Origen's Mystical Exegesis

Post by
Ambrose Andreano

I wanted to explore the reasons why the hearts of countless people feel drawn again and again to the writings of this one man, and why it seems that no amount of burning can prevent Origen from rising anew, amidst the flames of papyrus and parchment.


"Now all these things happened unto them as examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come."
(1 Cor. 10:11)

"Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me."
(Jhn. 5:39)

"And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?"
(Luk. 24:32)

"And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals."
(Rev. 5:1)

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
(Mat. 11:15)

I felt inspired to write this merely for its potential to dramatically and immediately improve the exegetical technique of all those teachers of scripture who are unfamiliar with Origen, but nonetheless love what they have read and want someone to articulate why they feel so irresistibly pulled to his writings. It is an outpouring of my deepest affections for Christ and His word, as well as a reflection on how I experience Him within me, speaking in tongues through the text. This essay is truly a labor of Love, no doubt because Christ moves and speaks within me setting my heart ablaze like the burning bush—so much so that I come to you here not as Ambrose, telling you what Origen has done in his works, but rather as Cleopas, exposing what seeds Christ has sown from the word of His mouth into my ear, and what fire has grown in the soil of my heart from those seeds; Christ has appeared to me on my own road to Emmaus, and He has done so in the image of Origen. For truly Origen speaks with the distinct yet obscure language of Christ. This essay is intended as both an exposition and tutorial regarding Origenian exegesis, for the benefit of the Church generally and clergy in particular.

"For we must consider these things to be spoken not only of the Apocalypse of John and Isaiah, but also of all Divine Scripture, which is beyond question full of riddles, and parables, and dark sayings, and various other obscurities, hard to be understood by men, whose ears can catch no more than the faint echoes of the Divine words."[1]

Various criticisms of Origen’s methodology have arisen throughout the ages, and perhaps I will write a refutation of them at some point in the future. But for the time being I wanted to explore the reasons why the hearts of countless people feel drawn again and again to the writings of this one man, and why it seems that no amount of burning can prevent Origen from rising anew, amidst the flames of papyrus and parchment.

However, before I begin my exploration of Origen’s priestly hermeneutical methodology—that is, the manner in which he sees the text, thinks about the text in connection to his immediate audience, in order to then construct a homily—I must first define some terms.


Sacramental exegesis I define as the subjective (inward) synergistic component of the objective (outward) “mystical exegesis,” making the two inherently connected, albeit distinct. Mystical/allegorical exegesis therefore is the methodology and perspective of the exegete, whereas sacramental exegesis is primarily the experience defined from the perspective of the hearer. Not all mystical exegesis is properly sacramental (I am of the opinion that sacraments must be effectual to be real sacraments), as this label is meant to convey the transubstantiation of a cold and stony heart into a burning one. Not all biblical exposition is a direct and inward encounter with the person of Christ, but there is a kind of exposition which does exactly this in the heart of the hearer who has “ears to hear.” It is the kind of exposition that causes the hair on the neck and arms to rise in worship, and it provokes a passion in the heart that can only be described as a burning love.

Mystical exegesis I define as the exegete’s attempt, through deep theological and philosophical meditation (and perhaps even incorporating personal experiences with the divine in dreams or visions), to ascend beyond what can be seen in the scriptures only with the naked eye. That is, to ascend to the summit of the hermeneutical mountain. Traversing beyond its base (the obvious level of the text of scripture when taken literally at face value) in order that we may enhance our love and desire for Christ, and edify others through our experience (the sacramental phenomenon in the context of proper mystical exposition). In other words, scripture is not merely a horizontal plane, but it also contains a sense of verticality. To scale the verticality of scripture is to mature in understanding beyond the child’s stage and into adulthood, much like how children begin with a literal understanding, and then grow to become more abstract and poetic in their speech, increasingly nuanced in critical thinking as they enter adulthood. As the sacred text says, “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.”[2] The heart of mystical exegesis is the understanding that all scripture, no matter how seemingly redundant or irrelevant in its literal sense, is profitable for doctrine. As scripture says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”[3]

We might call this obvious, historical, and literal level of the text the sensory plane.[4] However, there are hidden truths within the text that are only found when one sees the text with spiritual eyes, inquires about it through meditation, and pushes deeper into a more sublime understanding. And when I say “hidden,” I do not mean in the sense of general gnostic connotations of some secret truth made intentionally inaccessible to all but the few. I will give an analogy for what I mean by this: Suppose a wealthy king were to generously dump a variety of precious jewels, gold coins, and other valuable objects into the town pool of a poor city. The pool itself has both a shallow and a deep end. The rewards in this example are given with complete impartiality, but there is an illusion of partiality when the one who stays in the shallow end discovers the greater riches of one coming up from the deep end. The rewards in the deep end are therefore hidden to those in the shallow. It is in this sense that I mean there are certain truths which are hidden in the “deep end” of scripture’s living water.

