The early Church Fathers of Christianity primarily adopted one of two types of interpretation: spiritual or literal. As a result, two “schools” of interpretation existed that focused on interpreting the text literally or spiritually. The Alexandrian school emphasized spiritualizing while the Antiochene school encouraged interpreting based on the plain meaning of the text. As a result of their rigorous work in the Scriptures, each school had its own heroes. Due to the limits of time and space this article will compare and contrast Origen of the Alexandrian school and John Chrysostom of the Antiochene school. Based on the intrinsic properties of the biblical text, Chrysostom is more faithful to the Scriptures than Origen.
HISTORICAL GRAMMATICAL METHOD
This article presupposes the superiority of the historical grammatical method of interpretation due to its emphasis on the intrinsic properties within the text–the literary and historical contexts. The goal of hermeneutics is to understand God the Holy Spirit’s intention when He carried along the human authors. Where the Bible speaks, God speaks; and many of the early Church Fathers agree. The main difference however is that the Alexandrian School did not believe the literal interpretation was always correct or was even to be preferred, while the Antiochene School sought to detail the common meaning of the text, unless spiritualizing was the obvious answer due to the intrinsic properties of the text in question.
THE ALEXANDRIAN SCHOOL
Origen of Alexandria (185-254) was a disciple of Clement of Alexandria. He was the son of Christian parents. His father was martyred when he was in his teens, and Origen would later suffer the same fate. Although he fused Greek thought with biblical exposition, Origen was the greatest theologian of the early Greek Church. Leaving little to speculation or to the imagination in his commentary on the Gospel of John, Origen argues, “Scripture contains many contradictions, and many statements which are not literally true, but must be read spiritually and mystically.” Although it must be noted that he took Matthew 19:12 literally, for he castrated himself in order to instruct his female students without fear of sexual immorality, most of the time he favored a spiritual interpretation. Like any good Christian, when difficulties arise in the text or difficult questions are asked within or without the church that cannot be answered immediately, he searched for answers until the questions were satisfied. Origen found his answers in allegorizing and spiritualizing the text. Origen implemented his spiritualizing hermeneutic mainly when he perceived textual difficulties. The examples he cites in order to prove his argument concerning contradictions and the necessary allegorical responses are numerous.
One reason Origen seeks to spiritualize the Scriptures is because he believes the Gospels cannot be harmonized without this method of interpretation. Concerning the apparent difficulty of the forty days of Christ’s temptation, and reconciling the timeline between the Gospels, Origin writes,
If the discrepancy between the Gospels is not solved, we must give up our trust in the Gospels, as being true and written by a divine spirit, or as records worthy of credence, for both these characters are held to belong to these works. Those who accept the four Gospels, and who do not consider that their apparent discrepancy is to be solved anagogically (by mystical interpretation), will have to clear up the difficulty, raised above, about the forty days of the temptation, a period for which no room can be found in any way in John’s narrative; and they will also have to tell us when it was that the Lord came to Capernaum.
Origen is correct in his emphasis on the reality that these apparent discrepancies demand answers. However, one can answer these discrepancies by understanding the theme, the purpose of the various Gospels, and argue that precise historical accuracy was not their concern, although I believe the timeline can be accounted for. The events and narratives are possibly summarized as well, for the authors only included enough information to validate their points; but the truth is still intact. Thus, spiritualizing the text is not necessarily the only answer or possibly even the most preferred answer as Origen argues.
Furthermore, as a good apologist Origen seeks to explain why the Gospel writers wrote these contradictions that they “expected” to be spiritualized. Although his arguments are compelling, the fact that his spiritualizing causes more unanswered questions reveals the danger in spiritualizing the text. He purports that the supposed contradictions exist because each author comes from a different perspective. Granted, each author does come from a different perspective, but what they describe is placed in historical narrative without figurative language or genre. One wonders how Origen can argue for spiritualizing without the language of the author even pointing the reader to spiritualizing the text.
