Tag Archives: origen

Henri De Lubac on the Chasm Between Current and Patristic Thought

In Henri De Lubac’s book, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen, he makes a brief comment in passing that I think often times is overlooked when comparing hermeneutical methods. The early church is working with an entirely different worldview and thought when it comes to Holy Scripture. It isn’t necessarily a method that we can just mimic but it is a whole approach when engaging the text. This is one of the chasms that we may or may not be able to cross when it comes to the oft times odd (to us) figural/allegorical/christological approach to reading scripture. There wasn’t history versus figural reading but rather it is all wrapped into one way of thinking about the text. This doesn’t mean they didn’t care about history or the historical nature of scripture (see Augustine’s Harmony on the Gospels) but they didn’t slice and dice the exegetical process like we do today.1

But as I looked in those works for the necessary information, the subject I had at first envisioned assumed a broader scope in my eyes. It was no longer a matter of measuring, in any given exegesis, the part allotted to the “letter” or to history., It was no longer even a matter solely of exegesis. It was a whole manner of thinking, a whole world view that loomed before me.2

Also see Hans Boersma in response to de Lubac’s observations,

Both in his book on Origen and in his other writings on spiritual interpretation, it would have been good to read more about what allowed both Origen and later Christian tradition to allegorize particular details of the biblical text….What was it, for example, that allowed the church fathers to see the lamb and the sheep mentioned in Isaiah 57:7 as a reference to Christ? What was it that enabled them to see Christ in the wisdom of Proverbs 8? These questions do have some urgency if spiritual interpretation is to avoid the common charge that it renders interpretation arbitrary and subject to the whims of individual interpreters. We might wish that de Lubac had touched on these kinds of questions.3

  1. I found the quotes by de Lubac and Boersma in Lang, T.J. Mystery and the Making of Christian Historical Consciousness. BZNW 219. Berlin; Boston: de Gruyter, 2015, 1-2. ↩︎
  2. De Lubac, Henri. History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007, 11. ↩︎
  3. Boersma, Hans. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, 147. ↩︎

∞ Origen and Prayer by Rowan Williams

The Christian Century has an excellent excerpt from Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams. He provides one of the better treatments on prayer that I have read in awhile.

And one of the questions he asks is one you probably have asked yourself from time to time: “If God knows what we are going to ask, why bother to pray?” Origen has as good an answer as anyone has given: God knows, of course, what we are going to say and do, but God has decided that he will work out his purposes through what we decide to say and do. So if it is God’s will to bring something about, some act of healing or reconciliation, some change for the better in the world, he has chosen that your prayer is going to be part of a set of causes that makes it happen. So you’d better get on with it, as you and your prayer are part of God’s overall purpose for the situation in which he is going to work.

Read the whole thing here

∞ Origen of Alexandria: Exegetical works on Ezekiel. Sermons, scholia, fragments.

Roger Pearce is doing a fantastical public service by commissioning the translations of ancient texts. Check out the latest, which is everything Origen wrote on Ezekiel. This is definitely going on my wish list!

The second book in Ancient Texts in Translation is now available.  This is a translation of all that Origen wrote on Ezekiel, together with the original text.  The work was translated by Mischa Hooker, who has gamely worked away at this for five years.  The results are really quite satisfactory.…

It is actually selling reasonably well. I’d be grateful for your support, as it did cost rather a lot of money and life-energy to produce!  The sales help to make it possible for me to commission further translations.

The intention, as with volume 1, is to place the book online once the sales drop to nothing.  We’re nearly there with volume 1 now, in fact.  So this is not a hard money-making scheme, but a way to get a translation made that will not be kept offline by greedy publishers.  I expect to lose money on it.  Your purchases reduce the amount I lose!

Purchase on Amazon

Read the whole thing here

Mike Licona on How We Got the New Testament

Mike Licona, Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, has a helpful video on how we got the New Testament. 

