ORIGEN'S SYSTEM OF INTERPRETATION
Origen's work is dated around the beginning of the third century. There were others before Origen who interpreted the Scriptures in an allegorical way, but Origen is credited with being the father of the allegorical method of interpretation. The reason for that is that Origen, in a comprehensive system, made allegory the only way to truly understand the Scriptures.
In Origen's system of interpretation, he often denied the ordinary sense of the text, and replaced it with allegories which he made up. These allegories then became the real meaning of the text. There was no way to challenge the allegories on the basis of the text, since what the text actually said was no longer what it meant. In this allegorical system, when the text said, "Israel," it meant "the
Church" and not the Jews, so long as the promise or comment was good. If the promise or comment was not good, then "Israel" still meant "the Jews," and not "the Church."
Philip Schaff, the noted 19th century church historian said that, "Origen was the greatest scholar of his age, and the most gifted, most industrious, and most cultivated of all the ante-Nicene fathers. Even heathens and heretics admired or feared his brilliant talent and vast learning. His knowledge embraced all departments of the philology, philosophy, and theology of his day. With this he united profound and fertile thought, keen penetration, and glowing imagination." 1
Though he was very sympathetic towards Origen, Schaff noted that, "he can by no means be called orthodox, either in the Catholic or in the Protestant sense. His leaning to idealism, his predilection for Plato, and his noble effort to reconcile Christianity with reason, and to commend it even to educated heathens and Gnostics, led him into many grand and fascinating errors. Among these are his extremely ascetic and almost docetistic conception of corporeity, his denial of a material resurrection, his doctrine of the pre-existence of the pre-temporal fall of souls (including the pre-existence of the human soul of Christ); of eternal creation, of the extension of the work of redemption to the inhabitants of the stars and to all rational creatures, and of the final restoration of all men and fallen
Yet, in Schaff's opinion, "Origen's greatest service was in exegesis. He is the father of the critical investigation of Scripture, and his commentaries are still useful to scholars for their suggestiveness....His great defect is the neglect of the grammatical and historical sense and his constant desire to find a hidden mystic meaning. He even goes further in this direction than the Gnostics, who everywhere saw transcendental, unfathomable mysteries. His hermeneutical principle assumes a threefold sense - somatic, psychic, and pneumatic; or literal, moral, and spiritual. His allegorical interpretation is ingenious, but often runs far away from the text and degenerates into the merest caprice; while at times it gives way to the opposite extreme of a carnal literalism, by which he justifies his ascetic extravagance." 3
His system of interpretation produced great errors. For some of the doctrines which he believed and taught, Origen was considered by many to be an heretic. During his lifetime, he was excommunicated by two church councils held in Alexandria in 231 and 232 A.D. After his death as well, his views were officially condemned by some in the Church as heretical. Today there is no question that some of his teachings would be considered heretical enough to place him outside the believing Church. Nevertheless, "Most of the Greek fathers of the third and fourth centuries stood more or less under the influence of the spirit and the works of Origen, without adopting all his peculiar speculative views. The most distinguished among his disciples are Gregory Thaumaturgus, Dionysius of Alexandria, surnamed the Great, Heraclas, Hieracas, Pamphilus; in a wider sense also Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa and other eminent divines of the Nicene age." 4
Though these men of the third- and fourth-century Church did not accept all the teachings which Origen's system of interpretation generated, they did accept the system itself. With only the sparse historical information that we have available, we are still able to trace the transmission of that system. It is Origen's system of interpretation that produces the anti-Judaic "New Israel" theology where the Church replaces the Jews in the plan and purpose of God.
