Exegesis before Constantine (mostly about Origen)

One of the challenges facing anyone who wishes to embrace pre-modern Christian thought is the way the ancient and medieval Christians read the Bible — particularly their use of those approaches to the polysemy of Scripture that we broadly call “allegory” but which I have come to prefer to call the “spiritual sense” of Scripture. I do this partly because the “spiritual sense” may be what we would strictly consider “allegory” (a one-to-one correspondence between events and things in text and events and things in “reality”), or it may be typology (an image in the text is fulfilled in later salvation history, usually by Jesus), or it may really be more “symbolic” (eg., many approaches to Moses on Mt Sinai may be more strictly symbolic than allegorical). Or it may be none of these but occupy some other term relative to the spiritual level of reading — anagogy or tropology or …

Typology is the most scripturally … justified spiritual sense. The book of Hebrews, for example, sees the ceremonial world of the Old Testament as being types of the anti-Type, Christ. Christ himself considers the brass serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness a type of his own crucificixion (Jn 3). 1 Peter 3:20-22 uses the term antitypos in reference to Noah’s ark as a prefigurement to baptism. The Christian tradition naturally followed the apostolic witness (besides Christ Himself!) and found other types throughout the Old Testament. Melito of Sardis, to cite only one example, in his Paschal Sermon, sees the Passover as a type that Christ fulfils. Typology is happily used by Reformed preachers today.

Allegory, on the other hand, gets people concerned. Although some like to wag their fingers at the post-Constantinian African Augustine, most people, if they know a thing or two, are concerned about Origen of Alexandria (d. c. 253). Origen is seen as a Neo- or Middle Platonist who’s not really fully Christian, and he brings over to the Bible the foreign, pagan Platonic allegory. He’s too speculative, and he rejects the “literal” meaning of Scripture.

The allegories of the pagans, the allegories of the myths, are considered “eisegesis of embarrassment” — the gods getting up to no good in Homer and Hesiod are actually allegories about natural philosophy (“science”). Other myths, such as Hercules’ descent into Hades, are turned into moral allegories. The story of Zeus and Danae, wherein he impregnates her through a shower of gold, begetting Perseus, is considered an allegory about how you can only get the girl if you’re rich enough. Somehow that’s even more embarassing!

Anyway, if pagan allegory is the origin of Christian allegory (which I doubt), then the genealogical fallacy tells us that allegory is how Christian writers smooth out the “awkward” bits of Scripture.

This is not usually the case. There are times, we must admit, when Origen says that when Abraham does something wrong, it’s not literally true but there to serve an allegory. Like Lot having sex with his daughters. But the vast majority of the allegories of the Fathers, of Origen, are nothing of this sort.

Here are some basic facts about allegory as practised by Origen and his successors, such as St Gregory of Nyssa, St Maximus the Confessor, and others:

First, the genealogy of Christian allegory comes from Philo and his exegesis. Now, Philo will have taken his method from his fellow Platonist mystics and applied it to the Jewish Scriptures. But the Christians took up Philo precisely because he was a reader of the same Bible as they.

Second, the genealogy of Christian allegory comes from St Paul, particularly the allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4).

Third, Christian allegory, in fact, almost never denies the historical reality or indeed reliability of the text of Scripture. Some of them seem to deny the historical truth of Genesis 1, but many do not. St Augustine seems to affirm multiple allegories as well as the “literal” truth. They work alongside each other and interplay with each other. God is the Lord both of the writing of Scripture and of history. This is vitally important if we are to understand Origen.

Origen can read scripture “literally” (ad litteram in Latin [although he wrote in Greek]) and “spiritually” at the same time. Allegory and typology are at the service of the historical fact as it unfolds through the revealed word pointing us to God the Word.

Fourth — and this may actually be the single most important point — Christian allegory, like typology, is almost always about Christ. Jesus Christ is the God-Word Who became flesh. He is the wisdom of God. He is present to us in a special way when we read Scripture (something affirmed by Origen in words that are almost sacramental). Jesus is seen as the key to the Old Testament, both in basic terms of fulfilling prophecies and in typological terms. He is also the focus of most allegories, especially those that endure.

Fifth, allegory is careful. In the sixteenth century, allegorical readings of Scripture came under fire because it was seen as treating Scripture as a wax nose that could be bent whichever way the exegete wanted. This is emphatically not what the Origenian tradition does. They have methods that are theological, literary-philological, and philosophical that determine how we are to understand an allegory. In fact, Origen’s search for the spiritual sense uses as much philology as a modernist seeking the plain sense!

Anyway, I doubt this will convince the skeptical that the allegories of Origen, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine, St Maximus the Confessor, and Lancelot Andrewes are worth reading. But I hope to at least make these things clear. Also, more straightforward ways of reading of greater familiarity to us are still in practice throughout the era before (and after) Constantine.

If you want to learn more about ante-Nicene exegesis and Origen, you should sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, Christianity Before Constantine! Registration ends September 10 — that’s Friday!

2 thoughts on “Exegesis before Constantine (mostly about Origen)

  1. Hello MJH. Have a blessed and great time teaching your course.
    Thank you for taking the time to create these posts and videos.
    I have learnt a lot that has deepened my understanding and love of early Church history. And so deepened my relationship with Jesus.
    I enjoy your sense of humour too. Take care Gaye of Logan City in South East Queensland Australia.

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