Origen was a great thinker but was, in many ways, a lot like other early Church fathers. He offered theology based on logical derivations from Scripture one minute, but brazen theological conjecture the next minute, and Neo-Platonic syncretism the minute after that. We don’t have to blindly agree with every little thing an early Church father says, especially when it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
But many times what they say makes more than a lick of sense. Many times, it’s oozing with reason and wisdom, and can provide us with some quiet sanity, even 1800 years later.
Such is the case with Origen’s “On First Principles, Book IV,” written in the early 3rd century.
Some Christians would like to claim that they consistently take the Bible literally. Origen shows why this is plainly impossible.
Those Christians often, then, respond with the question, “Then how can we easily divide the literal from the figurative?” Origen’s response: “You can’t, easily. But here are some tips.”
Excerpts, slightly reordered, from Origen’s “De Principiis, Book IV”:
Having spoken thus briefly on the subject of the divine inspiration of the holy Scriptures, it is necessary to proceed to the [consideration of the] manner in which they are to be read and understood, seeing numerous errors have been committed in consequence of the method in which the holy documents ought to be examined; not having been discovered by the multitude.
For [those that] have not believed on our Saviour, thinking that they are following the language of the prophecies respecting Him, and not perceiving in a manner palpable to their senses that He had proclaimed liberty to the captives, nor that He had built up what they truly consider the city of God, nor cut off “the chariots of Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem,” nor eaten butter and honey, and, before knowing or preferring the evil, had selected the good.
And thinking, moreover, that it was prophesied that the wolf the fourfooted animal was to feed with the lamb, and the leopard to lie down with the kid, and the calf and bull and lion to feed together, being led by a little child, and that the ox and bear were to pasture together, their young ones growing up together, and that the lion was to eat straw like the ox: seeing none of these things visibly accomplished during the advent of Him who is believed by us to be Christ, they did not accept our Lord Jesus.
Nor even [does the Old Testament] wholly convey what is agreeable to reason. For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky?
And who is so foolish as to suppose that God planted a paradise in Eden after the manner of a husbandman…? … And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.
Cain also, when going forth from the presence of God, certainly appears to thoughtful men as likely to lead the reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and what is the meaning of going out from Him. And what need is there to say more, since those who are not altogether blind can collect countless instances of a similar kind recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place?
And what is said in many places, and especially in Isaiah, of Nebuchadnezzar, cannot be explained [literally] of that individual. For the man Nebuchadnezzar neither fell from heaven, nor was he the morning star, nor did he arise upon the earth in the morning.
And it is impossible to take [literally, the statement] in the Gospel about the “offending” of the right eye. For, to grant the possibility of one being “offended” by the sense of sight, how, when there are two eyes that see, should the blame be laid upon the right eye? And who is there that, condemning himself for having looked upon a woman to lust after her, would rationally transfer the blame to the right eye alone, and throw it away?
All these statements have been made by us, in order to show that the design of that divine power which gave us the sacred Scriptures is, that we should not receive what is presented by the letter alone (such things being sometimes not true in their literal acceptation, but absurd and impossible), but that certain things have been introduced into the actual history and into the legislation that are useful in their literal sense.
But that no one may suppose that we assert respecting the whole that no history is real because a certain one is not; and that no law is to be literally observed, because a certain one, [understood] according to the letter, is absurd or impossible; or that the statements regarding the Saviour are not true in a manner perceptible to the senses; or that no commandment and precept of His ought to be obeyed; we have to answer that, with regard to certain things, it is perfectly clear to us that the historical account is true… And therefore the exact reader must, in obedience to the Saviour’s injunction to “search the Scriptures,” carefully ascertain in how far the literal meaning is true, and in how far impossible; and so far as he can, trace out, by means of similar statements, the meaning everywhere scattered through Scripture of that which cannot be understood in a literal signification.
For, with respect to holy Scripture, our opinion is that the whole of it has a “spiritual,” but not the whole a “bodily” meaning, because the bodily meaning is in many places proved to be impossible. And therefore great attention must be bestowed by the cautious reader on the divine books, as being divine writings.
Let us notice, then, whether the apparent and superficial and obvious meaning of Scripture does not resemble a field filled with plants of every kind, while the things lying in it, and not visible to all, but buried, as it were, under the plants that are seen, are the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge; which the Spirit through Isaiah calls dark and invisible and concealed, God alone being able to break the brazen gates that conceal them, and to burst the iron bars that are upon the gates.