The Church Fathers and Two Books Theology
Mark Mann explores what many of the great Christian theologians and saints of the Church have said about how God speaks in and through God’s other great book: Nature, or Creation.
I have recently read with great interest a series of blogs on this site by Sujin Pak regarding “Pre-modern Readings of Genesis 1,” which demonstrate, among other things, the great variety of ways that Christians have read and interpreted Scripture over the ages. They are a reminder to all of us engaged in the great science-and-theology debates of our day that we should be careful to assert our own readings of Scripture with some humility. I think it also calls us not to be myopic—to realize that the great minds of the Church from past eras have the potential to inform our faith and our thinking about faith today as well. We are, as Hebrews 12:1 affirms, surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,” to whom Christians today should listen with careful attention.
Claiming our inheritance from the historical Church is the purpose of this blog series as well: to mine the rich depths of the Christian tradition as a source of wisdom in engaging the contemporary theology and science discussion. But, rather than looking at the different ways Christians throughout history have understood God to speak in and through Scripture, I want to explore what many of the great Christian theologians (and saints!) of the Church have said about how God speaks in and through God’s other great book: Nature, or Creation.
Last winter I wrote a series of blogs on this forum making the claim that Christians make a serious mistake when they consider science to be a purely secular enterprise that Christians need to “integrate” with Christian faith. The end result of such thinking, unfortunately, is a kind of Gnosticism that pits science and faith against one another, leading many devout Christians to mistrust science; moreover, they may needlessly feel threatened by the claims of the contemporary scientific community regarding theories as wide-ranging as human evolution, global warming, and the Big Bang.
What I have proposed is recovery of the ancient Christian “two book” theory, which affirms that God’s self-revelation is given to us, albeit in different ways, in both Scripture and Creation (the “two” books), and that Christians need to “read” Scripture and Creation together in order to understand the fullness of God’s Word and truth for us today. For this reason I prefer to think of scientific methods as God-given tools for us to understand Creation and, therefore, the glory and majesty of its Creator.
Indeed, I want to affirm that the scientific enterprise is in many ways sacred work, for it is the attempt to understand more fully the handiwork of God, and is in this way not unlike disciplined reading and discerning the Word of God in Holy Scripture. This is not to say that all scientists understand their task to be sacred. As we know, many are atheists or agnostics, and with their hearts closed to God, they lack the capacity to see fully the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of that which they study. In this respect, they are similar to many secular scholars of religion who teach in universities today who view the Bible as nothing more than one more collection of ancient stories or wisdom literature. Even without faith, such scholars can make significant contributions to their fields and to our understanding of the historical context of the Scriptures and of the work of God in His Creation; in this way they may unwittingly be part of as well as witnesses to God’s Word and Truth. But that kind of dispassionate approach is not the way that Christians read the world, much less Scripture. Reading Scripture is a sacred task for us, for through Scripture and by the Holy Spirit, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is made alive in our hearts. Likewise, by the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us through Creation, and science is a tool that helps us to understand what God has to say.
In this article I wish to build on these claims by looking at a number of important figures in the history of the Church as resources for addressing the same concerns. In particular, I wish to demonstrate that many of the great figures of the Church held views commensurate to my own, and therefore provide further substance to my claim that Christians do not need to fear science as a threat to the truth of Christian faith or the viability of the biblical witness. Indeed, as we will see, many of the great theologians and leaders of the Church—including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley—in various ways believed that Creation bears witness to the glory and truth of its Creator and that this witness is fully compatible with the witness of Scripture.
However, before we begin, I need to make several points. First, I have chosen these eight figures because they are all extremely important in the history and development of Christianity, but also because they are considered standards of orthodoxy for Christian faith. In other words, they are not marginal figures in Christian history regarding their fidelity to Scripture or the fundamental teachings of the Church. The only possible exception to this is Origen of Alexandria, as some of his views came under suspicion by the Church in subsequent centuries. However, the concerns raised about Origen reflect developments in creedal orthodoxy of later centuries and not his own time when, in fact, his work was so influential as to have served as a kind of standard of orthodoxy. Besides, Origen is simply too important a figure in the development of Christian theology to ignore. Indeed, any short list of the greatest teachers in Church history should include Origen, as well as Justin, Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.
Likewise, among these eight figures we have included a wide range of thinkers who, among their variety, are all considered important in the development of the various branches of the Christian Church today. So, we have three of the great Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin, and Wesley), the single most important Roman Catholic theologian (Aquinas), one theologian of particular importance for Eastern Orthodoxy (Irenaeus), and three who have each cast long shadows in all three great branches of the Christian Church (Justin, Origen, and Augustine). We also have some cultural and national breadth in this group. It includes two theologians originating from the Greco-Roman Middle East (Justin and Irenaeus), two Africans (Origen and Augustine), and one each from Italy (Aquinas), Germany (Luther), France (Calvin) and Great Britain (Wesley). In other words, these theologians as a group represent both the depth and breadth of the wisdom of the entire Church through its first eighteen centuries.
Secondly, we must recognize that all of these theologians were persons of their time and not of ours, and that their concerns were not exactly ours. So, we cannot expect them to be addressing science in the proper sense (except Wesley and, to a lesser extent, Calvin) because science as we think of it (that is, using the scientific method of developing and testing hypotheses) is a fairly recent development. Also, none of them was dealing with issues such the challenges brought to traditional Christian thinking about Creation by, for instance, Darwinism or Big Bang theory. In fact, it’s impossible for us to know what any of them would affirm were we somehow to extract them from their own era and then drop them into our own. But, in the thought of each, they do give us some clues as to how they might think of such matters today, and I am not afraid of providing a little conjecture, so long as it is understood as such.
