Eschatology – Part 15

Eschatology – Part 15

The Patristic scholar Dewick, in his Primitive Christian Eschatology, shows that the allegorical interpretation is necessary for Reason and Conscience to shape the tradition of the church. “It is interesting to observe in the literature of the first two centuries how the writers were unconsciously or half-consciously preparing the way for doctrines which were not clearly formulated for a long time afterwards. The idea of Purgatory, for instance, and the closely allied practice of praying for the departed, are nowhere set forth as recognized elements of primitive Christian faith and practice. Yet the thoughts of the writers are moving along lines which (humanly speaking) were sure to lead them on to more definite opinions on these matters…”[1]

With the introduction of extra-biblical doctrines such as Purgatory and praying for the dead, Reason and Conscience, not Scripture are the final court of appeal, i.e., the “tradition of the Church.” It was in this milieu that amillennialism was born and premillennialism rejected.

“The supremacy of righteousness as the essential condition of admittance to the Kingdom of Heaven was being tacitly challenged by the growing belief that the correct performance of rites and ceremonies were at least an acceptable substitute, if not actually of predominant importance.”[2]

This doesn’t mean, however, that this shift was intentional. Rather, it was a subtle conforming to the cultural milieu in which they lived, as the Patristic scholar Bernard notes: “It is, I believe, important to note that Justin openly claimed that he was a representative of the great body of Christians and that he had received his Christianity from the Church of the preceding age. It is necessary to stress this, as a cursory study of his writings – and especially the Apology – might suggest that he was fundamentally a Middle Platonist philosopher who incorporated into his philosophic presuppositions a smattering of Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have already seen how his philosophy did, in fact, modify the biblical basis of his faith, but Justin himself was unaware of this. He presented his Apology in the name of all true Christians and he makes the point that they should not be confused with Christians falsely so called. The doctrine which Justin represented was, he believed, the traditional belief of the Church: ‘We have learned from tradition that God has no need of material offerings from men…we have been taught and firmly believe that he accepts only those who imitate the good things which are his…’[3] “[4]

Both Dewick and Barnard notes the change from “primitive” Christianity to monolithic Church after the conversion of Constantine; Bernard argues that it was not a willful endeavor on the part of men to mold the Church into their own liking. Rather, they were children of their age, influenced by culture. In either case, this drift toward institutional Christianity, contributed to the Church’s anti-Semitism.

Much of the change was motivated by a desire to reach the world, so strongly influenced by Greek thought. Alexandria, Egypt was a center of effort in this direction, as previously noted. In this issue, we look more clearly at Origen, one the most influential church thinkers in the second and third centuries from Alexandria.


Most of what we know about Origen is found in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, book six, plus a couple of less significant sources. Born in Egypt (c. 185 – c. 254) and raised by Christian parents, he studied in Clement of Alexandria’s catechetical school. His father was martyred in 202, and although Origen wished to die with him, his mother prevented him by hiding his clothes.

Taking Matt. 19:12 literally, he castrated himself in his pursuit of an ascetic and pious life. He developed a systematic theology, incorporating the allegorical method of interpretation in an endeavor to reach the Greek mind.

Bietenhard, a German Patristic scholar, observes, “War was declared on chiliasm by the Alexandrians Clement and Origen. Clement did not refer to it directly, but his thinking as a whole was unfavorable towards it. Origen was more specific and consistently hostile.” The objective of Bietenhard’s article is not to outline the eschatology of Origen, but to show in Origen’s denunciations of Chiliasm some basic observations on the exegesis of Scripture and theology generally. “For Origen the Chiliasts were visionaries, deluded and fools, and what was worse, literalists. The millennium as they pictured it was in terms of the flesh. On the basis of the Old Testament promises, and perhaps after the manner of Papias, they painted it in strongly realistic colors. They looked for the rebuilding of the earthly Jerusalem with gold and precious stones.”

The true Christian, according to Origen, was the man of the Spirit who had no worldly expectation. The hope of the Christian is a hope of heaven; the earth is not worthy of a Christian’s hope. “But this meant a complete abandonment of the Christian conception of time. A Greek dualism of above and below replaced the NT contrast between this world and the world to come. Origen had also forgotten that the millennium is not identical with the kingdom of God, but is rather a transitional stage between two worlds. The basic principle that Scripture must be interpreted according to the Spirit and not the flesh was a right principle, but Origen’s application of it was disastrous, for he identified the spiritual with Neo-Platonic philosophy. Yet Scripture itself remained, and this was sufficient to preserve the factual and historical elements from complete dissolution and to ensure the continuing possibility and even actuality of a true Biblical realism.”[5]


Origen’s opposition to chiliasm was so violent that in his exposition of Revelation 7 & 14 he says of the 144,00, “These, then, who are sealed on their foreheads from every tribe of the children of Israel, are a hundred and forty-four thousand in number….Now these taken from the tribes are, as we showed before, the same persons as the virgins. But the number of believers is small who belong to Israel according to the flesh; one might venture to assert that they would not nearly make up the number of a hundred and forty-four thousand. It is clear, therefore, that the hundred and forty-four thousand who have not defiled themselves with women must be made up of those who have come to the divine word out of the Gentile world.”[6]

Hanson, another Patristic scholar reminds us that Origen was not the originator of Christian allegorizing, he was its great apologist, systematizer and amplifier. He systematized the use of allegory, making it universally popular and intellectually respectable in the ancient church by the weight of his great authority as a scholar and a theologian. “In his De Principiis he divides the senses of Scripture into three: …the literal meaning;…metaphorical, but usually has some reference to a point of moral edification;…the spiritual sense which also at its lowest is merely metaphorical but usually has reference to some point of theology or doctrine.”