As was already stated, I make a distinction between sacramental exegesis and mystical/allegorical exegesis, and I am inspired to make such a distinction because I have encountered obstacles both on (a) the hearer’s side of the road of spiritual communication, and (b) the exegete’s side. I have experienced on many occasions a kind of allegorizing that is crafted with both unsophisticated prose and underdeveloped thought. And much like comparing the difference between the attempted allegorizing of a child with that of an accomplished author who has mastered the technique, not all allegorical exegesis operates at the same level of profundity and edification, even if the methodology or intent is the same.

The master painter and the novice are not equals merely for using the same general colors or brush strokes, nor is the master swordsman the same as his pupil for making similar body and sword motions. Thus, we do not throw out Michelangelo, and demonize his contribution to art, simply because a child attempts to unsuccessfully make art in his style. The same is true when it comes to evaluating Origen’s interpretive methodology. Origenian mystical exegesis is a hermeneutical art style. It is a style of swordsmanship in “rightly dividing the word of truth.”[5] It is a Christ-centered style of divine poetry. It is the heart's canticle that entices the hearts of all who "hear" to sing along. Ultimately then, it is not something that can be fact-checked or scientifically analyzed, as if mystical/allegorical commentary on scripture were analogous to entries in a “history of the Bible” encyclopedia. This simply is not the point. To put this into perspective, how absurd would it be for someone to critique the historical accuracy of a poem or art piece, instead of simply experiencing it as it was intended to be experienced, in accordance with its purpose and genre? It could very well be that the historical inaccuracy of the poem is the intended point. It is for this reason that mystical exegesis is a creative, pastoral, and “right-brained” endeavor (if one would grant the notion for the sake of clarity) that we must read and understand in its proper genre.

Therefore, the aesthetic of Origen’s mystical exegesis—the outward packaging of his expository content or the way he constructs his prose—is just as important to the hearer as the content itself; the beauty is inherently related to its truth. And it is this allegorical aesthetic that reveals the edifying spiritual unity of Truth in the exegete with Truth in the hearer.[6] It is a phenomenon that can be found in the words “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”[7] This experience of Christ, who is “the Truth”[8] manifesting Himself amidst two hearts (that is, the heart of the exegete and the heart of the hearer) is sacramental exegesis. Therefore, those who deliver this Eucharistic gift to the heart of the hearer are mystically called “priest,” whether they be formally ordained or not.

I use the term sacramental exegesis because not all biblical exposition is a direct inward encounter with the person of Christ. However, there is a kind of exposition which does exactly this, if the mouth of the mystic speaks with Christ’s flaming tongue, not merely in the spirit but with understanding, thereby reaching the heart of a hearer who has “ears to hear.” It is a kind of exposition that incite the tears on the cheek to fall down in humility. This is sacramental exegesis, this is what Origen mastered, and this is what I will now attempt to explain, in detail, so that all who read this will have a concrete understanding of how to prepare this sacrament, in the Origenian aesthetic, for the benefit of all.


I begin with Luke 24:32, where we find the disciples on the road to Emmaus saying: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” This is one of the most frequently referenced verses in the Origenian corpus when it comes to the topic of scripture, and I can think of no better way to both begin and center a discussion on his mysticism, because it captures the essence of it like no other passage. This idea that the scriptures needed to be properly opened, and that this opening can have a transformative sacramental effect on our inner life with Christ, was one that consumed Origen’s thought and drove his hermeneutic. The true mystical theologian, in other words, is the exegete that acts as a spiritual priest: bringing the sacrament of Christ’s tongue of fire (that is, Christ’s sacramental preparation in the exegete) through the word (scripture) to the torch of the heart through the ear (Christ’s sacramental preparation in the heart of the hearer).

The mystic is one who, speaking with the Christ's tongue of fire, causes the hearts of the listeners to burn with edification and holy passion for Christ through the revelation of the mysteries in the text that testify of Him.[9] Christ within the exegete opens the scriptures by playing them like a divine harp or lyre. Christ has His own voice; His own sound and genre of music that His sheep hear and recognize. He, like David, silences the demonic principalities and powers at work within our minds.[10] He descends to Hades like Orpheus and, through the enchanting mystical sounds of the law and the prophets, rescues His fallen bride. When we hear the Word (Christ) sacramentally through the word (the scriptures), when the Lord plays His harp through the voice of this or that theologian (who pluck the strings of the law and the prophets), we can only say, in accordance with scripture: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he opened to us the scriptures?”

This inward fire is the sign that we have received the sacrament of the Divine Word, encountering Him within us, through the sacred scriptures. This burning is a sign that our contemplation has been fixed upon things above, not on things of the earth.[11] However, we must first examine the origins of mystical theology in Christian thought, and for this we go to a man who was in many ways torn between the things above and things of earth.[12] I speak, of course, of St. Paul.


