Origen's Proto-Phenomenology of Scripture

Post by
Steven Nemes

Although he was not and could not have been a phenomenologist in the proper sense of the term, the writings of Origen contain insightful observations about the way in which Scripture is encountered in lived experience, and these can be fruitfully interpreted from a phenomenological perspective.

I. Introduction

Although he was not and could not have been a phenomenologist in the proper sense of the term, the writings of Origen of Alexandria contain certain insightful observations about the way in which Scripture is encountered in lived experience which can be fruitfully interpreted from a phenomenological perspective. This essay presents two aspects of a “proto-phenomenology of Scripture” his works and draws from them a conclusion of theological-methodological import.[1] The discussion essentially revolves around a phenomenological distinction between Scripture and biblical text, which distinction has not been previously unknown but whose significance is not yet fully appreciated.

The essay proceeds in this order. First, the understanding of “phenomenology” operating in the background of this work is laid bare. Though it draws largely from Robert Sokolowski, the influence of Jean-Luc Marion will also be evident later on.[2] This essay adopts a phenomenological approach which emphasizes the order of appearances to human consciousness as the medium by which things are known, rather than a metaphysical approach which seeks an intuitive knowledge of things as they are in themselves in their causal relations to one another, irrespective of consciousness.[3] Then, in the subsequent sections, two aspects of a proto-phenomenology of Scripture discernible in the writings of Origen are presented in some detail: first, the manner in which the divine voice speaking in the biblical texts appears through the advent of Jesus in the world, following a discussion in the Peri Archôn; second, the manner in which Scripture is hidden and invisible to readers in the context of theological disputes, from which an important lesson about the necessity of the tradition of the Church can be drawn. Finally, the discussion comes to a close with an observation about the significance of these two points for the continuing debates concerning theological method, specifically with respect to the relationship between Scripture, Church, and Tradition. More precisely: the proto-phenomenological observations made by Origen yield a powerful argument against the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

What is intended here is a “phenomenology of Scripture” understood as a genitivus objectivus (objective genitive) — in other words a phenomenological investigation into Scripture itself — rather than a genitivus subjectivus (subjective genitive), e.g. a phenomenological interpretation of certain biblical passages or concepts, the identification of proto-phenomenological notions in Christian Scripture, etc.[4]

II. “Phenomenology” defined

In the words of Robert Sokolowski: “Phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the ways things present themselves to us in and through such experience.”[5] It is the study of phainomena, appearances. Especially important to phenomenology is the notion that all consciousness is essentially “intentional,” that is to say it is a consciousness-of or consciousness-about something: “Every act of consciousness, every experience, is correlated with an object… Consciousness is essentially consciousness ‘of’ something or other.”[6] This essential insight about the intentional nature of consciousness, so argues Sokolowski, empowers phenomenology to overcome the “egocentric predicament” which plagued modernist conceptions of consciousness such as those of Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke, according to whom “when we are conscious, we are primarily aware of ourselves or our own ideas,” consciousness becoming “a bubble or an enclosed space.”[7] If consciousness is entirely contained within the human cranium and is only thought to be caused by external stimuli in some blind, physical manner, it becomes impossible to justify the very natural conviction that “we do go beyond our brains and our internal mental states” in order to “reach out into the world.”[8] On the modernist scheme of things,

We do not know how to show that our contact with the “real world” is not an illusion, not a mere subjective projection. For the most part we have no idea how we ever get outside ourselves, and we probably treat this issue simply by ignoring it and hoping that no one will ask us about it.[9]

Through the concept of intentionality, however, consciousness is made “ecstatic,” always outside of itself. It is essentially connected with things in their truth, and in this way, phenomenology overcomes the egocentric predicament.[10]

As a consequence of the doctrine of intentionality, phenomenology “recognizes the reality and truth of phenomena, the things that appear… The way things appear is a part of the being of things; things appear as they are, and they are as they appear.”[11] Far from supposing that there are any such things as “mere appearances,” phenomenology insists that “Appearances are real; they belong to being.”[12] Yet this is not to say that every naïve description of “the way things seem to me” is for that reason correct or properly phenomenological, because, as Heidegger appreciated, the appearances of things are not always clearly given, not always experienced in full evidence or clarity. Many have mistaken notions about the appearances of things. Precisely for that reason, phenomenology is necessary as a “return to the things themselves,” as a study of the genuine appearances of things.[13] Phenomenology attempts to make things visible, to make them appear as they are.[14] It accomplishes this through its essential method, the phenomenological reduction, without the practice of which no one can be a phenomenologist.[15]

The phenomenological reduction presupposes the distinction between the so-called “natural attitude” and the “phenomenological attitude.” Sokolowski defines the two as follows:

