ORIGEN AND SPIRITUAL INTERPETATION
R. R. Reno
Among the great figures of Christian antiquity, Origen combines the most intense focus on the details of scripture with the most comprehensive breadth of interpretive ambition. To read Origen's exegesis is like standing underneath a waterfall. Philological judgments, geographical clarifications, symbolic patterns, text-critical asides, doctrinal formulations, and allegorical schemes cascade upon the reader. At the same time, his approach consistently pushes toward a unified reading of scripture. In the opening sentence of Origen's ambitious metaphysical treatise, On First Principles, he tells us that his great speculative project has "no other source but the very words and teaching of Christ," words and teaching that are already present "in Moses and the prophets."1 Scriptural detail is married to an interpretive synthesis that reaches all the way to reflections on spirit and matter, time and eternity, the purpose of evil, the salvation of the devil, and the consummation of all things.
Needless to say, the effect can be disorienting, and contemporary readers are either thrilled by the scope and depth of Origen's approach — or they worry about willfulness and overreaching. The concreteness of the literality of scripture seems at odds with the abstractions of his great theological system, and it is easy to think that the union of the two in Origen's mind forced and his approach to biblical interpretation arbitrary. A sensitive twentieth century reader of Origen, Maurice Wiles, finds himself stretched across the gulf between Origen's focus on textual detail and the scope of his interpretive ambition. "In effect," Maurice concludes, "Origen tries to have it both ways."2 Origen wants a theological vision both saturated with biblical particularity and universal enough to encompass the great metaphysical questions of his day. Contemporary readers are not alone in their suspicions. Eusebius records Porphyry's assessment of Origen: "His manner of life was Christian..., but in his opinions about material things and the deity he played the Greek, and introduced Greek ideas into foreign fables."3 The negative judgment retains currency. Not a few college and seminary lectures have left the impression that Origen used the material of scripture to construct an intellectual edifice according to Platonic principles.
I cannot provide a conceptually sophisticated defense of Origen against the charge that he was playing cut and paste in order to promote Platonism with proof texts. To do so would require me to digress into the implausibility of modern, foundationalist epistemologies. I would have to outline a Quinean account of our web of beliefs and a Lakatosian account of how doctrine functions within the great research project of patristic biblical interpretation that Origen did so much to advance.
Instead, I want to undertake two more preliminary efforts. First, I will offer a thick description of Origen's exegetical practice, a practice that epitomizes the general pattern of spiritual interpretation that so dominated and preoccupied the mind of the church for centuries. Second, I will try to explain how Origen understood the role of scripture in the divine plan of salvation. Here, Origen offers a uniquely articulate and conceptually precise theology of scripture and its interpretation. These largely expository tasks will, I hope, encourage sympathy for the larger patristic tradition of interpretation in which Origen functioned and to which he contributed. For it is my conviction that if we can bring the art of spiritual interpretation into focus through close attention to Origen's practice, then we can entertain the possibility that Porphyry underestimated the capacity of the foreign fables of scripture and the Christian manner of life to transform Greek ideas. And in entertaining this possibility, we might find ourselves thinking fresh thoughts about just how we who have inherited those fables and who seek to live in a Christian manner might develop a postcritical mode of spiritual interpretation.
In the final chapter of Luke's Gospel, the risen Jesus is portrayed walking with two disciplines on the road to Emmaus. They are agitated by the events of Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion. They encounter Jesus, but "their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (24:16). Jesus offers instruction, and "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures" (24:27). But this exposition is insufficient, or at least only partially effective. They continue to be inwardly blind, unable to recognize Jesus, but they urge him to stay with them at the end of the day. Only after the risen Jesus breaks bread with the two disciples are their eyes opened (24:30-31). They suddenly know why their hearts were burning within as Jesus was expounding the truth of the scriptures to them on the road. For Jesus had been showing them that "all the scriptures" foretold that "the messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations." (24:46-47). With this interpretive knowledge, made real in the breaking of the bread, the disciples are prepared to be "clothed with power from on high" (24:49).
To a great extent, the patristic consensus about scripture evolved to sustain the interpretive assumptions implicit in this Lukan episode. Some account had to be developed to express the deep unity of scripture and its lean toward fulfillment in Christ. How are "the things that have happened there [in Jerusalem] in these days [of Jesus life and passion]" (Luke 24:18) already present within Moses and the prophets? How is one to read so that hearts might burn with desire for a deeper fellowship with the risen Christ?
Irenaeus of Lyon provides us with the key categories for describing the patristic consensus about the meaning and role of scripture. Like the Christian readers who taught him, Irenaeus presumed that the Old Testament, however diverse in style and content, was a single text with a unified point or message. Following the standard terminology of the ancient rhetorical tradition, Irenaeus called the unified message of scripture its "hypothesis." At one level, Irenaeus saw this hypothesis as literary. The bible hangs together on its own terms, and readers sensitive to the hints and clues in the text will gravitate toward a unified reading. But more importantly, according to Irenaeus, the hypothesis of scripture reflects the fact that the entire world is governed by a single divine plan, or "economy." This economy is a multi-layered sequence of created realities, historical events, divine ordinations and laws. In other words, for the church fathers, the entire world-process is a meaningful system shaped by God's intention. Finally, following Ephesians 1:10, Irenaeus argued that all the complex facets of the divine economy, including the vast system of signs that make up the Old Testament, are recapitulated in Jesus Christ. Recapitulation (anakephalaiosis in Greek) is another standard term in the ancient rhetorical tradition. Even in contemporary English we speaking of ending a speech with a "recap," the conclusion when the speaker drives home the main point or hypothesis with a restatement of the main arguments in pithy, vivid summary.4 Christ is the basis and end point. He is the reason or purpose and the culminating summation of the great divine speech that we call reality.
