About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac

Print-friendly version

Dom Capelle was recently obliged to devote a scholarly article to proving that Saint Ambrose did not take Melchizedek to be the eternal Father. [1] What a lengthy book would be required if we wished to establish with equal care, by the minute examination of so many misquoted texts and by the production of so many others that are usually misunderstood, that Origen was not the mad "allegorist" he is so often thought to be! The error is so deep-rooted, it has so many authorities for it, it concurs, we must admit, with so many of our prejudices, that even today we find good historians reviving it without a closer look. Even those who every now and then rise to combat it make concession to it again in spite of themselves. Such was the case in the nineteenth century with Bishop Freppel, who thought he was being generous to Origen in saying that "even with regard to the books of the Old Testament, his preferences do not go so far as to exclude systematically" all literal exegesis. [2] Closer to our own time, this was also the case with Abbé Jules Martin, even though he was working on texts. [3] René Cadiou himself, in the course of an excellent chapter on Origenian symbolism, writes: "The Alexandrians easily sacrificed history in their desire to impose symbolism, even though Christian revelation is, in the first place, a historical event." [4] Nevertheless, as paradoxical as this might appear to a modern mind, was not one of the motives for this symbolism, in the Christian thinking of the first centuries, precisely to assure history a meaning that pagan antiquity had denied it? And did not Origen, perhaps better than any other, comment on this verse from the Letter to the Hebrews that, in its uniqueness, so well confirms the value of the "historical event" in which we believe: "[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself "? [5]

The word allegory is automatically associated with Origenian exegesis. This is certainly not wrong, if we do not intend to express the whole of his exegesis by that word, and neither are all the objections summed up in that word inapplicable. But still, it is necessary to have a good understanding of it. It is a vague word with a variety of meanings. [6] Many have too much disdain for it to waste their time being precise about the characteristics of the thing it designates, or that they think it designates in Origen's case, so that, by its very inconsistency, the idea they form of it eludes any orderly discussion. When they speak, in fact, of an "excess of symbolism" or "exaggerated allegory", what exactly do they mean by these expressions? Is it merely a question, for example, of a "lack of sobriety" or of too rich a profusion of symbols, so that the error would be "rather in the application than in the substance of things" ? [7] Or, on the other hand, is it a question of some corrosive principle that sound exegesis is obliged to reject? It has been my desire to try to clear up a question that has become so obscure by, first of all, forcing, so to speak, the accepted judgments to be more explicit. I have sought, not to "defend" Origen, but simply to know what in fact he thought and said.

Several friends had undertaken to translate the Homilies on the Hexapla from Rufinus' version. These translations naturally appeared some time later in the Sources chrétiennes series, and I was asked to write an introduction. That was the occasion for this study. Since the Homilies on the Hexapla are, from one end to the other, little more than one vast repertoire of "allegorical" interpretations, the subject was inescapable. The very strangeness of it was stimulating to me. But it was quickly apparent to me that in order to discuss this subject to any advantage, it was necessary to consider it at the same time within the framework of Origen's entire work. As E. Klostermann wrote quite recently, [8] commentaries and homilies cannot be dissociated in this work on the pretext that they correspond to two distinct genres: just as the homilies are filled with details that attest to a concern for scientific order, the commentaries are full of spiritual preoccupations. As for the other works, such as the Peri Archôn or Contra Celsum, their contribution is equally essential. But as I looked in those works for the necessary information, the subject I had at first envisioned assumed a broader scope in my eyes. It was no longer a matter of measuring, in any given exegesis, the part allotted to the "letter" or to history. It was no longer even a matter solely of exegesis. It was a whole manner of thinking, a whole world view that loomed before me. A whole interpretation of Christianity of which Origen, furthermore, despite many of his personal and at times questionable traits, was less the author than the witness. Even more, through this "spiritual understanding" of Scripture, it was Christianity itself that appeared to me, as if acquiring a reflective self-awareness. This is the phenomenon, one of the most characteristic of the early Christian period, that, in the final analysis, I sought to grasp.

