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The 'Origen' of Allegorical Interpretation

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Apollo's Revival
By Walter Robinson II
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The “Origen” of Allegorical Interpretation and Augustine

NOTE: I have not misspelled the word 'Origen' in the title for this page. I am using a play on words to show that the originator of the arbitrary allegorical method of interpretation can be traced back mostly to one person who bore the name 'Origen.'

Also see the following related articles:



 

NOTE: Linked footnotes to Bible passages are embedded in the text.  Click on the reference to go to it, then click the 'BACK' or 'previous' button on your browser until you return to your previous place on this page)

The allegorical method of interpretation was first injected into Christian thinking by a “converted” Neo-Platonist philosopher known as Origen of Alexandra, Egypt. (A.D. 185 to circa 254) Neo-Platonists commonly looked for deeper truths by searching for symbolic meanings in the text they were studying. Origen became so proficient in this practice he became known as the “father of the allegorical method of scriptural interpretation;”

. . . Origen is regarded as the father of the allegorical method of scriptural interpretation. He taught the principle of the threefold sense, corresponding to the threefold division of the person into body, spirit, and soul, which was then a common concept. He was a Platonist and endeavored to combine Greek philosophy and the Christian religion . . . . [He also developed doctrines] such as that of the preexistence of the soul, [which] were severely criticized by many of Origen’s contemporaries and by subsequent writers. . . .[1]

The doctrine of the “preexistence of the soul” is a key teaching with reincarnation. It, as well as arbitrary allegorical interpretation are indeed non-Christian in origin. Frankly, many teachings of Neoplatonism serve as fundamental beliefs for Theosophy as expressed in the occultic and esoteric writings of Helena Blavatsky, Alice Bailey, and prominent New Ager, Benjamin Creme. Thus, one can understand why Origen was criticized even in his day.

A Roman Catholic Bishop named “St.” Augustine (A.D. 354-430) would later follow in Origen’s steps. Like Origen, he was also a Neo-Platonist before his “conversion.” History indicates that Augustine also continued some of his earlier practices. They also indicate that he believed the final authority in Christianity was the Church of Rome, not the Bible. This is why he wrote,

 I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so. [2]

Consequently, he worked to reconcile the teachings of the Bible with the beliefs and practices of the Church of Rome. In doing so he also resorted to Neoplatonic allegorical interpretation, and by thus, this method became firmly joined with Romanized Christianity.

Many today respectfully refer to Augustine as the “founder of theology.”[3] Thus, some may consider my remarks about him to be unfounded and unscholarly. Therefore, I present the following as objective reinforcement for my claims.

Neoplatonism, ancient mystical philosophy based on the later doctrines of PLATO, especially those in the Timaeus. Considered the last of the great pagan philosophies, it was developed in the 3rd cent. A.D. by PLOTINUS. Rejecting DUALISM, he saw reality as one vast hierarchical order containing all the various levels and kinds of existence. At the center is the One, an incomprehensible, all-sufficient unity that flows out in a radiating process called emanation, giving rise to the Divine Mind, or Logos. The Logos contains all intelligent forms of all individuals. This in turn generates the World Soul, which links the intellectual and material worlds. Despite his mysticism, Plotinus’ method was thoroughly rational, based on the logical traditions of the Greeks. Later Neoplatonists grafted onto its body such disparate elements as Eastern mysticism, divination, demonology, and astrology. Neoplatonism, widespread until the 7th cent., was an influence on early Christian thinkers (e.g., ORIGEN) and medieval Jewish and Arab philosophers. It was firmly joined with Christianity by St. AUGUSTINE, who was a Neoplatonist before his conversion. Neoplatonism has had a lasting influence on Western metaphysics and MYSTICISM.  Philosophers whose works contain elements of Neoplatonism include St. THOMAS AQUINAS, BOETHIUS, and HEGEL [4].[italicized bold emphasis mine]

Thus, Augustine, “the founder of theology,” can also be given some credit for the adoption of the allegorical method of interpretation that is still prevalent in Christianity today.

This method makes it possible for individuals to be guided at their own personal whim and fancy when developing biblical understanding. Thus, notions such as reincarnation can seemingly be supported by using the Christian Scriptures. The official dogma of Roman Catholicism indicates that such practices can take one far astray from what the Bible literally teaches.

Allegorical interpretation was not always accepted by Christian teachers. This included the 1st and early 2nd century Christian forefathers, and also those who begin the Christian Reformation;

allegorical interpretation, biblical, a hermeneutical (interpretive) method used to uncover hidden or symbolic meanings of a biblical text. Rooted in the techniques developed by Greek thinkers who attempted to overcome the problems posed by literal interpretations of ancient Greek myths, the allegorical method was further developed by Jewish scholars, such as Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century AD, and Christian thinkers, such as Clement and Origen of Alexandria in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Though other methods of biblical interpretation were often used, the allegorical method was dominant until late medieval times. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century rejected, for the most part, the allegorical method and returned to the more literal interpretation of the Bible.

The allegorical method attempts to overcome the difficulties of morally perplexing biblical passages and to harmonize them with certain traditions and accepted teachings of the synagogue or the church. By assigning to each feature of a text a hidden, symbolic, or mystical meaning beyond the primary meaning that the words convey in their literal sense, the allegorical interpretation seeks to make that text more comprehensible, acceptable, and relevant to the present. . . .

Though there are explicit allegories in the Bible, such as the allegory of old age in Eccles. 12:1–7 and the parable of the sower in Mark 4:1–9, the allegorical method as it was developed in the post-biblical times allowed an interpreter great latitude for subjective speculation without providing means for critical evaluation of the postulated meanings of the text.[5] [all bold emphases mine]

In many respects, the reformation is still in progress. Even some 150 years after it began, the renown English mathematician and physicist, Sir Isaac Newton (A.D. 1642–1727), wrote; 

About the time of the End, a body of men will be raised up who will turn their attention to the prophecies, and insist on their literal interpretation in the midst of much clamor and opposition.[6]

Considering what the Bible and the historical record says about interpreting the Bible, I believe taking it at its plain sense is the only way gain true insight into the Word of God. The eternal destiny of each reader depends upon not only what we learn from reading or hearing God's word, but also how we response to it. May you be guided accordingly as you seek to better know the God of heaven and His will for you each day.

Walter Robinson II
Pastor of Windward Bible Church
& Webmaster of LCM

Also see the following related articles:


[1] “Origen,”: Infopedia; Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, (Future Visions Inc., 1995) CD‑ROM Version.
[2] Dave Hunt, A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days (Eugene Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1994) p. 340. Reprinted from Karl Keeting, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 125‑127.
[3] The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia (Columbia University Press, 1995) CD‑ROM Version.
[4]
Ibid.
[5] “allegorical interpretation, biblical.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Micropedia, Volume I. (Chicago, Illinois: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1976), p. 252.
[6] Hal Lindsey, The Road to Holocaust (New York, New York; Bantam Books, 1989), p. 53.


Disclaimer

Disclaimer

NOTE: The citing of the sources above by Dave Hunt or Hal Lindsey does not mean that I endorse all that they have said or written. I am painfully aware that Hunt is a Charismatic Neo-Evangelical that is part of a Plymouth Brethren Assembly. Likewise, I am also aware that Lindsey is a Neo-Evangelical. Both openly cooperate with Charismatics, which I believe hinders the message they proclaim. Nevertheless, I believe their information as presented here is accurate and trustworthy.

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