The Trinity and Progressive Revelation

Writing about the way God reveals his Triune nature over time, Geoffrey Wainwright, professor of theology at Duke, cites  Gregory Nazianzus and Irenaeus, in the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible (817)Consider first Gregory Nazianzus:

The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely; the New manifested the Son, and suggested the deity of the Spirit; now the Spirit himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of himself (Gregory Nazianzus in his Fifth Theological Oration 26 [SC 250:326-27]). 

God has revealed himself progressively, beginning with his oneness clearly and his threeness more subtly.  Gregory’s comment affirms this distinction, but his language could lead to a misunderstanding. First, the New Testament itself gives ample revelation for discerning the Spirit as the third member of the Trinity (cf. Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 5:3-4; and all references that designate the “Spirit of God” or the “spirit of Christ”).  We are not left seeking later revelation, the Scripture’s is sufficient.  Even if the early church required many years and disagreements to approximate this doctrinal formulation, Pneumatology is derived from the Bible and not later experience. 

Second, the Bible also teaches us that the Spirit does not “demonstrate himself” as Gregory Nazianzus indicates.  Rather, the Spirit testifies of Christ and reveals to us the Father and the Son (cf. John 15:26; 16:13); amazingly, he does not glorify himself through self-revelation.  Thus, it is not appropriate to say that the Spirit has been showing himself off during the church age.  His operations in the church age are to exalt Christ, who in turn glorifies the Father.

More precisely, Irenaeus picks up the relationship between the Trinity and the progress of revelation when he writes:

[God] having been seen in bygone days through the Spirit prophetically, and then seen through the Son adoptively, shall be seen in the kingdom paternally, the Spirit preparing man for the Son of God, the Son leading to the Father, and the Father giving him the incorruptibility and eternal life that come from the vision of God (Irenaeus in Against Heresies 4.20.5 [SC 100:638-41]).

To know God prophetically, adoptively, and paternally… Wow! Consider the wisdom and benevolence of God to send the Spirit to inspire men to prophesy and prepare us for the Son, then the Son to come and manifest himself in the flesh in order to make provision for redemption and access to the Father, so that in the age to come we might enter into the presence of the Father, through the Son, in the power and purity of the Spirit.  (By the way this should not deny the complementary truth that the Father and Son also prepared the way for the Son; just as the Spirit, sent from Father and Son, prepares us to encounter God at the eschaton).

Jonah 2:9 says, “salvation belongs to our God,” and considering the biblical storyline shows us without a doubt, that our salvation is a Trinitarian work.  He has coordinated his redemptive acts and faith-producing revelation in such a way that when we come to understand salvation truly we  realize that we encounter the Triune God (cf. Eph. 1:1-4; Rom. 8:28ff).  The Father architects.  The Son accomplishes.  The Holy Spirit applies.  There is no other salvation; there is no God: true salvation is Trinitarian and the true God in perfect unison to save.

What an amazing God!  What an amazing salvation!

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Oscar Cullman on Irenaeus and Redemptive History

Here is a great quote from Oscar Cullmann that shows the centrality and importance that redemptive history had for Irenaeus and should have for us.  He rightly understood that Christian preaching divorced from the fullness of redemptive history, had no vitality.  May our preaching be filled with biblical theology and its Christ-centered, gospel witness.  Here is the quote found in Aloys Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition:

Down to the theologians of the ‘redemptive history’ school in the nineteenth century…there has scarcely been another theologian who had recognized so clearly as did Irenaeus that the Christian proclamation stands or falls with the redemptive history, that this historical work of Jesus Christ as Redeemer forms the mid-point of a line which leads from the Old Testament to the return of Christ (Cullmann, Christ and Time, London 1962, 56-7).

May we exhaust ourselves defending and declaring, exegeting and extolling the glories of Christ unveiled in the history of redemption.  The power and the purity of the gospel depends on it.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Irenaeus of Lyons: A Faithful Church Father

A Man Worthy of Consideration and Imitation (Heb. 13:7)

After surveying Irenaeus Against Heresies it is evident that the Bishop of Lyons is a man committed to Scriptures and thus worthy of emulation in many ways. His vehement opposition to Gnostic heresies, his unwavering commitment to the Word of God as authoritative, inerrant, and sufficient, and his robust biblical theology are examples worthy of ponder and imitate. In his grasp of the Bible and in his bold proclamation thereof, Irenaeus incarnates Titus 1:9 admonition to elders, “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.”

