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X marks the spot

July 21, 2016

I’m speaking this weekend at a conference in York about David Jones and Irenaeus of Lyon. There’s quite a few passages from Irenaeus I’d like to discuss here in the near future (though we’ll see if I get around to it). Here’s one of the most interesting, from Against Heresies IV.xxvi (emphasis added), which I had hoped to mention in my talk, but could not fit in:

If any one, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the treasure which was hid in the field, in this world (for “the field is the world”); but the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables. Hence His human nature could not be understood, prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of Christ. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet: “Shut up the words, and seal the book even to the time of consummation, until many learn, and knowledge be completed. For at that time, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things.” But Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things.” For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition. And for this reason, indeed, when at this present time the law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation of all things pertaining to the advent of the Son of God, which took place in human nature; but when it [the law] is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God and declaring His dispensations with regard to man, and forming the kingdom of Christ beforehand, and preaching by anticipation the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall arrive at such excellency as even to see God, and hear His word, and from the hearing of His discourse be glorified to such an extent, that others cannot behold the glory of his countenance, as was said by Daniel: “Those who do understand, shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever.” Thus, then, I have shown it to be, if any one read the Scriptures. For thus it was that the Lord discoursed with the disciples after His resurrection from the dead, proving to them from the Scriptures themselves “that Christ must suffer, and enter into His glory, and that remission of sins should be preached in His name throughout all the world.” And the disciple will be perfected, and like the householder, “who brings forth from his treasure things new and old.”

The logic of this passage is complex. The basic claim is that, for some relation, call it “mapping,” it’s the case both that OT (the Old Testament) maps X (Christ), and that X maps OT. But how can this be? If mapping were an obviously symmetric relation like “resembling,” this wouldn’t even be worth noting, but this is far from obvious—it seems absurd. If I have a map to buried treasure, we wouldn’t usually say that the buried treasure is itself a map to my map.

But OT and X, Irenaeus thinks, are special. Once we know about X, we can recognize OT as mapping X; but without X, we cannot recognize this about OT, and so in a sense X maps OT as well. From a certain angle, this seems like an attempt to construct a form-based metaphysics that will evaide the anti-Platonic third man argument. What besides an additional map ensures that my map is indeed a map to the treasure? (Cf. Wittgenstein: What can tell me how to interpret a rule besides another rule?) Answer: the treasure itself.

Except, that isn’t quite right. Irenaeus thinks that both OT and X map each other only because both of them do not just exist, but mean. The OT is a collection of words; X is the Word. OT and X can map one another only because both have meaning, and their meanings inform one another. A map to buried treasure lacks this structure because only the map means; the treasure simply is. The treasure does have something to do with the map being a map to buried treasure, but it doesn’t map the map itself.

A can map B only if A has meaning. This does not, however, mean that, if A maps B and B maps A, they have the same meaning. The mapping relation is never symmetric. Rather, mapping, for Irenaeus, is a genus that includes, in addition to the normal mapping relation, where only the first term has meaning, two relations in which both terms have meaning: foreshadowing and fulfilling. These are reciprocals; if A foreshadows B, then B fulfills A. Though each implies the other, B has an ontological priority over A, in the way that the whole has priority over its parts.

Which is to say, basically, that Christ and the Old Testament stand in a relation of hermeneutic circularity. I wonder if this passage isn’t the first to make such a claim in the history of Western philosophy.

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