Origen: Discerning the Mystery in Scripture’s Treasury

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is The Orthodox reading of the Scriptural Treasury.  In this blog I am continuing to consider the comments of some modern biblical scholars on the 3rd Century biblical scholar known as Origen.

Origen acknowledge there is a literal sense to the scriptures, and he often felt that literal sense was most important to those who were just beginning their faith sojourn as disciples of Christ.   But Origen was most concerned about what St. Paul tells Timothy scripture is for:  “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).   The literal truth of Scriptures is not so much their “factualness” but the truth they convey to us about God, His plan of Salvation, and how we should live in His world.  This was the deeper meaning, or hidden mystery, which Origen felt all Christians should strive to discover from the Bible.

What Origen acknowledged first was that a literal reading of the Scriptures will make the reader aware that the biblical narratives do have inconsistencies in them.   This is true of the Gospels as well as the Old Testament.

“Origen points out, there are so many discrepancies in the accounts presented by the Gospels, that one must admit that their truth does not lie in their literal sense.”   (John Behr,  THE WAY TO NICEA, p 177)

While some patristic writers went to great length to try to harmonize the varied biblical narratives and their apparent contradictions, Origen was willing to accept that since all Scripture is inspired by God, the inconsistencies must be put in the text for a purpose – to remind us that there are deeper mysteries and so we shouldn’t get stuck on the literal inconsistencies but rather should strive to discover the deeper truths that must be found by getting beyond the literal reading.   Origen understood that as the early church accepted four Gospel accounts, they didn’t accept those efforts that tried to harmonize all the inconsistencies into one problem free text (such as Tatian’s Diatessaron in the 2nd Century).  Harmonizing the text did not lend to the credibility of the text but rather made it an artificial construction.  The differing and even contradictory accounts of the Scriptures are part of what the men inspired by God recorded for the benefit of future believers to edify the Church.

“…Origin several times remarks that inconsistencies in the historical narrative presented in the Scriptures are there to alert us to the fact that the true meaning of Scripture is not to be found at the level of the historical narrative (or literal meaning) at all. … ‘he aimed not so much to depreciate the events of Biblical history as to proclaim that their significance was richer and fuller than an uncomprehending analysis would allow…”    (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 112-113)

“…Origen did regard Adam as a historical figure, as the first man and the ancestor of the human race.  The story of the garden of Eden and the fall does include details which cannot be taken literally even on the narrative level, but it none the less really happened, while at the same time, like other Old Testament stories, pointing to hidden mysteries and containing deeper levels of meaning as well.”   (C. P. Bammel, in THE MAKING OF ORTHODOXY: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF HENRY CHADWICK,  p 63)

 “Origen, however, is continually waving his theological antennae over the literal sense of the biblical text.  And if a text fails to satisfy or make sense to him on a literal reading, Origen will employ the larger symbolic field he has culled from Scripture as a whole to discern a deeper, allegorical sense.  Greek philosophers had done so for years in studying Homer, and in what Heine calls ‘one of Origen’s most significant borrowings from Greek philosophy,’ Origen does the same with the Bible itself.”   (Christopher Hall, READING SCRIPTURE WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 154)

It is because Origen and the Patristic writers understood the Scriptures to be God’s Word and not merely human composition and conjecture that they looked for greater meaning in the biblical texts.  They were searching to encounter the Divine, not merely human words and ideas.

Because they believed the Scriptures to be inspired, they believed they need to look beyond the mere literal meaning of the words, in order to encounter God Himself.  Especially in Origen’s thinking, the literal meaning was the human meaning of the text, but they believed the Scriptures also pointed beyond the mere human, beyond what human reason could conceive, to the divine revelation in which God revealed to us the mystery hidden from all eternity, namely, the Word become flesh, even Jesus the Christ (Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:26).

Next:  What is the Bible?

2 thoughts on “Origen: Discerning the Mystery in Scripture’s Treasury

  1. Pingback: What is the Bible? | Fr. Ted’s Blog

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