Most of my readers probably know that I do a weekly quiet time. Every Friday evening, I read a chapter of the Bible and several commentaries–Jewish, Christian, and historical-critical. Unfortunately, one group of writers that I have neglected has been the ancient church fathers, who lived during the first five centuries of Christian history. I have sought to correct this deficiency in my study of Joshua by reading Origen’s homilies on the book.
Origen was a church father who lived in the second-third centuries C.E. When I first read him, I didn’t really like him that much. It was my first year at Harvard Divinity School, and I felt very alone and alienated, for a variety of reasons. I was looking for spiritual food that would assure me of God’s love, and I found it in the writings of Martin Luther, Philip Yancey, Madeleine L’ Engle, and (ironically) Jonathan Edwards. I decided to seek this kind of edification in Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus. I had always liked Leviticus, and I hadn’t read much of Origen, so maybe I could be edified by this wise church father.
But I was disappointed. He came across as, well, legalistic. There really wasn’t much about God’s love or grace in his sermons. His homilies didn’t try to connect the sacrifices with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or God’s loving desire to reconcile humanity to himself. Rather, he seemed to advocate what my dad calls “bootstrap religion,” the idea that people need to become righteous through their own efforts, as opposed to letting go and letting God. For Origen, the sacrifices symbolized the need for Christians to cleanse themselves of sin. Origen also appeared to have ascetic tendencies. I didn’t identify with any of this. I tried to cleanse myself of sin and continually failed. I could not get rid of my resentment, jealousy, insecurity, depression, and extreme introversion. That was why I liked authors who said that God loves me unconditionally. I was thirsty for affirmation in the midst of my loneliness.
I wondered how a pro-grace activist like Luther viewed Origen. Most of what I read in Luther’s Commentary on Galatians appeared to be either positive or neutral about this church father, and a student in ancient Christianity at Harvard told me that Luther actually liked Origen. Sometime later, I read a quote by Luther that was critical of Origen’s allegories, for he said that Origen hardly ever interpreted the Bible in light of the Gospel. For Luther, the Gospel meant justification by grace through faith, apart from works. “Bingo!” I thought. If only I had read this when I was at Harvard! Then I would have been comforted that someone else read Origen the same way I did.
I don’t remember much from Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus. If Origen emphasized the church in that book as much as he does in his Joshua homilies, then I would not have identified with what he was saying, since my faith was rather private. I was your quintessential “lone ranger Christian.” I do recall Origen saying that atonement can come through death. I didn’t know what to make of this, but I have found the same concept in Jewish writings.
I now like some of what Origen has to say, and I will be more specific about this in future posts. People change, and so does their reading. When I first read Origen, I assumed that I needed to agree with him 100% to be edified. Now, I’m more willing to disagree and articulate to myself the reasons that certain concepts don’t mesh with me. That whole process is educational in that I learn more about myself, and (strangely enough) it can be edifying.