Operating in a Second Temple allegorical framework similar to that of Philo of Alexandria, St. Paul manifests his own mystical paradigm in a few places. He says “the law is spiritual,”[13] and then more explicitly in Galatians: “Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which bearing children to bondage, which is Hagar.”[14] He also proclaims in his letter to the Corinthians: “Who also hath made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”[15] And again he writes: “And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.”[16] And again, a most noteworthy thing: “Now all these things happened unto them as examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”[17] And yet again, he says: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[18] And in his epistle to the Romans, he concludes: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”[19] This approach to the scriptures represents Origen’s entire project. Here he acts as the spiritual successor to Paul—whom Origen himself saw as the greatest apostle.[20]

In modern times, mystical exegesis is a neglected and forgotten art form. Contemporary exegesis is overflowing with historical-critical method to the point that a mystical exegesis is seen as either irrelevant, archaic, less important, or even erroneous in many circles. Origen has been criticized throughout the ages for supposedly rejecting the literal interpretation of the text. This, of course, is hardly true of Origen. More sophisticated critics have at least acknowledged that Origen accepts the historical sense in some passages, but they nonetheless criticize him whenever he does not accept it. These criticisms are certainly not new, since Origen even reveals how some people in his own day were critical of allegorizing: “a few things ought to be said to those who resist the allegories of the Holy Scriptures and who habitually ridicule those who do not follow the historical sense in every instance.”[21]

However, Origen was the first to take special notice of New Testament mysticism, particularly that of Paul (but also John), as well as the first to bring it to the mountain top. Origen himself is explicit in his reliance on Pauline thought when he says, echoing 1 Cor. 10:11: “These words were not written to instruct us in history, nor must we think that the divine books narrate the acts of the Egyptians. What has been written ‘has been written for our instruction and admonition.’"[22] And again, in a separate homily he says, “These words, however, are for those who are friends of the letter and do not think that the Law is spiritual and is to be understood spiritually. But we, who have learned that all things which are written are written not to relate ancient history, but for our discipline and use, understand that these things which are said also happen now not only in this world, which is figuratively called Egypt, but in each of us also.”[23] Origen’s aim is to remind people that the Bible is not a Jewish-themed history book, but instead something much more profound.


Because of Origen’s unique dedication to the scriptures, he became a true master of exegetical mysticism. Origen’s emphasis was on the exegetical motion of traveling from the historical into the moral and spiritual, in order to confess a three-fold composition of Scripture: body, soul, and spirit.[24] This inward sacramental ascent to complete union with God through holy contemplation, combined with the searching out of hidden mysteries in the text, is the process of mystical theology. Origen wrote “As man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so too does scripture which has been granted by God for the salvation of men.”[25] In other words, Origen’s mission is to get us to embrace all three senses of scripture rather than just one. Or to put it another way, to recognize that there is a spiritual plane to the text (containing soul and spirit), and not just the sensory plane. Mystical theology, at its heart, is the contemplation and pursuit of concealed mysteries, not too dissimilar to the way a maritime explorer might hunt for buried treasure.

Let us explore this in more detail by looking closely at one example.

In Genesis God gives a command to Adam, saying, "Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ye shall not eat of it: for in the day that ye eat thereof ye shall surely die." There, also, God begins by speaking in the singular, "Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat," but goes on in the plural, "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ye shall not eat of it: for in the day that ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die." The explanation is that when God speaks of the commandment which He wished Adam to keep and live, He commands in the singular, "Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat"; for they who walk in God's ways and hold fast His commandments, though they be many, yet by reason of their being of one mind the many are essentially one. And, therefore, when a commandment respecting goodness is given, the singular is used----"Thou mayest freely eat"; but in laying down the law respecting transgression, God no longer uses the singular, but the plural----"Ye shall not eat: for in the day that ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die."[26]

Here we see Origen setting some exegetical patterns. Notice how he takes special care to spot the textual shifts between singulars and plurals. After noting the shifts, he meditates on the reasons why they could be there, even if conventional wisdom says the grammar is technically incorrect. For example, the passage above is Origen’s citation of Genesis to illustrate why Hosea 12:4 is grammatically awkward (to be clear, this is an exposition of Genesis from his commentary on Hosea, not Genesis).[27] At first it says, "They wept and made supplication unto me," and then it says, “And there he spoke with him,” another transition between plural to singular. Instead of saying the grammar should be corrected, Origen believes that Divine Providence has orchestrated even these minor details. These shifts are here to make us pause, to inquire further, and thus to discover a deeper truth. Explaining why the singulars and plurals matter, Origen says, “When they still weep and make supplication to God, the plural is used----'They wept and made supplication to me '; but when they find God, He no longer uses the plural----'There He spake, not with them,' but with him. For by finding God and by hearing His Word, they have already become one. For the individual when he sins is one of many, severed from God and divided, his unity gone.”[28] Here we can see Origen establishing a kind of spiritual system to his reading. In other words, whenever Origen reads a singular changed to a plural, or vice versa, he is going to interpret it in spiritual terms of being one with (singularity) or separated (plurality) from God: that is, he will read it as a thematic ascent to a united oneness, or a fall into divided plurality.


