Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Hermeneutic of Origen

    The early church in the generations following Pentecost struggled with several issues.[1] Interpreting the Scriptures correctly was among them. Klein mentions, in fact, that “the most popular interpretive approach among the fathers [of ca. A.D. 100-150]…was that of allegory."[2] This approach of spiritualizing, obviously, will gain varying results when interpreting the Scriptures. Such a hermeneutic will not only differ from a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, but will also differ from other allegorical hermeneutics. It is contended that church fathers Augustine and Origen both incorporated the allegorical method in their primary hermeneutic. Origen shall be examined first. 
            Origen lived from 185-254.[3] In Alexandria, where Origen taught, there was a prevailing culture that dictated a singular idea was behind each text.[4] This main theological idea was to be utilized as the key to the hermeneutic. This meant that an interpreter would approach each and every text attempting to find the central theme of the portion of text. This theme would then be used as an interpretive grid whereby the interpreter could discover the underlying meaning.
            The centralized idea would need to be fused with a method to extract the precise meaning of the text. Klein observes that “at Alexandria that prevailing idea was the person of Christ, and among the reading strategies available from the fathers it adopted that of allegory."[5] This method of exegesis was especially applied to the Old Testament, since the goal was to discover the typology inherent in each text that displayed Jesus Christ.[6]
            Alexandria already had a rich Christian tradition when Origen came on the scene. Ferguson points out several features of the city’s legacy, including having the largest Jewish population, being the home of the Septuagint, and home to Philo the Jewish philosopher.[7] The latter was a major influence on the thought of Origen and the Alexandrian theologians who followed him. Philo “attempted the harmonization of revelation and philosophy.”[8]
            This harmonization would have been inherently more subjective than the grammatical-historical method because of the use of philosophical methodology to reveal the meaning behind the text. In short, it seemed to be a forerunner of the allegorical method (which method [though not necessarily meaning] would be subjective to the interpreter).
            In addition to Philo influencing the philosophical attitude of the city of Alexandria, Clement was a teacher who directly preceded Origen there. Clement actually perceived a two-fold meaning of Scripture: a literal meaning (analogous to a human body) and a spiritual meaning (analogous to the soul).[9] This derivation came easily from Philo’s ideas since the inclusion of philosophical speculation and/or inquiry into the text naturally results in a twofold meaning of Scripture.[10] It is surely worth noting that it is unclear as to whether or not Philo truly influenced Clement in any direct way.[11]
            Clement took the idea of the major theological meaning and applied it to various Old Testament passages and even to the parable of the prodigal son.[12] Alexandria became somewhat of a school of thought, where to identify with the city theologically was to identify with its hermeneutic, and love of philosophy.
            Clement’s conversion itself was by a teacher who presented the Gospel and the teachings of Christianity in a “philosophically acceptable manner,” as Ferguson puts it.[13] This conversion would be pivotal for the continuation of the philosophical theory set forth in Alexandria for Clement’s and Origen’s hermeneutic. In fact, Clement defended such a hermeneutic using a philosophical appeal to other cultures, including the (near) culture of Egypt. “Whence also the Egyptians did not entrust the mysteries they possessed to all and sundry, and did not divulge the knowledge of divine things to the profane; but only to those destined to ascend the throne, and those of the priests that were judged the worthiest, from their nurture, culture, and birth.”[14]
            It was in this cultural backdrop that Origen was born. His father was taken to prison and ultimately martyred while Origen was still at home.[15] As the successor to both Philo and Clement of Alexandria in thought, Origen left a large collection of ancient writings, many of which contain allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures.
            Origen’s view had developed even further than either Clement or Philo before him. While Philo’s view involved philosophical inquiry and Clement’s involved a twofold meaning of Scripture, Origen invoked a threefold meaning or sense: literal (body), spiritual (soul), and moral/ethical (spirit).[16] It seems that for Origen, the allegorical meaning was not simply a spiritual meaning, but involved purpose as well. This purpose was what constituted the moral or ethical meaning behind a text; it instructed the believer as to what he ought to do.
            Because of this a natural move in reasoning would be to declare that the Bible’s literal sense may be important but the text’s allegorical and moral/ethical meanings were supreme. Origen embraced this move of logic.[17] It only follows that Origen gave examples of interpreting in such a way.
            He found ways of interpreting the Lord’s Prayer in a somewhat allegorical fashion, for example. In allegorical interpretation, several parts or phrases within the text may stand as assigned to a deeper meaning (often one aspect of the overall theological idea). For Origen, the part of the prayer which asks God’s name to be hallowed “may represent either that the object of prayer has not yet come to pass, or after its attainment, that it is not permanent in which case the request is for its retention.”[18] In whatever the case may be with respect to this passage, it is evidence he was looking for that which the text stands; he was looking for its deeper, more spiritual, meaning.
            Another case is found in Origen’s interpreting of the story of Lot and his daughters (found in Genesis -38). He believed each detail, including the geographical considerations of the position of Sodom relative to the mountain where the sexual sin occurred, had special meaning and significance.[19] In fact, it is said he believed “the passage has a literal sense (what actually happened), but its moral meaning is that Lot represents the rational human mind, his wife the flesh inclined to pleasures, and the daughters vainglory and pride.”[20] The moral meaning would clearly take precedence over the literal meaning in his interpretive framework. The reason is that there is seemingly nothing to be gained by interpreting the text in a literal fashion. The reason for the inclusion of the text was then left to the interpreter. In this case, the interpreter found details seemingly mirroring moral or ethical principles taught in other parts of Scripture.
            Another example concerns the speculative view that humans fell in a preexistent state. This view is evidently gleaned from a speculative view of Genesis 1.[21] Philo’s distant influence in the realm of philosophical inquiry is easily seen here. Speculating on the proclivity to sin displayed by Adam and Eve (and subsequently every member of the human race) resulted in the view that each human had actually sinned in a prior life, and thus coming to earth is in some form punishment, and in another a means of ultimate redemption.
            A final example comes also from Origen’s interpretation of the Creation in Genesis 1. He views the entire creation event as an allegory for varying points of the Christian life, theology, and ethical conduct. In particular, when the text speaks of “darkness” being “on the face of the abyss [deep],” he interprets this to be the “place…where ‘the devil and his angels’ will be.”[22]
            Against the idea that Origen was reading into the text whatever he pleased, he argued, according to Klein, “that God had inspired the original biblical writer to incorporate the allegorical meaning into his writing.”[23] This would mean the text was indeed objective, despite being allegorically interpreted. It would mean that God intended to convey particular lessons throughout the text that formed an underlying meaning.

