The Significance of Origen for Appropriating the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

OrigenThe books of the Old Testament contain many stories that interpreters find difficult to appropriate as Christian Scripture.  Some texts seem too remote from our present context to be relevant, some texts seem to be at odds with the principles of grace, love, and forgiveness that are so prominent in the New Testament, and some texts are simply difficult to understand quite apart from our struggle to appropriate them as Christian Scripture.

But despite these difficulties, the church – right from the very beginning – has affirmed the place of the Old Testament as an indispensable and non-negotiable portion of Christian Scripture.[1]  The church believed that all scripture was inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16); the church believed that the books of the Old Testament were relevant for Christian faith and practice (Rom. 4:23-24; 15:4; cf. 1 Cor. 10:6, 11); and they condemned in the strongest terms those who did not recognize the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament and those who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God of the new.[2]

However, the mere acceptance of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture did not solve the problems associated with appropriating it as Christian Scripture.  The church has found it extremely difficult to appropriate the message of the Old Testament for Christian readers and hearers.[3]  In many ways, these challenges have remained the same throughout church history and the lessons that have been learned, both positive and negative, need to be appropriated by the church today.  While it is true that the accumulated wisdom of the centuries has not led the church to perfection, the church can learn a great deal from its past as it presses forward in its continual struggle to understand the relevance of the Old Testament for Christians today.

One of the most significant figures in the church’s struggle to appropriate the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254 C.E.).  Origen is, at the same time, one of the most influential and most controversial figures in the history of Christian interpretation and Christian theology.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, commenting on Origen’s eventual condemnation by the church, describes his legacy as follows:

[W]hile the jar was breaking into a thousand pieces and the name of the master was being overwhelmed and stoned, the fragrance of the ointment was coming forth and “filling the whole house.”  For there is no thinker in the Church who is so invisibly all-present as Origen….[His] is a voice that drives straight through everything, always pushing on, without fanfare and without fatigue, almost, it seems, without an obvious goal, possessed almost to the point of insanity, and yet with a cool, unapproachable intellectual restraint that has never again been equaled.[4]

While many interpreters would prefer to sweep the broken pieces under the rug and allow the fragrance from the ointment to dissipate in the wind, Origen’s significance for Christian appropriation of the Old Testament cannot be underestimated or ignored.

In this regard, I would like to explore the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from Origen as he interprets of the story of Lot and his daughters from a Christian point of view.   I have chosen this story in particular because Origen is often accused of depreciating the value of the literal meaning of the biblical text[5] and Origen himself stated that “it would take quite a search” to find the usefulness of the story of Lot and his daughters when interpreted exclusively on the literal level.[6]  This will give us opportunity to see in detail how Origen sought to find in this story something that could be appropriated by believers on the other side of the cross.  I will begin by describing Origen’s exegetical methods as he describes them in On First Principles.[7]  Next I will analyze Origen’s interpretation of the story of Lot and his daughters by comparing his interpretation to a close reading of the biblical text.  Throughout this analysis I will draw lessons, both positive and negative that can be learned from Origen’s method of interpretation for contemporary appropriation of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

Part 2 – Origen’s Exegetical Method (next week).

[1] This does not mean that Christians were fully agreed on the extent of the canon or the text of books whose content in the Septuagint varies considerably from its content in the Masoretic Tradition.  See Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: It’s Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, Massachussets: Hendrickson, 1995), 208.  “[T]here can be no question that the OT Scriptures were viewed by the earliest church as an authoritative source for Christian faith and life, even though the boundaries of the canon had not yet been fully decided.”

[2] For the role played by heretical sects in the formation of the church’s views on the Old Testament see John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 35-62.

[3] For an excellent history of this struggle in the Patristic period see the various essays included in Magne Sæbø(ed.), Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation.  Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages (Until 1300) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996).

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar (ed.), Origen: Spirit & Fire.  A Thematic Anthology of His Writings, trans. Robert J. Daly (Washingdon, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 2.

[5] See, in particular, R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory and Event (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002;  repr., Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1959).

[6] Origen, “Homily 5 on 1 Samuel,” in Origen, trans. Joseph W. Trigg (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 200.

[7] Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth with an introduction by Henri de Lubac (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973).


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