Sunday, April 26, 2009

Good, Gooder, Goodest

The Good Shepherd  
Eric Gill

I am the good shepherd.  
I know my own and my own know me, 
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. 
And I lay down my life for the sheep.
John 10:14-15 NRSV

We know love by this, 
that he laid down his life for us— 
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.  
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods 
and sees a brother or sister in need 
and yet refuses help?
1 John 3:16-17 NRSV

I am preaching this Sunday. It is to be my first since starting priestly formation. 

The above above the verses I am going to focus on. It strikes me there are three main points here:

The Good Shepherd
The Shepherd will sacrifice his life for his flock
His sheep know him and he knows them

The Good Shepherd.
Good is very non commital word. That was a good game of footie. You team may have won, but not convincingly. Mistakes were made, but enough was done to get a two point win. Or that was a good bbq. The sausies were a bit burnt, but the salads were fine. Maybe not everyone turned up. In our time of overstatement, the term good can almost seem to have a negative connotation. We know other words, like wonderful, excellent, amazing, fantastic. A term like good doesn't really cut it.

The thing here is that Jesus didn't really mean "good". The translators thought it was the best equivalence. The word in question means more than good. The good here is not just a moral rightness, but an attractive quality. The beautiful shepherd.  What we are really dealing with here is the beauty of holiness; the perfect shepherd as oppossed to an ordinary shepherd.

What is the difference between this perfect shepherd and a run of the mill guy who herds sheep?
I lay down my life for the sheep

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A slack homeboy at best

I am the good shepherd: 
the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep. 
John 10:11 RV

Today witnessed a guy getting punched in the head several times.

I was with my daughter and dog, outside a petrol station. A drunk couple were in the forecourt cuddling, and very happy. They had just left the pub over the road.

A car came up very quickly. A young guy got out, said something to the bloke  then started punching him. A young woamn gotm out of the car and was shouting at the young guy to get in the car, and how he was scaring their toddler in the backseat. He got in, and they raced off.

The couple came toward me. 

"Are you alright, mate" was the sum total of my involvement.

Walking home, I saw my reflection in a car window. I saw I was wearing my "Jesus is my homeboy" t-shirt. 

What kind of a Christian was I in that situation? I was advertising the faith, yet I stood there gaping like idiot.

"Are you alright, mate?"

I know I should have done more. Really should have been involved. Done something at least.

"Are you alright, mate?"

A real Christian response would be to put myself inbetween them and at least try to stop either of them hurting each other. But no. 

Now, neither of these people were part of my flock so to speak. And I don't think I needed to "lay my life down for them". But being on the sideline while visibly stating my faith is not good. It does nothing to help anyone. It just reconfirms the standard idea of Christianity. 

Today I was given a chance to put my faith where my mouth is, and I stood there gaping.

What would Jesus do, indeed.

Friday, April 24, 2009

An Exegesis of Genesis 28:12

 Illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733)

And he dreamed, 
and behold a ladder set up on the earth, 
and the top of it reached to heaven: 
and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 
Genesis 28:12 KJV

Here is the other essay I have been working on.

Jacob’s vision is the first dream narrative within the Old Testament. It is a passage that is conducive to mystical notions, and has been a constant source for mystical doctrines, both Jewish and Christian.  The subject matter and elusive language appeals to the mystic mind as much by reflecting personal experience as by inducing a particular state of mind. [1]


The vision is essentially a single image.[2] The two main features of the vision are the ladder and the ascending and descending angels. What the ladder, the angels, and their action, represent is vital to an understanding of the dream.


Genesis 28:12 is the only place where ladder (sullam) occurs within Old Testament.[3] The Hebrew word sullam  is often traditionally translated as ladder, but it may be better translated as a  ramp or staircase, generally made from stone.[4] It has also been described as being in the shape of a temple tower, or being like a Babylonian ziggurat,[5] which represent the Gateway to Heaven in Babalonian texts.[6] The stairway reflects an ancient belief in a cosmic bond between heaven and earth.[7] The “Stairway to Heaven” is still a potent image for late twentieth century culture, due mainly to the outrageously important song of the same name by Led Zeppelin.[8]


The Midrash has very little about the ladder itself, but a interesting concept is introduced in the apocryphal Ladder of Jacob. The vision is expanded, and we are given a description of the ladder, including the number of steps, something not mentioned in the original text.


It had twelve steps to the top of the ladder,

and on each step,

up to the top,

were two human forms,

one on the right and one on the left:

there were twenty four forms on the ladder,

visible as far as their breasts.

The Ladder of Jacob Chapter 1 (Rum. 453)[9]

 The ladder is then described to Jacob, and the meaning of the steps and figures explained:


the ladder is this age,

and the twelve steps are the times of this age;

but the twenty–four forms are the kings of the

heathen tribes of this age.