So to put things plainly, I am not particularly interested in investigating whether any of our figures were Young Earth Creationists. In fact, we can dispel with that issue right away: they all WERE, in one form or another. But, then, so were ALL Christians in the pre-modern era. Likewise, Christians before the era of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Rather, in the essays that follow we will be concerned with the ways in which each of our theologians conceived of the relationship between God’s revelation in Scripture and revelation in Creation, and therefore, what they have to say about how Christians today might consider science as a tool of faith rather than its enemy. This is not to say that they all will agree. Some are in greater agreement with me (Justin, Wesley, Aquinas) than others (Luther). But even such disagreement is important, for it shows that Christians throughout all ages have disagreed on many important matters, while maintaining unity regarding the MOST important matters.
In the next section, we’ll begin with the most ancient of our figures, and begin to move through history to the most recent. I hope you enjoy learning about them all as much as I have in preparing for this piece.
In both my previous series of essays here on BioLogos and in this new set of posts on how the great theologians in the history of the Christian Church (ranging from the 2nd to the 18th centuries) thought about Creation, I am making three main arguments:
- Christians should think of Scripture and Creation as two “books” that should be read together for understanding the fullness of God’s self-revelation;
- Science is a God-given tool for discerning the handiwork of God in Creation, and is fully compatible with God’s Word revealed in Scripture, and therefore,
- Christians have nothing to fear from science.
In the introduction to this piece I explained more fully my thesis, concerns, and methods, and today we’ll begin our look at the Church Fathers themselves, turning to the life and writings of Justin Martyr.
The First Apologist
Almost nothing is actually known about Justin’s life, except for a few biographical references scattered among later Christian writings and a brief intellectual autobiography he provides in one of his three treatises that have survived to the current day. Unfortunately, the nature of that document (a dialogue) leaves the question open as to whether he is being autobiographical in a literal sense, or whether he has taken some literary license in order to drive home some of his central theological points.
Our best guess from the scant evidence we have is that Justin was born to a pagan, Roman family in Samaria, in Palestine, sometime shortly before or after 100 CE. It appears that, as a young man, he set out on an intellectual journey in pursuit of truth, exploring the teachings of many of the main philosophical schools of the era: Stoicism, Pythagoreanism, the Peripatetics (Aristotelianism) and Platonism, the latter proving the most attractive to him. Still, his quest did not come to an end until his encounter with Christianity and his conversion to faith in Christ. As a result, he came to understand Christian faith to embody the “true” and “highest” philosophy, and according to tradition he continued to wear philosopher’s robes the rest of his life. Following his conversion, he eventually moved to Rome and opened up his own school to teach “Christian” philosophy; Irenaeus (whom we look at in the next blog) is believed to have been one of his students. Finally, we know that Justin was martyred by beheading sometime around 165 CE for his public defense of Christianity.
Justin wrote many treatises in defense of Christian faith, but only three have survived: his two “Apologies” and his “Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew.” An “apology” is a public account and defense of one’s beliefs that responds to both actual and potential critics. Justin could find models for his apologetic work both in the Greek philosophical tradition (Socrates) and Scripture (Peter’s Pentecost speech in Acts 2 and Paul’s Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17). Many of the most important early Church writings that survive are apologies, and Justin was the first great apologist of the Church.
Justin’s “First Apology” was addressed to the Roman Emperor (Antoninus Pius), his sons, the Roman Senate, and Roman people, while his “Second” was addressed to the Senate alone. The chief purpose of each was to defend Christians against the claim of atheism (for which they were being persecuted), clarify Christian teachings, and defend the truth of Christian faith. In his “Dialogue with Trypho,” Justin mounts an extensive argument that Jesus is the expected Messiah of the Israelite prophetic tradition and the Christian Church, therefore, is the true Israel and heir to the covenantal promises made by God to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, etc.
The Continuity of the Scriptures
Justin’s “Dialogue with Trypho” provides an appropriate starting point for assessing Justin’s contribution to the development of the Two Books Theory. For starters, at this point in history, what we now call the “New Testament” had not been formally adopted by the Christian Church. For Christians in Justin’s time, Scripture was primarily the collection of ancient Hebrew writings we now call the Old Testament. The rather loose collection of apostolic writings (the gospels, the writings of Paul, etc.)—though gaining increasing authority in the young church—had not yet achieved any universally accepted form. So, for instance, it is fairly clear that in Justin’s time the gospel of John was not yet widely or uniformly considered to be authoritative in the way that the other gospels were, and it appears unlikely that Justin was even aware of the Pastoral Epistles and the book of Hebrews. However, only a few decades later we find none other than Irenaeus affirming all of these books as part of the Christian canon.
What is important about this for our purposes is not so much that in the 2nd century Christians like Justin were still sorting out the New Testament, but that most Christians had clearly embraced the Jewish Scriptures as their own, and that Justin, himself, was one of the chief advocates for the authority of what we now call the Old Testament. This might come as some surprise to many Christians today who simply take for granted the canonicity of the 66 “books” that constitute the Old and New Testament. But for 2nd-century Christians, not only was there debate about which books should be included in the New Testament (the Gospel of John and Hebrews won out, while the letters of Ignatius and Clement did not), but there was also considerable debate circulating about whether Christians should accept or reject the Jewish Scriptures.
The chief source of arguments against including the Jewish Scriptures was a wealthy church leader (he may even have been a bishop) from Asia Minor (now Turkey) named Marcion. Marcion taught that Jesus revealed a completely different God from the one who had created the world and had covenanted with Israel. According to Marcion, the Israelite God was an angry, vengeful, jealous, warlike God concerned with petty matters such as animal sacrifices and ritual purity laws. Most problematically, he had created the material world. The God whom Jesus Christ revealed, on the other hand, was a peaceful, loving, and compassionate God, who was instead concerned with matters of faith and the spirit, and who had sent Jesus to rescue us from our imprisonment in the world created by the petty Jewish God. To substantiate his claims, Marcion pointed to the teachings of St. Paul that are critical of those seeking to impose Jewish laws and circumcision on Gentile converts. He eventually promoted an exclusively “Christian” Bible that included only the Pauline writings and a version of the Gospel of Luke (always associated with Paul in Church traditions) that was somewhat different than the version other Christians affirmed. Marcion’s teachings fomented considerable controversy in the Church, and after being excommunicated by the Bishop of Rome (already considered a leading voice in the Church), he went on to found a rival church movement that found followers throughout the Greco-Roman world and survived for several centuries.
