VIRGINIA UNION UNIVERSITY
SUBMITTED TO PROFESSOR TODD GRAY
SAMUEL D. PROCTOR SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY
BY RICHARD D. MEADOWS, JR.
NTH SPRING 2005
I. THE LIFE OF ORIGEN
Origen the First Systematic Theologian
II. ORIGEN’S EXEGESIS
A Closer Look at Allegory
How Origen Exegetes the Text
Origen’s Theological Structure of Exegesis
I. The Life of Origen
In a number of books, publications, and articles used to support the research of this paper on this early African church father, the one theme, his commitment and sacrifice to study of the bible and Christian faith consistently repeats itself. Many writers and authors clearly stated the account of Origen’s life. This paper will examine how certain events in his life’s story impacted his commitment and sacrifice in the early African church. Along with the life of Origen I will also reflect upon his method of exegeting scripture.
Origen was a voluminous writer and was credited with writing the first biblical commentaries. A contemporary of Origen by the name of Jerome once said of Origen, “He delivered in church more than a thousand sermons…. Which of us can read all he has written?” 1 We will try to provide some insight into the impact of his ideas on Christianity in the period in which he lived.
Origen was born in Alexandria around A.D. 185, the son of Leonides; a Greek convert to Christianity, while his mother may have been an Egyptian-Jewess. It was during the persecution of the Christian church under the Emperor Septimius Severus that Leonides was martyred. Origen too sought to be martyred with his father but failed in his attempt when his mother hid all of his clothes to keep him from going out of the house.
Origen The First Systematic Theologian
Origen was considered a philosopher and theologian and stood out in his efforts to learn and understand scripture. His sacrifice and commitment to interpret and understand the bible was no small matter. For a twenty-year period he labored at the Hexapla. Named such because of the format he used, six columned document, the first of its kind a commentary recording the bible in six different columns, expounding on nearly every book. The first column was the (LXX) Hebrew text of the Old Testament; the second was in Greek, and in the remaining four columns were versions of some earlier writers some in Greek. Origen was the first to use symbols in the creating of commentaries to show omissions and other uses. A friend of Origen’s, Ambrose supplied to him seven scribes and an unknown number of copyists to complete this task.
Origen understood that if one was to study and learn the bible that he must first learn Hebrew. Origen, believed to be ahead of his time, was not only recognized for his translating the scriptures but it was legendary and believed that he could recite the bible from memory.
Origen was the first to notice the difference in literary styles of the bible pointing out that the book of Hebrews was not rude in speech like the apostles, but appealed to Greeks because of style and articulation of classical and similar writings. His loyalty was to the acriptures and he believed them to be the “inspired word of God”. At the same point Origen took the scriptures not only allegorically but literally. He had female students as well as male students and believed in the importance of being a eunuch in the literal sense so he castrated himself to avoid intimacy with the opposite gender. It is said that he later regretted his actions.
Ideally, Origen considered the Christian community, as a group of people following reason, being able to disassociate themselves from material things and to live in agreement with God’s laws. In reality, however, the Christian community was quite different than Origen idealized it to be. It was not the virtuous community of saints he thought it was, therefore a tolerance marks the religious philosophy and writings of Origen. Origen viewed the scriptures as the sole guaranteed source of ultimate truth and he shared Clement of Alexandria’s opinion that human systems of thought might be relatively true.
II. Origen’s Exegesis
Origen’s allegorical commentaries and writings on the early text were criticized as novel, absurd, arbitrary, fanciful by contemporary theologians.3 Even Martin Luther who criticized Origen was noted for a single sense dimension of exegesis composed of grammatical, historical, theological views, accessible through the natural meaning of words. Comments by Luther of Origen lay the foundation and basis for the focal point of contemporary objections of Origens’ exegesis and allegorical interpretations.9 Origen’s method was regarded as a technique or instrument of interpretation of scripture, but as a scientific method it was said to fail to conform to canons of method found in the scientific method, notably objectivity, consistency and repeatability. During the time of Luther, the worlds own scientific revolution that many of the contemporary critiques come from affected the criteria by which Biblical exegesis is understood. The biggest objection of allegory, which was not limited to the writers of Origen’s time, is said to have removed the historical (nature) aspect or sense of exegesis. Richard Simon in Histore Critique Principaux commentaries du Nouveau Testament4 states that the spiritual sense of interpretation, which was used by Origen destroys the factual meaning and historical value of the text. That is what Luther also alluded to as the violation of the Historical Nature of scripture.
By the 20th century allegory was being recognized as an “utterly” scientific method of interpreting scripture.5 In the examination of earlier Hellenistic interpretations which had a profound effect on the allegorical (spiritual) interpretations of Origen we found that Philosophy was substituted for theological interpretation, outside of the Christian traditions. Philosophy had a radical exposition of influence on the originations of Christian Philosophy. This was found only after a major exam of early exegetical traditions and discovered that scientific method functions as a tool. The following can be said of scientific method:
It justifies and guarantees the results of science.
Establishes a basis of truth
What is true can be proved true by something other than itself.
It was found in examination that in the Hellenistic world this relationship of truth to method did not exist.6 It is determined that contemporary discussions are still determined by science and presuppositions, but in defense of Origen’s method of spiritual interpretation it has been shown that:
He is faithful to historical element of the Christian faith.
His writings are fundamentally Christian, Gnostic, Philonic and Jewish forms of thought and traditions transformed by settings used by him.
