Commentary on the Song of Songs
Origen of Alexandria (circa 180–254) was the greatest exegete of the early church. His spiritual reading of the Bible continued to influence later thinkers, despite the condemnation of aspects of his teaching in the sixth century. As Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of Origen’s modern interpreters, once said, “No figure is more invisibly omnipresent in the history of Christian theology.” Origen can also be described as the church’s first explicit mystical theologian. While the mystical element was present in Christianity from the start, it is with the Alexandrian teacher that a formal biblically based mystical theory first emerges.
Origen was not the first to interpret the Song’s account of the bridegroom and bride as the story of the love between Christ and the church, but he furthered this mystical reading by applying it to the relations between Christ and each loving soul. The following four excerpts from the prologue of what survives of his commentary show how he created the elements that were to elevate the Song to the mystical text par excellence in Christian history. The first section describes his overall characterization of the Song as a dramatic account of the process of salvation. The second shows how his dual understanding of human nature (inner and outer person) allowed him to translate the sensual language of the Song into a message about the spiritual senses, the powers of inner perception lost in sin but gradually restored to the soul through the action of grace. In the third selection Origen argues that there is no essential difference between the language of passionate desire (erôs in Greek; amor in Latin) and the biblical word for God’s generous love poured out upon us (agapê/caritas). Finally, in the fourth selection Origen demonstrates how the three books ascribed to Solomon (a type of Christ) form the basis for a biblical paideia, or total education, by which we are brought back to God.
I. The Song of Songs as a Mystical Drama
It seems to me that this little book is an epithalamium, that is to say, a marriage-song, which Solomon wrote in the form of a drama and sang under the figure of the bride, about to wed and burning with heavenly love towards her Bridegroom, who is the Word of God. And deeply indeed did she love him, whether we take her as the soul made in his image, or as the church. But this same scripture also teaches us what words this august and perfect Bridegroom used in speaking to the soul, or to the church, who has been joined to him. And in this same little book that bears the title Song of Songs we recognize moreover things that the bride’s companions said, the maidens that go with her, and also some things spoken by the Bridegroom’s friends and fellows. For the friends of the Bridegroom also, in their joy at his union with the bride, have been enabled to say some things—at any rate those that they had heard from the Bridegroom himself. In the same way we find the bride speaking not to the Bridegroom only, but also to the maidens; likewise the Bridegroom’s words are addressed not to the bride alone, but also to his friends. And that is what we meant just now, when we said that the marriage-song was written in dramatic form. For we call a thing a drama, such as the enaction of a story on the stage, when different characters are introduced and the whole structure of the narrative consists in their comings and goings among themselves. And this work contains these things one by one in their own order, and also the whole body of it consists of mystical utterances.
But it behoves us primarily to understand that, just as in childhood we are not affected by the passion of love, so also to those who are at the stage of infancy and childhood in their interior life—to those, that is to say, who are being nourished with milk in Christ, not with strong meat, and are only beginning “to desire the rational milk without guile” (Heb 5:12)—it is not given to grasp the meaning of these sayings. For in the words of the Song of Songs there is that food, of which the Apostle says that “strong meat is for the perfect”; and that food calls for hearers “who by ability have their senses exercised to the discerning of good and evil” (Heb 5:14). And indeed, if those whom we have called children were to come on these passages, it may be that they would derive neither profit nor much harm, either from reading the text itself, or from going through the necessary explanations. But if any man who lives only after the flesh should approach it, to such a one the reading of this scripture will be the occasion of no small hazard and danger. For he, not knowing how to hear love’s language in purity and with chaste ears, will twist the whole manner of his hearing of it away from the inner spiritual man and on to the outward and carnal; and he will be turned away from the spirit to the flesh and will foster carnal desires in himself, and it will seem to be the divine scriptures that are thus urging and egging him on to fleshly lust!
