Sanctified Vision (4): Origen and the Pedagogy of Scripture

Completing our study of O’Keefe and Reno’s Sanctified Vision, we turn to the idea, widespread throughout patristic interpretation, that a life of spiritual discipline is the prerequisite for correctly interpreting Scripture. The authors contend that even this is not a totally foreign concept in the modern world; we might judge a work of history, in part, on the historian’s reputation for fairness and trustworthiness. But, for the Fathers, the divine nature of Scripture calls for a far deeper level of commitment: “The goal of patristic exegesis was to pass through the narrow opening that led to thoughts that participated in the unspeakable mysteries, and only a person whose vision has been refined by prayer, fasting, and self-control could hope to effect such a passage” (129).

I’ve always been fascinated by Origen’s threefold approach to Scripture. Drawing on his anthropology, which divided human nature into body, soul, and mind, Origen correspondingly divided Scripture into literal, moral, and spiritual senses. But O’Keefe and Reno bring out the less obvious logic that illuminates Origen’s hermeneutical move: for Origen, God created the human body for the explicit purpose of pointing us towards the spiritual. That is, “God has established an economy of bodily existence that puts pressure on our finite lives, and that pressure, experienced as suffering, drives us upward, toward the spiritual” (134). The trials of this life that we experience in our bodies (hunger, injury, disease, death) drive us to consider and long for spiritual realities.

Quite brilliantly, Origen extends this idea to Scripture: “Interpretation takes place within the literal sense that God has arranged so as to direct readers toward the spiritual sense” (135). Just as with the tribulations of the physical body, so the bodily (literal) sense of Scripture is filled with difficulties (confusing passages, apparent contradictions, moral impossibilities), pointing us to the deeper, spiritual truths and realities. O’Keefe and Reno bring summarize Origen’s position well:

It is as if Origen had anticipated the experience of every pious student who, having enrolled in a course of modern biblical studies, is confronted  by a professor who spends a great deal of time showing just how badly the Bible fits with his inherited faith. This experience naturally evokes a Job-like question. ‘Why has God so organized his witness that the more I learn about it, the more difficult it is to make sense of it?’ For Origen, the answer is simple. To know the languages, to be capable of memorizing the text, to have intellectual ability, even to possess the rule of faith, is not enough. We interpret truly when we see that the scriptural text teaches the mystery of God and the carnal eye cannot see the brightness of the holiness of God” (138). In other words, the difficulties of Scripture point us on the path of discipleship: “Reading is difficult because God wants us to suffer the dry deserts of incomprehension as so many days of interpretive fasting. Thus disciplined by the body of scripture, our vision is sanctified and prepared for us to enter into the narrow footpath” (139).

As I look at it, Origen is quite close to Jesus’ own teaching on the matter. After all, did Jesus not come teaching in parables precisely so that “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding, otherwise they might turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4.12)? And here we have our answer to what might be the most common critique of Origen’s firm conviction in a hidden, spiritual sense of Scripture: shouldn’t God make His Word of the utmost clarity, so that even the most ordinary man can understand? No doubt, the “basics” of Scripture (what is “necessary for life and godliness,” as some have put it) are evident to all. But why would God be content for anyone to stay at the “basics”? Are we not to “move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ, and be taken forward to maturity” (Heb 6.1)? Rather than close our minds to the problems of Scripture, we need to be honest in wrestling with them (regardless of whether or not we accept all of Origen’s ascetic scheme) and consider that, perhaps, these have been placed there not to be flippantly harmonized but to be pondered, mediated upon, and even lived.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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