For Irenaeus and the patristic tradition as a whole, scripture is the semiotic medium in which God encodes the pattern of the divine economy. How scripture is so encoded remains obscure. There was no settled patristic consensus about a so-called doctrine of inspiration that would specify the way in which scripture embodies the divine economy within itself. But there was a consensus that the undeniable literal heterogeneity of scripture depicts a single divine economy. "Anyone who reads the scriptures with attention," writes Irenaeus, "will find in them a discourse about Christ, and a prefiguration of the new calling [of the Gentiles]. For Christ is 'the treasure hidden in the field' [Matt 13:44], that is, in this world (for 'the field is the world' [Matt 13:38]), but he is also hidden is the scriptures, since he was signified by types and parables which could not be understood, humanly speaking, before the consummation of those things which were prophesied as coming, that is, the advent of Christ."5 The unity of scripture grows out of the singularity of divine purpose in and for all things, and this divine economy is directed toward fulfillment in Christ. Thus, the goal of spiritual exegesis is to bring Christ the treasure hidden in the field of scripture into view, and in so doing to bring the mind of the reader to desire to live more fully in his truth.
In keeping with the larger patristic consensus, Origen sought to read scripture spiritually. Commenting on the book of Joshua, Origen assembles a great deal of textual evidence to suggest that Joshua, successor to Moses, prefigures Jesus (whose name is identical in Greek). "To what then do all these things lead us?" Origen asks. His answer is a straightforward definition of spiritual exegesis: "Obviously to this, that the book does not so much indicate to us the deeds of the son of Nun, as it represents to us the mysteries of Jesus my Lord."6 It is not the case that Origen thinks the book of Joshua is not about Joshua. The presumption of a divine economy recapitulated in Christ allows him to affirm the immediate textual reference to Joshua and the orientation of the historical person and the textual record toward the larger economic purpose of fulfillment. For Origen, as for the tradition he inherits, the book of Joshua is filled with textual clues that, if followed correctly, bring Jesus more clearly into focus and guide the mind toward his truth.
Finding the treasure of Christ hidden in the field of scripture is not always straightforward. Not every biblical character is as conveniently named as Joshua. Spiritual exegesis is a large-scale project, and few aspects of interpretation fully display the hypothesis of scripture. In fact, few interpretations are able to round out into explicitly Christological conclusions. Preliminary approaches must be made. The field of scripture must be plotted and organized, and the treasure itself must be itemized and catalogued. It is in the execution of these aspects of the basic project of spiritual exegesis that Origen excels. For him, failure to maintain a consistent interpretation from the beginning to end of the bible is a sign of heresy, and with this in mind he exercised himself to find a place for every detail of scripture. Taking as his warrant 2 Timothy 3:16 ("all scripture, being inspired by God, is useful and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness"), Origen was justly famous in his own time for his ability to bring seemingly irrelevant and difficult biblical passages into the service of the goal of discerning Christ in scripture.
A good example can be found in his fifth homily on Exodus.7 The text that serves as the basis for this homily is the description of the flight of the people of Israel from Egypt (Ex. 12:37ff). Origen's interpretation exemplifies his disorienting combination of intense focus on literal detail with a broad theological synthesis.
Origen begins by reminding his listeners of St. Paul's interpretation of Exodus in 1 Corinthians 10. St Paul's reading involves an allegorical plotting of events in Exodus onto core Christian beliefs and practices. The passage through the Red Sea is baptism; the manna from heaven corresponds to the Eucharistic bread; the water from the rock that Moses struck with his rod suggests the Eucharistic wine; and the rock indicates Christ himself. Origen reiterates this mapping of key elements of the Exodus story onto the central mysteries of the faith, reinforcing the Pauline reading with appeals to John 3:5 ("Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven") and John 6:51 ("I am the bread which came down from heaven"). But these remarks are merely preliminary. St. Paul, notes Origen, "taught the Church which he gathered from the Gentiles how it ought to interpret the books of the Law." Origen plans to take the same approach so that "we, by understanding the Law spiritually, [can] show that it was justly given from the instruction of the Church" (p. 275). With St. Paul's interpretive practice in mind, he says, "let us cultivate ... the seeds of spiritual understanding received from the blessed apostle Paul..." (p. 277).
The great bulk of the verses that make up the story of the flight of the Israelites from Egypt concern the baking of the unleavened bread, the divine commandments to remember the Passover, and the passage through the Red Sea. This material is rich with theological significance, but it is not Origen's focus. Instead, as if he were keen to find the smallest seeds that hold out the least promise of growth, Origen attends to the physical geography of the flight of the people of Israel.
