The following paper was written as one of two papers for my Early to Medieval Christian History class as Princeton Theological Seminary. I did fairly well on this paper.
Known as a “man of the church,” Origen of Alexandria is “probably the most influential theologian of the early Christian era.” “By some accounts [he] was the most prolific writer the ancient world ever knew” and as a result of his work On First Principles, “many…[call] him the first systematic theologian of Christianity.” This essay will focus on Book IV of this work which Origen dedicated to “the divinely inspired Holy Scripture and how it ought to be read and understood.” While the year On First Principles was written is not explicitly mentioned in Book IV, there are other internal aspects of this work that assist with dating. The many biblical citations, to include the Septuagint, in addition to the fact that his successors quoted him extensively in their works, scholars have been able to establish that On First Principles “was written between 220 and 230” while Origen was in Alexandria. In writing this treatise Origen “had an apologetic purpose” in support of his interactions with a litany of religious and philosophical schools of thought including “the Jews, various pagan authors, Marcionites…[and]…Gnostics.” As “Alexandria was the greatest intellectual, cultural, and commercial center of the Roman Empire” there were many ideas competing with those of the Old and New Testaments. To make matters even more complicated, the question of what should be included in the Biblical canon “was still open in Origen’s day.” In response to the debates he had with those outside the church as well as the ambiguity of the canon, Origen uses Book IV of On First Principles, to build a strong defense for “the divinity of the Scriptures” and then transitions to “the correct method of interpretation.”
SCRIPTURE AS DIVINE
As an educated man, Origen was “not content with common notions and the evidence of things one can see” and neither were his contemporaries. This fact greatly affected the way in which he approached Scripture. And it greatly affected the way he presented it to those he interacted with. Before addressing the proper means of interpretation of the Scriptures, Origen sought to prove to those who were skeptical that the Scriptures were worthy of attention in the first place. At the beginning of Book IV, Origen declares that Scripture is not based on “common notions” but he believes the testimonies in the Scriptures are “witnesses to that which [he] consider[s] a convincing proof of [his] statements.” He then goes on to prove the validity of these witnesses by citing the response of both Greek and barbarian nations. Claiming the very spread of Christianity to other nations serves as quantifiable proof of the truths presented in the Scriptures, Origen writes that he has “not come across any lawgiver who has been able to inspire zeal for the acceptance of his words among other nations.” Origen is not content to stop with the mere acceptance of both Greek and barbarian nations but goes further by citing the fact that:
In spite of constant anti-Christian machinations which cause some confessors of Christianity to lose their lives and others to lose their professions, it has been possible for the word to be preached throughout the inhabited world even in the absence of an abundant supply of teachers, and Greeks and barbarians, wise and unwise, have adopted the religion proclaimed by Jesus.
Now that Origen has presented the evidence for the legitimacy of the witnesses found in Scripture, he moves away from general ideas supporting his claims and begins quoting the Scriptures to support his claim of divinity.
Using the Scriptures as his primary source of information, Origen uses Biblical prophecies to prove its divinity. Almost immediately, Origen begins citing Jewish Scriptures to focus in on his Jewish contemporaries in hopes of winning them to Christ. Origen quotes Isaiah 7:13-14 to support the virgin birth of Christ, he quotes Micah 5:2 to show how Jesus fulfilled the prophecy in that he was born in Bethlehem, and he also quotes Daniel 4:25 claiming “the 70 weeks which were to elapse before the coming of the messianic ruler.” Alluding to Hebrews 10:1, Origen claims that “the light present in the law of Moses but previously hidden under a veil has begun to shine forth with the advent of Christ” and as such has “gradually been raised to the status of knowledge” thus justifying his use of the Old Testament. In establishing the divinity of the Old Testament Origen has at the same time spoken to the divinity of the New Testament. For further evidence to its divinity, Origen highlights the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy as recorded in Matthew 10:18. Here Jesus predicts that his followers “will be dragged before kings and governors for my sake to bear testimony before them and the nations” which has indeed been happening as in the cases of Priscilla and Felicity as well as Justin the Martyr to name a few well known individuals who gave their lives for their belief in Jesus the Christ. Having presented his case for the divinity of Scripture, Origen is now able to address the question of proper interpretation.
