The Significance of the Literal Meaning of Scripture: An Example from Origen

One thing that surprises me in Anglican circles is the growing trend to insist on a literal interpretation of the Scriptures.  In the old days Anglicans/Episcopalians used to believe that such hermeneutics was for “them”, a term loaded with educational, ecclesiastical and socio-economic overtones.  After a half century of revisionism, however, a correction is understandable.

One justification for that correction is an appeal to the Fathers of the Church.  They interpreted things such as the six days literally, shouldn’t we?  Isn’t a return to Patristic Christianity in some form one of the goals of Anglicanism?  Anyone who is familiar with Patristic Biblical interpretation, however, knows that the Fathers were the masters of the sensus plenior, the “fuller sense” of the scriptures, which delved very deeply into typology and allegory.  This type of interpretation was the rule throughout the Middle Ages; the Reformers began the first steps away from it.

This monograph will look at an example of this, from Origen’s Commentary on John.  I have picked this for the following reasons:

  • The Commentary on John is, to our knowledge, the first explicit and Christian commentary on a book of the Bible.  It’s true that Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem does the verse-by-verse thing, but the commentary is secondary; refuting Marcion was the first goal.  Although Origen wrote this in part to counter the Gnostic Heracleon, his principal aim is to explain the meaning of the gospel on what we would call an expository basis.
  • Origen was Christianity’s first comprehensive Biblical scholar.  One Roman Catholic scholar told me that Christians were not, per se, people of the Book.  Before Marcion that was certainly the case; his heresy goaded Christianity to canonize the books it considered sacred other than those of the Old Testament (and here there was variance with the Jews, Origen and Jerome notwithstanding).  Before that the apostolic tradition sufficed with help from books, most of which were canonical but some of which were not.  Origen for his part, without always saying so, made the Bible the core of our understanding of the faith; it was his greatest legacy.
  • Origen systematized the allegorizing and more-than-literal meaning of the Scripture, and held it as the most important meaning of the text.  That prioritization, with variances, held for many centuries afterwards.  Augustine, for example, would justify this by recourse to the following: “Our fitness comes from God, who himself made us fit to be ministers of a New Covenant, of which the substance is, not a written Law, but a Spirit. For the written Law means Death, but the Spirit gives Life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6) So it makes sense to start at “the beginning” so to speak.

The specific part of the Commentary that deals with this is the first part of Book X, specifically the first five sections.  In this he is covering John 2:12-25, although following his usual method Origen is wont to get off the subject.  Origen is as alive to the stakes as anyone could be:

The truth of these matters must lie in that which is seen by the mind. If the discrepancy between the Gospels is not solved, we must give up our trust in the Gospels, as being true and written by a divine spirit, or as records worthy of credence, for both these characters are held to belong to these works… There are many other points on which the careful student of the Gospels will find that their narratives do not agree; and these we shall place before the reader, according to our power, as they occur. The student, staggered at the consideration of these things, will either renounce the attempt to find all the Gospels true, and not venturing to conclude that all our information about our Lord is untrustworthy, will choose at random one of them to be his guide; or he will accept the four, and will consider that their truth is not to be sought for in the outward and material letter. (Commentary in John, X, 2)

Origen’s immediate problem concerns the time of the Baptism of the Lord.  In addition to dealing with what is now called the “Synoptic Problem” (the Synoptic Gospels being Matthew, Mark and Luke) Origen has to wrestle with how these square with John’s Gospel.  He states the problem as follows:

Those who accept the four Gospels, and who do not consider that their apparent discrepancy is to be solved anagogically by mystical interpretation, will have to clear up the difficulty, raised above, about the forty days of the temptation, a period for which no room can be found in any way in John’s narrative; and they will also have to tell us when it was that the Lord came to Capernaum. If it was after the six days of the period of His baptism, the sixth being that of the marriage at Cana of Galilee, then it is clear that the temptation never took place, and that He never was at Nazareth, and that John was not yet delivered up. Now, after Capernaum, where He abode not many days, the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and He went up to Jerusalem, where He cast the sheep and oxen out of the temple, and poured out the small change of the bankers. (Commentary in John, X, 2)

Part of Origen’s problem is that his idea of the “literal” interpretation of the Scripture is too narrow.  In this case, a simple solution is to recognize the nature of John’s narrative as opposed to that of the Synoptics.  The Synoptics directly relate the account of his Baptism followed by the Temptation in the wilderness.  But John’s narrative (specifically 1:29-34) does not directly relate the Baptism of Jesus, but both events surrounding it and John the Baptist’s narrative of those events.  As is often the case with John’s Gospel, it presupposes the Synoptic account.