Another reason for spiritualizing the text according to Origen is to reconcile Paul’s contradictory statements concerning himself. He believes, if taken literally, that the Apostle Paul talks out of both sides of his mouth. Understanding Paul properly is important because if Paul cannot be trusted, then his letters cannot be trusted; and thus, most of the Newer Scriptures in use at the time of Origen could not be trusted as well. Origen writes,
On the same passage one may also make use of such an example as that of Paul, who at one place Romans 7:14 says that he is carnal, sold under sin, and thus was not able to judge anything, while in another place he is the spiritual man who is able to judge all things and himself to be judged by no man. Of the carnal one are the words, Not what I would that do I practice, but what I hate that do I. And he too who was caught up to the third heaven and heard unspeakable words is a different Paul from him who says, Of such an one I will glory, but of myself I will not glory. If he becomes 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 to the Jews as a Jew that he may gain the Jews, and to those under the law as under the law that he may gain those under the law, and to them that are without law as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that he may gain those without law, and if to the weak he becomes weak that he may gain the weak, it is clear that these statements must be examined each by itself, that he becomes a Jew, and that sometimes he is under the law and at another time without law, and that sometimes he is weak. Where, for example, he says something by way of permission 1 Corinthians 7:6 and not by commandment, there we may recognize that he is weak; for who, he says, 2 Corinthians 11:29 is weak, and I am not weak?
Origen is correct in his detailing of Paul’s various discrepancies about himself; however, each verse can also fit together. These verses at least detail the Apostle Paul’s beliefs about himself. Although they may appear contradictory to readers, this does not mean that Paul is speaking in a contradictory manner. There are many literary methods in use in Paul’s writings. Origen misses these apparent uses of literary method and finds comfort in spiritualizing. Also, the Apostle Paul could be speaking about different time periods of his life. Some of the statements Origen mentions could have described when Paul was not a Christian, when he was an immature Christian or a mature Christian, or he could have merely been referring ironically to himself in one statement and referred to himself literally in another statement. The point is that these purported “contradictions” do not have to be spiritualized in order to be explained. When one spiritualizes he or she speculates, and although his or her thoughts may be biblical as proven by other literal texts, the goal of interpretation is to understand the author’s purpose for writing his text, not to merely speculate about how his text points to other truths found in other texts interpreted literally.
Another reason Origen spiritualizes is to make sense out of difficult texts. One example is his spiritualizing of the cleansing of the temple contained in the beginning of John’s gospel. It is a difficult text because the Apostle John offers different words that Christ says and he places the cleansing of the temple at an earlier time than the other Gospel writers. Origen argues,
When, therefore, the Savior finds in the temple, the house of His Father, those who are selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting, He drives them out, using the scourge of small cords which He has made, along with the sheep and oxen of their trade, and pours out their stock of coin, as not deserving to be kept together, so little is it worth. He also overturns the tables in the souls of such as love money, saying even to those who sell doves, Take these things hence, that they may no longer traffic in the house of God. But I believe that in these words He indicated also a deeper truth, and that we may regard these occurrences as a symbol of the fact that the service of that temple was not any longer to be carried on by the priests in the way of material sacrifices, and that the time was coming when the law could no longer be observed, however much the Jews according to the flesh desired it. For when Jesus casts out the oxen and sheep, and orders the doves to be taken away, it was because oxen and sheep and doves were not much longer to be sacrificed there in accordance with Jewish practices.
Origen offers some vivid explanations, and though his arguments are true of Scripture overall, they cannot be deduced from this text without speculation. It does make the story more interesting as Charles Haddon Spurgeon argued over 1500 years after Origen, but it does not mean that God the Holy Spirit intended the spiritualized meaning. If the interpreter must be divinely inspired to understand the text, then it makes no sense that God would divinely inspire a limited number of men if He was going to divinely inspire all His people at a later time. The words contained in specific sentences, in specific genres, in specific paragraphs, in specific historical contexts, etc. were divinely inspired in this manner for the teaching, reproving, correcting, and training in righteousness of Christ’s church (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The text therefore must be responsible for the author’s purported spiritualizing; otherwise he has no authority for such interpretation and is merely speculating.