What is of special importance when considering Justin’s work, then, is the considerable effort Justin expends in his “Dialogue” defending the continuity between Jewish faith and scripture and the faith of the Christian Church. That is, his concern was not just to demonstrate to Jews that their own traditions and hopes were fulfilled in Christ, but also that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ was the very God who had created the heavens and the earth and had called them good. While Marcion and other 2nd-century Christians (the Gnostics, who shared some similarities with Marcion and whom we will discuss more at length in our blog on Irenaeus) were flatly rejecting any association between Jesus’ Father and the natural world, Justin was boldly embracing it.
But this is not all. Indeed, Justin would push this point even further through his embrace of a “logos” Christology. This idea requires considerable unpacking, which we’ll do in the next section.
As I discussed earlier, tracing the history of Two Books Theology means understanding how Christian theologians from the very beginnings of the Church have understood God’s self-revelation, as well as the relationship between Scripture and Creation. Therefore, we began with 2nd-century Church Father Justin Martyr, who affirmed that what we now call the Old and the New Testaments were both part a single witness to God the Creator and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Against his contemporary Marcion (who said that the Israelite God was altogether different from the God of Jesus), and the Gnostics (who thought the material world was either evil or filled with ignorance), Justin argued that the Father of Jesus was the very God who had created the earth and had called everything in it good.
While we might take such statement on the continuity of the Biblical witness for granted, the fact that the validity of the Jewish Scriptures was so hotly contested should give the reader a sense of the many theological challenges that Early Christians faced. One of the most complex of these challenges was determining how to affirm that there is only One God and, at the same time, that Jesus Christ is divine. Various models were proposed in the centuries leading up the Church councils at Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) that would settle this question once and for all for the Christian Church, establishing the particular Trinitarian formula we find outlined in what we typically refer to as the Nicene Creed. But, in Justin’s time, no such definitive statement existed, and his solution would be one of the most important contributions to the discussion.
Jesus Christ, the Logos of God
Drawing from the Greek philosophy of his pre-Christian studies (especially Platonism and Stoicism) and perhaps also from the not-yet canonized gospel of John, Justin proposed that Jesus Christ is the personal embodiment of the “divine logos.” The Greek term “logos” (typically translated as “word” in English) has a rich history in Greek philosophy. For Stoics, the logos was understood to be the presence of divine rationality in the material universe that both animates it and gives it the particular order that we observe. For Platonists at the time of Justin (often referred to as Middle Platonism1), the logos was conceived of as a kind of intermediary between God and the world. According to Middle Platonism, God is a purely self-sufficient, impassable, and transcendently spiritual reality and is therefore neither concerned with nor involved in the material world. The logos, then, was that ordering principle emanating from God which formed the world as we know it out of formless matter, or chaos. It was both God and not-God at the same time—a kind of extension of the fullness of God into the material world that exerted God’s divine power and influence within the world, while also maintaining God’s fundamental transcendence over and distance from the world.
These are exactly the kinds of claims that Justin made in calling Jesus Christ the “Logos of God.” With Stoicism, Justin would speak of Christ as the presence of divine rationality in the physical creation gave it both its life and its order. With Platonism, Justin spoke of Christ as a fully divine intermediary between God the Father and the material world that is neither fully equated with nor fully distinct from the Father2 This is what we mean when we speak of Justin as affirming a “logos Christology”: God the Father had spoken the entire universe into being through the Divine Logos, which became incarnate as Jesus Christ. That is, Jesus Christ is both fully divine and yet not to be equated with God the Father. Instead, he is the eternally generated Son and Logos through whom God the Father interacts with Creation.
Of course, Justin could point to a biblical basis for drawing such conclusions about the identification of Christ with the Divine Logos and the pivotal role of Christ in creation. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint and used by most early Christians as they generally could not read Hebrew), the verb form of logos is used to denote God “speaking” the world into being in Gen 1. Recall also that the Gospel of John begins with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made…” The Greek term for “word” used in John’s prologue is in fact “logos.”
One final and vitally important point regarding Justin should be made: he affirmed the doctrine of the logoi spermatakoi, variously translated as “seeds of truth” or “rational principles.” According to this doctrine, the germinal seeds of the Divine Logos are scattered through the entire cosmos, and give rise to the particular form and order of the universe. Justin gave this doctrine a particularly Christian twist by identifying the logoi spermatokoi with the truth and presence of Jesus Christ, which he understood to be evident everywhere in the cosmos. In all times and places, those with eyes to see can find evidence of the handiwork of God in Christ, for it is in Christ that God has made all things to be what they are. It is for this reason that Justin could speak of Christianity as the true philosophy, and of other philosophical traditions as holding partial truths that ultimately lead to Christ.
For Justin Martyr, the first great Christian theologian of the post-apostolic era, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, witnessed to in Scripture and manifest throughout all of Creation as the source of its life and order. Although Justin did not explicitly affirm that Scripture and Nature are two “books,” it is clear that his logos Christology provides a strong basis for considering the study of Scripture and Creation as, in the end, a singular enterprise, for both bear witness to the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. Especially considering his doctrine of the logoi spermatokoi, it is difficult to imagine him having the anti-scientific attitude that is unfortunately so prevalent among many Christians today, or to imagine him accepting the idea that the Creation could ever produce evidence against the existence of its Creator. Next, we’ll see that many of these themes would also play out in the theology of one of Justin’s disciples—Irenaeus of Lyons.
