Thursday, June 23, 2016

Origen on three ways of interpreting scripture

I figured it would be important for me to get some reading done during this vacation of mine in Romania, so I stopped by the Humanitas book store in the center of Cluj and bought the Philokalia of Origen, of course in a Romanian translation. I've been reading through the first chapter and came across the following interesting lines of Origen, which are translated in English as follows (from here):
11. The right way, then, to read the Scriptures and extract their meaning, so far as we have been able to discover from examining the oracles themselves, appears to be as follows:----Solomon in the Proverbs gives a rule respecting the Divine doctrines of Scripture to this effect: "Do thou thrice record them with counsel and knowledge that thou mayest answer with words of truth to those who try thee with hard questions." A man ought then in three ways to record in his own soul the purposes of the Holy Scriptures; that the simple may be edified by, as it were, the flesh of Scripture (for thus we designate the primary sense), the more advanced by its soul, and the perfect by the spiritual law, which has a shadow of the good things to come. For the perfect man resembles those of whom the Apostle speaks: "Howbeit we speak wisdom among the perfect; yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, which are coming to nought: but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory, from the spiritual law which hath a shadow of the good things to come. As man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so too does Scripture which has been granted by God for the salvation of men. And thus we explain that passage in The Shepherd,----a book which some treat with contempt, ----in which Hermas is commanded to write two books, and then read to the elders of the Church what he has learned from the Spirit. "Thou shalt write two books, and give one to Clement and one to Grapte. And Grapte shall admonish the widows and orphans, Clement shall send to the cities abroad, and thou shalt read to the elders of the Church." Grapte, who admonishes the widows and orphans, is the bare letter of Scripture; it admonishes those readers whose souls are in the stage of childhood, and who cannot yet call God their Father, and are therefore styled "orphans"; it moreover admonishes souls, no longer consorting with the unlawful bridegroom, but remaining in a widowed state because not yet worthy of the true Bridegroom. Clement, the reader who has got beyond the letter, is said to send what is said to the cities abroad, that is to say, the souls which have escaped from the bodily desires and lower aims. And next the writing is forsaken, and the disciple himself of the Spirit is bidden "read" to the wise and hoary-headed elders of the whole Church of God with the living voice (Philokalia of Origen, I, 11).
It is fascinating to me that Origen distinguishes between three levels of readers of the scriptures. The first level concerns me here: it is represented by Grapte's admonitions to the widows and orphans, and contains those who are yet spiritually immature in various ways. Their relationship with God is not yet at the conscious level of Father-child, because they "cannot yet call God their Father." This may be because of spiritual immaturity and a certain distance between them and the God in whom they believe, even if imperfectly and incompletely. These persons likewise are not yet worthy of the true Bridegroom, namely Christ, and thus are considered widows as well. Such persons are limited only to a literal reading of the scriptures; they cannot go beyond the bare letter of what is on the page.

I notice myself a category between persons who are only capable of thinking about the scriptures and about God according to the strict words of the scriptural pages. They only accept precisely that language which the scriptures about some subject or another, and cannot admit any other meaning to some crucial theological term than what is explicitly said. On the other hand, there are some who are capable of a deeper understanding of the greater theological truths in the scripture which are not explicitly affirmed in the letter of the text. These persons can see beyond the letter to a more profound and systematic understanding. Conversations between such persons are often difficult.

Consider the following example, which I draw from my personal experience. In the Romanian Pentecostal tradition in which I grew up, there is a certain dedicated and extreme iconoclasm which vehemently condemns the veneration of icons (the practice of the Romanian Orthodox) as idol worship. "No graven images!" is the battle cry of these iconoclasts. For them, the biblical text is absolutely clear and impossible to get around:
Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure (Deut 4:15-16).
On the other hand, the Orthodox argument in defense of the veneration of icons is that Moses here provides an explicit reason for which they were not to create idols for themselves: they saw no form when the Lord spoke to them. Because they did not see what God looks like, consequently they were not to create some image of him from their own imagination, drawing from the things they saw on earth around them -- whether animals or humans or whatever. They were not to create images, in other words, because they lacked knowledge of what God is really like, and thus any representation was bound to be a misrepresentation. Consider by analogy that Christ, in the gospel of Mark, regularly tells people not to tell others that he is the Christ, though he really is, and this for the reason that prior to his crucifixion and resurrection, they would not have properly understood what it meant for him to be Christ. But clearly after these events, they are now enjoined to tell all people that he is the Christ.

But things change -- so the Orthodox argument goes -- after the Incarnation. At this point, the previously invisible God assumes an image which is now visible for all to see in Jesus Christ (Col 1:15). Now the representation of God is possible because God has made himself capable of representation through the assumption of human nature. Through the human nature of Christ, which is clearly capable of being depicted in an icon, God himself has become visible and made himself seen to people, since after all the person of Christ is the same person as the Logos of God. In such a case, there is no longer an obvious reason why such a depiction of God through the depiction of Christ should not be permitted, especially if it can serve an important religious service: namely, that of giving people a concrete image and representation of what God is like, and of the person whom they are worshiping, and of exciting religious sentiments.

The iconoclastic argument -- at least as I encounter it in the Romanian Pentecostal community -- is a fairly literalistic one which refuses to go beyond the letter of the scripture. The Orthodox argument, however, presupposes a general sense of the greater theological story of Christianity and the significance of certain key doctrines such as the Incarnation, the incomprehensibility and invisibility of God, etc. According to Origen's taxonomy, the iconoclastic argument might be considered an immature one, an argument which comes from a position of relative spiritual immaturity, whereas the Orthodox argument perhaps reveals a greater awareness of the mysteries of the Scriptures.

This is not to say, of course, that Romanian Pentecostals per se are spiritually immature and Orthodox per se are spiritually advanced. In many cases, in my experience anyway, quite the opposite is true: I know not a few but really very many Romanian Pentecostals who are far beyond me in terms of spiritual maturity and in closeness of fellowship with God, and on the other hands, vast swaths of Romanian Orthodox don't rise above the level of nominal Christians. But in this particular respect, specifically regarding icons, it seems to me the iconoclastic argument is an immature one whereas the iconodulist argument is a more mature and profound view of things.

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