The Peaceful Hermeneutic of Origen: The End of Deicide

In the ninth century, the Buddhist sage Linji Yixuan told a monk, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Locating the quote in the Zen tradition and its complete detachment from the historical Buddha may be pertinent, in that an embodied Buddha goes against the tenets of the religion. Modern Western Buddhists give a benign reading to the quote such as, don’t assume you have the answers or always be willing to question your assumptions. Maybe the point is not to settle on any sure propositions especially as they might be attached to an actual fleshly historical figure. Maximus the Confessor notes that the best of human thought, which he located in the Greek philosophical tradition, ends in deicide. The murder of the Messiah is the end result of all sorts of forces, but what Maximus has in mind is what the earliest church fathers noticed, even given the Bible, given Jesus, given Christian history, given the church, without the gospel as starting premise the human tendency is to obliterate faith in a God who has come in the flesh. The most destructive elements to the early Church were not those who were seeking to literally kill and destroy Christians but those who became Christians.

Origen, who writes the first text on how to read the Bible, is faced with three kinds of false teaching: the simple (who believe God is corporeal), the Marcionites (who believe in two Gods – the Old Testament Jewish God and the Father of Christ) and the Jews, and all of them are eagerly reading the Bible with a literal hermeneutic, counter to the reality of the incarnation. Origen’s task in On First Principles is nothing short of setting forth an alternative or new understanding of God, humans, and the world, in the principle or rule which will guide Bible reading. Only in the incarnation will the seeming dualisms and contradictions in the world, in Scripture, and in humanity find a unifying principle. He insists, according to M. F. Wiles, on “the absolute unity of the message of Scripture from beginning to end.”[1] As Barbara Bruce puts it, “The one God was revealed in both Testaments, and a peacemaker was the person who could demonstrate the concord and peace of the Old Testament with the New.”[2]

Origen’s peaceful hermeneutic strategy is most clear in his reading of Joshua. Israel (of the flesh) is typical of those with a literal hermeneutic and a literal view of the world in that reading a book like Joshua she “understood nothing in them except wars and the shedding of blood,” and as a result was “incited to excessive savageries” and was “always fed by wars and strife.” Here Origen spells out his hermeneutic strategy, which applies to his overall reading of Scripture: “But after the presence of my Lord Jesus Christ poured the peaceful light of knowledge into human hearts, since, according to the Apostle, he himself is ‘our peace,’ he teaches us peace from this very reading of wars. For peace is returned to the soul if its own enemies—sins and vices—are expelled from it.” Reading “according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ” serves to equip for battle, not according to the flesh, but against the spiritual enemies that “proceed from our heart” namely, “evil thoughts, thefts, false testimony, slanders,” and other enemies of “our soul.” [3] Origen is describing the powers that rule the world and the human heart and the means of defeating them, namely through a proper hermeneutic. He describes this spiritual reading as enabling the life-giving breath of the Spirit to be imparted to us.

This peaceable new life is built on his notion that the incarnation demands a new understanding of reality, and this serves the new hermeneutic. Scripture as an extension of incarnation constitutes Bible reading as the most essential sacrament.[4] “As the people listened to Scripture, letting the words penetrate their minds, they were partaking of the body of Christ. Even as they were careful during the Eucharist celebration not to let one particle of bread drop to the ground, so also must they reverently attend to the Word.”[5]

Origen is forced by the heretical circumstance to drop his own biblical exposition so as to undertake the first manual on biblical hermeneutics, and the place he begins pertains to the broadest assumptions about God and the world revealed in the Trinity and incarnation. His first principles are not first because they are easy but because apart from these principles the Christian religion is being completely misconstrued.

Origen’s peaceable hermeneutic is not only aimed at harmonizing antagonisms in conceptions of God and scripture, as his larger concern is to create disciples who will prove to be true witnesses (martyrs to peace over and against the violence that would kill them). Just as he sees Bible reading in light of the broadest of perspectives, he also understands that only those who are grounded in the truth will prove true in death. He wants to create those who can endure the violence of persecution without themselves giving in to violence. There is no Word apart from the historical incarnation and apart from those who would continue the incarnation, specifically through martyrdom.