There are many more possibilities to examine concerning Origen’s spiritualizing. They are virtually endless. It must be admitted however that some of Origen’s arguments for spiritualizing are more compelling than others; one of his best examples is his examination of Solomon’s temple:
For the sake of those, however, who consider that nothing further than the narrative itself is meant to be indicated in these words, it may not be unfitting to introduce at this point some considerations which they can scarcely withstand, to show that the words ought to be regarded as those of the Spirit, and that the mind of the Spirit should be sought for in them. Did the sons of the kings really spend their time in hewing the great and precious stones, and practice a craft so little in keeping with royal birth? And the number of the burden-bearers and of the stone-cutters and of the officers, the duration, too, of the period of preparing the stones and marking them, is all this recorded as it really was? The holy house, too, was got ready in peace and was to be built for God without hammer or axe or any iron tool, that there might be no disturbance in the house of God. And again I would ask those who are in bondage to the letter how it is possible that there should be eighty thousand stone-cutters and that the house of God should be built out of hard white stones without the noise of hammer or axe or any iron tool being heard in His house while the building was going on? Is it not living stones that are hewn without any noise or tumult somewhere outside the temple, so that they are brought ready prepared to the place which awaits them in the building?
His arguments are compelling. The questions he raises concerning Solomon’s temple appear to argue for the impossibility of a literal interpretation. Although I agree with his questioning, spiritualizing is still not the immediate answer. However, if one chooses to spiritualize, then the spiritualizing must speak more about heaven than earth since the temple is a type of heaven on earth. Furthermore, having constructed the temple hundreds of years before Origen, is it really impossible to cut the stones precisely without iron tools? Also, could the Israelites have cut the stones somewhere else and brought them in when they were finished? The answer to both of these questions is a clear yes. Moreover, the question arises if whether or not Israel would have spiritualized the text when it was spoken to them. Would the people of God that had witnessed miracles and heard of their Father’s miracles in the past have replied with doubt that such construction was possible? It is highly unlikely, although Israel struggled with unbelief almost continually. Finally, for Israel having not fully understood Christ’s coming, it would be difficult for them to see the symbolism Origen argues in favor of; although it is a very interesting argument.
THE ANTIOCHENE SCHOOL
John Chrysostom (347-407) was raised by a Christian widow in Antioch. Although he studied as a lawyer under the famous pagan orator Libanius, he later became a monk, and lived out his days as a monk. After his mother died, he went to the mountains to practice monasticism, returning to the city over six years later. In 381 he was ordained as a deacon, and ordained as an elder in 386. He was given the task of being the preaching elder; and by the sixth century he became known as “Chrysostomos” (golden mouthed). Although he played no part in any major controversy, he was the most popular and most orthodox of the Antiochene fathers. Concerning hermeneutics, instead of favoring the allegorical or mystical interpretation of Origen, he favored the literal interpretation of Scripture.
Origen argued that the Apostle Paul contradicted himself, but John Chrysostom found no such contradictions. Instead, he examined the text as possessing authority from God as written, acknowledging and submitting to the literary make-up. Concerning Romans 7:14, Chrysostom writes,
If then sin hath no more dominion over us, why does he lay so great a charge upon them as he does in the words, “Let not sin reign in your mortal body,” and, “yield not ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin?” What does that here said mean then? He is sowing a kind of seed in this statement, which he means to develop afterwards, and to cultivate in a powerful argument. What then is this statement? It is this; that our body, before Christ’s coming, was an easy prey to the assaults of sin. For after death a great swarm of passions entered also. And for this cause it was not lightsome for running the race of virtue. For there was no Spirit present to assist, nor any baptism of power to mortify. (John vii. 39.) But as some horse (Plato Phædr. §74) that answereth not the rein, it ran indeed, but made frequent slips, the Law meanwhile announcing what was to be done and what not, yet not conveying into those in the race anything over and above exhortation by means of words. But when Christ had come, the effort became afterwards more easy, and therefore we had a more distant goal (meizona the skammata) set us, in that the assistance we had given us was greater. Wherefore also Christ saith, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. v. 20.) But this he says more clearly in the sequel. But at present he alludes here briefly to it, to show that unless we stoop down very low to it, sin will not get the better of us. For it is not the Law only that exhorteth us, but grace too which also remitted our former sins, and secures us against future ones. For it promised them crowns after toils, but this (i.e. grace) crowned them first, and then led them to the contest. Now it seems to me that he is not signifying here the whole life of a believer, but instituting a comparison between the Baptism and the Law. And this he says in another passage also; “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor. iii. 6.) For the Law convinceth of transgression, but grace undoes transgression. As then the former by convincing establisheth sin so the latter by forgiving suffereth us not to be under sin. And so thou art in two ways set free from this thraldom; both in thy not being under the Law, and in thy enjoying grace.
