Origen on our Species and Divine Baby Talk, Part 1

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September 24, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Brandon Withrow. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Origen on our Species and Divine Baby Talk, Part 1

Infants learn to crawl before they learn to walk, or so they say. Ancient Christian theologians had a similar theory about the sacred text. Scripture is baby talk for an infant human race, said Origen of Alexandria (C.E. 185-254). It is God speaking to our young species like an adult to a child, matching our intellectual limitations.

When reading Origen, however, one is acutely aware that the issues of his day are entirely different from those that plague discussions of science and the Bible today. He knows nothing of Charles Darwin. What he does know is that even by the standards of his day, Genesis 1 does not make sense if read according to the letter.

In this two part series, I will show that twenty-first century Christians are not the first to struggle with the ancient science of Genesis. Christian thinkers in every century have been commissioned to make sense of the Bible’s creation account in light of changing perceptions of how the universe works. Out of his Platonic worldview, Origen is driven to the conclusion that our creaturely origins are inseparable from the task of finding the true meaning of the Bible.

While the temptation may be to read through ancient Christian literature to produce a litany of historical support for a particular Christian cosmology, this is not my intention here, as that leads to disaster. Instead, if we cut away all of the theological differences of one historical Christian figure over another, what we find is a common theme—each new Christian generation reads Scripture within the accepted cosmology of the culture or sub-culture to which they belong. A reader's response is always filtered by a worldview. Origen’s world is a prime example of this enculturation, but by no means the only example.

Origen’s Problem with the Bible

Origen is an impressive historical figure; he read everything, wrote incessantly, and was loved or hated by just about everyone. His many quirks—he castrated himself to remain pure, an action he later regretted—make him interesting for historians, and his unfettered theological imagination has made him a pariah for nervous theologians.

His assessment of Genesis 1-3 shows that Origen is not afraid to say what many are only willing to think. “What man of intelligence,” writes Origen, “…will consider it a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars…?” (First Principles 4.3.1). On the face of it, this is a good question and just about anyone willing to rethink Genesis has asked it at one point or another.

The idea that God would plant a garden as a farmer or that Adam could hide from God behind a tree appeared fraught with difficulty to Origen. These ideas are, as he put it, “instances that are recorded as actual events, but which it would be inappropriate and unreasonable to believe could possibly have happened in history” (First Principles 4.3.1).

Even the Gospels are not immune to Origen’s scrutiny. The idea of Satan leading Jesus “into a high mountain” to show him “all the kingdoms of the earth” was highly questionable. “How could it possibly have happened literally,” asks Origen, “…as if they [all the kingdoms of the earth] were lying close to the foot of a single mountain…?” (First Principles 4.3.1)

In his day, Origen faced opponents like Celsus, who turned the language of Scripture into a tool for rejecting it altogether. God adapts Scripture to the capacity of those that read it, argues Origen in response (Contra Celsus 4.71). In its base form, the plain reading of Scripture is akin to baby talk, and anyone who opposed Scripture based on its literal and plain reading misses its multiple layers of meaning hidden in the spiritual message.

Human Origins

Reading Scripture as containing layers of meaning helps Origen to move beyond its less-than-desirable literal reading. An example of this method can be seen in Origen’s interpretation of the creation days and of the creation of human bodies. As Origen sees it, the days of creation are merely an allegorical tool for understanding the text. We lowly humans understand the world in categories of time, so the Bible explains it that way. God, as an all-powerful divine being, does not need time to create the world—it all happened in an instant (CM Matt. 14.9; First Principles 2.2.1). But why then does Genesis use the word “days”?

The physical world is merely a shadow of the eternal, heavenly world, says Origen. Consistent with his Platonism, Origen argued that our immaterial souls are pre-existent to the created world, which was made as a punishment for our sins (First Principles 1.8.1). Human beings were never naturally made for the material universe; they were intended to live with God in undefiled by corruption. As a result, our origins belong to two worlds, the heavenly and the earthly.

This duality between the immaterial and the material has a particular benefit when reading Scripture. Human beings who are still bound up in a tired cycle of sin are tied to the baseness of the material creation—the baby talk. They are unable to transcend the world intellectually and so the most literal reading of the Bible is theirs until the Spirit transforms them.

Those more spiritually-minded people, whose spiritual intellects seek to go beyond this world and back to their immaterial origins, can read Scripture and find better, spiritual, and even allegorical interpretations (First Principles 4.2.4). The immaterial and material origins of humanity are inseparable from the material or immaterial layers of Scripture. For this reason, the spiritually-inclined person transcends the literal creation days.

