Origen of Alexandria, in wrestling with the Scriptures in the second century–thus at the beginning of the Christian exegetical project–wrote these words:
For just as man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so in the same way does the scripture, which has been prepared by God to be given for man’s salvation. (De Princ. IV.4)
But since there are certain passages of scripture which, as we shall show in what follows, have no bodily sense at all, there are occasions when we must seek only for the soul and the spirit, as it were, of the passage. (IV.5)
In writing about the Law and the histories he states:
But the most wonderful thing is, that by means of stories of wars and the conquerors and the conquered certain secret truths are revealed to those who are capable of examining these narratives; and even more marvellous, through a system of law the laws of truth are prophetically indicated, all of these having been recorded in a series with a power which is truly appropriate to the wisdom of God. For the intention was to make even the outer covering of the spiritual truths, I mean the bodily parts of the scriptures, in many respects not unprofitable but capable of improving the multitude in so far as they receive it.
But if the usefulness of the law and the sequence and ease of the narrative were at first clearly discernible throughout, we should be unaware that there was anything beyond the obvious meaning for us to understand in the scriptures. Consequently the Word of God has arranged for certain stumbling-blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted in the midst of he law and the history, in order that we may not be completely drawn away by the sheer attractiveness of the language, and so reject the true doctrines absolutely, on the ground that we learn from the scriptures nothing worthy of God, or else by never moving away from the letter fail to learn anything of the more divine element. And we must also know this, that because the principle aim was to announce the connexion that exists among spiritual events, those that have already happened and those that are yet to come to pass, whenever the Word found that things which had happened in history could be harmonised with these mystical events he used them, concealing from the multitude their deeper meaning. But wherever in the narrative the accomplishment of some particular deeds, which had been previously recorded for the sake of their more mystical meanings, did not correspond with the sequence of the intellectual truths, the scripture wove into the story something which did not happen, occasionally something which could not happen, and occasionally something which might have happened but in fact did not. Sometimes a few words are inserted which in the bodily sense are not true, and at other times a greater number.
A similar method can be discerned also in the law where it is often possible to find a precept that is useful for its own sake, and suitable to the time when the law was given. Sometimes, however, the precept does not appear to be useful. At other times even impossibilities are recorded in the law for the sake of more skilful and inquiring readers, in order that these, by giving themselves to the toil of examining what is written, may gain a sound conviction of the necessity of seeking in such instances a meaning worthy of God.
And not only did the Spirit supervise the writings which were previous to the coming of Christ, but because he is the same Spirit and proceeds from the one God he has dealt in like manner with the gospels and the writings of the apostles. For the history even of these is not everywhere pure, events being woven together ion the bodily sense without having actually happened; nor do the law and the commandments contained therein entirely declare what is reasonable. (IV.8-9)
What Origen is up to here is rather important–as well as being complicated–which is why I have included so much of it here. Essentially, Origen is an extremely close reader of the text. As a close reader, he has discovered inconsistencies, errors, and impossibilities in the biblical text. In light of a faith based in the Church and taking 2 Tim 3:qy quite seriously, he finds a way to understand these.
In his schema, all Scripture has at least three potential kinds of meanings, a bodily or literal sense., a soul or an ethical sense, and a spiritual or mystical sense. The most important and foundational is the last–not the first. Origen was an educated Alexandrian. He had read history books and philosophy books. In comparison, he understood Scripture to be something different–a revelation of God and truths about God and humanity. Thus, these were the most important meanings. All Scripture had a spiritual sense–not all of it had a literal sense. Indeed, Origen tells us that the various errors and inconsistencies in Scriptures were placed there precisely that we may not mistake the literal sense for the only or even the most important sense. The real key are the spiritual truths communicated through historical and legal metaphors. (And yes, I’ve written on this a bit before in my post on the Creed.)
What are the key things that I want you to take away from this huge excerpt? Three things:
1. Origen finds errors and inconsistencies in both the Old and New Testaments. As careful readers concerned about the truth he had to account for them. The same is true for us.
2. Origen ultimately concludes that the heart of the Scripture is spiritual teaching about God and His relationship with humanity.
3. Origen’s chief interpretive concern is to find “a meaning worthy of God.” Thus, the Scriptures must be read and searched with a specific purpose in mind. If one way of reading does not yield a meaning worthy of God, then another must be sought.
In conclusion, I must note that Origen’s writings were condemned by popes and councils. This condemnation had much to do with a clash of fourth century personalities and the aftermath of the debates between Rufinius and Jerome. What doomed Origen were an insufficient doctrine of the Trinity (his second century reasoning did not match fourth century norms) and the notion that the devil himself will be redeemed if God is to be “all in all.” Tied to this is also a suggestion of the transmigration of souls which is rather problematic… His principles for reading Scripture were not condemned, though, but formed the bedrock of the Christian interpretive tradition. That is, disagree with the above statements as you like but they represent a legitimate and important voice in patristic Christianity.
Moving along to a less controversial character, I’d like to also present a citation from Gregory of Nyssa from his ascetical treatise Life of Moses. In this reflection, he is pondering the tenth plague wherein all of the first-born sons of Egypt were slain in order to compel Pharaoh to let the Israelites go:
It does not seem good to me to pass this interpretation by without further contemplation. How could a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian [Pharaoh] acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know how to distinguish his right hand from his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: “The man who has sinned is the man who must die” and “a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father”? How can the history so contradict reason?