II. The Inner and Outer Person and the Spiritual Senses
In the beginning of the words of Moses, where the creation of the world is described, we find reference to the making of two men, the first “in the image and likeness of God,” and the second “formed of the slime of the earth” (Gen 1:26, 2:7). Paul the Apostle knew this well; and, being possessed of a very clear understanding of the matter, he wrote in his letters more plainly and with greater lucidity that there are in fact two men in every single man. He says, for instance: “For if our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day”; and again: “For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man” (2 Cor 4:16; Rom 7:22). And he makes some other statements of a similar kind. I think, therefore, that no one ought any longer to doubt what Moses wrote in the beginning of Genesis about the making and fashioning of two men, since he sees Paul, who understood what Moses wrote much better than we do, saying that there are two men in every one of us. Of these two men he tells us that the one, namely, the inner man, is renewed from day to day; but the other, that is, the outer, he declares to be corrupted and weakened in all the saints and in such as he was himself. If anything in regard to this matter still seems doubtful to anyone, it will be better explained in the appropriate places. But let us now follow up what we mentioned before about the inner and the outer man.
The thing we want to demonstrate about these things is that the divine scriptures make use of homonyms; that is to say, they use identical terms for describing different things. And they even go so far as to call the members of the outer man by the same names as the parts and dispositions of the inner man; and not only are the same terms employed, but the things themselves are compared with one another. For instance, a person is a child in age according to the inner man, who has in him the power to grow and to be led onward to the age of youth, and thence by successive stages of development to come to the perfect man and to be made a father. Our own intention, therefore, has been to use such terms as would be in harmony with the language of sacred scripture, and in particular with that which was written by John; for he says: “I have written to you, children, because you have known the Father; I have written to you, fathers, because you have known him who was from the beginning; I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one” (1 Jn 2:12–14). It is perfectly clear; and I think nobody should doubt that John calls these people children or lads or young men or even fathers according to the soul’s age, not the body’s. Paul too says somewhere: “I could not speak to you as spiritual, but as to car- nal, little ones in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not meat” (1 Cor 3:1). A little one in Christ is undoubtedly so called after the age of his soul, not after that of his flesh. And finally the same Paul says further: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I destroyed childish things” (1 Cor 13:11). And again on another occasion he says: “Until we all meet . . . unto a perfect man; unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). He knows that those who believe will “all meet unto a perfect man” and “unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ.” So, then, just as these different ages that we have mentioned are denoted by the same words both for the outer man and for the inner, so also will you find the names of the members of the body transferred to those of the soul; or rather the faculties and powers of the soul are to be called its members.
III. Amor and Caritas
In these places, therefore, and in many others you will find that divine scripture avoided the word “passion” (erôs) and put “charity” or “affection” (agapê) instead. Occasionally, however, though rarely, it calls the passion of love by its own name, and invites and urges souls to it; as when it says in Proverbs about Wisdom: “Desire her greatly and she will preserve you; encompass her, and she shall exalt you; honor her, that she may embrace you” (Prov 4:6, 8). And in the book that is called the Wisdom of Solomon it is written of Wisdom herself: “I became a passionate lover of her beauty” (Wis 8:2). I think that the word for passionate love was used only where there seemed to be no occasion of falling. For who could see anything sensuous or unseemly in the passion for Wisdom, or in a man’s professing himself her passionate lover? Whereas had Isaac been spoken of as having a passion for Rebecca or Jacob for Rachel, some unseemly passion on the part of the saints of God might have been inferred from the words, especially by those who do not know how to rise up from the letter to the spirit. Most clearly, however, even in this our little book of which we are now treating, the appellation of “passionate love” has been changed into the word “charity” in the place where it says: “I have adjured you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my ‘Nephew,’ to tell him that I have been wounded by charity” (Song 5:8). For that is as much as to say: “I have been smitten through with the dart of His passionate love.” It makes no difference, therefore, whether the sacred scriptures speak of love, or of charity, or of affection; except that the word “charity” is so highly exalted that even God himself is called Charity, as John says: “Dearly beloved, let us love one another, for charity is of God; and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. But he that loves not knows not God, for God is Charity” (1 Jn 4:7–8).