The natural attitude is the focus we have when we are involved in our original, world-directed stance, when we intend things, situations, facts, and any other kinds of objects. The natural attitude is, we might say, the default perspective, the one we start off from, the one we are in originally. We do not move into it from anything more basic. The phenomenological attitude, on the other hand, is the focus we have when we reflect upon the natural attitude and all the intentionalities that occur within it. It is within the phenomenological attitude that we carry out philosophical analyses. The phenomenological attitude is also sometimes called the transcendental attitude.[16]

According to Edmund Husserl, persons within the natural attitude operate under the influence of various theoretical commitments, some of them scientific and others of different sorts, most notable among which is the metaphysical commitment to the objective existence of the external world.[17] But these commitments are not all guaranteed to be adequate and can blind a person to the actual appearances of things as they are given in consciousness. In order to “return to the things themselves,” the phenomenological reduction prescribes a suspension or “bracketing” of the natural attitude and its theoretical commitments, most importantly the commitment to the existence of the external world and all theories which depend upon this, in order that immanent consciousness in all of its complexity and subtlety be studied. The reflective focus is taken from the things as they are thought to be “out there,” outside and independently of consciousness, and is placed upon their appearance immanent to consciousness, any preconceived theories about the ways things are or should be having been set aside. In this way, it becomes possible to consider the essential nature of consciousness-of-x as such.[18] Following the spirit of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, Husserl further notes that the phenomenological reduction yields certain knowledge precisely insofar as it consists in an indubitable “immanent perception” of consciousness itself, rather than an intrinsically fallible “transcendent perception” of an external object.[19] In this way, phenomenology yields apodictic insights, an awareness of things which could not be otherwise than they are.[20]

A final notion must now be clarified. In classical phenomenology, all perception take place within the limits of a particular horizon —for example, a cube can only be seen three sides at a time, from a particular angle, etc.[21] The limitations of the horizon prevent the phenomenon from appearing in its entirety, even though it is intended in its entirety, as a whole.[22] Intention necessarily surpasses intuition, and so some intentions are filled while others are empty. However, in the philosophy of Jean-Luc Marion, the phenomenological reduction yields access to phenomena which cannot be properly understood within the horizon of metaphysical categories, the proper appreciation of which requires a move beyond metaphysics.[23] Indeed, Marion notes Husserl’s attribution of “first philosophy” to phenomenology, a title classically given to metaphysics, proposing it as “the philosophy with which it is necessary to begin, in order then to put to work the second philosophies or regional sciences.”[24] Marion suggests that only a phenomenology which emphasizes the givenness of phenomena as the final and most ultimate principle of phenomenality — as opposed to the traditional Husserlian principles of the constituting Ego, the object, and the horizon — can really take seriously the radicality of the phenomenological reduction and move beyond implicit metaphysical categories, since the phenomenon is then defined precisely on the basis of its own self-givenness to consciousness, rather than according to a priori categories of a transcendental Ego.[25] Paradigmatically non-metaphysical phenomena are called “saturated phenomena” because they are “unconditioned and irreducible,” because their fundamental mode of appearance is by saturating or exceeding the horizon in which they appear, the categories of understanding by which they are approached.[26] The religious phenomenon of Revelation especially is conceived as being necessarily of such a nature as to saturate any horizon.[27]

Granting that Origen of Alexandria was not and could not have been a phenomenologist in the proper sense of the term, various remarks he makes about the appearance and disappearance of Scripture are nevertheless phenomenologically quite insightful, or at least are susceptible to plausible interpretation along broadly phenomenological lines. The next section therefore proposes just such an interpretation of “Scripture” for Origen as a sort of saturated phenomenon.

III. Origen on the appearance of Scripture

This essay brings to light a phenomenological distinction between Scripture and biblical text and demonstrates its significance for theological methodology. Such a distinction can, of course, be made from different points of view and in different ways. The word “scripture” is used to refer to texts taken to be of divine origin: “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). “Scripture,” therefore, can refer both to the divine message being communicated as well as to the divinity of that message. The phrase “biblical text” refers more neutrally to a text with canonical status within the Christian religious tradition. There is a theological sense in which the distinction may be made.[28] The distinction may also be considered from the point of view of academic attitudes.[29] Phenomenologically understood, however, the distinction has to do with the experience of the text. As Karl Barth appreciated, it is possible to listen to words being read from the Bible and “simply hear words, human words” (CD I/1, p. 143).[30] The biblical text may certainly be believed to be of divine inspiration, it may be intended as divinely inspired, but it is not for that reason experienced or intuited as such. A phenomenology of Scripture sensu stricto must ask the question: under what circumstances, in what experience does the distinctly divine quality of the biblical text, in virtue of which it deserves the designation “scripture,” come to light? When and how does the Voice of God behind the text make itself heard?

