Origen’s 3 Level Interpretation of Scripture


The bodily level of Scripture is the bare letter of the text, or its literal meaning, which is particularly useful in meeting the needs of the more simple minded.

The psychic level can be understood as the moral meaning of the text, providing guidance concerning right and proper conduct, although some ambiguity exists as to the exact ways in which Origen made use of this sense. In many cases he simply maintains that biblical narratives contain ethical and moral principles that may be found within or beneath the surface of the text’s literal meaning.

The third and most important level of meaning is the spiritual or allegorical, which points to Christ and the relationship of the Christian with God. Origen believed that this spiritual/mystical meaning, while often hidden, is always present in the text. The task of the Christian interpreter is to uncover it. The allegorical method of interpretation sought to yield this hidden, symbolic meaning, and Origen became the leading figure in its establishment as the dominant method of biblical interpretation until the sixteenth century.

Among the most significant New Testament passages that Origen cited as justifying spiritual exegesis is 1 Corinthians 10. Here, the pillar of cloud, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna, the water from the rock, and death in the wilderness represent baptism, the eucharist, and punishment for sin. Verse 11 sums up these events, explaining that each of these things happened to the Hebrews as a typikos, a figure or example, written down for those who live at the end of the age. For Origen, this implied that the Old Testament was written for Christians, who needed to seek the spiritual interpretation since many of the ceremonies and legal precepts (the literal teachings of many passages) are no longer binding.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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