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Origen on our Species and Divine Baby Talk, Part 2

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September 30, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Origen on our Species and Divine Baby Talk, Part 2

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

In part one, we saw that Origen of Alexandria could not ignore the intellectual difficulties that came with reading Scripture literally. He believed that the most literal or earthly-bound reading of the text was akin to divine baby talk and that Scripture is written with layers of deeper, spiritual meaning. Like Scripture, human beings are both material and immaterial. The more spiritual a person is, says Origen, the less he or she is fixed on the literal reading of the text.

Now we look at the worldview behind Origen’s conclusions. Like Christians of all ages, Origen carefully engaged the biblical text according to the worldview of his community at the time. For Origen, this worldview is informed by Platonism.

The World of Forms

Plato’s (ca. 429-ca. 348 BCE) Republic is the primary source for the concept known as the World of the Forms (The Republic 7.514-20). For Plato, the world we live in is a shadow of the eternal reality. That eternal reality provides the archetype, universals, or forms for all things created. In the world of forms, the universal and immaterial model has all the necessary attributes that allow humans to identify all material copies, no matter their diverse characteristics. To use the classic example, no matter how different chairs are, they all have something we identify as “chairness,” and that universal comes from its original form.

If one thinks of the film The Matrix, the computer-generated world of Neo is a mere reflection or shadow of the reality; so also, this world, though material, is a mere shadow of the real thing in the World of Forms. The concrete elements of this world tell us something about the real thing in the World of Forms. And the pre-existent soul, before its bondage to matter, was part of the World of Forms and therefore should long to return.

A century later, Platonists firmly identified the World of Forms with that of the Logos, also called the “Word,” which was believed to be that intelligence which communicates the forms to this world. For Stoics (3rd century BCE) it became a creative and organizing force that holds all things together. The Logos is separate from the created world and untouchable. Despite this separateness, it is not impossible to find the Jewish Platonist Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE to 50 CE) attributing very personal descriptions to the Logos. Philo calls him “a Son of God,” “God’s First-born,” and “the Word [logos]” (Confusion of Tongues 146).

Christian Platonism

First-century Christians picked up the language of Platonism immediately. The book of Hebrews uses Platonic vocabulary of “reality” and “shadow,” or “copies,” which demonstrates that the writer likely came from a community that knew Philo’s thought well. (For example, in 10:1 the author of Hebrews he refers to the law as a “shadow,” not the reality, and the tabernacle items as “copies” in 9:23.) Likewise, the Gospel of John begins with the creating Logos (1:1). The distinct difference for Christian appropriations of the Logos, however, have to do with the person of Jesus. Early Christians insisted that Jesus was the Logos made flesh (1:14).

This dramatic change helped bring heaven and earth closer. It is what drove the oft-repeated idea of Irenaeus of Lyon that God became human so that we might become God (Against Heresies 4.33.4). Christ’s incarnation was the means by which heaven and earth are united.

This was particularly helpful for figures like Origen. Like the Platonists, Origen believed that human beings have a memory of the spiritual world from their pre-existent form. Sin and the binding of the soul to the body clouds this vision, keeping it earthly bound. The incarnation of the Logos raises the human soul beyond this world, uniting it to the divine and providing an opportunity to transcend the mundane.

As a result of this union, the spiritual and immaterial side of the person is enabled to use the spiritual senses and see beyond the mere letter of the text to find the allegorical, spiritual, or “inner message” intended by God and available through “grace” (On First Principles 4.2.3). These inner meanings of the Bible may not always be that apparent, but Origen believes that the Spirit of God helps by putting in the biblical text improbable ideas and history, which he calls “stumbling blocks” (First Principles 4.2.9).

Given this background, when Origen reads of days in Genesis without the existence of a sun, he believes he has found a stumbling block put there by the Spirit of God to push him to look beyond the literal (fleshly or material) reading of the text to that which is spiritual (the reality and heavenly). “We should be led on to search for a truth deeper down,” says Origen (First Principles 4.2.9).

Rethinking Genesis Today

In our world, although Platonism is no longer the dominate philosophy, science has provided a serious reason to support Origen’s initial assumption: taking the words of Genesis literally, especially by modern scientific standards, makes little sense. In his day, the context of Christian Platonism provided the tools for making sense of these “stumbling blocks.” Today, the Christian needs to understand the place of the Genesis account in light of what we now know about the universe.