The Ladder of Jacob Chapter 4 (Rum. 453)[10]


The ladder itself is given a political interpretation; it has meaning for Jacob immediately. While no one would doubt that having a vision is a celestial experience the actual message is terrestrial. This is congruous with the overall vision, but seems somewhat limiting. to be interpreted as foretelling earthly events, prophecy.


For Philo the ladder in the dream seems to have been intended to communicate the ups and downs that lay in store for Jacob, which characterise human affairs in general[11]


Iranaeus explains the ladder as belonging to the “uniform teaching of the Church, which remains so always, and is consistent with itself”. This “correct doctrine” is:


…the [means of] communion with Christ 

has been distributed throughout it,

that is, the Holy Spirit,

the earnest of incorruption,

the means of confirming our faith,

Irenaeus  Against Heresies Book III, Chapter 24:,[12]


For John Chrysostom, the ladder was a symbol of a virtuous life, that by living in such a way, it would be possible to ascend to heaven:


For the ladder seems to me to signify in a riddle

by that vision the gradual ascent by means of virtue,

by which it is possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven,

not using material steps,

but improvement and correction of manners. [13]


While Jewish speculation regarded the ladder as way of describing history, or prophesying future earthly events, the Christian view of the  ladder is as a connection between heaven and earth. There are, however, different ways of approaching or climbing it. If this is the case, the ascending and descending angels must have a further, greater significance.


The term “ascending and descending” implies that the angels were already on earth. While “up and down” is the normal order in English and Hebrew and gravity, when angels are the subject, it becomes the wrong way round. Angels exist in heaven, which is usually associated with “up”, so “descend and ascend” would be the “correct” order of events. However, it is the obverse. This leads to the speculation that the angels were already on earth before the ladder appeared.[14]


The angels that accompanied him in the Holy Land do not go

outside of the Holy Land. They therefore ascended to Heaven.

Then the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to accompany him[15].


According to this interpretation, it is a simple changing of the guard.[16]

In the aforementioned apocryphal Ladder of Jacob, the angels are interpreted in a similar way to that of the figures on the steps.


Of the angels we understand: Those who were ascending are a figure of this…. the heathen who were baptised, and they ascended into heaven; but those who were descending-they are the disobedient, perverse ones.…In this then we see the heathen ascending and the Jews descending.

The Ladder of Jacob Chapter 1(Rum. 453)[17]


Here we see that baptism is a way to ascend the ladder to heaven. This is certainly a Christian interpolation, and does to a certain extent contradict the earlier opinion of the heathen kings.


There is another interpretation that involves an image of Jacob in heaven. The angels from earth ascend to tell the others that they have found the man who is engraved on the throne: 


the angels that had accompanied him from the house of his father ascended to bear good tidings to the angels on high, saying: Come and see the pious man whose image is engraved in the throne of Glory, whom you desired to see. And behold, the angels from before the Lord ascended and descended and observed him.[18]


This introduces the concept of man being heaven and on earth simultaneously. The angels are comparing the celestial appearance with his earthly one. The ascending and descending angels  symbolise connection between the two.[19]


Philo’s interpretation of the ladder is in agreement with this idea:


The ladder therefore in the world which is here spoken of in this symbolical manner, was something of this sort.

But if we carefully investigate the soul which exists in men,

the foundation of which is something corporeal, and as it were earth-like, we shall find that the foundation to be the outward sense; and the head to be something heavenly, as it were the most pure mind. [20]


Philo understands the symbolic nature of the ladder in terms of man’s soul. From the material to the pure, as man is on the earth, his soul is capable of reaching heaven.


The ladder is the concept of there actually being a connection between heaven and earth. The angels show us that this is an actuality that we can experience. It will be this point that Jesus will express Nathanael in John 1:51. Instead of mentioning the ladder, he will use the term “ascending and descending” (the only two times these words are used together in this order). Jesus will place Himself in the role of the ladder.


This is made clear in another interpolation within Jacob’s Vision of a Ladder


And as you saw angels ascending on the ladder-

That is in the last years there shall be a man from the Most High,

and he will join the higher things with the lower. [21]


Nowhere in Genesis 28:12 is it implied that Jacob is the ladder, instead the Jewish concept as shown in the Midrash, Talmud and Rabbinical literature is concerned with the holiness of the place more so than with Jacob. This is in keeping with the following verses of the pericope:


And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.