One caveat: He quotes Origen as having an agnostic position on the authorship of Hebrews but David Allan Black points out that Origen was really only agnostic about who actually penned the letter but the thoughts are from Paul. He says, 

Origen meets the stylistic objection to Pauline authorship in a manner similar to that of his predecessor Clement: the thoughts are Pauline, but the style and diction are to be credited to another hand. In this way Origen maintains the apostolic origin of the epistle while removing the objection drawn from the diversity of style. When Origen says, “For not without reason have the men of old handed it down as Paul’s,” and then adds, “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows,” he does not mean to suggest uncertainty about the author but only about the penman—that is, the one who reduced the letter to writing—for he has just asserted that the thoughts are those of the apostle Paul. To assert (as is all too often asserted) that Origen meant to suggest that only God knew the author of the epistle is to suppose that Origen has contradicted himself in the very same paragraph. (Source)

The video is a great basic introduction to how we got the New Testament today. Check it out!

HT: Jeremy Neill



Book Review: Origen and Scripture by Peter Martens

Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $125.00

Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $125.00

Many thanks to Oxford University Press for this free review copy.

In Peter Martens’ latest work, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, he seeks to sketch a picture of the life of Origen as an exegete. Scholarship in Origen studies has produced many books and articles focusing on the specific aspects of Origen’s exegesis such as his hermeneutical method, allegory, and his doctrine of Scripture. Martens is unique in focusing on the whole of Origen’s interpretive enterprise. How did Origen view the ideal interpreter and what tools did he use to achieve this goal? Origen viewed the practice of interpretation as a holistic experience. Indeed, scriptural interpretation was both a scholarly endeavor and a spiritual exercise. Martens goal is to “advance a new and integrative thesis about the contours of the ancient exegetical life as Origen understood it, and as best we can gather, also practiced it (6).” By building on the work of Lubac, Hanson, Torjesen, and Neuschäfer, Martens examines the exegete, Origen, for his understanding of the ideal interpreter and how he practiced it.

The first part of the book deals with Origen the philologist. Martens helpfully paints a picture of the academic setting in Origen’s day to provide the basis for his philological work. Turning to the pedagogical setting that Origen would have been teaching the reader learns that Origen taught many students who did not have the skill set or the motivation to pursue the intense study of Scripture as Origen did. He often referred to his pupils as “simpliciores, that is, the ‘simple ones (27).’” The takeaway here is that Origen was not demanding this theological rigor to a group of highly educated and motived students but rather the simpliciores, the people in the pew and students.

What was this directive that Origen gave his students and himself? He called his students to a life academic rigor studying the scriptures. Origen was trained as a philologist and this is the practice that he deems fit for the proper study of the scriptures. According to Origen, the philologist must be trained in general education and philosophy and use the insights from these disciplines in the interpretation of Scripture. Martens shows how his ideals of the interpreter and his own life were synchronized. Both his detractors and proponents all agree that Origen was competent in all these areas. Martens says, “he helped his puipls realize this ambitious project for themselves. Origen, in other words, issued a scholarly mandate that he had already appropriated, and was eager to promote in his own circles (38).”

Chapter three describes four main philological exercises: text critical analysis, reading the passage out loud, literary and historical analysis, and aesthetic and moral evaluation. It is in the philological practice that we see Origen’s wide use of his secular general education. He employs his background in zoology, arithmetic, cosmology, and many other areas to give himself the complete picture of scripture. How does this relate to Origen’s reputation of an allegorist? Martens says that the “answer is clear: allegorical interpretation was a legitimate dimension of philological inquiry…philology, in other words, could be practiced in a literal or allegorical mode — but it was always philology.” Allegory is rooted in the historic literal sense of the scripture. Only when this is understood can the interpreter then seek out a loftier interpretation.

The latter part of the book addresses how Origen envisioned the ideal interpreter in the Christian faith. Origen sought to use the best of Greco-Roman scholarship and integrate it with Christianity. Since God is creator, Origen saw Greco-Roman scholarship profitable for the interpreter. In the same way, the study of philology helped one understand the divine Scriptures and contemplate the mind of God. The study of the Scriptures in this way was a pathway of salvation for the interpreter. The more devotion one has for the Scriptures the more devotion one has for the faith (92).

