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LT 392

Bogdan Neacsiu

Origens view on interpreting Scripture

As early as Apostolic Age, Christians realized that Scripture needed to be interpreted.

Christ himself had done that on the road to Emaus, when encountering two of his disciples,
beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the
Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27). The Old Testament has real meaning only in relation
to Christ, and if not understood, then the Old Testament itself is not understood. (1 Col 2:17
This is only a shadow!). Irenaeus in his work, Adversus Haeresis, is probably the first to set
forth the principles of reading Scripture. Thus, according to him, the rules in the Old Testament
are given as signs, which have a function, but they also have a hidden meaning to be revealed in
Christ (now circumcision is of the heart; Sabbath is to be every day, consecrating everything to
God. Regarding the interpretation of the hidden meanings of Scripture, one of the earliest
approaches is the typological approach. Clement of Alexandria and Origen take up this approach
and expand it to what they call a Mystical or a Symbolic approach (the allegorical
Origen, the famous Alexandrian theologian, synthesizes this approach. At the beginning
of the third century he leads an exegetical school in Alexandria, were he focuses mainly on
interpreting Scripture according to the allegorical approach. Known as the founder of biblical
scholarship, he uses allegory in order to make the Old Testament palatable to Greeks while
retaining the sacredness of the texts. He presents the way in which we should interpret Scripture
in Book IV of his work On the First Principles.

LT 392
Bogdan Neacsiu

Written around 220-230, On the first Principles is considered to be the first systematic
approach to Christian dogmatics. The book is addressed to Greeks, for whom Creation was the
most difficult thing to understand because they thought that anything that exists is eternal, so it
cannot be created. The central point of the book is that God is the Creator, ant that he was always
creating. Also God is just, and therefore creation is an act of justice (everything that God creates
is the same spherical and perfect) the creation of the intellects, free and contemplated the
essence of God (the goal of life). They fell and this explains the inequality of beings. Material
existence is defective and prayer is the means by which one ascends. The only intellect which did
not fall was Christ.
In the first chapter of Book IV, Origen speaks about the Inspiration of Divine Scripture.
He says that the word of God, has been preached in all the world, including to Greeks and
barbarians, to the wise and also to the foolish, all of this made through the sacrifice of the ones
who taught the teaching of Christ who lost their possessions or who even died. Origen shows
how the prophets and the psalms speak about Christ. He says that what the Scriptures say about
the divine nature of Christ, it also is proof of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. And the fact
that the Scriptures are of divine inspiration and the fact that they speak about Christ, was only
clear after the Incarnation. Thus the Scriptures are above humanity, they are supra-human:
And we must add that it was after the advent of Jesus that the inspiration of the prophetic
words and the spiritual nature of Moses law came to light. For before the advent of Christ it was
not at all possible to bring forward clear proofs of the divine inspiration of the old scriptures.
But the advent of Jesus led those who might have suspected that the law and the prophets were
not divine to the clear conviction that they were composed by the aid of heavenly grace. []
Now the light which was contained within the law of Moses, but was hidden away under a veil,

LT 392
Bogdan Neacsiu

shone forth at the advent of Jesus, when the veil was taken away and there came at once to mens
knowledge those good things of which the letter of the law held a shadow.
Also Origen highlights that not every passage is going to clearly point to Christ, because
we are too weak to understand the mind of God. But the fact that we do not always understand
the passages of Scripture, this does not mean that they are less inspired by God.
After pointing out that the Scriptures are of divine inspiration, Origen tries to explain to
us the way in which we should read and interpret them. He first starts by presenting how we
should not read Scripture, giving us the examples of the Jew and of the heretics. Jews have read
the Scripture (especially the prophesies) literally, and thus they did not recognize Christ as being
the Savior. And not only that they did not recognize him as the Son of God, but they also
crucified Him, for calling himself Christ. On the other hand, heretics (Gnostics mainly) see many
scriptural passages as speaking about a Demiurge who is not good and imperfect. Thus Christ
came to speak about another god, a more perfect god, different of the god who created the
According to Origen, the main reason for which this has happened is because of the
literal interpretation of Scripture. He recommends a more spiritual interpretation of it. Thus a
key of knowledge is necessary in order to properly read Scripture. In this sense there are three
stages of interpreting Scripture:
1. The flesh of the Scripture, edifying the simple things for sincere and simple
2. The soul of the Scripture, a wisdom not of this world;
3. The spirit of the Scripture, for those who are perfected showing the reality that was
pointed to by the Scripture.

LT 392
Bogdan Neacsiu

Origen also highlights the marks of a true understanding of Scripture. In this sense, the
Spirit is primarily concerned with the unspeakable mysteries connected with the affairs of
men, so that a capable man might, with effort, become a partaker of the doctrines of God.
Secondly, the Spirit has care for those who cannot endure the highest knowledge. Thus the
doctrines are concealed in stories, which is the bodily level of Scripture. Third, God inserted
stumbling blocks in the narrative and Law to give us pause, so that we would look for the higher
meaning, rather than be satisfied with the words at face value. This includes the relating of
events and words that never actually happened but have a spiritual meaning.
As Origen puts it, the spiritual understanding is the goal of the Holy Spirit to impart and
us to receive. In all things we must look for the mystical wisdom of God. But the Scripture has
not only mystical passage, but also historical passages which should be interpreted literally. And
he ends this chapter by mentioning that the Holy Spirit has acted in this way not only in Scripture
but also in the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles.
In chapter four, Origen speaks about the principle underlying the obscurities in scripture.
According to him, there are passages in the Scripture which are impossible to be understood in a
literal way. And he gives these in examples in order to prove that is not only the literal meaning
of the word that counts. By doing this, the events presented in these passages would not only be
impossible, but also absurd. Thus the reader must endeavor to understand the full meaning of the
text, and in order to find the treasures which are hidden behind these words, we need the help of
God. God helps us to seek spiritual knowledge, which is a never ending process.
Chapter 4 of Book IV of Origens work is a summary of doctrine regarding the Persons of
the Holy Trinity. One of his key points it the eternal presence of the Son and of the Spirit with

LT 392
Bogdan Neacsiu

the Father. The word is everywhere, not only in one place. He is in Paul, and in Peter and
especially in the archangels who merit his presence more.
In Book IV of On the First Principles Origen defines and articulates an approach to
Scripture in which he sees both a literal and a spiritual meaning. He highlights and proposes the
spiritual allegorical interpretation of the Scripture, a Scripture which must be read as speaking
about Christ. He does not try to eliminate the literal way of interpreting Scripture and
recommends this method for the passages which mostly have a historical value. But the true way
of understanding Gods mystical message and wisdom addressed to the reader through the words
of the Scripture is through the allegorical (spiritual) interpretation.