Origen’s father had been martyred and only his mother’s hiding his clothes prevented young Origen from joining his father. As Eusebius tells the story:

When Severus began to persecute the churches, glorious testimonies were given everywhere by the athletes of religion. This was especially the case in Alexandria, to which city, as to a most prominent theater, athletes of God were brought from Egypt and all Thebais according to their merit, and won crowns from God through their great patience under many tortures and every mode of death. Among these was Leonides, who was called the father of Origen, and who was beheaded while his son was still young.[6]

Torture and death called for preparation on the order of an athlete preparing to win a contest. Eusebius tells of Origen writing “to his father an encouraging letter on martyrdom, in which he exhorted him, saying, ‘Take heed not to change your mind on our account.’” [7] This letter is the earliest record of his vast writing project which would only come to an end with his own torture and death.

From the age of 18, when Origen was selected to train catechumens, he understood his task was to prepare his charges for martyrdom. Eusebius gives the account of seven of Origen’s students, who in quick succession, were tortured and martyred. One of his outstanding student martyrs was Potamiæna, who had burning pitch poured over “various part of her body, from the sole of her feet to the crown of her head.” Not long after the officer overseeing her death, moved by her manner of death, converted and was also martyred.

As Eusebius describes Origen’s end, he suffered “bonds and bodily tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon; and how for many days with his feet stretched four spaces in the stocks he bore patiently the threats of fire and whatever other things were inflicted by his enemies.” The goal was not to kill him immediately but to make him suffer, but not long after, he died as a result of the tortures. As Eusebius records, “what words he left after these things, full of comfort to those needing aid, a great many of his epistles show with truth and accuracy.”[8] In other words, his is the writing of a martyr for martyrs, in order to prepare for and live out a life of defeating death, and his life proved true in death.

The pattern Christians are emulating, reenacting, or repeating is that of Christ, tortured and crucified, but defeating those who killed him both in the manner of his death and in his defeat of death. The martyr faces the principalities and powers in a hermeneutical contest in which two realms of truth or two powers are pitted in a life and death struggle in which life and death are the two powers, the two principles, or the two forms of thought. The state proves its power and truth in displaying the crucified, broken, naked, terrorized, body of Christ and his followers. The human body marks the site in which the social body, the political body, or the religious body, impresses its truth. Torture and death are a means of establishing a regime of truth and this is why the martyr is the witness to a counter truth.

As Paul Kolbert writes, torture poses a potential hermeneutical crisis that does not differ much “from the hermeneutical challenges of everyday life.”[9] In Origen’s description, the common passions of life, avarice for example, can breed an exponential desire for money such that one begins to acquire money through force and shedding human blood. This everyday “hermeneutical failure” demonstrates how an inward greed can become an outward violence such that a natural desire becomes “full blown demonic theater.”[10]

In the exegetical strategy of the state, the tortured, maimed, and killed are a sign (a letter) of the final power, the sovereign power of Rome in this case, which proves its final and all-powerful word in the flesh of its victims. The tortured are non-persons, non-citizens, so many lice (in Nazi hermeneutics) who, in their humiliation and otherness, mark the personhood and power of those who exercise power over them. The cross, or the instrument of torture, is the clearest demarcation of two regimes of truth (those who crucify and those crucified).

Origen explains to Ambrose, preparing for his martyrdom, that he must first undergo an inner martyrdom so that when it came to being tortured, he would not defile himself with any untoward word or thought toward his torturers and should in no way be diverted from devotion to God. He must willingly and without anger confess his faith so as to bring the rage of his torturer into contrast with his own tranquility. But to do this he must first ground himself in the Word.[11]

There are two systems on each side of the cross, and Origen understood his task as one of filling out the alternative to violence by bodying forth or enfleshing the alternative in the manner of Christ. As Kolbert puts it, “Origen’s intensely Christian and intellectual response to state-sponsored terror resists the Roman state’s efforts to impose its own violent discipline on bodies through a voluntary, nonviolent discipline, a counter-asceticism that not only opposes the Empire’s interpretation of the world, but also embodies an alternative to it.”[12]

