical concepts and spheres. Finally, it will open up a narrowly conceived mode of theological thought by expounding alternative ways of conceptualizing human freedom and autonomy.

Thus, the network is both original and relevant. Its results will benefit a variety of different institutions in modern societies, who will gain a comprehensive knowledge of the arguments pro et contra a positive anthropology, and a practical tool box to counter the threats against their values and to endorse their application in practice. Moreover, it engages scholars and partners from different disciplines and involves innovative training aspects.

PhD Projects

In order to complete these overall goals, qualified research in a number of relevant themes will be conducted (please check the frontpage for available PhD positions in the ITN):


1. Origenian ideas in Augustine

The aim of this project is to distill which Origenian ideas of human freedom and related issues inspired Augustine (354-430), which of these he disagreed with, and in which of Augustine’s works such debates are found. The subproject will compare the terminology, philosophical and theological sources, as well as the whole philosophical and theological vision of freedom in both authors, and discuss the question of Augustine’s access to Origen’s works. It will also investigate to which extent and why Augustine eventually left Origen’s conceptions behind.

Main supervisor is Professor Lenka Karfíková, who can be contacted for further information via


2. Origen in the early medieval period

This project focuses on the early medieval period from Augustine to John Eriugena (810-877). It will explore how Origen’s ideas continued to have an impact in the aftermath of Augustine’s victorious writings, how his position fluctuated and developed in the centuries after his official condemnation in the 6th century, and how he, despite this, continued to inspire a number of early Western thinkers. The project will thus trace important milestones of Origen’s reception in the medieval period including thinkers such as Cassian, Fulgentius of Ruspe, Gregory the Great, Bede, Gottschalk, and Eriugena.

Main supervisor is Professor Dr. Karla Pollmann, who can be contacted for further information via

3. Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux

This research project focuses on the theological anthropology of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Bernard was firmly embedded in the Augustinian theological tradition, but Origen’s ideas also seem to have influenced Bernard’s views on human freedom, e.g., via his optimistic Christology and doctrine of justification. The project thus aims, first, to detect the influences of Origen on Bernard’s anthropology. Second, it will distill the impact of Bernard’s theology on later debates.

Main supervisor is Professor Dr. Karla Pollmann, who can be contacted for further information via

4. The debate on human freedom and dignity between Renaissance and Reformation

This study focuses on the works of early modern theologians and philosophers, most notably of Ficino and Pico as well as of their followers, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Hieronymus Emser, and other prominent scholars of the early 16th century. Combining elements of Hermetism, Cabalism and Natural Magic, these authors developed an innovative anthropological discourse, which clearly drew on and translated the works of Origen. The thesis of this subproject is that the radical Augustinian turn of Luther and his Wittenberg associates exemplified a contingent response to this stance of open receptivity to Origenism, Cabalism and Hermetism, which were founded on a more optimistic anthropology. It is important to interrogate the extent to which the conventional premise of the predominantly anti-scholastic leanings of Protestant reformers may be incorrect and thus in need of revision.

Main supervisor is Friedemann Stengel, who can be contacted for further information via

5. Origen’s ideas of human freedom and dignity in 17th century England

This project focuses on the so-called Cambridge Platonists and Latitudinarian Anglicans. The leading figures of this group were Cudworth, More, Whichcote, Smith, Rust, Glanvill, and Conway. At the core of their liberal philosophy was Origen’s notion of humans as beings endowed with absolute worth and incommensurable dignity, freely capable of moral self-determination and thus responsible for their own deeds and misdeeds. Based on this idea, they forged the first Anglican rational theology in the footsteps of Origenism and Platonism and thus turned out to be forerunners of the concept of human autonomy during the Enlightenment.

Main supervisor is Professor Alfons Fürst, who can be contacted for further information via

6. Origenian influence on the Dutch Arminianism

This research project will be a comprehensive study on the influence of the Origenian doctrines on the Dutch Arminianism. In particular, it will examine Le Clerc’s works, including the reviews and the articles of his encyclopedias, which allow us to shed light on Le Clerc’s Origenism and, at the same time, to clarify which role the Origenian doctrines of freedom and free will played in the opposition against the Calvinistic doctrines. Finally, the extent of his role in spreading the works of English Latitudinarians, to and over the continent will be analyzed.

Main supervisor is Elena Rapetti, who can be contacted for further information via

7. The debate on human freedom and dignity in the German strand of Radical Pietism

This research project seeks to explore the anthropological debates on human dignity and freedom in the vicinity of 1700 based on the scholarly networks that formed around Johanna Elenora (1644-1724) and her husband, Johann Wilhelm Petersen (1649-1727), who are generally described as Radical Pietists. The notion of apokatastasis, among others to have been borrowed from the theological teachings of Origen, had been introduced into these debates by the Petersens. Borrowing from the rationalist philosophy of Leibniz as well as from the Jewish and the Christian Cabala, at the same time, influenced by the theosophical currents as well as the early Pietism inaugurated by Philipp Jakob Spener in the Frankfurt environs, these debates provided an innovative counterpoint in the anthropological discourse of the prevailing confessional denominations.