Nevertheless, there are things that Irenaeus did in his exposition of Scripture that modern expositors should be cautious to repeat. First, Irenaeus’ habit of allegorizing details within narrative passages is not a legitimate hermeneutic procedure. Finding more than three allegorical meanings to the ax head in Elisha narrative, and comparing the three spies sent to Jericho to the Trinity[1] are spurious interpretations at best and potentially harmful.

Second, his pattern of making typology fit the most intricate detail of the event is problematic (i.e. Lazarus’ clothes, clean and unclean animals). Though Irenaeus was constrained from major error because of a strong apostolic doctrine, those who have weak doctrine and strong imaginations will be the next generation of Gnostics, or liberals, or postmoderns. Patience, humility to admit we don’t know everything,[2] and increasing textual evidence based on ongoing exegesis must be required for all typological interpretations.

Finally, there is wisdom in focusing on the main details of the Gospel and not on peripheral non-essentials. In a handful of instances, Irenaeus taught peculiar doctrines (i.e. Christ living to the age of 50; six days of creation correspondent to six millennia) by defining one passage of Scripture with another, that in all likelihood should not have been combined. The causes of this are manifold, but the principle lesson is that doctrinal formulation should be founded on the clearest and most abundant biblical evidence. Such Scriptural data must recognize the unfolding nature of progressive revelation and form its doctrines in accordance with the canonical shape of the Bible.

Today, the church stands on the shoulders of men like Irenaeus, and benefits from his stalwart commitment to the truth and the right interpretation of Scripture. Yet, there is one other aspect of his theological enterprise that should not go unnoticed. At the end of Books III and IV, Irenaeus prays for his opponents. He was not cold theologian, but a doctrinally-committed pastor whose theology shaped his prayer and his polemics.  This too, and perhaps, this most is worthy of emulation.  I fear too much pugilism and too little prayer is offered today in debates that surround interpretation of the Bible.

So, as we close our evaluation of Irenaeus of Lyons, may we give thanks to God for this faithful saint and consider his life and imitate his biblical faith.[3]

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

[1] Ibid., 4.20.12.

[2] Something that Irenaeus demonstrated in his own position of ecclesial authority (see. Adversus haereses 2.28.3).

[3] For the Gnostics, Irenaeus prays, “We do indeed pray that these men may not remain in the pit which they themselves have dug, but separate themselves from a Mother of this nature, and depart from Bythus, and stand away from the void, and relinquish the shadow; and that they, being converted to the Church of God, may be lawfully begotten, and that Christ maybe formed in them, and that they may know the Framer and Maker of this universe, the only true God and Lord of all. We pray for these things on their behalf, loving them better than they seem to love themselves” (Adversus haereses 3.25.7).

Irenaeus’ Typology: History and Textual Warrant [5]

irenaeus4[Thus far we have introduced Irenaeus, considered his view of Scripture, and his biblical theology; today and tomorrow we will look at how Irenaeus used typology. Enjoy].

An Evaluation of Irenaeus’ Typology

In reading Against Heresies, it becomes apparent that typology is a primary means by which he explains the OT and NT. Appealing to recapitulation, citing specific types, and demonstrating from the text recurring biblical patterns, Irenaeus intentionally and consciously employs typology. Some examples of his typology have already been cited, now in what remains, Irenaeus’ method will be examined in light of recent scholarship on the subject.[1]

In his 1981 dissertation on typology and the hermeneutical use of typos in the New Testament, Richard Davidson provides four objective criteria for a biblically-warranted typology. He says that for typology to be legitimate, it must be: 1) grounded in history; 2) an interpretation of Scriptural passages; 3) specifically parallel and not simply a general correspondence; and 4) prospective.[2] Admittedly, it is anachronistic to judge Irenaeus by Davidson’s modern rubric; nonetheless, employing his diagnostics will help determine the abiding faithfulness, and therefore usefulness, of Irenaeus’ typological method.  Today we will consider the first two criteria.

Typology and History

First, Irenaeus roots his typology in history. From start to finish, Irenaeus is crafting his arguments along a redemptive-historical grid.[3] More specifically, in Book 3, he contends that the same God who revealed himself in the OT, fulfilled his promises in the NT.[4] The outworking of this promise-fulfillment is a biblical hermeneutic that is very sensitive to progressive revelation and the historicity of the text.