Just as the literalist disfigures the body of the biblical text, in the same mode the torturer would disfigure the flesh in service of violence. What arises in the body of Christ is an alternative meaning attached to bodies and to the letter: an opening to the Spirit. As Origen describes it, reading the Bible rightly, according to the flesh, soul, and spirit includes a right understanding of God, a right understanding of the world, and only with this understanding can one endure torture. Reading by the Spirit, or a figural reading “is a means of freeing knowledge from its cultural captivity to power.” Reading Scripture rightly, is a “spiritual exercise through which readers cultivate a nonviolent hermeneutic, one that embraces the broader signification of material figures (both in Scripture and in the rest of the human world) rather than violently disfiguring them.”[13]

 According to Origen, Christ in his silence “under the scourge and many other outrages” manifested “a courage and patience superior to that of any of the Greeks who spoke while enduring torture.” When Jesus “was being mocked and was clothed in a purple robe, and the crown of thorns was put on his head, and when he took the reed in his hand for a scepter, he showed the highest meekness. For he said nothing either ignoble or angry to those who ventured to do such terrible things to him.”[14] Origen’s comparison pictures a test of two world systems, and Christ’s nonviolent response is the sign of an alternative, peaceful, understanding to be embodied in the church and its hermeneutic.

(To register for our next class with PBI, “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] M. F. Wiles, “Origen as a Biblical Scholar,” The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1, ed. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 454–89. Quoted in Origen, Homilies on Joshua, trans. and intro Barbara J. Bruce (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002) 7.

[2] Bruce, Ibid.

[3] Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 14.1.

[4] Henri Crouzel, “Origen and Origenism,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 771. Quoted in Bruce, 6.

[5] Bruce, Ibid.

[6] Eusebius, Church History,  6.1–2

[7] Ibid, 6.2.

[8] Ibid, 6.39.

[9] Paul R. Kolbet, “Torture and Origen’s Hermeneutics of Nonviolence” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, September 2008, Vol. 76, No. 3, p. 552.

[10] Kolbert, 554.

[11] Origen, Exhortatio ad martyrium (Koetschau et al. [1899–1955]: 2.3–47); trans. Greer (1979: 41–79). Quoted from Kolbet, 554.

[12] Kolbert, 552.

[13] Kolbert, 562

[14] Origen, Against Celsus, 7.55.

The Gospel Constituting Scripture: The Hermeneutic of the Rule of Faith

The presumption of Restoration Movement churches, of which I am a lifetime member, is that the Bible alone is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. The approach is tightly inductive, presuming that where the Bible speaks, we speak and where the Bible is silent, we are silent. The eschewing of tradition is sometimes taken to extremes, with little exposure in the typical seminary education to patristics or early church theology and exegetical practice. There is a suspicion of theology, such that in my undergraduate education there was no course in theology. One must use caution extrapolating from the ideas found in one text to another. Employing the tools of historical criticism, each text must be studied objectively. To understand any particular verse or text requires exhaustive study of the background, the historical setting, and getting at the intent of the author. Given that the truth is in the history (it is the “historical critical” method) and that it is the world behind the text that must be delineated, there is really no end to the study. After the grammatical implications, the etymology of particular words, and the immediate context of the verse is taken into account, one can then move on to another verse. But this raises the problem of harmonizing the historical details (e.g., between the Gospels or between the epistles), to say nothing of the ideas found therein.

One might begin to suspect the unity of the Bible or the efficacy of Bible reading. The text does not seem trustworthy at multiple levels and certainly seems to fall short of being divine, as some of the church fathers would have it. The fact that a modern foundation of truth, outside of the Bible and outside of Christ, is displacing the foundation of Christ, may or may not occur to the interpreter. Friedrich Schleiermacher was pretty well aware he was no longer working under the same definition of truth set forth in the Bible, but most modern interpreters are not so bold. In the Restoration Movement, the foundation was mostly changed without anyone noticing. It was a product of 19th century Lockean rationalism and the naivete attached to modernism in general. Both conservatives and liberals lost the biblical foundation before it occurred to them to fight over it. What may be characterized as a naïve Biblicism (or even naïve anti-Biblicism) needs to be targeted, but there may also be the presumption that the alternative is an either/or solution between tradition and scripture or between theology and scripture.

