Origen on our Species and Divine Baby Talk

Brandon Withrow
On September 30, 2010

origenInfants 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.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.

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.


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Brandon Withrow
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.