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