There is a “rule of faith” that recognizes the preeminence of the gospel of Christ in the formation of scripture and in biblical interpretation, but this does not reduce to an easy either/or as to what weight is to be given to tradition, scripture, or theology. What it does indicate is that faith or even the formation of theology is as important to how the Bible is interpreted as anything to be found in the interpretive method itself. That is, the evangelical notion that the Bible and correct Bible reading provide the cure to every disagreement and heresy, is not only missing the primacy of faith (or in terms of the early church, the primacy of the gospel), but the necessary givenness of theory and worldview. There is no blank slate or pure induction, and this is not only the rediscovery of postmodernism but the starting premise of Christianity (e.g., Heb. 11:1).

The rule of faith (regula fidei) is not only a basic premise for reading scripture but is the situation in which scripture is constituted. Scripture is an interpretation of the person of Christ (in both Testaments), and this is the substance of its unity and the point of departure. Scripture is a confession of faith in the crucified and risen Christ, but this faith first arises in the Apostles and is being preached before it is written. Irenaeus explains (see below) that if the apostles had left no writings that the churches they founded were a deposit of this faith, but even here ascertaining (in the second century) and understanding this gospel was on the basis of the rule of faith.

On the other hand, it is not that this rule floated free of scripture, as Irenaeus appeals to scripture in setting forth the rule of faith. He writes, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”[1]

Irenaeus is not distinguishing scripture and tradition, as both derive from the Apostles. Entailed in the reception of the gospel is the faith that what is apostolic is authoritative because it derives from Jesus and Jesus is God’s divine messenger. As John Behr writes, “So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself . . . “according to the Scriptures.”[2] Or as G. Florovsky put it, “Tradition” for the early church is “Scripture rightly understood.”[3] In the same breath Irenaeus is appealing to tradition he also says, “the demonstrations [of things contained] in the Scriptures cannot be demonstrated except from the Scriptures themselves.”[4] Or as Behr sums it up:

Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principles which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture cannot be understood except on the basis of Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.[5]

Irenaeus suggests that it is not writing per se that constitutes the gospel, as the illiterate “barbarians” who receive this gospel may have it written on their hearts though they cannot understand the words written with ink and paper. He is describing an encounter with the risen Christ, in the gospel, that is faith. This is the faith received at baptism but as he goes on to explain, this faith has a very particular form and content:

…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race.[6]

This rule of faith includes loving recognition of Christ who reveals the fulness of the Trinity. There is no distinction here between economic and immanent Trinity, no notion of distinction between Jesus and the Logos and no separation of the humanity and deity of Christ. The incarnation and the Trinity are not separate subjects. The rule of faith begins with the incarnation as access to God as Trinity. As Irenaeus defines (elsewhere) “the order of the rule of our faith” is:

God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.[7]

The rule of faith, which will be implicitly challenged and set aside, is inclusive of a specific understanding of God as creator, of Christ as unveiling and constituting the inspiration of scripture and delivering from death, and of the Holy Spirit who is being poured out making people righteous and forming a new unified people. One encounters God the Father, God the Son (as Word, Son of God, Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit in the gospel message, and this unity is the rule of faith.

According to Behr, this will begin to change in the Middle Ages. Rather than beginning with the incarnation to say who God is, the incarnation began to be treated separately from the doctrine of the Trinity. The speculative possibility of treating the One God separate from the triune God and the Trinity separately from the incarnation is opened up.[8] In other words, at some point there is a loss of the rule of faith, and while this loss is marked most clearly by the condemnation of heretics, what is condemned are the conclusions reached rather than the starting point by which they were reached in both biblical interpretation and the very definition of faith.

