St. John Chrysostom preached the following little-known homily in Antioch, when there was a schism between Nicene Christians, some supporting the bishop Meletius, others supporting Paulinus. Both St. Athanasius and St. Basil worked to reconcile the two groups, but to little avail, as the split outlived both. Two of Meletius’s priests, who supported Apollinaris (of heresy fame), broke off in the 360s. In the following homily St. John attempts to suppress the heated rivalry between the partisans of the two groups. I have translated it (roughly) from the French translation here. A phrase here and there may be mistranslated, but overall it is certainly correct. It can be found in PG 48:943. Enjoy his words and, if need be, take them to heart.
This is sort of a preparation for my proposed post about my understanding of scriptural infallibility from the Fathers. It would be too long to include in that post, but it gives support to what I will say therein.
Now, St. Jerome is often given as an example of a Father who was rather fundamentalist about the historicity of scriptural narratives. As such, he is occasionally contrasted with the ‘allegorizing’ Origen. Jerome has been given this reputation in part due to a passage in his Commentary on Philemon 5:
Someone believes in the Creator God. He is not able to believe unless he first believes that the things written about his saints are true: that Adam was formed by God; that Noah alone was saved from the shipwrecked world; that Abraham, when first commanded to depart from his land and kinsmen, left to his descendants circumcision…
St. Jerome goes on to list other things which the faithful must believe: the binding of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, the sun standing still in Joshua, Elijah ascending in a fiery chariot, and so on. But ironically, Jerome essentially is lifting this passage from none other than Origen, who wrote on Philemon v. 5 (cited in Pamphilus, Apology for Origen, 125):
He who believes in God and accepts that his teachings are true also believes that Adam was formed as the first man. He believes that God fashioned Eve to be Adam’s wife by taking one of his ribs. He also believes that Enosh truly “hoped to call upon the name of the Lord God”; and that Enoch was translated, because he had pleased God for two hundred years after he became the father of Methusaleh. He believes that Noah received an oracle to build an ark and that he alone, together with only those who had entered with him into the ark, was saved from the flood. Likewise, he believes that Abraham merited God’s approval and showed hospitality to three men, one of whom was the Lord, when he was under the oak of Mamre. He also believes the things concerning Isaac, both the manner of his birth, that he was offered by his father, and that he merited to hear oracles from God […] And he believes that Jesus son of Nun, having been heard by God, made the sun stand still over Gibeon and the moon over the valley of Helon.
Origen continues in this way, mentioning other facts from the Old Testament. If all of Origen’s works were lost save this fragment, doubtless we would have scholars claiming him as a clear example of a “fundamentalist”. But since more of his works have survived, we should compare this with what he says elsewhere, as quoted in the Philocalia of Origen (commonly attributed to Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian), 17f.:
Anyway, will any man of sense suppose that there was a first day, and a second, and a third, evening and morning, without sun and moon and stars? And the first, as it were, even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to imagine God, like a husbandman, planted a garden eastward, and put in it a tree of life, which could be seen and felt, so that whoever tasted of the fruit with his bodily teeth received the gift of life, and further that anyone as he masticated the fruit of this tree partook of good and evil? […] Why, even the Gospels abound in incidents of the same kind. We read of the Devil taking Jesus into a lofty mountain, that from thence he might show Him the kingdoms of the whole world and their glory. […] And, similarly, the careful student may observe countless other instances in the Gospels, and may thus be convinced that with the historical events, literally true, different ones are interwoven which never occurred.
Right after this passage, though, Origen defends himself from the charge that he believes none of the Bible is historically true. He gives a list of biblical events which he believes (not unlike the one quoted above) and concludes, “those things which are true historically are many more than those connected with them which contain merely a spiritual sense.”
We can summarize this by remarking that the Fathers can be quite stringent in holding to the historicity of what the Bible relates, including Origen. That said, they also all agree that sometimes Scripture should not be taken literally – John Chrysostom and Jerome included – although they usually only say this when a literal interpretation would mean saying something absurd about God (e.g., that He walked in the Garden of Eden). Origen also explicitly extends this to where interpreting Scripture literally would have us saying something absurd about nature or morals (but Gregory of Nyssa follows him here, e.g., Life of Moses, II.100).
P.S. Sometimes it is claimed that St. Jerome called Genesis a writing told in the manner of a popular poet (i.e., a folk-tale). This, however, does not come from St. Jerome and the misattribution ultimately stems from a mix-up that C. S. Lewis made between Jerome and something in Colet; for more details, see Arend Smilde’s excellent article.