Not very many have undertaken to investigate Scripture phenomenologically in precisely this way. Robert Sokolowski comes very close in his essay in Phenomenologies of Scripture, but while he makes very insightful remarks about the nature and function of words, the unique characteristics and aspects of the written word as opposed to the spoken word, and even the oftentimes spiritually very powerful effect of the hearing of the biblical text in the liturgical context, he does not answer the question of how the distinctly divine voice speaking the Scriptures comes to light with sufficient phenomenological rigor, a point which will be taken up again later.[31]

Origen, on the other hand, addresses this question directly. He begins his On First Principles (Peri Archôn) with a statement of the faith of the Church in the “just and good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, [who] himself gave the law and the prophets and the Gospels, who is also the God of the apostles and of the Old and New Testaments” (PA Pr.4).[32] That the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit which belonged to the apostles and was given at Pentecost, is “most clearly taught throughout the churches” (ibid.). He finally addresses the question of the inspiration of the Scriptures more directly in the opening chapters of the Fourth Book of the same work. The evidence proposed in defense of the divine origins of Christian teaching includes the seemingly unparalleled power of conversion which this message has upon persons from every nation, as well as the fulfillment of various Old Testament prophecies in the events surrounding Christ and the Church (4.1.2-5), but most important for the present discussion is the Alexandrian’s account of how the divine inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures became apparent with the advent of Christ in the world. On this point he is worth quoting at length:

In demonstrating, in summary fashion, the divinity of Jesus and using the prophetic words regarding him, we simultaneously demonstrate that the writings prophesying him are divinely inspired and that the words announcing his sojourn and teaching were spoken with all power and authority and on this account they have prevailed for the election from the nations. It must also be said that the inspiration of the prophetic words and the spiritual character of the Law of Moses shone forth with the sojourn of Jesus. For it was not at all possible to bring forward clear arguments concerning the inspiration of the ancient Scriptures before the sojourn of Christ; but the sojourning of Jesus led those who might have suspected the Law and the Prophets not to be divine to the clear conviction that they were composed by heavenly grace (PA 4.1.6).

It is thus the advent of Christ in the world which brought the distinctly divine aspect of the ancient writings of the Israelites into clear visibility insofar as what was foretold by the prophets and the Law of Moses was seen to be fulfilled in Him. The divinity of the text comes to light in the perception of the truth of its speech about the future. Until then, according to Origen, it was “not at all possible to bring forward clear arguments concerning the inspiration of the ancient Scriptures,” so that the belief in their divine inspiration was an empty intention until Jesus appeared. With this basic description in mind, some nuances and details must be clarified.

The manner in which Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the advent of Christ is not hermeneutically straightforward, but rather quite sophisticated. Origen notes that the Jews did not believe in Jesus because they did not see him “visibly proclaiming release to the captives, nor building up what they consider to be truly a city of God, nor cutting off the chariots from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem, nor eating butter and honey, and before knowing good or preferring evil, choosing the good” and so on (PA 4.2.1). They do not see the literal fulfillment of the Old Testament passages in the person of Jesus, nor do they admit the legitimacy of the interpretation according to the spiritual or allegorical sense (PA 4.2.2), and for this reason cannot see him as Christ — but neither, therefore, according to Origen, can they see the texts as divinely inspired. In other words, it is not the plainly literal fulfillment of prophecy, but the spiritual or allegorical fulfillment which brings the divine voice to the fore in the reading of the Old Testament. Why might this be? Perhaps the answer is: because the “voice” which speaks out in the spiritual sense of a text is a “voice” which could only belong to a Speaker who transcends history and time, who can make use of the context-bound, historically limited language of a prophet in order to speak mysteriously about something beyond that context and history. A connection is made between two disparate realities — the ancient text and the contemporary phenomenon of Christ — which seems to be impossible to accomplish without the introduction of a tertium quid beyond them. The reader is aware of the spiritual sense of a vetero-testamentary passage when she sees it to have been fulfilled in some sense in the life of Christ, but this sense, this meaning which arrives in the consciousness of the reader, comes neither from the words of the text considered by themselves in their ordinary meaning, not belonging to them innately, nor from the hermeneutical disposition of the reader, who would not have found that sense in the text at all had she not known about Christ. The perception of the spiritual sense thus signals the presence and the entry of a Third Voice into the discussion, one beyond the reader and the author alike. This phenomenological interpretation provides a way to understand Origen’s fundamental conviction that “To say that there is a spiritual sense in the Bible is therefore equivalent to saying that it is inspired,” and that “The spiritual sense is thus essential to Scripture: it is not possible to believe the latter without admitting the former. Those who hold to the ‘mere letter’ cannot logically hold the dogma of inspiration.”[33] Apart from the existence of a spiritual sense, the divinity of the text could never come to light — a Third Voice could never make itself heard in the act of reading — and the intention of the text as inspired could never be filled. The spiritual sense thus plays an essential role in Origen’s proto-phenomenology of Scripture.

