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The Right Church: Book Excerpt from Chapter One
Already we see an important number of insights. First, it is fascinating to reflect on how God, through the Holy Spirit, was guiding the growth of the church at the same time as he was directing the canonical process whereby the church's authoritative writings were being identified. Second, we find in Athanasius in particular and the early church more generally, a very winsome connection between the Scriptures and human salvation. Metaphors such as used here (springs of salvation, in order that he who is thirsty may fully refresh himself) are frequent. People, to use Matthew's words, "hunger and thirst after righteousness," and it is in the Scriptures that they are fed and their thirst is sated. Third, while the canonical books are afforded a special place amongst Christian writings, Athanasius is but one of the early fathers who remind us of other books appointed by the church to serve in the deepening life of faith and discipleship. The strong distinction between the Scriptures and other holy writings would be the product of a much later age.
Ways of Reading Scripture
Perhaps one of the most prolific theologians and biblical scholars of the early church was Origen. His work, On First Principles, was one of the earliest to develop a more formal biblical hermeneutic, and as McGuckin notes, "Origen is not the originator of the idea of a biblical canon, but he certainly gives the philosophical and literary-interpretative underpinnings for the whole notion." Origen was born circa 184/5, probably in Alexandria to Christian parents. His father, Leonides, provided his education. He made sure Origen had access to the standard educational fare of the day, but in addition, saw to it that Origen was trained in the Scriptures. As with Basil the Great (whom we meet later), Origen's father was martyred for his faith during a period of Christian persecution under Septimius Severus in 202. Origen's passions were stirred at the death of his father so that he desired to join him in martyrdom. In an interesting twist, Origen's mother saved him for us by hiding his clothes so that he could not leave. While the family fell into poverty at the death of Leonides, Origen was able to survive by a life of extreme asceticism and, initially, the income generated by the sale of his library. He went on to become an exceptional scholar of the Christian faith. The bulk of his teaching career was spent in Alexandria.
As we move into Origen's writings on the Scriptures, let us begin with his idea that they must be read in a "three-fold" way. Consider this quote from Book IV of First Principles:
The right way, therefore, as it appears to us, of approaching the scripture and gathering their meaning, is the following, which is extracted from the writings themselves. We find some such rule as this laid down by Solomon in the Proverbs concerning the divine doctrines written therein: "do thou portray them threefold in counsel and knowledge, that thou mayest answer words of truth to those who question thee."
One must therefore portray the meaning of the sacred writings in a threefold way upon one's own soul, so that the simple man may be edified by what we may call the flesh of scripture, this name being given to the obvious interpretation; while the man who has made some 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, more 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 as "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.