One reason to read the early Church Fathers is to gain insight into how the believers in the first centuries of Christianity understood the Old Testament as well as the New. We get to read interpretations of Scripture that are not shaped by the much later arguments of the Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation (16-17th Centuries). It is these later arguments which often dominate Scripture commentaries today. We think these recent arguments are getting to the real meaning of the Bible, but we learn that these debates are a product of their own time and do not necessarily reflect what the Biblical writers intended. A good example of this comes in Origen’s (3rd Century) commentary on Romans in which we see him commenting on the Scriptures regarding the issues and understanding of the Christians of the Third Century. His concerns are not shaped by the later Protestant-Catholic debates and so he sees things in the Scripture modern commentators don’t think are important because they are not part of those later Western Christian debates.
Origen does not think the right image of God is the wrathful Judge who’s will is to send all sinners to Hell. Origen does not think God is out looking for reasons to cast people into the eternal fire for all eternity. Rather, Origen experiences the New Testament as Good News: God is love and God is working to save His human creatures from sin and death. This is the Gospel to Origen. Origen reads Paul through this lens of God is love and God is Savior. Origen interprets Paul’s comments on God’s wrath and impending judgment not as the literal truth, but rather part of Paul’s concern for those listening to Christian preaching. Aware that many people who hear ‘God is love’ might be tempted to sin (since God will forgive in the end anyway), St Paul couches his Gospel message in harsh terms so that the lazy won’t just keep sinning. Paul wants everyone to embrace the salvation which God is offering to everyone. For Origen, Paul does not want people to disregard an offer of salvation because it is offered to all and so Paul reminds people that God rightfully should judge us. Thus Paul’s message is not that God is a wrathful judge who wants to get His hands on sinners, but rather Paul bookends his main theme that “God is love” with reminders that God rightfully is judge. Paul does this for our salvation – so that we don’t presume on God’s love and choose to keep sinning since we know God will forgive in the end. Paul is trying to rouse even the laziest of people to enthusiastically embrace the Gospel and to live God’s love in the world.
“Paul is thus acting as a wise steward of the word. And when he comes to the passages in which he has to speak about God’s goodness, he expresses these things in a somewhat concealed and obscure way for the sake of certain lazy people lest, perchance as we have said, ‘they despise the rices of his goodness and patience and forbearance and store up for themselves wrath on the day of wrath,’ [Rom 2:4-5] into which all people who have stored up deeds of this kind for themselves must of necessity face, even though you have seen what may happen after these things.”
As Thomas Scheck, the translator of the text notes:
“Origen seems to be alluding to his belief that Paul promises a universal restoration of all creatures, which is conditional on their cooperation with God’s grace. Paul conceals this doctrine about God’s goodness, Origen thinks, to keep people from presuming upon it, falling away, and being re-sentenced to punishment.”
For Origen, Paul’s words about the wrath and judgement of God are not Paul’s main message. Rather, he is trying to push the spiritually lazy into action – embrace the Gospel. Don’t ignore it because you think you are saved no matter what. Embrace God’s salvation and live the Gospel. This is how St Paul tries to rally the indolent to actively follow Christ and to obey the Gospel commandments. The later debates between Reformers and Catholics tried to tie Paul’s words to God’s judgment on those who are on the wrong side of their debate. They are the ones who really wanted a wrathful God to destroy their opponents – that message is not in the text but read into by these later Christian debaters. So rather than being concerned about the salvation of all, they became increasingly convinced that only people who believe like us can be saved.
But what he says, ‘But sin was in this world until the law, but sin is not imputed when there is no law,’ this seems to show that until the law came, that is to say, until Christ came, ‘who takes away the sin of the world,’ [Jn 1:29] sin existed. But sin obviously cannot be imputed where there is no law which convicts the sinner. ‘But death reigned,’ which had entered through sin, ‘until Moses,’ that is, continually while the law abided ‘over those who sinned in the likeness of Adam’s sin,’ through whom death itself had gained an entrance. Adam was a ‘type of that which was to come,’ not in his being a transgressor but in the following sense: Just as death entered through him, so through the last Adam life has entered this world [Rom 5:17; 1 Cor 15:22,45]; and just as, through him, condemnation comes to all men, so also through Christ justification comes to all men [Rom 5:18].” (Origen, COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS Books 1-5, pp 307-308)
Origen understands Paul to say sin reigned over humans until Christ came – then Jesus took away the sin of the world. Origen reads St Paul to mean that sin reigned over all people not because of the effects of original sin, but because everyone sinned in some way. We each don’t do exactly what Adam did – we each sin in our own way.
Adam is a type of human who foreshadows Christ. And just as Adam’s sin led to mortality for all humans, so Christ’s life, death and resurrection brought salvation to all. The Good News is that God is not just trying to save some people (like the Jews or like Christians) and to damn the rest. Christ’s death and resurrection are offered to all and available to all. As we pray in the Liturgy: “On behalf of all and for all.” Just as because of Adam, we all share in the world in which sin, death and suffering are part of what we experience daily, so too in Christ salvation is available to all to participate in. God is love. God is not looking for a reason to destroy sinners, but rather is casting a net of salvation on the whole world in the hopes that all will understand God’s love for us and embrace it, no longer following their own self-interest but enjoying the grace which God offers to all.
The sad news is that some are so wrapped into themselves that they have no interest in God’s love.