Biblical Studies, Theology

Origen among the Critics

Published on: January 17, 2024
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Origen among the Critics
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What has Alexandria—or Antioch, for that matter—to do with the Society of Biblical Literature? At first blush, it would seem like the quasi-scientific aspirations of source criticism, say, stand further from the exegetical habits of both Didymus the Blind and Theodore of Mopsuestia than either of their respective commentarial practices stood from one another. Theirs was a “pre-critical” approach to the Bible, far removed from the scholarly assumptions under which historical criticism and its late modern heirs routinely operate. Such was the “superiority” of patristic and medieval exegesis, we’re sometimes told: they approached the text with a posture of humility instead of a hermeneutic that would stand over and against the text, mistaking the very Word of God for a specimen to be studied.

Or take the sort of ethical criticism in which contemporary interpreters of Scripture often traffic. It has become a commonplace since the early modern period for cultured despisers of Christianity to read the Bible with one eye askance to its “moral vision,” of course. But the pioneering work of scholars from marginalized social locations over the last six decades or so has brought such ethical critique to bear upon the field of biblical studies itself. Rather than taking the text at face value, these scholars reassess the rhetoric of Scripture from the vantage of ongoing movements for liberation. Feminism, womanism, anti-racism, postcolonialism—each of these struggles for justice becomes a paradigmatic perspective from which to reevaluate whether and how the words of Scripture really do bring good news of a just God to their readers. Surely nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of premodern exegesis than adjudicating the revelatory promise of the Bible on the basis of moral standards that seem to be at odds with its letter—right?

 And yet, consider Origen of Alexandria. His theory and practice of biblical interpretation—as ever—defies our expectations of how “pre-critical” exegesis supposedly differs from its late modern descendants. For he assayed the moral quality of Scripture no less than such contemporary scholars, even as he sublated their concerns into a broader vision of theological interpretation. Indeed, Origen took such ethical criticism of Scripture a radical step further by including even our moral revulsion at particularly egregious stretches of the biblical narrative within his concept of revelation. Which is to say, Origen incorporates the faithful reader’s response to the Bible into his account of what it means for the text itself to be inspired: the Wisdom of God turns out to be not only the substance of Scripture but equally the subject responsible for its interpretation, such that we cannot speak of the Word’s embodiment in Scripture at all apart from its reception in and through the Spirit.

Such is the upshot of Origen’s famous discussion of biblical hermeneutics in the fourth and final book of his treatise On First Principles. Recall that he there aims to refute: not simply misreadings of certain passages in Scripture but theologically misguided ways of conceptualizing what it is and how to read it in the first place. Among the offenders, he first arraigns his Jewish interlocutors for missing the references to the advent of Christ in the Prophets and then the “heretics” for mistaking the frequently off-putting anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Law as so many references to a lesser deity, different in kind from the loving Father of Jesus Christ. But he also singles out the “simple” within the Church itself for rightly believing the Law and Prophets refer to the same God as the one proclaimed by the Gospels but nonetheless attributing to that one Lord “such things as would not be believed even of the most unjust and savage of human beings.”[1] These readers piously embrace the Old Testament at the cost of placing their trust in a morally compromised God—one who “kindle[s] fire from [his] anger” (Deut 32:22) and “repay[s] the sins of the father upon the children” (Exod 20:5) and “regrets” his divine appointments (1 Kings 15:11) and even “creates evil” (Isaiah 45:7).[2]

Notice: the corrective for these overly credulous readers of Scripture cannot be to purge such passages from their canon, either by removing them entirely or simply ignoring them. That would reprise the error of the “heretics.” No, the only viable response to their naïve reading of Scripture must be a hermeneutic of suspicion (as it were) toward the text’s representation of God. Much like our contemporary critics, that is, Origen does not shy from holding the God depicted in both testaments of the Bible to the same ethical standards we feel compelled to apply to one another. If, in fact, the biblical narrative characterizes God in a way that offends the ethical principles upon which reason tells us virtue ought to be founded, he suggests, the faithful reader has no choice but to seek an interpretation of the text—a “spiritual” reading, he calls it—that would actually bear witness to the God whom Jesus Christ has revealed to be the source of virtue itself. The only alternative to an ethically critical interpretation of Scripture turns out to be faith in a God not worthy of our devotion.

