Is God really in control? Does his sovereignty encompass everything? Is the universe working out an orchestrated creative process according to God’s deliberate, big-picture will?
Or, by contrast, is the universe on a twisting, winding road according to the pulls and tugs of innumerable creatures with free will? Are our decisions dictating the course of the plan without, in turn, being dictated by it?
The Bible appears to support both, at first glance.
- The Bible says that a man’s steps are not his own (Jeremiah 10:23), that a man’s heart plans his way but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9), and that God intervenes as it suits his pleasure in order to get the job done in the manner he most prefers, including affecting the decisions of people like Jacob and Esau’s mother Sarah, and hardening the heart of Pharaoh (Romans 9:9-18). The Bible says that God has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32), and that his plan works out everything in conformity with his big purposes (Ephesians 1:11).
- But the Bible also says, later in Jeremiah (chapter 18), that if a nation exceptionally delights or disappoints God, he’ll alter his stated plans for them. Furthermore, the Bible frequently talks about human volition, choice, responsibility, and just punishment, which would appear — at first glance — to require free will as a prerequisite.
The mainstream Christian response is, “Both, somehow.” The net result, in our mind’s eye, is a non-cohering picture that flickers one way and the other, never making all that much sense.
Broken chunks of an incomplete sovereignty collide with granular pieces of a devastated free will. It’s not a very pretty picture, and folks are generally so repulsed by it that they cry, “Oh, I don’t know! It’s a mystery! One day we’ll get it.”
But that doesn’t last very long. Soon enough, that mystery is being employed as a logical wildcard, being crammed and shoehorned into whatever theology a person pleases.
As an inscrutible mystery, it should have been a dead-end of logical derivation, but they’ve taken a sledgehammer to the wall, and now anything goes.
By “anything goes,” I’m referring to the endless doctrinal opinions on freedom and sovereignty, across every denomination of the Christian religion, and throughout its history.
Sovereignty Logically Follows from God’s Classical Attributes
First, it’s important to understand that God’s absolute sovereignty really is a “free truth” that proceeds from God’s classical attributes.
Take the following 4 premises as given:
- God is omnipotent.
- God is omniscient (in the classical sense of knowing even the future).
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
If those premises are given, then we can ask ourselves, “When would God intervene in such a way?”
The answer would be, “Whenever it suits the optimization of his interests — i.e., whenever he pleases.”
We can also ask ourselves, “When would God not intervene in such a way?”
And the answer is the same: “Whenever he pleases.”
Since the answer to both questions is “whenever he pleases,” this means that everything that happens must be a product of his deliberation, in service of his interests. This might include down-the-road interests, or an optimization of incommensurable interests, that generate what Paul calls the “birthing pains” of the ongoing creation.
This is the “sovereign conclusion.”
St. Augustine correctly reasoned this, in Enchiridion, ch. 24:
“This obviously is not true: [The idea that] there is anything that he willed to do and did not do, or, what were worse, [that] he did not do something because man’s will prevented him, the Omnipotent, from doing what he willed. Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either allows it to happen or he [directly] causes it to happen.”
And the “foreknowledge is not predestination” complaint doesn’t work here. If those 4 premises are true, there is no functional barrier between foreknowledge and predestination (although they are distinct in the degree to which various divine interests are expressed in time).
Thus, some folks have taken the route of jettisoning the classical attributes of God such that he definitely is not sovereign in the way commonly understood.
This has three perceived payoffs:
- First, this approach allows the picture to cohere (so they think) upon just one of the Bible’s “pictures” above, rather than settling on the ugly hybrid.
- Second, that picture is one in which each of us has an unchained, uncoerced will. We are not fully under God’s control, they suggest; God has some control, and we have some control, and various dark agents have some control. We are the “co-authors of history.”
- Third, it’s extremely useful for theodicy (the reconciliation of God’s attributes with the bad stuff that happens in the world) if God isn’t sovereign.
Initially, they jettison only omniscience. But this doesn’t go far enough because, as it turns out, the sovereign conclusion proceeds also from these 4 premises:
- God is omnipotent.
- God knows everything about the present, but is uncertain about the future.
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
Thus, Open Theists sometimes feel forced to go even further, usually ditching omnipotence in favor of “weak God” theology, or persuasively redefining omnipotence such that subtlety is “true power.”
(For more about why they’re forced to go that route, watch the following video: “Challenge for Open Theism“.)