Another important part of the Origenian exegetical aesthetic is found in what Origen says next:

[B]ut the many who follow the commandments of God are one man; as also the Apostle testifies, saying, "For we who are many are one bread, one body"; and again, "There is one God, and One Christ, and one faith, and one baptism"; and elsewhere, "For all we are one body in Christ Jesus"; and again, "I espoused you all to husband, that one I might present you as a pure virgin to the Lord." And that they are well pleasing to the Lord and one, is shown in the Lord's prayer to His Father for His disciples. "Holy Father," He says, "grant that as I and Thou are one, so also they may be one in us." And also, whenever the saints are said to be members of one another, the only conclusion is that they are one body. In the Shepherd, again, where we read of the building of the tower, a building composed of many stones, but seeming to be one solid block, what can the meaning of the scripture be except the harmony and unity of the many?[29]

The unique signature of the Origenian aesthetic is how it thematically chains key words together. For example, in the above quote, Origen’s key word is “one.” As someone who may have meticulously crafted his own scriptural word index,[30] Origen pays extremely careful attention to individual words, and he is always thinking about how they connect thematically to other places in the scriptures where those same words appear. Origen is here primarily meditating on the theme of oneness, forming a chain of scripture references to thread together an edifying divine tapestry of truth. He ends up using Ephesians 4:5, Romans 12:5, Galatians 3:28, 2 Corinthians 11:2, and John 17:11—like colors on a palette—to create a portrait of what it means to be in oneness with God.

Let’s see another example of how Origen does this:

Through this war the future kingdom is being striven for. Yet Christ can be said to reign even in this time of war, since the dominion of death is now broken in part and being gradually destroyed, a dominion which had previously spread itself out to all men. This agrees with the words of scripture, “For he must reign until he puts every enemy under his feet.” He likewise says in another passage, “But now we do not yet see everything subjected to him.” Whence it appears that what he says, “For he must reign,” he used instead of, “He [must] prepare a kingdom.” For it is certain that the strong man first must be fought and bound and in this way his property must be plundered. For this reason, as well the Savior himself says, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” Therefore, the fight must be fought for a long time by those who want to reign in life through Jesus Christ, until “death, the last enemy, should be destroyed.”[31]

Take note of the aesthetic artistry of Origenian mysticism. Origen begins to color the canvas with the words kingdom, dominion, death, destruction, etc. He dwells on the concepts that these words represent before he does anything else. He then asks himself the question: “What other passages evoke this same dominion theme?” This is precisely why he uses 1 Corinthians 15:25. Next, he focuses on the theme of violence, and begins to recall other related passages, dipping his brush into the next color that will adorn his canvas. Hence his use of Matthew 10:34, which fits nicely with his creatively designed narrative. If Origen were to continue elaborating the point, the diligent readers of scripture among us could no doubt predict his inevitable usage of Matthew 11:12: the kingdom of heaven “suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” Again, mystical exegesis is primarily thematic, so creatively plucking from the text’s original context to suit the spiritual and pastoral aims of the exegete is seen as a greater priority than a strict retelling of events and rigid adherence to original historical context.[32] The herbs of scripture are there to pluck from their location and mix into medicine for the soul, rather than simply directing religious tourists to admire them through the glass window of a greenhouse.

Another important aspect of the Origenian aesthetic is twofold: (1) the explicit scripture references must be quoted in their entirety to capture the word chains and nuances of the Origenian aesthetic/voice, rather than merely referenced with a book, chapter, or verse, and (2) transitions from one verse to another are connected by key phrases during exposition such as “and again scripture says,” as well as “and elsewhere it says.” These two details matter for Origen’s prose, because they prepare the mind of the reader for what he is about to say, like priming the pump of our contemplation through which the living water of the Word can flow. Without seeing the verses written out in full display, the reader/hearer may not detect the explicit unity of the word chain. This is also helpful to keep in mind for future generations of inquirers to compare and contrast our versions of the scriptural text with their own.


