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The Right Church: Book Excerpt from Chapter One
So, broadly speaking, though Origen affirmed that the Scriptures had a three-fold meaning—the bodily, the soulish, and the spiritual—one can think of his work as identifying two overarching categories. The first of these is the literal sense of the Scriptures—the meaning that one gets from the meanings of the words themselves. Sometimes this is called the "letter" of the biblical writings. The second is the non-literal meaning—the meaning that one gets when one looks past the surface, "literal" meaning and probes deeper. Not all of the Scriptures have a literal/bodily meaning, though all of the Scriptures have a spiritual meaning. When there is a literal meaning (and Origen affirms this is most frequently the case), that meaning is edifying and instructive for the person of faith. As we grow in faith, Origen believed, we become able to grasp the deeper meaning, which is appropriately edifying for those at that stage of Christian growth.
Wrestling with Scripture
It might be appropriate to ask the role of the Scriptures in the life of faith, at least as far as Origen saw it. It is fair to say that he did not combine "conversion of life" and "salvation" as if they were one and the same thing. In other words, Origen would have argued that the goal of the Scriptures is to form us into the people of God, into a people who live out with integrity the life of faith. To that end, he believed that the Scriptures said what God intended them to say. However, consistent with his understanding of their goal of the conversion of life, he recognized the importance of our "wrestling" with the Scriptures, having to dig deep to get all the meaning. It is precisely in that struggle that they do their formative work on us. They, then, lead not just to our faith in the sense of rightly believing, but also to our faith in the sense of rightly living—i.e., nothing short of the full conversion of life.
Origen recognized that sorting between those passages that had a literal meaning and those that did not would often be complicated. He knew that there might be cases where the student of the Scriptures may easily be able to tell that the passage at hand does not have what he called a bodily meaning. In fact, as noted above, he gave several examples. There may also be passages where it is equally easy to tell that a given passage has a bodily meaning, and we have already noted that he considered these to be the majority. At the same time, he recognized that there would be cases where we find ourselves "unable to decide, without considerable investigation whether a particular incident, believed to be history, actually happened or not, and whether the literal meaning of a particular law is to be observed or not." Notice, however, what Origen does not do: 1) he does not caution us about a "slippery slope" that arises from questioning the historicity of any passage, 2) he does not resolve the tension easily in either direction (that is, he does not have a default position that assumes a passage to be historical or not), and 3) he does not lose his respect for the authority of the Scriptures over our lives.
So, what was the outcome? How did Origen think we are to proceed?
...the [person] who reads the divine books reverently believing them to be divine writings, must exercise great care.
We have probably all encountered those who believe that the only way to take the Scriptures seriously or to treat it with the authority it deserves is to force a literal read on every passage. Not so with Origen. In fact, quite the opposite: the person who treats the Scriptures as a divine book allows it to guide us itself rather than by imposing our own presuppositions on it.