Origen’s Moral and Spiritual Levels of Interpretation

Origen PictureOrigen’s moral level of meaning refers to practical lessons that can be learned from biblical texts which go beyond the literal meaning but do not depend for their application on the coming of Christ or the inauguration of the New Covenant.[1]  Sometimes these lessons take the form of exhortations to imitate or not to imitate the actions of the characters found in the biblical text.[2]  Other times the details of the story are interpreted symbolically to refer to principles God’s people should live by or to refer to the struggle that takes place in the soul between the flesh and the spirit.[3]  It should be remembered that, although the moral lessons Origen derives from the text do not depend on the coming of Christ for their applicability, this does not mean they were applicable to unbelievers.  Rather, Origen’s point is that the lessons learned on the moral level are applicable on either side of the cross.  Unlike the spiritual level, the moral level of meaning was not hidden from believers until the coming of Christ.

The most important level of meaning for Origen is the spiritual level.[1]   The New Testament refers quite frequently to the fact the Old Testament only contained the shadows of the realities that were to come with the coming of Christ (Heb. 8:5).  These truths were hidden for long ages past but have now been revealed through the coming of Christ (Rom. 16:25-27).  They were hidden from the rulers of this world but were destined for the glory of New Testament believers before the world began (1 Cor. 2:7-8).  The great stories of the Old Testament were not written merely for the sake of its first hearers; they were written for the sake of those who would live after the coming of Christ (1 Cor. 10:11).  That is not to say, of course, that these stories were fictional or merely symbolic.  Rather, the Word chose historical events to be recorded in scripture that could be harmonized with the truths intended by the Spirit so that, when Christ had finally come, these truths would be made known and could edify those who were able to “search out” the “deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).[2]  But, until then, these truths would be hidden in the pages of scripture, concealed from the multitude.  The Word did this so that believers would not be overwhelmed by the intensity of the truths that were being communicated.  But this was done in such a way that even the bowl that concealed the light could still make the room shine brightly.  Thus, even the literal level of meaning could be edifying.[3]

But it is the spiritual level of meaning that is capable of bringing souls to perfection “through the rich and wise truth about God.”[4]  These truths include teachings about God, teachings about the work and nature of the Son, the origin of souls and of higher and lower beings, and other similar subjects.[5]  As can be seen in Origen’s exposition of the story of Lot and his daughters, Origen’s spiritual level of meaning also includes teachings about the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant and how the shadows of the Old Covenant portray the realities of the New.  These truths, in particular, are important for understanding how Origen appropriates the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

According to Origen, some parts of scripture do not have a literal meaning but only a moral or spiritual sense.[6]  Although the Word tended to use historical events to communicate spiritual truth, sometimes the historical events did not entirely correspond to the spiritual truths the Word wanted to communicate.  As a result, the Word sometimes wove into the stories events that did not actually happen or content which could not possibly be understood on a literal level.[7]  Although it is difficult to understand precisely what Origen means by this, it seems most likely that, with one or two exceptions,[8] Origen is referring to figurative language such as metaphor, anthropomorphism, anthropopathism, metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole, parable, and so on.[9]  These things are not true when taken literally but are only true when understood figuratively.  These were added to the text so that believers could look beyond the literal meaning of the text and be drawn to its deeper meanings.[10]  In many ways, Origen takes the literal meaning of the text much more seriously than interpreters do today.[11]

In addition to these three levels of meaning, Origen also refers more broadly to the difference between the literal and non-literal meanings of the biblical text.  The literal meaning in this schema may be equated with the literal meaning in the three-level schema but the non-literal level of meaning encompasses Origen’s moral and spiritual levels of meaning as well as the meaning of figurative language in general.  Some passages in Origen can be confusing because he frequently uses the term “spiritual” to refer to all non-literal levels of meaning.  However, the two-schema meaning of the word “spiritual” is easy to identify because it will only be contrasted with the literal level of meaning and not the moral.

 

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