What are the boundaries in the study of Scripture? In chapters 6–7, Martens explains Origen’s exegesis against the Jewish interpreters and the heterodox. Against the heterodox he does this by saying, “Scripture is not discerned according to its spiritual sense, but is understood according to the mere letter (107).” It would be easy to assume that Origen thinks his opponents should read allegorically. But this is not the distinction that Origen is arguing for. Martens argues that Origen’s two main issues with this group was their uncritical use of secular teaching and not staying within the Church’s rule of faith (108). When his opponents interpret outside these two boundaries that is when they are reading the “mere letter.” Martens goes on to say that “as a rule, Origen was targeting a more basic and deficient doctrinal current that ran through Gnostic scriptural interoperation: its phonology was deficient when (and only when) it promulgated a teaching at odds with the sort of Christianity Origen represented (115).” This section continues to show that Origen was not just a mere allegorist who did not take literal meaning (in modern terms) seriously. Origen believed the ideal interpreter should read the scriptures within the rule of faith that had been passed down by the apostles (113). This rule of faith is one of the boundary markers in exegesis. When one interprets outside these boundaries then one is not following in the tradition of the apostles.

In a similar manner when Origen is writing against Jewish interpretations he charges them with “literal” exegesis. Commonly held assumptions think that Origen was only against their “literal” interpretations of the Scriptures. Martens carefully shows that this line of thinking needs to be carefully articulated and is not as simple as “literal” versus “allegorical.” Against the Jews, Origen argues that their “literal” exegesis is deficient because it does not take into account that Christ had fulfilled the law. When the ceremonial aspects of the law were interpreted literally they were in error precisely because they did not realize that Christ had fulfilled the law. Ceremonial laws now needed to be interpreted allegorically because they had no literal bearing on Christians now. Origen does not throw out their literal exegesis in full. Many times he has actually in agreement with their exegesis on other issues (143).

In the last three chapters of the book Martens addresses Origen’s view on the moral conduct of the ideal interpreter and the salvific value of Scriptural exegesis. For the ideal interpreter, one must be morally upright in order to interpret Scripture faithfully. The interpreter is to seek after God in prayer asking for divine aid in his study of the Scriptures. The “meaning of Scripture was inaccessible” without divine aid. The reason the ideal interpreter needs study and understand the Scriptures with the help of God is because the Scriptures show the way (and aid the way) in the salvation of the interpreter. Martens notes that the Scriptures are “useful or beneficial, serving as an instrument in the divine plan of salvation for those who read and heard it well (194).” Since the intent of the Scriptures is to transform the life of its hearers one must meticulously read and stud them in a faithful manner.

In the final chapter Martens concludes his book by arguing that study of Scripture was part of the beginning, middle, and end of the plan of salvation for the interpreter. When interpreting the Scriptures, one is seeking to “reverse or counteract the original fall, in an attempt to reprise, as best as possible, the prelapsarian communion and contemplation for God (234).” Origen understood that before the fall there was a state for the soul that cont
emplated and communed with God but this was lost in the fall. The reason Scriptural interpretation is so vital is that it brings the interpreter in direct contact with the God who revealed himself in Holy Scripture. Even though the ideal interpreter read with veiled eyes he was on his way in the plan of salvation to communing with God once again. After death if one has been studying the Scriptures they are in a place to “resume the scholarship they now practiced in the middle act (242).”

In this detailed study Martens successfully shows how Origen envisioned the ideal interpreter. In many instances he is correcting incorrect readings of Origen in the past. In many instances he shows a more nuanced and articulated understanding Origen’s exegesis. One example is in his discussion of Origen’s disagreement against the Jews. Some scholars think of it as an enigma that Origen would argue for an allegorical reading of certain passages when Jewish interpreters read allegorically on certain passages. Martens carefully argues how Origen was broadly against “literal” interpretations. 

