Origen De Princ 4.2.1ff

1. Now that we have spoken cursorily about the inspiration of the divine scriptures it is necessary to discuss the manner in which they are to be understood, since many mistakes have been made in consequence of the method by which the holy documents ought to be interpreted not having been discovered by the multitude.  For the hard-hearted and ignorant members of the circumcision have refused to believe in our Saviour because they think that they are keeping closely to the language of the prophecies that relate to him, and they see that he did not literally claim ‘release to the captives’ or build what they consider to be a real ‘city of God’ or ‘cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem’ or ‘eat butter and honey, and choose good before he knew or preferred evil.’

Further, they think that it is the wolf, the four-footed animal, which is said in prophecy to be going to ‘feed with the lamb and the leopard to lie down with the kid, and the calf and bull and lion to feed together, led by a little child, and the ox and the bear to pasture together, their young growing up with each other, and the lion to eat straw like an ox’, and having seen none of these events literally happening during the advent of him whom we believe to be Christ they did not accept our Lord Jesus, but crucified him on the ground that he had wrongly called himself Christ.

And the members of the heretical sects, reading the passage, ‘A fire has been kindled in mine anger,’ and ‘I am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation,’ and ‘It repenteth me that I have anointed Saul to be King’; and “I, God, make peace and create evil,’; and elsewhere, ‘There is no evil in a city which the Lord did not do,’; Evils came down from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem,’; and ‘An evil spirit from the Lord troubled Saul,’; and ten thousand other passages like these, have not dared to disbelieve that they are writings of God, but believe them to belong to the Creator, whom the Jews worship.  Consequently they think that since the Creator is imperfect and not good, the Saviour came here to proclaim a more perfect God who they say is not the Creator, and about whom they entertain diverse opinions.  They have once fallen away from the Creator, who is the sole unbegotten God, the have given themselves up to fictions, fashioning mythical hypotheses according to which they suppose that there are some things that are seen and others that are not seen, all of which are the falacies of their own minds.

Moreover, even the simpler of those who claim to belong to the Church, while believing indeed that their is none greater than the Creator, in which they are right, yet believe such things about as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men.

2. Now the reason why all those we have mentioned hold false opinions and make impious or ignorant assertions about God appears to be nothing else but this, that scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.  On this account we must explain to those who believe that the sacred books are not the works of men, but that they were composed and have come down to us as a result of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the will of the Father of the universe through Jesus Christ, what are the methods of interpretation that appear right to us, Church of Jesus Christ through the succession from the Apostles.

That there are certain mystical revelations made known through the divine scriptures is believed by all, even by the simplest of those who are adherents of the word; but what these revelations are, fair-minded and humble men confess that they do not know.  If, for instance, and inquirer were to be in a difficulty, about the intercourse of Lot with his daughters, or the two wives of Abraham, or the two sisters married to Jacob, or the two handmaids who bore children by him, they can say nothing except that these things are mysteries not understood by us.

But when the passage about the equipment of the tabernacle is read, believing that the things described therein are types, they seek for ideas which the can attach to each detail that is mentioned in connexion with the tabernacle.  Now so far as concerns their belief that the tabernacle is a type of something, they are not wrong; but in rightly attaching the work of Scripture to the particular idea of which the tabernacle is a type, here they sometimes fall into error.  And they declare that all narratives that supposed to speak about marriage or the begetting of children or war or any other stories whatever that may be accepted among the multitudes are types; but when we ask, of what, then sometimes owing to the lack of thorough training, sometimes owing to rashness, and occasionally, even when one is well trained and of sound judgment, owing to man’s exceedingly great difficulty in discovering these things, the interpretation of every detail is not altogether clear.

3. And what must we say about the prophecies, which we all know are filled with riddles and dark sayings? Or if we come to the gospels, the accurate interpretation even of these, since it is an interpretation of the mind of Christ, demands that grace that was given to him who said, ‘We have the mind of Christ, that we may know the things that were freely given to us by God.  Which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth.’ And who, on reading the revelations made to John, could fail to be amazed at the deep obscurity of the unspeakable mysteries contained therein, which are evident to him who does not understand what is written?  And as for the apostolic epistles, what man who is skilled in literary interpretation would think them to be plain and easily understood, when even in them there are thousands of passages that provide, as if through a window, a narrow opening leading to the multitudes of the deepest thoughts?

Seeing, therefore, that these things are so, and that thousands of men make mistakes, it is dangerous for us when we read to declare lightly that we understand things for which the ‘key of knowledge’ is necessary, which the Saviour says is with ‘the lawyers.’ And as for those who are unwilling to admit that these men held the truth before the coming of Christ, let them explain to us how it is that our Lord Jesus Christ says that the ‘key of knowledge’ was with them, that is, with men who as these objectors say, had no books containing the secrets of knowledge and the all-perfect mysteries. For the passage runs as follows: Woe unto you lawyers, for ye have taken away the key of knowledge. Ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.’