We know very little of the lives of most Christian leaders of the 2nd century with any degree of certainty. Much is claimed about them in later traditions, but it can be difficult to discern what is actually true and what is merely legendary. Such is the case with Irenaeus of Lyon. Scholars believe that he was born in Smyrna in Asia Minor (now Turkey) between 130 and 150 CE. His family was apparently Christian, and from an early age he apparently sought preparation for Church ministry. Some traditions cite him as a student of Polycarp of Smyrna (who is supposed to have been a disciple of the apostle John), while others claim him a student of Justin Martyr in Rome in the years leading to Justin’s execution by Roman authorities.
Irenaeus was apparently sent by the Roman church to Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyons, France) to help minister to the growing number of Christians in that town. Records show that most Christians there were immigrants from Greek-speaking regions of the Roman Empire, and Irenaeus was a Greek speaker. Irenaeus became bishop of Lugdunum around 177 CE, following the martyrdom of his predecessor, and remained in that post until his death in or around the year 202. Although the cause of his death is unknown, there is some evidence that he, too, suffered a martyr’s death.
Irenaeus was a prolific writer but, as was the case with Justin, most of his writings have not survived. Fortunately, the writing considered most important by subsequent Church leaders and theologians has survived—his Against Heresies 3. In this lengthy treatise, Irenaeus writes polemically against a variety of different teachings that he deemed to be false (all of which the orthodox Church would also come to reject). Most of the treatise, though, takes aim at Gnostic teachings that had begun to gain a foothold in the Church, and Irenaeus’ chief Gnostic target is Valentinianism.
I have treated the Gnostic heresy at length in another article, so will not give it a full treatment here, but the Valentinian variety of Gnosticism is worth mentioning briefly. Valentinus was a Christian teacher who (like Marcion, whom I discussed in my discussion of Justin) rejected any identification between the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the creation of the material world. Like most Gnostics, Valentinus had a negative view of materiality and believed that Christ had come to free our spirits from their bondage in the physical world. Valentinus also claimed to possess secret knowledge (gnosis) for achieving such freedom that had been passed on to him but had originated with Jesus himself. During the middle of the 2nd century, Valentinus apparently had a school and disciples in Rome. There is also some indication that he might have been a candidate to become bishop of Rome around 150 A.D., but when his candidacy failed, he apparently left the Church (like Marcion) and founded his own movement. Some scholars suggest that the incursion of Valentinian teachings into churches in Gaul was the precipitating factor for Irenaeus’ writing of Against Heresies.
Irenaeus’ response to Gnosticism is significant for our discussion of the development of a “Two Books” theology in two respects. First, Irenaeus appears to have been a pivotal figure in the formation of the Christian Bible—the book of Scripture. As noted earlier, while 2nd- century Christians were generally in agreement about the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures (notable excepts, like Marcion, notwithstanding), there was no consensus about which of the writings attributed to the apostles should have the same level of authority. Moreover, Gnostic Christians like Valentinus claimed to possess writings passed down from the apostles, as well.4 In response to the confusion resulting from the circulation of so many different and often conflicting writings attributed to the apostles, Irenaeus published a list of sixty-six books he believed to be authoritative in matters of Christian faith and practice. This list perfectly coincides with the books of our current Old and New Testament, and it is the first such list including all sixty-six that is known to have been published. It would still be a couple generations before Irenaeus’ canon of Scripture would be formally accepted throughout the Christian church, but that it would become so is in large part because of the enduring influence of Irenaeus, himself.
Irenaeus is also a pivotal figure in the development of the Christian understanding of Creation. Against the Gnostics, who generally had a poor view of the material world because they considered it the realm of ignorance and/or evil, Irenaeus reveled in Creation’s goodness and beauty. While the Gnostics believed that Creation is the handiwork of some petty or ignorant lesser deity (often called “the demiurge”) and that Jesus had come to reveal the true Father and rescue us from our bondage to ignorance and evil, Irenaeus affirmed that the entire universe had been created by none other than the Father of Jesus Christ. While Gnostics believed that Jesus only “appeared” to take on physical flesh, Irenaeus boldly declared that God, in Christ, became flesh and walked among us as a real human being. Indeed, claimed Irenaeus, in the human, material, fleshly Jesus, the very divinity of God is made perfectly visible to us.
Let us reflect on this point for a moment. The Gnostic impulse is to see physicality as an embarrassment. Ultimately, human beings are spiritual beings intended for a purely spiritual existence, but somehow we have become trapped in prisons of flesh. But according to Irenaeus, it is exactly in finite, mortal flesh that God has chosen to be revealed. The material world is not somehow opposed to God or a realm from which God is absent. Quite the contrary, it is God’s wondrous Creation, and every little piece of it bears witness to the wonder and majesty of the One true God who is its creator, redeemer, and sustainer.
Irenaeus would drive this point home again and again in his writing. Take, for instance, his view of human beings. He took quite literally that human beings had, by divine purpose, been created from the very dust of the earth intended for life on this earth. Again, he seemed to revel in human physicality. He took great joy, it seems, in speaking of humanity as creatures of dirt and dust, at pointing out our connection to the ground and earth. For Irenaeus, our fleshiness is nothing to be embarrassed about or to regret. It is how God intended from the beginning for things to be. This is why God chose from before Creation to become incarnate. The universe is, for Irenaeus, a kind of canvas upon which God has chosen to draw the very beauty of God’s own glory, and God will not complete the masterpiece until Christ’s final coming in victory and glory.