After reading this book, one will gain a holistic picture of Origen, the ideal interpreter he sought to become. This book fills a missing link in scholarship that focuses both on the hermeneutical practices of Origen and the biographical journey of the ideal interpreter. I highly recommend this book.

Download the PDF of this review here

Peter Martens is the Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.


Rufinus on his Translation of Origen’s Commentary on Romans

I came across an interesting quote from Rufinus at the conclusion of his Latin translation of Origen’s commentary on Romans. He says,

They say to me; When you write these things, in which are found many pieces the composition or which is due to yourself, you should place your own name in the title, and let it run thus: ‘The books of Rufinus’ commentary on (for instance) the Epistle to the Romans;’ for so, they say, in the case of profane writers, the name in the title is not that of the Greek author who is translated but of the Latin author who translates him. But all this complaisance, by which the works are ascribed to me, is caused not by love to me but by hatred to the author. I am much more observant of my conscience than of my reputation; it may be apparent that I have added some things to supply what was wanting; and that I have abbreviated what was too lengthy; but to steal the title from the man who laid the foundations on which the building has been reared is what I cannot think right. It must be, I grant, in the discretion of the reader, when he has examined the work, to ascribe the work to any one he thinks right; but my intention has been not to seek the applause of students but the good of those who wish to be edified1.

I find it interesting that it seems that works that had been translated the translators name was put as the author. I have little to no knowledge of translation practices of this time period but it does seem at least on some level that this was practiced.

Also, quite different from a modern day translation of a work is the adding/subtracting of material. Rufinus is adamant to state that he will not put his name as author on the document but he does find the liberty to add to what he thought Origen was lacking and to summarize parts that were too long.

Interestingly enough, he does not do the same to his translation of Recognition of Clement the Bishop of Rome. He takes a different approach from the Origen translation and says,

…to judge by the ordinary rule, I shall have labor upon labor. In this case I will do what my friends desire, I will put my own name in the title of the work, though I shall have that of the author also. It shall be called Rufinus’s Clement.

  1. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, Etc. (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. William Henry Fremantle; vol. 3; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 3566.  ↩

Origen, Basil, and Reading Holy Scripture with a Veil

I have written elsewhere on Origen’s rejection of “literal exegesis.” against the heterodox but Origen also rejects some of the “literal” readings of the Jews. When he does this he speaks of the “veil” that is over their interpretation. He gets this language from 2 Cor. 3:15 saying that veil is an interpretation without drawing upon the spiritual meaning of the text. Peter Martens[1] argues that Origen is arguing against two main readings:

  1. Reading the ceremonial and liturgical mandates as applicable to New Testament believers (141).
  2. A denial that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament (145)

Origen is not alone in using the “veil” analogy to a literal reading of Scripture. Basil in his work, On the Holy Spirit[2], similarly argues against this literal reading. Basil argues that one must lift the veil to see the Spirit in these Old Testament passages. Like Origen, he makes charges against the Jews for a “literal” reading. He says, “Because he who attends merely to the meaning of the letter and wastes time with its legal observances covers his own heart with the Jewish interoperation of the letter, that is to say, with a veil (90).” The believer is supposed to follow Moses and remove the veil to see God. He goes on to say “so the obscurity of the teachings of the Law is analogous to the veil on the face of Moses, while spiritual vision, to the turning to the Lord. Therefore, he who strips off the letter in his reading of the Law turns to the Lord — the Lord here is called Spirit—and becomes similar to Moses whose face was glorified by God’s epiphany (90).”