Unlike Origen, Chrysostom finds comfort in explaining and understanding the plain meaning of the text. Although I do not agree with all of his conclusions, at least his argument springs forth from the text instead of eisogetically from his imagination into the text.
Origen also believed that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in John’s Gospel needed to be spiritualized for it could not be understood as true otherwise because of its chronological difficulties and its difficult dialogue. Chrysostom admits no such symbolism, arguing for the plain meaning of the text yet again:
Ver. 16. (“Make not My Father’s house) an house of merchandise.” They do not in this contradict each other, but show that he did this a second time, and that both these expressions were not used on the same occasion, but that He acted thus once at the beginning of His ministry, and again when He had come to the very time of His Passion. Therefore, (on the latter occasion,) employing more strong expressions, He spoke of it as (being made) “a den of thieves,” but here at the commencement of His miracles He does not so, but uses a more gentle rebuke; from which it is probable that this took place a second time. “And wherefore,” says one, “did Christ do this same, and use such severity against these men, a thing which He is nowhere else seen to do, even when insulted and reviled, and called by them ‘Samaritan’ and ‘demoniac’? for He was not even satisfied with words only, but took a scourge, and so cast them out.” Yes, but it was when others were receiving benefit, that the Jews accused and raged against Him; when it was probable that they would have been made savage by His rebukes, they showed no such disposition towards Him, for they neither accused nor reviled Him. What say they? Ver. 18. “What sign showest Thou unto us, seeing that Thou doest these things?” Seest thou their excessive malice, and how the benefits done to others incensed them more (than reproofs)? At one time then He said, that the Temple was made by them “a den of thieves,” showing that what they sold was gotten by theft, and rapine, and covetousness, and that they were rich through other men’s calamities; at another, “a house of merchandise,” pointing to their shameless traffickings. “But wherefore did He this?” Since he was about to heal on the Sabbath day, and to do many such things which were thought by them transgressions of the Law, in order that He might not seem to do this as though He had come to be some rival God and opponent of His Father, He takes occasion hence to correct any such suspicion of theirs. For One who had exhibited so much zeal for the House was not likely to oppose Him who was Lord of the House, and who was worshiped in it. No doubt even the former years during which He lived according to the Law, were sufficient to show His reverence for the Legislator, and that He came not to give contrary laws; yet since it was likely that those years were forgotten through lapse of time, as not having been known to all because He was brought up in a poor and mean dwelling, He afterwards does this in the presence of all, (for many were present because the feast was nigh at hand,) and at great risk. For he did not merely “cast them out,” but also “overturned the tables,” and “poured out the money,” giving them by this to understand, that He who threw Himself into danger for the good order of the House could never despise his Master. Had He acted as He did from hypocrisy, He should only have advised them; but to place Himself in danger was very daring. For it was no light thing to offer Himself to the anger of so many market-folk, to excite against Himself a most brutal mob of petty dealers by His reproaches and His blows, this was not the action of a pretender, but of one choosing to suffer everything for the order of the House. And therefore not by His actions only, but by His words, He shows his agreement with the Father; for He saith not “the Holy House,” but “My Father’s House.” See, He even calls Him, “Father,” and they are not wroth; they thought He spoke in a general way: but when He went on and spoke more plainly, so as to set before them the idea of His Equality, then they become angry. And what say they? “What sign showest Thou unto us, seeing that Thou doest these things?” Alas for their utter madness! Was there need of a sign before they could cease their evil doings, and free the house of God from such dishonor? And was it not the greatest sign of His Excellence that He had gotten such zeal for that House? In fact, the well-disposed were distinguished by this very thing, for “They,” His disciples, it says, Ver. 17. “Remembered that it is written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.” But the Jews did not remember the Prophecy, and said, “What sign showest Thou unto us?” (Ps. Lxix. 9 ), both grieving that their shameful traffic was cut off, and expecting by