In his preface to ‘On First Principles’ Origen of Alexandria posits that in the preaching and in the teaching of the Apostles there are doctrines that are articulated very plainly, “even to such as appeared to be somewhat dull in the investigation of divine knowledge.” (On First Principles, Preface, Pt. 3) This simplicity of doctrine which the Apostles delivered was done for the sake of all of the believers; that those who are still immature in their faith might be able to grasp and comprehend what the Apostles are teaching. In the introduction to, the 2013 publication by Ave Maria Press, ‘On First Principles’ written by Henri de Lubac he describes this plain teaching as being for those who are still within a preparatory stage, “such people are not necessarily weak in spirit; they may be wise according to the world. But they are still carnal men,” (On First Principles, Introduction, pg. XXVII-XXIX) and he refers to this preparatory instruction as the ‘initial datum.’
These preparatory doctrines though are not meant to be left at their plain meanings; the true wisdom found within is opened up to those who investigate deeper into the teaching through the illumination of the Holy Spirit (see pt. 3 in the preface).
Origen also notes that the Apostles sometimes spoke of more profound doctrines without further articulation, “keeping silence as to how or why.” (On First Principles, Preface, pt. 3) The understanding of these doctrines is given only to those who, “train themselves to become worthy and capable of receiving wisdom.” (On First Principles, Preface, pt. 3) It is necessary to press beyond the apostolic teaching which pertains to more profound doctrines to be able to come to the wisdom contained within the teaching. In comparison to the regular believers Origen refers to these people as the ‘more diligent’ and ‘lovers of wisdom.’
In Origen’s view he sees the Apostles as meeting the needs and capabilities of whatever audience they may find themselves in front of. They deliver plain doctrines for the simple and hint at more profound doctrines for the diligent. In each case thought what is directly given does not encompass the totality of it’s meaning. The ‘initial datum’ serves to be an entry point suited to the capabilities of the listener; it would be a mistake to perceive the entry point as the end line. The final goal is to be brought through the initial datum to a more profound wisdom, which does not discard the entry point but rather fulfills it, as Henri de Lubac explains, “this wisdom does not annul the first knowledge but completes and transforms it. It is a more profound teaching which constitutes the understanding of the initial datum.” (On First Principles, Introduction, pg. XXIX) Origen therefore does not discount the literal meaning of apostolic teaching but sees it as belonging to a rudimentary stage of understanding which is necessary in leading the listener beyond it’s plain meaning towards a more mature understanding of the apostolic teaching.
Perhaps we should approach Origen’s biblical commentaries and exegesis with this framework. Origen is often noted, dismissively by some, as an ‘allegorist;’ that he dismisses the literal meaning of the text in favor of a more spiritual interpretation. But if we approach his allegorical interpretations based upon what we have seen him note in his preface to ‘On First Principles’ and with the insight of Henri de Lubac we should then see Origen’s allegory as the attempt to find the hidden wisdom within the literal level of the biblical text. The literal level is not annulled but is meant to be mined by those who through deeper investigation and illumination by the Holy Spirit uncover the profound riches of Divine Wisdom.