The mystic must creatively, medicinally, and pastorally come to the text like an artist, priest, and physician all rolled into one. This is in opposition to other paradigms, such as legally coming at the text like a lawyer, or mechanically coming to the text like a scientist, or historian, etc. These approaches may be included in the task, but they are not representative of the underlying paradigm itself and of the divine purpose for the scriptures, as defined by the scriptures. For example, the preacher may perceive that the audience loves history, and so the homily will feature more history for the people's edification. The role of the Origenian mystic is to identify and mix the unique remedy necessary for the particular flock. As Origen said, “The saint is a sort of spiritual herbalist who culls from the sacred scriptures every jot and every common letter, discovers the value of what is written, and its use, and finds then that there is nothing in the Scripture that is superfluous.”[33] And again he says, “I think each word of the divine scripture is like a seed whose nature is to multiply diffusely, reborn into an ear of corn or whatever the species may be, when it has been cast into the earth. Its increase is proportionate to the diligent labor of the skillful farmer of the fertility of the earth. So, therefore, it is brought to pass that, by diligent cultivation, a little ‘mustard seed,’ for example, ‘which is the least of all, may be made greater than all herbs and become a tree so that the birds of heaven come and dwell in its branches.’ So it is also with this word which now has been read to us from the divine books.”[34]

This gets to the very heart of what it means to exegete the text, and for what purpose. Exegesis is not first and foremost a method for correctly navigating the scriptural greenhouse, nor is it primarily a method for understanding how and when each herb was planted. Exegesis is about using the herbs to make medicine. The purpose is to bring life to the souls in front of you, and to guide them back to God. The combination of herbs will not look the same for every exegete for the same reason that every patient does not get prescribed the same medicine by their doctor. Different exegetical concoctions are intentionally crafted to meet the specific needs of different sick individuals who are at different stages on their ascent of the mountain. Therefore, I prefer to see Origen primarily as a poetic artist who mystically paints edifying thematic pictures with words of scripture, and not simply as a “systematic theologian,” a generic and broad title that brings with it some misleading connotations that may or may not (depending on how one narrowly defines the label) accurately describe Origen.

He is a creative, poetic, philosophical, and highly imaginative kind of thinker. It is my opinion that Origen’s work On First Principles was overemphasized in the course of history, as if it represented the pinnacle and summation of Origen’s thought and accomplishments. To me, however, this is incorrect not only because it was one of Origen’s earliest works, but because Origen’s most common and preferred mode of theologizing (if we consider the totality of his corpus) is the pastoral mode found in his numerous homilies. This becomes clear when we consider Origen’s agricultural analogies for the art of mystically expositing the scriptures in a sacramental fashion. Those who have become one with the spirit of Origen know he has no magnum opus. If Origen had an opportunity to respond to the question of which of his works he would choose to accurately describe as his most important work, I submit that he would surely say “My Homily to the Church.” And by this he would mean the multitude of books containing his many homilies put together, speaking as one united teaching. As he himself says concerning Solomon’s words in Proverbs 10:19: “If, then, whether there be or be not "much speaking" depends on the doctrines and not on the number of the words, see whether we cannot say the whole range of sacred teaching is one book, and all other teaching many books?”[35]


However, I must also explain how mystical exegesis itself is the correct interpretation of Christ’s very parabolic language, and how it is that Christ Himself is not a teacher like the Pharisees of His day (who talk in simple and literal terms), but is rather the mystic who speaks in tongues:

We might dare say, then, that the Gospels are the firstfruits of all scriptures, but that the firstfruits of the Gospels is that according to John, whose meaning no one can understand who has not leaned on Jesus' breast nor received Mary from Jesus to be his mother also. But he who would be another John must also become such as John, to be shown to be Jesus, so to speak. For if Mary had no son except Jesus, in accordance with those who hold a sound opinion of her, and Jesus says to his mother, "Behold your son," and not, "Behold, this man also is your son," he has said equally, "Behold, this is Jesus whom you bore." For indeed everyone who has been perfected "no longer lives, but Christ lives in him," and since "Christ lives" in him, it is said of him to Mary, "Behold your son," the Christ.[36]

For Origen, when Christ says to Mary concerning John, "Behold, your son," it is to say mystically that John has become Christ. As scripture says elsewhere, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."[37] If Christians read this sublime exposition from Origen and are still unable to say "did not my heart burn within me while Origen opened to me the scriptures?": then it only reveals that tragic damage has been done to their spiritual eyes and ears. They are shown to be both blind and deaf: blind to seeing the text as it truly is, and deaf to the understanding of the language. They have not “leaned on Jesus’ breast;” that is, their proximity to Christ and His voice needs to improve, as they are not fully matured sheep. For the Good Shepherd says, “My sheep hear my voice.”[38] Listen to the apostle Paul, who says concerning this mystical voice (when heard by the uninitiated and deaf): “If I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.”[39] And again he says, “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.”[40] This is itself a good example of what it looks like for me to teach mystical theology specifically in the Origenian voice of a mystic.

