Tag Archives: Reformation

Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, Part I

While continuing my slow waltz with The Philocalia of Origen (see my previous post)–and it has truly been a slow waltz because our family has recently been blessed with a new baby girl–I suddenly found that I was spinning around the room with a passage from Origen with which I had enjoyed a brief, sparkling romance several years ago.  But apparently the flame of passion had spluttered, because I had nearly forgotten it, until it was surprisingly whisked into my arms again.  In speaking about how to interpret the Psalter, Origen says:

“Let us preface our remarks with a very pleasing tradition respecting all Divine Scripture in general, which has been handed down to us by the Jew.  That great scholar used to say that inspired Scripture taken as a whole was on account of its obscurity like many locked-up rooms in one house.  Before each room he supposed a key to be placed, but not the one belonging to it; and that the keys were so dispersed all around the rooms, not fitting the locks of the several rooms before which they were placed.  It would be a troubling piece of work to discover the keys to suit the rooms they were meant for:  It was, he said, just so with the understanding of of the Scriptures, because they are so obscure; the only way to begin to understand them was, he said, by means of other passages containing the explanation dispersed throughout them.  The Apostle [Paul], I think suggests such a way of coming to a knowledge of the Divine words when He said, ‘Which things also we speak, not in words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual’ [1 Corinthians 2:13]” (Origen Philocalia 2.3; trans. George Lewis, 1911 with slight modification).

Origen here endorses a traditional rule of biblical interpretation (a rule that became especially prominent much later as part of the principle of sola scriptura in the Protestant Reformation):  one should use Scripture to interpret Scripture.  That is, less obscure passages can be brought in to assist as we seek to unlock those that are more difficult, and thus, it is hoped, that Scripture will be found to have a certain self-interpreting and self-authenticating perspecuity.  I will have a few thoughts to offer about both the perils and possible advantages of this way of reading the Bible in my next post.