Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 7. Alexandria

by | Apr 27, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

Alexandria: Clement of Alexandria and, especially, Origen (circa A.D. 185-254) are the most well-known and influential Alexandrians. As noted above, with Clement of Alexandria we come into contact with the Christian allegorical method. He believed that truth was conveyed “in enigmas and symbols, in allegories and metaphor, and in similar figures.”[1] But this does not mean that Clement and the Alexandrians did not “recognize the literal sense of the Bible…”[2] Dockery says that Origen attempted “to defend the literal interpretation [of Scripture] in De Principiis (On First Principles).[3] They believed that since inspiration meant “utterance in a state of ecstatic possession,”[4] though distancing themselves from the irrationalism, some sort of mystical[5] interpretation was appropriate.

“…Clement and Origen turned to Platonic philosophy and allegorical hermeneutics to handle the pressing objections to…the Bible.”[6] These pressing objections included the claim that the Old Testament’s God was not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (the Gnostic heretics), the Old Testament is Jewish Scripture (the Jews and Marcionism), and that the Old Testament did not comport with Neoplatonism, the ruling philosophy of the day and, thus, had little or no apologetic value in defending the faith. To combat these objections, the Alexandrians utilized allegory to argue away any “undignified” things predicated of God (anthropomorphisms [ascribing human parts to God] and anthropopathisms [ascribing human passions to God]) and to show the fundamental continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Neoplatonism was assumed and applied as a working presupposition. Remember, Neoplatonism is the view that what the physical senses perceive on earth below is but an imperfect reflection of the true and perfect reality of heaven above.[7] Allegory was a hermeneutical tool that gave expression to Neoplatonism. Dockery says:

Clement contended that Platonism was given to the Greeks as preparation for the coming of Christ and the calling of the Christian community, just as the Mosaic law was given to the Jews for the same purpose. The knowledge of truth gained by the philosophers was incomplete and partial.[8]

Thus, Christianity was both the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the purest form of Platonism.

Origen was born in Egypt. He was educated in the classic Greek curriculum (i.e., reading, writing, arithmetic, music theory, astronomy, geometry, literature, philosophy) and later studied under Clement. He was, by all accounts, “the prince of Christian allegorical interpreters, its most extensive practitioner and its most adequate exponent.”[9] Nassif says, “Other early Christian thinkers reflected seriously on the Scriptures but did not write biblical commentaries, formulate a developed theory of hermeneutics or do extensive work on the text of the Bible.”[10] Seventy-five percent of Origen’s 800 writings are devoted to the exposition of Scripture.

Origen’s allegorical method did not keep him from taking the words of Christ literally in Matthew 9:12, however. He castrated himself as a result. Dockery claims that he did this “probably so that he could instruct his female students without fear of scandal.”[11] He also studied under one of the leading neoplatonists of the day. Thousands came to hear him and his lectures were written down by secretaries and published.[12] According to Dockery, “his mastery of the whole realm of contemporary learning was unsurpassed.”[13] He advocated the divine inspiration of every word of Scripture. This view of Scripture contributed to Origen’s interest in and practice of textual criticism.

Dockery describes Origen’s hermeneutical approach as threefold.

He thought that Scripture had three different, yet complementary, meanings; (1) a literal or physical sense, (2) a moral or psychical sense, and (3) an allegorical or intellectual sense. The threefold sense was based upon his belief in a corresponding threefold division of mankind” (1) the physical, (2) the emotional or psychical, and (3) the spiritual or intellectual.[14]

Origen’s hermeneutic was derived, in part, from his view of the trichotomist nature of man. Nassif says:

Just as human beings consist of body, soul and spirit, so also do the Scriptures. The bodily sense of a text was either the historical or literal meaning. The soulish meaning of a text contained a figurative exhortation to avoid vice and grow in virtue. It was the moral or ethical teaching. The third level was the spiritual meaning of Scripture. It contained the allegorical sense which was the most profound level appropriate to God and humanity. It reveals God’s plan of salvation through Christ’s incarnation. But it is known only to a mature group of elite believers…[15]

Dockery, referencing Justo L. Gonzalez, enumerates the foundations behind Origen’s hermeneutical procedure.

First, every text is pregnant with profound mysteries and should be discovered through allegory. Second, nothing should be said of God which is unworthy of him. Third, each text was to be interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture. Finally, nothing contrary to the rule of faith was to be affirmed.[16]

Origen believed in the organic unity of the Bible and its Christo-telic trajectory. Nassiff says, “Origen compares the harmonious nature of Scripture to “one perfect and attuned instrument of God, producing from its various notes a single sound of salvation for those who are willing to learn” (Origen Commentary on Matthew, homily 2).”[17] The Old Testament was fulfilled in the first advent of Christ and the complex of redemptive-historical events surrounding it “and must be interpreted christologically…”[18] Nassif continues:

All of Origen’s commentaries and homilies on the Old Testament endeavor to find Christ in the law and the prophets. The divine Logos is everywhere present, if not literally then at least in a concealed manner, that is, metaphorically, typologically or allegorically. The New Testament fulfills the foreshadowings of the Old but also is seen as a prefiguration of the kingdom that is to come. This kingdom Origen refers to as the “eternal gospel” … Consequently the Old Testament is a shadow that points to the New Testament and even reaches beyond it to the eternal state.[19]

Origen was committed to the principle of the rule of faith, which kept his exegetical conclusions within the general contours of doctrinal formulations received from the early church. This kept him within orthodox boundaries on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith.

Though we can sketch a hermeneutical methodological approach in Origen, he did not apply it equally in all texts. He sets the stage for interaction and disagreement by others, which is where the school of Antioch comes in. However, despite the protests of the Antiochene school, Origen’s allegorical method held dominance, though with modifications, through the Middle Ages.


[1] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 5.4.1-2; cf. 5.5-8, as referenced in Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 99, n. 93.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, Twenty-second printing, April 1990), 20.

[3] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 82. Cf. Bradley Nassif, “Origen,” in DMBI, 789, where he calls Origen’s On First Principles “the first systematic exposition on Christian hermeneutical theory.”

[4] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 75.

[5] The word mystical is used in the literature on the subject. I am pretty confident it means not only literal. I say this because the Alexandrians did not deny all literal interpretation of the Bible.

[6] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 81.

[7] Evans, Ancient Texts, 168.

[8] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 84.

[9] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 87.

[10] Nassif, “Origen,” in DMBI, 787.

[11] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 87.

[12] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 87.

[13] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 87.

[14] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 88.

[15] Nassif, “Origen,” in DMBI, 794.

[16] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 89.

[17] Nassif, “Origen,” in DMBI, 792.

[18] Nassif, “Origen,” in DMBI, 792.

[19] Nassif, “Origen,” in DMBI, 792-93.

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