By reading these Old Testament texts if the interpreter removes the veil and dives into the mysteries of the Holy Scripture then he is imitating Moses in seeking after God. The Spirit is the one who lifts the veil to point us to Christ. Like Origen, a rejection of reading according the letter of the text means more than a flippant spiritual reading. A spiritual reading is one that rightly sees that Christ has fulfilled the law and interpreters should read in light of that fact.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. – Luke 24:27

  1. Martens, Peter W. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.  ↩

  2. Basil, and Stephen M Hildebrand. On the Holy Spirit. Yonkers, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.  ↩

The Musical Harmony of the Scriptures

For just as the different chords of the harp and zither, each of which produces a sound unique to it that seems not to be similar to the sound of the other, are thought to be out of accord on account of the dissemblance of sounds by the uncultured who do not know the principle of musical harmony, so also with those who do not know how to listen to the harmony of God in the sacred Scriptures. These think that the Old is inharmonious with the New, or the prophets with the law, or the gospels with themselves, the apostle with the gospel or himself or the [other] apostles. But the one who has learned the music of God…this one will produce the sound of the music of God…For he knows that all Scripture is one harmonious instrument of God, producing one saving melody from different sounds for those who desire to learn, a melody that calms and hinders every action of the evil spirit. – Origen

Peter Martens Origen and Scripture, p. 205. His translation from Philocalia 6.2/SC 302, 310.1–21

The Role of Prayer in Origen’s Exegetical Endeavors

Peter Martens has written a fantastic book, Origen and Scripture examining the exegetic life of Origen and how he perceived the ideal interpreter of Scripture. I am now through chapter 8 of the book and so far Martens has examined the tools of Origen’s exegetical endeavor[1] and his placement within the Greco-Roman educational system (67) in the first part of the book. In the final part Martens examines Origen’s view of the ideal interpreter in the way manner they conduct their exegesis. He says that Origen believed that “exegetes did not simply offer scholarly assessments of the message of salvation inscribed on Scripture’s pages; the exercise of biblical interpretation was also a means of participating in this living drama, a way of life culminating in the vision of God (67).”

The chapter, Conduct: Moral Inquiry, I think is especially insightful for getting a glimpse of Origen’s ideal of the posture one should have when interpreting scripture. Scripture cannot be interpreted apart from a moral life that is seeking after God. Martens states that “only those who were ‘worthy’ or ‘pure’ — that is, only those who had made some moral progress on the itinerary of the Christian faith — could interpret the Scriptures well (161).” Someone who came to the Scriptures without this moral pursuit would read into the Scriptures ideas contrary to the high moral life that Scripture speaks of. Martens outlines three ideals that Origen believed to be necessary in the interpreters pursuit of the meaning of the Scriptures: exegetical virtues, faith in the scriptures, and prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide in the exegetes interpretation.

I think most telling of Origen’s posture when it came to the study of the Scriptures is his emphasis on prayer during study. For Origen, the divine Scriptures are a mystery and contain many difficult truths that can only be understood with the help of the Spirit. Martens says, “it is remarkable that Origen frequently spoke of his exegetical project as anything but an autonomous affair in which he wrestled with the text in isolation from its divine authors (italics mine) (182).” Regardless of the tools in the interpreter had at his disposal it was prayer that unlocked the truth of the Scriptures. Origen reflecting on the difficulty of some of the truths in Scripture says, “And we see this daily among us when we search for some true meaning in the Scriptures. Before we find what we are looking for, we suffer from an absence of meanings, until such an absence is brought to an end in us by God who gives to the worthy ‘food at the right time’ (183–84).”

This book is an enlightening look into the exegetical mind of Origen and his view of the ideal interpreter. Not only is this book helpful in learning more about the life of Origen but it also gives interpreters today food for thought in their own exegetical endeavors.

Thanks of Oxford University Press for this review copy. I will be writing a full review of this book when finished.

  1. See my short post on Origen the Philologist  ↩

Origen Against the Literal Interpretation of the Heterodox

In chapter 9 of Peter Martens, Origen and Scripture, he discusses Origen’s exegesis against the heterodox. Origen commonly wrote against three individuals: Valentinus, Basilides, and Marcion. He often grouped these by categorizing them as “heretics” or “heterodox” (108–109). He charges them by saying, “Scripture is not discerned according to its spiritual sense, but is understood according to the mere letter (107).” It would be easy to assume that Origen thinks his opponents should read allegorically. But this is not the distinction that Origen is arguing for. Martens argues that Origen’s two main issues with this group was their uncritical use of secular teaching and not staying within the Church’s rule of faith (108). When his opponents interpret outside these two boundaries that is when they are reading the “mere letter.” Martens goes on to say that "as a rule, Origen was targeting a more basic and deficient doctrinal current that ran through Gnostic scriptural interoperation: its phonology was deficient when (and only when) it promulgated a teaching at odds with the sort of Christianity Origen represented (115).

