The PostBarthian
13Jun/120

Origen Apology for the Allegorical Method (Origenism)

Origen of Alexandria (185-232) was famous for his Neo-Platonic allegorical method often referred to as "Origenism". Often this involves extreme typology that the meaning derived from the text often appears absurd. This type of Typology is common throughout the Patristics, with the one anchor being in the person of Christ. All allegory and typology somehow is interpreted in such a way to justify all sort of non-sequitars. In Origen's The First Principles, a defense of Origenism is provided by attacking an opposite hermaneutic of extreme literalism (such as that of Dispensationalism in its mantra of "literal whenever possible.").  I found the following three sections helpful in demonstrating that there is an extreme form of Biblicism that makes the bible impossible, and makes nonsense of the passages that Origen discusses in this quotation. 

Origen is on-and-off the reading list, and although I consider him to be a Christian and not a heretic like Arius, mostly because his doctrines were not fully discussed until a later time period, those Origenists who continued to assert errors in Origens dogmatics against orthodoxy were examples of how Origen cannot be read uncritically. However, in this example, Augustine of Hippo follows, as well as most of the early Church Father's in their analysis of the proto-history in Genesis 1-11. Augustine's The Literal Meaning of Genesis, follows Origen in interpreting those passages a poetry, and affirm God is not a Husbandman who physically planted the Tree of Knowledge in the same way as all men plant trees today. And more often the allegorical interpretation of Genesis specifically was affirmed by most Church fathers rather than the literal interpretation. I don't think this strong consensus supports Origenism whole-sale, because Calvin's doctrine of the six-day creation is a strong counter-balance. The interesting question for me rather was how has Dogmatics been understood over Church History, and are not the ultra-conservatives actually the liberals, if the Church has never held extreme literalism? Are we at that point denying sola scriptura in our Literalism? "who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Corinthians 3:6)

16. It was not only, however, with the (Scriptures composed) before the advent (of Christ) that the Spirit thus dealt; but as being the same Spirit, and (proceeding) from the one God, He did the same thing both with the evangelists and the apostles,—as even these do not contain through­out a pure history of events, which are in­terwoven indeed according to the letter, but which did not actually occur. Nor even do the law and the commandments wholly convey what is agreeable to reason. For who that has understanding will sup­pose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, ex­isted without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indi­cate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. Cain also, when going forth from the presence of God, certainly appears to thoughtful men as likely to lead the reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and what is the meaning of going out from Him. And what need is there to say more, since those who are not altogether blind can collect countless instances of a similar kind recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place? Nay, the Gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives; e.g., the devil leading Jesus up into a high moun­tain, in order to show him from thence the kingdoms of the whole world, and the glory of them. For who is there among those who do not read such accounts carelessly, that would not condemn those who think that with the eye of the body­—which requires a lofty height in order that the parts lying (immediately) under and adjacent may be seen—the kingdoms of the Persians, and Scythians, and Indians, and Parthians, were beheld, and the manner in which their princes are glorified among men? And the attentive reader may no­tice in the Gospels innumerable other pas­sages like these, so that he will be convinced that in the histories that are literally re­corded, circumstances that did not occur are inserted.

17. And if we come to the legislation of Moses, many of the laws manifest the irrationality, and others the impossibility, of their literal observance. The irration­ality (in this), that the people are forbid­den to eat vultures, although no one even in the direst famines was (ever) driven by want to have recourse to this bird; and that children eight days old, which are un­circumcised, are ordered to be extermi­nated from among their people, it being necessary, if the law were to be carried out at all literally with regard to these, that their fathers, or those with whom they are brought up, should be commanded to be put to death. Now the Scripture says: “Every male that is uncircumcised, who shall not be circumcised on the eighth day, shall be cut off from among his people.” And if you wish to see impossibilities con­tained in the legislation, let us observe that the goat-stag is one of those animals that cannot exist, and yet Moses commands us to offer it as being a clean beast; whereas a griffin, which is not recorded ever to have been subdued by man, the lawgiver forbids to be eaten. Nay, he who care­fully considers (the famous injunction re­lating to) the Sabbath, “Ye shall sit each one in your dwellings: let no one go out from his place on the seventh day,” will deem it impossible to be literally observed: for no living being is able to sit throughout a whole day, and remain without moving from a sitting position. And therefore those who belong to the circumcision, and all who desire that no meaning should be exhibited, save the literal one, do not in­vestigate at all such subjects as those of the goat-stag and griffin and vulture, but indulge in foolish talk on certain points, multiplying words and adducing tasteless traditions; as, for example, with regard to the Sabbath, saying that two thousand cu­bits is each one’s limit. Others, again, among whom is Dositheus the Samaritan, condemning such an interpretation, think that in the position in which a man is found on the Sabbath-day, he is to remain until evening. Moreover, the not carrying of a burden on the Sabbath-day is an im­possibility; and therefore the Jewish teach­ers have fallen into countless absurdities, saying that a shoe of such a kind was a burden, but not one of another kind; and that a sandal which had nails was a bur­den, but not one that was without them; and in like manner what was borne on one shoulder (was a load), but not that which was carried on both.

18. And if we go to the Gospel and institute a similar examination, what would be more irrational than (to take literally the injunction), “Salute no man by the way,” which simple persons think the Sav­iour enjoined on the apostles? The com­mand, moreover, that the right cheek should be smitten, is most incredible, since everyone who strikes, unless he happen to have some bodily defect, smites the left cheek with his right hand. And it is im­possible to take (literally, the statement) in the Gospel about the “offending” of the right eye. For, to grant the possibility of one being “offended” by the sense of sight, how, when there are two eyes that see, should the blame be laid upon the right eye? And who is there that, con­demning himself for having looked upon a woman to lust after her, would rationally transfer the blame to the right eye alone, and throw it away? The apostle, more­over, lays down the law, saying, “Is any man called, being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised.” In the first place, anyone will see that he does not utter these words in connection with the subject before him. For, when laying down precepts on marriage and purity, how will it not appear that he has intro­duced these words at random? But, in the second place, who will say that a man does wrong who endeavours to become un­circumcised, if that be possible, on account of the disgrace that is considered by the multitude to attach to circumcision. All these statements have been made by us, in order to show that the design of that divine power which gave us the sacred Scriptures is, that we should not receive what is presented by the letter alone (such things being sometimes not true in their literal acceptation, but absurd and impos­sible), but that certain things have been introduced into the actual history and into the legislation that are useful in their literal sense.

Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, Book IV, Chapter I, Sections 16-18 (Greek Text).

 

 

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Posted by Wyatt

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