Genesis 28:17-18


A Christian view of the text with the knowledge of John 1:51 is going to be somewhat different. Jesus implies  he is the ladder, that angels will ascend and descend on the son of man, ie; himself. Souls will be able to ascend to heaven through Him. Where Jacob saw the idea of eternal communication between the terrestrial and celestial realms in a vision, Jesus is the ladder itself. He is to be the way of this eternal communication. The permanent religious significance of Genesis 28:12 is expressed with profound insight and truth in John 1:51.[22]


Houtman, C; “What did Jacob see in his dream at Bethel?” in Vestus Testamentum, Vol. XXVII, Fasc 3 pp. 337-351.

Kugel, James L.; The Ladder of Jacob (2006) Princeton University Press: New Jersey

Odeberg, Hugo; The Fourth Gospel (1968) Argonaut: New York

Plaut, W. G.; The Torah (1974) Union of Hebrew Congregations: New York.

Skinner, J.; Genesis (1969) T&T Clark: Edinburgh.

Sparks, H.F.D. (ed); The Apocryphal Old Testament (1984) Clarendon Press: Oxford

Westermann, Claus; Genesis 12-36 (1974) Augsburg Publish House: Minneapolis


Ancient Jewish Writings

Philo: De somniis (1.146)


Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis


Ancient Christian Writings


Iranaeus Against Heresies Book III, Chapter 4

Chrysostom,  John; The Homilies on the Gospel of St. John 

Irenaeus Against Heresies Book III, Chapter 4


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Historical and Theological significance of Origen


I have just handed in my first essay for my theology degree. I have to admit, I am a little upset by my finished work. The introduction is weak, the main body is a little bit haywire, and the conclusion intruduces new ideas.

Here it is, in all it's subdued splendour.

The Theological and Historical Significance of Origen

Origen is regarded as one of the greatest exegetes that Christendom has ever known.[1] He viewed exegesis not as an intellectual activity, but as a spiritual practice. It was within this practice that he had his greatest religious experiences.[2] The level he took this to has been named “spiritual exegesis”, and while he may not have been it’s originator, he certainly was it’s greatest theorist.[3]

Paramount for regarding Origen’s spiritual exegesis is the position in which he held the scriptures. The Bible was at the centre of all his thoughts and studies.[4] His whole system of doctrine is based on his views on holy scripture.[5] He also felt that the Bible is sole guide to higher truths.[6]

Spiritual exegesis is the art of discovering with a text an idea which the author has, but is not apparent in literal meaning. [7] It is the continual search for God through successive layers of truth[8] As man is tripartite having a body, a soul and a spirit, Scripture is the same, having corresponding levels: literal, moral and spiritual. [9] Not every passage can have threefold meaning. Sometimes a literal meaning is the correct understanding.[10]

If the text appears irrelevant, banal or unworthy of God places, this is because the reader has failed to find the spiritual level. If there is no spiritual sense apparent on the surface level, the literal level must be symbolic, and the spiritual level found underneath.[11] However, he also states that the portion of purely spiritual passages is few in comparison to those that are truly historical.[12]

In chapter 11 of On First Principles, Origen outlines his theory of three levels of meaning within scripture, and his biblical justification for doing so:[13]

Have I not written to thee three times

With counsels and knowledge?

To cause thee to know the certainty of sayings of truth,

To return sayings of truth to those sending thee.

Proverbs 22:20-21 YLT

In On First Principles, Origen informs us of the value of the literal level:

in order that all the more simple individuals may be edified,

so to speak; by the very body of Scripture;

for such we term that common and historical sense.[14]

What he means by “common and historical” is to us the literal interpretation. This is to be regarded as the first, basic stage. For looking beyond a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, Origen uses scripture to justify his claim:

and such trust we have through the Christ toward God,

not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything,

as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God,

who also made us sufficient to be

ministrants of a new covenant,

not of letter, but of spirit; for the letter doth kill,

and the spirit doth make alive.

2 Corinthians 3:4-6 YLT[15]

This level must be outgrown; to cling to the letter in interpretation is not only misguided, it is dangerous.[16] Narratives within the Old Testament are not literary true; as an example, Kings killed by Israelites are not real, but are symbols of vices.[17] As Dean Inge states: “if the Old Testament is taken literally, God was guilty of such actions which would disgrace a ferocious tyrant.”[18] Origen does not deny the truth of such history, but feels the events which only happened once can be of little importance.[19] By allegorising he is not neccessarily saying what happened is not historical, only that there is a more spiritual level to understand. [20]

Although he had a low opinion of a literal interpretation, Origen regarded teaching based on historical narrative as an invaluable way of teaching the masses.[21] Narrative, human deeds, and legislation could and often did, conceal a spiritual truth.[22] Rather, his complete objection to a literal interpretation was only for unimportant details.[23]

Tied in with this is Origen’s belief in the divine inspiration of scripture and the means it was written. [24] God is the source, Christ as the agent, and the Holy Spirit as the medium by means of which the message is finally delivered through the authors.[25]

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come,

he shall guide you into all the truth:

for he shall not speak from himself;

but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak:

and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come.