Christ’s mystic language is therefore the language of spiritual adults. The language of Christian mysticism is the language of Christ Himself. It is quite literally the mechanism by which one correctly interprets Christ's own words. It is the way Christ Himself speaks. Christ speaks in tongues, and mystical exegesis thus possesses, in this sense, the gift of interpretation. Listen to Christ saying, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."[41] Is this not speaking in tongues? And is John not the adult who interprets the meaning of this language when saying to us who are spiritual children, "But he spake of the temple of his body?"[42] Indeed, it is only one who is a child in understanding who says things like, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?”[43] And again this exegetical child in us is disclosed when we, with Nicodemus, say, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?”[44]


This leads us to the question of purpose. What is the purpose of mystical exegesis, according to Origen? One word: edification. Mystical theology is not primarily an encyclopedic philosophical task of reading off a list of objective metaphysical truths, nor is it a scientific endeavor that fills our heads with facts about the observable world. Neither is it a historical endeavor to educate us with knowledge of past events, though it includes all these things to varying degrees. Mystical exegesis is primarily a pastoral or priestly endeavor for the purpose of edifying the Church with profound and otherworldly beauty. Simply put, the mystical exegesis of Christ[45] is both the sacramental aesthetics of scripture as well as that which makes scriptural exposition a sacrament.

As Rufinus states, “[Origen's] purpose was not so much explanation as edification.”[46] In his homilies on Genesis, Origen himself states how edification is his intention when he says, “let us attempt to inquire what spiritual edification also this magnificent construction of the ark contains.”[47] And again, “we have treated for edification the ideas which could occur to us at present.”[48] And yet again he says, “Otherwise, what edification will we receive when we read that Abraham, such a great patriarch, not only lied to king Abimelech, but also surrendered his wife’s chastity to him?”[49] And elsewhere he says, “Let us add this, if it is agreeable, which can edify and instruct each of us who hear these words.”[50] Origen is clear that his pastoral concern is expositing the text in such a way that intentionally seeks to edify the souls of his hearers.[51] The potential to edify the other with creative pastoral insight, inspired by the text itself, is precisely what drives Origen’s exegetical decisions. This means his mystical exegesis is not something that can be judged according to an objective and historically verifiable standard of correct or incorrect, in context or out of context, orthodox or heterodox, but rather whether or not his use of the text happens to be personally spiritually edifying and helpful. This reality, alongside his obvious humility, is the reason why Origen is so quick to state that if someone else comes up with something better (i.e.: more edifying), let the audience forget about what he said and go with them, saying: “…if anyone should speak about these matters in a better and more rational manner, let his arguments be held to rather than mine.”[52] The goal is to personally encounter Christ within, nothing more and nothing less.


In Origen’s commentary on Genesis, after offering two different ways of approaching a given passage, he goes on to add a third layer of interpretation when he says: “For the literal meaning which preceded is placed first as a kind of foundation at the lower levels. This mystical interpretation was second, being higher and loftier. Let us attempt, if we can, to add a moral exposition as the third level.”[53] Here, Origen explicitly describes what he is doing exegetically, something he rarely does in real time as he writes. To clarify what he is doing: Origen is adding layers upon layers of meaning from the same source material, not dissimilar to how different instruments enter at different points in a song, overlaying and enriching the overall experience.

However, it must be said that one might be inclined to take explanations like these in Origen and interpret them as some kind of strict systematic metaphor, where the middle of the mountain must always represent mystical interpretation and the third must always represent the moral. Such an idea can produce confusion if, for example, Origen orders things differently elsewhere or, produces other such variations elsewhere. However, in this instance, Origen is not saying “this is the way the general mountain of exegetical ascent is ordered,” he is saying, in the voice of a carpenter in the middle of his work: “this is the structure of an exegetical mansion I am building for you now.” In other words, the three levels correspond, in order, with the specific order of presentation, not necessarily the general order of significance. The blueprints of the mansion may change depending on his audience, and his writing process may change, which would in turn alter the order.

I want to conclude by offering some additional examples for how one could potentially interpret various texts of scripture with mystical eyes. However, let’s for the moment return to Paul (Origen’s master) and start by looking at how his mysticism functions in the New Testament. A great example is 2 Corinthians 4:6, where Paul reveals that God in Genesis does not say “Let light shine out of darkness” to merely tell us something about the exterior world. No, the text speaks to us about our interior world. In other words, the text is to say “Let ‘Light’ (Christ) shine out of the darkness of your heart.” The mystic will be able to see that Christ, in healing the earthly sight of the blind man,[54] is mystically healing the man’s spiritual sight to see Christ for who He is, which is itself a form of vision independent of the condition of the physical eyes. True blindness, defined from the perspective of an Origenian eye, is not when someone cannot see, but rather when someone cannot see Christ.

If we wanted to jump into this line of thought with mystical exegesis, we could weave together a variety of verses that have the words light, darkness, or heart. One could easily utilize Matthew 5:15, imagine common wooden bushel baskets covering a candle, and poetically and say something about how our darkened hearts were like withered bushels hiding the light of Virtue. Perhaps this might call to memory the cursing of the ground in Genesis, and then one could equally draw from the well of Genesis 3:18, using a more poetic phrase, such as withered bushels of thorns and thistles to artistically convey, in one sentence, themes from both Matt. 5:15 and Gen. 3:18. Now this bushel becomes an image of an overgrown garden hiding the Light of Virtue.