It is at this point that Western Christians find Irenaeus most difficult to comprehend. We tend to look at the world through Augustinian eyes. Augustine of Hippo (whom we will look at more closely in a later blog) understood Creation to be complete and perfect with the creation of humanity. For Augustine, the sin of Adam and Eve was the moral failure of two spiritually mature adults, their sin an act of utter rebellion, and the consequences devastating for the whole world and for all subsequent people. But Irenaeus (who lived two centuries before Augustine) instead believed that God created the universe incomplete and imperfect. For Irenaeus, Adam and Eve were like children, created by God to learn and to grow. And learning and growing includes making mistakes. And their sin was a real mistake, but not the devastating mistake that it was for Augustine and most subsequent Western Christians. For their mistake was anticipated by God, and was never intended by God to be the last word on humanity. Rather, the incarnation—God in the flesh—was the Word from the beginning, and it would be the final Word in creation as well.
As with Justin Martyr, Irenaeus does not explicitly affirm a Two Book theology. But, it is not difficult to see the foundations for one in this work. For one thing, he is a pivotal figure in the formation of the Book of Scripture—one of the first (and certainly the most influential) early Christian leaders to affirm the formal authority of the Christian Bible as we know it today. More to the point of this essay (since most readers will likely already affirm the authority of the Book of Scripture), possibly no theologian in the history of the Church has more explicitly affirmed the extent to which Creation makes visible the wonder, goodness, and beauty of the Creator. It is difficult to imagine him mistrusting the study of God’s Creation (science) in the way that so many Christians seem to mistrust it today. Indeed, it is far easier to imagine him as an advocate of all endeavors that help us better understand the wondrous universe that our God has created, for such studies can only help us see more vividly the beautiful artistry of our God, and worship the One through whom God will complete this great masterpiece.
Origen’s Life and Work
Origen of Alexandria is one of most fascinating and important figures of the ancient world, not to mention the history of the Christian Church, and easily one of the most brilliant. Church historian and theologian Joseph Wilson Trigg has claimed that Origen’s importance and lasting impact in the development of Christianity is second only to that of the Apostle Paul. According to Trigg, Paul’s greatest legacy was to take the gospel to Gentiles, and to open up ways for Gentiles to become full members of the Christian church without converting to Judaism (see Acts 15 and Gal. 2). Origen’s legacy was to complete the work of Paul, by articulating a distinctly biblical faith that was at the same time fully conversant with Gentile (i.e., Greco-Roman) culture and thought, thereby providing the intellectual foundation for the transformation of Christianity from a small, marginal sect into the single most powerful force in the development of Western society until the 19th century 5. My preference is to save such accolades for Augustine of Hippo rather than Origen, but I can see Tripp’s point. Augustine’s influence has been felt almost exclusively in Western Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism) and there is a sense in which Augustine’s work is—like a great cathedral built upon a solid foundation—inconceivable without Origen’s. Regardless, even to have such a debate points to the obvious: Origen must be considered among the two or three most important theological contributors to the development of the Christian Church.
Fortunately, we know a great deal more about Origen than we do about folks like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons. He was born 184/85 AD into a Christian family residing in Alexandria in northern Egypt, in many ways the greatest city in the Roman Empire except for, possibly, Rome itself. It was a large, bustling center of education, commerce, and culture, as well as religion, with a large Jewish community and numerous devotees of both Egyptian and Greco-Roman religious traditions. The Christian church in Alexandria was still apparently small enough to meet in one building for weekly worship, but it was a vibrant and growing, and during Origen’s life it would emerge as a leading theological voice in the Church.
From an early age, it was clear that Origen was gifted with a great heart and a great mind. According to tradition, his father, a convert to Christianity who would be martyred for his faith around 202 AD, would kiss his son’s chest each night as he fell asleep to honor the great Spirit he could already see at work in his son’s heart 6. In the very midst of the persecution that would take the life of his father and other Christians in Alexandria, the teenage Origen would open and take leadership for the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which had been overseen by Origen’s teacher, Clement of Alexandria, until Clement’s departure from the city to avoid the persecution 7. Origen would oversee the school for the next three decades, becoming renowned for his intellect and teachings, as well as his life as a model of Christian devotion and piety.
Around 230, at the same time that Origen began to run into conflict with his bishop, Demetrius, Origen’s wealthy benefactor (Ambrose of Alexandria, whom Origen had converted or orthodoxy from Gnosticism) decided to move to Caesarea, in Palestine. Origen himself followed suit, many of his students would follow, and there his work would flourish and his renown would grow. Indeed, his work output during this period was truly astounding, in large part because Ambrose’s wealth would allow him a team of scribes to help him write and publish at a dizzying pace. In fact, Origen is very likely the single most prolific author of the entire ancient world!
But his years in Caesarea were not without controversy, and included significant trials. The controversy seemed to emanate from Alexandria where Demetrius would accuse him of leaving without permission, and rumors would circulate that he had questionable teachings and personal practices 8. Despite these accusations, Origen would serve the Church faithfully. He continued to gather students—many of whom would go on to become leaders in the Church—and on several occasions he was called upon by bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea to represent them on important missions. Two of the most important included trials of rural bishops accused of the heresy of denying the full divinity of Christ, at both of which Origen not only served as the chief arbitrator, but also succeeded through the power of his mind and presence in converting the accused to an orthodox position. The trials came in the form of the Decian persecutions, which Origen was unable to escape. According to Eusebius (our primary ancient source for Origen’s life) Origen underwent horrendous torture, but refused to recant of his faith in Christ. An old man by this point, the authorities decided simply to release him rather than finish the work of executing him. He would then move to Athens where he is believed to have died sometime thereafter a broken old man, but also one who had left an enormous impact on the Church.
Origen and the Book of Scripture
As we have discussed previously, the canon of Scripture we recognize as Old and New Testament today had not yet been officially formalized in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. While a generation earlier Irenaeus of Lyons had advocated exactly this canon, there was still general disagreement about what books should be included and which should not. So, Origen would claim as Scripture the “Book of Wisdom” and “Maccabees” (which Protestants especially do not accept as Scripture) and one of his students, Dionysius, who would become bishop of Alexandria, would argue vociferously that Revelations was not written by John the Apostle and therefore should not be considered scriptural. The truth is that Origen made no significant contributions to the canonization of the Bible, but instead merely reflects the ambivalence in the Church of his time about what constitutes the New Testament.
