Irenaeus on the need for a careful Hermeneutic (actually, tradition, but…)


I’m reading through a book of conversion stories from one Christian tradition to another, and came across this beautiful reference to Irenaeus’s Against Heresies.

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.1

Wilbur Ellsworth (a protestant minister turned Orthodox priest) explains, “[Irenaeus] likened Scripture to a great mosaic whose many pieces form the portrait of a handsome king. He imagines the pieces of that mosaic being packaged for transporting. Upon arrival the various tiles need to be put into their proper order and relationship to one another in accordance with the artist’s intention. In his story, the lack of the master plan produces a picture not of the king but of a dog!”2

Now, Irenaeus and Ellsworth are defending the use of Tradition as the key hermeneutic in the interpretation of Holy Scripture (a concept not entirely foreign to anabaptists – but more on that later), but regardless, it is a great way to understand the need and purpose of a careful hermeneutic.

1 AGAINST HERESIES, Irenaeus, Book I, Chapter VIII., How the Valentinians Pervert the Scriptures to Support Their Own Pious Opinions.
2 Journey’s of Faith, Plummer, Robert L., pp. 69-70

One thought on “Irenaeus on the need for a careful Hermeneutic (actually, tradition, but…)

  1. Pingback: Irenaeus on the need for a careful Hermeneutic (actually, tradition, but…) | Menno Nerds

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