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.

Now this doctrine of the allegorical method, or of the mystical meaning of the texts, has been strongly attacked by the Reformers, and it is something strange in our realistic philological mind. What is the reason for it? The reason for it is easily understood: it is the authority of a text, which is not adequate to our own situation but still has absolute authority. In order to make it applicable to the situation of the interpreter, it is necessary to find a meaning which is not the literal meaning. This is always done; every sermon does it with the Biblical texts, and today it is done on a large scale by some interpreters of the Old Testament who make out of it the New Testament in interpreting every word of the Old Testament as a Christological prononciamento. But this is exactly the same situation; it is something which is almost inescapable: if you have a text which is absolute authority and you know its literal meaning, and this literal meaning doesn’t say anything to you, then you use, consciously or unconsciously, a method which transfers the original meaning into an actual or existential meaning. Of course this can lead to a complete undercutting of the authority of the text. And for this reason the Lutheran Reformation reestablished the genuine or philological or literal text as the genuine authority.

But when we look at the dogmatic statements and their proof which has been taken from the Bible, in Orthodox or Fundamentalistic writings, we find immediately that they don’t do anything else except what Origen did here: they find a method for interpreting the Bible beyond itself. Only if you are scientifically completely honest can you have the literal text and then say: “This doesn’t say anything to us,” or “We say something else; we recommend beyond the text, and we don’t mean to express a hidden meaning of the text. ‘This, I think, is the only consistent attitude.