For instance, Irenaeus understands all history to be divinely foreshadowed in the first six days of creation.[5] Though this is a spurious interpretation of Genesis 1, it does illumine how he understood history. For Irenaeus, all history is God’s history, and resultantly, history is a stage on which God is accomplishing his plan of salvation. As Frances Foulkes quips, “Typological interpretation…is the interpretation of history.”[6] In Against Heresies, Irenaeus is clearly expounding a historical typology, where “God is sovereign over history,” where “historical patterns…theologically foreshadow later recurrences of similar things,” and where “the final historical fulfillments eclipse their prior counterparts.”[7]

Typology and Textual Warrant

Second, Irenaeus derives his typological interpretations from Scripture; the majority of which have legitimate textual warrant, even if the interpretation is askance. Over against the Gnostics, who mangle the Bible for their own devious interpretations,[8] Irenaeus labors to exegete the text in its canonical context. For instance, he makes repeated reference to his “proofs drawn from the Scriptures,”[9] while at the same time, he argues that biblical interpretation must emerge for the harmonious testimony of Scripture.[10]

Consequently, Irenaeus’ consistently attempts to make legitimate type-antitype correspondences emerge from the text. This is evident in his Adam-Christ typology;[11] in his assertion that Jonah is a sign of the Christ;[12] in his comparison between Eve and Mary, where the latter virgin obediently recapitulates the failure of the mother of all living;[13] in his typological interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar and the Antichrist;[14] and in his assertion that the scarlet cord in Rahab’s window is prefiguring the admittance of prostitutes into the kingdom of God.[15]

From this list, it is evident that Irenaeus has varying levels of biblical support: Adam-Christ and Jonah-Christ are clearly recognized as legitimate typological structures (cf. Rom. 5:12ff; Matt. 12:41); Eve-Mary and Nebuchadnezzar-Antichrist are more speculative, but still may find textual support in both testaments with differing degrees of correspondence.[16] This is considerably true for the latter, where Revelation 17-18 depicts the fall of the Antichrist in Babylonian terminology. Finally, though maligned as fanciful allegory, Irenaeus’ scarlet cord typology is based on the antecedent theology of the Passover and a NT correspondent: “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you” (Matt. 21:31).

For Irenaeus, the issue of textual warrant boils down to interpretive accuracy. His method is self-consciously biblical, contextual, and correspondent—that is seeking to find types and their antitypes from within the canon. The problem is that at times he fails to live up to his own standards, and at other points his biblical saturated mind may go to far in drawing speculative connections. This leads to a third point, which we will pick up tomorrow.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

[1] In recent decades, the topic of typology has only increased in intensity and scrutiny. The scope of this paper disallows citing or referring to this ever-expanding body of literature. Instead, it will utilize the conclusions of one major work to analyze Irenaeus typology.

[2] Davidson, Typology in Scripture, 421-22.

[3] Though describing Irenaeus’ other work, The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Dockery writes affirming Irenaeus perception of Christian history, “It presented Christ and Christianity as the fulfillment of the Old Testament by means of a Christological-typological reading of the text. Salvation history was structured according to the various covenants of God with man” (Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 68). This kind of redemptive-historical framework is seen at work in Against Heresies.

[4] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.6-10.

[5] Ibid., 5.28.3.

[6] Frances Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament” in The Right Doctrine for the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 342.

[7] Jonathan Lunde in the “Introduction” to Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 19.

[8] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 1.8.1; 2.9.4.

[9] Ibid., 5.14.4; cf. 3:19.2; 4.33.15.

[10] Ibid., 2.28.3.

[11] Ibid., 5.23.1-2.

[12] Ibid., 3.20.1.

[13] Ibid., 5.19.1-2.

[14] Ibid., 5.29.1-2.

[15] Ibid., 4.20.12.

[16] Denying the woman who suffered from an issue of blood as a type of the Gnostic’s “suffering aeon,” Irenaeus did articulate a need for certifiable correspondence between type and antitype, when he said, “For a type and emblem is, no doubt, sometime diverse from the truth [signified] as to matter and substance; but it ought to the general form and features, to maintain a likeness [to what it typified], and in this way to shadow forth by means of things present those which are yet to come” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.22.1).

