Origen: The Father of Allegorical Interpretation
By Dr. James I. Fazio, Dean of Bible and Theology
The title of this Summer’s Community Course is How to Study God’s Word. There will be two classes: Biblical Interpretation and Inductive Bible Study. In light of that, I’d like to introduce you to an important figure in the area of biblical Interpretation. That figure’s name is Origen. Origen is regarded as the chief popularizer of allegorical interpretation. While the allegorical interpretation of Scripture is fraught with problems, every Bible student has to have some familiarity with it. Consider this an introduction on the topic for your reading pleasure.
Origen (A.D. 185 – c. 254) was one of the most influential figures in the early centuries of the Christian church. He is generally regarded as one of the chief theologians and scholars of the early church, however he is notably distinguished for his unorthodoxy, which has landed him somewhere outside the pale of mainstream Christianity. Centuries after his death, Origen was denounced by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria (A.D. 400), and he was labelled “the hydra of all heresies.” Origen was later denounced as a heretic by Emperor Justinian I (A.D. 543) at which point many of his writings were destroyed. Nevertheless, historian Donald McKim has remarked concerning this controversial figure: “in the history of biblical interpretation, Origen deserves to be recognized as the father of biblical criticism.” The other area in which Origen greatly impacted Christian thought, was in his distinctively allegorical method of interpretation, which later influenced St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430).
Origen was a Hellenistic scholar who was thought to have been born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria around 185. In his early life He was educated primarily by his father, Leonides, who was martyred in 202 under the persecution of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211). It was Origen’s earnest desire to follow his father’s example of martyrdom to the point that “his mother had to prevent him forcibly from going out to seek martyrdom in the persecution in which his father was killed.” In the year following his father’s death, Origen opened a school of rhetoric, during which period he was described as having “lived the life of a devoted ascetic, sleeping little and eating meager meals…perhaps his consummate (and possibly apocryphal) act was his self-castration, in response to Matthew 19:12” Around 213, Origen became acquainted with Ambrose of Alexandria who committed to sponsoring Origen through publishing and promotion of his writings. In the following decades, Origen wrote extensively, “but because his teaching was later condemned, little survives in the original.” However, McKim has noted that “nevertheless, modern scholarship has been able to reconstruct some of those writings, many of which focused on biblical interpretation.” Origen was chiefly concerned with Scripture. “He devoted much of his life to establishing the definitive text of the Old Testament and to commentating or preaching on Scripture; his other works too are drenched in Scriptural quotes and imagery.” The crowning academic work for which he is chiefly noted is a comparative study of various translations of the Old Testament into six columns called the Hexapla. “Also produced was an abbreviated version known as the Tetrapla, in which Origen placed only the translations in Greek parallels.”
Besides being recognized as “the father of textual criticism,” Origen is also remembered for his influence in popularizing the allegorical method of biblical interpretation. This interpretive method became more noticeable in his later years, and perhaps was an outgrowth of his failed attempt at living an aesthetic life. It has been suggested that “his later insistence that not all of the Bible is to be taken literally had some of its roots in his failed attempt to follow Jesus’ hard commands.” Whereas his early days were characterized by his attempt to “follow the strict ethic of the Sermon on the Mount…Origen later wrote that the Sermon on the Mount represents an impossible ideal, one that no human being can hope to follow.” Some have speculated that this may have been the result of “cutting himself” too deeply, in the manner which Paul spoke concerning the Judaizers in Galatians 5:12.
Origen’s Allegorical Interpretation
Origen has come to be popularly regarded as the father of allegorical interpretation; however, that is not properly the case. One author has noted “The school of Alexandria (in Egypt) embraced an allegorical approach…although this method was used by Clement of Alexandria, headmaster of the school (190-203), it was developed and popularized by Clement’s successor, Origen.” Another has observed, “Origen did not invent his interpretive techniques but borrowed them from a complex hermeneutical environment that was already present in his day…allegorical interpretation was first developed in the Hellenism of ancient Greece. It attempted to bring ancient mythology and poetry into line with prevailing philosophical and moral opinions.” Origen’s contribution to the Church’s view of biblical interpretation was not one of origination but of popularization. Concerning his influence, it has been said, “Origen, more than anyone else, became famous for making allegory the dominant approach to biblical interpretation down through the Middle Ages. It prevailed as the foremost method of exegesis in both theological and monastic literature, even though Origen’s theology was often opposed.”
How then, should such a one be regarded by the church, today? It is the position of this writer that Origen’s contribution is both a bane and a boon to the Christian church. His high regard for the Bible is commendable and his commitment to textual criticism is exemplary. Unfortunately, the church of the Middle Ages chose to emulate his faulty interpretive method, rather than his appreciation for God’s Word. However, it would not be right to hold him responsible for the folly of others who succeeded him. Origen lived in a time when the church was seeking to establish herself within a Greco-Roman world. His misapprehension of normal-grammatical hermeneutical principles and the dispensational truth which it yields could not rightly be held against his account. However, the same cannot be said for those today who choose to follow in his steps, today.
Allision, Gregg R. Historical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
Bowden, John. Who’s Who in Theology: From the First Century to the Present. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.
Hill, Jonathan. The History of Christian Thought. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
McGregor, Geddes. Reincarnation as a Christian Hope. New York, NY: Springer Publishing, 1982.
McKim, Donald. Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
New World Encyclopedia. Origen. 2009. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Origen (accessed January 4, 2012).
 Geddes McGregor, Reincarnation as a Christian Hope (New York, NY: Springer Publishing, 1982), 57.
 Donald McKim, Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 53.
 John Bowden, Who’s Who in Theology: From the First Century to the Present (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 94.
 Bowden, 94.
 McKim, 54.
 Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 49.
 McKim, 53.
 Hill, 53.
 Gregg R. Allision, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 163.
 McKim, 58.
 Ibid., 60.