Origen Against the Literal Interpretation of the Heterodox

In chapter 9 of Peter Martens, Origen and Scripture, he discusses Origen’s exegesis against the heterodox. Origen commonly wrote against three individuals: Valentinus, Basilides, and Marcion. He often grouped these by categorizing them as “heretics” or “heterodox” (108–109). He charges them by saying, “Scripture is not discerned according to its spiritual sense, but is understood according to the mere letter (107).” It would be easy to assume that Origen thinks his opponents should read allegorically. But this is not the distinction that Origen is arguing for. Martens argues that Origen’s two main issues with this group was their uncritical use of secular teaching and not staying within the Church’s rule of faith (108). When his opponents interpret outside these two boundaries that is when they are reading the “mere letter.” Martens goes on to say that "as a rule, Origen was targeting a more basic and deficient doctrinal current that ran through Gnostic scriptural interoperation: its phonology was deficient when (and only when) it promulgated a teaching at odds with the sort of Christianity Origen represented (115).

This chapter continues to show that Origen was not just a mere allegorist who did not take literal meaning (in modern terms) seriously. Origen believed the ideal interpreter should read the scriptures within the rule of faith that had been passed down by the apostles (113). This rule of faith is one of the boundary markers in exegesis. When one interprets outside these boundaries then one is not following in the tradition of the apostles. Origen sums this up well by saying,

Therefore we must show to those who believe that the sacred books are writings not from men, but that they were composed and have come down to us from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the will of the Father of the universe through Jesus Christ, what are the apparent ways [of interpretation] for those who hold to the rule of the heavenly church of Jesus Christ through the succession of the apostles (130).

Thanks to Oxford University Press for this review copy. I will post a full review when I have completed this book.

Martens, Peter W. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.