It is not evolution or science that has driven Christians away from a literal Bible interpretation.
As far back as A.D. 225, one Christian—who could not possibly have heard of Charles Darwin or of evolution—explained why Scripture was never meant to always be a literal, historic document.
The following explanation is full, logical and powerful. I am also going to show you that it is not unique to Origen, the author of this incredibly insightful discussion on literal Bible interpretation.
Buckle your seat belts. You have probably never heard an argument like this one because it's been lost to most of Christianity for centuries.
The following is all from Origen's De Principiis or "Beginning Principles."
Let me pause here so you can catch up on what he's saying.
Now, let me establish that if you are a Bible believer, then what he says is obviously true.
Jesus gave this very reason as to why he spoke in parables. He told the apostles that "it is given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 13:11). But to those who are outside?
Nor was this limited to Jesus. Jesus was actually quoting what was said to Isaiah when he appeared before God in heaven (Isaiah 6:1-10).
So Origen is establishing that proper Bible interpretation understands that God wants to hide things from those that do not seek them.
He goes on:
Okay, let's pause again.
So Origen now argues that Bible interpretation involves mysteries hidden by the letter of Scripture and that God did this on purpose, even revealing the "Law of Truth," which would be a reference to the New Covenant, in the words of the old Law … but only to those who would pursue truth diligently.
To the rest—which unfortunately means many of us modern Christians—the truth is hidden under our literal interpretation of the Bible.
Origen goes on, and here's where we get to the meat of the matter:
What an astonishing assertion about Bible interpretation!
Origen, almost 1800 years ago, is arguing that the Bible contains contradictions ("incongruities") on purpose, so that we would know to look for a symbolic meaning!
Origen believed that when we argue against contradictions and impossibilities in historical narratives, we are missing out on the breadth of Divine Wisdom and improperly interpreting the Bible!
Origen was not moved to this method of Bible interpretation by Charles Darwin or by modern science, neither of which existed in the early 3rd century.
Origen adopted this method of interpreting the Bible from the Bible itself!
And why shouldn't he? The apostle Paul saw the old and new covenants in the story of Sarah and Hagar (Gal. 4:21-31). Jesus saw the resurrection in the statement that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 22:32).
Let's go on just a bit further with De Principiis (On Beginning Principles). But first, let's let him sum up his position on interpreting the Bible:
So what are these events that should lead us to seek a deeper meaning in our Bible interpretation?
Origen begins with the creation story, questioning its literalness based on Scripture only, not on evolutionary science which would have to wait 16 centuries to be discovered and accepted.
Well, we know who would be so ignorant. Most of us Christians who are alive today because we've lost an understanding of Bible interpretation.
And know that we have indeed lost an understanding of Bible interpretation.
The explanations here are not unique to Origen …
Justin Martyr, almost a century before Origen, discusses the very same things in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew …
Here, Trypho the Jew admits to Justin Martyr that the Scripture says that those three men were really the Lord and two angels. But the idea that God would eat literal food threw them for a loss.
Not Justin. Justin was familiar with everything that Origen would say almost a century later, so he had a ready explanation.
Trypho gave in to Justin's Bible interpretation. He did so because even the Jews knew about the figurative interpretation of Scripture. Justin specifically asked him.
I do not want to tire you by producing the whole litany of early Christian writers who can be shown to agree with Origen's method of Bible interpretation, so I'll give you just one more. This is from around the year 185, about halfway between Justin and Origen:
The apostle Paul went even further than Irenaeus in applying Scriptures about animals to humans.
In 1 Corinthians 9, he argues that God does not care about oxen, so there's no way that the law about not muzzling an ox while it treads the corn was really only about oxen. "No doubt," he says, "it is for our sakes this is written."
Origen argues that any of us should be able to see these things.
He then gives us a New Testament example.
I call these final comments on Bible interpretation because they're the last ones I'm quoting. He has much more to say on the subject, which you can read online for free at ccel.org.
As you can see, the early churches charged the Holy Spirit himself with purposely introducing things that would stir us to search for deeper truths. Truths that would be hidden to the lazy and complacent but revealed to those who diligently sought for them.
They give numerous examples. We know that the Bible says that no food is unclean (Mark 7:18-19; Acts 10:14-15; 1 Tim. 4:3-4; etc.). Yet, the Law makes it clear that some animals are unclean, and there are even Christian denominations, like the Seventh Day Adventists, that ignore the New Testament and forbid the eating of unclean meats.
The early Christian approach to Bible interpretation answers all that for us, sending us to the deeper meaning of Scripture, the meaning that Jesus spoke of when he said he came to bring the Law to fullness (Matt. 5:17). Jesus went on to give numerous examples of the fullness of the Law.
Just as importantly, in my eyes, is the fact that God simply does not help those who wish to defend a literal Bible that is historically accurate in every detail. As you can see from the rest of this site, literalists are left contradicting themselves, being deceitful with the evidence, and in every way being intellectually routed in their defense of literal Bible interpretation.
In fact, scientists go on making amazing discoveries and astounding the world, and while literalist Christians debate Bible interpretation and science with them, their power rapidly dissipates.
God wants to convince the world with power, not words! (1 Cor. 4:19-20: Matt. 5:13-16; Jn. 17:20-23).
Let us return to using the Scriptures for what they were meant for, to instruct us in righteousness so that we might be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
This is the goodness and power of God, not the other.
All Bible verses are taken from the King James Version and updated for language and grammar.
Copyright © 2009-2017 Paul F. Pavao. All rights reserved.