4. The right way, therefore, as it appears to us, of approaching the scriptures and gathering their meaning, is the following, which is extracted from the writings themselves.  We find some such rule as this laid down by Solomon in the Proverbs concerning the divine doctrines written therein: ‘Do thou portray them threefold in counsel and knowledge, that thou mayest answer words of truth to those who question thee.’

One must therefore portray the meaning of the sacred writings in a threefold way upon one’s own soul, so that the simple man may be edified by what we may call the flesh of the scripture, this name being given to the obvious interpretation; while the man who has made some progress may edified by its soul, as it were; and the man who is perfect and like those mentioned by the Apostle; ‘We speak wisdom among the perfect; yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, which are coming to nought, but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory’ – this man may be edified by the spiritual law, which has ‘a shadow of the good things to come.’  For just as man consists of body, soul and spirit, so in the same way does scripture, which has been prepared by God to be given for man’s salvation.

We therefore read in this light the passage in The Shepherd, a book which is despised by some, where Hermas is bidden to ‘write two books’, and after this to ‘announce to the presbyters of the Church’ what he has learned from the Spirit.  This is the wording: Thou shalt write tow books and shalt give one to Clement and one to Grapte. And Grapte shall admonish the widows and the orphans.  But Clement shall send to the cities without, and thou shalt announce to the presbyters of the Church.

Now Grapte, who admonishes the widows and the orphans, is the bare letter, which admonishes those child souls that are not yet able to enrol God as their Father and are on this account called orphans, and which also admonishes those who while no longer associating with the unlawful bridegroom are in widowhood because they have not yet become worthy of the true one. But Clement, who has already gone beyond the letter, is said to send the sayings ‘to the cities without’, as if to say, to the souls that are outside all bodily and lower thoughts; while the disciple of the Spirit is bidden to announce the message in person, no longer through letters but through living words, to the presbyters or elders of the whole Church of God, to  men who have grown grey through wisdom.

5. But there are certain passages of scripture which, as we will show in what follows, have no bodily sense at all, there are occasions when we must seek only for the soul and the spirit, as it were, of the passage. And possibly this is the reason why the waterpots which, as we read in the gospel according to John, are said to be set there, ‘for purifying of the Jews,’ contain two or three firkins apiece. The language alludes to those who are said by the apostle to Jews ‘inwardly,’ and it means that these are purified through the word of the scriptures, which contain in some cases ‘two firkins,’ that is, so to speak, the soul meaning and the spiritual, meaning and in other cases three, since some passages possess, in addition to those before mentioned a bodily sense as well, which is capable of edifying hearers.  And six waterpots may reasonably allude to those who are being purified in the world, which was made in six days, a perfect number.

6. That it is possible to derive benefit from the first, and to the extent helpful meaning, is witnessed by the multitudes of sincere and simple believers.  But of the kind of explanation which penetrates as it were to the soul an illustration is found in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. ‘For,’ he say, ‘it is written; thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.’  Then in explanation of this law he adds, ‘Is it for the oxen that God careth? or saith he it altogether for our sake?  Yea, for our sake it was written, because he that ploweth ought to plow in hope, and he that thresheth, to thresh in hope of partaking.’ And most of the interpretations adapted to the multitude which are n circulation and which edify those who cannot understand the higher meanings have something of the same character.

But it is the spiritual explanation when one is able to show what kind of ‘heavenly things,’ the Jews ‘ after the flesh’ served a copy and the shadow and of what ‘ good things to come,’ the has a ‘shadow.’  And, speaking generally, we have, in accordance with the apostolic promise, to seek after ‘the wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto glory’ of the righteous, ‘which none of the rulers of this world knew.  The same apostle also says somewhere, after mentioning certain narratives from Exodus and Numbers, that ‘these things happened unto them figuratively, and they were written for our sake, upon whom the ends of the ages are come.’  He also gives hints to show what these things were figures of, when he says: ‘for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them and that rock was Christ.’

In another epistle, when outlining the arrangements of the tabernacle he quotes the words: ‘Thou shalt make all things according to the figure that shown thee in the mount.’ Further, in the epistle to the Galatians, speaking in terms of the reproach to those who believe that they are reading the law and yet do not understand it, and laying it down that they who do not believe that there are allegories in the writings do no understand the law, he says: ‘Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?  For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid and one by the free woman.  Howbeit the son of the handmaid is born after the flesh; but the osn by the free woman is born through the promise.  Which things contain an allegory; for these women are two covenants,’ and what follows. Now we must carefully mark each of the words spoken by him.  Hew says, ‘Ye that desire to be under the law’ (not, ye that are under the law’) ‘do ye not hear the law?’ hearing being taken to mean understanding and knowing.