This chapter continues to show that Origen was not just a mere allegorist who did not take literal meaning (in modern terms) seriously. Origen believed the ideal interpreter should read the scriptures within the rule of faith that had been passed down by the apostles (113). This rule of faith is one of the boundary markers in exegesis. When one interprets outside these boundaries then one is not following in the tradition of the apostles. Origen sums this up well by saying,

Therefore we must show to those who believe that the sacred books are writings not from men, but that they were composed and have come down to us from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the will of the Father of the universe through Jesus Christ, what are the apparent ways [of interpretation] for those who hold to the rule of the heavenly church of Jesus Christ through the succession of the apostles (130).

Thanks to Oxford University Press for this review copy. I will post a full review when I have completed this book.

Martens, Peter W. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.

Origen the Philologist

According to Peter Martens the role of the philologist included the following (42)[1]:

  1. Text-critical analysis (διορθωτικόν)
  2. Reading a passage out loud (ἀναγνωστικόν)
  3. Literary and historical analysis (ἐξηγητικόν)
    1. Clarifying a words meaning (γλωσσηματικόν)
    2. Grammatical and historical analysis (τεχνικόν)
    3. metrical evaluation and style criticism (μετρικόν)
    4. Analysis of the historical realities mentioned in the text (ἱστορικόν)
  4. Aesthetic and moral evaluation (κρίσις ποιημάτων)

In chapter two of his book Martens goes on to show how Origen used these methods in his own interpretation of scripture. I found it to be a very helpful chapter explaining some of Origen’s exegetical methods. He concludes:

For Origen there were in principle two referents of any given scriptural text: the literal and the “nonliteral” (i.e., allegorical figurative, symbolic, spiritual, mystical or deeper). Ideal philologists pursed a broad education and cultivated a series of exegetical techniques with the intent of deciphering both the literal and the allegorical referents of a passage. Philology, in other words, could be practiced in a literal or an allegorical mode — but it was always philology (63).

Upon completion of this book I will be writing a full review on it. Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy.

  1. Martens, Peter W. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.  ↩

Origen and His Rejection of Allegory

Origen, a proponent of spiritual interpretation and allegory, rejects an interpretation that is outside of the unifying message of scripture. The context of this writing is his homily on Luke 2:33–34[1], which says that Jesus has been “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Origen takes time to show how Marcion twists the scriptures and doesn’t see the unity in them.

They say, “Behold the god of the law and the prophets! See what sort of god he is! He says, ‘I shall kill and I shall make alive. I shall strike and I shall heal. There is no one who can escape my hands.’” They hear, “I shall kill,” and do not hear, “I shall make alive.” They hear, “I shall strike,” and refuse to hear, “I shall heal.” With instances like this they misrepresent the Creator(67).

Origen then goes on to explain that Jesus also came for judgment. He cites this passage and John 9:39 and shows that there is a unity in the scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He hypothetically asks how will they respond to these passages? He concludes that they will try to twist the scriptures by allegorization and figures of speech. He says:

Will they cease worshipping him, or will they seek another interpretation and take refuge in figures of speech, so that what comes “for the falling” implies benevolence rather than severity? How can it be just, when something like this is found in the Gospel, to take refuge in allegories and new interpretations, but, in the case of the Old Testament, immediately to make accusations and not to accept any explanation, no matter how probable (67)?

Often times as modern readers when we read allegory we automatically assume some flippant use of Scripture to twist the meaning. But here it seems clear from Origen’s own writing that there is some methodology and limits to figural reading and allegory. One of these hermeneutical keys is the rule of faith and the unity of the scriptures. Clearly, Origen saw Marcion and his followers using an interpretation that was outside the rule of faith.

