Book Club Channel
The Right Church: Book Excerpt from Chapter One
In short, then, Origen's idea is that the Scriptures have a "bodily" meaning, a "soulish" meaning, and a "spiritual" meaning, each of which is intended to be understood by Christians as they grow deeper in their faith. But how do these three levels of meaning help us better to understand the Scriptures and be formed by our interaction with them?
Interpreters of Origen have generally taken the three senses of the Scriptures as follows. First, the "bodily" meaning is just what the text appears to say—its "literal" meaning, if you will. When we are told that Jesus was born in Nazareth, the meaning of the text is clear and we rightly draw the conclusion that we are being told Jesus' birthplace. Or, when we are told that Jesus was tried before Pilate, the "bodily" or "literal" sense is immediately clear. Second, the "soulish" sense of the Scriptures relates to its moral truths or the application of their moral teachings. However, this second, or "soulish" meaning, receives relatively little direct attention in Origen. More frequently, the second and third (or "spiritual") meanings get combined into a broader distinction in Origen, the distinction between the "letter" and the "spirit" of the biblical writings. Lastly, the "spiritual" meaning relates to the deeper truths. Often, these point to Christ, as when he notes Paul's statement that the rock Moses struck to obtain water for the Israelites referred to Christ. Sometimes, the spiritual meaning, when properly grasped, reveals the truths of church doctrine—such as the Trinitarian doctrine or the doctrines related to Jesus' nature. As we noted, though, the "soulish" and "spiritual" meanings are often joined together over against the "bodily" meaning. The resulting distinction is, then, between the literal/bodily meanings and those that are more hidden, non-literal meanings.
Notably, Origen did not feel constrained to defend a literal interpretation of every biblical passage, a tendency that we more frequently find much later. Origen noted that some passages were not intended to be read literally at all:
But since there are certain passages of scripture, as we shall show in what follows, have no bodily sense at all, there are occasions when we must seek only for the soul and the spirit, as it were, of the passage.
Starting in the next chapter of his work, Origen outlines several passages that he believes do not have a bodily sense. How do we recognize these passages that are not to be taken literally? Origen says that they are the ones that are impossible or unreasonable or somehow convey something unworthy of God—something that would call the character of God into question:
But someone may suppose that the former statement refers to all the Scriptures, and may suspect us of saying that because some of the history did not happen, there none of it happened; and because a certain law is irrational or impossible when taken literally, therefore no laws ought to be kept to the letter; or that the records of the Savior's life are not true in the physical sense; or that no law or commandment of his ought to be obeyed. We must assert, therefore, that in regard to some things we are clearly aware that the historical fact is true.
In fact, he goes on to say:
For the passages which are historically true are far more numerous than those which are composed with purely spiritual meanings.