Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought

The Theology of Origen

Neo-Platonism is not only important because it was the philosophy which deeply influenced the first great theological system, that of Origen, but it was also the philosophy which influenced (through Dionysius the Areopagite, of whom we shall hear more later) all forms of Christian mysticism and most forms of classical Christian theology, especially with respect to the doctrine of God, world, and soul.

Therefore it is impossible to understand the development of Christian theology without knowing something about this last great attempt of paganism to express itself in terms of a philosophical theology, or theological philosophy, which was both science and life for the ancient mind. The basic authority for Origen is Scripture. He introduces the famous distinction of the three meanings of the Scripture: 1) The somatic, or literal, philological sense, (from soma, “body”), which everybody can understand and which is identical with the historical truth.

2) The psychic or moral sense: “psychic” in the original sense of that which belongs to the soul. The moral sense means the application of the Biblical text to our situation. It is the existential application of the Biblical texts to ourselves.

3) The spiritual sense: it is understandable only to those who are perfect, not morally but in the sense of being completely introduced into the meaning of Christianity; it is the mystical sense. There are some cases in which the Biblical text has only a mystical sense; then this is at the same time the literal one. But ordinarily it is a literal sense distinguished from the mystical sense. The way in which the mystical sense is to be found is through the allegoric method, the method of finding the hidden sense behind the texts.