In the Company of the Fathers: Origen

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Read more from the series, In the Company of the Fathers:
In the Company of the Fathers: An Introduction
In the Company of the Fathers: Irenaeus

In the subculture of Star Wars fanatics, a fascinating debate rages over the digital enhancements made to the original trilogy by creator George Lucas in 1997. Some changes were immaterial, but others were so significant that they fundamentally changed the story. Lucas argues that he had every right to make these enhancements, even if they changed the story, because he is the creator and the enhancements represent his “artistic vision.” In opposition, a large group of somewhat disenfranchised fans emphasize the integrity of the original story and argue that no one, even the creator, has the right change it. Indeed, the so-called “fanedits”— fan adaptations of Lucas’ films— generally are more accepted than Lucas’ enhancements because they are consistent with the original story.

An analogous debate rages in the no less peculiar subculture of biblical interpretation. The dominant method takes Lucas’ approach by identifying the meaning of scripture with the intention or “artistic vision” of the human authors such as Paul and John. Prior to the nineteenth century, however, Christian interpreters almost unilaterally sided with the disenfranchised Star Wars fans insofar as they never limited scripture’s meaning to the intent of the human author. Rather, meaning was located in the larger story of God, the story which unifies and supersedes all of the individual human writings and intentions.

The first apology for this interpretive approach was provided by the most influential theologian of the first three centuries, one Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-232). Origen spent his life teaching theology, by which he meant, in harmony with all the Fathers, “scripture interpreted according to the Church.” As noted previously, the Church in Origen’s time was concerned only secondarily with the meaning associated with the intent of the human author, what he calls the “literal sense.” Rather, the Church seeks first a “spiritual sense” of scripture hidden in and sometimes running counter to the literal sense.

Origen calls this practice “lectio divina” or “divine reading” (Letter to Gregory 3).

In arguing for the validity of this approach, Origen notes that the literal sense of numerous scriptural passages belies the presence of a deeper meaning. Examples include passages that are inconsistent with the character of God (e.g., God’s command to kill every man, woman, and child in the conquest of Canaan in Joshua) or passages with an absurd literal sense (e.g., the sun’s creation on the fourth day following three days of morning and evening in the first chapter of Genesis). Such passages, what Origen calls “stumbling blocks or interruptions of the narrative,” invite readers to search for deeper meaning than that found on the surface (On First Principles 4.2.9).

More importantly, the New Testament writers themselves, Origen notes, often move beyond the literal sense to find a deeper, spiritual sense unintended by the author. Generally speaking, this interpretive practice is demonstrated in their collective understanding of the Jewish scriptures as pointing to and culminating in Christ. Specifically, many of the Messianic prophecies they attribute to Christ were fulfilled long before his advent (e.g., the child called ‘Immanuel’ of Isaiah 7:14—applied to Christ in Matthew 1:23—was likely intended by the prophet to be Hezekiah). Additionally, Paul interpreted the rock from which the Israelites drank in the wilderness as Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4) and, elsewhere, identified the historical figures Hagar and Sarah of the Abraham story as the old and new covenants (Galatians 4:22-31).

Of course, most modern Christian biblical scholars who identify meaning solely with the human author admit to the truth of Old Testament prophecy and do not begrudge Paul’s allegorical interpretive moves. Nevertheless, they argue that the New Testament writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit and, thus, their interpretive practices are not available to us. Conversely, for Origen, the interpretive practices of the New Testament writers serve as guides in our own readings, for the crucial factor in lectio divina is not some esoteric inspiration but instead the simple truth of living on this side of the incarnation: “the splendor of the coming of Christ, by illuminating [scripture] with the radiance of truth, removed that veil which had been placed over the letter, and laid open for all who believe in Him the good things that were hidden” (On First Principles 4.1.6).

Lectio divina is, therefore, a peculiar practice of the Church, for it requires its practitioners to be illumined by Christ through the Holy Spirit. By contrast, any reader, even an atheist, can uncover the literal meaning of scripture.

Origen often refers to scriptural meaning as threefold, corresponding to the human body’s flesh (literal), soul (moral), and spirit (spiritual). Believers move progressively through these stages to the spiritual meaning in which they perceive the unifying and salvific story of God and are thereby “made participants in the divine nature” (On First Principles 4.4.4). As a methodological procedure, these comments fall somewhat short. Indeed, we search Origen’s writings in vain for instructions regarding how to engage in this holy practice. Instead, he shows us by example, giving the impression that faithful readers will recognize the spiritual meaning when they see it. Our tools are simply prayer, love, and the company of the faithful.

Undoubtedly, many readers will be suspicious of the practice of lectio divina, for it seems to invite a host of dubious interpretations justified only by the ubiquitous preface, “what the Bible means to me.” Yearning for an arbiter, they have become modern day George Lucases, claiming that only the author determines meaning. The result is a method of interpretation that is merely a historical endeavor. Questions of application take a backseat to questions that attempt to recreate the setting of the writing, and in so doing, tragically limit meaning by leaving it in the first century. Conversely, like the passionate Star Wars fans and their edits, the practice of lectio divina focuses on the story of God and allows it to speak afresh to every new age.

We need only the willingness, Origen says, to knock, seek, and ask.

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Jackson Lashier is Assistant Professor of Religion at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Marquette University where his studies focused on the Patristic Era of Church History. He is the author of Irenaeus on the Trinity (Brill, 2014). He is married to Julie and the father of children Ruthie, Rachel, and David. He loves reading fiction, playing golf, and all things baseball. He is a longtime member of the United Methodist Church.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Jackson, this is a really helpful post. I’ve been doing some research about contemplative prayer, and have hit many roadblocks. Your primer on Origen has helped answer some questions!

  2. Jackson, excellent article! We still practice lectio divina in the Catholic Church. As you have captured, it is a fine line to be ever open to the fresh and always relevant messages of scripture, and self interpretation. The latter has produced 30,000+ denominations of Christian churches in the US alone. This practice is still valuable 1800 years later and takes us deeper into our relationship with Christ. The genius of the tripod: literal, moral, and spiritual, secures this process. The Church Fathers have so much to teach us. Thank you for shedding light on their importance. I look forward to your next installment! (Friend/teacher of your precious Julie)
    PS. Are you familiar with author speaker Scott Hahn?

    • In the year 250 Origen, early church father, suggests that the entire
      Roman Empire should unite in devotion to the true God and the Lord will
      slay all non-believers…that was Origen. This is a call to redefine
      the church of Jesus Christ to make it the all-embracing society and if
      they did that, God would slay all of the non-conformists. It was not
      long after that, 325, seventy-five years later, Constantine took power
      in the Roman Empire and did just that.
      From Explaining the Heresy of the Catholic Mass, Part 2
      http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/90-319/explaining-the-heresy-of-the-catholic-mass-part-2

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