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 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, " 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. " 2
Because of these errors, 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." 3
Though Eusebius and other leaders 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. 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.
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. 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 is his treatment of the story of Moses and Amalek .
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. 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 portrayed them as disgraceful "Jews" who were rejecting the Lord.
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' [who] can attain to an understanding of the spiritual law." 4
If 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.
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." 5 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
4. De Lange, N.R.M. Origen and the Jews, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976, P.83, n.65
5. 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
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