I think there are some palatable elements to this approach, but…
Assuming We Don’t Want to Do That…
There’s a robust, complete reconciliation of the first two pictures available to us.
It eluded us for many centuries, because it required discovering and deducing enough about ourselves to get rid of the idea of libertarian free will.
You see, there are, roughly, two kinds of free will.
The first is libertarian free will (which has nothing to do with the political persuasion). This is the idea that a part of us is completely spontaneous or uncaused. Advocates like to say “self-caused,” but nobody knows exactly what that means.
Early Christian theologians were obsessed with libertarian free will, because it was a fountain that seemed to yield so many exciting and stimulative puzzle-like prospects.
And it was taken for granted because — after all — my steps feel like my own.
Origen Adamantius demonstrates the underpinning archaic folk science in his De Principiis, Bk. III:
“Of all things which move, some have the cause of their motion within themselves, others receive it from without: and all those things only are moved from without which are without life, as stones, and pieces of wood, and whatever things are of such a nature as to be held together by the constitution of their matter alone, or of their bodily substance. … Others, again, have the cause of motion in themselves, as animals, or trees, and all things which are held together by natural life or soul; among which some think ought to be classed the veins of metals. Fire, also, is supposed to be the cause of its own motion, and perhaps also springs of water.”
In none of this am I implying that these geniuses were dullards. They were simply working with the tools and body of knowledge to which they had access.
They didn’t understand how the brain works. They didn’t realize that our desires and impulses are driven by complicated machinery of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, which are in turn motivated by things as mind-boggling as our genetic programming to things as deceptively mundane as what we had for breakfast.
They had some understanding of these causal contingencies, of course. Obviously they understood that a person can teach another, and mold another, and discipline another, and manipulate another, and threaten another, etc., sufficiently that the other’s mind is altered.
But they held out hope that, no matter how deep we explored into the causal contingencies of our thoughts, there would yet be a blank gap with a nearby signpost, “Here there be libertarian independence.”
Libertarian free will is our “default feeling,” since we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from the machinery by which they were created. The fact that others surprise us by their behavior, and we even surprise ourselves, lends even more weight to the default hypothesis.
The problem is that we can’t find libertarian free will anywhere. Furthermore, we don’t even know where to look, because the concept is not articulable.
Slowly but surely, we (in philosophy) began to realize that it’s not a real thing.
And this realization was horrifying. In fact, it was so horrifying, that we (Christians) got stuck on the first stage of grief — denial — and have been, for the most part, stuck there ever since. Even Calvinists, the infamous predestination-pushers of Christianity, often have vestiges of libertarian language and thought.
Why was it horrifying?
- It feels like a new oppressive force is added.
- It seems like there’d be no moral responsibility.
- It appears that we’d no longer make real choices and have no efficacy.
- It is a “dark incubus” that births an existential nightmare by robbing us of our sense of origination.
Note that, in the above bullets, I talked about our feelings, how things seem, how things appear, and what we sense. This was deliberate, because the reality is that all of these things can be overcome.
- First, no new oppressive force has been added. The world has not changed. The rejection of libertarian free will is a “world-rocker” for sure, but we have to be ultra-careful not to let our worlds be over–rocked. I called this mistake “Kochab’s Error” in an earlier post.
- Second, there’s still moral responsibility, because responsibility is not an ethereal bauble that bounces around, looking for its buck-stops-here resting place. Rather, responsibility is a dynamic recognition of causal “nodes” in service of fixing them or encouraging them.
(For more about dynamic responsibility, watch the following video: “Responsibility: Ejecting the Looseful and Keeping the Useful“.)
- Third, we still make real choices, because real choices are simply this: Electing one from a menu of prospective options to actualize. Nothing more magical than that.
- Further, efficacy is retained, because efficacy is simply the fact that what you do causes things to occur accordingly. Nothing more magical than that.
- Finally, our sense of origination can be retained through our individual uniqueness and the increase thereof through recursive self-molding.
19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote:
“I felt as if I was scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances, as if my character and that of all others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power…
I pondered painfully on the subject, till gradually I saw light through it… I saw that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of [compatibilistic] free will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing.
All this was entirely consistent with the doctrine of [antecedent] circumstances, or rather, was that doctrine itself, properly understood.”
That’s the other major kind of free will: Compatibilistic free will.
Compatibilistic Free Will
As the name might suggest, it’s completely compatible with there being a predetermined chain of events. Compatibilistic free will is a semantic revision that extricates the volitional dictionary — things like choice, responsibility, efficacy, and the term “free will” itself — from the libertarian shackles of incoherency that had kept these issues so insanely intractable.
