The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1


II. Origen’s Allegorical Treatment of Scripture


It may be a bit wearisome, and may seem needless, to trace the errors of Origen, but it is nevertheless imperative to have before us the foundations upon which were built the whole structure of allegorical interpretation which turned the church away from her historic positions on prophecy. Milner declares that “no man, not altogether unsound and hypocritical, ever injured the Church of Christ more than Origen,” who introduced “a complicated scheme of fanciful interpretation” that for many ages “much obscured the light of Scripture.” 18 He made the sacred writings say anything or nothing, according to his caprice, often maintaining conflicting views. 19 PFF1 315.1


In the earlier centuries the literal sense of Scripture was generally accepted (except, of course, where the language and context show it to be obviously figurative) in harmony with sound principles of the interpretation of language. But Origen contended that the Scriptures are of little use to those who take them as written. This spiritualizing, or anagogical principle (passing to a higher sense than literal, i.e., a “more literal”), determined the whole pattern of Origen’s exegesis.” 20 PFF1 315.2

He did not deny that prophecy had been written, that historical events had occurred, or that the Scriptures taught the resurrection, the millennium, and the personal second advent of Christ, if taken in a literal sense. But to a great extent the facts were in his way; they must therefore give way to the true and inner sense. 21 He so spiritualized the symbolic language of the Scriptures as to deprive them of all actual force. He asserted, following the allegorical method of Plato, that there is a threefold sense to Scripture—the literal, moral, and mystical—the literal needing to be spiritualized away. 22 PFF1 315.3


Origen denies not only the Old Testament declarations concerning creation week and the fall but also some features of gospel narrative as well, and boldly alleges that some of the historical record of the Scriptures is filled with fabrication, 23 in order to stimulate to closer investigation and to bring out the mystical meaning. 24 Take, for instance, some of the summarizing chapter headings of his Commentary on John, book 10. The heading to chapter 2 closes with the words, “Literally Read, the Narratives Cannot Be Harmonized: They Must Be Interpreted Spiritually,” and chapter 4 is headed, “Scripture Contains Many Contradictions, and Many Statements Which Are Not Literally True, but Must Be Read Spiritually and Mystically.” 25 Chapter 17 is introduced thus: “Matthew’s Story of the Entry Into Jerusalem. Difficulties Involved in It for Those Who Take It Literally”; and chapter 18 continues: “The Ass and the Colt Are the Old and the New Testament. Spiritual Meaning of the Various Features of the Story.” 26 PFF1 316.1

In this section Origen exemplifies “the real truth of these matters,” accepted by “true intelligence“: “Jesus is the word of God which goes into the soul that is called Jerusalem.” He allegorizes at length on the “branches,” the “multitudes,” and other expressions, and repeats his fancy that “the ass and the foal are the old and the new Scriptures, on which the Word of God rides,” in fulfillment of the “prophetic utterance” of Zechariah 9:9 concerning this episode described in Matthew 21:2. 27 Thus Origen’s perpetual allegorizing muddled even the clearest and most explicit statements of Scripture. PFF1 316.2


Other examples of his spiritual interpretation are the gates of Ezekiel, and of the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21, as the various modes by which souls enter the better world. 28 Origen pays his respects to the prophecies in general by declaring them “filled with enigmas and dark sayings.” PFF1 317.1

“And what need is there to speak of the prophecies, which we all know to be filled with enigmas and dark sayings? ... And who, on reading the revelations made to John, would not be amazed at the unspeakable mysteries therein concealed, and which are evident (even) to him who does not comprehend what is written? ... And therefore, since these things are so, and since innumerable individuals fall into mistakes, it is not safe in reading (the Scriptures) to declare that one easily understands what needs the key of knowledge, which the Saviour declares is with the lawyers.” 29 PFF1 317.2


Origen speaks of the two advents of Christ, 30 but does not connect the second advent with the resurrection or the millennium, or recognize it as marking the climax of prophetically foretold human history. 31 Rather, the effects of that transcendent event are set forth as the ultimate reign of Christ, brought about by a gradual process, through successive worlds and long ages of purification. PFF1 317.3

“At the consummation and restoration of all things, those who make a gradual advance, and who ascend (in the scale of improvement), will arrive in due measure and order at that land, and at that training which is contained in it, where they may be prepared for those better institutions to which no addition can be made. For, after His agents and servants, the Lord Christ, who is King of all, will Himself assume the kingdom; i.e., after instruction in the holy virtues, He will Himself instruct those who are capable of receiving Him in respect of His being wisdom, reigning in them until He has subjected them to the Father, who has subdued all things to Himself, i.e., that when they shall have been made capable of receiving God, God may be to them all in all.” 32 PFF1 317.4