And in the epistle to the Colossians, briefly epitomising the meaning of the entire system of the law, he says: ‘Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a sabbath, which are a shadow of the things to come.’  Further, in the epistle to the Hebrews, when discoursing about those who are of the circumcision, he writes: ‘They who serve that which is a copy and shadow of heavenly things.’ Now it is probable that those who have once admitted that the apostle is divinely inspired man will feel no difficulty in regard to the five books ascribed to Moses; but in regard to the rest of the history they desire to learn whether those events also ‘happened figuratively’.  We must note the quotation in the epistle to the Romans: ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed to the knee of Baal,’ found in the third book of Kings.  Here paul has taken it to stand for those who are Israelites ‘according to election,’ for not only are the gentiles benefited by the coming of Christ, but also some who belong to the divine race.

7.  This being so, we must outline what seems to us to be marks of a true understanding of the scriptures. And in the first place we must point out that the aim of the Spirit who, by the providence of God through the Word who was ‘in the beginning with God,’ enlightened the servants of the truth, that is, the prophets and apostles, wes preeminently concerned with the unspeakable mysteries connected with the affairs of men – and by men I mean at the present moment souls that make use of bodies – his purpose being that the man who is capable of being taught might by ‘searching out’ and devoting himself to the ‘deep things’ revealed in the spiritual meaning of the words become partaker of all the doctrines of the Spirit’s counsel.

And when we speak of the needs of souls, who cannot otherwise reach perfection except through the rich and wise truth about God, we attach of necessity pre-eminent importance to the doctrines concerning God and His only begotten Son; of what nature the Son is and in what manner he can be the Son of God, and what are the causes of his descending to the level of human flesh and completely assuming humanity; and what, also, is the nature of his activity, and towards whom and at what times it is exercised.  It was necessary, too, that the doctrines concerning beings akin to man and the rest of the rational creatures, both those that are nearer the divine and those have fallen from blessedness, and the causes of the fall of these latter, should be included in the accounts of the divine teaching; and the question of the differences between souls and how these differences arose, and what the world is and why it exists, and further, how it comes about that evil is so widespread and so terrible on earth, and whether it is not only to be found on earth but also in other places – all this it was necessary that we should learn.

8. Now while these similar subjects were in the mind of the Spirit who enlightened the souls of the holy servants of the truth, there was a second aim, pursued for the sake of those who were unable to endure the burden of investigating matters of such importance.  This was to conceal the doctrine relating to the before-mentioned subjects in words forming a narrative that contained a record dealing with the visible creation, the formation of man and the successive descendants of the first human beings until the time when they became many; and also in other stories that recorded the acts of righteous men and the sins that these same men occasionally committed, seeing they were but human, and the deeds of wickedness, licentiousness and greed done by lawless and impious me.  But the most wonderful thing is, that by means of stories of wars and conquerors and conquered certain secret truths are revealed to those who are capable of examining these narratives; and, even more marvellous, through a written system of law the laws of truth are prophetically indicated, all these having been recorded in a series with a power which is truly appropriate to the wisdom of God.  For the intention was to make even the outer covering of the spiritual truths, I mean the bodily part of the scriptures, in many respects not unprofitable but capable of improving the multitude in so far as they receive it.

9. But if the usefulness of the law and the sequence and ease of the narrative were at first sight clearly discernible throughout, we should be unaware that there was anything beyond the obvious meaning for us to understand in the scriptures.  Consequently the Word of God has arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted in the midst of the law and history, in order that we may not be completely drawn away by the sheer attractiveness of the language, and so either reject the true doctrines absolutely, on the ground that we learn from the scriptures nothing worthy of God, or else by never moving away from the letter fail to learn anything of the more divine element.

And we must also know this, that because the principle aim was to announce the connexion that exists among the spiritual events, those that have already happened and those that are yet to come to pass, whenever the Word found that things which had happened in history could be harmonised with these mystical event he use them, concealing from the multitude their deeper meaning.  But wherever in the narrative the accomplishment of some particular deeds, which had been previously recorded for the sake of their more mystical meaning, did not correspond with sequence of the intellectual truths, the scripture wove into the story something which did not happen, occasionally something which might have happened but in fact did not.  Sometimes a few words are inserted which in the bodily sense are not true and at other times a greater number.

A similar method can be discerned also in the law, where it is often possible to find a precept that is useful for its own sake, and suitable to the time when the law was given.  Sometime, however, the precept does not appear to be useful.  At other times even impossibilities are recorded in the law for the sake of the more skilful and inquiring readers, in order that these, by giving themselves to the toil of examining what is written, may gain a sound conviction of the necessity of seeking in such instances a meaning worthy of God.

And not only did the Spirit supervise the writings which were previous to the coming of Christ, but because he is the same Spirit and proceeds from the one God he has dealt in like manner with the gospels and the writings of the apostles.  For the history even of these is not everywhere pure, events being woven together in the bodily sense without having actually happened; nor do the law and the commandments contained therein entirely declare what is reasonable.