Strange as it may sound Origen defends orthodoxy in his Commentaries on John and Genesis, but contributed to Gnostic systems. i.e. Valentenians who quote Origen on Jesus being a life bringing divine emissary from heaven rather than a earthy Rabbi of the synoptic gospels, even though Origen was commissioned by Ambrose to provide orthodox alternatives to Valentines’ (an African Catholic Bishop) disciple Heracleon.7 Gnostics may have had influenced Origen by his usage of Gnostic phrases such as in his commentary on the Song of Solomon when he described “the imagery of the soul as the bride of Christ” and the phrase “to admit greatness” from the commentary on John, both of which look Valentinian.
A Closer Look at Allegory
Allegory was a device of the writers of the third century and is amplified in the works of Origen. Many of the Christian minded writers who relied on a Greek version of the Old Testament had a penchant to use Hellenistic allegory. Allegory was treated was hostility from within and without the Christian Church. Origen describes the hostility as “You could see the same state of belief even today, in many people who are impressed by Jesus Christ when they read the narrative of what he did (Commentary on John) but cease to believe when the deeper meaning is unfolded to them, one greater (Jesus) than their capacity to understand, and suspect that it is untrue.” Origen feared being misunderstood by crasser hearers because of his suggestion of spiritual interpretation, not so much by Jews or Gnostics but by Christians.8 They (the writers who used allegory) were described as superfluous inquirers, quibblers who would search words to evade meanings of passages of text. Origen was said to be fond of subordinating human history to heavenly history in some of his interpretations. When compared with Luther’s historical sense, it is said by Karen Jo Torjensen that the power of the word to educate and correct is transferred by Luther from the allegorical sense of Scripture to its grammatical sense9.
How Origen Exegetes the Text
Scripture is divided into three interpretative senses. Origen believed that just as man is body, soul and spirit scripture yields three meanings literal, moral and intellectual. Once a Christian has reached the level of intellectual or spiritual they would have also obtained the level of perfection. This three-fold scheme is said to also remove the reader further from the original meaning of the text, however Origen insisted on the literal sense be retained as allegorical, because the literal attracts people to study the bible and they will eventually venture into the intellectual sense. He referred to those Christians as graduated Christians8. The following page is an illustration of the three fold-scheme of the senses and two levels of allegory. The examples of the two blind beggars, Lot, his wife and two daughters and the woman of Samaria are showing that interpretation can be superficial and profound. The drink from the well is edifying either way you look at it, but the well itself is being complicated and less obvious an allegory.
Origen had a way to rationalize what he did not recognize as ordinary metaphors. i.e. Jesus said “I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34) meant Christ severs the injurious union of body and soul.
Feet-counsel by which we tread the journey of life
Well-teaching of the word
Origen’s Theological Structure of Exegesis
Origen viewed the holy texts as written documents that history did indeed stand behind. The grammatical, historical-spiritual process begins to design the spiritual sense and it is the literal sense that demands spiritual interpretation. K. Torjeson uncovers that origin does make very good use of the grammatical sense, since many of his word studies were quite exhaustive. The words were used mainly in the same context in every area of the scripture no matter how unrelated the themes.
Origen uses the same grammatical sense that Luther said he did not but that allegory robed the scripture of the ability to educate and transform. She shows where the exegesis is divided into four steps:
Logos teaching through Historical Reality
How it can be applied to the reader
The grammatical sense is the foundation of the interpretation, which moves from the grammatical to the historical reality to which the grammatical from refers. It is the filled out, coherent and intelligible description of the historical reality. The coherent and intelligible is the Holy Spirit’s intent in the literal sense as Origen would try to lay the foundation to understand his interpretations. This makes up Origen’s literal sense. The literal sense is counterpoised to the spiritual sense and that the Christian reader is gradually moving to perfection. Once spiritual understanding occurs spiritual and eternal realities can be understood. Origen says 10 “Once they have drawn the intelligible out of the historical, it is their intention to teach us through signs the things (of God which they contemplated) with their intelligence.”
Finally concerning Origen and how he exegetes the text, he allegorized in the tradition of Philo and his disciple Clement of Alexandria. Many times he borrows from Clements’s exegesis without mentioning him by name. Philo’s influence caused him to resolve the incidents and words of the bible into ethical sentiments in contrast to the more conservative practice of Jewish Allegory which included relating passages to a point in the Torah or a typological foreshadowing of events in the Messianic age.10 Philo impacts Clements and Clement impacts Origen. Origen’s dedication of life to the cause of spiritual interpretation and exegesis of the text(s) puts him into position whereby full surveys of text could be examined by contemporary exegetes and conclude that he was a master of spiritual scriptural interpretation and that many Christian writers followed in his allegorical traditions. Origen influenced heretics, Gnostics, was known on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea and used Greek, Hebrew, Latin languages, Hellenistic and Jewish Philosophies and writings to draw upon for his foundation of interpretation. He was able to reconcile inconsistencies and used his Hellenistic, Jewish, Alexandrian background to project his theological thought and system of exegesis. It is impossible to separate the time (history) and Hellene culture that Origen lived in as you examine his style and intent.
1. Fairweather, W., Origen and Greek Patristic Theology}.
2. Tripolitis, Antonia Origen A Critical Reading .
3. Frei, H.W., The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.
4. Simon, Richard, Histore Critique Principaux Commentaries du Nouveau Testament, New Haven, 1974.
5. Denis, F. De La Philosophie D’Origene, Paris, 1884.
6. Harnack, A. Von, Handbach de Domengeschite, 1883.
7. Trigg, Joseph Wilson, Origen The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church, Atlanta, 1949.
8. Hanson, R.P.C., Allegory and Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen’s Interpretation of Scripture, Richmond, 1959.
9. Torjesen, Karen Jo, Hermeneutical Procedure and Theological Method in Origen’s Exegesis, Berlin, 1986.
10. Hanson, R.P.C., Allegory and Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen’s Interpretation of Scripture, Richmond, 1959.