As our class on early church history continues, we focused most of our night on the person and work of Origen. A fascinating character in the early church. He was one of the first exegetes of the Bible seeking to understand word usages and textual variations in Scripture. Origen, while not being too consistent nor fully systematized, might be considered one of the first attempts at a Christian systematic theologian as one who sought to topically express Christian beliefs and give supporting contentions from both his education and study of Scripture.
It is Origen’s genius as an educated philosopher that bore itself into my mind through this class. Origen was convinced of Platonic philosophy and freely allowed it to help him construct an idea of how the universe was structured, or his cosmology. This led to some strange and even common gnostic tendencies to appear within his work. While this influence of Platonic philosophy would be tempered and reworked by later early church fathers in its theological realms, I am stuck on his Platonism’s implications on exegetical work itself.
(While I know what follows will inevitably be missing nuance, because it is by its nature a general thought I have pondered, this is meant to represent my own understanding currently on this subject. Correction is more than welcomed, especially if I generally misrepresent Origen, his work, or its implications.)
Origen’s Platonism degraded the world of matter to such a degree that the body, understood as historical events in the world of matter, could not be trusted to express the presence and reality of God accurately. Because of this the Bible cannot be trusted in its historical reading to accurately reflect God. What is necessary is a way of knowing who God is. Origen was a Christian and so he took by faith, even against the currents of his Platonism, that Jesus is the perfect bodily representation of God in matter, or as least as much as is possible to know God in the world of matter. Therefore, it made sense to Origen that the historical accounts accredited to God, particularly in the Old Testament, are able to be assessed as accurate or inaccurate portrayals of God compared to God’s revelation in the person of Jesus.
Origen, as a Christian assumes that Scripture is revelatory, so if a text’s historical account in the Old Testament does not seem to portray God as revealed in the person of Jesus then there must be another level within the story of the historical event by which God is revealing himself. There may be at least two other levels by Origen’s account, the moral and the analogical. Origen believed that while God might not have wanted some event to occur in the history of Israel and was not behind it in the way the story portrays him, God’s inclusion of the story in the Bible means the people of God might be able learn a moral lesson from it. Origen would say the people of God are not intended to imitate the history of many events in the Old Testament, but we might be able to learn from them morally. Beyond a moral lesson may even be a third level, the level of analogy. In this level of understanding the text the story is bridged all the way to Jesus and the church. The story becomes a symbolic picture which helps Christians understand the person and work of King Jesus, and further understand the relationship of the people with God on account of Jesus.
I believe that Christians should learn from Origen that there are more ways to understand the biblical text than simply as a record of history. Still, I am concerned with Origen’s Platonism as basis for mistrusting the historical understanding of the text. The rejection of matter was a strong impulse in Origen’s thought. This played out in significant ascetic practices to begin leave behind the body of matter behind even in this life. I am weary of an aversion to saying the historical events might not reveal God therefore we are allowed to make up interpretations of histories in order that these stories of the Bible might correspond to our current belief structure.
Rightly or wrongly, I quickly connected this to (my understanding of) Greg Boyd’s idea of theological interpretation of Scripture. Particularly, what I understand as his contention that only those stories in the Old Testament which correspond to (Boyd’s) understanding of God as revealed through (Boyd’s) interpretation of the cross should be understood as God acting in history. This not surprising since Boyd attempts to justify his method by referencing Origen.
The problem still stands. Should history be rejected in Scripture if we believe it doesn’t reflect our understanding of God in Jesus? Or, should the idea of revelation mean we give the stories of the Bible, even those we don’t enjoy, the benefit of the doubt to reveal God’s actual character throughout Scripture in a way that builds upon itself without contradiction until it culminates in the person of Jesus?
I scholar I deeply respect has summarized Origen’s idea as, “The spirit of the text does not always find a body in the text.” Meaning the Bible does not always reveal the truest reality of who God is. I think Boyd would agree that there are times the Bible does not reveal God’s loving nature the way he understands it. I am simply not as confident in my own theology to believe I should judge which of Scripture’s stories rightly, or wrongly, reveal the character of God.