Irenaeus, Mosaics, and Old Wives’ Tales

Being kept up by a baby who would not sleep, and who would wake his mother with his cries if he were not constantly being bounced about in a chair, with my supply of Agatha Christie and Dick Frances novels depleted, I found myself the other night reading a copy of Irenaeus’ *Against Heresies*, and I ran across this quote:

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 try to adapt with an air of probability, the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, to their own particular assertions, 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.

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 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 *this* was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful 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 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. (Book I, Chapter 1.)

It’s a pretty good image for misquoting the Bible, isn’t it? Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it, except the exact quote was already fresh in my mind from Glory to God for All Things, a blog I read by an Orthodox priest in Knoxville. He was using it in an argument against hyper-Calvinism, which makes God out to be the author of our sins, since he predestines all things. It’s a good point in dealing with that error too – If at any point in your theologizing you come up with a God who is evil or malicious, capricious or cruel, stop. You’ve done something wrong. Go back and try again.

(Incidentally, I got the impression that Father Stephen was lumping in everyone of a Calvinist persuasion into the category of what I would call a hyper-Calvinist. This becomes almost forgivable when you consider that the Orthodox churches have been essentially “Arminian” since before Augustine. In fact, they generally consider Augustine’s theology of predestination a dangerous innovation. Innovation in Christian theology is inevitably bad, even when said innovation happened 1500 years ago. However, I would say the most deadly kind of innovation is the kind that happens slowly over time so that no one notices. Then heresy is the thing that everyone has always believed.)

But when I was reading that quote just now, something else entirely came to mind: patching together old wives’ tales to make your theology. The Pentecostal/charismatic church is probably the worst for this kind of error. We have these little mini-theologies that run, disconnected from anything else, through our churches. Irenaeus’ little rant up above is actually being applied to the Gnostic heresy, which he faulted for attaching Christian words (with different meanings) to their theologies, which made them sound actually quite profound (“Profundity” was the name of one of their Aeons who established the nature of the universe), but when actually assembled together systematically in a lump, added up to nonsense. I remember visiting a mega church with my parents when we first moved to Tulsa, and somewhere near the end of his sermon, the pastor of this church mentioned something along the lines of “the Bible says ‘touch hands and agree…” My mom leaned over to me (or maybe it was after the service) and said “The Bible doesn’t say that. His grandmother said that.” The scripture (KJV) says, ‘If two or three agree as touching anything…’

In that same vein, I read just the other day a quote from Joel Osteen’s online devotional, which sent a shiver down my spine:

Faith is simply believing in something. But there are different kinds, or levels, of faith. There’s a difference between having faith in God and having the faith of God. When you open your heart to the God kind of faith, you’re actually allowing Him to believe through you. The God kind of faith will cause you to believe for things when you don’t even know how they’ll happen. And it probably won’t make sense in your mind, but you have to allow your spirit to rise higher than your thinking.
(HT: centuri0n)

Osteen seems to actually play up that this idea (having God’s faith) is not actually in scripture. He may have gotten this from his grandmother. Certainly, this kind of thinking has been floating around in Pentecostal circles for 25-50 years. It’s not as though it’s something completely brand new that he himself thought up. And in the context of the rest of his ministry, in the ears of an ignorant person or someone who’s used to hearing this kind of thing, it may sound completely unremarkable. But standing baldly on its own, it adds up to complete nonsense.

Faith is **not** simply believing. Faith as *faith* has two interesting attributes: first it has a sort of connecting quality. It has to have some basis or an object of some kind. Faith cannot stand on it’s own; it is always dependent. “Faith in Jesus Christ” is correct. “I believe that Jesus death, burial and resurrection is sufficient to bring me blameless into the kingdom of God. Why? Because of the word of scripture and the testimony of the saints, and the voice of the Holy Spirit crying through me, ‘Abba, Father.’” This is also correct. “I have faith that I will win the lottery next week.” Is incorrect. On what basis do you believe? Did someone tell you that you would win the lottery? If you just make up the thing that you want to have faith about, your faith is quite literally baseless. It is merely magical thinking. Secondly, faith must have some legitimate basis for doubt. The old line about “I have faith that this chair will hold me up” isn’t faith. At best it’s an assumption, which is not the same thing. If the chair looked rickety and someone promised you that it could hold you up, that would contain an element of faith.

Can you see that by both these criteria it is impossible for God to have faith at all? By virtue of the fact that he knows all things, can do all things in himself, and is ultimately the author of all things, it is impossible for God to place faith in some kind of object or basis. Whatsoever thing he desires ultimately comes to pass by his own providence. So how can God have an attribute which, by nature, is dependent? He can’t. In the same way, how can God ever have any legitimate basis for doubt? He can’t. Everything that is or ever will be, God already knows. Perhaps under an openness theology, God has a chance to doubt, but the whole point of openness theology is that there is no one to make God a promise. So once again, God cannot have faith, and saying that we can have his kind of faith, or maybe channel God’s faith through ourselves, adds up to complete nonsense.

But it still sounds good – quite profound – to talk about moving from having faith in God to having God’s own faith. It sounds like there is this potential to move upward in your spiritual life to a whole new level of confidence and security about your life, bypassing dependency entirely.

And that is precisely the danger.

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

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