The Fox and the King: Irenaeus on Methods of Correlation

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. AD 130-200) writes a colorful depiction of those who use extra-biblical philosophies and schemas to interpret and understand the Bible.  Contending against Gnosticism and one of its leading teachers, Valentinus, Irenaeus writes:

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 endeavor to adapt with an air of prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support.  In so doing, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth…

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 a man all to pieces, should re-arrange 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 was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to 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 endeavor, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions (Against Heresies 1.8.1).

In recent years this kind of extra-biblical accomodation can be seen in Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Black Theology (i.e., James Cone), and Environmental Theology—to name only a few.  Using superimposed grids to interpret the Bible, the end result is always a distortion of the biblical theological understanding of the Truth.  In the twentieth century, theologian Paul Tillich, coined the term “Method of Correlation” to describe this kind of dialectic approach to the Scripture, in which he advocated an interpretive method where philosophy supplied the questions and theology and the Bible gave the answers.  The problem is that modern philosophy asked the wrong questions, and thus all biblical appeals were slanted by the question.

In reading Irenaeus, we are reminded of the high stakes of theological construction and the humble dependence we must have on the Bible to not only supply us with ‘biblical answers’ but biblical methods for reading the Scriptures well.  Many have gone before us who have read the Bible, quoted the Bible, memorized the Bible, and gone to hell, because they did not read it as it was intended (cf. John 5:39; 2 Cor. 2:14-16).

A helpful diagnostic of proper methods of interpretation is is Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel Centered Hermeneutics, while anything by Kevin Vanhoozer will help think through these matters on a scholarly level; Twentieth Century Theology is a helpful survey of theologians who have misinterpreted the Bible through means of theological accomodation.

May we pray for illumination and perspire in our studies to understand the Scriptures as God’s message of eternal life in Jesus Christ.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss