Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Strange Fire Before the Lord

Although some early Church Fathers attempted to refute Gnosticism, they often applied their own spiritualizing hermeneutic to make Scripture more contemporary. The more radical were Alexandrian academics intent on a syncretism of Christianity with the mysticism of Hellenist philosophy and the rationalism of Greek science. Preeminent among early Church Fathers was Origen of Alexandra, the first to compile a comprehensive systemization of theology: Origen de Principiis (On First Principles). Origen writes: “for sins to be visited upon the heads of children to the third and fourth generation … By us, however, such things are not understood literally” (Origen, Origen de Principiis, Book II.V.2, emphasis added). “But when we read either in the Old Testament or in the New of the anger of God, we do not take such expressions literally, but seek in them a spiritual meaning” (Ibid, Book II.IV.4. emphasis added). Origin instructs that “discrepancy between John and the other three Gospels … must be interpreted spiritually” i.e., by “mystical interpretation” (Origen, Roberts-Donaldson English Translation, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book X.2, emphasis added). Applying this interpretative principle, Origen misappropriates Israel’s identity as evident from the title of the first chapter of this work: “How Christians are the Spiritual Israel” (Ibid., Book I.1). Origen’s mystical rendering of Scripture, conveniently spiritualizing the same passage in different ways on different occasions, propagated many unorthodox doctrines e.g., reincarnation, universalism, denial of a flesh and blood resurrection of the body. Consequentially in 553 AD, Origen was posthumously condemned as a heretic, his teaching proclaimed anathema, and virtually all of his work in the original Greek systematically destroyed. “We have more in the Latin translation of Rufinus; but this translation is by no means trustworthy” (The Encyclopedia Britannica, Origen, V20, p. 271, 1926). A fragment from a translation by Jerome is extent and more representative of his teaching:

At the end and consummation of the world, when souls and rational creatures shall have been sent forth as from bolts and barriers, some of them walk slowly on account of their slothful habits, others fly with rapid flight on account of their diligence. And since all are possessed of free-will, and may of their own accord admit either of good or evil, the former will be in a worse condition than they are at present, while the latter will advance to a better state of things; because different conduct and varying wills will admit of a different condition in either direction, i.e., angels may become men or demons, and again from the latter they may rise to be men or angels (Origen, op. cit., Book I, emphasis added).
“On this method [spiritualization] the sacred writings are regarded as an inexhaustible mine of philosophical and dogmatic wisdom; in reality the exegete [Origen] reads his own ideas into any passage he chooses” (The Encyclopedia Britannica, Thirteenth Ed., V20, p. 271, 1926, emphasis added). Unfortunately, the influence of Origen’s undisciplined method of interpretation extends from his day to our own. His subversion of a literal exegesis of Scripture laid the foundation for a number of theologies e.g., Replacement Theology, Reformed Theology, Covenant Theology, and their contemporary counterpart, Preterism. It is sobering to realize that the world’s most prolific writer, a man who opposed Gnosticism (Origen against Celsus), affirmed the authority of Scripture, and literally meditated day and night on the "spiritual,” like Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, offered strange fire before the Lord.

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