Origen fancies himself to be one such spiritually-minded person, so when he reads the creation account or the history of Genesis, he is inclined to think that there must be more than the literal reading; there must be a greater spiritual message. However, what Origen provides for us is not a philosophical model or an interpretive method to follow. Rather, Origen’s handling of the biblical text is a helpful reminder that human beings, no matter when they lived, will attempt to solve the intellectual difficulties created by Genesis 1 using the worldview they accept.

Behind all of this is a perspective that is driven first by a Platonic cosmology. This worldview is the basis for Origen’s questioning of Scripture and it is the subject of “Part 2.”

Editor's note: Text corrected on 9/25/2010.


Brandon G. Withrow (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Historical and Theological Studies and Director of the Master of Arts (Theological Studies) program at Winebrenner Theological Seminary (Findlay, OH). He also teaches courses for a joint Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies program with the University of Findlay. His specialization is the history of Christianity, with research interests in ancient and early-modern Christianity. He is the author most-recently of Katherine Parr: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Reformation Queen. His blog, The Discarded Image, focuses on "living ontologically" by exploring the intersection of faith, philosophy, and science through literature.

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Moses - #31711

September 24th 2010

very interesting blog. can’t wait to read more.


nedbrek - #31717

September 24th 2010

When we discuss pregnancy and child birth with a child, we have two options:
1) Storks deliver babies
2) Babies are carried in mommies’ “tummies”

One of these is easily mapped onto the truth (it could therefore, be described as “the truth” even if not the whole truth).  The other is a (white) lie.


Wayne Park - #31721

September 24th 2010

looking forward to part 2…


conrad - #31723

September 24th 2010

Why I am even bothering to comment on a guy who mutilated himself,.. I really don’t know,...

..BUT I AGREE WITH HIS INTERPRETATION OF “DAYS”.

But for heaven’s sake, Isn’t there someone less crazy that we can study?


Jon Garvey - #31724

September 24th 2010

Listen up to this series, Folks.

The temptation is to hear about someone like Origen and say, “Look how he imposed his Platonism on the text.”

Yet most of us are happy to assume that we, because we live now, don’t have a world view to impose. We are just impartial, Bible-believing guys.

But you’d be amazed how many Americans I meet comment on my British accent, not realising that I’M just speaking English, and THEY have the accent.


conrad - #31729

September 24th 2010

Judging by the comments so far,.... it musty be difficult to pick the central theme from this blog.

” his unfettered theological imagination has made him a pariah for nervous theologians.”

uh, maybe they are nervous because they think he might still be carrying that sharp knife… and be willing to “convert” others.


Cal - #31731

September 24th 2010

Conrad, he regretted it later on, so I’m sure we can rest safely without thinking good ol’ Origen will be coming around to make us “pure” with that knife of his. Unless he changed his mind again…

However on the argument itself, its always great to look at the writings of the great Christian thinkers, but its important to not get sucked into his platonic view that altered the way he read the Bible. Tread lightly.


merv - #31736

September 24th 2010

Conrad, where did you pick up this “Crazy people can’t have good ideas”  idea?

Some think that Copernicus was nearly schizophrenic or subject to eccentricities, so I guess you better discard his heliocentricism.  Not to mention Kepler (who was into astrology)—-but never mind Kepler—if you’re going geocentric, then elliptical orbits won’t be part of your outlook anyway. 

History books would be a lot shorter without all the crazies!

—Merv


merv - #31737

September 24th 2010

Origen sounds like a fascinating character—I’ll have to read up more on him.  Can’t wait to hear more…

And Celsus!  So have we really just been having the same debates over and over and over again all these centuries?  Just when we thought science was supposed to carry us all around some giant corner, we discover yet again that there really is nothing new under the sun.

—Merv


Chris Massey - #31742

September 24th 2010

I find it curious that so many are warning about the dangers of Origen’s Platonism.

The author of Hebrews is steeped in Platonism. No one seems to have a problem with that. I’m not saying that platonic ways of thinking are correct. I just find it ironic that we condemn it in an early church father, but accept it as divinely-inspired doctrine from a NT writer.

I guess it just reinforces the view, as Jon Garvey points out, that everyone approaches Christianity from within their own philosophical framework - even the NT authors.


Jon Garvey - #31749

September 24th 2010

@Cal - #31731

Cal, the point is that nobody nowadays is likely to get sucked into Origen’s Platonism. Instead everybody says, “My, how on earth did he import Greek philosophy into the Bible?”