If that claim places Origen in the company of feminist, womanist, anti-racist, and postcolonial critics of the Bible, he distinguishes his approach to Scripture by including such critique in the Spirit’s own movement of inspiration. For one thing, he refuses to apologize for the texts by attributing their problematic aspects to the cultural, ethical, and/or religious limitations of their authors. Nothing could be more foreign to Origen than consigning morally disconcerting passages to the dustbin of history, as if such “texts of terror” were little more than vestiges of a less enlightened age. On the contrary, his commitment to the divine provenance of Scripture obliges him to attribute even the most bewildering passages to the cunning of Spirit. Indeed, we might say Origen is more inerrantist than the inerrantists: even the apparent mistakes in Scripture are there for a reason. And the purpose of these “stumbling blocks” in Scripture—skandala, Origen calls them, etymologically anticipating our word scandalous—is to provoke the reader’s theological imagination: “by excluding and debarring us” from the biblical narrative, the very Wisdom of God aims to draw us toward a more “narrow path,” upon which “it might unfold, as a loftier and more sublime road, the immense breadth of divine knowledge.”[3] Where the letter of Scripture rebuffs our best efforts to read it as divine revelation we should see an invitation to recognize the text’s spiritual depths.

That bit of Origenian wisdom is likely familiar. But the aspect of his biblical hermeneutics that goes unsung far too often is the indispensable role of the interpreter herself in rendering the text of Scripture diaphanous to the Spirit. Without her critical attention—to its logical consistency and moral quality and theological correctness, all of which judgments require the sober use of reason, both practical and pure—the Word cannot reveal itself. According to Origen, in other words, spiritual interpretation is the truth of Scripture, and this in the undeniably radical sense that the textually embodied Word is not yet true—not yet itself, that is to say—until it has been received in the same Spirit by which it was written. Deep calls to deep; like is known by like. So runs the mystery of recognition: “one who ha[s] devoted himself to studies of this kind, with all chastity and sobriety and nights of watching might perhaps through these means be able to trace out the sense of the Spirit of God hidden in profundity and concealed by an ordinary narrative style,” even going so far as to prove himself “an associate in the Spirit’s knowledge and a partaker in the divine counsel” itself. For “the soul cannot come to the perfection of knowledge otherwise than by being inspired with the truth of divine wisdom.”[4] Scripture is only as revelatory as its readers are willing to see.

But if all of that seems too radical—surely the Bible would remain true without our faltering efforts to interpret it, we might object!—then maybe our pearl clutching is only an indication of where some of Origen’s sympathies might lie within the modern landscape of biblical interpretation. For the Alexandrian was no biblicist. He knew the truth of Scripture could not be “a minted coin that can be given and pocketed ready-made,” to borrow a phrase, but must instead be the result of a Jacob-like struggle to wrest from it a blessing. None of which makes Origen a rhetorical critic avant la lettre, of course; his own moral sensibilities were no doubt far removed from the standards by which contemporary biblical scholars adjudicate the text of Scripture. But it does suggest that patristic exegesis was somewhat less “pre-critical” than we often suppose. From his eschatology to his biblical hermeneutics, Origen’s genius was to see that and how the Word incorporates even our resistance to revelation into his body.


[1] Origen, On First Principles 4.2.1 (Behr, 489). All citations of De principiis will refer to the English translation of the Latin text of Rufinus in John Behr, ed. and trans., Origen: On First Principles, 2 volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), and include the corresponding page numbers parenthetically.

[2] Origen, On First Principles 4.2.1 (Behr, 487).

[3] Origen, On First Principles 4.2.9 (Behr, 515).

[4] Origen, On First Principles 4.2.7 (Behr, 509-510).

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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