Therefore, as we look for the true spiritual meaning, seeking to determine whether the events took place typologically , we should be prepared to believe that the lawgiver has taught through the things said. The teaching is this: When through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil. (Vita Mos. II.91-92)
Here we can see the logic of Origen’s position being played out in a practical example. Gregory is horrified by the notion that God slew the children of Egypt for their fathers’ evil deeds. In a series of rhetorical questions he rejects that this could be the true meaning of the text. Key phrases in his denial include: “How can the history so contradict reason” and the notion of a “concept worthy of God”.
If we were to add yet one more influential early interpreter of Scripture to the fray, we could do no worse than to cite Augustine, a chief cornerstone of Western theology and the author of the most important early interpretive treatise in the West, On Christian Doctrine. In this work, Augustine describes how to know when which sense of Scripture is to be preferred:
But in addition to the foregoing rule, which guards us against taking a metaphorical form of speech as if it were literal, we must also pay heed to that which tells us not to take a literal form of speech as if it were figurative. In the first place, then, we must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbor; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbor. Every man, moreover, has hope in his own conscience, so far as he perceives that he has attained to the love and knowledge of God and his neighbor. Now all these matters have been spoken of in the first book.
But as men are prone to estimate sins, not by reference to their inherent sinfulness, but rather by reference to their own customs, it frequently happens that a man will think nothing blameable except what the men of his own country and time are accustomed to condemn, and nothing worthy of praise or approval except what is sanctioned by the custom of his companions; and thus it comes to pass, that if Scripture either enjoins what is opposed to the customs of the hearers, or condemns what is not so opposed, and if at the same time the authority of the word has a hold upon their minds, they think that the expression is figurative. Now Scripture enjoins nothing except charity, and condemns nothing except lust, and in that way fashions the lives of men. In the same way, if an erroneous opinion has taken possession of the mind, men think that whatever Scripture asserts contrary to this must be figurative. Now Scripture asserts nothing but the catholic faith, in regard to things past, future, and present. It is a narrative of the past, a prophecy of the future, and a description of the present. But all these tend to nourish and strengthen charity, and to overcome and root out lust. (Doct. Chr. III.14-15)
The second paragraph is quite interesting, especially in light of current disputes. However, in opening this line of thought he opens up a can of worms that he never manages to close…
A practical example is his interpretation of Super flumina (137)–from the appointed Psalter a couple nights ago. The final verse of the psalm is not just troubling to modern readers but to ancient ones as well. Augustine works with it in this way. The psalm is not advocating smashing babies onto rocks; no, Babylon is the Devil (viz. Rev.) The little ones of Babylon are thus nascent sins. The rock (viz. Paul) is Christ. Thus, when we feel sinful thoughts stirring, we must immediately dash them against Christ instead of acting upon them. In this way is a man truly blessed.
Why trot all this out? Why go to such great lengths to show what old dead guys thought? One reason is because Anglicanism considers them to be important witnesses (viz. Lancelot Andrewes’s dictum: one canon, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, five centuries and the Fathers in them.) But how are these Fathers authoritative–is it just in their words and concepts or is it in their methods as well? I would argue that if we take their words to be good guides then we must regard their methods also as worthy of emulation.
This is where I’m going; in a round-about way we’ve been headed towards the question of what we look for and how we take the words of God and words about God. Do we listen to, follow, and emulate the words, actions, and commands of God because they are good or because He is God? It’s not an easy question. Do we follow God’s commands because He is God and therefore whatever He says goes or because we know, discern and trust that God’s ways are good and salutary? In many cases there need be no distinction. In these examples, though, these faithful authors have identified conflicts between the straight-forward plain or literal sense of the text and the benevolence of God. In these cases they have identified that a good meaning worthy of God is to be sought for and found.
Let me reinforce a couple of points here.
1. Would Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine concur with the bumper sticker “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” in the cases of the above scripture passages? Yes! But there would be disagreement on just what it is that God is saying… All three will reject the literal sense of the passage and state that this is *not* what God is saying–God is saying something else entirely that must be discerned carefully, some times subtly.
2. Whenever notions of “good” or “worthy” are introduced, we move to a level of interpretation that is governed by philosophical—and culturally-bound Mr. St Augustine… —understandings of what “good” and “worthy” are. Modern readers and exegetes are often accused of importing philosophy into our reading process. And the criticisms are correct; we are. However–this has always been the case as our patristic authors demonstrate and even those who claim not to do it–are doing it.
Is any such importation of philosophy legitimized thereby? Of course not. But, it does mean that we must at times discern what is good and what is worthy of God. In this case, I regard Augustine’s dictum as the most valuable: whatever meaning most aids the edification of God’s Church and the growth into to the true love and true knowledge of God and neighbor is to be preferred. Is there room for disagreement here? Yes. Is there the potential for error here? Yes–but that is our lot.
Incarnation is a messy business. Scripture is never, can never, and should never be read in a vacuum. Instead, it is read in the context of the Church, with the help of the Spirit, with the support and insights of other Christians, shaped by the experience of the liturgy, works of mercy, and disciplines of praise and repentance. Ever we must be open and attentive to how God is attempting through his Word and Spirit to lead us more fully into the mind of Christ which is perfect love.