Book Club Channel
The Right Church: Book Excerpt from Chapter One
First, I know scholars for whom the notion of allegorical interpretation is a slippery slope that allows interpreters to twist the Bible to say anything they wish. This is a reasonable concern, as it does open the door to abuse. However, one has to wonder, what approach to biblical interpretation has been able to avoid abuse? There really is only one question here that matters and it is this: did God intend us to use allegory as a means to interpret the Scriptures? Origen gives us a good argument for why the answer is yes.
Second, within the church of Origen's time and for some time after, we can identify two different interpretive traditions, one known as the Antiochene school and the other as the Alexandrian school for the location of their respective centers of scholarship. A central element of the Alexandrian school of interpretation was the acceptance of allegorical interpretation. The Antiochene school resisted allegorical interpretation. As we noted at the outset, Origen's work was centered in Alexandria. Now, what is particularly interesting is which of the schools seemed most frequently to end up with heretical doctrinal positions. During the modern period (from, say, 1600 to the late 1900s), rationalistic individualism increasingly tended toward more literal meanings of texts, with a resistance to taking liberties with the "plain meaning" conveyed by the texts. So, one might expect that the looser interpretive methods of allegorical readings would be more likely to err and promote heretical positions. However, precisely the opposite was true. It was the more literalistic and typological interpretative approach of the Antiochenes that tended more often to end up in error.
Third, one might reasonably wonder why this would be the case—why did those who took the writings more literally seem more frequently to come to erroneous conclusions? One has to admit that Origen is correct that there are biblical passages that seem, to use his words, "impossible," "irrational," or "unworthy of God." A person who holds to a more literalistic interpretive approach must figure out ways to cover over those "stumbling-blocks." In the process, they must defend the impossible as possible, the irrational as rational and what is unworthy of God as being worthy of God. Yet, we ultimately hold that God is a God of order and not disorder and, consequently, such attempts at reconciliation are unlikely to succeed. Some of the failures resulted in positions that ran counter to the canonized doctrines of the church.
Consider, for example, Athanasius, who in his work Contra Arianos argued for the divinity of Jesus and against the position of Arius who held that there was no fully divine nature in Christ. Once while I was teaching a course on Christian doctrine, a student read a list of biblical proof texts defending the Arian view of Jesus. It was a long list, and at one point, another student raised his hand and asked, "Well, given these proof texts, why are we not all Arians?" In other words, this student in particular was feeling the force of the biblical passages cited by the Arians. The answer Athanasius gave was that the Arians tended to read the Scriptures woodenly and literalistically. The result of this literalism, according to Athanasius and the church as a whole, was the embrace of heresy. With Origen, Athanasius readily accepted that the Scriptures do not always mean what, on first glance, they seem to mean.