The children of Israel "departed," the text says, "from Ramesse and came to Socoth. And they departed from Socoth and came to Etham" [Ex 12:37; 13:20]. If there is anyone who is about to depart from Egypt, if there is anyone who desires to forsake the dark deeds of this world and the darkness of errors, he must first of all depart "from Ramesse." Ramesse means "the commotion of a moth." Depart from Ramesse, therefore, if you wish to come to this place that the Lord may be your leader and precede you "in the column of the cloud" [Ex 13:21] and "the rock" may follow you [1 Cor 10:3-4], which offers you "spiritual food" and "spiritual drink" no less. Nor should you store treasure "there where the moth destroys and thieves dig through and steal" [Mt 6:20]. This is what the Lord says clearly in the Gospels: "If you wish to be perfect, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" [Mt 19:21]. This, therefore, is to depart "from Ramesse" and to follow Christ (p. 277).
The reflection on the meaning of the place name Ramesse is brief, and in the homily Origen follows the journey forward, doing much the same with the other place names that are mentioned in the Exodus account. But I want to tarry here, for this compact snapshot of Origen's exegesis provides us with more than enough material to analyze the logic of spiritual exegesis — and his unnerving effect upon readers.
The intensity with which Origen squeezes a sequence of scriptural connections out of the mere place name Ramesse can very easily lead us to think that he is spiritualizing the text so thoroughly that the words (or in this case a single word) in Exodus exert no authority. One of the most influential anti-Origenist historians of the last century, R. P. C. Hanson, claimed that allegory (and by this term Hanson includes nearly all forms of patristic spiritual exegesis) is "a technique for emancipating the exegete from bondage to the text."8 Origen is, Hanson claims, an egregious example of exegesis unbound, and the upshot is "arbitrary," "subjective," and "anti-historical" interpretation.9 Few vituperate as boldly as Hanson, but at first glance most modern readers assume that exegetical comments of this sort are but the occasion for Origen to retail some of his favorite verses from the New Testament. I do not want to gainsay the feeling of anxiety when confronted with Origen's exegesis, but I will dispute the judgment.
Consider the way in which the exegesis operates. Origen moves from "moth" in the meaning of the Hebrew place name to "moth" in a verse on the Sermon on the Mount. The link is not purely semantic. Origen mentions the "dark deeds of this world", and though he does not make it explicit, the image of moths and their apparently futile and blind fluttering evokes the futile and blind grasping of men caught in snares of worldly desire. Nonetheless, the jump to the Sermon on the Mount is largely verbal. "Moth" leads to "moth." Once the move is made, Origen quickly picks up the word "treasure," and with that verbal clue links the warning in Mt 6:20 to the positive exhortation to give to the poor and "come, follow me" in Mt 19:21.
Clearly, the moves are not arbitrary. A skein of image and verbal echo holds the exegesis together. Origen is operating with the same assumption that Irenaeus develops. Scripture bears witness to the sequence of events, people, places, and in this case, Hebrew and Greek words, that make up the divine economy. Individual elements are part of a single picture, pieces of a vast puzzle that awaits proper arrangement so that the call of discipleship might be heard anew. The details are not placed by Origen in what modern readers might call a "historical context"; rather, the images, words and verses are placed within the context of the presumed hypothesis of the divine economy as a whole.10 For this reason, Origen moves from the place name "Ramesse" to the image of consuming moths in Mt 6:20, to Jesus' exhortation to give to the poor in Mt 19:21, to what we might take as a summation of the entire New Testament, "come, follow me," and he does so with the confidence that the verbal connections are not accidental. God in his providence has placed the clues in the text; the interpreter must follow the clues
The clues in the field of scripture lead toward the treasure hidden within: the crucified and risen Lord. We may not share this conviction with Irenaeus and Origen (and with the Christian tradition until the modern period), but we should have sufficient intellectual integrity to recognize that a presumed divine economy that shapes the complex scriptural system of signs will discipline exegesis. Consider the analogy of scientific inquiry. Evolutionary biologists are forever considering the details of animal morphology and function, and the connections they make in their analysis of species development may involve "jumps" through data not dissimilar to the verbal "jumps" in Origen's exegesis. What gives us confidence that these jumps are not arbitrary is that they fit into and reinforce the evolutionary hypothesis. If analysis is true to the facts, and if the analysis helps to extend the interpretive success of evolutionary theory, then we are inclined to accept the analysis as "disciplined" and "objective" rather than "arbitrary" and "subjective."
The same holds for Origen. It will not do to object that he focuses on the place names while neglecting the narrative of Exodus any more than one might complain that the biologists is merely considering the mating behavior of frogs rather than their anatomy. An interpretation is a good interpretation if it supports and contributes to our understanding of the presumed hypothesis. In his reflections on the departure from Ramesse, Origen is adding support to the larger patristic project of developing a total or overall reading of scripture under the single hypothesis that all things are recapitulated or summed up in Christ. In this instance, he is taking a seemingly irrelevant piece of scriptural data (Ramesse) and reading it toward the broad Christian imperative: "come, follow me." Against a background of Christological assumptions, the Hebrew meaning of Ramesse triggers a sequence of comment that culminates in Christ's saving invitation. In this way, the movement of Origen's interpretation exemplifies the basic structure of spiritual exegesis. He discerns the Christological potency of a detail of scripture and displays the potential embedded in the scriptural detail that leads toward the unifying theme or hypothesis of the larger scriptural witness.