With this in mind, it seems appropriate to understand Origen’s spiritual sense as a saturated phenomenon. The divine inspiration of the biblical texts — in other words, their distinct quality as Scripture, as more than mere text — becomes visible precisely through a form of saturation and excess, when the text seems to say more than it is possible for it to say, when it exceeds the horizon of textuality in order to become the medium of a Voice from beyond the limitations of the world. Phenomenologically defined, the spiritual sense appears when a text says more than what a text can say, when the relevance of the text spans across time and space in way that is impossible for a mere text written by a mere human, the “arm” of the text reaching out in a manner utterly impossible to anticipate ahead of time. The spiritual sense is therefore an essential component of a phenomenological conception of Scripture as distinct from biblical text, and it has all the characteristics of a saturated phenomenon: it is an instance of pure givenness, suggesting itself by itself, not through the human author nor through the hermeneutical training of the reader — “an intuitive givenness … that was absolutely unconditioned (without the limits of a horizon) and absolutely irreducible (to a constituting I).”[34]

There is a further nuance to be noted, the introduction of which will lead naturally into the next section of this paper. It is true that Origen suggests that the inspiration of the text can begin to become apparent for the contemporary reader of Scripture:

One who reads the prophetic words with care and attention, experiencing from the act of reading itself a trace divine inspiration, will be persuaded, through the things he experiences, that the words believed by us to be of God are not compositions of human beings. And the light contained in the Law of Moses, but hidden by a veil, shone forth at the sojourn of Jesus, when the veil was taken away and the good things, of which the letter had a shadow, came gradually to be known (4.1.6).

It would be mistaken to understand from this passage, however, that the prophetic texts of the Old Testament have the power by themselves to convince a person of their divine inspiration. The Jews had the Law and the prophets for many years, but until Christ came into the world, as Origen says, convincing arguments for their divine inspiration could not be given. The Alexandrian has already made clear that their inspired quality only comes to light when they are read in relationship to Jesus, who is otherwise inaccessible except through the New Testament, i.e. the tradition of the apostles. But this presupposes receiving the apostolic testimony to Jesus in faith, accepting the apostles’ words about Christ as true, so that the spiritual sense of the Old Testament prophecies can be uncovered. Indeed, it is only to the apostles, those who saw Jesus first hand, that the divine aspect of the Scriptures could unveil itself in a direct and original way; for any other reader of the prophetic texts, the experience can only be had if she first trusts that the apostolic recounting of the life and person of Jesus Christ is true, and along with it the spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament which the apostles themselves proposed in their retelling. Origen writes:

Therefore, for those who are persuaded that the sacred books are not compositions of human beings, but that they were composed and have come down to us from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the will of the Father of all through Jesus Christ, one must indicate the apparent ways [of understanding Scripture] by those who keep the rule of the heavenly Church of Jesus Christ through succession from the apostles (4.2.2).

The disclosure of the biblical text as Scripture to the contemporary reader, i.e. as divine text, only takes place by the mediation of the apostolic tradition, within the bounds of the historical Church, through its hermeneutics of the spiritual sense. It is within such conditions that the divinity of Scripture is encountered.

To summarize: for Origen the divine inspiration of the Old Testament biblical texts, their distinct quality as Scripture, comes to light when they are read in accordance to a spiritual sense which connects them to Jesus. This spiritual sense was initially perceived by the apostles, who saw Jesus first hand and saw in Him the spiritual or allegorical fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. By sharing their message with others, by introducing them into a specific hermeneutical tradition, it becomes possible for others also to encounter Scripture beyond the biblical text. Finally, the spiritual sense is of such a nature as to merit the designation of “saturated phenomenon.”

IV. Origen on the hiddenness of Scripture

The primary concern of this essay is the phenomenological distinction between Scripture and the biblical text. Of course, the biblical text is always visible, since it is a physical artifact and can be held in the hands, looked upon with the eyes, and so on. Scripture, however, both in its quality as divine text as well as with respect to the message which it communicates, is not immediately visible, but is rather first hidden. Its message only accessible in an immediate way to the person who not only knows how to read — an obvious point! — but also knows how to read correctly.[35] This section is therefore concerned with the hiddenness or disappearance of Scripture with respect to its content, which is another aspect of its phenomenality worth taking into consideration.

