Fuller Theological Seminary
Analytical Paper for Origen On First Principles: Book Four
A Paper Presented in Partial Fulfillment Of the Requirements for the Course CH501 Patristic Theology Dr. R.A. Muller
By Jack Hakimian Summer 2007
Origen influenced the Alexandrian Theological Schools with his use of the allegorical method of interpretation. Like Paul’s use of “allegoroumena” in Galatians 4:24, Origen seemed to advocate the view that the scriptures had more then a literal, historical context, but a spiritual purpose (oikonomiai) in bringing souls closer to God.1
Most likely he was influenced by another noted scholar, Clement of Alexandria, who also used Greek philosophy and the allegorical method of interpreting scripture to prove his arguments against the Gnostics.2 The Gnostics basically had two major premises. First, that there were hidden meanings in scripture that only “physics” could understand. Secondly, the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament. In response to this both, Origen and Clement of Alexandra argued a defense of the ecclesiastical tradition on the basis of allegorical interpretation of the Bible and an eschatology in which God’s punishments are seen more as a cleaning system, rather than punishment.
Origen basically claimed if there were stumbling blocks in understanding the text they were placed their by God so the reader can interpret their meaning by giving careful attention to context, wording, and parallels.3 For him, the ultimate goal of hermeneutics is to dig out the various meanings and experience the “ascent of the soul”.4 In theory, he
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and later theologians from Alexandria seemed to advocate a balanced method of interpretation, which they didn’t in practice always apply. This balanced method is based on a tripartite anthropology. The same way the Greeks viewed the human being as having a body, soul and spirit the scriptures are viewed with having a literal, moral, and spiritual sense.5 Origen does imply that the task of skillful exegete is to “identify the heavenly realities” of a passage carefully. The “simple minded” miss this fact, like the literalist Jews who could not get passed the misunderstandings of the messianic prophecies.6
The fact that he was raised and educated in Alexandria helps shed light as to why he know so much about Greek philosophy and Jewish hermeneutical construct. Alexandria was one of the vital intellectual centers of the ancient world and the home of a thriving Greek-speaking Jewish community.
The genre of On First Principles appears to be polemic and instructional. Concerning the polemic nature Origen seems to argue against two popular belief systems. Firstly, he argues against an extreme literal hermeneutical approach utilized by the Jews when reading the Old Testament. He writes that they don’t take into account the various purposes of scripture which range from: historical, moral, allegorical and anagogical. 7 Secondly he seems to be responding to the heresy of the two popular Gnostics, Valentinus and Marcion. These men taught that the God of the Old Testament was
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vindictive and cruel, therefore a lesser God than the God of the New Testament. He responds by stating that the unity of the Bible must be preserved and the narratives of God’s judgments are not punitive, but rather disciplinary. It’s interesting that he uses Paul as an authority to substantiate the Old Testament. On page 60 it reads, “It is likely that those who accept the apostle once and for all as a man of God (theios aner) will not be in doubt about the five books attributed to Moses.”8 The significance of this quote is that the Gnostics claim that Paul’s writings and the Gospel of Luke are authoritative, and yet Origen dispels this myth by showing the readers how Paul used the Old testament in an allegorical authoritative sense to help convey the spiritual meaning to the readers.
This takes me to the last point in this section. He not only argues against these heresies, but he also instructs the reader on how they should interpret the scriptures, by giving examples on how Paul himself used the allegorical or even the anagogical method at times.9
It seems that Origen viewed the scripture as inspired by the Holy Spirit to help humans in two ways. Firstly the Holy Spirit helps us understand the “ineffable mysteries surrounding the fate of humans”.10 Secondly, to hide the meaning of subjects that some people cannot handle. One example he constantly uses is the creation story.11 He argues
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that the creation story may seem plain and taken literally by most people, but some will see the apparent unreasonableness of the story and yearn from it a greater truth, a hidden truth that is in a sense the second meaning of the text. Or as he would state it, “the heavenly” meaning. Origen saw the Bible had contradictions in the narratives that didn’t connect with what he considered the real world. He believed God placed those “wrenches in the spoke” to make us want to learn more. He argues that if everything was plain we would disregard the teaching of scripture or not feel that God is worthy of our Worship due to the simple nature of the text.12 In light of his views, it appears that he believes that certain events were falsely placed in the scriptures. He writes on page 62, “…….Scripture has woven into the historical narrative some feature which did not happen; sometimes the event is an impossibility; sometimes though possible, it actually did not happen. Sometimes only a few phrases which are not true in the bodily sense are inserted, sometimes more. We must assume an analogous situation in regard to the law.”13 He applies this idea aggressively to Genesis chapter one. He argues that a person would be intellectually naive to believe that the creation story was literal since the sun, moon and stars where not yet created. Without the heavens he feels there could be no life.14 He even sees the idea of God as a garner ignorant and the anthropomorphic language of Him walking through His garden as ridiculous.
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Overall he seems to have no problem with passages that seem implausible. For him God ordained the difficulty of the scripture to teach allegorical truth or reinforce a clear moral law that has to be taken at face value.
Origen saw the use of the Old Testament as vital. For Him, the triune God does not change, because He is eternal by nature and Origen is in agreement with the Gnostics that He is the creator God. If He is the creator God, it means then that he is unbegotten and always self existent. Since Jesus is eternally self-existent also then he cannot be greater or less than the creator God. He writes, “In contrast to this speculation even the simplest minds among those proud to belong to the church have never assumed the existence if any god greater than the creator-god.” So, in arguing for the God of Genesis who created, not maybe literally that way, he cannot be less than Jesus Christ, who like the God of the Old Testament is unbegotten as to his divine nature. To break the unity of the Bible is to take away the keys of salvation. Origen sees in the Old Testament narratives, “certain mystical arrangements” (oikonomiai).15