However, Origen made massive contributions in other ways, for he was pioneering and extremely influential as a biblical scholar and exegete. Although relatively little of his has survived, he wrote extensive commentaries on the entirety of Scripture as he knew it. Perhaps more important, he published a massive version of the Old Testament called the Hexapla. Early Christians, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, used as their Old Testament a Greek translation of the Hebrew called the Septuagint that had been developed by the Greek-speaking Jewish community in Alexandria in the 3rd century BC. By Origen’s time, Jewish scholars had produced newer translations, and Origen understood this both to complicate and enrich our interpreting of Scripture. The complication is the same Christians face today. English is a very different language from Hebrew and Greek, and there are often multiple ways that certain words and passages can be translated that can lead to varying understandings in English. To confound this problem, there are multiple copies of the ancient texts with slight variations among which translators must choose. Origen was the first Christian scholar to have come to terms with this problem, for not only were there three different Greek versions of the Old Testament, but there were multiple Hebrew versions that differed in substantial ways. How can we determine which is the original and therefore authentic version? Origen’s answer to take all of the versions that he could find and put them next to each other in one volume, and develop cross-reference tools for discerning which version was the most authentic 9. In the end, the Hexapla amounted to something close to 6000 pages. It is one of the truly monumental scholarly accomplishments of the ancient world.
Origen was also an important in developing the allegorical (or, as he called it, “spiritual”) method of reading and interpreting Scripture. This is not to say that he advocated only reading Scripture as allegory—quite the contrary. Instead, Origen believed that there are multiple layers to Scripture, and the task of the exegete (i.e., the person interpreting Scripture for the Church) is to unpack all of the layers of Scripture, to dig deeply until one has uncovered all the divine treasures that lie within, rather than to be satisfied only with what one finds in a simplistic and literalistic reading of Scripture.
Origen developed this approach to Scripture in part as a response to the way that Gnostics like Marcion and Valentinius (whom we have met in previous blogs on Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) read Scripture. Marcion, one of the first Christian heretics, read Scripture only in a literal and plain-meaning-of-the-text way, and this led him to claim a sharp discontinuity between the God of the Old Testament and the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Marcion argued that the Hebrew Scriptures reveal a God who is a petty, violent dictator concerned with animal sacrifices and ritual purity laws and should be rejected in favor of the God of Jesus—a God of love, grace, and spiritual freedom. Origen took seriously Marcion’s concerns. A purely literal reading of certain Old Testaments passages could, for instance, be used to imply many problematic things: that God had a body, that there were multiple deities in heaven with God, that God was capable of certain human emotions (jealousy, regret, anger, etc.) and changes of heart that made God appear not unlike the petty, capricious deities worshipped by pagans 10. The problem with Marcion and other Gnostics, argued Origen, was that they could only look at the “flesh” of Scripture and see its outer appearance, rather than look more deeply into Scripture and discern its true “spirit.” Of course God is not like the pagan deities, nor does God change God’s mind, for the God revealed in Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8, Mal. 6). Therefore, when we approach any particular passage of Scripture, we need to be willing to open ourselves to the fullness of what might lie within, and reading Scripture allegorically in one important way to allow God to unfold for us its deeper truths. This kind of reading would become an extremely popular way of reading Scripture (especially much of the Old Testament) for centuries to come, and would be the approach advocated by Augustine of Hippo, to whom we’ll turn to later. But first, we’ll look at Origen’s contributions to Christian thinking about the Book of Creation.
Origen and the Book of Creation
Origen’s thinking about creation was also extremely influential in the early Church. In opposition to pagan philosophies of the time, Origen affirmed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo—that God created the entire universe from nothing. He also affirmed the goodness of creation, and—like Justin Martyr—the important role of the Divine Logos (the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ) as the means through which God created and ordered the world.
Origen also affirmed that there were two creations—not unlike that affirmed by many today who believe that God first created the spiritual realm (including heaven and angels) and then the physical world (including the earth and humans). But Origen also saw a deeper continuity between the two creations than many who affirm two creations do. For Origen, the first was the timeless creation of free, rational, purely spiritual and immortal beings, all of whom lived in perfect contemplation of and union with God. Gradually the fire of their love for God began to cool, and they began to fall away. And it was this primordial fall of the rational beings that led to the second creation: that of the material universe. As all rational beings were created free, their fall from God did not obviate their reconciliation to God. But, despite being free, these beings were not capable of returning to God by their own efforts, and the material world was then created by God, through the divine Logos, as the gracious means through which all beings may learn of God’s grace and become restored to God. Indeed, so great is God’s mercy, Origen speculated, perhaps even Satan and the demons themselves might eventually come to salvation!
But if the material world is born of God’s mercy, so also it is created by God to express divine justice. Such justice is expressed in the place that the different beings now find themselves. Those whose love cooled the least became angels and other celestial beings (such as stars, which most ancient people believed to be living beings of some kind); while those whose love for God cooled the most fell the furthest were consigned to hell and became demonic beings, the chief of which—because he was first to fall and took many with him—was Satan himself. Those who fell further than the angels but not quite as far as the demons became human beings. God’s justice also became expressed in the fact that each of these beings experience suffering and pain commensurate to their placement by God in the hierarchy of the cosmos. This interweaving of divine mercy and justice became Origen’s answer to the so-called problem of pain: we suffer because we deserve to as beings who chose to fall from God, but our suffering is also graciously intended by God to turn our hearts back to God.
In this sense, the physical world as a kind of cosmic detention hall, the chief purpose of which was to remediate all the troubled souls of the world. All of life is to be an education in the truth of God’s reality and of our fall from God that we might be restored to full communion with God. And our instructor is Jesus Christ himself, for it is through Christ that God created the world as a means of our education and it is Christ who points to and has opened the way back to the Father through his life, death, and resurrection.