When we try to retrofit the Genesis account with scientific terms (for example, arguing for a vapor canopy), we do both the Bible and science a disservice. What we end up constructing is an ancient text that no longer communicates its original message and a modern science that no longer accurately represents the natural world.

Of course, we need not appeal to Origen’s philosophical framework—with its Platonism and two-fold origins of human beings—to make sense of the improbable portions of Genesis 1. However, like Origen does, it is best to understand Genesis as an ancient science and not a description of the natural world as we know it in our own day. God’s scientific baby talk was meaningful to our infant species, but now that we have learned to walk, we need to read Genesis with maturity.

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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conrad - #32646

September 30th 2010

I will definitely buy the “layers of meaning” idea.

But one layer is that the Bible is scientifically correct.
A universe “without form” refers to the tiny universe at the start of the Big Bang….. not a dark cold huge ball of mud as so many visualize it.

One of the layers of meaning is that the universe will be correctly described in terms of THE LATEST KNOWLEDGE.

If M-theory is correct, God knew it before Hawking and Mlodinow.

JHM - #32652

September 30th 2010


Just to be clear, are you saying that the “immature” ancient Israelites were unable to get the deeper meaning in Genesis, or are you saying that “mature” reading is able to deal with a shift in the literal meaning (physical mechanisms of creation) as our scientific understanding grows?

Chris Massey - #32673

September 30th 2010

This is really interesting stuff. It sounds as though Origen’s ideas weren’t far from gnostic thought in some ways. Were there specific ways that Origen distanced himself from full-blown gnostic Christianity?

Brandon Withrow - #32678

September 30th 2010

@JHM If I understand you correctly, something like the latter.  What I had in mind is the idea that as our understanding of the natural world grows, a “mature” (or maturing) take on Genesis will be to let it be what it was, an ancient science that communicated in ancient ways.  As such, we do not need to force Genesis to look like modern science and we probably shouldn’t feel like we need to.  It wasn’t meant to be read that way (as modern science) and we know it doesn’t represent the natural world in that way.  Let it be what it is, and that will be more meaningful as we learn more about the world we live in through scientific discovery.  Thanks for asking, good question.

@Chris The question of Origen and gnosticism has been raised before.  He does challenge and debate gnosticism and his understanding of the oneness of God and the humanity of Christ make his ideas distinct from it.  But it is the similarities with Platonism that probably give his language a gnostic feel, particularly where variations of gnosticism borrowed more heavily from it.

conrad - #32704

September 30th 2010

Brandon what is this vapor canopy you are talking about?

We SHOULD fit the scripture to modern science,.... but who ever mentioned a vapor canopy.
You can’t fit scripture to JUNK science nor can you fit it to some unique personal vision.

Vapor canopy? What Nobel prize was awarded for work on a vapor canopy?

conrad - #32712

September 30th 2010

Brandon we know the universe was tiny at the moment of the big bang.

That is the universe “without form” mentioned in Genesis.

But until Big Bang theory told us there was a stage when the universe was tiny we were mystified at the world “without form”.

Jon Garvey - #32728

October 1st 2010

@conrad - #32712

Conrad, you really should leave some space in your mind for examining different understandings seriously. That’s what true conversation is about. This series is about Origen’s (and therefore other ancient writers’) ways of approaching Scripture, and how they might inform our own. It isn’t a series about science in Genesis, so a different kind of interaction might be appropriate.

“To the man with a hammer, everything is a nail.”

Dan - #32769

October 1st 2010

So Origen read Genesis through the cultural lens of the Platonism of his day and we should read the text through the cultural lens of the scientism and naturalism of our day.  The meaning is determined by the reader and not by the text.

Long live postmodernism in the reading of texts.  Long live modernism in the absolutist naturalism of science.  World without end, amen.

conrad - #32776

October 1st 2010

Jon my posts are about God [whom I love very much].

His scripture gets criticized very shabbily by some of the “great brains” on this board and I resent it.

Some of the pseudo-intelligent comments that get typed in here are downright annoying.
Day after day the same tired assertion is made that only fools take the Bible literally,... and the great enlightened commentators who have been to college and studied heir Greek patiently try to lead us inferior types into a new understanding.