Origen first gives the traditional, literal interpretation of our Lord’s promise of returning in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, but he turns from that to the allegorical “prophetic clouds” of the prophets’ writings. He likens to children, those who hold to a literal or “corporeal” interpretation of this passage, and insists on a spiritual sense alone for the enlightened Christian. PFF1 318.1

“With much power, however, there comes daily, to the soul of every believer, the second advent of the Word in the prophetic clouds, that is, in the writings of the prophets and apostles, which reveal Him and in all their words disclose the light of truth, and declare Him as coming forth in their significations [which are] divine and above human nature. Thus, moreover, to those who recognize the revealer of doctrines in the prophets and apostles, we say that much glory also appears, which is seen in the second advent of the Word.” 33 PFF1 318.2

He speaks of a double advent into the souls of individual Christians. PFF1 318.3

“The second advent of Christ, however, in mature men, concerning whom a dispenser of His word says: `However we speak wisdom among the perfect.’ Moreover these mature ones ... praise the beauty and comeliness of the Word; and to this second advent is joined the end of the world in the man who comes to perfection and says, ‘Far be it from me that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world.’ For if the world is crucified to the righteous, it has become the end of the age for those to whom the world is crucified. Necessarily, therefore, let those who have the faith to come separately to Christ, if they wish to learn the sign of the advent of Christ and the end of the world, show themselves worthy to see His second advent and the second end of the world which we have taught to you.” 34 PFF1 318.4

So the supreme event of the ages and of the plan of salvation is spiritualized away, with the observation that the literal understanding is only for the simple. PFF1 319.1


It is also significant that Origen never spoke of millennialism except to condemn it. 35 Until his time, belief in the second, personal, premillennial coming of Christ was general, together with the millennial reign of the saints with Christ after their literal resurrection from the dead at the advent. It was due in great degree to Origen’s molding influence, that millennialism began to wane. He opposed it because it was incompatible with his scheme of things. 36 PFF1 319.2


As concerns the resurrection, inseparably related in the Scriptures to the advent, Origen is ambiguous, but it is clear that he goes far afield. He contends for the orthodox belief of the church in the actual resurrection of the body, quoting such texts as 1 Thessalonians 4:15, 16 and 1 Corinthians 15:39-42 37 Yet he teaches that the resurrected spiritual bodies must undergo gradual, perhaps age-long purification in the next world, perhaps many worlds, and become more spiritual and less material until the saints attain to the highest spiritual condition in which “God shall be all in all.” 38 Although he elsewhere treats the subject allegorically, and speaks of a spiritual resurrection from spiritual death, Origen distinctly mentions the two resurrections. 39 Yet he vitiates the whole point, purpose, and distinction of the two resurrections by assigning the possibility of ultimate salvation also to those who have part in the second resurrection after the purifying “refiner’s fire.” 40 Furthermore, he asserts that as soon as one believes in the immortality of the soul, he can place his hope in Christ without believing in a bodily resurrection; 41 and he makes the resurrection after this life but one in a series of incarnations of the soul in a series of worlds, for he believed the soul existed before its union with the body.” 42 He thus effectually renders meaningless the second coming of Christ. PFF1 319.3


Little is Said by Origen on the Antichrist. Cognizance is taken of the predictions of Daniel, Jesus, and Paul, but Antichrist is identified specifically as the son of the devil, the embodiment of evil, and identified with Paul’s Man of Sin, Daniel’s fierce king of chapter 8, and the abomination.” 43 In his comments on Matthew, however, Antichrist is also explained as any word professing falsely to be Scriptural truth; any heresy, any false truth, wisdom, or virtue, professing to belong to Christ” 44 PFF1 320.1


Origen’s fundamental errors, bearing directly upon his spiritualizing away of Biblical truth, were held to be principally: (1) the preexistence of the human soul, (2) the pre-existence of even the “human” soul of Christ, (3) the transformation of our material bodies into absolutely ethereal ones at the resurrection, and (4) the ultimate salvation of all men, and even devils 45 Some errors, such as the stars as animate beings, are more apparent in later times than in his unscientific age. 46 Some of his earlier extremes were later modified. 47 But, clinging to such basic fallacies in his concept of the plan of salvation, he could do no other than discard the advent hope as the goal of the ages. PFF1 320.2