Compatibilism asks us, “When you say free will, what are you saying the will is free from, and to what degree?”
It correctly recognizes that nothing is “free” in a vacuum. You have to be free from something, even if that something is merely implied. For instance, “Buy one, get one free,” really means “Buy one, get one free of charge,” or “of cost.”
And so, we can talk about “free-from-X will, to degree Y” about any oppressor X that we feel is meaningful to us.
“Destiny” is not a meaningful oppressor, because to be divorced from it is nonsensical. But Goliath of Gath could be a meaningful oppressor. Same with Nazi propaganda. Same with other lies, threats, manipulations, coercions, and brainwashings.
These can all constitute very meaningful oppressions of my will, making it “less free” than it would otherwise be.
Once we have a volitional dictionary that “works” with God’s sovereignty, our hybrid picture turns from this monstrosity…
… into this beauty:
“Heterophroneo” is a compound term that means “different ways of thinking about things.”
- Yes, God is in control. But still, I can talk about in what ways my decisions are efficacious.
- Yes, a man’s steps are not his own. But still, I can talk about my own steps in a subordinate sense (just as I can talk about my own house versus my neighbor’s, though God transcendently owns both).
- Yes, God is benevolent. But still, we can talk about the local “birthing pains” of his creation — sins, disasters, etc. — and put our hope in their being instrumental for an ultimate happy ending. We hold a sacred hope that God will be proved holy and righteous (Isaiah 5:16).
- Yes, God knows what’s going to happen. But still, he can use hypothetical language to convince us to do the right thing, proclaim true (but ungrounded) counterfactuals, and make anthropomorphic statements about having regrets and changing his mind.
What follows are two great examples of heterophroneo from the Bible.
Timen and Atimian
In Romans 9, Paul talked about how Israel was being used for instrumental purposes despite itself.
In service of his thesis that God decides the destinies of the nations, Paul referred to the fact that God ordains the destinies of individuals, even intervening to change them, even to harden their wills.
When his imaginary antagonist asked, “Who, then, can resist his will?,” Paul did not say, “Oh, don’t misunderstand. Of course you can resist his will!”
Rather, Paul launched into a staunch defense of God’s sovereign orchestration of destinies:
“Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”
You see that “special” and “common”? Those are actually the Greek words timen and atimian; honorable and dishonorable.
It’s important that we recognize this. It’s not about being a hero versus lukewarm. It’s about being a tool of honorable use versus a tool of dishonorable use. Both have purposes. Both have a role to play.
That’s the sovereign perspective.
And then comes the heterophroneo.
Paul repeated the very same language in 2 Timothy — but from the human perspective, wherein we can “cleanse ourselves” and choose which role we’ll adopt.
2 Timothy 2:20-22
“In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes and some for common [Gr. atimian; dishonorable] use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special [Gr. timen; honorable] purposes, made holy, useful [Gr. hegiasmenon euchreston; set apart and very profitable] to the Master and prepared to do any good work. Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
He was able to do this without contradiction because our decisionmaking is compatible with God’s sovereignty.
The Sins of Joseph’s Brothers
Joseph’s brothers were sick and tired of Joseph and his visionary dreams, wherein those brothers bowed down to him. They were also envious of his coat, a symbol of their father’s favor.
So they attacked him and sold him into bondage.
“So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe — the ornate robe he was wearing — and they took him and threw him into the [empty] cistern. … [And] when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.”
Needless to say, that’s a pretty serious sin. It’s one thing to throw your family members into a cistern, but to then sell them into slavery? Pretty reprehensible. Undoubtedly a sin of malice and unchecked envy.
And then comes the heterophroneo.
Joseph became a ruler and managed a plan to store up food in preparation for a big famine. His brothers came to Egypt seeking a portion, but didn’t recognize Joseph. After messing with his brothers for a while, Joseph finally revealed himself.
“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.'”
Did you catch that? God sent Joseph. Did God sin? No, the brothers sinned.
But their sin was the dishonorable instrument — the tool of atimian use — by which God saved his people.
And it’s not as if God just kinda rejiggered his plan to work with what he had. Joseph referenced God’s sovereignty — and counterintuitive tactics — as a way to comfort and relieve his brothers of a measure of guilt, now that they had come to repentance.
And this segues into our final stop.
Why the Heterophroneo?