these means to stop Him, and also desiring to challenge Him to a miracle, and to find fault with what He was doing. Wherefore He will not give them a sign; and before, when they came and asked Him, He made them the same answer, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” ( Matt. Xvi. 4.) Only then the answer was clear, now it is more ambiguous. This He doth on account of their extreme insensibility; for He who prevented them without their asking, and gave them signs, would never when they asked have turned away from them, had He not seen that their minds were wicked and false, and their intention treacherous. Think how full of wickedness the question itself was at the outset. When they ought to have applauded Him for His earnestness and zeal, when they ought to have been astonished that He cared so greatly for the House, they reproach Him, saying, that it was lawful to traffic, and unlawful for any to stop their traffic, except he should show them a sign.
Chrysostom’s entire interpretation is literal. His focus is on what the text says, not on spiritualizing or speculating about what is not present. To witness Christ’s concern for His Father’s glory is compelling, confronting, and convicting to all that call Him Lord. In this detailed exposition of the Lord’s cleansing of His Father’s temple, His concern for His Father’s glory is revealed, and it actually fits better with what the text literally says than what Origen argues in his spiritualizing. The Bible in and of itself is a masterpiece incomparable to any other work of literature that has ever existed. There is no need to spiritualize what does not need spiritualizing. Finally, the plain meaning of the text, whether literal or spiritual, is powerful enough to accomplish the purpose God intended when He wrote it.
In conclusion, although Origen and John Chrysostom were two of the greatest Church Fathers, Chrysostom approached the Scriptures in a more biblical manner than Origen. The difficulty is in the purported autonomy of Origen compared to the “slavery”—to use Origen’s thinking of the literalist being bound to the text—of John Chrysostom. His goal was to allow the text to win over the interpreter’s opinion every time. Thus, Chrysostom’s approach was closest to the historical grammatical approach practiced throughout Evangelicalism today. I would rather be bound to the text than my own imagination (like Origen). What about you?
Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical dictionary of theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2007.
Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity (Vol. I.). San Francisco: Harper, 1984.
Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, Allan Menzies, Ernest Cushing Richardson, and Bernhard Pick. The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. 9). Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912.
Scaff, Phillip, ed. NPNF1-11 Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, 1889. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf111.html.
Scaff, Phillip, ed. NPNF1-14. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1889. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf114.html
Spurgeon, Charles. Lectures to My Students. Nashville, TN: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980.
 Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (Vol. I.), (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1984), 78.
 Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2007), 870.
 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, Allan Menzies, Ernest Cushing Richardson, and Bernhard Pick, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. 9). Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 383.
 Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 870.
 Roberts, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. 9). Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, 382.
 Ibid., 382-383.
 Ibid., 384.
 Ibid., 394.
 Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, (Nashville, TN: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), 97-109. Although Spurgeon argues for allegorizing within certain limits, in this writer’s opinion Origen seems well within these limits in his discussion of Jesus cleansing the temple in the Gospel of John.
 Roberts, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. 9). Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, 404-405.
 Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 246.
 Phillip Scaff, ed. NPNF1-11 Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, 1889, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002, 657-658, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf111.html.
 Phillip Scaff, ed. NPNF1-14. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1889, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002, 144-146, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf114.html,