I find it interesting that a man known for allegory and figural readings of scripture rejects a certain kind of allegory that goes against the unified message of the scriptures.

  1. Origen. Homilies on Luke. Translated by Joseph T Lienhard. Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.  ↩

The Spiritual Sense(s) Today

Often times the early church turns out to be the “black sheep” for hermeneutical methodology. In the academic world and the church there has been a growing interest in “theological exegesis.” Part of the struggle in this movement is how do we understand and model the early church’s hermeneutical method? Ideas such as “allegory” versus “literal” are often used with little understanding of how the early church understood these terms in their own right. It is often times the Protestant’s concern how can we know the “real meaning of Scripture” if it is allegorized? Will that not lead to a hermeneutical that is not grounded in the historical consciousness of the original writing? What about authorial intent? All these questions are valid today but the early church still dealt with these types of questions (albeit they were framed in a much different manner).

I have been reading through Origen’s homilies on Luke and I have noticed that he often times seeks the “literal” (understood here in the historical meaning of the passage) first and then moves onto a spiritual reading. With these thoughts going on I came across an articled titled “The Spiritual Sense(s) Today” by Glenn W. Olsen in The Bible and the University[1]. In this essay he articulates how the early church understood exegesis and one section in particular stood out to me and helped make sense of Origen’s practice. He says,

The important point is that, using whatever terminology, the Fathers tended to distinguish between a use of the Scripture to articulate doctrine; a use of it to determine how Christians are to live, that is a moral use; and a use of it to articulate a path of spiritual progress. That is, the Scriptures could be seen as aiming at various things. Especially from the time of Origen, there was a tendency to associate doctrine with the the literal sense, and morals and spiritual growth with the spiritual senses. This does not mean that the Fathers did not think that all three — doctrine, morals, and the spiritual life — could be found in the literal sense, but that they tended to think of the spiritual senses as ways of particularly pursing something more personal than doctrine, such as spiritual development (128).

There is definitely more to this idea than this post will allow. But I am beginning to see that in my readings of the early church’s practice (i.e. homilies, commentaries, letters etc.) generally goes against much of the caricature of their hermeneutical method. I find in the early church a generally helpful way of reading the scriptures that is edifying for the church today. Let me end with this quote from the same essay:

A spiritual sense was a way of asking, in fidelity to the corporeal sense of Scripture, what its implication might be for some such subject as the life of one’s soul or the life of the Church. Since there was no such thing as an ‘academic theology’ which could be separated from daily living, all the senses of Scripture were seen as intertwined. Theory or theology was to lead to practice (128).

  1. Jeffrey, David Lyle, and C. Stephen Evans. The Bible in the University (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, V. 8). Zondervan, 2007.  ↩

Imitation, Origen, and Holy Scripture

The idea of imitation of biblical characters has been a lost art in many areas of Christianity. I recently read and reviewed a book by Jason Hood, Imitating God in Christ, which argues that the church should return back to its roots and see the profitability of imitating biblical characters. In one section he argues that throughout Christianity imitation has played a major role in teaching and preaching.

I am currently reading through Origen’s homilies on Luke and came across a short section where Origen states that one of the functions of scripture is imitation[1].

In Homily 11 (Luke 1:80–2:2), Origen begins explaining Luke 1:80, which says, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit.” Throughout he explains a couple of different ways that the word “grow” functions in scripture. Once sense is the “corporeal, that is, when the human will contributes nothing (44).” But the other sense is “spiritual, that is, when human effort is the cause of the growth (44).” Taking these small quotations out of context it may seem that Origen is saying that only human effort is involved in spiritual growth. But later in this homily he states, “human nature is weak. It needs divine help to become stronger…What forces can strengthen it? The Spirit, of course (45).” For Origen, “the athlete of God” needs to train with the power of the Spirit for the Christian life.