Main supervisor is Friedemann Stengel, who can be contacted for further information via

8. Origen reception in Danish and German Pietistic devotional literature

This study explores the possible traces of Origen reception in Danish and German Pietistic devotional literature. The aim is to explore traces of influence from Origen’s thinking on human freedom and potential to develop the good in himself, in others, and in society. This will enable us to see whether there is a tension in Pietistic theology between the Lutheran rejection of human beings potential to do good and the Pietistic drive to contribute to religious, social, and educational enhancement. Moreover, in stark contrast to the learned treatises formulated by the Petersen couple, these writings were aimed at a more practical everyday use, e.g., to be read aloud during private devotions. Thus, it will shed light on the possible reception and use of Origen in a completely different milieu.

Main supervisor is Professor Anders-Christian Jacobsen, who can be contacted for further information via

9. Human freedom and dignity in late 18th-century debates on revelation, religion, and the human


In exploring the theological and philosophical controversies of the 1770s this project centers on the notions of reason and revelation, history and religion, as well as the anthropology of humankind. As invoked by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) and others, these controversies played a crucial role in the formulation of the enlightened concepts of human autonomy and free will, which became highly influential in articulating a modern understanding of humanity. With Lessing as its point of departure, the project focuses on these debates in the second half of 18th century and beyond in the transcultural impact of the German Enlightenment. 

Main supervisor is Daniel Cyranka, who can be contacted for further information via    

10. Origenism, Pietism, and Kant’s religious philosophy

The aim of this subproject is to investigate the possible interconnections between Origenism, Pietism, and Kant’s religious philosophy. Kant’s main anthropological ideas as expressed within the metaphysical framework of his transcendental philosophy and in his Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft (1793) are in some traces surprisingly similar to those of Origen, but he never mentions him, and he has not read him. The aim of the project therefore is to study similarities as well as tensions and even contradictions between the idea of human freedom and dignity within the tradition of Origenism and Pietism on the one hand and within Kant’s religious philosophy of autonomy und human dignity on the other.

Main supervisor is Professor Alfons Fürst, who can be contacted for further information via


11. The reception of Origenian ideas in modern Catholic theology

This research project investigates the reception of Origenian ideas in modern Catholic theology with a focus on the works of Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, Teilhard de Chardin, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Karl Rahner. They employed Origenian ideas to create a theological anthropology compatible with the modern values of human freedom and dignity, conceiving for example – against Augustinian views – humans as essentially free, and punishment in hell as pangs of conscience nourished by the misdeeds and sins of each individual.

Main supervisor is Professor Alfons Fürst, who can be contacted for further information via

12. Origen and the modern Protestant tradition

This project will focus on how, where, and to which degree the modern Protestant tradition has been inspired by Origen to argue for individual freedom and value by rejecting pre-determinism. The most important theologians to be investigated in this respect are Karl Barth, Eberhard Jüngel, and Jürgen Moltmann, but a number of other Protestants have followed in their footsteps. The project will also engage with the question whether the modern protestant embrace of the idea of universal salvation and the rejection of pre-determinism necessarily led to ideas of individual freedom, or if they were rather understood as a loss of freedom.

Main supervisor is Professor Anders-Christian Jacobsen, who can be contacted for further information via

13. The values of individual freedom and dignity in contemporary religious movements

The project will focus on three cases: A and B) Two Muslim groups in Aarhus – a radical and a group of young graduates – whose views on predestination (qadar), the idea of Allah as omnipotent and omniscient (and its relation to the idea of his unity, Tawhid), and the importance of the idea of judgement day will be investigated and put in relation to the groups’ discourses and views on human freedom and dignity; C) A conservative Lutheran Christian community in Aarhus arguing for a concrete understanding of the Lutheran theology including the ideas about inherited sin, predestination, and unfree will. The project will use classical sociological theory and methods and be based mainly on qualitative interviews.

Main supervisor is Professor Lene Kühle, who can be contacted for further information via

14. The values of individual freedom and dignity in modern organizations

This research project will examine to which degree the values of individual freedom and dignity play a role for decision-making authorities in modern organizations. These values are sometimes implicit, and the project will therefore also focus on how they can be explicitly articulated. Moreover, the project will investigate the importance of free will for the creation of a feeling of personal worth in the workplace. It will be conducted in cooperation with a non-academic beneficiary, Etikos – a consultancy firm experienced in advising public and private organizations in human resource questions involving ethical issues.

Main supervisor is Professor Anders-Christian Jacobsen, who can be contacted for further information via

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Revised 02.11.2016