Alexandrians vs. Antiochenes on Mosaic Law (Part 2)

Note: this is the second part of a paper originally written for a class on the History of Biblical Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Part 1 can be read here.

Evaluation of Origen

The advantage of Origen’s approach is that it compels Christians to read their Old Testament and wrestle thoroughly with its text. A surface reading will not suffice, but when believers plumb the depths of truth that is latent in Mosaic Law, they will find that Moses and Christ were preaching the same gospel all along. Those who follow in Origen’s hermeneutical footsteps are thus thoroughly inoculated from the contagion of Marcionism. On the other hand, Origen’s approach also has several apparent disadvantages. Chau writes, “Origen paid no attention to the function of the law in condemning sin.”[1] This may perhaps be an overstatement, for Origen is aware that the law exposes the reality of sin, and he acknowledges that the righteousness of man pales in comparison to the righteousness of God.[2] But the law can also approve of man’s actions and reveal his righteous nature.[3] This reasoning leads Origen to certain conclusions on the doctrine of justification that most Protestant interpreters would surely find objectionable. Now one must be careful to avoid the temptation of reading Origen through the lens of later Reformation debates over the relationship of faith and works. Origen was not first and foremost concerned with questions over forensic versus transformative righteousness, but rather with the nature of human souls. Origen’s Gnostic opponents, including Valentinus and Marcion, maintained that human natures are fixed as either good or evil, and their destinies are determined accordingly. In response, Origen insisted on the freedom of the will, which he saw as necessary to the justice of God in judging people according to their works.[4] In this regard, Origen spoke against a doctrine of justification by faith alone. He saw justifying faith as identical with the grace of sanctification which expels sin. Since this spiritual renewal is tied to Origen’s commitment to libertarian free will, Origen concludes that there is in reality no assurance of perseverance in righteousness. The justifying grace that transforms us can be lost through negligence and laziness.[5]

On the other hand, Origen could also affirm justification by faith alone in the strongest of terms. This is evident when he adduces the example of the thief on the cross in Luke 23:40-43.[6] Origen points out that this thief was granted entrance into Paradise through the sufficiency of his confession, apart from any possibility of accompanying good works. Elsewhere Origen can argue that since God grants salvation to both Jews and gentiles, it follows that the ceremonial works of Mosaic Law are also excluded in justification.[7]

Taking all of these points of data together, one can conclude that for Origen, justification is initially by faith alone, apart from any works, whether ceremonial or moral. Further, the literal observance of ceremonial law is never necessary at any point in the believer’s life. But since justification is of a merely probationary nature, it must be accompanied by works of virtue throughout the believer’s life, lest the grace of forgiveness be diminished or lost. Thus Origen cannot, strictly speaking, be labeled a Pelagian. There is a clear priority of grace in his thinking, even though it falls short of a total sufficiency of grace. This aligns Origen’s doctrine of justification more closely with later Roman Catholicism than with Protestantism. But this should not deter Protestants from finding helpful insights in his doctrine of Mosaic Law. These insights may become more apparent upon comparison with the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Theodore’s Commentary on Galatians

Theodore (352-428) was a student of Diodore of Tarsus, founder of the Antiochene exegetical school.[8] Coincidentally, Theodore’s teachings would later be condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 553—the same council that condemned Origen. But also like Origen, Theodore’s exegetical practice would have a significant impact on the church for centuries to come, and he is considered to be the supreme example of the Antiochene method. This method is characterized by a strict adherence to the literal sense as the primary meaning of a text, over against the perceived fanciful speculations of Alexandrian allegory. Consequently, Theodore finds very little direct messianic prophecy in the Old Testament, and he usually searches for more immediate prophetic fulfillments in the history of Israel. It is no surprise that Christian interpreters have sometimes accused Theodore of Judaism.

Theodore’s commitment to the primacy of a literal sense with an immediate historical referent is also reflected in his treatment of Mosaic Law in his Commentary on Galatians.[9] Unlike Origen, Theodore makes no distinction between ceremonial law and moral law, nor does he try to maintain any spiritual continuity between the Old and New Testaments.[10] Rather, what Theodore finds in Moses is bare letter, which stands in opposition to the grace of Christ. The law is seen as a preparatory era of redemptive history, convicting sinners and stirring their hearts to receive the newness of the gospel era. Therefore Theodore insists that the law has been wholly abrogated, and it is an exercise in futility to go back to it in search of some abiding relevance. He writes:

Moreover, keeping the law is from now on useless for us. For Christ discharged us from the obligation that was owed under the law concerning what must be kept by all, inasmuch as he existed as a human being according to what was seen, and he undertook this for our sake.[11]

This stands in sharp contrast to Origen’s depiction of law as the way of life. Theodore’s hermeneutic cannot properly be called Marcionism, although he comes closer to it than does Origen. Unlike Origen, who sees letter and spirit as two levels of meaning that run throughout all Scripture, Theodore dichotomizes between the Old Testament as letter and the New Testament as spirit. Now that the fullness of grace and truth is manifest in Christ, there is little value in the Old Testament apart from its being an obsolete historical curiosity. It may have come from the same God as the New Testament, but it does not govern Christian practice. It seems that in in his effort to respect the meaning of the Old Testament, Theodore has emptied it of its authority.