It may be in the theology of Origen that this fulness of the rule of faith is most clearly worked out, but he is building upon what he has received. What is clear in Origen, partly due to its strangeness and contrast to later development, is his presumption that it is Christ alone that reveals the inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures: “For before the fulfilment of those events which were predicted by them, they could not, although true and inspired by God, be shown to be so, because they were as yet unfulfilled. But the coming of Christ was a declaration that their statements were true and divinely inspired.”[9] Irenaeus makes the same point: “If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling.” Christ is the treasure hid in the field who brings alive the meaning of Scripture through “types and parables.”[10] Apart from Christ the reader only finds myth, “for the truth that it contains is only brought to light by the cross of Christ, and only reading it in this way do we find our way into the Wisdom of God and ourselves come to shine with his light as did Moses.”[11]

As J. Louis Martyn writes: “the fundamental arrow in the link joining scripture and gospel points from the gospel story to the scripture and not from scripture to the gospel story. In a word, with Jesus’ glorification, belief in scripture comes into being by acquiring an indelible link to Jesus’ word and deeds.”[12] Origen’s point is this reading of scripture is tied directly to “the rule of the heavenly Church of Jesus Christ [handed down] through succession from the apostles.”[13]

The rule of faith comes with a hermeneutic that is at once the gospel of Christ, Trinitarian, apocalyptic, and “spiritual” (if not in the details of Origen’s method at least implying apprehension of Christ and response in the reader). Apart from the rule of faith and its doctrinal implications (the point of On First Principles), the reader of scripture may be left with the letter, the text, the history, but will have missed the encounter with the gospel of Christ. With the spelling out and application of the doctrinal implications of the rule of faith the scriptures are opened, where otherwise they remain closed.[14]

(To register for our next class with PBI, “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Against Heresies, 3.1.1

[2] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001) 45.

[3] Behr Citing G. Florovsky, “The Function of Tradition in the Early Church,” GOTR 9, no. 2 (1963): 182; repr. in Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition (Vaduz, Liechtenstein: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 75, Behr Ibid.

[4] Against Heresies, 3.12.9.

[5] Behr, Ibid.

[6] Against Heresies 1.10

[7] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 6

[8] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 17

[9] Origen, On First Principles 4.1.6.

[10] Against Heresies, 4.26.1.

[11] Origin, On First Principles Vol. 1, translated and with Introduction by John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) L.

[12] J. Louis Martyn, ‘John and Paul on the Subject of Gospel and Scripture’, in idem. Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, Studies of the New Testament and its World (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997), 209-30. Quoted in Behr’s Introduction to On First Principles, Ibid.

[13] Principle 4.2.2.

[14] As Herbert McCabe has written, “Watching, so to say the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity. That the mission in time of Son and Spirit reflect the eternal relation”. . . and more than that “they are not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify.” In Jesus Christ we encounter the reality of God because this is who God is. The missions of the Son and the Spirit are not one episode in the story of God, this is the reality of God unfolding in the story of the Gospel. The “mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son.” Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November 1985) 473. Available online at https://www.scribd.com/document/327357740/The-Involvement-of-God

Is the God of the Law Among the Principalities and Powers Defeated by Christ?

The difference between contractual and apocalyptic theology is literally a world apart, in that contractual theology presumes history, law, human experience, and human intellect are an adequate or semi-adequate groundwork for prompting and recognizing the work of Christ. The scale of salvation, in a contractual understanding, is limited to humanity and tends to be focused on individuals or individual souls. It harmonizes, or attempts to harmonize, the God of the law with the image of God revealed in Christ. Any tension within Scripture between the Hebrew and Christian understanding of God is glossed over as resolvable.

Apocalyptic theology unfolds, both in its depiction of the problem and solution, on a cosmic scale. The world has been enslaved to forces of cosmic proportion which are spiritual and heavenly and physical and terrestrial. Ruling from above they have taken earth captive and have divided its kingdoms, with various spirits, religions, gods, and heavenly/earthly rulers demarking the spoils over which they reign. In turn, the story of salvation involves the entire cosmos, and as Ephesians depicts it, Christ has challenged the archons or so-called gods of the nations. We may imagine Paul is not including the God of Israel and the giver of the law as among the powers challenged by Christ. I would argue, it is precisely the one who delivered the law that is the prototype of the powers undone by Christ.

