Origen, the Holy Spirit, and Biblical Interpretation for All

I’ve heard Origen critiqued for spiritual interpretation of Scripture on the basis that it creates a class division within the Christian community. The “perfect” and “spiritual” know how to understand the spiritual sense, whereas the ignorant must rely on the less fulfilling literal sense. Ironically, even if this is true (though, today one could find such divisions surrounding the interpretation of just the literal sense), Origen’s hermeneutic actually broadens the scope of those who are able to interpret Scripture. This comes from two propositions

  1. The Holy Spirit is necessary for biblical interpretation
  2. After Christ, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all of God’s people

Thus, while there may be those who are stuck at the literal sense, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for them to reach higher levels of interpretation. Here is what Origen says:

Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, then, along with many other results, this most splendid fact is reveals, that whereas the truths written in the prophets and the law of Moses were formerly understood by very few, namely by the prophets alone, and scarcely anywhere was there on out of the whole people who could get beyond the literal meaning and perceive something greater, that is, could detect a spiritual sense in the law and prophets, now there are innumerable multitudes of believers who, although unable to explain logically and clearly the process of their spiritual perception, have yet almost to a man the firm conviction that circumcision ought not to be understood literally, nor the Sabbath rest, nor the pouring out of an animal’s blood, nor the fact that oracles were given by God to Moses on these points; and there is no doubt that this discernment is suggested to them all by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Origen, On First Principles, tr. G. W. Butterworth (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1973), 117.

Whatever one thinks of Origen’s hermeneutic, one cannot say that his spiritual sense was only for the educated. Such interpretation is given to all by the Holy Spirit. It would be interesting to compare this with Augustine in his book, On Christian Teaching where he critiques a similar view of those who refuse to be educated in the methods of exegesis because “the Holy Spirit will reveal the true interpretation to them.” I don’t think these two views are contrary; Origen would be more than willing to train people in the methods of exegesis (as he outlines in book IV of On First Principles), though he would be cautious of educating those who are spiritually immature (I can’t remember where, but in book I, Origen makes some comments along these lines in regards to Christian doctrine in general). Nonetheless, the possiblity remains open for all people to interpret the Bible spiritually.

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2 thoughts on “Origen, the Holy Spirit, and Biblical Interpretation for All

  1. That’s a tricky question because after Christ (and after Paul’s statements in Romans 9-11), one must ask, “Who is Israel”? I suppose you are referring to ethnic Israel because Origen says that only the prophets and a select few would be able to interpret Scripture spiritually because at that time the Spirit hadn’t been poured out on all of God’s people (my purposefully ambiguous term). So, all of spiritual Israel, yes; but not possible for all of ethnic Israel.

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