Universalists can well claim Origen as one of their own. His anti-Scriptural belief in the ultimate restoration of all moral creatures to the favor of God, and his bold scheme of a spiritual purgation of the sinner by the fire of remorse, accordingly leave Christ and His grace largely out of the transaction of salvation. He teaches the world’s end, and the final consummation when all things are restored to God—even including demons, as he hints in his earlier writings 48 after innumerable ages, thus striking again at the second advent. He nullifies the future judgment by teaching that all saints departing this life attain ultimate perfection by progression through the classroom of the soul, in Paradise, and that the wicked are refined by fire, a process tending toward perfection. 49 PFF1 321.1


The foundation of all Origen’s errors lay in his attempt to reconcile Christianity with the pagan philosophy of Egypt and Greece, particularly Neoplatonism, and one of the basic elements of his philosophy was his misconception of the nature of the human soul. The idea of conditional or bestowed immortality, sometimes regarded as involving the final annihilation of the wicked, had been held rather inconsistently by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and others, 50 but the doctrine of inherent immortality was generally accepted in the church by Origen’s time. This doctrine, which was subsequently to lead to image and saint worship, was bound to affect profoundly all Origen’s beliefs on the advent. PFF1 321.2


As noted, Origen definitely taught the existence of the human soul in successive phases—that is, previous to this present life, with condemnation to the prison of the body to atone for the sins of a previous existence, and with the status in the next world determined by the life in this. Although he denied the doctrine of transmigration (metempsychosis) as held by some heretics, he nevertheless taught another type of transmigration. The following extracts indicate the validity of the later charge of heresy brought against him on this point. PFF1 321.3

“The soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place, without having a body suited to the nature of that place. Accordingly, it at one time puts off one body which was necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second; and at another time it assumes another in addition to the former, which is needed as a better covering, suited to the purer ethereal regions of heaven.” 51 PFF1 322.1

He held that in the beginning God created “rational natures” “endowed with the power of freewill,” able to rise or fall, the degree of fall determining the conditions of one’s birth and earthly lot. He feels that Jacob “was worthily beloved by God, according to the deserts of his previous life, so as to deserve to be preferred before his brother.” 52 PFF1 322.2

“He who shall purge himself when he is in this life, will be prepared for every good work in that which is to come; while he who does not purge himself will be, according to the amount of his impurity, a vessel unto dishonour, i.e., unworthy. It is therefore possible to understand that there have been also formerly rational vessels, whether purged or not, i.e., which either purged themselves or did not do so, and that consequently every vessel, according to the measure of its purity or impurity, received a place, or region, or condition by birth, or an office to discharge, in this world.” 53 PFF1 322.3


Origen comes down from his flights of fancy sufficiently to interpret the seventy weeks as a definite time period, although he strangely counts the weeks by neither literal days nor years, but by decades, totaling 4,900 years, from Adam to the time when the chosen people are rejected by God, at the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. As to the time, lie cites Phlegon as recording that the temple was destroyed in about the fortieth year from the fifteenth year of Tiberius. Deduct from this the preaching of the Lord—almost three years—and the time after the resurrection, and you will find that about the middle of the week of decades, more or less, was fulfilled the prophecy “the sacrifice and oblation shall be taken away.” The desolation is to remain until the end of the world; therefore Origen condemns those who say that the temple will be rebuilt. No one will build the temple, he says, unless it is the Man of Sin. 54 PFF1 322.4


When we look at the five indispensable factors bound up with the advent, we see that Origen has completely changed the understanding of the resurrection, the millennium, the climax of outline prophecies, the destruction of Antichrist, and the establishment of the kingdom. The Biblical doctrines of the early church on these points were all swept into the discard through this spiritualizing interpretation, as the darkness of mystic philosophy supplanted the light of the Scriptural advent hope. PFF1 323.1

Few of Origen’s vagaries were espoused at the time, and, indeed, Origen himself in his later years seems to have retreated from some of his extreme speculations. But sharp controversy ensued. Many who denounced him were led to clear enunciation of the historic prophetic positions, yet the subtle spiritualization and allegorization of the Scriptures began to take root, and in time to be widely accepted, as the church’s attention became diverted from the advent to churchly establishment in this present world. PFF1 323.2

In the light of this saddening but revealing array of evidence, it is incontrovertible that a fateful trio of Origen’s innovations were largely instrumental in accelerating this apostasy in the church. His doctrine of the progressive, final triumph of the church on earth, his speculations which undermined the fundamental Christian concepts of the expected kingdom of God, and his ridicule of the current beliefs in the future millennium.—extreme as some of them were—helped to pave the way for the later Augustinian idea of the millennium as the Christian Era, and the earthly church as God’s kingdom—an idea which led to the rise of the papal hierarchy and the full-blown Catholic system of the Middle Ages. Such is the verdict of history. PFF1 323.3