In this way, therefore, I think the marriages of the elders are interpreted more fittingly; in this way the unions entered by the patriarchs in their now final and weakened age are understood more nobly; in this way I hold the necessary begetting of children should be reckoned.
-Origen, Homilies on Genesis 11.2
What Origen is talking about is the fact that when the patriarchs practice polygamy, many, and even careless interpreters in our day, think it is amounts to the endorsement of a vice. But, says Origen, when a person practices a virtue, when someone for example is habituated to hospitality, he can be said to take it to wife. Is it any wonder, then, that we’re told, specially when they were older, that the patriarchs had many?
Do you see what he’s done? Origen has taken what might be taken as the presence of a vice and said, “No, it is in fact the opposite. In this way, therefore, I think the marriages of the elders are interpreted more fittingly; in this way the unions entered by the patriarchs in their now final and weakened age are understood more nobly; in this way I hold the necessary begetting of children should be reckoned.”
Here is the question, though: how is this plausible? When I was being trained by dispensationalists I was taught that a proper method was to interpret the obscure in light of the obscure. And, I was told, you’ll have to end up a premillennialist. When I started attending a Reformed church, a Sunday school was done dealing with the various millennial views, the conclusions being amillennialist. What was the method stressed? The obscure have to be interpreted in light of the clear. In fact, the same method, as to that point. And both parties gave me to understand that the correct method was the key.
But the correct method is not the key, as Augustine, who gave it second priority, knew. What is key is determining what is obscure and what is clear, or rather, just determining what is clear. Augustine has a solution for this. It is the telos, the purpose of Scripture, and I think he is right. This is more important than method, so much so for Augustine that you can use the wrong method to get to the right conclusion.
In Origen’s case—for the purposes of understanding him—it is, I think, something Aristotle can shed light on. In chapter 9 of the Poetics, Aristotle famously writes that poetry “is more philosophical and more serious than history: in fact poetry speaks more of universals, whereas history of particulars.” The detail of history, the narrative surface of the text, was not where clarity should be located for Origen. Rather, clarity is located in the purposes of God: Christ and the church, Christ and the believer, invisible things that are held by faith. The allegorical meaning, the spiritual realities which we clearly apprehend thanks to the Rule of Faith and universal Christian practice point us toward the purposes.
Of course, Origen will adduce texts to substantiate his views: in his mind clear texts. It is interesting how much the clarity of these is apparent in his situation though, how much his method is determined by three groups interpreting Scripture he had to deal with. Naïve believers were one of these groups, and he is constantly exhorting them to look deeper, to advance in piety (the journey toward God) so they can have more clarity of the real heart of Scripture. The second group was the Gnostics, which trafficked in incoherence. Platonism was only a source for Gnosticism in the way Scripture was: the Gnostics wrested both. Platonism in fact, in Plotinus, in fact, rejected Gnosticism decisively. So did Origen, promoting the spiritual coherence of Scripture, rather than its fragmentation and incoherence. For him the wonder of Scripture was not appetitive, but a matter of rightly ordered affections. The third group was the most influential on Origen: the Jews. The literal and anti-Christological reading they gave the Old Testament seems to be what most drove Origen. He kept up a steady polemic against Jewish interpretation as definitely incompatible with the purposes of God. The letter killeth, he would often repeat, but the Spirit maketh alive; and Aristotle helps us locate these things in the cosmos of his thinking.