THE CORRECT METHOD OF INTERPRETATION
Straight away Origen presents a polemic of interpretive styles by contrasting the “advocates of circumcision” with the “advocates of heresies.” While the former had the “intention to follow the letter of the prophecies which spoke of him, but…did not see him physically,” the latter read many Scriptures and “attributed them to the creator-god…whom the Jews worship.” As Origen sees it, the “advocates of circumcision,” read the Jews, “did not accept our Lord Jesus but crucified him as one who claimed to be the Messiah against the law” and the “advocates of heresies” chose to believe that “the Savior had come proclaiming a more perfect God who, as they maintain, is not the creator-god.” Origen refutes both of these stances stating that in both cases, the “Scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense but is interpreted according to the mere letter.” Origen highlights his understanding of proper interpretation of Scriptures in second portion of Book IV. “It seems to us,” writes Origen, “that the correct method of approaching the Scriptures and grasping their sense is…taking it from the texts themselves.” As Origen understands it, there are three “senses” of the text: body, soul, and spirit. The physical, or bodily sense can be grasped by “the simpler person,” while the soul can be grasped by “the somewhat more advanced,” leaving the spiritual sense to be understood only by “the person who is perfect.” This same person is “the one who can identify the heavenly realities, whose copy and shadow the “Jews according to the flesh” were worshipping, and who can recognize the good things to come of which the law displays but a shadow.” That said, “the intent was that…the bodily element of the Scriptures… should be capable of improving the multitude according to their capacity” and the “apostolic challenge is…[to] seek in everything the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” as explained in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10. As such, Origen is a proponent of interpreting the Scriptures allegorically and typologically. Allegorical interpretations would be similar to the Apostle Paul’s explanation of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-24 where the two women represent the two covenants. Typological interpretations are similar to the way “the same apostle says elsewhere, after quoting Exodus and Numbers: “These things happened to them as a type, but they were written down for our sake, upon whom the end of the ages has come” [1 Cor. 2:7-8].” Thus Origen lays out a fairly organized way to contemplate the meaning of “the divinely inspired character of Holy Scripture.
Origen’s label of “heretic” is at the very least intriguing. While certain aspects of his theology seem wrong-headed, overall it seems his contributions to the Church “paved the road for Christian hermeneutics as a professional and scientific enterprise.” One of the most significant issues that appear within Book IV of On First Principles seems to rest in Origen’s treatment of the Jews and the law of Moses. As the treatise progresses, Origen acknowledges that “the followers of the law of Moses encounter the hatred of idol worshippers” thus laying a foundation of shared experience with his Jewish contemporaries before moving forward with his argument. However it is not to long after where Origen refers to the Jews as “the former people of God.” It is of course true that the Jews deny Jesus as Messiah, but it seems as though Origen does not find any value in God’s interactions with the Israelites since a little later on he comments that “before Christ’s advent it was hardly possible to present clear evidence that the old writings were inspired.” The “evidence” being the typological and allegorical connections to the New Testament which are possibly stretched a bit too far at times. This mindset, which may have made sense at the time, is bound to have a negative effect on the interpretation of much, if not all, of the New Testament.
Additionally, Origen’s understanding of who is able to interpret the Scriptures is misleading at best. When he insists that those who are simple are only able to understand a certain level of the Scriptures and that only those who are advanced in their spirituality (and potentially their intelligence level) are able to gain full understanding of the Scriptures, he is seemingly disregarding the ways in which God provides understanding to those the world would deem simple. After all, in chapter 25, verse 11 of the gospel bearing his name, Matthew records Jesus himself saying, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”(Matt. 25:11)
Reading Origen’s work is humbling in that so much of our current understanding is based upon ideas and realities that were still being debated in his time. Though there are numerous translations, current Bibles are defined much more so than they were in Origen’s time. In addition, they are undoubtedly much more available. Whereas it is overwhelming to look back over about 2,000 years of scholarship and commentary on the Bible, the benefits far outweigh this feeling. Origen did not have the benefit of hearing the voices of those who have followed him as we do. In closing, it does not seem as though Origen was not truly a heretic, but rather an “exegete, theologian, and mystic” who may have esteemed human wisdom and understanding more than the Scriptures themselves encourage.
Kathleen McVey, “Lecture on Origen of Alexandria and the Interpretation of Scripture,” (Princeton: Princeton Theological Seminary, October 6, 2009).
 Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 16.
 Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2008), 108.
 Ibid., 107.
 Froehlich, 48.
 Ibid., 17.
 Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, s.v. “Origen.”
 Froehlich, 48.
 Ibid., 56.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 54, 55.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 55.
 Ibid., 56.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 60.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 48.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 51.
 Ibid., 52-53.
 Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, s.v. “Origen.”
Froehlich, Karlfried. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
McVey, Kathleen. “Lecture on Origen of Alexandria and the Interpretation of Scripture.” Princeton: Princeton Theological Seminary, October 6, 2009.
Nassif, Bradley, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters. Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity Press, 2007.