“One must therefore portray the meaning of the sacred writings in a threefold way upon one’s soul, so that the simple man may be edified by what we call the flesh of the scripture, this name being given to the obvious interpretation; while the man who has made progress may be edified by its soul, as it were; and the man who is perfect and like those mentioned by the apostle: ‘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’ - this man may be edified by the spiritual law which has ‘a shadow of the good things to come’. For just as man consists of body, soul and spirit, so in the same way does the scripture, which has been prepared by God to be given for man’s salvation” (4.2.4.).
Origen then goes on to define these three aspects of interpretation. In essence the Flesh interpretation is the basic, minimal, surface meaning of a passage suitable for the simple ‘child souls’ (4.2.4). The Soul interpretation is for those who are more learned, and is the moral sense of a passage. The Spirit interpretation is for those who are mature in the faith, and is the mystical sense (4.2.7). Origen also asserts that all the Scriptures have a Spiritual meaning, but not all have a fleshly meaning, “For our contention with regard to the whole of divine scripture is, that it all has a spiritual meaning, but not all a bodily meaning; for the bodily meaning is often proved to be an impossibility” (4.3.5).
When following the logic of Origen as he attempts to expound the Spiritual interpretation, it becomes obvious that by the Spiritual meaning he is referring to an allegorical reading of the Scriptures. To take one example, notice how Origen uses his allegorical approach in interpreting the water pots in John 2.1-11, to defend his tripartite method of reading Scripture:
“And possibly this is the reason why the waterpots which, as we read in the gospel according to John, are said to be set there ‘for the purifying of the Jews’, contain two or three firkins apiece. The language alludes to those who are said by the apostle to be Jews ‘inwardly’, and it means that these are purified through the word of the scriptures, which contain in some cases ‘two firkins’, that is, so to speak, the soul meaning and the spiritual meaning, and in other cases three, since some passages possess, in addition to those before-mentioned, a bodily sense as well, which is capable of edifying the hearers. And six waterpots may reasonably allude to those who are being purified in the world, which was made in six days, a perfect number” 4.2.5).
In the years after Origin, some of the later fathers, like Augustine and John Cassian, broaden the number of interpretive levels to four: (1) Literal, (2) Allegorical, (3) Moral, and (4) Anagogical.
Were there any benefits to this ingenious way of approaching Scripture? Were there any drawbacks? Sidney Greidanus critiques many of the early fathers’ approaches to Scripture in his helpful book Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. He evaluates the Allegorical school, in which he includes Origen. Greidanus notes (84-90) that the allegorical approach was valuable in that (1) it seriously attempted to preach Christ from the Old Testament. (2) This approach was contained within the boundaries of the framework of Scripture and the Rule of Faith, and thus freed the preacher to use the Scriptures. (3) By using the allegorical method, the fathers were able to successfully defend the Christian and Christocentric nature of the Old Testament against the Marcionites, Gnostics and others. The downside to using the allegorical method cart blanche, (1) was that it violated the genre of other passages, thus reading alien ideas into a text. (2) It would violate the historical nature of the narrative not allowing the value of redemptive history to stand on it’s own. (3) It turned the Scriptures into a book of riddles.
Since the Reformation, Protestants have tended to give a thumbs down to these multiple-level approaches to interpreting Holy Writ - at least theoretically. Yet they still prevail in various camps. It is not uncommon to hear big name independent Preachers who pack 16,000 members into their church, creating unusual meanings from Scripture, turning them into moral stories or new ways to harness the powers of heaven and direct them toward prosperity.
Yet it does seem that there is some legitimacy in seeing layers of understanding when reading and interpreting Holy Scripture. Our Lord Jesus Himself showed His disciples that Moses, the Psalms and the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures spoke of Him (Luke 24.25-27, 44-49). And a perusal of the Gospel accounts will show how Old Testament passages that do not seem to have any obvious connection with Jesus end up being an interpretive foretelling of some aspect of Jesus, His person and His work.
In Protestant, Reformed and Presbyterian circles this multiple-layer interpretation of Scripture can be perceived in the Historical-Redemptive approach. The Historical-Redemptive plan links the Old Testament and the New Testament redemptive events together in Christ (Greidanus 203-4). For this to be accomplished properly, Greidanus points out several levels of interpretation that the preacher/interpreter must work through (227-77). The interpreter ascertains the historical meaning of the passage, which is done by examining its literary, historical and Theocentric understandings. Once the original meaning is fleshed out, then the move must be made to fathom its place in the canonical structure (‘What does this text mean in light of the whole of Scripture?’). After the canonical interpretation is established, it is appropriate to discover how the text fits into the Historical-Redemptive Story - from creation to new creation. Finally, there is the Christocentric reading, which is where we see the story or the text in the light of Jesus Christ. One can see a close parallel (though not by any means equal) to the ancient Christian fathers.
The point? Origin and many of the early pastors/theologians, were on to something. The abuses and over-exaggerations in their interpretive enthusiasm must not cloud out our appreciation of their attempt to read Scripture properly & robustly Christocentrically. Though it is not necessary nor essential that go along with all of their conclusions and, at times, convoluted allegorical and anagogical processes. Nevertheless we ought to take the same approach as Calvin and other early Reformers with regard to a respectful reading of the fathers and their interpretation of Holy Scripture. We should read the fathers and their interpretations of Scripture as part of a friendly, charitable dialogue. Bumping our reading of Scripture up to theirs, wrangling with them at times, agreeing with them where they are right, and pointing out where they made mistakes and why. This is one way that we prove we are not renegades, self-appointed pontiffs, Gnostic-Know-Mores, but are reading Scripture in communion with Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Mike the Meagre