Origen’s Polemics in Princ 4.2.4: Scriptural Literalism as a Christo-Metaphysical Error

in Vigiliae Christianae
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The relation between Books 1-3 and Book 4 of Origen’s Peri Archon has largely been left unspecified or denied. This is due to the apparent incongruence between the metaphysical discussions of the former section and the hermeneutical remarks of the latter. I argue that Origen’s threefold distinction of Scripture in Princ 4.2.4 draws upon key metaphysical conclusions of the earlier sections to depict the metaphysical structure of inspired Scripture as analogous to the Incarnation, and that this insight constitutes Origen’s fundamental polemic against scriptural literalism, the common error of the two primary adversaries of the work (the “simple” of the Church and the Marcionites). Peri Archon is thus unified around the polemical purpose of defending Origen’s allegorical exegesis.

Origen’s Polemics in Princ 4.2.4: Scriptural Literalism as a Christo-Metaphysical Error

in Vigiliae Christianae




English translation: G.W. ButterworthOrigen: On First Principles (Gloucester: Peter Smith1973) unless otherwise noted. Critical edition: Herwig Görgemanns and Heinrich Karpp Origenes Vier Bücher von den Prinzipien. Texte zur Forschung 24 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1992) hereafter gk.


Pierre NautinOrigène: Sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris: Beauchesne1977) 369-70 423-5; Ronald E. Heine Origen: Scholarship in Service of the Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010) 87.


Karen Jo TorjesenHermeneutical Procedure and Theological Method in Origen’s Exegesis (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter1986) 40-3 and Elizabeth Ann Dively Lauro The Soul and Spirit of Scripture within Origen’s Exegesis (Leiden: Brill 2005) 40-7 interpret Princ 4.2.4 in primarily pedagogical and soteriological terms i.e. in terms of the final (and efficient) causes of Scripture. My reading does not contradict the observation that for Origen Scripture’s nature is determined by its role in the incarnational economy of salvation but wishes to emphasize how that nature serves ongoing polemical concerns in Peri Archon.


Steidle 238; Kübel 36; Harl“Structure” 18-19; Kannengieser “Divine Trinity” 235.


Gedaliahu Stroumsa“The Incorporeality of God: Context and Implications of Origen’s Position,” Religion 13 (1983): 346.


Gunnar af HällströmFides Simpliciorum According to Origen of Alexandria (Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica1984) 8. Literalism was such a constitutive feature of simple faith that “A simplicior who is not also a literalist would obviously not be a simplicior at all” (57).


Stroumsa 346 cf. Clement of AlexandriaStrom 5.16. I do not follow the view (Berchman From Philo to Origen 259 276 292; Stroumsa 346) that Origen has only “Stoic Christians” in mind and not the simpliciores especially because Origen himself never makes this kind of distinction; see also Monique Alexandre “Le statut des questions concernant la matière dans le Peri Archôn” in Origeniana 68-9. The label “simple” has more to do with spiritual not strictly educational assessment; cf. Henri de Lubac History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2007 [1950]) 94. On Melito see Paulsen 111-113.


TorjesenHermeneutical Procedure2-4 39.


Peter W. MartensOrigen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press2011) 138-48 and esp. idem “Why Does Origen Accuse the Jews of ‘Literalism’? A Case Study of Christian Identity and Biblical Exegesis in Antiquity” Adamantius 13 (2007): 218-30.


August ZölligDie Inspirationslehre des Origenes: Ein Beitrag zur Dogmengeschichte (Freiburg: Herdersche Verlagshandlung1902) 100-114; Eugène de Faye Origen and His Work (trans. Fred Roghtwell; London: Allen & Unwin 1926) 38-42; Henri de Lubac History and Spirit 159-71; idem Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture: Volume 1. Trans. Mark Sebanc (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1998 [1959]) 142-50; R.M. Grant The Letter and the Spirit (New York: The Macmillan Company 1957) 94-5; R.P.C. Hanson Allegory and Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen’s Interpretation of Scripture (Richmond: John Knox Press 1959) 235-58 esp. 243-6; M.F. Wiles “Origen as a Biblical Scholar” in The Cambridge History of the Bible. Eds. P.R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1970) 465-70; Daniélou Origen 161; idem The Gospel in Hellenistic Culture. Trans. John Austin Baker (Philadelphia: Westminster 1973) 283-8; Henri Crouzel Origen (Trans. A.S. Worrall. Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1989 [1985]) 75-9.


