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!

St Ambrose, the Bible, and Discipleship

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

Yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent, was Bible Sunday — so called because of its collect that is focussed on the Bible. I, myself, read a passage from St John of Damascus (feast day December 4) about the Bible at Evensong. Today is the feast of St Ambrose of Milan (the Fathers are coming on heavily this time of year — St Nick was yesterday), and scanning his works (particularly On the Faith) makes me think of some themes that have been coming together lately, often because of my friend Rick’s provocations(!).

First, then, St Ambrose and the Bible. St Ambrose was what some today might call a devoted Bible teacher and preacher. But when we look at how he fulfilled the episcopal office of preaching, we see that his methods, his hermeneutics, his exegesis, are not what we would expect from a modern “Bible teacher” — St Ambrose was committed to the allegorical or spiritual exposition of the Old Testament.

Without getting into all the various details of St Ambrose’s sermons and commentaries — some of which are almost verbatim translations of his older contemporary St Basil of Caesarea — what I want to stress here about St Ambrose’s commitment to sacred Scripture is the very heart of spiritual exegesis:

The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about Jesus the Christ.

When ancient Christians pull out allegory or typology or any other spiritual meaning, almost invariably their teaching points us in the direction of the Saviour. Martin Luther’s criticism of allegory as making Scripture into a “wax nose” is not entirely fair. In fact, many of the Fathers reproduce the same allegory from the same passages, as do the mediaevals, either independently or because they all read Origen.

Second, then, St Ambrose and discipleship. When you look at those texts of the saintly bishop of Milan that are about what we might call “discipleship essentials” — On the Faith, On the Mysteries, On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation — we do not find him giving extended treatment to the doctrine of sacred Scripture. He spends a lot of time arguing for the fullness of the Godhood of Jesus the Christ. He discusses the meaning of baptism and the Eucharist. He argues for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

And, although he spends a lot of time arguing from Scripture for the content of the orthodox faith, although his vision of discipleship essentials is derived from Scripture — the Bible is not the object of his faith, it would seem. The Bible, rather, informs the content of his faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, starts at Sacred Scripture.

St Ambrose’s faith lies instead in Jesus the Christ. His invitation to the Emperor Gratian, to the people of Milan, to the Emperor Theodosius is an invitation to holy obedience to and reverent worship of God the Word Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth.

This is important. Healthy Christianity is fundamentally about encountering Jesus Christ, about seeking to live under His Lordship, about meeting the living God in and through Christ the King.

We are called to be and to make disciples of Jesus, not the Bible.

A worthy meditation for this week following Bible Sunday.

Noah’s Ark & the Annunciation of the BVM

I think that the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM is one of those feasts that a lot of low(er) Protestants avoid because BVM = Blessed Virgin Mary = obvious Papist connexions. This is silly. The Annunciation is the first feast of the earthly life of Christ. Furthermore, unlike, say, the Dormition (Assumption), the Annunciation is a biblical event. And we all know how much we Protestants love the Bible!

This Feast is on March 25, and I celebrated it by popping in at my local Orthodox Church and standing around through the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). Not that I could receive the Sacrament, but it was good to be there.

One of the Old Testament readings for this Feast was the end of the tale of Noah’s Ark, where he sends out the dove. According to The Orthodox Study Bible:

The dove foreshadowed the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:10), who caused the Holy Virgin to conceive Christ in her womb, and the olive leaf speaks of the Virgin herself (Lk 1:35, Akath).

That abbrev. ‘Akath’ = Akathist Hymn. The Service of the Akathist Hymn is a beautiful service of the Orthodox Church that takes place over the first five Fridays of Lent, the full Service occurring on the final; the hymn itself was possibly composed by Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century. It is a hymn all about the Theotokos (Mother of God, see here for why that’s an important title).

Anyway, I noticed neither during the service nor later when I read through the Akathist hymn myself this particular piece of typology (on the fourfold sense of Scripture, read here). It was not, however, the first piece of typology I thought of.

In Noah’s Ark, as all good Sunday School children know, were the entire human race and all the living animals as well. In the belly of the ark (fun fact: the Greek for belly and hold are similar). These humans and animals were saved from destruction in the terrible Flood by taking refuge in the Ark.

The typology I thought of was that the BVM is like the Ark because she carried the salvation of the world in her belly as well — she carried our Lord Christ, God Incarnate, without Whom we would all be lost, inside her womb. The Annunciation, celebrated nine months before Christmas, is the starting day of our salvation, as the priest noted to us in his homily that day.

The Orthodox Study Bible confirms this, citing once again the Akathist Hymn. It, however, was not my first place to turn but my second. My first place to turn was the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and there I found only typologies for the Ark as the Church, wherein the human race is saved. This typology also works.

Nonetheless, I like this old, forgotten way of reading the Bible. While I’ll never abandon the historical method, to have this more spiritual approach alongside adds greater depth to my reading. The Ark is the BVM. Cool.