Although in the Peri Archôn the phenomenological distinction between Scripture and biblical text is at best subtle and implicit, Origen comes very close to formulating it directly in the following passage from the Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans II, 14, 8:

One should take note of that which [Paul] says, “they [i.e., the Jews] were entrusted wit the oracles of God” [Rom. 3:2] that he has not said that their writings were entrusted to them, but the oracles of God. From this a way is given to us to understand that to those who read and do not understand, and who read and do not believe, the letter alone is entrusted, concerning which the Apostle says, “The letter kills” [2 Cor. 3:6]. But the oracles of God are entrusted to those who, by understanding and believing the things Moses has written, believe also in Christ, as the Lord also says, “If you had believed Moses, you would certainly also believe me, for he wrote about me” [John 5:46].[36]

The letters are distinguished from the oracles. The former term refers to the markings on the pages, rather than the literal sense of a passage, since only the markings would remain in the possession even of the person who does not understand what she has read. The latter term, on the other hand, seems to refer to that sense or meaning which is appropriate, which comes from God and which has to do with Christ, which is only accessible to the person who has read aright, with faith and proper understanding. Two conditions therefore can impede the reader from coming into genuine contact with the oracles of God: first, a lack of understanding; second, a lack of faith.

What is the relationship between understanding and believing? Answering this enormously complex question is beyond the scope of this essay, but a few comments can be made. This passage suggests that Origen admits the possibility of a person who understands the Christian interpretation of a scriptural passage without thereby believing it. In Contra Celsum I, 10, on the other hand, Origen famously argues that faith is epistemically unavoidable, a point that even philosophical objectors to Christianity themselves must recognize:

What man who is urged to study philosophy and throws himself into some school of philosophers at random or because he has met a philosopher of that school, comes to do this for any reason except that he has faith that this school is better? He does not wait to hear the arguments of all the philosophers and of the different schools, and the refutation of one and the proof of another, when in this way he chooses to be a Stoic, or a Platonist, or a Peripatetic, or an Epicurean, or a follower of some such philosophical school. Even though they do not want to admit it, it is by an unreasoning impulse that people come to the practice of, say, Stoicism and abandon the rest…[37]

An “unreasoning impulse,” the conviction of the superiority of one school which is not grounded in any greatly detailed consideration of the relevant arguments and counterarguments, is what moves a person to pledge herself to a particular philosophical school. And it is similarly through faith that anyone becomes a Christian, committing herself to the Church and to the apostolic hermeneutical tradition by which the divine inspiration of the Hebrew Scripture and its fulfillment in Christ comes to light.

The hiddenness of Scripture is particularly evident in the context of theological disagreement and interpretive dispute. The biblical text, of course, is available to all the parties involved, and each justifies her own point of view on the basis of the same text — sometimes even the same passages — as her opponents. In such circumstances, the true meaning of Scripture can become obscured and counterfeits appear; it is no longer clear exactly what it says. For Origen, the teaching tradition of the Church serves to provide a kind of general framework within which theological investigation into the deeper mysteries of Scripture takes place, delimiting the boundaries of legitimate belief as well as indicating the direction in which further inquiry should be oriented:

Since, however, many of those who profess to believe in Christ differ not only in small and trivial matters, but even on great and important matters — such as concerning God or the Lord Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, and not only regarding these but also regarding matters concerning created beings, that is, dominions and the holy powers — because of this it seems necessary first of all to lay down a definite line and clear rule regarding each one of these matters, and then thereafter to investigate other matters. For just as, although many Greeks and barbarians promise the truth, we gave up seeking it from all who claimed it for false opinions after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God and were persuaded that we must learn it from him, so also, although there are many who think that they know what are the teachings of Christ, and not a few of them think differently from those before them, one must guard the ecclesiastical preaching, handed down from the apostles through the order of succession and remaining in the churches to the present: that alone is to be believed to be the truth which differs in no way from the ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition (PA Pr.2).

The tradition of the Church both makes Scripture initially visible as well as helps to identify counterfeit “Scriptures,” i.e. alternative interpretations of the biblical letters which may possess a measure of plausibility, but which are not from Christ because not from the Church.[38] Indeed, it is remarkable to note Origen’s implicit affirmation that Christ teaches the truth through the tradition of the Church: to be taught by Christ, to understand the Scriptures, is to be taught by his apostles through their succession in the Church.

Though the biblical text is clearly always visible so long as it exists, Scripture, the Word of God, is invisible unless the interested reader be trained in the appropriate manner by the Church. The teaching tradition of the Church is therefore phenomenologically prior to Scripture insofar as it makes it visible.[39] But here there appears a complication. In order for the teaching tradition of the Church to make Scripture visible for a person, it must be taken as being more than the word of the Church, as being first and foremost the Word of God, since it is presented as being an adequate interpretation of the very words of God as contained in the inspired pages of Scripture. Yet the previous section of this essay clarified that the voice of God appears clearly — if it ever appears at all — in the perception of a spiritual sense of an Old Testament text which speaks about a present reality, viz. the reality of Christ. This original perception was only possible for the apostles. There is nothing of the sort taking place in the later reader of the New Testament, who must already trust what the New Testament says, in according with the Church’s interpretation thereof, in order to recreate within herself the original realization of the spiritual sense of the Old. Trust in various levels of human mediation — first in the contemporary Church, then in the apostolic eyewitnesses by the mediation of the former — is inevitable, since there is no way for the word of a mere human being, literally understood according to the intention of the speaker, to appear to as the Word of God, which appears by way of a spiritual sense.