Let us refine this even further; and say, “The inner man has been exiled from the garden. Let there be Light, casting out the darkness of our hearts. Deceitfully wicked, covered in withered bushels of thorns and thistles. Behold, He makes all things new: may the stony ground become fertile; may deserts part and may we walk—no longer on dry land—but on water.” In just a few sentences, I have made scriptural allusions to Genesis 3:24; Genesis 1:3-4; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 5:15; Genesis 3:18; Isaiah 43:19; Matthew 13:5; and Exodus 14:22. This is when mystical theology really starts to shine. One can keep developing this by playing on the theme of newness, bringing in John 3 and 2 Corinthians 5:17. This is how mystical theology becomes a creative process, albeit one tethered to the anchor of Truth—that is, Christ—as well as the truth of the text of scripture.

Another example of how Origen uses scripture is seen when he says “Therefore let it be sufficient also for us only to have observed and examined these things and to have shown our hearers how many things in the divine Law have been submerged in deep mysteries before which we ought to pray: "From the depths I have cried to you, Lord."”[55] Notice how he sets the stage for the Scripture verse he is about to use. He talks about how mystical treasures are “submerged” in the scriptures, next he gives you a mental picture, and then he utilizes Psalm 130:1—a verse that also gives the impression of something being submerged—in order to tether his thematic illustration to the biblical text. This is a recurring pattern that will become more visible the more one reads Origen.

Since repetition is the mother of learning, let me give another example of how Origen would approach a scriptural text. Let us take our theme from the Lord’s statement that, “heaven and earth shall pass away.”[56] Upon much meditation and reflection, one may conclude it does not mean to suggest that a nihilist God throws everything in the trash and starts over from scratch, for this interpretation would conflict either with other scriptural passages, or with our understanding of the nature of God, or with our metaphysics, etc. So what can this mean?

Let us venture a more mystical approach to this matter. First, we must ask “what does it mean for ‘heaven’ to pass away?” One could then say it means the powers of heaven, and the prince of the power of the air,[57] shall pass away along with the fear of heavenly judgment. This would be in keeping with the biblical themes and images. For Scripture says both that Sodom was destroyed by fire and brimstone “out of heaven”[58] (ie: “heaven” as judgment, passing away), and that “perfect love casts out fear.”[59] (ie: the fear of heavenly judgment passing away).

And what does it mean for “earth” to pass away? Before we can give an edifying answer, we must look at how Origen would approach the biblical word (take note of how Origen in the following example immediately summons another biblical usage of the word “earth” in order to weave together a profound and edifying narrative that connects what seems to be disconnected). When commenting on Jeremiah saying, “The Lord who made the earth in his strength,”[60] Origen writes, “And we need the strength of the Lord with respect to our earth (for it is written regarding Adam, You are earth)”[61] Here Origen happens to choose Genesis to enhance his commentary on Jeremiah, and thus he shows how Jeremiah contains a hidden truth not only about (1) the planet earth we all live on, but about (2a) embodied human beings more generally, and (2b) the human body specifically.

Keeping in mind that the scriptures give us permission to identify ourselves with the word “earth,” one could search the scriptures thematically for the “passing away” death imagery, and say it is a passing away like the “old man” “passes away” in the “baptismal” waters of Egypt, so that new man may be resurrected on the other side. Mystical theology is, to put it rather simply, taking the literal-historical sense of the text, and placing it inside quotation marks—thus contextualizing a spiritual meaning. One could also add a different thematic image from the text, such as a divine refinery, and say the ore of the old man “passes away” in the fire, in order to bring forth the gold of the new man. As Job says, “I shall come forth as gold.”[62] And again we read elsewhere that Christ is one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit “and with fire.”[63]

Now that we are more acquainted with Origenian mystical theology, how might we approach the passage concerning “earth” passing away? The Origenian mystic could answer that it means a whole host of equally valid interpretations, such as the vanishing of earthly contemplation, of earthly affections and of beastly desires, which are themselves associated with the earth.[64] One could say for example that for “earth” to pass away signifies that a man will be a man and not, as Nebuchadnezzar became, an ox.[65] The passing away of earth also means thorns and thistles shall pass away alongside the sweat of the brow.[66] And because the flesh is thematically linked in scripture to the earth, the flesh, its sin and earthly limitations would be included in the meaning of “the earth” passing away. As Christ says concerning the “earth” of human nature, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”[67] Thus, one might conclude that the “thorns” (that is, our earthly weaknesses and fleshly desires) in our “gardens” (that is, our hearts), the various snares of earthly kingdoms, are hidden to the blind but nonetheless mystically present in the words “earth shall pass away.”


Consider this essay my tutorial for those who want to emulate Origen’s method for themselves, unto the edification of all who have ears to hear. I have explained Origenian mystical exegesis with examples from Origen, and I have offered a completely original mystic exposition, showing in real time how this method works. With this exegetical method demonstrated, perhaps we will see the edification model of patristic exegesis become more common in modern times. May we once again see this alchemical transmutation of coalish hearts become normative with a greater familiarity of Christ's tongue of fire.


