The Church Father named Origen was born around 185 in Alexandra. His parents were Christian, in fact, in 202 his father, Leonides, was martyred. Origin wrote a letter of encouragement to his Dad and it’s said that he also attempted to join him in martyrdom but he was restrained by his mother who hid his clothing and literally prevented him from walking out the door.
Devoted to a life or austere devotion and thoughtful scholarship, Origen went to great lengths to express the seriousness of his faith. According to tradition he took Matt 19:12 literally (castrating himself to eliminate the problem of lust)—although he later disapproved of the action.
It was during persecution under the Emperor Decian (249-51) that Origen was imprisoned and severely tortured. He refused to renounce his faith; however, as a result of his injuries, Origen died a few days after his release.
The primary literary works of Origin are fourfold:
- Biblical. In addition to many commentaries and expositions, Origen published a sizable edition of the Old Testament. The “Hexpala” describes an edition of the Old Testament in six parallel versions.
- First Principles is considered by many to be the first attempt at a systematic theology text. Divided into four books, it covers God, the world, freedom, and Scripture.
- Against Celsus is an apologetic response to Celsus’s True Word, an anti-Christian work written in the late 170’s.
- Practical Works include such titles as Prayer and Exhortations to Martyrdom.
Although Origen’s desire was to be a faithful Christian, he has been looked upon with theological suspicion and disapproval since the early centuries of the church. In fact, he was officially condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 553. Nevertheless, Origen remains arguably the most important church father of Greek theology.
Part of the problem was Origen’s use of the allegorical method—emphasizing a figurative reading of the text to such an extent that it looses its historical character. In this sense, Origen is a case study on the importance of reading the Bible in a redemptive historical context, demonstrating that if our hermeneutic (method of interpretation) is amiss, our conclusions will naturally follow. In Origen’s case, this had implications on a deficient view of the Trinity and the person of Christ.
On a positive note, here a snippet from Origen’s pen:
For whatever be the knowledge which we are able to obtain of God, either by perception or reflection, we must of necessity believe that He is by many degrees far better than what we perceive Him to be.
1. First Principles 1.5
Hi Chris: just want to signal that allegorical and figural patristic and medieval readings were two different animals, forcefully separated and expounded in the 20th century works, among others, of J. Danielou and H. de Lubac. What was figurism (or typology) in biblical writers and perhaps Origen, is not the later allegorcal extremes that departed from the historical-redemptive fabric of holy writ — in fact figurist interpretation rests upon it. See de Lubac’s “Medieval Exegesis” for a tour de force: not only is a figurative hermeneutic that of our Lord and the Apostles, rooted deeply in the Hebrew prophet’s recapitulation principle of prophetic history, but it constitutes THE primary method of the Christian tradition, deeply rooted in its liturgy, built upon and never neglecting, historical-literal exegesis (upon which Origen himself insists). See the marvelous modern work on early figurism and its biblical roots and literary flowering in Western civilization by the German philologist E. Auerbach, et al (includinG A. Louth, who sticks to the use of the term “allegory”). Might want to check out Luther’s sermons too — for his “spiritual sense” after historical exegesis (but don’t tell the protestants who think he rid us of that medieval stuff!). Modern exclusion of figural realities, in evangelicalism especially, is a fruit of enlightenment rationalism, a historical consciousness that has lost its sense of the poetic and ability of spiritual texts to carry a plurality of senses (which is the Christian tradition’s consensus, in spite of W. Kaiser calling it “non-sense”), and a resultant theological reductionism that suffers from an inadequate international grounding of the nature of Scripture and hermeneutics. The so-called redemptive-historical approach of modern reformed writers is a step — a step always acknowledged by the tradition of Christian exegesis — but it’s not the summa. It is a means that’s been made an end, to the detriment of the people of God’s nutrition and heritage. It’s a modern, post-enlightenment phenomena that is rooted in the reductionism of historical-critical thought. Take care :), your brother, Paul
correction: not “international” but “incarnational”
Thanks for highlighting this pioneer in Christian exegesis.I might add that, while evangelicals regard his figurative exegesis with skepticism, it was thoroughly christological and fully accepted by the church. In fact his exegetical method had nothing to do with the church’s condemnation of him as a heretic. He was condemned for his more speculative writings concerning the soul, angels and eschatology.
Saint Jerome, Bible translator and Latin exegesis pioneer of the fourth century, was one of the most vocal anti-origenist polemicists. Yet even he fully integrated Origen’s figural exegetical method–and was proud of it!(see his letter 61 to Vigilance).
Thanks Paul and Nathanael. That’s a good corrective word. As I understand Origen, it’s not fair to pigeonhole him as employing a purely allegorical method. He was obviously committed to Scripture as the word of God and the church as the guardian of the tradition. The part that makes many of us uneasy is Origen’s reliance upon Platonic metaphysics, which also seemed to find expression in his interpretive method. With both of these commitments—a more redemptive historical, Antiochen approach and allegorical reading in the direction of Philo—he steered between the purely spiritual and purely literal in a way that is admirable, especially with its Christological emphasis. In this regard, I’m with you, I’d rather see a robust Christological hermeneutic employed, even if it may at points be too far on the maximalist side, than a literal reading that fails to appreciate the Christological significance. As you indicate, this is also part of the Lutheran legacy, which, of course, is where all fruitful discussions about theology properly lead, at least when I’m talking with my beloved brethren in the Szobody family.
Chris: just wanted to drop another note to say that there are recent scholars — including de Lubac who is probably the greatest Origenist scholar and historian of figural reading in the 20th cent. — who hold now that Alexandrian exegesis has its origin in the Gospels and neither platonism or Philo (which is the old thesis that they now historically challenge with great vehemence). Recommendation of a great recent work: “Christian figural reading and the fashioning of identity” by J.D. Dawson. Much of the work is on Origen and Auerbach (as well as the ‘Yale school’ exegesis of H. Frei). Note: you are exemplary in gracious response in theological discourse!
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