Scripture as Incantation

12 05 2008

…and other aspects of Cardinal De Lubac’s Reading of Origen

Henri Cardinal De Lubac’s book, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen, was one of the many works of the Patristic resourcement of last century that sought to rescue the ill-fated early Christian theologian from the scholarly dismissal of history. Though this lack of respect for this towering intellect of early Christendom is waning on many levels, there is still some residual distrust of Origen’s theology.  De Lubac seeks to address only one aspect of the Origenist corpus: exegesis and the allegorical approach to the interpretation of Scripture.  He seeks to prove that Origen’s idea of allegory stems not primarily from the Hellenic ethos but from the letter of Scripture taken in and of itself. De Lubac’s main thesis is that Origen was not overly obsessed with Greek thought forms but took the Word of God alone as the highest criterion for truth. In all things, De Lubac argues, Origen was a vir ecclesiasticus, a man of the Church, whose main inspiration was always the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of all the approaches to the interpretation of Scripture, the allegorical one is perhaps the least appealing to modern man. De Lubac admits this often throughout the text, and even at the end of the book asserts that Origen’s interpretation of Scripture is unsuited to people who now use the Holy Writ as the foundation for certain articles of belief rather than an almost infinite abyss of meaning that the ancients saw in all written texts. One prominent allegory is Origen’s reading of the Jewish people’s entrance into the Promised Land: the people of God are lead by Jesus (Joshua) into the Kingdom of God (the Promised Land) through baptism (the River Jordan), etc. You would not hear from today’s pulpits such elaborate explanations: one would probably have this story preached from a much more moralistic level in which people are exhorted to emulate the Chosen People’s trust in God and perseverance.

De Lubac is quite right, however, in pointing out that the allegorical approach is used in Scripture itself. Our Lord says that He is the serpent that Moses raised in the desert. St. Paul says that the Rock from which water sprang forth is Christ Himself, and so on and so forth. Origen thus felt that he was more than justified in using allegory to add to his understanding of Scripture. Indeed, he felt that much was at stake in his use of allegory. For how could a Christian read the Book of Leviticus in this day and age and wonder why God would care about whether or not an ox is muzzled? (Indeed, would contemporary Christians even bother to study this Book of the Bible?) Or how can a Christian look at all the seemingly arbitrary details of Scripture, such as the telling in the Gospel of St. John of the Apostles catching 153 fish, and not wonder if the text is full of useless, all-too-human details that make the divine inspiration of the text itself questionable? Pagans such as Celsus and Porphyry used these discrepancies to try to undermine the Christian message, and Origen tried his best to shore up and defend the divine nature of the Christian Scriptures.

According to De Lubac, at the foundation of Origen’s exegesis is the idea that the Word of God is precisely that: the Word of God, that is, divine. Thus there will always be an incongruency between what is written in the Books and the human understanding of that Word precisely because it is an infinite depth trying to be filled by a finite human mind. In scholarly terms, Origen was higly rigorous and unrelenting when it came to the study of Scripture on all fronts, from actually trying to visit the places mentioned in the Holy Books to studying Hebrew in order to get all he could out of the letter of the text. However, in one key passage cited by De Lubac, Origen says that, “…Scripture is always to be searched, but, without renouncing the search, we must admit defeat in advance”.  Origen was so convinced of the Divine nature of the Word of God that  for him every jot and tittle, every little detail and passing reference, contained the mystery of the Incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of the Father. To be stuck in the letter for Origen was to be stuck in the “body” and “flesh” of Jesus without rising higher to acknowledge His divinity. Indeed, for Origen, Scripture contained “stumbling blocks” of absurd actions and details that challenged the reader to leave behind the “easy slope of discourse” in order to “seek a meaning truly worthy of God”. The problem of exegesis, then, is an ontological one; it has to do with the inequality between the creature and Creator, and the humble submission of the former to the latter.

At one point in De Lubac’s tome, we read that Origen even says that the Scriptures can be beneficially read even if no understanding comes of it. Ideally, of course, one reads Scripture in order to obtain some knowledge of the Law of God. The nature of the Word, however, is so powerful and so overflowing with meaning that is effects what it signfies. De Lubac cites from Origen’s homilies on Joshua saying:

If, in fact, the Gentiles believe certain songs, which they call incantations, intoned by those who have the skill for it, by invoking certain names-  about which not even the ones who utter them know to whom they refer – put serpents to sleep or attract them out of their lair; if these songs, solely by the sound of the voice, are reputed to cure tumors and other illnesses of that kind and at times plunge the soul into a kind of stupor- at least where the Faith of Christ is not an obstacle- how much more powerful and stronger than any incantation should we consider every reference to the words of Holy Scripture?