                [1] The New Testament contains a record of several of these troubles including such topics as gender roles in the home, the taking of the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline (c.f. Eph. 5:21-28, 1 Cor. 11:20-34, 1 Tim. 1:20).

                [2] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, & Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993), 36.

                [3] C.C. Kroeger, Walter A. Elwell, ed.,  “Origen,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 870.

                [4] Klein, 37.

                [5] Ibid, 38.

                [6] Ibid, 37.

                [7] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 129.

                [8] Ibid.

                [9] Klein, 38.

                [10] This is especially true, for any serious student of Scripture would perceive a sure literal meaning for many didactic passages. This, however unavoidable, was able to be used foundationally as a springboard for a deeper meaning.

                [11] A. Berry, Donald K. McKim, ed., “Clement of Alexandria,” Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 311.

                [12] Klein, 38.

                [13] Ferguson, 130.

                [14] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book V, Chapter VII. ( This was said in support of the fact that a spiritual text would have a surface truth which was literal, but a deeper truth which had to be gleaned allegorically.

                [15] Ferguson, 132.
                [16] Klein, 39.

                [17] Kroeger, 870.

                [18] Origen, On Prayer, Chapter XIV. (
                [19] “Genesis Homily V,” Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, The Fathers of the Church Vol. 71. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 113.

                [20] Klein, 39.

                [21] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 607.

                [22] “Genesis Homily I,” Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, 47-48.
                [23] Klein, 39.

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