Heterophroneo can be confusing. At first glance, it looks like a contradiction. As such, it was held as a paradoxical mystery alongside belief in libertarian free will for centuries.
So why would Scripture use it? Because we’re supposed to use it.
Heterophroneo is useful.
The human perspective is good for:
- Recognizing our own wills and dispositions and how they can be turned in various directions.
- Deliberation among multiple imagined prospects.
- Recognizing when we are being subverted, coerced, or exceptionally manipulated by things we consider meaningfully oppressive.
- Assigning responsibility without feeling like we have to do a radical backward reduction. “Talking about your house and my house, even though God owns the universe.”
- Reframing our uncertainty into prospective hopes and fears, and using those vivid images to aid in our decisionmaking. This helps us make choices in better service of our higher-order interests.
The sovereign perspective is good for:
- Humbling ourselves.
- Praising God, and recognizing his attributes (his power, wisdom, dominion, and will).
- Helping us fight through suffering, Elihu-style.
- Taking comfort in God’s grand plan of reconciliation.
- Recognizing over what things we do not have control, and sacrificing that anxiety and uncertainty, converting it to faith in God and his promises.
If an argument is unsound, then the claims it makes do not “follow” even though its premises are true.
For example, if I argue, “If pigs cannot fly, then I am the fastest runner on Earth,” the truth value of “I am the fastest” does not emerge “for free” even if pigs are indeed unable to fly.
I’m going to talk about an unsound argument today. The first written evidence we have of this argument is from St. Augustine of Hippo, the most significant (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) early theologian of his time (the late 4th and early 5th centuries).
Augustine and Endless Hell
In his Enchiridion, Augustine wrote much about his views of hell. Augustine was a proponent of the doctrine of endless hell, as are most Christians today. (It wouldn’t be very reckless to posit that Augustine was the person most evidently responsible for the ubiquity of belief in the doctrine, as well as the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin.)
In Augustine’s day, however, there were a bunch of Christians who didn’t believe in endless hell. These were genuine Christians who were purgatorialists, in the vein of St. Gregory of Nyssa, which means they believed fully in hell — an agonizing, humiliating, to-be-avoided destination — but that it was a remedial punishment.
(One of three major views in the ancient Church, alongside annihilationism and “endless hell.”)
St. Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” 4th century:
“… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.
His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.”
… But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”
St. Augustine admitted, in Enchiridion, that there were a great many Christians in his day who were purgatorial universalists like St. Gregory was. He also admitted that they weren’t in outright defiance in Scripture, but opined that their position was driven by soft-hearted “human feelings.”
A purgatorial universalist might ask him, “Why would God blanket-punishment all of the unsaved regardless of their individual infractions?”
Augustine’s answer was that there were a variety of intensities of hell, and that certain folks might get what amounted to “lunch breaks” in hell; “Let them suppose… that for certain intervals in time, the punishments of the damned are somewhat mitigated.”
A purgatorial universalist might ask him, “Why, then, do we pray for the dead, that they might escape a measure of their punishment?” Augustine had some creative eschatology here, and it worked like this:
- Imagine that if you have a “score” of +1 to +10, you’ll be saved.
- If you have a score of -10 to 0, you’ll go to hell forever.
- In life, you merit a score “window” on the bad-good scale like, “-9 to -6,” or “-2 to +2,” or “+7 to +10.”
- Prayers, sacrifices, alms, etc. for the dead could push a person higher in their window.
- If your window wrapped around the midpoint, prayers could potentially push you up into salvation.
- The higher you are, the better off you are, since “hell for -10 people” would be worse than “hell for -1 people.”
“Where they are of value,” Augustine wrote, “their benefit consists either in obtaining a full forgiveness or, at least, in making damnation more tolerable.”
Already, you can probably see how these answers aren’t very satisfying. In my experience, and I think the honest experience even of believers in endless hell, most “creative” formulations of how endless hell might address the difficulties it poses are, indeed, unsatisfying.
Isn’t God, Ultimately, Merciful?
The purgatorial universalist then says, “But Scripture says that he has bound everyone — Jew and Gentile — over to disobedience in order to have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32); he deliberately subjected creation to frustration in the hope of redemption and as part of a creative process (Romans 8:20-22).”
Augustine’s response is that the Bible’s references to God’s ultimate, winning mercy must only be in reference to the few who will be saved from punishment.