A concrete illustration of this final point should help to clarify it. Suppose that Origen evangelizes Celsus and exhorts him to become a Christian, to accept Christian teaching about Jesus as the Son of God and offers as a reason to do so the premise that Christ fulfilled Old Testament prophecy about a coming Savior of the world. Such an argument produces two desired effects: first, the divine inspiration of the Old Testament and the elect status of the people of Israel is established through the fulfillment of prophecy; second, the divinity of Jesus and the truth of Christianity, the religion which learns from Him, are established because the ancient text predicted them accurately. But in order for this line of reasoning to be cogent, Celsus has to accept not only Origen’s interpretation of both the Old and New Testament texts, but also that the New Testament text accurately describes things as they really were in the time of Jesus, things which are impossible for him to know apart from the New Testament texts. If Celsus trusts Origen’s words, whatever the reason may be, then the necessary connections between Old and New can be seen and the truth of the Christian claim can come to light. But what about Origen’s words can motivate Celsus to trust him? They cannot present themselves as God’s words, rather than those of Origen’s, in the first place because Origen claims them as his own through the fact that he is a teacher of the Church, and in the second place because Origen’s words have to be understood literally, not spiritually or allegorically, in order for Celsus to become a Christian as Origen is. There is no phenomenological space for the Third Voice to make an appearance in this arrangement.

Of course, it is perfectly possible that Origen’s words strike Celsus as being convincing, plausible, as possessing a certain luminous quality of truth about them, as producing faith in him, but that is not the same as being perceived to be the Words of God per se. Many words can strike a person as profoundly true, arriving at precisely the right moment in life, hitting the conscience with powerful impact and placing the listener in the position of choosing how she will live from this moment forward, what sort of person she will be in the future, without for that reason presenting themselves as being words from God — for example, one friend who, in a moment of peculiar lucidity and insight, informs another of the actual, selfish motives for which she is going through a struggle in a relationship. There is nothing about the friend’s words, phenomenologically rich and impactful as they are, which strictly speaking requires the supposition that they are also words of God; rather, this is an interpretation which can be given them if one antecedently accepts a particular doctrine of divine providence and is already willing and disposed to interpret the events of one’s own life as being directed by God. Phenomenologically, the friend’s words really only give themselves as belonging to the friend, as coming from her mouth, whereas the supposition of a Third Speaker, hiding behind the friend and making use of her words, is an interpretation imposed upon them — whether with justification or not is another matter. It would be similarly mistaken to suppose that Origen’s words appear as God’s Word through the fact that they produce faith in their listener, since merely human words, contra Michel Henry, also engender their listeners.[40] This happens with all human beings by ordinary speech: they are brought into existence as persons from birth inter alia by being spoken to.[41]

This same line of reasoning applies to Sokolowski’s phenomenology of God’s Word. Beyond his discussion of spoken and written words, he briefly considers the situation in which the biblical text comes to light specifically as God’s Word:

The church’s use of scripture in her teaching and actions makes make possible for us a way of life that is coherent because reconciled with God. It is in such situations of prayerful reading, whether in the church’s liturgy and teaching or in the private prayer of believers, that the scriptures most fully come to life. It is there that they serve, not as the object of our curiosity, but as the words through which God speaks to us and we to God. At this point the primary author of the scriptures, God himself, comes to the fore and acts as author, as the one who authorizes and speaks. At this point the human authors, who have finished their work, recede into the background.[42]

While Sokolowski is certainly right to note that the words of Scripture often have the strongest impact and they are most strongly appreciated as being God’s words in such a spiritually charged context, it has still not been established whether God Himself has truly come to the fore in some phenomenologically evident way, i.e. if God’s words have been intuited, or if rather the intention of the biblical words as belonging to God on the part of their reader has somehow been intensified or strengthened or focused through spiritual practice. In Sokolowski’s analysis there is still not a primordial givenness irreducible to the constituting Ego as there is in the experience of the spiritual sense in Origen.

To summarize, then: The Word of God appears clearly in an experience of a Third Voice. But because the Third Voice cannot appear in Scripture except if one already accepts the teaching of the Church and her interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, it follows that, phenomenologically speaking, the Word of God “hides behind” the word of the Church. The hiddenness of Scripture, in contradistinction to the visibility of the biblical text, is therefore intimately connected to the visibility of the Church. And Origen is likewise very clear about how the Church is visible: it distinguishes itself through apostolic succession, through the fact that its teachers are initiated into a chain which originates in the apostles of Jesus themselves, the first persons to sense the Third Voice in their interpretation of the Old Testament in the light of Christ Whom they followed.