IV. The Place of the Song of Songs Among the Works of Solomon (i.e., Christ)
Now, therefore, calling upon God the Father, who is Charity, through that same charity that is of him, let us pass on to discuss the other matters. And let us first investigate the reason why, when the churches of God have adopted three books from Solomon’s pen, the Book of Proverbs has been put first, that which is called Ecclesiastes second, while the Song of Songs is found in the third place. The following are the suggestions that occur to us here.
The branches of learning by means of which men generally attain to knowledge of things are the three which the Greeks called Eth- ics, Physics and Epoptics; these we may call respectively moral, natu- ral, and inspective. Some among the Greeks, of course, add a fourth branch, logic, which we may describe as rational. Others have said that logic does not stand by itself, but is connected and intertwined throughout with the three studies that we mentioned first. For this logic is, as we say, rational, in that it deals with the meanings and proper significances and their opposites, the classes and kinds of words and expressions, and gives information as to the form of each and every saying; and this branch of learning certainly requires not so much to be separated from the others as to be mingled and woven in with them. That study is called moral, on the other hand, which inculcates a seemly manner of life and gives a grounding in habits that incline to virtue. The study called natural is that in which the nature of each single thing is considered; so that nothing in life may be done which is contrary to nature, but everything is assigned to the uses for which the Creator brought it into being. The study called inspective is that by which we go beyond things seen and contemplate something of things divine and heavenly, beholding them with the mind alone, for they are beyond the range of bodily sight.
It seems to me, then, that all the sages of the Greeks borrowed these ideas from Solomon, who had learned them by the Spirit of God at an age and time long before their own, and that they then put them forward as their own inventions and, by including them in the books of their teachings, left them to be handed down also to those that came after. But, as we said, Solomon discovered and taught these things by the wisdom that he received from God before anyone; as it is written: “And God gave understanding to Solomon and wisdom exceeding great, and largeness of heart as the sand that is on the seashore. And wisdom was multiplied in him above all the sons of men that were of old, and above all the sages of Egypt” (3 Kgs 4:29–30). Wishing, therefore, to distinguish one from another of those three branches of learning, which we called general just now (that is, the moral, the natural, and the inspective), and to differentiate between them, Solomon issued them in three books, arranged in their proper order. First, in Proverbs he taught the moral science, putting rules for living into the form of short and pithy maxims, as was fitting. Secondly, he covered the science known as natural in Ecclesiastes; in this, by discussing at length the things of nature, and by distinguishing the useless and vain from the profitable and essential, he counsels us to forsake vanity and cultivate things useful and upright. The inspective science likewise he has propounded in this little book that we now have in hand—that is, the Song of Songs. In this he instills into the soul the love of things divine and heavenly, using for his purpose the figure of the bride and Bridegroom, and teaches us that communion with God must be attained by the paths of charity and love. . . .
This book comes last so that a person may come to it when his manner of life has been purified and he has learnt to know the difference between things corruptible and things incorruptible, so that nothing in the metaphors used to describe and represent the love of the bride for her celestial Bridegroom—that is, of the perfect soul for the Word of God—may cause him to stumble. For when the soul has completed these studies, by means of which it is cleansed in all its actions and habits and is led to discriminate between natural things, it is competent to proceed to doctrinal and mystical matters, and in this way advances to the contemplation of the Godhead with pure and spiritual love.
From Origen. The Song of Songs. Commentary and Homilies, translated and annotated by R. P. Lawson (New York: Paulist Press, 1957. Ancient Christian Writers), 21–22, 24–27, 31–32, 39–41, and 44. Used with permission of Paulist Press.
Copyright © 2006 by Bernard McGinn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.