Turning the King Into a Fox (Or, Irenaeus on the Silliness of Heresy)

fox

I love foxes, but still, not as good as Jesus.

Among other things I’ve been reading Irenaeus’ classic Against Heresies and loving it. His goal in the work is to describe and debunk the heretical teaching of the Valentinian gnostics who were perverting Christian teaching into their bizarre, absurd system. The most frustrating part was the way these gnostic teachers, in their attempt to fool the faithful, were twisting scriptures in order to support their teaching:

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. -Against Heresies, 1.7.1

Explaining the way the gnostic use of the Bible was unbiblical, he came up with a brilliant analogy for their method of scriptural interpretation:

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma. -ibid, 1.7.1

Basically it’s like they’ve taken the Mona Lisa, cut it up, and re-pasted it together in the shape of a toilet and called it Leonardo’s masterpiece–or rather an improvement on it. Now, the fact that this can happen with the scriptures, that people can take them, quote them, and use them to justify all sorts of doctrines is troubling to some. Many, in seeing the way scripture is used in the mouths of false teachers and heretics, might despair of them, or doubt their beauty and efficacy. Not Irenaeus. He says that for the faithful, this shouldn’t invalidate the scriptures or make them any less true and precious:

In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics. -ibid, 1.9.1

The key is taking the precious stones and restoring them to their “proper position”; contextual reading of the scriptures according to basic principles of exegesis matters. Verses need to be taken within chapters, chapters within book, books within the canon, and, yes, for those of us at the end of the 20th century, canon within the broader churchly tradition of interpretation. (Not that the tradition stands over the scriptures, but at the very least it doesn’t hurt to listen to what wise biblical teachers of other generations past have found in them.) When we do these things, instead of the fox, the beautiful picture of King Jesus emerges once more, ready for the adoration and worship God intended to lead us into through his Spirit-inspired scriptures.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ireneaus Summarizes the Faith

saint_Irenaeus_Early_Church_FatherHistorical myopia is a perennial danger to Church, especially in the area of theology. Every generation has its own particular, culturally-conditioned ways of talking about the Gospel, even when it works from the same biblical texts and recites the same creeds. In our own sin and shortsightedness, we have themes we love to highlight and those topics we’d rather not bring up in polite company. This is why every once in a while it’s good to stop, expand our vision, and listen to Christians of other generations expound or summarize the faith, especially the giants, those respected teachers known for speaking well for the Church as a whole.

On that note, here’s St. Irenaeus, the first great church theologian of the post-Apostolic period, laying out the Church’s faith in contrast to the convoluted Valentinian Gnostic system:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. -St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 1.10.1

Soli Deo Gloria

Irenaeus: “God Doesn’t Need Your Obedience–You Do”

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (2nd century C.E. – c. 202) was a stud for many reasons. First off, he was a theological beast. His multi-volume defense of the faith against the Gnostic teachers, Against Heresieswas probably the first real biblical theology in the post-Apostolic period and has deeply influenced Christianity, both East and West, ever since.  Aside from his theological beastliness, he stands out when it comes to faithfulness in ministry, taking up his bishopric right after the last bishop got martyred.

Sometimes I wonder what motivated the faithful obedience of men like Irenaeus–bravely taking up a pastoring job when, basically, the blood of the last guy who took the job was still fresh on the ground. What gave him passion? What gave him courage? What gave him the drive to follow Christ with such radical obedience and faith? It seems like that’s such a harsh demand, something too great for God to ask of anyone. If it were me, I might be tempted to ask, “Why do you need me there anyways? Why are you depending on me? What’s so important to you about my obedience?”

It turns out that Irenaeus probably would’ve rejected the question as confused.He knew something that a lot of us contemporary American Christians don’t: God doesn’t need your obedience–you do. I’ll let him explain:

In the beginning, therefore, did God form Adam, not as if He stood in need of man, but that He might have [some one] upon whom to confer His benefits. For not alone antecedently to Adam, but also before all creation, the Word glorified His Father, remaining in Him; and was Himself glorified by the Father, as He did Himself declare, “Father, glorify Thou Me with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.”(John 17:5) Nor did He stand in need of our service when He ordered us to follow Him; but He thus bestowed salvation upon ourselves.

For to follow the Saviour is to be a partaker of salvation, and to follow light is to receive light. But those who are in light do not themselves illumine the light, but are illumined and revealed by it: they do certainly contribute nothing to it, but, receiving the benefit, they are illumined by the light. Thus, also, service [rendered] to God does indeed profit God nothing, nor has God need of human obedience; but He grants to those who follow and serve Him life and incorruption and eternal glory, bestowing benefit upon those who serve [Him], because they do serve Him, and on His followers, because they do follow Him; but does not receive any benefit from them: for He is rich, perfect, and in need of nothing. But for this reason does God demand service from men, in order that, since He is good and merciful, He may benefit those who continue in His service. For, as much as God is in want of nothing, so much does man stand in need of fellowship with God. For this is the glory of man, to continue and remain permanently in God’s service. -Against Heresies, IV.14.1

He says, God doesn’t need anything. I mean, seriously, think about it–he’s GOD. He’s had everything he needed from all of eternity within his own Triune perfection. He didn’t make Adam in order to serve him because he needed anything, but rather, he made Adam to serve him so that he could reward him with good. He says, “follow me” because following him leads to the life he already has in abundance. He continues on:

Wherefore also did the Lord say to His disciples, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you;” (John 15:16) indicating that they did not glorify Him when they followed Him; but that, in following the Son of God, they were glorified by Him. And again, “I will, that where I am, there they also may be, that they may behold My glory;” (John 17:24). not vainly boasting because of this, but desiring that His disciples should share in His glory: of whom Isaiah also says, “I will bring thy seed from the east, and will gather thee from the west; and I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring My sons from far, and My daughters from the ends of the earth; all, as many as have been called in My name: for in My glory I have prepared, and formed, and made him.” (Isa. 43:5). Inasmuch as then, “wheresoever the carcase is, there shall also the eagles be gathered together,” (Matt. 24:28) we do participate in the glory of the Lord, who has both formed us, and prepared us for this, that, when we are with Him, we may partake of His glory. -ibid.

God wants us to obey him because through obedience, we are conformed more and more to the image of his glorious Son. Jesus is inviting us to glorify God so that we might participate in his own glory. The point is, God doesn’t need our obedience due to some lack in himself (even though he righteously demands it and we owe it to him), but part of why he desires it is so that we might gain from it. He’s like a dad telling you to practice some sport, or some instrument, not because he’s going to personally gain from it so much, but because he knows you will. The glory, the beauty, the greatness that will follow that obedience, that discipline, no matter how difficult, is worth it and it is the aim of our God in his commands to us.

Once again, Ireneaus knew what so many of us don’t: We need our obedience far more than God does.

Soli Deo Gloria