This week, I’m at the national convention of The Fellowship and in between reports and business sessions, Dr. John Neufeld has been speaking about the Reformation. In Tuesday morning’s talk, he touched on the influence of a man named Origen on Bible reading and interpretation in the Christian church. That talk sparked my interest to learn more. Origen had a rare determination in his faith and he had an incredible intellect. Despite that, he made some terrible blunders that are repeated by many in our day. Let me share three things we can learn from his mistakes.
1. Don’t add to the Bible’s teaching.
It’s hard to overestimate Origen’s devotion. Born in 185 AD, his father was beheaded in the persecution that broke out against Christians when Origen was seventeen years old. Origen wanted to follow his father in martyrdom and was only prevented from doing so by a protective mother who hid his clothes to keep him from leaving the house. Still, he did everything in his power to show his dedication to God. One historian recounts, he “gave up his job, slept on the floor, ate no meat, drank no wine, fasted twice a week, owned no shoes, and reportedly castrated himself for the faith.” Proverbs 19:2 warns, “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” It’s saying that you can have good desires but if those desires aren’t grounded in Scripture, and particularly if you’re in a rush and don’t think too deeply, you can get way off course. Similarly, Romans 10:2 speaks of those who “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” Origen had more zeal for God than many of us will ever have, but his zeal wasn’t guided by the Bible and so he often devoted his energies to areas that neither glorified God nor helped others. And many followed in his footsteps. He reminds me of the need to take my good desires to the Bible and to wise counsellors who can teach me where to channel my devotion.
2. Don’t discount the Bible’s plain meaning.
Origen had a great mind and was a dedicated student. At age 18, he opened a grammar school to support his family and while he taught others he also wrote profusely. He left about 6,000 written works, including commentaries covering the whole Bible. But in the same way that he went beyond the commands of the Bible to show his devotion to God, he also went beyond the plain meaning of the Bible and came up with many fantastic interpretations. He believed that the Bible could be read at three levels: literal, moral and spiritual. The literal meaning was a little crass for him. The plain meaning of the Bible often failed to capture his imagination. The moral meaning was the ethical imperative of a passage and was more attractive to his self-denying mindset. But the highest level of Bible interpretation for Origen was spiritual or allegorical. So when he read the parable of the good Samaritan, he decided that the man on the path was Adam, the priest represented the law, the Levite pictured the prophets, and the Samaritan was Christ. The inn is the church and the innkeeper the Pope. His teaching sounded so deep to the people of his day that it was very influential. In retrospect, Bible scholars have found his interpretations absurd. Even still, his mistakes are repeated in every generation as charismatic preachers suggest fanciful interpretations that resonate with what people want to hear but ignore the plain meaning of the text. We discount the Bible’s plain meaning to our peril.
3. Don’t discount the ability of ordinary Christians to interpret the Bible.
The final mistake Origen made was related to the second. Because of his preference for the ‘spiritual meaning’ over the literal meaning of the Bible, he believed that the real meaning of the Scriptures could be discerned only by specially trained teachers. After all, how was the ordinary believer to discern that the parable of the good Samaritan was actually teaching about Adam, Jesus and the Pope! Because of Origen’s influence, a divide formed between trained teachers who read and interpreted the Bible, and everyone else who passively listened to what they were told. Neufeld, in reflecting on this tendency today shared about a woman who came to his church. He noticed that she never brought a Bible and so he approached her one day and asked her about it. He encouraged her to bring one and if she didn’t have one he offered to give her one. She said, “I find the Bible a distraction when I’m listening to you. I want to hear what you say and I find the Bible gets in the way of that.” He responded by warning how dangerous it was to blindly trust in his words rather than herself listening to God’s Words. You can and should read the Bible for yourself!
May God give us help in not adding to the Bible or ignoring its plain meaning, but rather reading it daily as our light and hope.
In awe of Him,