On Adapting to "Modern Times" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
| April 24, 2006
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding
of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
Dom Capelle was recently obliged to devote a scholarly article to proving that
Saint Ambrose did not take Melchizedek to be the eternal Father.  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.  Closer to our own time, this was also the case with Abbé Jules
Martin, even though he was working on texts.  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."  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 "? 
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.  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" ? 
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,  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. 
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." 
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. 
1 Dom B. Capelle, "Notes de théologie ambrosienne, 1: La Personne de
Meichisédech", in Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale, 1931: 183-89.
 Charles Freppel, Cours d'eloquence sacrée 10:140.
 Martin, "La Critique biblique chez Origène", Annales de
philosophie chrétienne 151:241ff.
 René Cadiou, La Jeunesse d'Origène (1936), p. 54.
 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."
 See "Typologie et allegorisme", RSR 34 (1947).
 Bainvel, De Scriptura sacra
(1910), p. 199.
 E. Klostermann, "Formen der exegetischen Arbeiten des Origenes", Theologische
Literatur-zeitung, October 1947, cols.
 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
 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.
 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
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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.
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