"...[I]n his youthful zeal for ascetic holiness, he [Origen] even committed the act of self-emasculation, partly to fulfil literally the mysterious words of Christ, in Matt. 19:12, for the sake of the kingdom of God, partly to secure himself against all temptation and calumny which might arise from his intercourse with many female catechumens. By this inconsiderate and misdirected heroism, which he himself repented in his riper years, he incapacitated himself, according to the canons of the church, for the clerical office. Nevertheless, a long time afterwards, in 228, he was ordained presbyter by two friendly bishops, Alexander of Jerusalem, and Theoctistus of Caesarea in Palestine, who had, even before this, on a former visit of his, invited him while a layman, to teach publicly in their churches, and to expound the Scriptures to their people." 5
Origen and his writings were well received in the Roman province of "Palestine," especially in Caesarea. Though it was a violation of the existing canons of the Church, Origen was ordained a presbyter there. The churches there did not accept his ex-communication. This attitude of the churches in the Roman province of "Palestine" is understandable in an historical sense. Almost all the Jews in Judea and Samaria had either died in the Bar Kokhba Rebellion of 132-135 A.D., or had been carried off into slavery by the victorious Romans. Before the gospel was preached to Gentiles, there were Jewish churches "throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria." (Acts 9:31)
From the end of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion on, all Jews were forbidden to even enter the precincts of Jerusalem. The city itself had been destroyed and renamed Aelia, in honor of the divine nature of Aelia Hadrianus, i.e. the Emperor Hadrian (who destroyed Jerusalem) as the Roman god Jupiter. Up until that time, the bishops of Jerusalem had all been Jewish. If there were bishops in Caesarea before that time, they also would have almost certainly been Jewish.
The Roman Empire had destroyed or removed the Jewish bishops and churches. They were replaced by Gentile ones. The Gentile bishops and churches naturally began to think of themselves as having replaced the Jews. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin, who was from Samaria, had expressed the belief that the destruction of Jerusalem and all the suffering that attended the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba Rebellion was a judgment of God for the failure to believe in Jesus. A large theological step was then taken from that view to the teaching that God had cast off the Jews, and had replaced them with the Gentile Church. There are obvious natural reasons why such a teaching would appeal to the Gentile bishops and churches in "Palestine."
Origen's system of interpretation provided a way for overcoming the scriptural obstacles to such teaching. Origen taught that some scriptures are to be understood only allegorically, some are to be understood only literally, and some are to be understood both allegorically and literally. While that appears on the surface to be an acceptable approach to the Scriptures, there are several serious problems that it causes. One example from Origen's work will make them evident. The children of Israel were in the wilderness shortly after God had redeemed them out of Egypt. The Bible says that, "Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim. And Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady
until the sun set. So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword." (Ex.17:9-13)
It is obvious that there is no natural, causal relationship between the height of the hands of Moses and the military success of Israel. So it is logical to conclude that the supernatural intervention of God on behalf of Israel is meant to teach a lesson. The text invites the reader to find and learn that lesson which goes beyond the primary meaning of the text. The Talmud says, "[It is written] and it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand that Israel prevailed, etc. Now did the hands of Moses wage war or crush the enemy? Not so; only the text signifies that so long as Israel turns their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven they prevailed, but otherwise they fell. The same lesson may be taught thus. [It is written], Make thee a fiery serpent and set it up on a pole, and it shall come to pass that everyone that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live. Now did the serpent kill or did the serpent keep alive? No; [what it indicates is that] when Israel turned their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed, but otherwise they pined away." 6 Different first- and second-century rabbis gave slightly different non-literal interpretations to this same text, referring the raised arms of Moses to Israel's doing the will of God and keeping the Law.
