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 Patristic Literalism: Read for the Full Meaning.
There is little doubt that Christians shared with Jewish rabbis a strong belief that all Scriptures were inspired by God and that the reader of the biblical text needs to mine from the text all of the wisdom, power and knowledge which God has put into the text. In the 3rd Century, the famous Christian biblical commentator, Origen, was a prolific exegete, commenting on a vast array of scriptural texts. He certainly was part of that well established tradition which sought to discover all the wisdom and knowledge which God may have put in the Scriptures. Origen was a brilliant expositor of the meaning hidden in the words of the scriptural texts. Unfortunately he also held some beliefs which were not accepted by the Church as a whole, and those unconventional teachings were eventually condemned by the Church and the faithful were discouraged from reading his works. Nevertheless, Origen’s methods and his prolific work to comment on the Christian Scriptures were imitated by others for generations in Christian history. His influence in getting bishops and teachers to look beyond the mere literal reading of the text is seen in the number of modern biblical scholars who write about him. For example, Peter Bouteneff in his BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES (pp 98-118) writes:
“For Origen, Scripture’s usefulness and importance are not primarily historical but moral, pastoral, and, finally, soteriological. … He states that the belief that Scripture ought to be interpreted according to the bare letter is tantamount to saying that it was composed by human beings alone, without inspiration. … The purpose of allegory, then, is to uncover Scripture’s latent sense, the embedded rule of faith. As we will see again farther on, this rule, Scripture’s inner sense, is ultimately distilled in the person of Christ himself. … describing the pitfalls of a bare, literal reading of Scripture, for example, in the prophecies found in both Moses and the Prophets. (He calls such a reading Jewish because it fails to find Christ.) The further hazard of an overly literal reading (or one unguided by good teachers) is that it will be insensitive to the awesome mystery behind the words and thus produce an anthropomorphic portraiture of God.”
In other words, for Origen, the importance of the Scriptures lies not in the factual recounting of past historical events, but how the Bible can and does speak to current believers about salvation, about how to live in this world morally, about how to guide us in our every day thinking and behavior, and in shaping our understanding of God. Origen is concerned literally 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” regarding history but rather the truth they convey to us about God, His plan of Salvation, and how we should live in His world. Bouteneff continues with an example:
“The aim of the Holy Spirit is ‘to envelop [clothe] and hide secret mysteries in ordinary words under the pretext of narrative… [i.e.] an account of visible things.’ Origen’s example …is the biblical account of the creation of the world and the first human being…Origen believes that the Holy Spirit even inserts what he calls…stumbling blocks…things that could not possibly have occurred in history—in order to shake people out of an overly simplistic or literal reading. … (Origen argues) The Genesis account “enshrines certain deeper truths than the mere historical narrative,…and contains a spiritual meaning almost throughout, using ‘the letter’ as a kind of veil to hide profound and mystical doctrines” … (Origen writes:) “To what person of intelligence, I ask, will the account seem logically consistent that says there was a ‘first day’ and a ‘second’ and a ‘third,’ in which also ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ are named, without a sun, without a moon, and without stars, and even in the case of the first day without a heaven? And who will be found simple enough to believe that like some farmer ‘God planted trees in the garden of Eden, in the east’ and that he planted ‘the tree of life’ in it, that is a visible tree that could be touched, so that someone could eat of this tree with corporeal teeth and gain life, and further, could eat of another tree and receive the knowledge of ‘good and evil?’ Moreover, we find that God is said to stroll in the garden in the afternoon and Adam to hide under a tree. Surely, I think no one doubts that these statements are made by Scripture in the form of a figure… by which they point toward certain mysteries.” … [Origen] concluded that Scripture had indeed been dictated to Moses by the Holy Spirit, to the very last letter…Yet the Holy Spirit dictated not history but stories that contained complexities and difficulties, with the intention of inviting readers into the deepest and most serious engagement.” (pp 98-118)