The exhortation "come, follow me" is a rhetorical trope that can function as a summation of Christ's fulfilling role, but Origen's exegesis operates at a more subtle level as well. A discerning reader of this brief comment can see that Origen is addressing a problem implicit in St. Paul's own interpretation of Exodus. St. Paul's exegesis associates the rock with Christ, and observes that the rock/Christ follows the Israelites/batpized. For Origen, the words of St. Paul must be true, for they carry his apostolic authority. But they seem to contradict the other pieces of apostolic evidence that exhort the faithful to follow Christ. Which, then, shall it be: is Christ behind us following or before us to be followed? Is he the Alpha or the Omega?
Origen does not explicitly raise much less resolve the question in this small portion of exegesis, but he does supplement the broad outlines of the Pauline scheme found in 1 Corinthians 10. The way in which he is able to end his skein of verbal association with the exhortation, "come, follow me," provides a striking reinforcement to his observation that the Lord leads "in the column of the cloud" even as he follows as "the rock" to whom we may always return for the renewing nourishment of "spiritual food" and "spiritual drink." That is to say, the specific words of the exegesis (Ramesse — moth — treasure — "come, follow me") flow in the same direction as the hypothesis of scripture as a whole. Christ is both the firm foundation (not only in the ritual life of the church but as the logos of creation) and the final destination (not only as the pattern of self-sacrificial love but as the eternal Son of God). Thus, just as a biologist who publishes a paper on the mating behaviors of an obscure species of frogs in West Texas might add yet another brick to the edifice of evolutionary theory, so also does Origen's reading of Ramesse seem to contribute to the edifice of the Christian hypothesis.
One may object that the theological puzzle of Christ as beginning and end is not to be found in this portion of Origen's exegesis, at least not explicitly, and I have done to Origen what Origen did to the literal sense of Exodus — pushed it beyond what it actually says. But this objection brings us full circle and clarifies just what is at stake in the spiritual exegesis for which Origen is so justly famous. For Origen and the larger patristic tradition, interpretation is preparatory. The primary function of exegesis is to get us moving in the right direction. It cannot bring us to the destination the way a syllogism can bring us to a conclusion. For the end or goal of exegesis is to dispose the reader in such a way that he or she can "see" Christ. As the final chapter of Luke's Gospel makes clear, the disposing and the seeing are distinct. To follow the movement of the scriptural text toward its hypothesis is not the same as to receive its bounty.
It is this preparatory, disposing quality of spiritual exegesis that most accounts for our feeling that it is indefinite, open-ended, and inconclusive. A spiritual reading stretches toward the larger hypothesis of scripture, and in stretching the exegesis prepares the mind for a further step beyond the specific verbal atmosphere of the commentary. In this respect, Origen is extraordinarily well disciplined as an exegete. He does not offer exegetical conclusions of the sort one finds in modern readings of the bible. He does not tell his readers the theological or doctrinal meaning of biblical passages, saying, for example, that the deliverance of the Israelites reveals the depths of God's love for humanity, or some similar generalization. Instead, Origen follows the main body of patristic interpretation. He consistently pieces together this or that aspect of the puzzle of scripture in such a fashion that those reading (or listening to) his interpretations are drawn toward the next step, toward contemplation of the larger scheme of interlocking events, people, and words that make up the divine economy itself.
As Origen himself describes the process, exegesis is a "spiritual structure which consists in proclamation and written characters."11 Words such as Ramesse and their lean toward other words such as moth or treasure, and then their further connection to the spiritual disciplines of detaching oneself from worldly things and devoting one's life to following Christ — these are among the countless bricks and beams, load bearing walls and indispensable foundations, that make up the house of interpretation. But this house is not the destination or endpoint of biblical interpretation. The structure is not built for us to inhabit at rest; it is an edifice of signs constructed in order for readers to be properly oriented and thus "capable of receiving the principles of truth."12 The house of interpretation provides a peaceful and secure place from which to contemplate God, which is the proper end of all intellectual activity and especially biblical exegesis. To recall the conclusion to the Gospel of Luke, the spiritual structure of interpretation prepares the reader to be clothed with power from on high.
For Origen, therefore, the test of exegesis is not its proximity to the literal sense of the Bible, any more than the test of a scientific interpretation is its depiction of the specific data under consideration. Of course, Origen wants to bring the literal sense of the Bible into focus, just as the scientist wants to get his or her facts right. He learned Hebrew and consulted with Jewish scholars in order to be informed about the best available scholarly opinions about the meaning of words such as Ramesse. He compiled the single most comprehensive text-critical tools of antiquity, the Hexapla, so called because it was a manuscript that arranged the Hebrew version of the Old Testament along with five Greek translations in parallel columns. Getting the facts right was clearly important to Origen. But the intellectual goal of exegesis is interpretation, not description. "The contents of scripture," writes Origen, "are the outward forms of certain mysteries and the images of divine things."13 For this reason, the test of exegesis, like the test of any scientific interpretation, is the force with which the reading of the text can bring our minds to see the connections and to become convinced that something is really at work that holds all the different pieces together. Just as fossils stand as visible, embodied indications of the evolutionary economy of natural selection, so the signs of scripture manifest the shaping intent of God, the divine economy of redemption in Christ. The evolutionary biologist wants us to see the process of natural selection at work in the fossil data and in the present diversity of the species. Origen wants us to see the redemptive will of God in Christ at work in the scriptural data and in our present lives.