V. Theological-methodological consequences

Until now this essay has focused on the phenomenological distinction between Scripture and biblical text as this can be discerned in some of the writings of Origen. The purpose of this final section is to conclude with a theological-methodological application of these phenomenological insights, specifically as regards the relationship between Scripture, Church, and Tradition.

The doctrine of sola Scriptura affirms that Scripture is the norma normans et non normata of Christian theology.[43] While it grants relative weight and authority to the tradition of the Church — broadly understood and, in practice, generally irrespective of the institutional hierarchy by which this tradition has been passed down — nevertheless it insists on the finality and supremacy of the teaching of the Word of God as contained within the canonical writings.[44] Scripture is the final arbiter precisely because it is first and foremost God’s Word and not the word of anyone else, whereas human traditions can variously err and distort the message originally received.[45] The doctrine of sola Scriptura therefore would seem to require that Scripture be visible on its own, independently of the hermeneutical mediation of any particular interpretive tradition, precisely so that the scriptural adequacy of the latter can be evaluated in light of the former. Infallible Scripture must be capable in principle of speaking with a voice of its own, one that can be clearly distinguished from the voice of any theological tradition which presents an interpretation thereof in its own voice.

The antecedent discussion of the disclosure and hiddenness of Scripture in Origen helps to show the impossibility and theological inutility of this scheme of things through a phenomenological approach. In the first place, the Word of God truly clearly appears — if it is appropriate to say that it appears clearly at all[46] — in the experience of the Third Voice, in the recognition of the spiritual sense of an Old Testament text which connects it prophetically to the concrete circumstances surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. This perception can only have been had in an original way by the immediate followers of Jesus, who make it possible for others to experience it in a kind of second-hand, mediated fashion through the written gospels and their interpretation of the Old Testament in light of Christ more generally. But this mediated experience presupposes trust in the word of the apostles, ultimately, and in the historical Church which claims to be succeeded from them, more proximately, a trust which takes as its object the word of the Church and which cannot be motivated by any perception of the Word of God, since this hides behind and is only made visible, phenomenologically speaking, by the word of the Church in the first place.

The doctrine of sola Scriptura emphasizes the priority of Scripture precisely because it is supposed to be the Word of God, and every other merely human word, regardless of its origins, irrespective of who it is that utters it, is subsequently subordinated in authority to this divine Word. Sola Scriptura approaches matters metaphysically, considering things precisely as they are supposed to be in themselves, ordered in a hierarchy according to their causal origins. In the context of discussions of theological methodology, sola Scriptura is therefore naturally at home in a metaphysical perspective. A phenomenological approach, however, which emphasizes the order of appearances in human consciousness as the only medium of access to “the things themselves,” pushes matters in precisely the opposite direction. Tradition, far from being intrinsically subordinated to Scripture and evaluated in light of it, comes to light as the necessary medium by which Scripture first becomes visible, so that Scripture, Tradition, and the Church which shares her Tradition become effectively inseparable realities. Moreover, initial commitment to an interpretive tradition is necessarily a matter of faith, as Origen noted, at least in part because a person can only be made capable of encountering the Word of God precisely through some tradition or other. This initial commitment may be occasioned by a sense of the truth of its interpretation, an impression of its cogency or hermeneutical adequacy, an “unreasoning impulse,” or whatever, but in order to take what any tradition says as being also or primarily the Word of God, rather than being merely a human interpretive tradition, necessarily involves the imposition of a particular theological hermeneutic upon this experience and a general attitude of trust toward the tradition itself. Even to ascribe one’s understanding of the meaning of Scripture to the activity of the Holy Spirit is already to presuppose a hermeneutical tradition according to which there is a Holy Spirit who does such a thing. Faith in the tradition comes before the perception of its truth.

This argument therefore illustrates the theological-methodological significance of a phenomenology of Scripture: it yields the conclusion that Scripture, Church, and Tradition are inseparable phenomena, the latter two being the conditions of the visibility of the former. Sola Scriptura, however, is excluded as being methodologically impossible, if only for the reason that the phenomenological order of things is inescapable. It is not easy plausibly to deny the fact that a person must first learn to read in order for Scripture to be accessible, and she will read it in light of the way she was taught to read, i.e. in light of the hermeneutical tradition which proposed to make Scripture visible for her. The phenomenological order is inescapable precisely because it is immediate, because it is the order of consciousness, and the investigations of this essay, developed as they were from certain insights in the writings of Origen, have yielded certain insights about the essential nature of consciousness of Scripture.