Origen then argues that Scripture is not just an historical record of events related to John the Baptist. He states:

We should not think that, when Scripture says, ‘He grew and was strengthened in spirit,’ what was written about John was just a narrative that does not pertain to us in any way. It is written for our imitation. We should take ’growth in the sense we have explained, and be multiplied spiritually (45)."

Holy Scripture is not just a historical record. It is also not solely a historical record that theologically points us to Christ. Is it both of these? Yes. Is one of the primary functions of Scripture to point believers and unbelievers to the Messiah who has come to bring heaven on earth and make all things new (Lk. 24:13–35)? Yes. But we also must not lose sight that Holy Scripture also points us to imitate the lives of godly men and women. Let us follow Origen and the early church in our reading of Scripture and see the profitability of imitating the lives of the characters in Scripture.

See other posts related to Origen’s homilies on Luke:

  1. Origen quotations from Origen. Homilies on Luke. Translated by Joseph T Lienhard. Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.  ↩

Why was Mary betrothed?

Origen poses this question in hist sixth homily on Luke[1],

Again I turn the matter over in my mind and ask why, when God had decided that the Savior should be born of a virgin, he chose not a girl who was not betrothed, but precisely one who was already betrothed.

I find his response and reasoning interesting on a number of fronts. First, he poses a new question on the text that I have not thought of (or read?). Second, his reasoning as we will see is highly theological. Third, it reveals some of his thoughts on Satan in relation to Jesus’ ministry.

The main reason that Origen supposes that Mary was betrothed is so that the birth could be concealed from the “ruler of this age.” This idea is rooted in Ignatius who says in his letter to the Ephesians,

Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord — three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God.[2]

Origen argues that if she had not been betrothed then her virginity and the birth could never have been concealed from the “ruler of this age.” In his thinking if Mary had not been betrothed then there would have been a bigger uproar on the pregnancy of Mary and it would have come out that she was a virgin and conceived by the Holy Spirit. By being betrothed this could be concealed. He goes on to say, “But the Savior had so arranged his plan that the devil did not know that he had taken on a body. When he was conceived, he escaped the devil’s notice.”

He notes that Jesus did not actual reveal himself to be the Son of God in the temptation narrative. To Origen, he interprets this even to mean that the devil knew that Jesus was someone special but couldn’t quite figure out who he was so this part of the temptation is a genuine inquiry in who Jesus is. Jesus’ response does not confirm or deny that he is the Son of God but only that he should not turn stone into bread.

So why does Origen go to length to explain why the devil does not know who Jesus is? His grounding for this is found in 1 Corinthians 2:6–8 which says,

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

He then brings up an objection that could be stated. He notes that in Matthew 8 the demons show that they know that he is the Son of God. So how does this fit in with his theory? Origen stresses that the demon is “less evil” than Satan and knew who Jesus was. He says,

The fact that his wickedness is greater prevents him from knowing the Son of God. We ourselves can advance to virtue more easily if we are less sinful. But, if we are more sinful, then we need sweat and hard labor to be freed from our greater evil. This is my explanation of why Mary was betrothed.

I claim to be no expert on Origen but here are some thoughts that I had after reading this homily.

First, Origen is asking questions that I would have never thought to ask. If I would have thought of this question today I would have probably dismissed by saying we just don’t know. Origen poses the question and then answers it theologically. This is the opposite direction that most would have taken this question. Most would have tried to ground it in some historical reasoning that Mary had to be betrothed but Origen addresses this theologically. Here we see the cohesive view of Holy Scripture. He naturally connects Paul saying the wisdom of God has been hidden from the rulers of this age to the idea that the devil did not realize that God had come down from heaven to this earth.

Overall I found his interpretation enlightening and edifying. Even if I may not completely adopt his interpretation it has forced me to think of the text in a new light and who knows one day this may spark further thought on the birth narrative of Jesus.

  1. All quotes are from Origen. Homilies on Luke. Translated by Joseph T Lienhard. Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.  ↩

  2. Ignatius Letter to the Ephesians 19:1 in Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007.  ↩