Because Origen's own understanding of the essential purpose of biblical exegesis (and again, he does not differ from the rest of the early Christian tradition on this issue) entails a movement through the scriptural text toward knowledge of the larger unity it depicts, and from knowledge of that textual unity toward contemplation of the divine intention that has so disposed all things, his approach to interpretation (and again, the entire patristic tradition as well) will always strike us as "out of control." Modern biblical interpretation does not accept the hypothesis that all things are fulfilled in Christ. We do not believe that God disposes all things in a single divine economy. Instead, we want to build a structure of written characters that can receive the truth of our preferred worldly economies: the economy of Ancient Israelite religion, the economy of "what really happened," the economy of theological concepts that float about in the minds of the putative authors or redactors or, if one has a postmodern bent, in the minds of the readers of scripture. In all these ways, we tend to fasten down scriptural texts. The last thing we want to do is step outward and away from terra firma. We plot the scriptures onto something more stable, more manageable than the world of signs. We embody the text. This is, after all, the metaphysical meaning of the hermeneutical strategy of putting scriptural texts into their historical and social contexts. Or we conceptualize scripture by translating it into an idiom of systematic theology. Either way, we move out of the semantic flux of scriptural words and into a limited economy in which conclusions might be drawn and our minds might come to rest.
Origen's exegesis, like so much patristic interpretation of scripture, moves in the other direction. It spiritualizes, not by trafficking in vague ideas or by directing attention to spiritual platitudes, but rather in the very precise sense of constructing a reading of spiritual signs that prepares one for contemplation of the mysteries of the Christian faith. As Origen wonders,
Who, on reading the revelations made to John, could fail to be amazed at the deep obscurity of the unspeakable mysteries contained therein, which are evident even to him who does not understand what is written? And as for the apostolic epistles, what man who is skilled in literary interpretation would think them to be plain and easily understood, when even in them there are thousands of passages that provide, as if through a window, a narrow opening leading to multitudes of the deepest thoughts?14
The goal of Origen's exegesis was not to use his pen (or the pens of the secretaries who transcribed his homilies and lectures) to pass through the narrow opening. This each of us must do with our own thoughts and prayers. Instead, good exegesis frames the windows by outlining redemptive hypothesis that unifies scripture. And by bringing us to the window, good exegesis stimulates our desire (through exhortation, e.g., "come, follow me") to participate more fully (through contemplation, e.g., Christ as the one who is behind and before us) in the eternal Logos who is the source of scripture's truth.
As I have argued, Origen was an exegetical virtuoso, but he was a virtuoso within the consensus that dominated patristic theology. Where Origen innovated was in his speculative theology. This is not the place to survey those innovations, many of which became controversial and some of which tainted the name of Origen with heresy.15 Instead, I want to focus on the distinctive role of scripture and exegesis in Book IV of On First Principles, for not only is Origen at his innovative best in this material, but he also casts a fresh and interesting light on the role of the literal sense of scripture in the divine plan. He outlines a account of scripture in which Christ is not only the alpha and omega of the material content of the Bible, but the figure of Christ also shapes the labor of exegesis. As he reflects upon the task of interpretation, Origen observes that the recalcitrance of the literal sense and the straining effort necessary to build an enduring exegetical structure — for example, pushing from moth through treasure to "come, follow me" -- prepares our souls as an ascetic discipline. In this way the mind of the reader is brought by scripture along the via crucia, not just by its content but in its very nature as embodied literality.
Origen employs a vocabulary and pattern of thought that derives from Platonic philosophy. This clear influence can lead us to think that he recapitulates the Platonic view of the nature and fate of the body. However, Origen has a profoundly integrated account of the body that differs significantly from the Platonic view. Instead of treating emdodiment as a generic impediment to spiritual life, a dead weight that burdens the divine spark within each of us, Origen considers the advantages of bodily existence. As he observes, bodies are plastic, changeable, and capable of transformation.16 This provides God with an avenue of influence that can effect change in our lives without coercing our wills. Thus, in a crucial passage, Origen writes, "The bodily nature admits of a change in substance, so that God the Artificer of all things, in whatever work of design or construction or restoration he may wish to engage, has at hand the service of this material for all purposes, and can transform and transfer it into whatever forms and species he desires, as the merits of things demand."17 Because we are embodied, we are blessedly subject to the divinely ordained economy of the flesh that can shape and guide our minds without overwhelming us by direct action upon our wills.
The difficulty, from our perspective, is that we very often experience the economy of the flesh as pain and suffering. Our body chemistry changes, and we get sick. We age and grow feeble. We digest our food and get hungry. The key point, for Origen, is that God so orders and arranges the created world that our bodily suffering has the capacity to encourage us to direct our attention toward God. The world-process is a pedagogy of bodies subjectively experienced as "very severe and no doubt full of pain to those who have refused to obey the word of God,"18 but objectively ordered toward "instruction and training whereby through the flesh the human race, aided by the heavenly powers, is being instructed and trained...."19 This training is bound up with the entire condition of embodiment. "We must recognize," writes Origen, "that the world was made of such a size and character as to be able to hold all those souls which were destined to undergo discipline in it."20 God the Artificer of all things sets up the created order so that we undergo an ascetic training simply by virtue of being embodied. Such is the grace of creation.
