Origen: Spiritual Understanding Of The Bible Superior To Literal

"Not All Early Christians Believed The Bible Should Be Literally Interpreted…"

Origen (also known as Origen Adamantius) was a highly influential, early Christian scholar whose method of scriptural interpretation has been studied, praised, debated, and critiqued for almost two millennia. Born in Alexandria in c. 185, Origen began writing between the years 215 AD and 220 AD. The study of the Bible stood at the center of Origen’s life. He is seen as one of the founders of Christian spirituality and mysticism, and his scriptural exegesis was marked by his use of spiritual interpretation. Spiritual interpretation allowed Origen to move from a literal understanding of scripture to a deeper and more spiritual one.

Origen Christian Philosopher - Christian Chat Live The early Christian spirituality of Origen is often pointed to demonstrate that the early Christian community was more inclusive and tolerant than many believe. For example, Origen believed in ‘pre-existence’ (the concept the human soul existed before birth) and the idea of universal reconciliation (the belief that all souls, regardless of sins, will eventually be reconciled with God). Some speculate that Origen contemplated the possibility of the ‘transmigration of souls’ (what we understand as reincarnation today).

These are spiritual beliefs that one would not consider part of traditional Christian faith. In fact, these beliefs might even be consider more modern and ‘New Age’, yet they were part of the early Christian philosophical discussion. For these ‘liberal’ beliefs and writings, Origen would be excommunicated over 200 years after his death by The Council of Constantinople in 453 AD. As a consequence of this many of his original writings were destroyed as heresy. Later, however, some of Origen’s writing would be reexamined and included in the general collection of early Church Fathers. Perhaps Origen’s greatest ‘sin’ in the eyes of the traditionalist Christians was his belief that a spiritual understanding of Christianity was superior to a literal understanding of the Bible.

Origen deemed literal understanding as the “lowest” level of scriptural understanding. However, he defended the literal interpretation of scripture because not only is it a necessary stepping stone for a higher, spiritual understanding, but the literal level is also present because of God’s love for all people. In other words, Origen felt that the literal was the necessary doorway to spirituality, but it was only the beginning of the journey. He believed that everyone, no matter their level of education, was meant to be able to understand scripture at some level.

Though today everyone had access to a Bible in any language, in Origen’s time, everyday people had almost no access to written scripture. His departure from what would become early Christian church orthodoxy that a spiritual intermediary (such as a priest or pope) presented and interpreted spiritual scripture for the lay Christian believer, is another reason Origen fell into disfavor with those forming the early Christian church.

Origen used an explanatory process to move his understanding of scripture from literal to spiritual. His training as a teacher of Greek literature gave him skills in reading, interpretation, and textual criticism. Origen brought this linguistic scholarship over to the task of Biblical commentary. He paid very close attention to the inner relations of the text because he believed that the keys to unlock the mysteries of scripture could be found within scripture itself.

Origen looked at everything from the smallest units of scripture to the largest. He considered it important to discern the meaning of individual words. He also looked at how certain parts of the Bible were structurally related to other parts. For example, he viewed events of the Old Testament as “mysteries” in the life of Jesus. On an even bigger scale, Origen saw that all of Biblical scripture was held together by one meta-narrative that ran through it. In these ways, Origen gave organization and structure to the entirety of the scriptures.

What can not be forgotten is that the only way Origen considered all of this textual analysis legitimate was if it was done with the spiritual sense and as a stepping stone to a higher level of spiritual understanding. Origen saw the gospels as encoded, and these codes could be broken by a careful analysis of the words to reveal strong spiritual insight. This insight was needed because, for example, there are factual untruths in scripture that one can not necessarily compromise with reality simply by looking at the structure of the language. One needed to look deeper to find the spiritual message contained within what appeared to be impossible.

It seemed to Origen that the obscure nature and dual interpretations of Biblical text had two purposes. Firstly, the profound hidden meanings of the Bible were “clothed in a humble style” so that the scriptures could be accessible to all people. Origen considered some people to be incapable of seeing past a literal meaning of scripture. But,that this was exactly why the Spirit had created scripture in the first place, to provide a least a path to spiritual understanding. The biblical obscurities were intentional “obstacles” and “impossibilities” within the text. These contradictions, factual inaccuracies, or crude presentations of God could actually aid the intelligent reader in their journey to a deeper understanding. Faced with these difficulties, the reader had to go back and analyse the text, paying attention to its genre, style, terms, and inner relations. At the same time they had to cultivate a strong spiritual sense. This way one could break through the literal meaning to a hidden and deeper understanding of the text.

Origen’s Commentary on the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament book of Psalms) is a great place to see his interpretive method at work. A literal reading of the Song of Songs shows that it is a wedding song, sung by a groom to a bride. However, Origen believed that a spiritual interpretation revealed the groom to be the Word of God and the bride to be the Church or the individual soul. In coming to these conclusions Origen paid special attention to the contexts in which the characters spoke as well as to what was spoken. His interpretation was aided along by other areas of scripture such as the nuptial imagery for the relationship between God and his people in the Hebrew prophets, as well as places in the New Testament where marriage is referred to as the relationship between Christ and the Church.

Some scholars have argued that Origen seemed to impose his own thoughts onto the Bible. Whether Origen did or did not succeed in interpreting the Bible in a completely authentic way is almost impossible to discern unless we can decide on a “right” interpretation.

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Given that 2,000 years of history has yet to result in an agreement as to the “right” interpretation of the Bible, it is unlikely we will see any universal agreement soon. What matters more is that Origen clearly did attempt to use the text of scripture, from its individual words to its overarching meta-narrative and inner relations and combine it with a “spiritual sense," to take us from a literal to a spiritual understanding. His ultimate goal was for scripture to reorient seekers to the world and help to reveal the goal of scripture for everyone.

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