Origen on our Species and Divine Baby Talk, Part 2

| By Brandon Withrow

Origen on our Species and Divine Baby Talk, Part 2In 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.


About the Author

Brandon  Withrow

Brandon 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.