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License to Confuse

What did Origen contribute to the early Church?

In our story, Philo is but a stepping stone, so, rather than dwelling on him any further, we will move on a century or so to the next major figure of our story, Origen. He was a Christian, one of the Church Fathers and he, too, lived in Alexandria. In common with Philo, he had a passion for interpreting the Bible but there was a major difference here. Although Philo looked to marry the orthodox Jewish interpretations with insights that he believed that he had from Greek philosophy, he always saw himself as a Jew first and his writings always reflected that fact. Origen was a Gentile Christian who was writing Bible commentaries for other Christians in the Greek speaking world. For him, the Hebrew text and Jewish themes were just the raw data, to be processed using the tools of Greek understanding.

Origen was greatly influenced by both Philo and Plato but, in his approach to the Biblical texts, went a stage further than Philo. Whereas Philo often gave literal and allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures, Origen tended to dwell on allegory. As a Christian heavily influenced by Plato, he saw the spiritual dimension as all-important, so strained to find "deeper" meanings wherever he could. In fact Origen was responsible for making allegory the dominant form of Bible interpretation for centuries to come.

A favourite theme of his was to re-interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, using techniques from Greek philosophy, married with insights from early Christian tradition and other writings. His driving principle was that the Bible contained three levels of meaning, corresponding to the body, soul and spirit. You can see the influence of Plato here, particularly when he adds that the "body" level of meaning, the literal meaning of the text, is for the more simple minded whereas the "soul" and more particularly the "spirit" levels of meaning are for the more enlightened readers. If Origen discerned where a Bible passage spoke about Christ, then, for him, this had to be the original meaning of the text. This may have come from the noblest of motives, but is it correct, is this what God had in mind when He authored the text?

Our next port of call of this whistle-stop tour of early Christian influences takes us to a place in the same African continent, two centuries later, to a place called Hippo, in modern day Algeria. We are going to meet the man who can be described in two different ways, depending on your perspective. To both the Catholics and Protestant reformers he is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. To others he is the philosopher who infused Christian doctrine with Platonism (or Neoplatonism to be specific). Like many of these Church Fathers, he was, by virtue of the sum of his influences, a Christian philosopher, a term that should by rights be an oxymoron.

Augustine of Hippo was enormously influential in many ways. From him we get the idea of original sin and our traditional understanding of evil. He has contributed much yet it is worth looking at what influenced him. He was originally a follower of Manicheanism, a cult that promoted a form of dualism, with good versus evil, light versus darkness, body versus soul. It was said to be a set of beliefs closer to Buddhism than Christianity.

His later influence was Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who introduced him to the Bible interpretation techniques of Philo and Origen. The fact is that Augustine was just so influential in the subsequent development of the Western Church, that if we perceive any issues in the way he interpreted the Bible, then this is going to have great consequences. So his take on such matters as "allegory versus literal readings of Scripture" is crucial.

Suffice to say that he follows in the tradition started by Philo and refined by Origen, in using Platonic techniques to interpret Bible texts. Although Augustine was correct in declaring that Scriptures are inspired of God, he reinforced Origen's ideas that Christ needs to be shoe-horned all over the Old Testament, even where the fit is uncomfortable and that allegorical interpretations were given to passages he was unsure of or unhappy with. His approach was to say that, in the first instance, readers must look at the spirit behind the literal texts, to grasp the mind of God, through spiritual understandings.

The scene has now been firmly established that, because of the demands of the Platonic world view in preferring the spiritual over the material, spiritual meanings were sought, even in Bible passages that were so obviously meant to be taken literally. A free-for-all was now created, allowing Christian teachers right up to the current day to be able to bend and coax God's word to say whatever they want it to say!

But if this wasn't bad enough, another man was to come along to make things even worse! We will read of him next week ...

Steve Maltz
March 2012

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