To understand Origen of Alexandria – or Gregory of Nyssa or almost any other Greek-speaking early church father – you have to understand the concept of theoprepes. Plato introduced the concept of theoprepes when he went after Homer’s depictions of the gods. Because the gods/god are/is the ultimate Good, Plato has a big problem with the way Homer makes them act, but because Homer’s poetry is foundational for Greek culture, Plato can’t just dismiss it outright.
So he metaphorizes it. He maintains the truth of the moral lessons but rejects the historicity of the depiction, which he considered blasphemous because the gods did not act in a fitting manner. And that is theoprepes, the concept of what is fitting for the divine.
Origen is faced with a similar dilemma.
He believes in the inspiration of Scripture, which for him writing about 200 C.E. is still just the Old Testament, but he recoils at the anthropomorphism of God found there. And with good reason, from his perspective. When Celsus writes the criticism of Christianity to which Origen responds in Against Celsus, one of his prime concerns is the anthropomorphism of God – it’s just not fitting, in Greek thought, for God to act this way, and a literal reading of Scripture was a huge stumbling block to those educated Greeks to whom Origen was reaching out.
Not only that, he finds numerous places where the text contradicts itself or describes absurdities. So he argues for a metaphorical-allegorical reading of those pieces of scripture where theopedes is violated. Thus, in On First Principles, IV.15, Origen writes:
Divine wisdom took care that certain stumbling-blocks, or interruptions, to the historical meaning should take place, by the introduction into the midst (of the narrative) of certain impossibilities and incongruities; that in this way the very interruption of the narrative might, as by the interposition of a bolt, present an obstacle to the reader, whereby he might refuse to acknowledge the way which conducts to the ordinary meaning; and being thus excluded and debarred from it, we might be recalled to the beginning of another way, in order that, by entering upon a narrow path, and passing to a loftier and more sublime road, he might lay open the immense breadth of divine wisdom.
And in IV.16, he gets specific. I’ve broken up this paragraph for easier reading:
Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate,that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars— the first day even without a sky?
And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood,so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledgeof good and evil?
No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam layhid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it.
The departure of Cain from the presence of the Lord will manifestly cause a careful reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and how anyone can go out from it. …
The same style of Scriptural narrative occurs abundantly in the Gospels, as when the devil is said to have placed Jesus on a lofty mountain, that he might show Him from thence all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. How could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus should be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the latter should show him all the kingdoms of the world (as if they were lying beneath his bodily eyes, and adjacent to one mountain), i.e., the kingdoms of the Persians, and Scythians, and Indians? Or how could he show in what manner the kings of these kingdoms are glorified by men?
And many other instances similar to this will be found in the Gospels by anyone who will read them with attention, and will observe that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted historically, but which may be accepted in a spiritual signification.
I want to be clear: This was not some liberal German theologian from the 1800s but one of the most brilliant and preeminent church fathers writing 1,800 years ago. In fact, Origen argued a literal reading of Scripture had led some of his contemporaries into heresy.
He specifically chastises Marcion, who in seeing the dramatically different portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments, determined they were not the same god at all, and that the Redeemer of the world was not the same deity as its creator; and he singles out the Gnostics, for their belief that the material world was created by the Demiurge, a sub-divine figure somewhat equivalent to Christ, and some Christians, who subscribe to such divine dualism but argue the opposite of Marcion, that in fact the Creator God is supreme to the Redeemer God.
All of these heresies, Origen argues, come from the “simple,” who cannot understand that portions of the Bible are meant to be read nonliterally:
Now the reason of the erroneous apprehension of all these points on the part of those whom we have mentioned above, is no other than this, that holy Scripture is not understood by them according to its spiritual, but according to its literal meaning (IV.9).
Now sometimes, Origen’s insistence on a spiritual meaning leads to some odd interpretations. For example, in On Prayer he metaphorizes the story of Daniel and the lion’s den, talking about how the mouths of spiritual lions were closed so as to save Daniel’s soul. Sure, or maybe it’s just a story about a guy who was thrown into a lion’s den. But of course Origen didn’t have the blessing of the historical-critical method. He didn’t have access to the idea that the inaccuracies and contradictions found in the Bible were simply inaccuracies and contradictions. Nevertheless, I don’t think he would have minded so much.
This isn’t to say Origen just abandoned the teachings of scripture to Greek assumptions. As you can see above, Origen was careful to give total agency to the Holy Spirit and saw the historical impossibilities as something of a code to be unlocked by the knowledgeable.
This notion of theopedes extended to core Christian doctrines, as well, but rather than explaining them away, Origen turned to apologetics, showing to Christianity’s Greek critics that the radical doctrine of the God-made-flesh who suffered on a cross was indeed fitting for the divine. Origen wasn’t the first to do that; the writer of the Gospel of John did it most noticeably when he adopted the Stoic conception of the Logos and applied it to the birth of Jesus.
Ultimately, Origen’s goal was to show, in the words of my professor, “that God has a clue and a plan, and if he doesn’t have a clue and a plan, then he’s not worthy of belief.” Indeed, as Origen shows by highlighting the heresies of the Marcionites and Gnostics, taking the text at face value in all cases leads to horrific, damaging conceptions of God. When a passage delivers an unfitting portrayal of God, reading it literally requires the worship of an absurdity.
So why would God inspire scripture to be written in such a way? Origen explained this by dividing his congregation into two basic groups, the simple and the (lower-case) gnostic (i.e., knowledgeable or intellectual) Christians. To Origen, God uses scripture to move students to a deeper level, from simple to gnostic. God, therefore, is something of a pedagogue, working subtly through the text, preserving the agency and freedom of the student while moving her to a state of deeper knowledge of the divine.
We don’t need to subscribe to Origen’s Bible-code theory of the text – that the Holy Spirit placed “stumbling blocks” for those enlightened enough to trip over them – to understand his broader theory of God’s work in the life of the Christian through the text. In fact, given what we know about the way God created the natural world – working subtly through his creation while preserving its agency and freedom – it makes a lot of sense.
What was true for Origen 1,800 years ago is true for us today: The God we worship depends a great deal on how we read his inspired scriptures. We don’t need to distort them by taking them literally, and we don’t need to worship an absurdity.