Paul, in quoting Psalms 68, which is describing David’s defeat of his enemies, translates the significance of these enemies and their defeat into the spiritual realm: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8).  He explains, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:9-10). The cosmos, through the original deception but through continued manipulation, has been enslaved to death and hades. The descent and defeat of the place of the dead and the ascent into heaven is a depiction of the defeat of deathly power. Human acquiescence to deadly forces has unleashed these forces onto all that mankind was to have dominion over. How exactly these powers have come to rule may not be clear, but their manner of rule is clarified in conjunction with the death dealing nature of the law.

The exact manner of the rule of the powers is specified in Colossians, which also describes what happens now that they have been defeated: “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16–17). The specific “basic principles” which formerly enslaved and which now threaten again, are precisely those commanded in the law (I Ch. 23:21). The Colossians, like the Ephesians and Galatians, are being lured back into a Judaized Christianity, in which the law is pictured as a necessary first order arrangement (much as in contractual theology). Paul argues that, the specific way in which the reign of death is exercised is through human subjection to laws, principles and powers, which have no substance. They are lacking in truth and reality and yet these shadowy powers once reigned where Christ now reigns.

Both passages (from Ephesians and Colossians) seem to be an example of what the Apostles Creed describes as the “harrowing of hell,” or the defeat of the reign of death and those powers (or that power) which held the power of death as an enslaving instrument. Paul describes the release from captivity as a setting free of delusion, and his fear is that the Christians will forsake the truth for the lie of false religion: “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” (Col 2:18). The worship of angels may indicate, according to F. F. Bruce, a return to Judaism, as it was not God, but angels who delivered the law. The return to the law, characterized as worshipping angels, is probably Paul’s way of deriding legalism and asceticism.[1] 

Both Stephen, in Acts, and the writer of Hebrews make it clear, the law did not come directly from God but was delivered by angels, and to mistake their message and presence for the full substance of reality is the equivalent of idolatry (a worship of angels) in deifying what is not God (Acts 7:54; Heb. 1:4). Paul takes this a step further, indicating the Lord of Israel was an angelic mediator and should not be confused with the Father of Christ. The law delivered through this “God,” along with his reign, was a mediating phase displaced by the real thing: “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made” (Ga 3:19). Paul is quick to explain that the problem is not with the mediation or the mediator, but the problem is to imagine this temporary measure is permanent or real. He is arguing that the law is temporary, but he also suggests the one doing this mediating was not God per se, but a mediator for God. “Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one” (Gal. 3:20). This mediating personage is not God and is not life giving, as his message is only partial: “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law” (Gal. 3:21).

In 4:8 he equates returning to the law as returning to enslavement “to those who by nature are not gods.” He could be quoting the injunction from Chronicles (I Ch. 23:31; 2 Ch. 31:3) to observe and keep “Sabbaths, new moons, and set feasts.” Yet these things, which might have once been mistaken for divine ordinances, are “weak and miserable forces. . . who by nature are not gods” (Gal. 4:8-10). Is the “mediator,” this “weak and miserable force,” presumed to be God or the law or both? It may not matter, as neither is to be equated with the God revealed in Christ. “But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). There was no access to God, to life, or to righteousness, as this mediating system “shut up everyone under sin.”

Other than as a pointer to the reality of Christ, as the writer of Hebrews indicates, the laws and institutions making up Israel are a shadow and not the reality: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Heb. 10:1, RSV). The writer then nods toward the prophetic tradition (quoting Psalms 40) in which the voice commanding sacrifices and institutions of sacrifice (the temple, altar and priests) was not conveying the will of God: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired. . . in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure” (Heb. 10:5-6). Jeremiah says it even more bluntly, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22). Jesus quotes Hosea to indicate what God really wants: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt. 9:13).

Yet there are many passages where God (or a mediator) does command sacrifice and seems to enjoy the pleasing aroma of sacrifice. “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma” of Noah’s sacrifice and his anger was calmed (Gen. 8:20-21). Exodus pictures God or his messenger demanding sacrifice and finding pleasure in the smell: “You shall offer up in smoke the whole ram on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the Lord: it is a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the Lord” (Ex. 29:18). Every indication, from a series of passages, is that the Lord commanded and enjoyed sacrifice (Gen. 8: 21; Exod. 29: 18, 25; Lev. 1: 9, 13; 2: 9; 4: 31). Yet there are an equal number of scriptures that indicate these were not commands from God: “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:9-10). “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Ho 6:6). “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Is. 1:11). God says, you have me confused with someone else, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22).

Whether it is, as Novation put it, that God has allowed himself to be fit to a frame of understanding “not as God was but as the people were able to understand,” or as Gregory of Nazianzus pictures it, God allowed fallen understanding to be mixed with right understanding as an accommodation, in either case the reality of God is obscured (even according to the Old Testament) in many of the Hebrew scriptures’ portrayals of God.[2] To fail to miss the possible accommodation and to presume to make all things equal in the Bible, will amount to committing the very error Paul is warning against. Law, sacrifices, blood offerings, new moons, sabbath keeping, taken as more than a shadow, amount to idolatry. These things are in danger of becoming an enslaving god, in competition with the Father of Christ. As Paul and Hebrews indicate, the law was given through angels (lesser spirits), and these in no way attain to the reality of God.

If this is the case, isn’t it also true that the principalities and powers, the archons of the age, the thrones and dominions, Paul speaks of, may be a mixed bag of malevolent spirits and corrupted and incomplete principles, inclusive of what he calls a “bewitching” (3:1) misapprehension of the law? He equates this delusion with the principle of the flesh (3:3), with reducing Christ to nothing (2:21), with the curse of the law (3:10), and with the equivalent of a return to idolatry (4:8-9). Paul compares living under the law to enslavement to the “elemental principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3), and to trade this enslavement for freedom in Christ is nothing short of the original malignancy introduced by the serpent.

If it seems odd to suggest that many of the theophanies of the Hebrew scriptures not only fall short of the reality of God but are at times indistinguishable from fallen angels or malevolent spirits, Origen is an early example of one who equates theophanies with malignant spirits. In a section of his book, On First Principles, entitled “The Opposing Powers,” he pictures the one commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son as a malign spirit. “For he is manifestly described as an angel who said that he knew then that Abraham feared God, and had not spared his beloved son, as the Scripture declares, although he did not say that it was on account of God that Abraham had done this, but on his, that is, the speaker’s account.” He equates this spirit with the one called “the destroying angel” slaying the first born in Egypt (Ex. 12:23), with the “evil spirit from God who “came mightily upon Saul” (I Sam. 18:10) and with the “deceiving spirit” sent upon the prophets (I Kings 22:19-23). Origen recognizes that the violence of the Hebrew Bible is mitigated and to be read through the peace of Christ, so that violence and a spirit of violence is unworthy of God, let alone being identified with God.

Christ has conquered the whole mixed bag of demonic spirits, malevolent principles, enslaving powers, the archons, thrones and dominions, inclusive of those connected to the law and the giving of the law. Paul is not concerned to sort out and save the one who mediated the law from other powers. In an apocalyptic reading, in which the old world order (perhaps most clearly represented by the law) is disrupted and defeated by the work of Christ, there is no middle position between slavery to the world principles and freedom. As Paul explains, the Jew is at no advantage in this regard (Gal. 2:16-20). He might as well have said, “Go ahead and observe the law and pretend the God who sends evil and deceiving spirits which enslave mankind and which enslaved the Jews pertain to the reality of God, but understand in observing special days and months and seasons and years and in turning back to the mediating angel of the law, I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you, for this has nothing to do with the God revealed in Christ” (see Gal. 4:10-11).


[1] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991). 118.

[2] Novatian, De Trinitate, 6, cited in Gregory Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Location 1563). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. [2] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Fifth Oration: On the Holy Spirit,” in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, trans. P. Schaff and H. Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 326. Cited in Boyd, (Kindle Locations 1564-1565).