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


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