Irenaeus Upholds Sola Scriptura [3]

Irenaeus3 Long before Paul Tillich, men like Valentinus were engaging in theological accommodation and “methods of correlation.”[1] David Dockery says of Valentinus, “His hermeneutical approach was more sophisticated than Marcion, beginning with a simple literal interpretation of the biblical passages and moving to a more esoteric instruction on ethical and spiritual truth.”[2] In response, Irenaeus excoriates Valentinus, saying, “They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures,” and then use their wicked schema to tie biblical phrases together to come up with another system of doctrine.[3]

Irenaeus, on the other hand, from first to last is explicitly biblical. He outlines his method as one completely derived from the Bible, and he rejects Gnosticism on the basis that they corrupt the perfect word of God. Concerning the veracity of God’s word, he declares:

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and no lie is in Him. As also David says, prophesying His birth from a virgin, and the resurrection from the dead, “Truth has sprung out of the earth.” The apostles likewise, being disciples of the truth, are above all falsehood; for a lie has no fellowship with the truth, just as darkness has none with light.[4]

Earlier Irenaeus affirms divine inspiration, biblical inerrancy, and the apostolic authority of the Scriptures, writing, “the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit.”[5] Congruently, Irenaeus holds to the unity and clarity of the Scriptures when he says, “the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all.”[6] In short, though centuries before the Reformation and the publication of systematic treatments of doctrine, this second century divine is firmly evangelical. He argues for Scripture’s inspiration, inerrancy, authority, sufficiency, necessity, and clarity.

Though some have argued that Irenaeus’ regula fidei, which appealed to apostolic tradition to defend Scripture, led to “a precedent for setting up church traditions as being of equal authority with Scripture,”[7] it can be equally discerned from his writings that the ultimate authority is the Bible itself. Contending against the Gnostics, whose fallacious doctrines had no historical warrant, he appealed to the church because the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). In reading Against Heresies, it does not appear that Irenaeus himself is elevating tradition to the level of authoritative Scripture, but rather that he exhorts people to flee to the church because it is the church that possesses the life-giving Word of God.[8]

[1] The “method of correlation” was coined by Paul Tillich and encourages a dialetic approach to the Scripture where philosophy asks the question and the Bible supplies the answer. It is a twentieth century version of what the heretics have always done, comingle biblical truth with worldly philosophies (cf. Colossians 2:8). See Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, Twentieth-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 114-29.

[2] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now: Contemporary Hermeneutics in the Light of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 60.

[3] Irenaeus employs one of his most colorful quotations to illustrate what these false teachers are doing. He writes, “Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist our 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” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 1.8.1).

[4] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.5.1.

[5]Uniting inerrancy, inspiration, and authority together in one sentence, Irenaeus avows, “; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destiture of the knowledge of His mysteries” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.28.2).

[6] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.27.2. He continues in 2.28.3, “all Scripture, which has been given to us God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things.”

[7] Michael Haykin, Defence of the Truth (Webster, NY: Evangelical Press, 2004), 39; see also David Dockery’s appraisal in Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 71-73.

[8] See Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.1-5 for a detailed section of his appeal to the “rule of faith” and the historical importance of the church to arbitrate right doctrine. Irenaeus Adversus haereses 5.20.1-2 gives an interpretive key for Irenaeus’ reasoning for appeals to the Church.

Irenaeus’ Against Heresies: A Brief Overview [2]

Irenaeus2 In Against Heresies, Irenaeus spends the first two books understanding the Gnostics and refuting them at every turn.[1] His arguments are logical, but more importantly they are biblical. In contradistinction from Justin Martyr and Origen, who baptize philosophy with Christian truth and nomenclature, Irenaeus is a biblical apologist in the purest sense. The Gnostic Christians have misinterpreted the Bible, misconstrued the doctrines of the faith, and misled the Church by conjoining the pure Word of God with the perverted philosophies of Greek mythology. In Against Heresies, Irenaeus responds by highlighting the disparity between their false arguments and the plain reading of Scripture. He does this in three ways.

First, Irenaeus contends with the Gnostics because they derive their principles of doctrine from the irreligious philosophers of the day. Instead of appealing to the Bible they imitate Thales, Anaximander, Plato, and the Pythagoreans.[2] The only difference is the nomenclature. Irenaeus writes, “These men (the heretics), adopting this fable as their own, have ranged their opinions round it, and if by a sort of natural process, changing only the names of the things referred to, and setting forth the very same beginning of the generation of all things, and their production.”[3]

Second, Irenaeus lists numerous ways in which the Gnostics strain the gnat and swallow the camel. They import meaning into letters, syllables, and numbers,[4] while disregarding the composite testimony of the biblical writers. Likewise, they parse out meaning in parables that do not relate to the singular meaning of the Lord’s instruction.

Third, Irenaeus charges the Gnostics with an atomistic reading of Scripture that fails to recognize authorial intent, biblical context, or the unified formation of Scripture. In this, Irenaeus distinguishes the use of biblical language and biblical truth. Concerning this vain imitation, he says, “by these words [the Gnostics] entrap the more simple, and entice them, imitating our phraseology.”[5] The Gnostics deceitfully appropriate the former to deny the latter. He says,

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.[6]

Continuing his rejection of the Gnostic system of interpretation, Irenaeus says, “the method which these men employ to deceive themselves, while they abuse the Scriptures by endeavoring to support their own system out of it.”[7] Rather than reading the Bible in context and searching for an inductive meaning in the text, these false teachers were conscripting words, ideas, and atomistic elements of the text to support their preconceived systems of thought. Irenaeus continues, “collecting a set of expressions and names scattered here and there [in Scripture], they twist, them, as we have already said, from a natural to a non-natural sense.”[8]

The problem with this is that it superimposes on the Bible the ideas and theological constructs of the reader. The intention of the author and message of the Spirit is distorted and lost. Though centuries before postmodern, reader-oriented hermeneutics, this is essentially what Irenaeus is refuting. He is contending against any kind of allegory which says “this means that,” what you see in this passage actually means that person, that Aeon, that god, or that idea drawn from the system of the reader. Irenaeus’ conclusion articulates well how contextual readings undo this allegorical nonsense.

If he takes [the verses lifted out of context] and restores each of them to its proper position, he at once destroys the narrative in question. 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 recognize 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.[9]

[1] Cleveland Coxe summarizes these books, “The first of these contains a minute description of the tenets of the various heretical sects, with occasional brief remarks in illustration of their absurdity, and in confirmation of the truth to which they were opposed. In his second book, Irenaeus proceeds to a more complete demolition of those heresies which he has already explained, and argues at great length against them, on grounds principally of reason” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 311. Irenaeus employs logic, but his polemics are biblically-informed and rich with illustrations and explanations from the Bible.

[2] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.16.1-6.

[3] Ibid., 2.16.1. In this statement, Irenaeus is referring to the account of an unrecongnized “cosmic poet” by the name of Antiphanes, whose cosmogony started with Night and Silence which begot Chaos, then Love from Chaos and Night, and then finally Light.

[4] Ibid., 1.14.1-6; 2.24.1-6.

[5] Ibid., 3.15.1. He reiterates this point, “Such men are to outward appearance sheep; for they appear to be like us, by what they say in public, repeating the same words as we do; but inwardly they are wolves” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.16.8).

[6] Ibid., 1.8.1.

[7] Ibid., 2.9.1.

[8] Ibid., 2.9.4.

[9] Ibid., 2.9.4.

A Prayer for the Heretic

Irenaeus of Lyons was biblical theologian par excellence, a faithful apologist for the church, and warm-hearted pastor.  In his polemical work against Gnosticism, he spends two books unpacking and then demolishing the false doctrines of Marcion, Valentinus, and others.  Then in books 3-5, he unfolds a rich biblical exposition of the Scriptures that centers on Christ and that demonstrates mostly well (in some places poorly) what biblical typology looks like.  But at the end of Books 3 and 4, he offers a prayer for those deluded souls for whom he is contending.

He is not merely arguing against these false teachers; he is crying out to God on their behalf, asking for their souls to be saved from these pernicous doctrines.  He is doing what Jude 22-23 instructs us to do: “have mercy on some who are doubting; save others snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.”

Reading Irenaeus prayer gives you a renewed perspective of contending for the faith.  It is not simply a proud, boastful war of words or theological jockeying– it is a crying out to God, who alone can change hearts, open eyes, and free imprisoned souls from the shackles of Satan.  May we who love the truth consider that the next time we contend for the faith, and pray with Irenaeus for those who are in bondage to false teaching:

We do indeed pray that these men may not remain in the pit which they themselves have dug, but separate themselves from a Mother of this nature, and depart from Bythus, and stand away from the void, and relinquish the shadow; and that they, being converted to the Church of God, may be lawfully begotten, and that Christ maybe formed in them, and that they may know the Framer and Maker of this universe, the only true God and Lord of all.  We pray for these things on their behalf, loving them better than they seem to love themselves (Irenaeus Against haereses 3.25.7).

May we love the truth, and may we truly love by interceding for brothers and sisters held hostage to false teachers!

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

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