Monday, November 14, 2016

Origen on the inspiration of Scripture

From On First Principles, Book IV, Chapter I:
"Now if we consider how in a ery few years, although those who professor Christianity are persecuted and some are put to death on account of it while others suffer the loss of their possessions, yet the word has been able, in spite of the fewness of its teachers, to be "preached everywhere in the world" (cf. Mt 24:14) so that the Greeks and barbarians, wise and foolish (cf. Rom 1:14) have adopted the religion of Jesus, we shall not hesitate to say that this achievement is more than human, remembering that Jesus taught with all authority and convincing power that his word should prevail (cf. Mk 13:31).
"Consequenctly we may reasonably regard as oracles those utterances of his such as...." 
Further on:
"Now when we thus briefly demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus and use the words spoken in prophecy about him, we demonstrate at the same time that the writings which prophesy about him are divinely inspired and that the words which announce his sojourning here and his teaching were spoken with all power and authority and that this is the reason why they have prevailed over the elect people taken from among the nations. And we must add that it was after the advent of Jesus that the inspiration of the prophetic words and the spiritual nature of Moses's law came to light."
In other words, the Scriptures themselves do not attest independently of their own inspiration; they are wholly dependent on the coming of Jesus Christ.

Later on in Chapters II - III he explains that the Scriptures must be understood in a spiritual way. Passages have both a "soul" and a "body." The body is the physical, literal, or straightforward meaning, when there is one. But there isn't always a "bodily sense" that is acceptable! Origen gives a list of examples (Chapter III) in which the Bible cannot be taken literally, starting with (interestingly enough) the creation story:
"Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars? ... And when God is said to 'walk in the paradise in the cool of the day' and Adam to hide himself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events."
He gives many other examples of things from Scripture which he finds to be unlikely or even "impossible."

To me, the most significant thing about these arguments is that they come from what is perhaps the first systematic theology ever written in the Christian tradition. Far from some modern liberal interpretation of the Bible, this comes from one of the oldest sources we have on Christian doctrine. And while I disagree with Origen about many things, this is one thing on which I agree totally, and I can't express quite enough how thankful I am for it. It makes the Bible readable. Everyone who has read the entirety of Scripture knows that there are passages and even whole themes (such as the divinely ordered destruction of the peoples of Canaan) that present impossible problems for Christians. But if we read every passage in a spiritual way, inspired not just by any thoughts that happen to arise in our heads but rather by the person of Jesus Christ found in the gospels, we rediscover the Bible as a source of power. We find in all of these stories of war and divine wrath a story about our own struggles with sin and evil and longing for redemption.

And what could be more Christian? Christ is the center; the rest must be understood in terms of him.

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