According to Origen’s theory, the literal sense is to be followed unless it simply makes no sense. “But this distinction between spiritual and moral is on the whole throughout Origen’s works lost and the two senses blend….On the whole, allegorization becomes simply ‘the spiritual sense,’ a convenient resort whereby the difficulties of the Old Testament may be overcome and the conviction maintained that the Bible is inerrant without involving the Christian scholar in the impossible task of defending its literal truth.”

On occasion Origen allegorizes the historicity of incidents even in the New Testament, although not as readily as he will dispose of stories in the Old. “He frequently maintains a theory found also in Clement of Alexandria and in Philo that God may have in the Bible deliberately related things which were not true for the ultimate improvement of mankind. There can be no doubt that Origen had no misgivings at all in on occasion abandoning the historical authenticity of incidents in the Bible.”

It is necessary to believe in the historical truth of Christianity, according to Origen, “because this belief is an inescapable prelude to belief in the timeless, spiritual Logos; it is the door, or the first rung of the ladder. But it should be transcended, escaped from, as soon as possible. History was the screen upon which God threw the film of his truth. It was the charade by which he conveyed to us the saving knowledge of himself.”[7]


When you use the hermeneutic of Philo, Origen and the Greek school, which is allegorical and figurative, you are forced to look to the tradition of the church for a proper interpretation of Scripture. If a literal hermeneutic is inadequate and the passage doesn’t really mean what it says, who gets to determine its meaning? If “no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation,”[8] the answer is the church. The church, however, is victimized by culture, and is constantly shifting its position on issues such as divorce, the role of women, and abortion.

The line between reason and revelation is absolute. This doesn’t mean that you do not carry reason into revelation, for the process of interpretation requires reason. Hodge rightly notes that the primary job of reason is the reception of revelation.[9] But reason must be in subjection to revelation; revelation is the supreme court in man’s deliberations. Reason and tradition are important, but both must yield to revelation.

That group of Patristics called Apologists, according to Hanson, for all their readiness to introduce Greek forms of thought into the presentation of Christian doctrine, had been conservative in their eschatology, seldom if ever straying beyond the bounds of a literal interpretation of apocalyptic imagery, and had been, with a few exceptions, particularly preoccupied with a very literal presentation of the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh. Hanson notes that Irenaeus had seen no reason to extend to his treatment of eschatology an allegorical approach. “…his account of the Last Things had been conservative and almost naive….”[10]

Origen was the first to abandon this conservative approach, consistently allegorizing all eschatological imagery which he encountered in the Bible. “Until his day chiliasm, while not a universally held doctrine, had apparently been quite a popular one….But Origen sets his face resolutely against chiliasm. He is well aware that there are contemporary Christians who indulge in such hopes, but he regards them with contempt.”[11]

“With the Alexandrian school, Clement and Origen, a new tributary enters the stream of Christian allegory….From the third century onward the history of Christian allegory moves in ever-deepening currents of varied interpretations – spiritual, figurative, mystical, allegorical, analogical, topological – until by the end of the Middle Ages allegorical interpretation was not so much a stream as an ocean. The Reformation apparently checked and reduced its popularity, though none of the contending parties of the sixteenth century would probably have disowned it entirely. Since then its popularity has waned steadily until today it is almost true to say that the allegorical interpretation of Scripture is confined to liturgy.”[12]

You can see the tie between the allegorical interpretation of Scripture and the institutionalization of the church. If the followers of Christ are the New Israel, the model for the church is the Old Testament Theocracy. Promises to the nation of Israel were allegorized and applied to the church, and the church sought in incorporate the Old Testament imagery into its liturgy. The pastor became a priest, the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice, and the Lord’s table an altar.

So too, authority had to reside in the church, for if the literal meaning of Scripture is not the true meaning, the church had to become the final arbiter, and decipher for the believer the correct interpretation.

As Hanson pointed out, the Reformers corrected much of this abuse, but fell short of abandoning a hermeneutic that made the church the new Israel.

His ….. Yours,


[1] op.cit., Dewick, p. 373.

[2] ibid, p. 395.

[3] “I Apol. x.”

[4] op. cit., Barnard, Justin Martyr, His Life and Thought, pp. 127-128.

[5] Torrance, T.F., editor, Scottish Journal of Theology, Bietenhard, Pfarrer Dr. Hans, The Millennial Hope in the Early Church, Oliver & Boyd LTD., Edinburgh, Vol Six, 1953.

[6] op.cit., ANF, Vol X, pp. 297-298, Origen’s Commentary on John, bookI, chapter 2.

[7] Theology, A Journal of Historic Christianity, Hanson, R.P.C., History and Allegory, Vol LIX, 1956, pp. 499-502.

[8] II Peter 1:20

[9] Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Vol I, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1952, page 36.

[10] op.cit., Hanson, pp. 101-110.

[11] ibid, pp. 333-345.

[12] ibid, p. 498.