Saturday, October 13, 2007

Origen For Babies; Or, Why Biblical Hermeneutics isn't Child's Play

Last weekend, my son Ian and I were reading the Philocalia of Origen (I even have the picture to prove it, as you can see!). We were studying it quite hard when my son turned to me and said "ba, ba, nggnngggg, ba, ba, ba, bababa" which I took to mean "Daddy, I'm not quite sure I quite understand Origen's biblical hermeneutic". And I said, "You know, my son, I'm not sure I am either". To which my son answered, "Ba, bababa, ba buh buh, buh, babababa gaaaaa", which I took to mean "Then, why don't you blog on it, Daddy?" So, as per my son's instructions, here we are.

Origen's importance in the whole field of biblical interpretation, of course, is difficult to underestimate. We know that he wrote extensively on the books of the Bible, both in the form of homilies and in commentaries. We also know that this interpretative method and theological approach profoundly influenced those after him, Church Fathers and heretics alike. In many ways, love him or hate him, he was the theologian whose opinion was sine qua non in most exegetical and theological discussions, especially in the Greek East. While his unique blend of Christian teachings and Platonic philosophy led to his near-condemnation in the fifth and sixth century, many of Origen's exegetical approaches and ideas survive in the writings of such Fathers as St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory Nyssa and many others.

Origen's approach to biblical interpretation is based, first and foremost, on his firm belief that every single line, letter, jot and tittle of Scripture has meaning and is directly inspired by God. In isolation, this comment would not be amiss among the most extreme Biblical literalists today, but we must be very careful to note that Origen does not mean the same thing as these modern literalists do. He doesn't view the Bible as a mine for a series of quasi-scientific proofs, nor does he, indeed, privilege the literal/historical level of interpretation. He doesn't dismiss it, but he clearly thinks that sole reliance on this level would tend to distort the 'true' meaning of Scripture and blind the reader to the 'real' meaning of Scripture. This, he argues, is precisely what happened to the Jews, who read the Bible far too literally. This led to their misinterpretation of the injunctions of the Law such as kosher eating, Sabbath and a myriad of distinctive Jewish customs as literal instructions of how to live and their failure to understand the clear prophetic foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Instead of this approach, Origen recommends a 'spiritual' approach in which he suggests we use allegory, typology and other methods to try to understand what was really going on and how to bring it into application for the Christian believer. This means that, in addition and not necessarily in opposition to the literal meaning, other levels of meaning may be employed to explain and make it possible to apply that meaning to one's Christian life today when it counts. Nor is this 'spiritual' approach haphazard in that the symbolic system which undergirds it isn't usually unique to Origen, but rather traces its descent back to the Bible and through the earlier Fathers. This approach (as Ronald Heine, the author of the other book I'm reading, points out), is congruent with the kind of meditative reading used by priests and pastors to make Scripture applicable to the lives of individual believers. It is only our post-Enlightenment obsession with historical (narrowly defined) source-mining which causes us to look askance at the techniques and approaches of a more spiritual approach.

Yet I have to admit that Origen's approach to the Bible isn't without problems. It does bother me when he comments that sometimes the literal level of a passage is simply impossible and then turns to an allegorical explanation to get out of the problem. It bothers me when he imports Platonic philosophy in such a way that it trumps Scripture. I'm not alone, of course, given the Origenist controversies that I've already alluded to.

Nevertheless, no one can deny the influence of Origen nor even that his attempts to explain Scripture showed industry, learning and insight so that we in the Church cannot quite dismiss his exegesis out of hand. Like many brilliant people, where Origen is right, he is brilliantly right. Where he is wrong, he's brilliantly wrong. His brilliance hasn't been questioned. His soundness has sometimes been.



Jim said...

Of course if Origen were writing today, the bible-dolators would attack in force. Imagine the idea that allegory and literary understanding might inform our reading.

A few weeks ago, a small family corporation I serve as a director held its annual meeting. After dinner, we were discussing some of Chicago's amazing array of museums. I noted that the Oriental institute had recently redone its main exhibit spaces and in the process given prominence to two interesting pieces. One is a statue (idol) of Ba El, the god so frequently attacked in the early Hebrew scriptures with an engraving of El, his mother goddess. The other is a triple engraved account of the first battle of Jerusalem, with accounts from the Hebrew scriptures, the king of the Assyrians and a fascinating man who was a Greek working as a spy for Pharaoh.

The Assyrian account, clearly propaganda for the home front, explains his failure to take the city as the result of the Hebrews panicky bribery. "They 'yielded up' their money so I won." is the message.

The Bible account, written some time after, has angels killing the soldiers so the king had to withdraw. Some problems here, not least among them the death of privates for simply being where they were ordered to go while the king lives. Not exactly justice, but I digress.

The Greek / Egyptian account is that the Hebrews held out long enough that rats entered the camp of the Assyrians, brought illness and forced them to decamp.

Now my money is on the spy. He had no propaganda agenda, and his account is consistent with what we know of bronze era sieges.

My brother in law (secretary of the corporation) was outraged that I could doubt angels were there hurling death into the camps! His fundamentalist reading is that God kills bad people, even relatively innocent bad people.

Imagine if you will what he would say to Origen!


Phil Snider said...


Well, I'm not sure the degree to which we can determine how literally we need to take some of these historical accounts because, even in history, we find very metaphorical passages. I'm not sure my salvation rises or falls on this kind of question. I admit, however, so some ambivilence towards allegory used to avoid the literal level which I think Origen does sometimes and which we moderns often do as well. Allegory is meant to deepen our understanding of a text, not replace the literal level.

I think we have to recognize that the reason for much of the Protestant phobia about allegory is the abuse of allegory in patristic and mediaeval writers. I think it goes too far to dismiss it out of hand. I think, given our mutual historical interests, that we're not likely to abuse allegory, but the warning is still there.


Roger Pearse said...

While the majority of his exegetical works remain offline, however, he will continue to be more talked about than read.

I don't have a good answer to this problem. I was reading some letters between E.B.Pusey and J.H.Newman discussing whether his "Contra Celsum" should be included in the Oxford Movement Library of the Fathers, and they decided not. The T&T Clark boys who did the Ante-Nicene Fathers couldn't get enough subscribers to do most of Origen's homilies, etc, so these languish offline unto our own day.

Maureen said...

I see no particular conflict between angels hurling death and rats carrying death. Heck, angels can take whatever shape they want and do a great deal. If they wanted to appear as cats to chivvy a bunch of rats into the camp, why should I cavil? More power to God's right arm.

A moral problem is a real problem. A logistics problem, assuming an omnipotent omniscient God, is no problem whatsoever.

Back to Origen's aversion to literalism -- obviously, he had every good reason to feel aversion. Every day when he got dressed, and every time he went to the bathroom, he would be reminded of the perils of that approach. And it's all very well for us to say that his intellect should have risen above his experience, but in real life I think that's asking a bit much.

Literalism is all fun and games until somebody chops off a body part.

Phil Snider said...


I have to admit to having rather more Antiochene leanings than Alexandrian, so my opinion of Origen and his approach is, perhaps, a little tainted by that predeliction. Yet, I agree that a purely literal approach is unhelpful in an equal sense to over-allegorization. As so often, orthodox rests between the two extremes.