[1]  Commentary on Psalm 1, as recorded in the Philocalia.
[2]  1 Corinthians 14:20.
[3]  2 Timothy 3:16.
[4]  The “Body” of scripture, as Origen says, distinct but not separate from the “Soul” and the “Spirit.”
[5]  cf. 2 Tim. 2:15.
[6]  “Truth” here representing both (a) that which is true, which is not necessarily historical and factual, and (b) Christ Himself present within a multitude of individuals.
[7]  Matt. 18:20.
[8]  cf. Jhn. 14:6.
[9]  Cf. John. 5:39.
[10]  Cf. 1 Samuel 16:23.
[11]  Cf. Colossians 3:2.
[12]  Cf. Philippians 1:23.
[13]  Romans 7:14.
[14]  Galatians 4:24.
[15]  2 Corinthians 3:6.
[16]  1 Corinthians 10:4.
[17]  1 Corinthians 10:11.
[18]  2 Corinthians 4:6.
[19]  Romans 2:29.
[20]  Origen calls Paul the Apostolorum maximus in Homilies on Numbers 3.3.
[21]  Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6-10 (FOTC 104), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 163.
[22]  Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus (FOTC 71), trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), p. 234.
[23]  Ibid., p. 240.
[24]  One criticism of Origen I have seen from scholars is the alleged contradiction between Origen’s statements about the threefold nature (body/soul/spirit) of scripture and the twofold nature (literal/spiritual). I think this criticism misses the mark, because it seems to assume Origen meant every passage of scripture contains a threefold sense (Origen even explicitly says this is not the case). I believe what he means is when you search the whole of scripture, you will find these three dimensions. But you will not find all three in every verse. The twofold sense is therefore entirely consistent with the three, because the “body” of scripture is in one category (literal), whereas the “soul” and “spirit” of scripture are themselves mere distinctions within another (spiritual).
[25]  Origen, The Philocalia of Origen: A Compilation of Selected Passages from Origen's Works Made By St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Caesarea, trans. George Lewis (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1911), 1.11.
[26]  Philocalia of Origen, 8.2.
[27]  Origen brings in Genesis here to further clarify and furnish other examples of the grammar shifts visible in Hosea 12:4. Origen frequently comments on passages from other books with expositions not found in his commentaries on those very books. For example, you will not find this passage in his commentary on Genesis, despite the fact he is explicitly interpreting Genesis. The same thing occurs in his Commentary on Romans, 9.2.8, where he is again reminded of Genesis, but offers a fresh interpretation (inspired by Romans) that he does not produce in his own commentary on the book of Genesis. This, in itself, illustrates the potential creative synergy between various books of scripture, as well as how reading passages in light of other passages generates new insights not discoverable otherwise.
[28]  Ibid., 8.3.
[29]  Ibid.
[30]  Either that or Origen had the scriptures memorized word for word and knew exactly where to locate everything from memory. Therefore, it is either his diligence or his memory that is incredible.
[31]  Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 1-5 (FOTC 103), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 338-39.
[32]  Though, of course Origen is still well aware of original context and does not think it is irrelevant. He simply does not think it is everything.
[33]  Philocalia of Origen 10.2.
[34]  Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus (FOTC 71), trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), p. 227.
[35]  Origen, Philocalia of Origen 5.4.
[36]  Origen, Commentary on John, 1.23.
[37]  Galatians 2:20.
[38]  John 10:27.
[39]  1 Corinthians 14:11.
[40]  1 Corinthians 14:20.
[41]  John 2:19.
[42]  John 2:21.
[43]  John 2:20.
[44]  John 3:4.
[45]  Not only Christ Himself, but Christ as He speaks through the mouth of all they who unite with Him (like Origen).
[46]  Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus (FOTC 71), trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), p. 36.
[47]  Ibid., p. 77.
[48]  Ibid., p. 88.
[49]  Ibid., p. 126.
[50]  Ibid., p. 179.
[51]  Ibid., pp. 228, 232, 246, 304, 337, 363, 383.
[52]  Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 1-5 (FOTC 103), trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 163.
[53]  Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus (FOTC 71), trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), p. 85.
[54]  cf. John 9.
[55]  Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus (FOTC 71), trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), p. 263.
[56]  Matthew 23:35.
[57]  cf. Ephesians 2:2.
[58]  Genesis 19:24.
[59]  1 John 4:18.
[60]  Jeremiah 10:12.
[61]  Homily 8 on Jeremiah.
[62]  cf. Job 23:10.
[63]  Matthew 3:11.
[64]  cf. Colossians. 3:2.
[65]  cf. Daniel 4:33.
[66]  cf. Genesis 3:17, 19.
[67]  Matthew 26:41.

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