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.