Wonder and Interpretation

There is a careless use of the word ‘allegorical’ to mean ‘irresponsible’. The insinuation is that allegorical interpretation is that which generates meaning without control. Since Origen is associated with allegorical hermeneutics, he is therefore dismissed as the father of irresponsible interpretation. That he was condemned in a subsequent century does not help.

Were you to believe this account of Origen, however, you would be wrong. Origen believed the Scriptures were an incarnation of Christ, and what he was seeking was spiritual profit. Origen was dismissive of the literal meaning. This is not the same as despising it, which he did not. He believed the literal meaning of Scripture—the reading of it aloud to another person—was profitable. It was the somatic use (the body) and profitable for young Christians. But he believed the Bible existed for greater purposes.

In his homilies Origen did at least two things: he wanted to use the Scripture to bring Christians to maturity, and so he had a tropological (moral and ethical) emphasis. He called it the psychic (the soul) use of Scripture. He believed that in order to advance in the Christian life you had to learn Christian disciplines and Christian behavior. You will find a lot of this in his homilies; it has to do with the audience he addressed. He believed the bulk of his audience was not that spiritually advanced. As a result, he did not want to present deeper spiritual meaning as much as he wanted to get them to the place where they could handle it. This idea, that you have to advance in the Christian life before you can handle some things (which at present is not usually compelling) is not a minority view in past ages of Christianity.

The second thing Origen did in his homilies, and apparently the main thing he did in his commentaries, was to entice Christians into deeper understanding. This is the pneumatic (the spirit) use of Scripture; it is the allegorical interpretation. Let me put it this way: when the blind man cries after the Savior, “Son of David, have mercy on me,” what is actually happening? Is this simply a story about a blind man who receives physical sight? If that is all you preach, then you should quit right now. It is an allegory, a figure, of the soul and Christ. It is both a figure of the lost human being who seeks from Jesus Christ salvation, and it is a picture of the believer under the dominion of sin who cries out to the only one powerful enough to break that dominion and to make him a cheerful and useful servant. It is not irresponsible to find in the stories of Scripture instruction on the spiritual life; it is their point.

The problem is still how you control interpretation. You cannot use Scripture to say anything at all. But I think it would have been curious to Origen to observe the modern tendency to make the Scripture say less rather than more. Part of this is that what he was doing, so new and fresh and full of possibility at the time (his writings filled the ancient world, instructed the best expositors and theologians, and it is now believed that his hermeneutics undergird the theological conclusions for which the theological world wars of the fourth and fifth centuries were fought; no kidding—not quite that simple, but nevertheless generally true, just study the protagonists of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies). We are exposed early on to the excess and abuse, and are taught to think of allegory on those terms.

But for Origen Scripture was a book of wonders, and in this I think he is more right than many I hear today. Scripture, as some use it, is not a book of wonders, but rather one which in every way the meaning ought to be compressed, reduced to the smallest possible wafer width. But that is the way of incoherence. One of the things Origen got wrong is that he was rather dismissive of the ordinary. It is more understandable that he should have that fault than that we should be dismissive of wonder and prize the ordinary more. He did what he did with the letter of Scripture because he wanted to move on to the wonder. But why do we want to move away from that, to reduce and to tame Scripture?

Yes, the point is accuracy, but accuracy that is not circumscribed by the wrong criteria. Scripture contains the ordinary, and goes beyond it to the extraordinary, and we begin with one because we seek the other. When it comes to a supernatural book with divine meaning and spiritual purposes, is not wonder to be expected? It is to be desired with a great desire.

Origen took the Platonic attitude of wonder and addressed himself to the study of Scripture that way. We can see that in the preparation he made of students: it was according to the most rigorously philosophical approaches of the day. It was a kind of athletic training, in which today you have disciplined rest, nourishment, exercise, in order to have a peak performance. He did the trivium and the quadrivium. And with this rigorous preparation, as if they were astronauts, he then had his students plunge into the depths of Scripture in arduous long journeys looking for the wonder, advancing through the psychic to the pneumatic use in order to understand in that trichotonomic image—body, soul and spirit—the incarnation of Christ the Word.

Incarnation is the paradoxical apotheosis of wonder, remember, and it is no wonder Origen thought of Scripture as a kind of incarnation. He thought of it as a marvel and a wonder, and he taught the Early Church how to do so, how to approach it as such. In the nick of time too, since a preparation for wonder was exactly what the Trinitarian and Christological controversies required.

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