Conclusion: Alexandrian and Antiochene Influence Past and Present

The distinct approaches of Origen and Theodore to Mosaic Law have recurred throughout church history. In his work Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Christopher Wright argues that the Reformed tradition adopted a more Alexandrian perspective.[12] For example, such confessional documents as the Westminster Standards follow Origen’s distinction between moral and ceremonial laws,[13] and John Calvin’s “third use” of the law also seems to be foreshadowed in Origen’s spiritual use of the law. Wright further argues that the Lutheran tradition has generally favored a more Antiochene perspective, as evinced in the subordinate role that Luther ascribed to the Old Testament. Wright says that Luther’s own approach to Mosaic Law was inconsistent and sometimes dismissive, but I would point out that Luther does seem to resemble Origen in grounding the continuing moral authority of Mosaic Law in natural law. Therefore, the characterization of Reformed as Alexandrian and Lutheran as Antiochene may not be quite as accurate as Wright claims.

In more recent years, the debate over Mosaic Law has continued to parallel the differences between Origen and Theodore. This is seen, for example, in Zondervan’s Counterpoints volume Five Views on Law and Gospel.[14] Echoing Origen, contributor Walt Kaiser highlights the law’s continuing role as a gracious guide in promoting holiness. Kaiser elsewhere adopts a “principlizing” approach to Mosaic Law, searching the Old Testament for timeless moral principles by climbing up a “ladder of abstraction.”[15] This sounds to me very much like Origen’s mining the literal meaning of a text in search of its spiritual meaning. By contrast, Douglas Moo’s modified Lutheran approach, which distinguishes between law and gospel along redemptive-historical lines, sounds nearly identical to Theodore’s approach.

Further, there are clear echoes of the Alexandrian-Antiochene debate in current Reformed discussions over the so-called “christotelic” interpretation of Scripture (I have written on this here and here). Those who favor the christotelic approach reflect the Antiochene school in stressing the importance of understanding the Old Testament in its original context. On the other hand, those who oppose the christotelic approach reflect the Alexandrian school in emphasizing the organic connection between the original meaning of the Old Testament text and its use in the New Testament. The fact that such different theological perspectives have persisted throughout the history of the church would suggest that a resolution is likely not in sight.

In my own judgment, there is truth mixed with error in the views of both Origen and Theodore. Origen’s concern to maintain the continuing authority of all Scripture is commendable, but he falters when he grounds the Christian’s justification in his or her obedience to the law. On the other hand, Theodore is correct to highlight the redemptive-historical shift that has occurred in the coming of Christ, but he misses the continuing value of the law for moral guidance. I would suggest that a way of integrating the strengths of each interpreter lies in the traditional Protestant distinction between justification and sanctification. With Theodore, once can acknowledge the law’s role in condemning sin and rendering the whole world guilty before God.[16] This understanding preserves the doctrine of justification by faith alone by closing off the law as a means of gaining righteousness. But with Origen, one can acknowledge the spiritual value of the law as a rule of gratitude in holy living. In other words, Calvin’s first and third uses of the law can be held together. Not all problems will be so easily solved, and many more questions are left to be explored, but I hope that I have been able to propose a plausible way of finding the best in two of history’s most influential biblical interpreters.


[1] Chau, 31.

[2] Origen, Romans, 3.6.8.

[3] Ibid., 3.7.6.

[4] Ibid., 6.1.4; 8.11.4.

[5] Ibid., 3.9.4.

[6] Ibid., 3.9.3.

[7] Ibid., 3.10.1.

[8] Reventlow, 2:6-21.

[9] The text-critical edition of Theodore’s commentary can be found in Theodore, Theodori Episcopi Mopsuesteni in Epistolas B. Pauli Commentarii: The Latin Version with the Greek Fragments, 2 vols., ed. H. B. Swete (Cambridge: University Press, 1880-1882). In this paper, I follow the translation of the Latin text over against the Greek fragments, although in substance they do not differ significantly.

[10] Chau, 44.

[11] Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on the Minor Pauline Epistles, trans. Rowan A. Greer (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 65.

[12] Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2004), 391-93.

[13]Westminster Confession of Faith 19.2-4.

[14] Stanley Gundry, ed. Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996).

[15] Kaiser, “A Principlizing Model,” in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, ed. Stanley Gundry and Gary Meadors (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009), 24-26.

[16] Theodore, 112.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.


  1. Alexandrians vs. Antiochenes on Mosaic Law (Part 1) | Allkirk Network - May 30, 2018

    […] Note: this paper was previously written for a class on the History of Biblical Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Due to the paper’s original length, I will split it into two parts (Part 2 can be read here). […]

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