The Subtlety of Scripture
Joseph W. Trigg, Origen (Routledge, 1998)
Origen of Caesarea (c. 185 - c. 250) is, with Tertullian, one of the two prolific ante-Nicene Christian authors who is not recognized as a saint. That verdict on Tertullian, an apostate to the Montanist sect, is not surprising. Origen, however, was the most prominent Christian teacher and scholar of his day, remained steadfastly loyal to the Church, died as a martyr and was admired fervently by such great and unquestionably orthodox theologians as Gregory of Nyssa. Notwithstanding such credentials, his ideas fell under suspicion soon after his death, and "Origenism" has since borne a taint of heresy.
Joseph Trigg, an Episcopal clergyman and author of a previous biography of Origen (Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (1983)), would like to restore his subject's reputation and introduce him to contemporary Christians. To that end, he has assembled this anthology of a dozen selections: seven Biblical commentaries, four homilies and a letter to St. Gregory the Wonder Worker. Most of these are excerpts from, or fragments of, longer works, but each is substantial in itself. None will be familiar to the non-specialist. Not included are Origen's best known treatise (the source of many later doubts about his orthodoxy), Peri Archon ("On First Principles"), and his apologia Contra Celsum, both readily found elsewhere and neither typical of the author's work.
Origen's great subject was the interpretation of Scripture. These texts illustrate his approach, which differs strikingly from that of any modern commentator. The underlying theory is that, because God is the author of the Bible, every word of the text is significant. But, because God is supremely subtle, that significance is not evident to the untutored reader. The plain, obvious meaning is, to Origen's mind, usually the least important. The deepest, spiritual truths can be uncovered only through learned scholarship, augmented by prayer.
These principles lead to minute, painstaking analysis. Book I of the commentary on John's Gospel, 46 pages in this edition, is devoted to discussing two words. The conclusions reached through this effort can be unexpected and may often look arbitrary, as when Jeremiah's lamentations over Jerusalem are construed as an allegory of the mission of the Apostles or Jesus's washing of his disciples' feet is taken as symbolic of Christian pedagogy.
Because this way of reading Scripture is so foreign to our habits, these writings, if perused quickly and carelessly, are more likely to bewilder than enlighten. Origen's method and assumptions obviously bear no resemblance to modern Biblical scholarship, despite his sedulous care to establish the most accurate possible text. Nor can he be grouped with the fundamentalists. He agrees with them that the Bible is the very Word (and words) of God. From that premise, the draws the unfundamentalist conclusion that statements of fact are frequently not to be taken literally and that ordinary Christians get little out of Scripture without expert guidance.
To read Origen as more than an historical curiosity requires, then, the adoption of an unfamiliar perspective on the Bible. Fr. Trigg's introduction, while offering a useful account of Origen's career and posthumous reputation, unfortunately pays little attention to furnishing equipment for such a feat of intellectual imagination. A work like James Kugel's The Bible As It Was, dealing with the very similar ancient Jewish hermeneutics, may help supply this need. I certainly cannot fill the gap myself but can explain, I think, why, if one accepts Origen's premises (and most Christians do accept them in principle), his methodological conclusions are not at all bizarre, regardless of how difficult his method may be to practice.
Even a fairly dull human author can utilize double meanings. Writing words that mean one thing to the censors and another to the cognoscenti has been a commonplace tactic ever since tyranny and letters first collided. God is, naturally, far better at that game, and there is no logical reason why He could not have inserted into the sacred text (exactly how is neither an important question nor one that we can answer) a multiplicity of meanings, some of which can be discerned only by particularly enlightened, diligent and virtuous inquirers. To the multitude, those meanings are invisible, just as Aesopian criticism is invisible to dull-witted totalitarian bureaucrats. Yet they are "there" just as truly as the obvious literal interpretations.
Thus the presence in the Biblical text of esoteric, but not arbitrary, "messages" discernible only by an elite is not unbelievable. But, before we all try to master Origen's method and become Origenists ourselves, there are points that should give us pause.
Any Word of God that is intelligible to only a few cannot be essential to the Christian life. The dogmas of the Church, however abstruse, are accessible to anyone with sufficient time, energy and natural intelligence. The reasoning employed to explain and support such doctrines as the Trinity and the Real Presence is ordinary human reasoning. It may start with false premises or falter in its logic, but the steps in the argument are not simply incomprehensible to the non-elect.
Origenist insights, by contrast, are, for most Christians, as incomprehensible as a Sanskrit poem. Worse, the poem cannot be translated into English without losing the most valuable parts of its meaning. If that meaning is necessary to salvation, then it is only by mastering the spiritual equivalent of Sanskrit that one can be saved, a conclusion much at variance with the tenor of Our Lord's promises to rather humble audiences.
Moreover, an ordinary Christian who contemplates learning Origen's methods must ask himself what assurance he has that those methods lead towards truth rather than heresy or nonsense. There are many soi disant guides to esoteric knowledge. The non-initiate is in the position of a man who, wishing to learn Sanskrit, is beset by a score of teachers, each declaring that his own dialect is the one, true Sanskrit language. Without knowing Sanskrit already, how is the student to select a genuine teacher?
All of which is not to say that Origen's commentaries are not stimulating and intellect-stretching. Read thoughtfully, they are both, and Fr. Trigg has done well to make these selections available. Particularly in the present era, with its tendency toward literal-minded reductionism, an approach that takes seriously the role of the Divine in forming Holy Scripture is very much welcome.