The [heretics] act just like someone who finds a beautiful image of a king that has been constructed by a skillful artist out of precious jewels, and then breaks down this statue of the king into pieces and rearranges the gems into the form of a dog or a fox, and even then, does a poor job of it. And then they maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist had constructed. They point to the jewels that had been beautifully assembled by the original artist in the image of the king, but have now tragically transposed the king into the shape of a dog. And exhibiting the jewels, they deceive the ignorant who had no conception of what a king’s form is actually like. And they persuade them to believe that their miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In the same way, these teachers patch together old wives’ tales—by violently drawing away the oracles of God from their proper context, words, expressions and parables, and they adapt them to their groundless fictions. –Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.8
Irenaeus of Lyons, grand-disciple of the Apostle John (2nd c.) was concerned with an ancient problem. Namely, the very human problem of misconstruing and misrepresenting God. He illustrates this from the Christian world by observing how “the heretics” of his day had dismantled the Scriptures and rearranged them to contort the image of God from something so majestic and noble as a heavenly king into something akin to a dog or a fox.
To Irenaeus, this was a great tragedy, because for him, the image of Christ the King had not yet been despoiled by the ugliness of Christian empires … and dogs and foxes were more likely flee-ridden pests than cutesy Instagram portraits. He was alarmed at how the glory of God revealed in Christ could be made ugly through the crafty projections constructed by those who reduce God to their own image. To his horror, they had even used the very words and parables and prophecies of the Bible to do so!
Of course, anyone can co-opt Irenaeus illustration to justify oneself and accuse the other. Instead, we should seat ourselves at the Lord’s Table and ask, with the disciples, “Lord, is it I?Am I the betrayer? And how would I know?”
We can only know by looking to Christ, because “no one has seen God at any time except God the only Son–he has made God known” (John 1:18). To say that Jesus is the Word of God is to say that “Jesus Christ is what God has to say about himself” (Brian Zahnd). The apostolic testimony is that Jesus is the image of the invisible God and the exact likeness of God’s nature. His arrangement of the gems refracts the face of God into this world as Love incarnate–the Good manifest as beauty, truth and justice.
So for John’s protege, a “heretic” is anyone who rearranges the gems of God’s self-revelation into an image that looks like something other than Jesus Christ.
“King” is a cringe-word these days. We typically recall kings who were patriarchal and hierarchical, dominators and oppressors. America was founded on the rejection of royalty. The Declaration of Independence is a repudiation of that kind of king:
That’s an apt description of a great host of history’s human kings. It seems almost blasphemous to refer to God as King if those are the associations that come with kingship! In fact, after writing a very popular song about Christ as our king, my friend Jason Upton was so alarmed by the way it was employed in the service of haughty triumphalism and Christian nationalism that we wondered if we need a 100-year fast from using the king metaphor.
And yet Christ spoke of a Kingdom. He refused to be the type of warrior-king that the world demanded. His kingdom is not of this world–and when he appeared to us, our heavenly King rode a donkey, wore a crown of thorns and was enthroned on a cross. For John and for Irenaeus, the glory of Christ’s kingship was in his humility. Seeing this, Jason wrote a new song, titled “The King’s Way.”
That leads to peace that leads to life
But few will follow
We’re at the crossroad
Which way will we go
Than the steps that lead me to the cross
Where my will can’t be the priority
And these crowns I’ve gained I count as loss
When I hear the spirit say
That this is the true King’s way
Of Dogs and Foxes
And yet heresy continues to do its treacherous work, pulling apart the epic saga of redemption and reassembling the pieces into a very biblical but entirely Christless religiosity.
I see the foxes surging among those who are doubling down on human shame and divine retribution. I said it was an ancient problem. As old as the story of Adam and Eve’s first stumble. The moment they turned from glory into self-will, they felt shame. And what emerged from that shame was a false image of God–a God from whom they must hide. Why? Had God ever given them reason to think he was retributive? What, by warning them of a tree that would be fatally poisonous? By setting a boundary that would ensure human flourishing? No! In their shame, they fabricated a God whose kind warning they misconstrued into threats. They constructed an idol of retribution that continues through the centuries and on into Christian doctrine. Imagine the sacrilege of dismantling the Cross of divine love and rearranging its gems into an image of divine punishment. What’s the cliche in vogue today? “I have no words.”
Just when I thought we were beyond that… No, a new “skinny jeans fundamentalism” struts across the big stage. Some of the fastest-growing churches in North America are thriving on a market that wants to push back hard against the supposed liberalism of the beautiful gospel of God’s infinite love. They wave their fists at this gospel and condemn the so-called “God is love heresy.”
The foxes have increased their emphasis on God’s wrath against sinners, wrath-appeasement and eternal hellfire. Their scolding and shaming miraculously find purchase in the ready soil of hearts weary of “50 shades of grey.” It seems there’s a fresh market for disciples who crave authoritarian despots, who demand worldly kings, spiritual or political. Yes, the world is in a crisis of spiraling chaos. But an unChristlike, controlling and vengeful God is not the solution!
The Good News
The good news is that the tide has turned. The apostolic truth that God IS lovewould have been strange news to the Christless religions of the ancient world. But prophets like Abraham, Moses, David, and Hosea began to catch glimpses of the grace that would arrive in the person of Jesus Christ, Love incarnate. Jesus showed us that God is about restoration, not retribution. The AbbaJesus revealed is nothing like the imaginary competitors who thrive on wrath.
The great tragedy is that despite Irenaeus’ faithful warnings, even Christianity quickly reverted to pagan notions of an angry god who needs appeasement through violence. That image held sway for many centuries. But now it is fast fading in the light of the glory of the Father’s great love. Even my agnostic friends now know that the God they can’t believe in is good, kind and merciful. On the night before I wrote this article, an addict friend said to me, “I don’t believe in God. I just can’t … But if there is a God, that God is love. And I want my daughter to know it!” His intuitions of God are far more Christlike than what he’d heard from Christless religiosity.
Indeed, I suspect the time has come for toxic theologies of divine retribution, eternal fiery torment and angry moralism to take their turn on the defensive. Those who slander the good news of God’s grace are now ensnared in their own perilous error. It’s time for them to repent of the ways their “gospel” has created generations of burnt-out Christians and fed-up atheists. It’s time they see that the true King is divine Love, crucified and risen, whose purpose is to save (not scorch) the world.