Origen then understood the material creation as pivotal to God’s plan for salvation. Although creation would ultimately pass away with the final resurrection and restoration of ‘all things’ to God (Col. 1:20), its purpose was salvific. Even corner and crevice of the universe had been designed perfectly by God with the sole purpose of revealing God’s plan for salvation and inspiring persons to repent of their sinful rebellion from God and respond to God’s gracious offer of redemption. Even the suffering we experience from having physical bodies that can experience disease, injury, and decay—all of it is designed by God to reveal our need for God and restore us to union with God. Origen would even go so far to suggest—in a way quite similar to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce—that hell has been created as a place for remediation rather than eternal damnation, and that one day God’s never-failing love would succeed in reaching all rational beings and enfolding them in saving grace. Such universalism was considered as radical then as it is now, but let us be clear: Origen was not affirming that anyone gets a free to heaven no matter what they have done. Indeed, for one thing, we all do suffer as embodied beings in this world of pain and death, and those who reject Christ will go to hell, which is a place of unfathomable suffering. What Origen was affirming was that even hell was a place sustained by God’s love and grace, and that, as St. Paul would affirm in Phil. 2:10, “at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…”
Also pivotal for Origen was his identification of the divine Logos and Wisdom of God, and the relation of these to the eternality of Creation. For Origen, the Logos—as a kind of bridge between God and Creation—fully reveals the Wisdom (or mind) of God in creation. And this is neither limited to the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ nor to some moment in time when God created the world. Ultimately, for Origen, creation in some sense flows eternally from God and therefore perpetually expresses the Logos, the Wisdom and the Mind (and not just the love, mercy and justice) of God. And, as rational beings created for the very purpose of contemplating God, we are in some sense specially equipped to discern God’s creative presence in creation, even if as fallen creatures we do so imperfectly. But this is why the incarnation of the divine Logos in Jesus Christ is so important: Christ perfectly embodies and bears witness to the Father and Creator of all, and through his life, death, and resurrection we may have our capacity to fully discern God’s presence and work in creation 11.
While Origen did not make any contribution to the canonization of the Book of Scripture, he had a tremendous impact on the development of the ways that Christians read Scripture by developing a multi-layered approach (including allegorical interpretation) that would become widely used among theologians in early Christianity and which continues to provide fruitful ways of reading Scripture today. Indeed, as I have argued in a previous blog, although I do not believe that all of Scripture should be read this way, it seems clear to me that there are many parts of Scripture (such as Genesis 1–3) that are intended to be read allegorically rather than literally, and that allowing for allegorical readings opens up opportunities for reading the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation together fruitfully 12.
And, although Origen did not explicitly identify creation as a kind of book, it is also clear that he is not far off. For Origen, as for Justin and Irenaeus, creation was brought into being by and through the divine Logos, Jesus Christ, and therefore fully expresses the goodness and love of God. But, Origen pushes this point perhaps even further than his predecessors. The sole purpose of creation is to reveal God’s plan for salvation and to draw rational creatures to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Scripture and creation have the same central purpose: to reveal to us the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, then, what they tell us about God is fully commensurate, and insofar as they might seem to be in conflict, it is because we are reading one or the other incorrectly. And it really can be one or the other. Because there is not just one way of reading Scripture, for Origen, it is entirely possible that our reading of creation (even if he would not quite put it that way) may lead us to a deeper and richer understanding of the mysteries of God revealed in Scripture that a literal or overly simplistic reading of Scripture will not allow.
Next, we look to St. Augustine of Hippo, who is—without doubt—the most important figure in the development of Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity. In Augustine we will find much in common with Origen (especially in their reading of Scripture), but also some very significant differences, especially in their view of sin and salvation.
I noted earlier that I consider Augustine of Hippo one of the most important Christian thinkers in history, behind only the Apostle Paul and possibly Origen of Alexandria. There is little question in my mind that Augustine is the most important figure in the development of Western Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism). His work would exert a profound influence on the other thinkers we will look at in this section—Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.
Augustine was born in Thagaste in North Africa (in what is now Algeria) in 354. His mother, Monica (after whom Santa Monica is named), was a devout Christian while his father, Patrick, was not, though he would be baptized shortly before his death. From an early age, Augustine showed great intellectual promise, and his family made great sacrifices to ensure for him a classical education that would, by his early 20s, help make him into one of the great public intellectuals of his era. He would go on to become a master rhetorician in Carthage, then Rome, and finally Milan where he would convert to Christianity in 386. Shortly thereafter he would return to Africa to dedicate himself to the monastic life before being pressed into service as the bishop of Hippo, a position he would hold until his death in 430. We ultimately associate him with this city because it was there that he wrote his most important theological texts.
Augustine and the Book of Scripture
Augustine was one of the most prolific writers of the ancient world, and one scholar has quipped that anyone claiming to have read all that he wrote is actually a liar 13! Quite possibly his most important book is his Confessions in which he details his life leading up to his conversion. Scholars consider this the first true autobiography, but it is far more than this. Written entirely in the form of a prayer of gratitude and worship to God, it not only recounts many of the key events in his life, but also gives us a window into his intellectual development. Important for our discussion of the two books, Augustine’s Confessions reveals his struggles to come to terms with the Book of Scripture in the years leading up to his conversion.
By Augustine’s time, the orthodox Christian Church (I use the term to distinguish it from such group as the Gnostics, Marcionites, Arians, Donatists, and other ‘heretical’ groups) had firmly landed on the biblical canon that we are familiar with today—the very list of texts advocated first by Irenaeus of Lyons almost two centuries beforehand. His greatest contributions to our understanding of Scripture, however, came in the way that he believed that we should read Scripture. For one thing, Augustine was very clear to affirm that the Word of God par excellence is in fact Jesus Christ. So, Augustine would have been careful not to speak of Scripture as the Word of God in the way that many contemporary evangelicals do—which is to identify all of Scripture as God’s words, as Muslims do when affirming that the Qur’an was dictated verbatim to Mohammed. But Augustine also affirmed that God spoke through the prophets, gospel writers, and other authors of Holy Writ. In this sense, Scripture is the “Word of God” for the Church—God speaks to us through it.