[1]  At least one other author has fruitfully interpreted Origen’s writings from the point of view of phenomenological philosophy. See Paul Saieg, “Reading the Phenomenology of Origen’s Gospel: Toward a Philology of Givenness,” Modern Theology 31:2 (2015), 235-56.

[2]  See Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans. by Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002); In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena, trans. by Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002); The Visible and the Revealed, trans. by Christine M. Gschwandtner (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

[3]  Phenomenology as a way past metaphysics is a common theme in the writings of Jean-Luc Marion. See, e.g., “Metaphysics and Phenomenology: A Relief for Theology,” in The Visible and the Revealed, ch. 3, as well as “Phenomenology of Givenness and First Philosophy,” in In Excess, ch. 1. Marion offers a phenomenological (as opposed to metaphysical) interpretation of St. Augustine’s Confessions in In the Self’s Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine, trans. by Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[4]  This ambiguity afflicts the recently published volume Phenomenologies of Scripture, ed. by Adam Y. Wells (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), in which only the essay by Sokolowski is something like a phenomenology of Scripture in the objective genitive sense.

[5]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 2.

[6]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 8-9.

[7]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 9.

[8]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 10.

[9]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 10.

[10]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 12.

[11]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 14.

[12]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 15.

[13]  Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 60.

[14]  Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, 14.

[15]  Jacques Taminaux, The Metamorphoses of the Phenomenological Reduction (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2004), 9.

[16]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 42.

[17]  Edmund Husserl, Ideas I, trans. by Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2014), §§27ff.

[18]  J. Aaron Simmons and Bruce Ellis Benson, The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 21-4.

[19]  Husserl, Ideas I, §46.

[20]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 57.

[21]  Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, ch. 2. Simmons and Benson, The New Phenomenology, note that the horizon within which a thing is seen is called the “as such,” insofar as a thing is seen as such.

[22]  See Christina M. Gschwandtner, Degrees of Givenness: On Saturation in Jean-Luc Marion (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), ch. 1.

[23]  Marion, In Excess. Nicolae Turcan, Apologia după sfârșitul metafizicii. Teologie și fenomenologie la Jean-Luc Marion (București: Eikon, 2016) interprets Marion’s philosophy as a sort of Christian apologetic after the end of metaphysics.

[24]  Marion, In Excess, 14.

[25]  See Marion, In Excess, ch. 1; The Visible and the Revealed, ch. 2.

[26]  Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, ch. 2.

[27]  Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, 15. See also Marion, Givenness and Revelation, trans. by Stephen E. Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[28]  See Steven Nemes, “On the Priority of Tradition: An Exercise in Analytic Theology,” Open Theology 3 (2017): 274-92. See also Nemes, “On reading the Bible as Scripture, encountering the Church,” forthcoming in Perichoresis, for an analysis of the act of reading the Bible as Scripture.

[29]  See Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[30]  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part I, trans. by G.W. Bromiley (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1975).

[31]  Robert Sokolowski, “God’s Word and Human Speech,” in Phenomenologies of Scripture, 20-43.

[32]  All quotes are taken from Origen, On First Principles, trans. by John Behr, 2 volumes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and follow the numbering found there.

[33]  Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen, trans. by Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 338.

[34]  Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, p. 24. See also Marion, Being Given, §§21-4.

[35]  See Nemes, “On the Priority of Tradition.”

[36]  Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: Books 1-5, trans. by Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001).

[37]  Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. by Henry Chadwick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1953).

[38]  Peter W. Martens, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) makes the point in various places that Origen does not object to Gnostic and Jewish interpretations because of their general hermeneutical approach, whether literalist or allegorist, but rather because it produces interpretive results contrary to the teaching of the Church.

[39]  Cf. Sokolowski: “[F]or the Christian believer the catechesis and life of the church precede the scriptures phenomenologically,” in “God’s Word and Human Speech,” 27.

[40]  Michel Henry, I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity, trans. by Susan Emanuel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 225-6.

[41]  See D.C. Schindler, The Catholicity of Reason (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013) for a very sophisticated philosophical analysis of reason which makes reference to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s treatment of the mother’s smile as producing personhood and consciousness in the child.

[42]  Sokolowski, “God’s Word and Human Speech,” 26.

[43]  Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) develops a doctrine of sola Scriptura along the lines of a dramatic metaphor.

[44]  Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls, Roman but not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), ch. 2 develops a paradigmatically Protestant understanding of the relationship between Scripture, tradition, and church hierarchy.

[45]  Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 163-4.

[46]  Christine M. Gschwandtner, “Can We Hear the Voice of God? Michel Henry and the Words of Christ,” in Words of Life: New Theological Turns in French Phenomenology, ed. by Bruce Ellis Benson and Norman Wirzba (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 147-57 argues for the necessity of hermeneutics, claiming that “despite the immediacy of revelation, interpretation is required to hear the voice of God and to identify it as divine.”

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