Instead ask, “What false modern assumptions am I bringing to my understanding of the Bible?” And I’d bet you (if I were a betting man) that you won’t find any. Worldviews are like that - you can only see them when you live amongst alternatives, which is why Church History is so unsettling and so important.

Now, what’s that funny accent of yours?


Jon Garvey - #31751

September 24th 2010

Another thought: as I said we all unconsciously apply our modern worldview to the Bible, and thereby alter its meaning from what its writers understood. That’s as inevitable as the fact that they wrote in Hebrew or Greek, and we read in English.

Yet at the same time it’s the very sharing of our society’s general worldview that enables us to represent Christ to our own culture at all. We are those who represent Christ to people today, not the prophets and apostles - or rather, the prophets and apostles must speak through us, one reason why it’s the word *proclaimed* the is the Lord’s chosen medium. Otherwise we’d have to persuade people to learn Greek and study 1st century Judaism before they could accept Christ.

In a world full of Platonists, Origen *had* to use Platonist specs to read the Bible, whilst the Spirit enabled him to bring Christ to them - which he undoubtedly did for all his faults (and he’s my least favourite Patristic writer).

Similarly John Calvin could not have achieved what he did were he not steeped in the intellectual humanism of his age.


conrad - #31770

September 24th 2010

Merv,,
I see your point Merv,
and i am particularly reproved by it,... because so many people have suggested that I may be crazy,...
  AND AS YOU ALL KNOW,.. MY IDEAS ARE EXCELLENT!

So maybe Oragami isn’t so bad after all!


defensedefumer - #31892

September 25th 2010

At first I thought Origen was ‘origin’ spelled wrongly. So I thought I was reading ‘Origin of our species and divine baby talk’!

But this is a great post, and I see objections to Christianity repeated in his words today. I never heard of Origen before this post, and I can’t wait to read more!


Brandon Withrow - #32076

September 26th 2010

@Merv Yes, Origen is fascinating, even if extremely eccentric (if that is the word to use).  And it does appear that a very similar conversation has been going on with each generation.  The question about what to make of it will hopefully come out in part 2. 

@Jon Garvey Your point about worldviews is a good one.  It is a hard thing to have enough self-awareness to know when we need to find an alternative. Part of letting go of making Genesis into modern science and just letting it be what it is, at least as I see it, is part of changing one’s worldview. 

Thanks for the comments everyone.  I hope part 2 doesn’t disappoint.  BTW, the initial version that went up was a draft, but they have since put up the correct, final version.


Robert Byers - #32286

September 28th 2010

I got to make gently a complaint about the time measure used by the author of the thread. C.E. is a rejection of A.D.
A people and nation have the moral right to decide on their weights and measures.
Christiandom and so us have used B.C. A.D. as our measure of time for a long time.
The new terms come from unelected, unrepresentitive, and unauthoritative , minority elements in the population.
I see these terms as a intention to deny Christ the honour of dividing man’s ages. Also to deny christian civilization the honour and right.
There is no need , much less right, to change out terms for time.
We the people didn’t agree to this. Its immoral and so illegal amongst free people to strip their identity from them on such matters. it is about identity and religion.
Biologos has shown this biblical creationist that it is about integrity and professional accuracy.
The latter is not being met if C.E. is replacing A.D.
It matters and if it doesn’t matter then no reason for the “change”.
No evolution without representation and full particapation.
(Again I presume peoples/nations right to decide on important measures)


John VanZwieten - #32409

September 28th 2010

Robert Byers,

C.E. for “Common Era” or it’s equivalent “Vulgar Era” has been in use in western civilization for at least 300 years.  If people want to use it today out of respect for those who do not recognize Jesus as Lord and Christ, they have always been free to use it as an alternative to A.D.  Even various Christians have used Common Era over the centuries.

Don’t worry, the (incorrect as it turns out) estimation of the birth year of Christ still divides CE from BCE.


Cal - #32415

September 28th 2010

Two comments above:

I actually find it a dash of providential humor in the fact they changed it to BCE and CE from BC and AD.

Is not CE an abbreviation of Christian Era vs. BCE, Before Christian Era?


John VanZwieten - #32449

September 29th 2010

Cal,

CE is sometimes called Christian Era, but more properly refers to Common Era, which was the timescale of common people as opposed to years measured by the reigns of particular kings.


Cal - #32539

September 29th 2010

John:

I was pointing out that even though secularists tried to change from BC-AD to BCE-CE to take Christ out, but even though they thought it was neutral the initials reflect Christ regardless.


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