The Transfiguration of Scripture: Virtue-Hermeneutics and the Kenosis-Glorification Dialectic in the Philocalia of Origen
Born in approximately 185 CE to a Christian family, Origen experienced a tragedy in a formative period in his life when his father was martyred during the persecution of Laetus (201-203 CE). But far from serving as an impediment to his faith, his father’s courage and sacrifice spurred Origen into a life dedicated to Scripture and catechesis of the faithful. His work as a catechist was particularly important during the persecution of Christians under Aquila (206-211) which forced many Christian leaders out of the city of Alexandria, leaving an ecclesiastical power vacuum that Origen temporarily filled. Unfortunately, this caused conflict with Demetrius, one of the first “bishops” of Alexandria, who returned to the city after the persecution ended. The tension between Origen and Demetrius was exacerbated by some of Origen’s writings—in particular Origen’s allegorical reading of Genesis and the controversial work De Principiis, a work that would play a significant role in the Second Council of Constantinople’s condemnation of Origenism—even though there was likely a fair amount of misrepresentation about what Origen himself believed and taught.
A prolific writer, Origen can be considered one of the most significant biblical scholars of the early church. His work was instrumental in advancing an allegorical understanding of Scripture premised on the idea that theological reflection on both Jesus and Scripture could not stay at the literal, fleshly level of comprehension, but must advance to the spiritual level to discern the presence of the very Word of God.
One of the most intriguing works with Origen’s name attached to it is the Philocalia. Although he did not write it directly, it is a compilation of his important writings, specifically on the topics of Scripture, hermeneutics, free will, and predestination. The common theory among scholars has been that Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzus compiled the Philocalia together while on a retreat, but it is more probable that the work was compiled in a library by a student.
While the Philocalia as a whole is fascinating and worthy of attention, one segment stands out. In chapter 15, there are two selections from Origen’s work Contra Celsum. Contra Celsum is written to rebut the arguments of the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus, who criticized Christianity in his work True Discourse (c. 178 CE). The first section of the Philocalia pertains to Celsus’ objection that the ideas Christianity and Greek philosophy share in common are better expressed by philosophers than by the writers of Scripture (Phil 15.1-11). The second portion from Contra Celsum is Origen’s response to Celsus’ claim that Jesus had an unsightly body (Phil 15.12-20).
Of interest here is the first portion of Philocalia 15, where Origen’s argument addresses the literary quality of Scripture. In comparing Plato and the Scriptures, Celsus concludes that the truths the two sources share are “better expressed by Greeks, and without the violent expedient of a message supposed to come from God or from the Son of God” (Phil 15.1). Implicit in that claim, however, is the assumption that truth derived from “pure reason” is superior to one divinely revealed. Origen, however, reframes the discussion by supplying a different criterion by which to assess the two sources of Scripture and philosophy. The criterion is not whether truth is derived without divine revelation or stated in a more eloquent manner, but whether it does “as much good as possible to as many as possible, and out of love for men to win over to the truth, as far as may be, every single man” (Phil 15.1). While Greek philosophy was able to articulate truth, it lacked accessibility and thereby excluded non-Greeks.
Origen then launches into a defense of Scripture’s humble prose over against the eloquence of Greek philosophy. Eloquent philosophers may be enjoyed by “literary men,” but those who link their teachings directly with practical applications are able to win over the common person. As a foil to Plato’s articulacy, Origen holds up Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher known for expositing Plato’s teachings more approachably. This is not to say that Plato’s writings are worthless. Undoubtedly, they have benefited many of the educated class, but an approach valuing common understanding is more in line with the biblical witness, especially with Paul’s emphasis on the power of God juxtaposed against the wisdom of men (see 1 Cor 2:4).
What exactly is meant when Paul describes his preaching as a “demonstration of the Spirit and power” in 1 Corinthians 2:4? According to Origen, this is preaching of the Spirit because it relies on and interprets the Scripture’s prophecies concerning Christ. It is of power because of those lives which are lived according to the “intent of the Word” (Phil 15.4). The Spirit and power are bookends to the life of Christ; prophecies contained in the Scriptures point forward toward the Son’s coming while the power is evident in the life of people after his coming which points back to him. Because of these factors, Origen can say that this demonstration of the Word is “more Divine than the dialectic of the Greeks.”
Origen buttresses his conclusion about the divinity of Scripture’s testimony to the Word by discussing Psalm 68:11: “The Lord shall give a word to them that publish the tidings with great power.” The spoken word can only produce results in a person’s soul if God bestows the speech with grace. This is a further argument against the Greek philosophers. Even if they argued for the same conclusions as Christians, and even if they articulated them in a more aesthetically pleasing manner, they could not produce the same sort of effectual results as apostolic preaching, which also explains how unlearned disciples could contribute to the astonishing spread of the Gospel around the world (Phil 15.4).
The second argument of Celsus pertains to the ethical teachings of Christianity in comparison to pagan philosophy. According to Celsus, the principle of turning the other cheek was initially advocated by Socrates in Crito (49B) and Christians merely expressed it in a rougher form. Origen finds two flaws with the argument. First, he indicts Celsus’ prejudice towards Greek sources; if Christian teachings have their root in the Scriptures, the principles pre-date the Greeks (Phil 15.8). Second, he attacks Celsus’ presupposition that the beauty of Greek phraseology automatically implies superiority, because since the Old Testament was composed in Hebrew, the comparison is unfair. Indeed, many early Fathers even believed Matthew’s Gospel was originally composed in Hebrew: Eusebius reports that Papias believed not only in Matthean priority but that the Gospel itself was originally written in Hebrew. In answering the second prong of Celsus’ argument, Origen provides defensive warrants. However, in the following section, he goes on the offensive to argue for the superiority of Judeo-Christian teaching over paganism.