There is much evidence that Origen was familiar with the rabbinic writings, and even these particular interpretations. Eusebius says, "so great was the research which Origen applied in the investigation of the holy Scriptures, that he also studied the Hebrew language; and those original works written in the Hebrew and in the hands of the Jews, he procured as his own. He also investigated the editions [translations/Targums] of others, who, besides the seventy [the Septuagint], had published translations of the Scriptures, and some different from the well-known translations of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion..." 7
"A clear illustration of the way in which Origen seizes on a Jewish interpretation of a biblical passage and adapts it to suit the new dispensation is his handling of Moses' upraised arms during the battle with Amalek....The usual Christian interpretation of Moses' arms is to see in them a symbol of the Cross. Origen is attracted by the Jewish interpretation, but he cannot resist twisting it slightly so as to read as a condemnation of the Synagogue.... Origen comments, " 'If our actions are elevated and do not rest on the ground, Amalek is defeated...Thus if the people keeps the law, it raises up Moses' arms and the adversary is defeated; if it does not keep the law; Amalek is strengthened....I think that by this figure Moses also represents the two peoples, showing that one is the people of the Gentiles, which raises Moses' arms and extends them, that is to say elevates what Moses wrote and establishes its understanding on a high level and thereby conquers, while the other is the people which, because it does not raise Moses' arms or lift them off the ground, and does not consider that there is anything deep or subtle in him, is conquered by its enemies and laid low.' "It is no exaggeration to say that, for Origen, the whole of the debate between the Church and the Synagogue can be reduced to the one question of the interpretation of scripture....The difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Christians perceive the mysteries which are only hinted at in the Bible, whereas Jews are only capable of a strictly literal reading of the text. (It may be thought remarkable that Origen, of all people, who was well acquainted with Jewish exegesis in all its aspects, should have perpetuated this myth of 'Jewish literalism', but perpetuate it he certainly does.)" 8
The Bible itself makes it clear that it contains signs and symbols, types and foreshadows, metaphors and parables, visions, dreams, and mysteries, as well as spiritual lessons that transcend the description of a particular incident. Paul speaks of some of the events that happened to Israel in the Exodus and after it. He tells New Covenant believers, "Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come." (1Co.10:11) He reminds Timothy that "All Scripture is inspired by God [lit. 'God-breathed'] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction,
for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." (2Tim.3:16-17) In order for what happened to someone else to have meaning for us, there must be a transcendent lesson. The lesson, however, can only be learned from understanding what actually happened, not by ignoring or altering the reality to fit what we already have chosen to believe.
Unfortunately, Origen chose to ignore or alter reality to make it fit with his beliefs. In his theological battle against those in the Church who held to the plain meaning of the text, Origen decided to portray them as disgraceful "Jews" who were rejecting the Lord.
Though Origen knew that God had given the New Covenant Scriptures to the world through Jewish men, he wrote that it is "the people of the Gentiles, which raises Moses' arms and extends them, that is to say elevates what Moses wrote and establishes its understanding on a high level..." He was referring to the New Covenant Scriptures as that elevation of the writings of Moses, but the reality that it was all written or dictated by Jews did not fit with the point that he wanted to make. So he distorted the reality. Anyone who did not accept his allegorical system of interpretation was nothing more than "a Jew," and really did not belong in the Church. Origen maintained, "If anyone wishes to hear and understand these words literally he ought to gather with the Jews rather than with the Christians. But if he wishes to be a Christian and a disciple of Paul, let him hear Paul saying that 'the Law is spiritual' [and] declaring that these words are 'allegorical' when the Law speaks of Abraham and his wife and sons." 9 The rabbis did not hold to a strictly literal method of understanding Scripture, far from it. Origen knew that. But the reality did not support his beliefs, so he distorted the reality rather than change his beliefs.
This is a major problem with allegorical and mystical interpretation. How can anyone test the truth of a particular allegorical or mystical interpretation? What makes it true? Is there any way to delineate what is acceptable and what is not? Whose allegorical or mystical interpretation is right or authoritative? Does it
even matter if the facts are actually quite different than the interpreter claims?
The Scriptures present themselves as the standard of Truth by which all else, including interpretation, is to be judged. Yet the very manner of an allegorical and mystical system of interpretation, by denying the plain sense and meaning of the text, makes that standard useless. The "real" meaning of the Scriptures is no longer in what they actually say. "For Origen, the standard itself became invisible to all but 'the perfect man' (ho teleios, perhaps 'the initiate') [who] can attain to an understanding of the spiritual law." 10
How does one know which scriptures are to be understood which way? If, for example, the basic prophecies concerning the first coming of the Messiah were literally fulfilled, then why should we expect the prophecies concerning His second coming to have only mystical fulfillment? The literal fulfillment of prophecy is of tremendous significance to the gospel. Without the literal fulfillment of prophecy, there is no gospel.