He shall glorify me: for he shall take of mine,

and shall declare it unto you.

All things whatsoever the Father hath are mine:

therefore said I, that he taketh of mine,

and shall declare it unto you.

John 16:13-15 RV

Origen did not think of the writers as “mechanical instruments” of the Holy Spirit, The authors would put the message in their own words, and organise the material.[26] It was this human element that Origen used to explain contradictions and grammatical errors, however, the substance itself would be devoid of error.[27] A literal meaning may contradict other parts of scripture.[28]

Regarding the next layer of interpretation, Origen states:

“if some have commenced to make considerable progress,

and are able to see something more (than that),

they may be edified by the very soul of Scripture.”[29]

This layer interpretation is for moral teaching. Moral signification of text is the use of it which bears a relation to the practical life of the soul in it’s relation to God. [30]

The third level, and most important to Origen is the Spiritual level:

Those, again, who are perfect, and who resemble those of whom the apostle says, "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, who will be brought to nought; but we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, which God hath decreed before the ages unto our glory;"--all such as these may be edified by the spiritual law itself (which has a shadow of good things to come), as if by the Spirit.[31]

For Origen, the scriptures are a mine of speculative truths. In many way the facts are important only in that they are vehicles for spiritual meaning. The story is subordinated by the ethical meaning, which in turn is subordinated by the spiritual level. This spiritual level encompasses the mysteries connected with church, its history, the soul and it’s journey to God.[32]

Such a spiritual exegesis of the Old Testament is justified by Jesus:

And he said unto them, These are my words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, how that all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their mind, that they might understand the scriptures; Luke 24:44-45 RV

There is also a theological justification of spiritual exegesis: the true revelation is Christ, not the text. The text is secondary.[33] Scripture is the incarnation of the Word into letter, like the incarnation of the flesh; not a different, or second incarnation, but the same one.[34] As Jesus is both entirely God and entirely man, the scriptures are both completely of divine origin, and completely man made.[35]

Where Origen’s idea of spiritual exegesis leads to is in fact a religious experience: In his experiences with interpretation, he discovered not only the spiritual meaning of the texts, but also the within the process of exegesis, the spiritual meaning.

He was aware of the intimate relationship between reading scripture and reading the self, in using the encounter with the text itelf as spiritual edification.[36]

The goal of spiritual exegesis is to realise scripture’s teaching through our own ascension to God, as Origen put it himself, “to gallop through the vast spaces of mystic and spiritual understanding”[37] The return to God begins with the “bread” of literal interpretation, but can only advance by the of “wine” of scripture, it’s spiritual meaning.[38]Origen viewed the totality of scripture’s meaning as the descent and ascent of the incarnate Word to rescue fallen souls.[39]

The relevance spiritual exegesis today cane best be seen as a challenge. The methods of literary criticism and spiritual exegesis are regarded as incompatible. This does not have to be the case. Literary criticism explains what original author meant within a certain passage, whereas spiritual exegesis as practiced by Origen, will explain the passage in terms of it’s place in the mystery of Christ. To explain the bible as one would a secular book is the first stage, and one that should not be neglected. The second stage is too seek it’s spiritual nourishment.[40] It is this level of understanding, and this experience, that Origen sought throughout his life.


Balthasar; Hans Urs von Origen. Spirit and Fire (1984) Catholic University Press of America Press: Washington D.C.

Berchman; Robert M. From Philo to Origen (1984) Scholars Press: Chico, California.

Caspary; Gerard E. Politics and Exegesis: Origen and the Two Swords (1979) University of California Press: Berkeley.

Henri Crouzel; Origen (1989) T&T Clark: Edinburgh.

Fairweather;Rev. W. Origen and Greek Patristic Theology (1901) T&T Clark: Edinburgh.

Faye; Eugene de Origen and his Work (1929) Columbia University Press: New York.

Hort; Fenton John Anthony Six Lectures on the Ante-Nicene Fathers (1895) MacMillan and Co: London

Inge; W. R. Mysticism in Religion (1969) Rider and Company: London

Inge; W. R. Christian Mysticism (1948) Methuen and Co: London

Lyons; J. A. The Cosmic Christ in Origen and Teilhard de Chardin (1982) OUP: Oxford.

McGinn; Bernard The Foundations of Mysticism (1991) Crossroad: New York.

Reid; Rev. H. M. B. The Holy Spirit and the Mystics (1925) Hodder and Stoghton: London

Trigg; Joseph Wilson Origen. The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (1983) John Knox Press: Atlanta.

Underhill; Evelyn The Mystic Way (1929) J. M. Dent and Son: London