First off, this post is not really about Origen (c. 185-254). But it is about some lessons that I learned from studying Origen’s homilies in relation to how we do theology in general. Prior to taking an elective last fall in History of Exeges is, I had a certain idea about Origen and his interpretive methods. I had not read Origen’s work directly, but learned what I did of him from historical theology surveys and articles I read on the internet. Mainly, my impression of Origen being the father of Alexandrian school of exegesis was that he utilized a wildly allegorical style of interpreting scripture where symbolism ran amok and passages were assigned some arbitrary meaning. In fact, many of the descriptions I read of him identified him in relation to this but in more of a pejorative light. What I gathered was that Origen was just a wild and crazy guy when it came to interpretation.
That was until I took the History of Exegesis class, where a good portion of it was spent on analyzing Origen’s interpretative methodology and some of his homilies on Luke that were delivered to new Christians. What I discovered was that there was a method to Origen’s seeming madness. Not only that, but he was consistent in his approach to interpretation. His multiple sense of interpretation always begin with the literal sense that is not divorced from the text albeit not necessarily concerned with historical accuracy. The spiritual sense of the texts correlated meaning to an overall analysis of what was going on. This would lead to the moral sense, which was to affect obedience to God. For Origen, this was the ultimate goal. Understanding the text corresponded to the reader’s spiritual maturity and the correlation between obedience to Christ and an illumination of the text. Origen’s interpretation was rooted in a strong Christology that sought to draw the reader to Him. Needless to say, this was quite a different understanding that I had going into the class. Moreover, I was refreshingly surprised at how much I was personally edified in my Christian walk as a result of better understanding of where Origen was coming from.
But like I said this was not about Origen but rather the affect of what I learned particularly as it relates to theological learning and discourse. It seems to me just as I had one impression of Origen’s interpretive methods that admittedly came with an attitude of scoffing, we often approach theological topics, positions, systems this same way. We have built an identity around particular issues or theologians that we have come to reject, treat as insufficient or just don’t agree with. And let’s face it, theological discourse can be very reactionary. Often times, that reaction can propel unexamined rebuttals that are not really honest to what is being proposed. But I propose guarding reactions in consideration of these key points that I found useful in my example of Origen.’s exegesis.
1) Always examine original sources: I think it’s safe to say that we cannot really know what a theologian or theological position espouses unless we get it right from the horses mouth. I often encounter folks who disagree with a particular doctrine or position but have not read what proponents of particular positions say. Opponents will typically find some way to cast that position in a negative light, especially since they don’t agree with it. Yet, if we take time to read and maybe analyze what others have to say, fairly and less reactionary, then we might find some agreement and some errors in our own assessment.
2) Temper your disagreement: Do not be so quick to react. Sometimes we may not have all the information needed to effectively evaluate a certain position. As noted in the first point, relying on opponents can be misleading and it is dishonest to regurgitate what they say without analysis on your part. We can certainly question statements, positions or scriptural interpretation that does not seem compatible to our theological understanding, but disagreements have to be tempered according to the facts we have. Reactions with insufficient information most likely will cause unnecessary divisions, and especially when misunderstandings are spread carelessly and irresponsibly.
3) Submit to learning: As long as a position and it’s advocates are striving to be honest to scripture and the historical witness of Christianity, there is something to be gleaned even if you don’t agree with all tenet’s or methodologies. I think if Origen were alive today and his interpretive methodology were subject to the many vehicles information is disseminated, he might meet with some harsh criticism. But I imagine there would be others who would be kind and patient enough to examine his theses and most likely determine that Origen was most concerned with the exaltation of Christ and Christian obedience to him, at least with these homilies anyway. In fact, there were a number of comments made from fellow classmates of how convicting Origen’s messages were. There was much to be learned from his homilies just as there is much to be learned from pastors/theologians and positions that we may not readily agree with. If they are seeking to honor Christ, there is something valuable there, even with the presence of disagreement.
So this post was not to advocate for Origen. I don’t agree with all of his theology, just as I find points of disagreement with other doctrinal positions or theological systems. But I am advocating for responsible and thoughtful learning and discourse. Let’s be honest folks and humble in our responses.