Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume IX/Origen on John/Letter of Origen to Gregory

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IX, Origen on John by Origen, translated by Allan Menzies
Letter of Origen to Gregory

Letter of Origen to Gregory.

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When and to whom the Learning derived from Philosophy may be of Service for the Exposition of the Holy Scriptures; with a lively Personal Appeal.

This letter to Gregory, afterwards bishop of Cæsarea, and called Thaumaturgus, was preserved in the Philocalia, or collection of extracts from Origen’s works drawn up by Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Cæsarea.  It is printed by Delarue and Lommatzsch in the forefront of their editions of the works.  It forms a good preface to the commentaries, as it shows how Origen considered the study of Scripture to be the highest of all studies, and how he regarded scientific learning, in which he was himself a master, as merely preparatory for this supreme learning.  Dräseke[1] has shown that it was written about 235, when Origen, after having had Gregory as his pupil at Cæsarea for some years, had fled before the persecution under Maximinus Thrax to Cappadocia; while Gregory, to judge from the tenor of this Epistle, had gone to Egypt.  The Panegyric on Origen,[2] pronounced by Gregory at Cæsarea about 239, when the school had reassembled there after the persecution, shows that the master’s solicitude for his pupil’s true advancement was not disappointed.

1.  Gregory is Urged to Apply His Gentile Learning to the Study of Scripture.

All hail to thee in God, most excellent and reverend Sir, son Gregory, from Origen.  A natural quickness of understanding is fitted, as you are well aware, if it be diligently exercised, to produce a work which may bring its owner so far as is possible, if I may so express myself, to the consummation of the art the which he desires to practise, and your natural aptitude is sufficient to make you a consummate Roman lawyer and a Greek philosopher too of the most famous schools.  But my desire for you has been that you should direct the whole force of your intelligence to Christianity as your end, and that in the way of production.  And I would wish that you should take with you on the one hand those parts of the philosophy of the Greeks which are fit, as it were, to serve as general or preparatory studies for Christianity, and on the other hand so much of Geometry and Astronomy as may be helpful for the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.  The children of the philosophers speak of geometry and music and grammar and rhetoric and astronomy as being ancillary to philosophy; and in the same way we might speak of philosophy itself as being ancillary to Christianity.

2.  This Procedure is Typified by the Story of the Spoiling of the Egyptians.

It is something of this sort perhaps that is enigmatically indicated in the directions God is represented in the Book of Exodus[3] as giving to the children of Israel.  They are directed to beg from their neighbours and from those dwelling in their tents vessels of silver and of gold, and raiment; thus they are to spoil the Egyptians, and to obtain materials for making the things they are told to provide in connection with the worship of God.  For out of the things of which the children of Israel spoiled the Egyptians the furniture of the Holy of Holies was made, the ark with its cover, and the cherubim and the mercy-seat and the gold jar in which the manna, that bread of angels, was stored.  These probably were made from the finest of the gold of the Egyptians, and from a second quality, perhaps, the solid golden candlestick which stood near the inner veil, and the lamps on it, and the golden table on which stood the shewbread, and between these two the golden altar of incense.  And if there was gold of a third and of a fourth quality, the sacred vessels were made of it.  And of the Egyptian silver, too, other things were made; for it was from their sojourn in Egypt that the children of Israel derived the great advantage of being supplied with such a quantity of precious materials for the use of the service of God.  Out of the Egyptian raiment probably were made all those requisites named in Scripture in embroidered work; the embroiderers working[4] with the wisdom of God,[5] such garments for such purposes, to produce the hangings and the inner and outer courts.  This is not a suitable opportunity to enlarge on such a theme or to show in how many ways the children of Israel found those things useful which they got from the Egyptians.  The Egyptians had not made a proper use of them; but the Hebrews used them, for the wisdom of God was with them, for religious purposes.  Holy Scripture knows, however, that it was an evil thing to descend from the land of the children of Israel into Egypt; and in this a great truth is wrapped up.  For some it is of evil that they should dwell with the Egyptians, that is to say, with the learning of the world, after they have been enrolled in the law of God and in the Israelite worship of Him.  Ader the Edomite,[6] as long as he was in the land of Israel and did not taste the bread of the Egyptians, made no idols; but when he fled from the wise Solomon and went down into Egypt, as one who had fled from the wisdom of God he became connected with Pharaoh, marrying the sister of his wife, and begetting a son who was brought up among the sons of Pharaoh.  Therefore, though he did go back to the land of Israel, he came back to it to bring division into the people of God, and to cause them to say to the golden calf, “These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”  I have learned by experience and can tell you that there are few who have taken of the useful things of Egypt and come out of it, and have then prepared what is required for the service of God; but Ader the Edomite on the other hand has many a brother.  I mean those who, founding on some piece of Greek learning, have brought forth heretical ideas, and have as it were made golden calves in Bethel, which is, being interpreted, the house of God.  This appears to me to be intended to convey that such persons set up their own images in the Scriptures in which the Word of God dwells, and which therefore are tropically called Bethel.  The other image is said in the word to have been set up in Dan.  Now the borders of Dan are at the extremities and are contiguous to the country of the heathens, as is plainly recorded in the Book of Jesus, son of Nave.  Some of these images, then, are close to the borders of the heathen, which the brothers, as we showed, of Ader have devised.

3.  Personal Appeal.

Do you then, sir, my son, study first of all the divine Scriptures.  Study them I say.  For we require to study the divine writings deeply, lest we should speak of them faster than we think; and while you study these divine works with a believing and God-pleasing intention, knock at that which is closed in them, and it shall be opened to thee by the porter, of whom Jesus says,[7] “To him the porter openeth.”  While you attend to this divine reading seek aright and with unwavering faith in God the hidden sense which is present in most passages of the divine Scriptures.  And do not be content with knocking and seeking, for what is most necessary for understanding divine things is prayer, and in urging us to this the Saviour says not only,[8] “Knock, and it shall be opened to you,” and “Seek, and ye shall find,” but also “Ask, and it shall be given you.”  So much I have ventured on account of my fatherly love to you.  Whether I have ventured well or not, God knows, and His Christ, and he who has part of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ.  May you partake in these; may you have an always increasing share of them, so that you may be able to say not only, “We are partakers of Christ,”[9] but also “We are partakers of God.”


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Jahrbucher fur Prot. Theol. 1881, 1.
  2. See Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. xx. (Clark).
  3. ix. 2.
  4. Reading with Dräseke, ραφιδεόυτῶν, συρραπτόντων τῶν ραφιδευτῶν.
  5. Exod. xxxi. 3, 6; xxxvi. 1, 2, 8.
  6. 1 Kings xi. 14 (Hadad).  Origen confuses him with Jeroboam.
  7. John x. 3.
  8. Matt. vii. 7.
  9. Heb. iii. 14.