Did Origen say “The Scriptures are of little use to those who understand them as they are written”?

I came across a post online which made some curious claims about Origen, repeated from here.  In particular:

The Scriptures,” Origen maintained, “are of little use to those who understand them as they are written.”

But did Origen say this? At the Logos forums the same question is asked, but with little result.

A Google Books search quickly reveals a likely US source for the quotation: Charles Anthon, A Classical Dictionary: Containing the Principle Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors (1841: this reprint 1888), vol. 2, p.936:

For, whether from a defect in judgement or from a fault in his education, he applied to the Scriptures the allegorical method which the Platonists used in interpreting the heathen mythology.  He says himself, “that the source of many evils lies in adhering to the carnal or external part of Scripture.  Those who do so shall not attain the kingdom of God.  Let us therefore seek after the spirit and the substantial fruit of the word, which are hidden and mysterious.”  And again, “the Scriptures are of little use to those who understand them as they are written.”

This gives us a little more to work with: and a search on “origen carnal external” quickly takes us to Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History[1], 1824, vol. 1, p.218, note h, which states:

h Origen in his Stromata, book x. expresses himself in the following manner: “the source of many evils lies in adhering to the carnal or external part of Scripture. Those who do so shall not attain to the kingdom of God. Let us therefore seek after the spirit and the substantial fruit of the word which are hidden and mysterious.” And again “the Scriptures are of little use to those who understand them as they are written.” One would think it impossible that such expressions should drop from the pen of a wise man. But the philosophy which this great man embraced with such zeal was one of the sources of his delusion. He could not find in the Bible the opinions he had adopted as long as he interpreted that sacred book according to its literal sense. But Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and indeed the whole philosophical tribe could not fail to obtain for their sentiments a place in the gospel when it was interpreted by the wanton inventions of fancy and upon the supposition of a hidden sense to which it was possible to give all sorts of forms. Hence all who desired to model Christianity according to their fancy or their favourite system of philosophy embraced Origen’s method of interpretation.

Anthon, it seems, simply quoted Mosheim, here translated from the Latin[2] and doubtless paraphrased along the way, but omitted the reference.   A more accurate translation was made by James Murdock (1832)[3], and in vol.1, p.181, we find the following:

(8) Origen in his Stromata l.x, cited by Ch. de la Rue, Opp. tom i., p. 41, says, Multorum malorum occasio est, si quis in carne Scripturae maneat. Quae qui fecerint, regnum Dei non consequentur. Quamobrem spiritum Scripturae fructusque quaeramus qui non dicuntur manifesti. He had said a little before, Non valde eos juvat Scriptura, qui eam intelligunt ut scriptum est. Who would suppose such declarations could fall from the lips of a wise and considerate person? But this excellent man suffered himself to be misled by the causes mentioned and by his love of philosophy. He could not discover in the sacred books all that he considered true so long as he adhered to the literal sense; but allow him to abandon the literal sense, and to search for recondite meanings, and those books would contain Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and the whole tribe of philosophers. And thus nearly all those who would model Christianity according to their own fancy or their favourite system of philosophy have run into this mode of interpreting Scripture.

The Latin does indeed more or less mean what is given by Maclaine.

The Stromata of Origen is, of course, a lost work.  But here we get a proper reference, to the edition of Charles de la Rue, no less, which is what the Patrologia Graeca reprints.  So we can now use Migne to examine the text!

It’s PG 11 (Origen vol. 1), col. 99 f.  The first quotation from book 10 of the Stromata is on col. 106 C-D, and comes from a Latin source, Jerome’s 3 books of Commentary on Galatians, chapter 5, discussing Gal. 5:13.  The second is from the same source, col. 105 D, and reads somewhat differently to the quotation:

Sed neque in his consequentiam desperare debemus: quia opera carnis divinorum voluminum historia continent; non valde eos juvans qui sic eam intellegunt, ut scripta est.

I can’t quite make out from the Latin what the context is, except that the next sentence refers to multiple marriages by the patriarchs and the like.  Andrew Cain made a translation of this work for the Fathers of the Church series, and I can see on Google Books a preview of p.218 with the first quotation:

Clinging to the flesh [that is, the literal meaning] of Scripture opens up the door for many evils.  “Those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  So, then, let us seek the spirit of Scripture and the fruits that are not readily apparent to the eye.

Unfortunately I can’t view p.216 or 217 which must contain our quotation.  Can anyone else have any more luck?  It is infuriating not to have access, I must say!

UPDATE: A kind correspondent has sent me copies of those pages.  Here is what Jerome says:

5. 13a. Brothers, you were called to be free. Just do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh (The word “use” is implied; the latin translator supplied it because it is not found in the Greek).

Given the obscurity of this verse, I have thought it best to insert a translated portion from the tenth book of Origen’s Miscellanies. I have done this not because individual parts [of this verse] cannot be explained according to their proper context and sense, but because, if they are isolated from the preceding passage, they comprise a single, indiscernible mass, and, if they are understood literally, they seem internally dissonant and logically inconsistent.

These are Origen’s words:

This is a difficult passage and so it requires elucidation. The one who is free and who, in a more elevated sense, pursues the Spirit and truth disdains both the letter and the types which precede [the realities they foreshadow]. He must not look down on lesser [Christians] and give those who cannot grasp spiritual profundities an occasion for despairing completely about their plight. For although they are weak, and although they are called flesh in comparison with the Spirit, they are nevertheless the flesh of Christ. For if he apprehends the mystery of the love which senses the lesser one, let him do what he can for the weak to make sure that a brother for whom Christ died may not perish  in deficiency of knowledge . Watch closely to see whether this is the sense that emerges from the discussion below.

 “Brothers, you were called to be free.” Perhaps he says this because not everyone could understand the calling to freedom. This is why you now hear, “Just do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” The greater must serve the lesser out of love, and he who aspires to be greater will become the servant of all. Therefore, the spiritual man must not tear to pieces [believers who are] Christ’s flesh, nor must he give them an opportunity to bite and devour one another. The one who walks by the Spirit and abides by the words of Scripture in the spirit of Scripture must not gratify the desires of his flesh.

Most take literally the injunction, “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” If we do the same, Paul will do a sudden turn-about and contradict the argument and the point of his entire epistle. He continues right after this, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” The discourse has to some extent been internally consistent up to this point. If we again subscribe to the literal meaning, Paul leads us at once from a discussion about flesh and Spirit to random precepts, that is, “The deeds of the flesh are obvious,” and by contrast, “The fruit of the Spirit is love,” and so on. But we must not be dismayed by the implication of these statements.  The divine books record deeds of the flesh — a fact that is not edifying for those who take the narrative literally. Who will not be prompted to become a slave to extravagance and regard sexual immorality as something permissible when he reads that Judah propositioned a prostitute and that the patriarchs had many wives at once? How will someone not be inspired to worship idols when he thinks that the blood of bulls and the rest of the sacrifices detailed in Leviticus have no further significance attached to them than what the letter of the Law conveys? What Scripture teaches about hostilities is clearly shown in this passage, “O wretched daughter of Babylon, happy is he who will repay you for what you have done to us. Happy is he who will seize your infants and dash them against the rocks,” and also in this one, “Every morning I destroyed all the wicked in the land,” and so on. Comparable passages may be adduced which deal with discord, jealousy, rage, quarrels, and dissensions. If we do not go with a spiritual interpretation of them, examples from history will stir us toward these [vices] rather than deter us from them. Heresies, too, have taken rise more from the literal interpretation of Scripture than from the work of our flesh, as most people think. We learn envy and drunkenness from the letter of the Law. After the flood Noah got drunk, and so did the patriarchs when they were in Egypt visiting their brother Joseph. There are stories in the Book of Kingdoms and elsewhere about revelries. For instance, David danced in celebration and tambourines made loud music before God’s Ark of the Covenant. One might ask how the literal word of divine Scripture, which is called its flesh, leads us into sorcery and magic, unless we make our way toward the spirit of the same Scripture. This is what is meant, I believe, when it is said that Moses was educated in all the wisdom and learning of the Egyptians, and that Daniel and the three boy’s were found to be ten times wiser than the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers.

Clinging to the flesh [that is, the literal meaning] of Scripture opens up the door for many evils. “Those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” So, then, let us seek the spirit of Scripture and the fruits that are not readily apparent to the eye. For the fruit of the Spirit is found in Scripture only with great effort, exertion, and careful study. I reckon that Paul was referring ever so carefully and cautiously to the literal meaning of Scripture when he said, “The deeds of the flesh are obvious.” As for the spiritual meaning, he did not say that the fruit of the Spirit is obvious, but he said instead, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,” and so on. Now, if we leave behind types and move towards the Spirit and the truth of Scripture, first love is spread out before us, and then we move on to joy and peace on the way to acquiring patience. Who would not be educated in mercy and goodness when he regards aspects of the Law that seem gloomy to some — I mean penalties, wars, the toppling of nations, and the threats delivered by the prophets to the people — as remedies rather than punishments? For the Lord will not be angry forever. Since these things are evident to us, our faith will be more enlightened by reason and our conduct will be guided by temperance, which continence and chastity follow, and then the Law will begin to be favorable to us.

Here ends the quotation from Origen.

