Tuesday, April 2, 2013

7X Origen and the hermeneutic of allegory

In this series, I am looking at Brevard Childs' The Struggle to understand ISAIAH as Christian Scripture. 
Origen focuses our lenses on the mystery that is X. (If you are not sure what X is or have forgotten, read the first post in the series.) No matter how many years (between us and the X event) seem to make 'seeing' an impossible task, we can return to Origen, this first master of Biblical Studies - sometimes embraced, and sometimes vilified as an heretic, to refresh the tension we must know in relating the concrete of reality - ours or theirs - to the real spirit - now or then or in the age to come.

There is much yet to come in the Childs book that is the subject of this series of posts, but in some ways Origen gives us a pivotal point. Neale in his four volume commentary on the Psalms has a dissertation on the mystical interpretation following his collection of the opinions of the fathers on Psalm 30. You can read it online here. Of course, Neale is sensitive to the accusation that with 'mystical' interpretation or as Childs would note, using allegory as Origen demonstrates, one can 'make anything out of anything', or that Neale's present work is 'nothing but an aggregation of the wildest conceits and the most worthless fancies'.  Nonetheless, it is clear a century and a half later, that Neale collected with sensitive accuracy a host of ancient responses to the Psalms which we otherwise would not be able to see so clearly. As Iyov noted, this is a marvelous collection on the Psalms and too little known.

So I have come across this 'problem of how to read and how to interpret' repeatedly. It seems that Origen is the one we look to for both exegesis and hermeneutics. He takes the plain meaning seriously and in great detail and derives the mystical meaning with organic reference to the plain meaning. As Childs concludes: "Scripture provides a keyboard for each new hearer to play and receive new variations of the one story of God in Christ now rendered in liturgy, music, and art."  Surely John Donne's poem (I shall be made thy Musique) quoted in the recent post on trinity, and the play on words of the senseless (Hebrew נבל) and the lute (Hebrew נבל) plays this same tune.

Allegory - Bob - can you do it? Of course.  How does the particular become an encounter with the Logos?  It is something I have just come through in the last two months. I touched on the allegory here.
Y'all know that when God saw the light, he said it was good. So now I have this fiery proton laser stream in me for 5 minutes a day destroying the wickedness of my cancer - and healing the whole body as part of the everlasting covenant. 
Primal light - destroying and healing - some deal eh? And I am daily in a Star Trek movie with wonder-working seraphic nursing staff considering every tender move and aiming the gun of God's life-giving light-fire at me. 
Oh my breathing adjectives - tov tov tov.
I note this to show that from the beginning of this process, I was with God. The words that came to me the first time I reclined on the machine were something like 'his covenant for ever' with the implied - do not be afraid. Three invisible tattoos marked where the laser had to be aligned so the cancer could be accurately targeted for each dose. The process is now over, and hopefully the cancer destroyed, and the recovery is in process.

In the same way (Behold, I am Allegory), with invisible penciled tattoos, I marked the pages of Childs' chapter on Origen to bring you his laser sharp comments on this great scholar.

  • his influence remained enormous and his words were widely used even by his opponents.
  • Eusebius, Jerome and Cyril wrote commentaries on the book of Isaiah and specifically cite from Origen's lost commentary.
  • Luther argued that this simple, natural sense of the biblical text contained its divine meaning, ... Of course, in actual practice, various forms of figurative interpretation contined to be practiced by the Reformers (e.g. homiletical, liturgical, and typological).
A distinction between allegory and typology was attempted in the last century (Daniélou 1950s) but was rejected by Louth (1983). Childs concludes that "allegory is not a contrived technique by which to bend the literal sense of the text into a form suitable to a secular sensibility outside of faith".

Origen is not rigid in his application of allegory. "Usually his emphasis lies in pursuing the twofold meaning of scripture, namely, its literal and spiritual meanings" (this is so similar to Neale). "In addition, other schemata are used and the distinction between the anagogic, tropologic, and mystic senses is often fluid."  Just look at that - what will scripture mean to you with such a license! Childs ends though with a paradox: "the literal or bodily sense is not defined the same by Origen and his modern critics. Origen means by it the raw material of the text before any interpretation is made.  The result is that the literal sense for moderns is often the spiritual sense for Origen."  So there is 
  • an organic harmony between the literal and the spiritual in Origen's exegesis.... 
  • the spiritual sense would have been considered disembodied without its abiding relationship to the literal sense. ... 
  • Obviously, what Origen understands by 'historical' is not the same as its modern sense, since for him, history is the concrete encounter with the Logos.  
What do I think of allegory and do I use it? There is clearly an overarching allegory of the chosen nation, and the elect individual in the Psalms. It is evident even without any justification from the NT that these things were written for our learning. Just read the beginning of Psalm 78 
I will open my mouth in a parable
I will ferment riddles from of old.