[That understanding seems to be “that the Bible is just a crazy old book which no one takes seriously.”]
I have been told so many times that I really need to study the ancient near east that I am getting tired of hearing it.

I study Richard Feynman, Robert Hartman,  Watson and Crick, and George Smoot and my understand increases dramatically.


I feel called to preach the gospel to pseudo-intellectuals.
Study cosmology and you will be able to give the Bible a “literal interpretation” without any trouble whatsoever.
Leave a little space in your mind for that!

conrad - #32777

October 1st 2010

And what is this crazy “vapor canopy” stuff ?.

Whatever it is it sounds like a geocentric interpretation of cosmic inflation.

Another remnant of ANE mythology perhaps?

conrad - #32780

October 1st 2010

While I am ranting I want to recommend that you all watch Brian Green’s 20 minute talk on string theory on TED.com web site.

Along about the 10 minute mark he explains string theory in about 2 minutes.

[Now watch carefully. Someone here will say something like,“Oh that is impossible! People in the ancient near east never heard of string theory SO HOW COULD ANYTHING LIKE THAT POSSIBLY BE IN THE BIBLE!”]

The clear implication will be that the Bible was NOT written by an all-knowing God.
It was made up by some story tellers who lived long ago.

Well string theory gives multiple parallel universes.
So the idea of God being somewhere before our universe was created seems to fit perfectly.

And the angel Gabriel who appears to a woman and then goes back somewhere,... have you ever wondered where he came from and returned to?
String theory would have no problem with explaining that.

You really should leave some space in your mind for these concepts.

Pete Enns - #32784

October 1st 2010

Dan 32769

I think Brandon’s point may be not that we should read Genesis through our cultural lens, but that we invariably do. What is difficult for some to see is that even literalism is a culturally influenced reading.

conrad - #32785

October 1st 2010

I think the words “in the beginning” refer to THIS UNIVERSE,.... not the multiverse.

It was the beginning of time in this universe.
I think the Bible only informs us about THIS universe.
It does mention that Christ existed before the universe began but the Bible story appears be about the creation of this universe.

Modern cosmology makes the Bible much EASIER to understand.
I am sorry that Oigen was puzzled by the question of “days”.
But the word was ‘yom’ and it just means a period of time.

Origen sounds like a sensible man and if he had known about string theory he would have been right on board with it.
I just don’t feel motivated to study the story of Origen’s confusion.

Mairnéalach - #32797

October 1st 2010

Dan 32769

Jesus Christ DENIED the idea that the biblical meaning is determined by the text. John 5:39. Instead, he insisted the biblical meaning is determined by the SUBJECT of the text—himself.

Your sarcastic critique might be applicable in the case of uninspired texts, but not for the bible.

Trevor K. - #33203

October 4th 2010

“However, like Origen does, it is best to understand Genesis as an ancient science and not a description of the natural world as we know it in our own day. God’s scientific baby talk was meaningful to our infant species, but now that we have learned to walk, we need to read Genesis with maturity.”
Compared to the knowledge of God, ours is still so immature as to be just born. I think it’s intellectual arrogance to think that we now know enough to question the words used in the bible. The way I see it, Genesis 1 was written to be factually correct from a scientific and observational point of view but all the tiny details had been omitted.

Remember that the more knowledge and manufacturing techniques we acquire, the faster we can produce things - this is borne out by a simple search of manufacturing history. Therefore it’s easy to conclude that for Him who is all-knowing, it’s an easy matter to create in six days[or even less if he chose to]. And to make everything in a fully functional state - looking for all the world to see as if it were old. But remember the appearance of age is OUR experience which we read into it.

John VanZwieten - #33268

October 4th 2010

Trevor K. wrote:

The way I see it, Genesis 1 was written to be factually correct from a scientific and observational point of view but all the tiny details had been omitted.

The question is, why do you “see it” this way?  Is it because the Bible itself demands that you see it this way, or is it because of presuppositions you bring to the Bible from your particular religious tradition’s teaching?

Jon Garvey - #34214

October 11th 2010

@Trevor K. - #33203

“And to make everything in a fully functional state - looking for all the world to see as if it were old.”

Trevor - a very good blog on the vital difference between “appearance of age” and “appearance of history” here: http://thestonescryout.com/misconception_the_appearance_of_age

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