And there are our two passages.  Origen does indeed say what he is quoted to say.  He makes some interesting arguments, but today these issues would be dealt with by the idea of progressive revelation, rather than by this approach, whose weaknesses are obvious.

Interesting, tho, that he dismisses the literal sense of “David danced in celebration and tambourines made loud music before God’s Ark of the Covenant.”  I have certainly heard that verse used to justify both in pentecostal circles.

And I have to say that Andrew Cain has produced a rather excellent translation here.  It’s readable and comprehensible and, while we may not agree with all the points made by Origen, there is no doubt as to what he is saying.

  1. [1] Johann Lorenz Mosheim, An ecclesiastical history, ancient and modern, from the birth of Christ to the beginning of the present century: In which the rise, progress, and variation of church power, are considered in their connexion with the state of learning and philosophy, and the political history of Europe, during that period, in 4 vols, translated by Archibald Maclaine; 1764, but this reprint New York: Evert Duylinck, 1824.
  2. [2] Institutionum historiae ecclesiasticae libri IV, 1726
  3. [3] Under the title, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History.

13 Responses to “Did Origen say “The Scriptures are of little use to those who understand them as they are written”?”


  1. arcadium
  2. Maureen

    Well, of course you don’t understand a particular piece of Scripture as meaning just exactly what that particular verse says, no more and no less. Scripture comments on Scripture, tradition gives you all sorts of hints, the genre of the verse is important to know, and you’re also supposed to read it with your own knowledge and experience, and the knowledge you pick up from others. You can’t even understand normal literature simply to the letter, so why would you try to read the Bible that way?

    Origen had his excesses, and he continually cracks me up with his allegories; but he didn’t just pull his interpretations out of his butt. You can see exactly where he’s coming from, usually; and if you don’t, that’s usually a sign that you’re not as well-read in the Bible as him. You can disagree with him, but I can’t see how these critics manage to discount him.

  3. Roger Pearse

    Thank you, Arcadium. Any chance of a copy of p.219 as well, so we can get to the end of the quotation of the Stromateis? :)

  4. arcadium
  5. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much! Updated.

  6. Maureen

    Well, there’s nothing wrong with the literal sense of the David verse, per se, and Origen isn’t generally saying that that stuff didn’t happen historically. He’s usually saying that the point _for us_ isn’t that David stripped and danced and so we should too. The point for us is something different.

    (Insert educational story about Origen allegedly taking the “eunuch for heaven” verse too literally in his youth. Although it probably wasn’t true, it certainly shows what sorts of literalisms that Origen was reacting against.)

  7. Roger Pearse

    You can understand why that might make him inclined to an allegorical view.

  8. Dioscorus Boles

    Origen’s allegorical interpretation of the sacred literature, mainly the Old Testament, is a way out of the many difficulties in the OT one finds. Allegorism I believe was first introduced by Clement of Alexandria and Origen expanded on it. It was later taken over by other Christian saints in Alexandria and elsewhere. I love Origen for his allegorism but it does not solve all problems one can find. At least not for me as yet.

  9. Maureen

    I was reading a reprint thing by that Von Balthasar guy (“The Word, Scripture, and Tradition”) in one of Scott Hahn’s Letter and Spirit journal issues, and VB compared the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture to the humanity and divinity of Christ. The letter is what you can see, and obviously it’s very important, but there’s also the other stuff that you can only understand by faith.

  10. Roger Pearse

    I have to admit to being very dubious about all this, because it is purely subjective. Anything can be allegorised, but the result is unedifying, to me at least.

  11. Maureen

    Well, allegories aren’t my thing, either; but they’re the kind of thing people come up with who do a lot of chewing on the Scriptures, and the rabbis seem to have come up with tons of ‘em also. As long as people don’t _only_ understand things as allegories, I think you’re okay.

    But I also think that Scripture is God’s testimony about the world, and that includes God telling us about humans doing bad deeds as well as God telling us uplifting stuff. A lot of people have serious trouble with that, even without “obscure passages” and troubling bits of the Scriptures.

    So I see allegories coming out of two places: people who love to see everything in existence somewhere in the Scriptures, and people who have very definite ideas about what shouldn’t and must not be in the Scriptures.

    Heh! Once again, my fingers ramble along until I figure out what I really think!

  12. Roger Pearse

    I agree. How much we need a real guide to interpreting the scriptures, written by someone not an unbeliever or a heretic. But then, who could write it?!

  13. Dioscorus Boles

    I have just gone through Origen’s On First Principles (Chapter Three:Examples From the Scriptures of How Scripture Should Be Understood), and I find myself in total agreement with him. There are irrationalities and even impossibilities in some texts that cannot ne taken literally.