Even the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are essential to the gospel. To the allegorist, what could be more "carnal" than a literal understanding of Jewish genealogies? But those genealogies establish the legal right of Jesus to the throne of David. His physical descent from David was essential to God's plan of redemption for the world.
Origen's teachings arise from, and demand, an anti-Judaic outlook. He disinherited the Jews and set the Church in their place. Those scriptures that promised judgment on Israel (or the Jews, or Jacob, etc.) were still to be understood in their literal sense. But those scriptures that promised blessing on Israel (or the Jews, or Jacob, etc.) were henceforth only to be understood as referring to the Church. That made the churches in "Palestine" the sole geographical heirs of the gospel, worthy of special reverence. Origen was invited to teach there, despite the dissension which his teachings aroused elsewhere. He was made a presbyter there, despite the canons of the Church. His teachings were carefully recorded and kept there.
From there, his teachings spread to other parts of the Church. "Gregory, surnamed Thaumaturgus, 'the wonder-worker,' was converted from heathenism in his youth by Origen at Caesarea, in Palestine, spent eight years in his society, and then, after a season of contemplative retreat, labored as bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus from 244 to 270 with extraordinary success."11 "Pamphilus, a great admirer of Origen, a presbyter and theological teacher at Caesarea in Palestine, and a martyr of the persecution of Maximinus (309), was not an author himself, but one of the most liberal and efficient promoters of Christian learning. He did invaluable service to future generations by founding a theological school and collecting a large library, from which his pupil and friend Eusebius (hence called 'Eusebius Pampili'), Jerome, and many others, drew or increased their useful information. Without that library the church history of Eusebius would be far less instructive than it is now. Pamphilus transcribed with his own hand useful books, among others the Septuagint from the Hexapla of Origen. He aided poor students and distributed the Scriptures. While in prison, he wrote a defense of Origen, which was completed by Eusebius in six books, but only the first remains in the Latin version of Rufinus, whom Jerome charges with wilful alterations. It is addressed to the confessors who were condemned to the mines of Palestine, to assure them of the orthodoxy of Origen from his own writings, especially on the trinity and the person of Christ." 12
The views of Origen had been declared to be heretical, but, led by Pamphilus, the churches in "Palestine" established a theological school and library dedicated to establishing Origen's views as the true orthodoxy throughout the entire Church. Pamphilus taught Eusebius, and Eusebius wholeheartedly gave himself to the task of defending the views of Origen. Eusebius did that explicitly in the six volume defense of Origen which he completed, but he also did it in his Ecclesiastical History. Origen's heresy was to triumph in the fourth century at the Council of Nicea through Eusebius, Constantine, and those who followed them. "The letters from the emperor cited in the Vita Constantini, one of which must date even before Nicea, show both the closeness of the relationship that had grown up between the two men and also Constantine's acceptance of the role which Eusebius had cast for him." 13 Before we take a look at that Council and its decisions, we need to first examine the pivotal theological issue - the nature of the fulfilled kingdom of God.
1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol.II, Ante-Nicene
Christianity, A.D. 100-325, Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1883, P.790
2. ibid., P.791
6. Maurice Simon, translator, "Rosh Hashanah III.5," in The Babylonian
Talmud, ed. Isadore Epstein, The Soncino Press, London, 1938, Pp.133-134
7. The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, Bk.6, Ch.16, Pp.235-236
8. N.R.M. De Lange, Origen and the Jews, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge,
1976, P.82, n.59
9. Ronald E. Heine, translator, Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, in
The Fathers of the Church, Vol.71, Catholic University Press, Washington,
D.C., 1982, Homily VI, Pp.121-122
10. De Lange, op. cit., P.83, n.65
11. Schaff, op. cit., P.797
12. ibid., P.807
13. W.H.C. Frend, "Church and State: Perspective and Problems in the
Patristic Era," Studia Patristica, Vol.XVII, Part One, Pergamon Press,
Oxford, 1982, P.40