In any case this is not the way Origen deals with this or other similar problems.  He proceeds as follows:

We must, however, try to obtain some notion of the intention of the Evangelists in such matters, and we direct ourselves to this. Suppose there are several men who, by the spirit, see God, and know His words addressed to His saints, and His presence which He vouchsafes to them, appearing to them at chosen times for their advancement. There are several such men, and they are in different places, and the benefits they receive from above vary in shape and character. And let these men report, each of them separately, what he sees in spirit about God and His words, and His appearances to His saints, so that one of them speaks of God’s appearances and words and acts to one righteous man in such a place, and another about other oracles and great works of the Lord, and a third of something else than what the former two have dealt with. And let there be a fourth, doing with regard to some particular matter something of the same kind as these three…He, then, who takes the writings of these men for history, or for a representation of real things by a historical image, and who supposes God to be within certain limits in space, and to be unable to present to several persons in different places several visions of Himself at the same time, or to be making several speeches at the same moment, he will deem it impossible that our four writers are all speaking truth. To him it is impossible that God, who is in certain limits in space, could at the same set time be saying one thing to one man and another to another, and that He should be doing a thing and the opposite thing as well, and, to put it bluntly, that He should be both sitting and standing, should one of the writers represent Him as standing at the time, and making a certain speech in such a place to such a man, while a second writer speaks of Him as sitting. (Commentary in John, X, 3)

Within the limitations of Origen’s complex prose, this is a pretty straightforward statement of the problem.  His solution to this was quickly forthcoming:

In the case I have supposed where the historians desire to teach us by an image what they have seen in their mind, their meaning would be found, if the four were wise, to exhibit no disagreement; and we must understand that with the four Evangelists it is not otherwise. They made full use for their purpose of things done by Jesus in the exercise of His wonderful and extraordinary power; they use in the same way His sayings, and in some places they tack on to their writing, with language apparently implying things of sense, things made manifest to them in a purely intellectual way. I do not condemn them if they even sometimes dealt freely with things which to the eye of history happened differently, and changed them so as to subserve the mystical aims they had in view; so as to speak of a thing which happened in a certain place, as if it had happened in another, or of what took place at a certain time, as if it had taken place at another time, and to introduce into what was spoken in a certain way some changes of their own. They proposed to speak the truth where it was possible both materially and spiritually, and where this was not possible it was their intention to prefer the spiritual to the material. The spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in the material falsehood. (Commentary in John, X, 4)

Origen follows this up with examples of literal difficulties that are simpler to solve than the one he started with.  But this doesn’t change two important facts.

The first is that he was never explicitly condemned by the Church for statements like this.  Origen was pilloried and his works destroyed for many things: his belief in the pre-existence and transmigration of souls (he later refuted the latter), his deep subordinationism of the Son, his universalism which extended to the Devil and so on, but not this.  His interpretive method was taken up by many who came after him, including Jerome, who cribbed Origen before and after he had turned on Origen.

The second is that he was credible to his own contemporaries, pagan and Christian alike.  To use an Evangelical phrase, Origen was engaged with the culture that surrounded him, in a way which was more meaningful than a lot of what we see today.  His longest extant and complete work was his refutation of the pagan Celsus, an apologetic classic.  He was a spiritual advisor to the mother of the Emperor.  And he won over his “bankroll” Ambrose from Gnosticism.  He did all of this in an era when Christianity was still not a legal religion.  He himself died from the results of his torture under the Emperor Decius, who instigated the first systematic persecution of Christianity.