To launch his offensive argument, Origen uses an illustration of cooking. If a cook prepares a healthy meal seasoned to the taste of the small, elite class, and an equally healthy meal seasoned to the test of the mass of common people, which does the most good? Origen answers that “humanity itself. . . and the public welfare teach us that a physician who takes thought for the health of the many, renders a greater service to the public than he who cares only for the health of the few” (15.9). To apply the illustration, Origen concludes that, where Christianity and Greek philosophy overlap, the philosophers are like the cooks of the meals suited for the elite, while the Jewish and Christian writings are emblematic of the food for the common person. This quality is not accidental but finds precedent in the kenosis of the Word:
Just so, the Divine Nature taking thought not only for those who are reputed learned among the Greeks, but also from the rest of the Greeks, condescended to the ignorance of the majority of hearers, so that, employing words familiar to them, it might encourage the unlearned multitude to hearken; for after the first introduction they can easily endeavor to get a hold on the deeper truths hidden in the Scriptures. (Phil 15.10)
Origen’s argument implies a radical equality assumed by the Gospel. Because of this egalitarianism, he can conclude that the Scripture is superior and not corrupted because of its appeal to those outside the learned class.
Importantly, Origen’s arguments against Celsus, despite their logical force, cannot be stripped from their broader ethical context. For the early Christians, including Origen, understanding Scripture was a process that involved not only study but also holiness. Without holiness, one may be able to determine the literal sense of Scripture, but not the spiritual sense embedded at a deeper level. Only divine grace can aid the reader to come into more perfect understanding. To Origen, without obedience to God and divine assistance, the deeper meaning of the text remains perpetually veiled for the reader. The implication of Origen’s belief in the obscurity of Scripture—and the necessity of divine grace in the interpretive process—is that this understanding locates the inability to understand in the reader. Reason used without God as its starting point is unable to undertake the hermeneutical task. Scripture serves as a mirror for the reader: those who are critical of Scripture necessarily reveal their own deficiencies, rather than raising any objective problems with the text itself.
Understanding Origen’s underlying virtue-based hermeneutic helps enlighten readers of Philocalia 15. While Origen spends the majority of his work attacking Celsus’ arguments, he inevitably indicts Celsus and the pagans’ epistemological foundations. In 15.20, Origen attacks Celsus’ motives directly: “how can Celsus, and the enemies of the Divine Word, and such as do not investigate Christianity with a love of truth, know the meaning of the different appearances of Jesus?” To Origen, Celsus and other pagan critics could not adequately grapple with the text of Scripture because they lacked divine aid through grace and obedience to God. The underlying presupposition of Origen’s virtue-based hermeneutic seems to find a correlation in the Christian traditions motto “fides quaerens intellectum” (Anselm, Proslogion, Prooemium). The argument utilized by Origen seems circular: if the reader understands, they will believe but belief is an a priori to understanding. This would be true only if Christianity believed the human person to be an enclosed system, and faith something that must be conjured up from within.
Origen’s virtue-based hermeneutical approach takes on an even deeper meaning when viewed through the lenses of kenosis and glorification. Kenosis and glorification are integral to understanding Christian theology: in Philippians 2, Paul makes Christ’s self-emptying a foundational doctrine (see Michael Gorman’s book Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology). Based on his argument in Philocalia 15, it is evident that Origen draws heavily from this. Simultaneously, however, he cannot ignore accounts like the Transfiguration which shows Christ’s glorification. Kenosis and glorification form a dialectic for Origen as he outlines an apologetic to both Celsus’ argument about the impoverishment of style in Scripture. Origen’s response to Celsus’ objection about the impoverishment of style in Scripture relies on what seems at first to be utilitarian—the lack of style used in the Gospels makes them more commonly suited for the common person, as evidenced by the number of people who have converted as a result of encountering them. While he does acknowledge that one of the metrics that ought to be used in the comparison is which texts have done good for the most amount of people (Phil 15.1), it would be inadequate to categorize his reasoning as purely utilitarian specifically because undergirding the argument is the kenosis-glorification dialectic.
In Plato’s Republic, the ancient philosopher envisions a rigidly classist society made up of three groups. The guardians are the ruling class, also referred to as philosopher-kings, auxiliaries are the soldier class, and the producers are the working class. While certainly, all three classes would be necessary for Plato’s project to achieve its realization, such a social scheme promulgates elitism. From what can be determined about Celsus’ argument, this elitism was at least implicitly accepted in his identification of eloquence as the deciding factor between Greek philosophy and Scripture.
The Christian witness has subverted such stringent elitism since its inception. In Matthew 20:16, Jesus presents a seemingly backward ethic, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Paul advocates for a similarly egalitarian perspective: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This equality flows from a kenotic ethic that replaces civic identity with baptismal identity. Origen’s arguments are motivated by a similar concern. The case put forward by Celsus is turned on itself as what he purports to be a strength is made into a weakness. This is where the food analogy of 15.9 illustrates the point. Regardless of nutritional value, delicious cakes delivered to a small number of people cannot accomplish the same amount of good as a plain food made accessible to the masses. In praising eloquence, Celsus merely reifies the class boundaries of his day; in praising simplicity and accessibility, Origen disrupts the Platonic elitism entrenched in Greco-Roman philosophy. Through its condescension to “stylistic impoverishment,” Scripture can elevate the individual into its own higher, spiritual meaning.