This “must” is presented as contingent on the soundness of the following argument, again from his Enchiridion:
“Even so, if they suppose that the text applies to all men, there is no ground for them further to suppose that there can be an end for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into eternal punishment.’ Otherwise, it can as well be thought that there will also be an end to the happiness of those of whom the antithesis was said: ‘But the righteous into eternal life.'”
Purgatorial universalists do not translate Heb. olam or Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “eternal” or “everlasting.” Rather, these words mean “age-pertaining,” often with overtones of significant gravity or broad domain.
This determination proceeds from the variety of olams in the Bible that do not refer to everlasting things, and from the fact that many of these olams are brought across, in the Greek Septuagint, as aion/aionios/aionion.
A few examples:
Isaiah 63:11 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “His people of Moses of the old [Heb. olam] days, he remembered.”
- From Septuagint: “And he remembered days of old [Gr. aionion]; the bringing up from the land the shepherd of the sheep.”
Genesis 6:4 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “In those days in the earth were Nephilim, renowned men of old [Heb. olam], mighty men.”
- From Septuagint: “Those were giants, ones from the eon [Gr. aionos], renowned men.”
Isaiah 42:14 (portion)
- From Hebrew: “I have been still for a length [Heb. olam], held my peace.”
- From Septuagint: “I kept silent from the eon [Gr. aionos], shall I also continually keep silent and endure?”
Here’s the unfortunate reality: Because belief in endless hell is nearly universal among Christians, and has been so for 15 centuries, tertiary translations of the Bible feel no impetus to keep their olams and aions vague; when it comes to the kolasin aionion, they nearly all read, “everlasting punishment.”
But not all translations do this. For example, the literal translations of Young and Weymouth are careful to temper themselves on the issue.
Compare Matthew 25:46 from the NIV, from Young’s Literal, and from Weymouth’s Literal:
- (NIV) “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
- (Young’s Literal) “And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.”
- (Weymouth’s Literal) “And these shall go away into the Punishment of the Ages, but the righteous into the Life of the Ages.”
At this point, even staunch believers in endless hell generally admit that the “everlasting” or “eternal” translation is a bit reckless. But they are quick to invoke Augustine’s above argument.
So, without begging the aion question, is Augustine’s argument sound? Does this same-sentence comparison show us that the kolasin and zoen must be of equal time duration?
Can’t Beg That Question? Can’t Reach That Conclusion.
Imagine that “aionion” meant “intense,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
- “Then they will go away to intense punishment, but the righteous to intense life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both intense. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Imagine that “aionion” meant “astounding,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
“Then they will go away to astounding punishment, but the righteous to astounding life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both astounding. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Imagine that “aionion” meant “divine,” just for a moment.
The verse would read,
“Then they will go away to divine punishment, but the righteous to divine life.”
Would we then argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We’d say, “This verse says they are both divine. It does not say that they are of equal time duration.”
Now let’s use “aionion” how it ought to be prudently rendered: “age-pertaining.”
“Then they will go away to punishment of the ages, but the righteous to life of the ages.”
Should a person argue that the punishment and life must be equal in time duration? No. We should say, “This verse says they are both pertaining to ages; it may simply mean that they will both last a long time (finite in one case, infinite in the other). Or maybe it has nothing to do with duration, and simply means that both will take place at the consummation of the ages, the age to come after the general resurrection. Or perhaps it refers to the aionios zoe of the Kingdom of God, the age under which its subjects finally come to know the Father and his Son (John 17:3) and where the self-righteous hold-outs are excluded (Matthew 21:31-32). In any case, it does not suggest that they are of equal time duration.”
Put Very Simply
Here’s a very simple way to understand what’s going on here.
- (1) Given: X has the property A, and Y has the property A.
- (2) Given: X has the property B as well.
- (3) Question: Does that mean that A = B?
- (4) Question: Does that mean Y has the property B?
The answer to both questions is, “No way!”
“Y has the property B” if and only if we have “A = B” as a given.
Thus, Augustine’s argument is unsound, as are unsound all modern repetitions of his argument.
“I Believe the Bible over Xs, Ys, As, & Bs”
Okay. Here’s proof, straight from the Bible, that “forever-ness” does not “pop out” of olam parallelism.
- “He stood and surveyed the earth; he beheld and drove the nations asunder; the everlasting (adah) mountains were scattered, the olam hills bowed low; His ways are olam!”
Keep reading that verse, noble Augustine, until the unsoundness of the argument is ascertained.
(For another exercise that demonstrates this unsoundness, see “The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics.”)
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.