Given the aversion of Evangelical and “scientific” atheist alike to this view of Scripture, we should ask why this appealed at the time.  The answer lies in the difference between the way life was looked at then and the way we look at it now.

Origen’s time was suffused with Platonic and Neoplatonic thought.  At the heart of this was the basic view that the material world around us was a combination of illusory and inferior.  The best reality of the universe was spiritual.  The thought that material falsehoods would point us to spiritual realities was not as shocking to them as it is to us.  When we generally think of Plato, we think of classical Athens and philosophy, but by Origen’s day (and earlier, with the likes of Philo) Hellenic philosophy had been transformed by most into Hellenistic spirituality, with a strong influence from the Hindu and Buddhist East.

Such an escapist view of life was underscored by the nature of the life they were trying to escape.  First Greece and then Rome had ground down the civilizations and peoples they conquered, subordinating their entire way of life and language to the one the Greeks and Romans were imposing on them.  The Jews were the most vociferous—and, in spite of the tragedies of their revolts, the most successful—in holding things together for themselves, which is one reason why they booted Jesus’ followers from the synagogue.  Origen’s Egypt was a good example of this.  Once a cradle of civilization, by Origen’s time it was a run-down granary for the Roman Empire.  Alexandria, its first city and Origen’s home town, was in Egypt but not of it, populated largely by non-Egyptians (Origen’s father was Greek, but his mother was most likely an Egyptian).

The impulse to bail out on this world was accelerated by the severe difficulties the Roman Empire experienced after the death of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180.  Without a really clear system of succession, Rome had managed to get through the first two centuries after Augustus quite well, but after that the power challengers came out of the woodwork and the Empire became a battlefield for competing armies and emperors.  Under these conditions civilization broke down, taxes went up and the government became more rapacious than it was before.  Without real means to redress grievances, the people were forced to suffer passively under this system, and under these conditions the spiritual beyond looked awfully good.

It’s tempting to say that we are far advanced from this sad state and the necessity of being so escapist.  In a society with as high of an incarceration rate as ours, a regulatory maze that drags the economy down ever so progressively, and a political system as dysfunctional as we have, we should be mindful that things can change very rapidly.  It may not be very fashionable these days to focus on the afterlife—even for Evangelicals—but we should not be so contemptuous of those who have gone before us if the technological civilization we have is largely used to keep us in line and not liberate us.

In some ways, like Origen, we’ve gotten off of the subject.  Origen’s allegorising and spiritual method of interpretation became the norm in the Church for many years, variations notwithstanding.  The literal meaning of the Bible—irrespective of whether the definition of literal was too narrow or not—took a back seat to the spiritualising lessons that nurtured Christians for more than a millennium.  To ask whether the Fathers took the Scriptures literally really isn’t the key question.  The key question is whether they thought it was important, and the evidence we have demonstrates that it was not.

Therefore, as I said, we do not lose heart. No, even though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. The light burden of our momentary trouble is preparing for us, in measure transcending thought, a weight of imperishable glory; We, all the while, gazing not on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is transient, but what is unseen is imperishable. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

3 thoughts on “The Significance of the Literal Meaning of Scripture: An Example from Origen”

  1. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, while well acquainted with the Patristic writers, preferred to defend his views from Scripture. Bishop John Jewel in his handling of the Patristic writers followed these guidelines:

    1. He cited only an opinion of the Patristic writers on a matter where several Patristic writers were in agreement. He never cited the isolated opinion of a single Patristic writer.

    2. He then cited their opinion if he himself from his own reading and study of Scripture was convinced that their opinion was agreeable to Scripture. It could be clearly read out of Scripture and was consistent with the plain and natural sense of the text.

    3. He never cited what a later Patristic writer’s opinion of what an earlier Patristic writer believed, only what that earlier Patristic writer himself had written.

    4. He recognized the views of the Patristic writers for what they are–opinions. He did not credit them with an special inspiration, as did the Roman Catholics and subsequently the Anglo-Catholics..

    5. He gave greater weight to the opinions of the earlier Patristic writers than to the latter ones, particularly to those who wrote in the first three to five centuries of Christianity.

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