D.G. Bostock“Origen’s Philosophy of Creation,” in Origeniana Quintα254-5 drawing on Origen’s Commentary on Genesis (in a section written before Princ) notes that for Origen souls are like the cosmic “firmament” of Genesis 1 which lies between the timeless (and incorporeal?) creation above and the temporal corporeal creation below. Cf. also Berchman “Origen on The Categories: A Study in Later Platonic First Principles” 231-52 who describes Origen’s metaphysics in terms of Aristotelian categories which while adding nuance (e.g. quality quantity relation motion) does not considerably differ from my emphasis on time and space. “Space” for instance includes the categories of “place” and “magnitude.” Berchman does however further describe the gradation within the divine incorporeal nature between the Father (=substance) Son (=substance quality quantity relation) and the Holy Spirit (=same as Son). But none of these include time or space (“place” and “magnitude”) which further validates focus on these properties.


Annewies van den Hoek“The Concept of σῶμα τῶν γραφῶν in Alexandrian Theology,” Studia Patristica 19. Ed. E.A. Livingstone (Leuven 1989) 251 notes that ancient Greek authors used σώμα to designate “body in a general sense: that is any corporeal substance element or even a mathematical figure” citing Plato Tim 31b 32c; Philo Migr 12 Conf 190 Dec 82.


Van den Hoek“The Concept of σῶμα τῶν γραφῶν” 250-4. Van den Hoek overlooks this result of her study: “This interpretive structure [i.e. body and soul of Scripture correspond to literal and hidden meanings] is passed on by Origen to later periods and goes on to play an important role in hermeneutics” (254). Yet Origen does not simply pass it on but adds the “Spirit.”


CrouzelOrigen74; e.g. Princ 4.1.6 gk 688/gcs 302 5: ἐνθουσιασμου; Princ 4.2.1 gk 694/gcs 305 10: θεοπνεύστους. Cf. also de Lubac History and Spirit 338 n.8 and 344. Origen is particularly lucid in HomLev 4.1: “What is ‘the Lord’? Let the Apostle respond to you and learn from him that ‘the Lord is Spirit.’ If therefore both the Lord and God are ‘Spirit’ we ought to hear spiritually those things which the Spirit says. Still further I say we are to believe the things the Lord says not only to be spiritual things but even the Spirit. I will prove these things not with my own understanding but from the Gospels. Hear our Lord and Savior when he speaks to his disciples ‘the words which I spoke to you are spirit and life’” (Heine 70 my emphasis).


On this parallel cf. de LubacHistory and Spirit385-405; Gögler Zur Theologie 299-307 esp. 301: “The character of the biblical Word and the flesh of Christ are parallels in the one great incarnational economy of revelation”; Michael W. Holmes “Origen and the Inerrancy of Scripture” jets 24.3 (1981): 224. Typical texts include: Fr in Mt Fr 11; Comm ser 1-145 in Mt 27; Comm in Mt 10-17 10.6; Phil 15 16. De Lubac (History and Spirit 389 [340 in original]) seems to conceive of this parallel in terms of a mere comparison: “In the letter of Scripture the logos is not at all incarnated in the fashion properly speaking as it is in the humanity of Jesus” (my translation) and indeed notes (389 n.18) other Origenian comparisons e.g. the letter as “milk” and the spirit as “solid food” (cf. Hom 1-16 in Lev 4.8). Harl Origène et la fonction révélatrice du Verbe incarné 142 n.13 appears to accept this view. Though de Lubac still speaks of Scripture as a kind of “incorporation of the Logos” (386) the thesis proposed in this essay goes beyond such a conception by suggesting an essential metaphysical relation (rather than a primarily metaphorical one) between the Incarnation and Scripture in Origen’s thought.


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