Origen’s Literal Level of Interpretation

OrigenOrigen refers to his own exegetical methods quite frequently throughout his works but he speaks about them most clearly in the fourth book of his most controversial work, On First Principles.  Origen was keenly aware that without proper exegetical method, Scripture was in danger of being radically misunderstood, a danger which Origen believed was realized in the biblical interpretation of non-Christian Jews and heretical Christian groups.[1]  Indeed, it was improper exegetical method that was at the root of Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and was the catalyst for his crucifixion.[2]  Likewise, it was faulty exegetical method which caused the heretics to believe that the God of the Old Testament was different and less perfect than the God of the New.  So for Origen, exegetical method was of vital importance.

The root and foundation of Origen’s exegetical method was his belief in the divine inspiration of both Old and New Testament scripture, interpreted within the context of the church and in harmony with the faith as it was handed down by apostolic succession.[3]  The fundamental reason why scripture is misunderstood is because it is interpreted exclusively on the literal level without taking into account its spiritual or non-literal meaning.[4]  However, even when its potential for meaning beyond the literal level is recognized, it is still necessary to interpret scripture according to divine intentionality.  In other words, without proper exegetical method, the interpreter may discover levels of meaning not intended by the Spirit.  It is to these exegetical methods that we now turn.[5]

Origen believed that scripture should be interpreted according to three levels of meaning.  Origen claims to derive this principle from Proverbs 22:20-21, which in the Septuagint says, “Moreover, you shall write these things down for yourself in a threefold way on the breadth of your heart, for counsel and knowledge…so that you may answer those who question you with true words.”[6]  These three levels of meaning correspond in broad terms to the needs Christians have on the various stages of their spiritual journey: the literal level is for the simple Christian, the moral level is for those who have made some spiritual progress, and the spiritual level is for those whom Paul refers to as the perfect (2 Cor. 2:6-7), that is, spiritually mature Christians who are capable of receiving solid food and understanding the deeper things of God (Heb. 5:13-14; cf. 2 Cor. 2:10).[7]  Origen sometimes refers to these three levels of meaning, by analogy, to the tripartite nature of human beings: the body (literal), the soul (moral), and the spirit (spiritual).[8]  Each of these will be discussed in turn (the moral and spiritual in a later post).

The literal level of meaning refers to the surface level of the biblical text without regard for figurative language or figurative meaning.  For Origen, figurative language and figurative meaning belong to the same category: they are simply two points on a scale extending all of the way from the metaphorical to the mystical.  This can be somewhat confusing for the modern reader because figurative language is usually considered to belong to the plain sense meaning of the biblical text.[9] But for Origen, if an interpreter is unwilling to accept the mystical they should also be unwilling to accept the metaphorical – both represent interpretations that go beyond the literal meaning of the text.  This accounts for much of Origen’s torturously literal interpretations of certain biblical passages in his discussion of the figurative meaning of scripture.[10]

Origen’s literal level of meaning may be sub-divided into three categories.  First, some passages deal with issues that are immediately relevant for believers today even when interpreted on the literal level.  For example, the story of the Witch of Endor might suggest that believers who have departed from this life are under the control of a demon.[11]  This concern can be dealt with simply by looking at the literal meaning of the text more carefully.  Second, some passages contain literal meanings that edify.  These usually come in the form of commands that clearly should be obeyed on a literal level such as the command not to kill or the command not to steal.[12]  Third, some passages simply convey information that, without the aid of moral or spiritual interpretation, is not edifying.  The story of Lot and his daughters is included in this final category on the literal level.[13]  All three types of literal meaning are important for Origen and form the basis for his non-literal interpretation of scripture.[14]


[1] Ibid, On First Principles, IV.2.1.

[2] Origen, On First Principles, IV.2.1, 269-70.

[3] Ibid, On First Principles, IV.2.1-2, 269-73.

[4] Ibid, On First Principles, IV.2.  As will be seen below, Origen is not consistent in his use of terms.  Here, Origen is not referring to the spiritual level of interpretation per se but to any interpretation that moves beyond the literal level.

[5] Origen makes it clear that his approach to interpreting scripture applies to the New Testament as well as to the Old.  But since this paper is concerned with Christian appropriation of the Old Testament, Origen’s method of interpretation will be viewed from the context of how it applies to Old Testament texts.

[6] Translation mine.  Origen’s remarks are found in On First Principles IV.2.4, 275-76.

[7] See also Origen’s development of these principles from the Shepherd of Hermas (On First Principles IV.2.4, 276-77).

[8] Origen, On First Principles, IV.2.5, 277-78.

[9] This is why some biblical scholars prefer to use the term “plain sense” rather than “literal sense” because the term “literal,” which for many does make room for figurative language, is so frequently misunderstood.  See, e.g., John Barton, The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp. 69-116.  See also the insightful discussion of James Barr in “The Literal, the Allegorical, and Modern Biblical Scholarship,” JSOT 44 (1989): 3-17.

[10] Origen, On First Principles, IV.3.1-3, 288-293.

[11] Origen, “Homily 5 on 1 Samuel,” in Origen, trans. Joseph W. Trigg (ECF; London/New York: Routledge, 1998), 200.  “But, nonetheless, because the story of Saul and the necromancer touches all of us, it contains truths at the level of the story.  Who, after departing from this life, would care to be under the control of a demon?”

[12] Origen, On First Principles, IV.3.4.

[13] See the quotation from Origen’s fifth homily on the book of Samuel given further below.

[14] Cf. Henri Crouzel, Origen, trans. A. S. Worrall (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 61.  “Normally the literal sense is the source of the spiritual sense: if that were not so there would only be an arbitrary sense whose relation with what the Scripture says would be merely extrinsic.  It is Origen’s practice to explain the literal meaning, however briefly, as he does for every verse of the Song of Songs, before going on to the spiritual meaning.”

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