Spiritualize Your Bible Reading!(?)

ImageOrigen (185–254 A.D.) believed that behind the literal meaning of Scripture lay the spiritual meaning. Both edified the soul but the latter was deeper and better truth for the believer.

According to Origen, he is simply following the tradition of Jesus and the apostles. For example, Deuteronomy 25:4 meant to Paul that pastors should receive income for their work. In fact, Paul makes this very point in 1 Corinthians 9:9–10, even saying that Deuteronomy 25:4 “was written for our sake.” The “our” being first century Christians in Corinth (cf. Origen, On First Principles, 6).

Hearing him explain his position is better than me explaining it:

Consequently the divine wisdom has arranged for certain stumbling-blocks and interruptions of the historical sense to be found therein, by inserting in the midst a number of impossibilities and incongruities, in order that the very interruption of the narrative might as it were present a barrier to the reader and lead him to refuse to proceed along the pathway of the ordinary meaning: and so, by shutting us out and debarring us from that, might recall us to the beginning of another way, and might thereby bring us, through the entrance of a narrow footpath, to a higher and loftier road and lay open the immense breadth of the divine wisdom. — Origen, 9.

According to Origen, taking the literal sense of Scripture to be true everywhere makes the Bible contradict itself. Thus, the spiritual or loftier interpretation is necessary. Yet this is not some hashed out denial of the literal because it is too difficult. In fact, what he means is that when Christ came he did not “cut off the chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem” (Zech 9:10), literally; nor did Christ literally proclaim release to captives from a literal prison, as Isaiah 61:1 prophecies (cf. Jesus claiming fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1 in Luke 4:21). Rather, these were spiritually fulfilled. After all, the Scripture does say the Old Testament institutions and symbols were shadows of the realities to come (cf. Col 2:16–17; Heb 8:5).

So what do we say about Origen’s idea of spiritualizing our Bible reading? Do the six water pots allude “to those who are being purified while living in the world”? (Origen, 5). I think not.

Origen was a careful interpreter of Scripture and an amazing Christian intellectual. We have many things to learn from him. One of the lessons we learn is that our cultural presuppositions influence our understanding of the Bible.

The worldview from which Origen wrote held to a dichotomized reality: the external and internal or the physical and the spiritual. “The exegetical pattern advocated by Origen follows the same ontological pattern by which all existence is structured, according to his essentially Platonic worldview: every object and event is actually an externality to a deeper spiritual reality” (Yarchin, History of Biblical Interpretation, 42). Origen made common day assumptions about the world around him, and these “obvious” assumptions made their way into his bible study.

Our worldview today assumes a very scientific and physical understanding of everything. In biblical studies, if you cannot prove it by grammatical, historical, and scientific argument, then you can understand nothing in Scripture. In many quarters a solely literal interpretation of the Bible exists. Yet are we erring by bringing our cultural assumptions to the text? “Yes,” we might say, “the text must be literal.” Why?

My point is not to deny the essentially literal meaning of Scripture or anything like that. Here is the point: If we and Origen study the Bible for all it’s worth, then we will come to common conclusions. But when we let our cultural assumptions sink too far into our interpretation, we create meaning that is not there and we do damage to our souls. What might be obvious to you as a twenty first century reader may not at all be obvious to a first century B.C. reader. You stand apart from them by thousands of years, cultural divides, and geographical distance.


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