Similar essays have become increasingly frequent in recent years, some simply historical and others with a doctrinal purpose. Theologians and exegetes are examining the subject thoroughly, each according to his discipline. Everywhere, in every sense, they are speaking of the "spiritual sense". Discussions have taken place that were not at all unproductive. New points of view have evolved. Traditional truths have been elucidated more clearly. My task is easier because of this. The time is not ripe, however, for a complete synthesis. Rather than consider the question in all its breadth, which would have required a rather adventurous foray into the biblical field, I have therefore stayed with my original plan. Origen remains at the center of my perspective. It is he whom we are examining; it is within his axis that we place ourselves. A mere chapter--though one of unparalleled importance, it is true--of that history of spiritual exegesis that might itself be an important chapter in the history of theology.

My purpose is thus historical--and I intend my method to be so as well. Let me repeat, I am seeking to discover what Origen thought by finding out, without any preconceived decision, what it was he said, through as extensive a reading and as literal an exegesis as possible. To the best of my ability, I am employing with regard to him that "basic objectivity that consists in seeing him accurately within the framework of problems contemporaneous to him and in understanding his doctrine according to the questions to which it was actually responding". This is precisely what seems to me to be lacking in some earlier works, and it is this above all that I have sought to provide. But such a concern carries us far. It forces us to react against that kind of unjust objectivity of those who can see only the outside and the fixed endings of a work that has become distant. It also leads us very quickly to go beyond too extrinsic a method, one by which we could at best obtain only an almost insignificant exactitude--a betrayal worse than many misinterpretations. Many interpretations have in fact been made of Origenian texts. But what is perhaps more regrettable is that this immense question of the spiritual understanding of Scripture, as ancient Christian tradition envisaged it, has so often been reduced to the narrow proportions of a debate over the number and value of certain "spiritual meanings" hidden like riddles in certain corners of the Bible; just as it is also regrettable that, of the whole profound doctrine elaborated by Origen on this subject, so often only the "excesses" or the "subtleties" of his "allegories" are retained.

It is possible, without taking particular precautions, to make a "historical contribution" to the history of a rite or an institution, indeed, with a few reservations, to that of an idea or a dogma. It is enough to apply the customary rules. But when a spiritual synthesis, lived and reflected within a great intellect, is at issue, what gross or subtle distortions occur in reconstructions produced by an "objective" and "strictly historical" method! This is said, not at all to make excuses for the weaknesses of the method, but to establish its inevitable insufficiency. To reach the heart of a vigorous thought, nothing is as inadequate as a certain pretension to pure objectivity. If we want to have any chance of understanding it, even as a mere historian, it is necessary, whether we like it or not, to explain to ourselves what we read; it is necessary to translate, to interpret. That cannot be done without risk, but this risk must be run. Truly illuminating analysis is neither a photograph nor a material summary. It must bring out the essence, which is nearly always implicit. It must lay open hidden categories, determine lines of force. It must penetrate beneath the particularities of time and place to what is eternal. This is, without doubt, a task that is always incomplete, an interpretation necessarily partial. Every epoch, every historian, returning to the great works of the past, illuminates one aspect of them while leaving others in shadow. In that sense, too, subjectivity is unavoidable. Yet the work is indispensable, all the more indispensable as the thought being studied is more actually thought. Thought is not rediscovered in the same way as a fact is reconstructed. Whether it be from today, yesterday, or long ago, whether it offers greater or fewer difficulties of approach to be overcome by the resources of historical science and its auxiliaries, it has an interior that historicism is obliged to disregard. [9]

In the present case, such historicism would be doubly deceptive. For we are not at all concerned with the work of one solitary thinker or with a problem that in no way affects us. This work fits into a tradition that touches us ourselves. This problem--in assuredly very different forms according to the century--has commanded the attention of all Christian generations. In the final analysis, all have to resolve it in the same light. If, therefore, our historical effort must not deviate into historicism, neither must our parallel effort at objectivity deviate into objectivism. Living the same faith as Origen, members of the same Church, afloat, so to speak, in the same stream of tradition, it would be pointless for us to wish to behave like outside observers in everything concerning him--or concerning anyone else in the long chain of witnesses that goes back to the apostles of Jesus. It would prohibit us a second time from understanding him. It would deprive us of any valid principle of discernment with which to judge him. The methodological principle put forward by Möhler for the history of the Church is, a fortiori, true for the history of Christian thought: "We must live the Christianity of the history to be described, and this Christianity must live in us, for Christianity is above all a living thing, and the history of the Church is a living development." [10]