In this account (which occupies Books I-III of On First Principles), Origen is developing a metaphysical interpretation of Irenaeus' more sequential or historical idea of a divine economy that structures all created reality. Viewed from a cosmocentric perspective, God has established an economy of bodily existence that puts pressure on our finite lives, and that pressure, experienced as suffering, drives us upward, toward the spiritual. The fact that we feel pangs of hunger, for example, does not necessarily distract us from spiritual truths; those pangs can provide an occasion or goad toward our true end, which is contemplation. Thus, does Origen weave the ascetic ideals of Christianity into the very fabric of creation. Our embodiment has a redemptive logic.
The same hold for the letter of scripture. Like the bodily reality of the created order, it is neither irrelevant nor to be regretted. The literality of scripture, he argues, works to pressure readers toward contemplation of God.21 There is an ascetic economy of scripture that follows the larger ascetic economy of creation. Interpretation takes place within a text that God has arranged in such a way that the literal sense pressures readers toward the spiritual sense. The semantic code of scripture does not just represent the divine economy; that economy is present within the literality of scripture. The literal sense of scripture has an intrinsically pedagogical, ascetic effect upon the reader — if the readers will but follow the words where they lead.22
In the prologue to his Commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen outlines a particularly clear example of the economy that resides within the scriptural code. Readers who have failed to discipline their sexual desires are very likely to dwell upon the erotic images of the racy love poetry of the Song of Songs. For Origen and all the church fathers, the training necessary to avoid carnal titillation and move toward spiritual meaning comes from the ascetic disciplines endorsed by the Christian community. However, Origen identifies a disciplining logic within the scriptural text itself. In the case of the Song of Songs, he dwells on the order of the three books ascribed to Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. The first, he reports, concerns "the subject of morals, setting regulations for life together, as was fitting, in concise and brief maxims." To use Origen's categories, this is a bodily book in which the literal sense guides readers on the right path toward righteousness. The second, Ecclesiastes, provides instruction about "natural things," and "by distinguishing them as empty and vain from what is useful and necessary, he warns that vanity must be abandoned and what is useful and right be pursued."23 This second book of Solomon is thus taken by Origen to be written at the level of the soul. It provides guidance toward the right path, not in each verse according to the literal sense, but in its overall demonstration of the vanity of temporal things. According to Origen, these two books are providentially placed before Song of Songs in the canon of scripture, because the reader must pass through these stages of spiritual development in order to properly read the third and final book of Solomon. Thus, the very order of the books in scripture provides a pedagogy of interpretation, bringing readers through a process of maturation that makes them capable of properly interpreting the spiritual sense.
The journey of Christian maturation involves an ascent toward the spiritual, but as Origen makes clear in his discussion of bodily existence in On First Principles, the ascent is not undertaken in spite of or against the grain of bodily existence. God orchestrates the pedagogy necessary to induce spiritual maturity in and through bodily suffering. In his account of the pedagogy of scripture in Book IV of On First Principles, Origen strikes the same note. The paths of scripture do not always ascend happily from level to level, as his account of the relationship between Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs would seem to suggest. The difficulties presented by the order and sequence of literal elements of scripture require a straining interpretation. After all, what are we to make of strange place names such as Ramesse? But this is not surprising. Spiritual discipline, for Origen, has a painful, bitter aspect. God has made the building of the house of interpretation difficult and uncertain, not to make us suffer unnecessarily, but so that we will be forced to take the narrow way toward spiritual understanding.
As Origen explains, scripture often inflicts its suffering in the apparent futility of the literal sense. "Divine wisdom," he observes, "has arranged for certain stumbling blocks and interruptions of the historical sense...by inserting in the midst a number of impossibilities and incongruities, in order that the very interruption of the narrative might as it were present a barrier to the reader and lead him to refuse to proceed along the pathway of the ordinary meaning...."24 Origen collects a great list of passages from scripture to illustrate the pain one feels at the thought of affirming the literal sense. Some are patently "mythological" or anthropomorphic (for example, the passage in Genesis that speaks of God walking in paradise); some are culturally limited aspects of scripture (for example, Jesus' commandment to his disciples not to own shoes); and some are morally repugnant (Origen refers to a verse in the Septuagint that would seem to require uncircumcised boys to be destroyed).25 In another example, Origen points out how difficult it is to read the elaborate Old Testament instructions for the construction and decoration of the tabernacle as significant for Christian faith. Working out the such a reading in any detail is, writes Origen, "a very difficult, not to say impossible task."26 He could have adduced many more examples, for the stumbling blocks of scripture are many.
Origen's emphasis is clear. He does not retail a view of scriptural authority that treats the text as collection of proposition to be deployed as premises in doctrinal syllogisms or called out as trumps in theological arguments. The bodily sense of scripture, for Origen, is recalcitrant, difficult, and obscure, and if the interpreter believes that scripture is the divine word (as Origen clear does), then the result will be a painful grimace of suffering. It is as if Origen had anticipated the experience of every pious student who, having enrolled in a course in modern biblical studies, is confronted by a professor who spends a great deal of time showing just how badly the Bible fits with his or her inherited faith. This experience naturally evokes a Job-like question: "Why has God so organized his witness that the more I learn about the bible, the more difficult it is to make sense of it?" For Origen, the answer is simple. To know the languages, to be capable of memorizing the text, to have intellectual ability, even to possess the rule of faith, is not enough. We interpret truly when we see that the scriptural text teaches the mystery of God, and the carnal eye cannot see the brightness of the holiness of God. For this reason, the scriptures humiliate and parry interpretive effort so that "by shutting us out and debarring us from [literal reading, it] recall us to the beginning of another way, and might thereby bring us, though the entrance of a narrow footpath, to a higher and loftier road and lay open the immense breadth of the divine wisdom."27 Reading is difficult, because God wants us to pant with desire for interpretive insight so that we become the kind of person "who has devoted himself to studies of this kind with the utmost purity and sobriety and through nights of watching...."28 We are to suffer the dry deserts of incomprehension as so many day of interpretive fasting. Thus disciplined by the body of scripture, our vision is sanctified and we are prepared to enter into the narrow footpath.
Origen's most sustained reflections on the nature of scripture and its interpretation reinforce the broad Christian project of spiritual interpretation. We must renounce our desire for a solution to the great crossword puzzle of scripture that is based upon a literal reading. "The Spirit has mingled not a few things by which the historical narrative is interrupted and broken," Origen writes, as if anticipating modern judgments about the accuracy of scripture. But he does not adopt the modern solution of searching for a stable context — historical, phenomenological, conceptual — in which to reembody and resolve the difficulties. Instead, the difficulties encourage precisely the stretching and reaching that makes spiritual reading seem so strained. As Origen continues, God has sown difficulty in scripture "with the object of turning and calling the attention of the reader, by the impossibility of the literal sense, to an examination of the inner meaning."29 The puzzling difficulties are ordained by God, not to be solved after the fashion of a murder mystery or math problem, but to focus our minds and lives on a solution that cannot be arrived at or possessed as a conclusion, because the mystery of God cannot be brought into the human mind as an mental item or discrete thought. Only God can bring us to himself. In this way Origen anticipates in his hermeneutics what St. Augustine articulates in his theology of grace. His spiritual exegesis follows a discipline of interpretive desire ordained by God in the economy of scripture, and that economy drives us through the "narrow openings" of scripture so that we might "be flooded with the brightness of immeasurable light."30
My intuition is that many contemporary Christian readers of Origen (and this essay) tend to find him exciting and appealing. His reading is plastic and mobile. His eye for telling detail is keen. And most of all, the straining and stretching evident in his exegetical practice and justified by his theology of the ascetic economy of scriptural literality has a adventuresome, heroic quality. But the excitement and appeal is difficult to translate into a neo-patristic consensus for the future of Christian scriptural interpretation. What is it about reading from a place name in Exodus to the great New Testament invitation, "Come, follow me," that seems an irresponsible stretch — or even if we are sympathetic, an impossible stretch for us to make -- or if we make it we discount it as merely homiletical? Why should the tradition of spiritual interpretation that Origen so ably represents remain remote and inimitable?
We are trained to say that a great chasm separates us from the church fathers: we know about history. The more I think about what I have been socialized to say the less satisfied I am by the explanation. The church fathers presumed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. We have good reasons to think this presumption wrong. There are persuasive arguments about oral transmission of diverse traditions in ancient Israel that were blended and edited into the received text. Moreover, we have monographs ready at hand that itemize parallels with other ancient near eastern religions. We have treatises that speculate about the original communal setting for ancient texts such as the book of Exodus. Libraries are full of studies that discuss the bible in its historical context, studies unavailable to the church fathers.
I do not want to gainsay the difference that the modern tradition of historical study of the bible makes. But when I turn to Origen's comment on Exodus 12:37 and Ramesse, I am at a loss to see what fundamental difference the modern consciousness of history makes for the patristic project of spiritual interpretation. A certain desire for precision might lead me to say, "the place from which the text of Exodus says the Israelites departed," rather than, "the place from which the Israelites departed." This would signal that I am not assuming that the book of Exodus is a straightforward, eyewitness account of what happened. Yet, once signaled, why would my mind not follow Origen's train of thought? I can read a scholarly article explaining how redaction criticism helps us understand the relationship between the narrative of Israel's flight and the instructions for the observance of the Passover, and with the strands of the text separated and analyzed I might have new and subtle thoughts about the meaning of Exodus 12. But why would these new thoughts not contribute to rather than contradict Origen's pattern of textual analysis? What is it about history the blocks an interpretive move from Ramesse to a reported saying of Jesus?
Without doubt there are many facets of a satisfactory answer to this question, but analysis of Origen's exegesis shows that the decisive background assumption that underwrites his bold exegetical moves is a belief in the divine economy as the overarching, structuring principle of scripture (and of all reality). If one truly believes that God providentially orders all things toward fulfillment in Christ, then one has a warrant for discerning that providential order at many levels of reality. For this reason, the results of modern historical study can be accommodated into the divine economy, as Origen himself demonstrated in his own scholarly studies of biblical texts, geography, philology, and history. What cannot be accommodated is the modern economy of historical immanence that insists that all human events are caused and structured by inner-worldly factors to the exclusion of any supra-worldly divine plan.
Insofar as we are not just taught the intellectual techniques of historical-critical study but are socialized into the modern economy of historical immanence, we will simply reject the move from Ramesse to "come, follow me" as arbitrary. There is no historical connection; thus, we conclude that there is no reason to think the bits of textual evidence linked. In contrast, Origen supposed that God structures reality and with special care organizes the linguistic particularity of the bible — all toward the end of bringing us to follow Christ — and thus Origen saw a spiritual connection. Assuming a divine economy recapitulated in Christ, the linguistic potential of Ramesse to evoke moths and thus trigger of train of thinking that moves from moldering treasure to following Jesus functions as a good reason for an exegetical comment. To be sure, the exegesis strains and stretches. It is neither obvious nor certain. But as Origen explains in his ascetic theology of biblical interpretation, this is just what one would expect. The purpose of scripture is to draw us into fellowship with the Son, and through the Son with the Father, and to be so drawn we must enter the strenuous disciplines of the cross and allow ourselves to be enrolled in the stretching and reaching necessary for any movement toward the transcendent holiness of God.
In a characteristic exaltation of the spiritual power of scripture, Origen writes, "If anyone ponders over [the scriptures] with all the attention and reverence they deserve, it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize that the words he is reading are not utterances of man but the language of God."31 What separates us from Origen is not his lack of historical-critical techniques. Were we to presume the scriptures to be the language of God, we would be able to retain every single specific insight of modern-historical critical study. But we would be obliged to restore in our minds a functional belief in the divine economy that could order the strange, diverse, complex, and even seemingly contradictory witness of the many ages and many communities represented in the bible in such a way that it testifies to a coherent — nay, beautiful and holy — plan. It may be an existentially deep and difficult ditch to recross, but I see no reasons other than the eccentricities of modernity why we cannot do so.
1On First Principles, I.pref.1. Throughout I refer to the translation by G. W. Butterworth, reprinted as Origen On First Principles, (Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith, 1973).
2The Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 1, P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, eds., (Cambridge: Cambriddge University Press, 1970), p. 475.
3Ecclesiastical History, VI.19.7.
4 For a helpful discussion of hypothesis, economy, and recapitulation, see R. M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyon (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 47-51.
5 Against Heresies, IV.26.1.
6 Origen: Homilies on Joshua, The Fathers of the Church, Volume 105, Barbara J Bruce, trans., (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), p. 29.
7 Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, The Fathers of the Church, Volume 71, Ronald E. Heine, trans., (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), pp. 275-284.
8" Cambridge History of the Bible, p. 450.
9 p. 436.
10 For the use of the analogy of a mosaic that creates a picture of the "handsome King," see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.8-9. These crucial chapters are well explained by Rowan Greer in Early Biblical Interpretation, James L. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986), pp. 155-176.
11 See the first paragraph of Book 6 of Origen's Commentary on John for his use of the metaphor of a house to describe his exegetical project.
12 Commentary on John, 6.1
13 On First Principles, Preface.8.
14 On First Principles, IV.2.3.
15 See Jerome's list of Origenist errors in his letter to Avitus (Ep . 124.1-15). Jerome was nothing if not scrupulous about orthodoxy and ecclesiastical censure. It is telling that he conveyed many of Origen's exegetical insights to the Latin-speaking world even as he entered the lists as an adversary of Origenism. Origen's exegetical work was so instrumental in the consolidation of what became the dominant orthodox tradition that it necessarily endured even as aspects of his name came to be associated with doctrinal error. For an economical account of the context for the first wave of Origenist controversies in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, with special focus on the monastic context, see William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 359-63. For a full development, see Elizabeth Clark, The Origenist Controversy: A Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). For a winsome and sympathetic description of Origen's systematic project, see Rowan Williams, "Origen", in The First Theologians, G. R. Evans, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).
16 See On First Principles, II.1.4.
17 On First Principles, III.6.7.
18 On First Principles, I.6.3.
19 On First Principles, II.3.1.
20 On First Principles, III.5.4.
21 My discussion of the relationship between Origen's speculative theology and biblical interpretation is indebted to David Dawson, Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
22 On the ascetic economy of theological inquiry, see John Henry Newman's Grammar of Assent, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979). Newman is not concerned specifically with biblical interpretation, but his assessment of the difficulties follows Origen's. God, writes Newman, "has made this path of thought rugged and circuitous above other investigation, that the very discipline inflicted on our minds in finding Him, may mould them in due devotion to Him when He is found" (p. 276).
23 Both quotes from Origen, Rowan A. Greer, trans., (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), p. 232.
24 On First Principles, IV.2.9.
25 See On First Principles, IV.3.1.
26 See On First Principles, IV.2.2
27 On First Principles, IV.2.9.
28 On First Principles, IV.2.7.
29 On First Principles, IV.2.9.
30 On First Principles, IV.2.3. Compare with Augustine's own image of the divine pedagogy of signs that we are to use for the sake of enjoyment of God and others in God inOn Christian Doctrine, Book One.
31 On First Principles, IV.1.6.