De Lubac further elaborates on this thought by saying that for Origen, things were “full of angels”, and even if the person reading the Scriptures had an imperfect grasp of what he is reading, the angels at least understood and would obey the Word of God.

I could not help thinking in reading De Lubac’s book that these approaches to Scripture are a far cry from what passes for the study of the Bible in this day and age. The absence of the allegorical approach to Scripture has brought about an ethos of democratic equality when it comes to approaching the Word of God. People form Bible studies, they hear more Scripture in church, they have Bibles passed out to them on street corners, they have preachers on T.V. blathering into their ears all sorts of interpretations and other nuggets of “Bible wisdom”, etc. Perhaps we are more informed about Biblical things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are better acquainted with the Word of God. This is probably not due to any form of reading or approaches to exegesis in general, but rather to a lack of a clear understanding of the nature of the Scriptures themselves. Scripture, like Christianity in general, is not “useful”; it does not respect our own ideas of logic or decorum, though it interacts with them. The problem lies in who we think God is and who we are. Again, it is not hermeneutical. It’s ontological.

As I cited above, De Lubac says that Origen’s approach is most likely not appropriate for the modern man. As the amateur Platonist that I am, I have to wonder if this opinion is part of the Resourcement scholar’s general tone of returning to the “roots” of what we believe only to disregard many aspects deemed “untimely”. From Chenu, von Balthasar, Congar and De Lubac himself, we hear the constant refrain. “that was all well and good for the Patristic church, but things change…” For me, however, while things may change in terms of their accidents, they are substantially the same (how Peripatetic of me!). Perhaps these scholars had so sealed themselves in what they thought the modern world was that they read all of history as something radically different from the situation they were living through in the early 20th century. The world of a Sicilian peasant, an evangelical snake-handler in the Ozarks, or a Mexican city dweller, however, may not have been so different from the world of third century Alexandria. For me, then, “modernity” as a category is problematic on many levels, and to have based one’s scholarly conclusions on what is “appropriate for modern man” may be a means of veiling unfortunate agendas that are not openly articulated in the Resourcement texts themselves.

I, for one, think that it is perfectly possible for one to read Scripture with as much wonder and enchantment as Origen did. We just need to have a sense of what we are reading, and a heightened sense of the sacredness of words in particular and of the cosmos in general. It is not a matter of what time period we are living in, what prejudices we have or what scholars outside of Christendom say. It is, in all simplicity, a matter of attitude.



4 responses

29 12 2008
peggie renee

i am looking for a book called the angles phonebook… do you know where i can find it?

13 05 2008

I’ve always found the allegorical approach to Scripture facinating. Literalism makes the Bible about as interesting as a phone book. Can you recommend any books or sites about this topic?

12 05 2008
Jonathan Prejean

It doesn’t surprise me that guardian angels, a matter of Catholic dogma, go completely ignored these days. My mother would be called a “lapsed Catholic,” I suppose, but she taught me about prayer to the saints and the protection of guardian angels when I was young. It’s as if angels and demons are too passe’ now, except for trendy pop culture (although I do like to watch Reaper, so it’s not like I don’t enjoy the trendy pop culture). The idea that angels and demons are actually real, neither metaphors nor just character concepts, causes most people today to look at you as if you’ve lost your mind.

How can you even understand a Scripture like “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10) or “Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned” (Luke 8:33) if you don’t believe in such things as angels and demons? It seems that even on the mundane level, if you don’t understand the spiritual hierarchy of the cosmos, then these things simply aren’t capable of speaking to you. So it’s not just a matter of getting back to what was old, but of recognizing an entire mode of reality that is simply ignored in this culture. There might be some modern way of appreciating it, but if there isn’t, so much the worse for modernism, because angels and demons aren’t just ways of looking at the world.

12 05 2008
Michel Vasquez

Perhaps “modern man” is not comfortable with allegory but “post-modern man” may very well be.

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