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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Reading Scripture with Origen

While Origen has been criticized for over-allegorizing Scripture, his own writings attest that he took great care when finding the spiritual meaning of Scripture. "Since innumerable individuals fall into mistakes, it is not safe in reading (the Scriptures) to declare that one easily understands what needs the key of knowledge…The way, then, as it appears to us, in which we ought to deal with the Scriptures, and extract from them their meaning, is the following, which has been ascertained from the Scriptures themselves." [1]

Origen cautions the church that is it difficult to learn the spiritual meaning and it must arise from the Scriptures themselves. An interpreter is not allowed to thrust any meaning he or she wants onto a text.

Origen expects that the interpreter who ascertains the spiritual meaning of a text is someone with faith in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, obedient to God’s commands, and studies the words of Scripture carefully [2]. He sets a high standard for congregants to hold their teachers to, and for teachers to hold themselves to. After the teachers have been held to a high standard, he gives a final test for the spiritual interpretation itself: it must edify the church. “For Scripture is a means to an end, a guid for the soul on its way upward”[3].

Origen provides an extensive definition of what is contained within the spiritual meaning of Scripture: "The object of the Spirit…was especially (the communication) of ineffable mysteries regarding the affairs of men…in order that he who is capable of instruction may by investigation, and by devoting himself to the study of the profundities of meaning contained in the words, become a participator of all the doctrines of his counsel….The belonging to God and His only-begotten Son are necessarily laid down as primary…of what nature He is, and in what manner He is the Son of God, and what are the causes of His descending even to (the assumption of) human flesh, and of complete humanity; and what, also, is the operation of this (Son), and upon whom and when exercised…And it was necessary also that the subject of kindred beings…both those who are divine and those who have fallen from blessedness, together with the reasons of their fall, should be contained in the divine teaching….and of the nature of the world, and the cause of its existence….We must learn also the origin of the great and terrible wickedness which overspreads the earth." [4] In short, the spiritual meaning explains the current state of the world and the truth of Christ’s salvation, which is the content of Origen’s own spiritual interpretations. For example, he interprets the breastplate worn by the high priest in the Tabernacle as representing the Gospel: "In these objects which are said to be placed on the breast, I perceive the message of the Gospel, which, in its fourfold order, sets out to us the truth of the faith and the manifestation of the Trinity, referring all things to the head, that is to say, to the nature of the one God. [5]

By defining what kind of interpreter may learn the spiritual meaning of the text and by explaining the general content of the spiritual meaning of Scripture, Origen sets sufficient boundaries on allegory. The allegory is bound by the rule of faith and the interpreter is bound by the commands of God’s law. Any interpretation that does not measure up to the rule of faith, nor any interpreter who does not measure up to the law of God can be said to be the correct spiritual meaning of a text. The standards he sets for teachers and for the interpretation are high, and should always be aspired to. Believers should always seek to understand the work of Christ as explained in all the Scriptures and endeavor to become more obedient to his Word and Spirit. According to Origen, this is a task that is never finished, but must always be striven after: "The Apostle Paul, seeking to penetrate by help of the Holy Spirit, who searches even the “deep things” of God, into the depths of divine wisdom and knowledge, and yet, unable to reach the end, so to speak, and to come to a thorough knowledge, exclaims in despair and amazement, “Oh the depth of the riches of the knowledge and wisdom of God!” [6]

A believer should never assume he or she has correctly understood the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures, but is always to humbly strive after it as a careful student of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Origen, On First Principles, 4.1.11-4.1.12

[2] David Rylaarsdam, “Origen on Biblical Interpretation”

[3] Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church, p. 18 (doctrines)

[4] Origen, On First Principles, 4.1.14

[5] Origen, Homily IX On the Tabernacle

[6] Origen, On First Principles, 4.1.26

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