Origen and Augustine as Interpretive Guides

Jackson Lashier

For those interested in using the early Christians as guides for their interpretive practices, a good place to start is with the methodological reflections of Origen (c. 185–253) and Augustine (354–430). While they do not speak for all, these writers offer a helpful introduction to the exegetical assumptions and methods of early Christians.

In the fourth book of his On First Principles, Origen notes that proper interpretation requires, first, an assumption of Scripture’s divine inspiration, which means both that God is the primary author and that the individual books are not separate compositions as such but different parts of one story. (This latter point finds expression in his conviction that the meaning of the OT is located in Christ.) This belief, however, does not trivialize the human author. Rather, Origen sees Scripture as possessing different levels of meaning, namely, a literal meaning corresponding to the human author, and moral and spiritual meanings corresponding to the divine author. At times these levels of meaning align. At other times, they are at odds as, for example, when a prophet refers to events in his own time, but the Spirit refers to Christ. And while every text possesses a spiritual meaning, not every text has a literal meaning as, for example, the creation narrative of Gen 1 where the sun is created after light. This logical impossibility points the reader to the spiritual meaning, which centers on the nature of God as creator. In this case, as in all of Scripture, the reader is to show preference to the spiritual meaning because it is the highest meaning, discernible to the baptized alone.

The Christian discerns the spiritual meaning largely through allegory. For example, while the author of Lamentations refers to the destruction of the temple, the Spirit intends the temple as an allegory for the human soul who has turned away from God. Thus, allegory does not usurp the literal meaning, but exists alongside it and points the reader to the deeper, spiritual meaning. While there is a danger in an abuse of allegory, there is an equal danger that limiting Scripture to the literal meaning will render it useless to audiences for which the particular Scripture was not written. Thus, unlike the average modern Christian who has likely never read Lamentations, Origen’s reading makes Lamentations come alive in any age.

Augustine attends to the proper methods of reading Scripture primarily in On Christian Doctrine. Like Origen, he believes Scripture is inspired by God, which gives it multiple meanings, the most important of which is the spiritual. However, Augustine is more explicit than Origen on practical rules that will enable Christians to “[open] up the hidden secrets of divine literature” (Prologue 1). Space precludes a full treatment of these rules, but one example should suffice.

Augustine emphasizes the importance of context for understanding the meaning of a given passages of Scripture. Nevertheless, the context he privileges is not the literary context, but “the rule of faith, which you have received from the plainer passages of Scripture and from the authority of the Church” (3.2.2). Put differently, the meaning of individual passages of Scripture must conform to the general sense of the entirety of Scripture, which is best expressed in the teaching of the church. This rule does not mean that Augustine rejects the literary context; indeed, he states that if several meanings of a particular passage of Scripture cohere with the general sense of Scripture as taught by the church, then the next step is to consult the literary context. But, like Origen’s spiritual sense, Augustine’s rule identifies the entire story of Scripture as the primary interpretive context.

To give a modern example of the helpful import of this rule, I note the recent, widely read debate on Twitter over interpretations of Jesus’s interaction with the Syrophoenician women (Mark 7:26–30). The debate turned on whether Jesus held bigoted views of non-Jews as implied by his initial rejection of the woman as a dog unfit to eat “the children’s food.” This story is admittedly difficult to interpret and the literary context offers little help. But if we apply Augustine’s rule, we must read this story in the context of the general sense of Scripture. Here, we see a clear emphasis on Jesus’s perfection as taught by plain passages such as Heb 4:15 and as confirmed by the teaching of the church. According to this rule, then, we must interpret the unclear passage of Mark 7 in a manner that conforms to Jesus’s perfection as taught by the primary interpretive context of the rule of faith.

As noted, these methodological reflections are only a starting point, and they are no substitute for immersion in the variety of early scriptural commentaries on offer. Nor do the exegetical methods of the early Christians offer a solution to every modern interpretive issue. But when applied to the text, these methods offer the willing pilgrim a path toward a recovery of the whole of Scripture as applicable to our twenty-first century context.

Posted Jan 28, 2019

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