Formerly, Augustine affirmed what he called a literal reading of Scripture, but he did not mean literal in exactly the way that we do today, so this deserves some clarification 14. For Augustine, a literal interpretation meant allowing Scripture to speak for itself by attending to the intentions of the author. According to Augustine, how we hear the Word of God in Scripture is not always a simple matter. So, like Origen, Augustine believed that there were multiple layers to Scripture and different ways of interpreting it. For this reason Augustine would have found problematic the view of many contemporary Christians that we can only understand Scripture to speak literally by attending to its plain, propositional meaning. Of course, he believed, there are certainly places that clearly imply a plain, propositional reading of Scripture. Jesus is clearly intending to be heard in this way when He commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, even as—just a few verses later—He is speaking metaphorically when teaching that we should cut off limbs that cause us to sin (Matt. 5:30, 44).
In this respect, Augustine was drawing upon the Origenist approach to scriptural interpretation 15; but he also put his own twist on it. As we saw earlier, Origen relied heavily upon an allegorical reading to Scripture, seeking to unpack even the simplest and most straight-forward of passages for their deeper, hidden meanings. Augustine believed that much of Scripture had deeper, sometimes hidden meaning (insofar as its meaning might not be immediately apparent to the uneducated reader), but not always. Sometimes it just meant what it said. Other times, neither a straight-forward nor allegorical approach is appropriate, but a third approach is called for: a figurative reading. By this, Augustine especially had Old Testament passages in mind that he believed were best understood as pointing to God’s full self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In this sense he would see certain Old Testament commandments regarding animal sacrifice as properly understood in the ways that they prefigured the ultimate sacrifice Christ would make on the cross.
Scripture and Creation
Augustine had a great deal to say about those chapters in Genesis that are especially controversial within Christianity today. In fact, Augustine dedicated about as much as any other Christian writer to the first few chapters of Genesis, so there is little guesswork we have to do in ascertaining what he believed Scripture to claim about creation. First of all, Augustine clearly rejected the notion that God had created the earth in six 24-hours periods. Instead, he believed that the universe was created instantaneously, and that the six days reported in Genesis were a metaphor for the various levels of dimensions of the created realm—something akin to what ancients referred to as the ‘Great Chain of Being’. But this is not to say that Augustine believed that the world was created as it is today in that instant. Rather, he affirmed that God created the world with inchoate potential for further development, like an acorn that will grow into a great tree when planted in the ground.
Augustine therefore affirmed that Creation has evolved and continues to evolve, though not driven by random natural processes, as affirmed by classical Darwinism. Instead, such evolution is governed providentially both via the inchoate potentialities present in the world from its beginning and by God’s ongoing governance of the universe 16. We should be careful not to turn Augustine too quickly into a modern advocate of theistic evolution, but the similarities are nevertheless significant. Augustine affirmed these ideas not on the basis of an attempt to accommodate Scripture to scientific discovery, but based upon his own reading of Scripture! Indeed, I think it fair to say that the great father of Western Christianity was something of a proto-evolutionary theist, and therefore one whose work deserves far more attention by those seeking to be faithful to both Scripture and Christian tradition while making sense of the claims of contemporary science.
Of course, we need to be careful not to push such claims too far. Augustine himself resists such a move by recognizing both the contingency of human interpretations of Scripture and the dangers of unintentionally imposing our own views on Scripture. A rather long, but significant quote from Augustine makes this point all too clear:
Let us suppose that in explaining the words, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and light was made,” one man thinks that it was material light that was made, and another that it was spiritual. As to the actual existence of “spiritual light” in a spiritual creature, our faith leaves no doubt; as to the existence of material light, celestial or supercelestial, even existing before the heavens, a light which could have been followed by night, there will be nothing in such a supposition contrary to the faith until unerring truth gives the lie to it. And if that should happen, this teaching was never in Holy Scripture but was an opinion proposed by man in his ignorance.
On the other hand, if reason should prove that this opinion is unquestionably true, it will still be uncertain whether this sense was intended by the sacred writer when he used the words quoted above, or whether he meant something else no less true. And if the general drift of the passage shows that the sacred writer did not intend this teaching, the other, which he did intend, will not thereby be false; indeed, it will be true and more worth knowing. On the other hand, if the tenor of the words of Scripture does not militate against our taking this teaching as the mind of the writer, we shall still have to enquire whether he could not have meant something else besides. And if we find that he could have meant something else also, it will not be clear which of the two meanings he intended. And there is no difficulty if he is thought to have wished both interpretations if both are supported by clear indications in the context.
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion 17.
I am tempted here to let Augustine have the final word, but I think there are three final points worth highlighting here as a way of connecting this quote to the two books theory and thereby concluding our discussion of Augustine:
- The Book of Nature is clearly revelatory of God’s providential work in Christ, and even nonbelievers are capable of comprehending its complex order through the proper use of reason and experience (i.e. science properly understood).
- The Book of Scripture is clearly revelatory of God’s providential work in Christ, and therefore is true and authoritative in all matters. The problem is that we often misinterpret Scripture by imposing our own preconceptions upon it rather than allowing it to speak for itself.
- God’s two books can and should be read together in harmony when we are open to allowing them to speak for themselves on their own terms. Ultimately, they cannot contradict each other because the source of both is the same God and if they seem to be in contradiction it is because we have misread one or both of them, and we need to be willing therefore to allow ourselves to be open to thinking about either one in different ways, trusting that God will ultimately lead us to see the truth of the whole.
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