Note to the reader: This is the third in a series of blogs on reading the Bible as a biblical theological unity. For context, readers should consult the prior posts.

The corny pun in the title (and you thought it was a typo!) is in honor of the man who almost single-handedly led the Church out of the biblical bafflement of the second century, Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE). Although a card-carrying member of the suffering church—his father was martyred when Origen was but a youth and Origen himself died as a result of the bloody Decian persecution--, his achievements and impact mark him as one of the most brilliant men of antiquity. (Origen had the distinction, shared belatedly by Einstein, of being attended around the clock by a team of paid stenographers who were charged with preserving any pearls of wisdom that fell from his lips.)

An Inheritance Guarded

Origen inherited from the second-century church the twin commitment to the Bible (now clearly comprised of an Old and New Testament) and to the Rule of Faith (a summary of basic beliefs). Origen also understood the complex relationship of that Rule to the Bible and its reading: the Rule was not only derived from the Bible but was also the final arbiter of what the Bible could mean-proper reading of the Bible had to be a ruled reading. Origen also took it as axiomatic, that often the scriptures bore witness to the Rule of Faith only symbolically or by some kind of figurative reading.

A Faith Attacked

But Origen received this inheritance in perilous times. In the course of the second century, Jews had forcefully argued that Christians were unable to take the literal meaning of the Old Testament, which overwhelmingly focuses on Israel, seriously. Pagan authorities, on the other hand, noting the Christian movement’s permanent break with Judaism and its alarming growth among gentiles, instituted several waves of repression against Church; and pagan intellectuals launched increasingly informed and sophisticated attacks against the veracity and coherence of the Bible and the philosophical integrity of the Christian faith.

These external attacks simply emboldened the Gnostic wing of the Christian movement. On the one hand, the Gnostics conceded that pagan intellectuals had a point: Christian theology did need to be revised and systematized in ways more consistent with the philosophical (i.e., Neo-Platonic) givens of the day. On the other hand, the Gnostics argued, the Jews should be ceded both their scriptures and their commitment to literal meaning. The Christian faith was a spiritual movement and only needed those writings which communicated spiritual things. And of course it was the Apostle Paul who insisted that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6) and that he was “explaining spiritual things to spiritual people” (1 Cor 2:13).

A Rule of Faith Strengthen and Systematized

Origen realized that a two-pronged approach was needed. The Gnostics could be silenced and the external critics answered only if both the Rule of Faith and the Christian use of the Bible could be better articulated, with a more systematic rationale. This is precisely what Origen set out to do in his magnum opus, On First Principles. As inherited, the Rule of Faith was little more than a hodge-podge of reflections on the high points of the biblical story. There were so many ethical, logical, eternal, and spiritual questions left unanswered: how precisely was Jesus related to the Father, where did other spiritual being come from, what are human beings made for , what happens after death, and what is the ultimate end of all things—in short, what eternal truths did the time-bound biblical story point to. For all these questions and many more, Origen worked out answers he thought were both intellectually coherent and consistent with the apostolic faith. Origen now had a Rule of Faith that defined orthodox faith and practice over against the false theology of the Gnostic. He could now claim with confidence, “If however they interpret spiritually, even with this very spiritual understanding they do not hold to the rule of apostolic truth” [1](Homily on Psalm 36, 4.1).

Christian Biblical Interpretation Explained

Bound as he was to the entire Bible of his day, Origen now turned to the challenge of demonstrating just how that Bible bore a consistent and coherent witness to this Rule of Faith which now, in its improved form, addressed a rich range of important questions. Here, too, Origen sought to improve on what he had inherited. He explained that God’s word to human beings, who by God design were composed of body, soul, and spirit, had an analogous structure: 1) the meaning of a biblical text that was obvious to the casual reader, e.g., the actual story narrated or the literal meaning of a command, comprised the Body of the Bible; 2) the meaning that pointed to a fairly obvious application to the Christian reader (and Origen was very sketchy here) is the Soul of the Bible (e.g., the application of the law against muzzling working oxen to Christian workers [see 1 Cor 9:9-10]); and 3) the meaning that God himself had in mind and which simultaneously nurtures the Christian life and anchors the deepest theology of the church (i.e., the Rule of Faith) was the Spirit of the Bible.

In articulating this very first version of the three-fold interpretation of Scripture, Origen was not suggesting that one should generally go with the literal “bodily” meaning and only when necessary resort to the figurative “spiritual” meaning. No, a primary commitment to the literal meaning was a mark of Jewish interpretation, not Christian. Rather, Origen was claiming that, at every point, God had revealed the spiritual meaning to the inspired authors but had willed them to clothe, and sometimes disguise, that meaning in coarser stuff. The spiritual meaning was at every point primary and therefore the ultimate object of every true interpretation. This spiritual meaning could be discovered by intelligent and resourceful believers using allegorical interpretation, a method we will illustrate in the next post.

Biblical Bafflement Banished?

But why would God do it this way? Why would he inspire any obscurity in his revelation? Throughout his voluminous work (and most of it was devoted to scriptural exposition!), Origen offered many reasons: to protect Christian mysteries from hostile readers, to confound the unbelieving, to speak to all levels of Christian readers, and to illustrate the depth and riches of the Bible and of Christian truth. In the final analysis, the mysterious, spiritual meaning of the text was simply the necessary correlate of the Creator-creature distinction. How could divine revelation of the deepest and most sublime mysteries in the universe be anything but a stretch for sinful and finite human beings?

Thus Origen’s antidote for biblical bafflement wasn’t a doctrine of perspicuity (i.e., that the central message of the Bible is plain to the humblest reader) but rather the necessity of a strong theology and an unwavering and creative commitment to reading the Bible in a way consistent with it. Are you ok with this? If not, where did Origen (and the second century church?) go wrong?

[1] Translation by Peter Martens, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 114.

Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri, and together they have five kids. See also 

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