Finally, let me add that, with texts that very often disconcert us, an extra effort becomes necessary in order to reproduce within ourselves the movement of the spirit that once made them come alive. An intentional sympathy, methodical docility--which are not grounds for concluding that I am presenting Origenian exegesis as a model to be followed in every respect. I am far from doing that. My endeavor would be misconstrued if ascribed to even a limited or amended "anti-scientific reaction", which I am told "is prevalent currently in spiritualist circles". I know, of course, that there is blind criticism and false science. Authentic science itself is not everything, especially when its object is books containing the Word of God. It is nevertheless invaluable, and I would consider harmful to the highest degree anyone in the least inclined to contest its domain or scorn its results. I am furthermore convinced that if it is necessary to note an insufficiency here in what concerns Origen, it is much less one of spirit than one of technique. On the other hand, I find the distance to be as great as anyone else does, that distance which separates us irremediably from this Alexandrian of the third century and from his intellectual universe. The river does not flow back to its source. No more than life itself does thought retrace its steps. Even if it wished to do so, no miracle would allow such a dream to be realized. Yet perhaps after the long course it has just run through the parched lands of rationalism and positivism, it will find itself more likely to be understood and even taken in today--many signs seem to attest to this--in order to bring to life in us what is expressed of the eternal in these forms now dead. The wells once dug by Origen have long been covered over with sand. But the same deep layer of water is still there, which he can help us find once again in order to quench the same thirst. [11]


1 Dom B. Capelle, "Notes de théologie ambrosienne, 1: La Personne de Meichisédech", in Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale, 1931: 183-89.

[2] Charles Freppel, Cours d'eloquence sacrée 10:140.

[3] Martin, "La Critique biblique chez Origène", Annales de philosophie chrétienne 151:241ff.

[4] René Cadiou, La Jeunesse d'Origène (1936), p. 54.

[5] Heb 9:26. Verse cited in PA 2, 3, 5 (p. 120). Cf. CC 4, 12 (p. 282). "It will be noted", writes Father Daniélou, Origène, p. 280, "that in that long succession of centuries (inaugurated by Origen), the one during which Christ became incarnate has a unique importance that has no more been exhausted by the centuries-old vastness of Origen than the unique place on earth, the site of Christ's Incarnation, has been exhausted by the discovery of stellar vastness."

[6] See "Typologie et allegorisme", RSR 34 (1947).

[7] Bainvel, De Scriptura sacra (1910), p. 199.

[8] E. Klostermann, "Formen der exegetischen Arbeiten des Origenes", Theologische Literatur-zeitung, October 1947, cols. 203-8.

[9] I do not think it possible to respond lightly to the reproach addressed by Karl Barth to those who profess respect for history: "This famous respect for history," he wrote, "which, despite the beauty of the expression, simply means that one is renouncing all serious and respectful understanding and explanation."

[10] J.-A. Möhler, first preface to L'Unité dans l'Église. Cf. the commentary that Father de Grandmaison gives for this passage, RSR 9 (1919): 314.

[11] I am grateful to Father Chifflot, director of Éditions du Cerf, for permitting me to use for this work my introductions to Homélies d'Origène, which appeared in the Sources chrétiennes series.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J.
Approaching the Sacred Scriptures | Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch
How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft
Introduction to The Meaning of Tradition | Yves Congar, O.P.
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion" | James Hitchcock
Enter Modernism | Philip Trower
Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J.
Exploring the Catholic Faith! | An Interview with Diane Eriksen
What in Fact Is Theology? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Henri de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991) was a French Jesuit and one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. De Lubac was ordained a priest on August 22, 1927, pursued further studies in Rome until 1929, and then became a faculty member at Catholic Faculties of Theology of Lyons, where he taught history of religions until 1961. His pupils included Jean Daniélou and Hans Urs von Balthasar. De Lubac was created cardinal deacon by Pope John Paul II on February 2, 1983 and received the red biretta and the deaconry of S. Maria in Domnica, February 2, 1983. He died on September 4, 1991, Paris and is buried in a tomb of the Society of Jesus at the Vaugirard cemetery in Paris. For more about his life and a listing of his books published by Ignatius Press, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author page.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright © 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius