The bibliographical sources in some of my research led me to an interesting figure in church history. He is Epiphanius, the fourth-century bishop of Salamis, recognized as a Church Father by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. He is known for his defense of orthodoxy in a volume called the Panarion, translated as Medicine Chest Against Heresies. I tracked three sources that explore his work and approach, and I'll quote from two of them in this post.
Thomas J. Whitley in his essay "Poison in the Panarion: Beasts, Heretics, and Sexual Deviants" from Vigiliae Christianae (Volume 70 from 2016, pages 1-22), tells us that the Panarion lists "eighty different heresies" which Epiphanius compares to various "wild animals or snakes." In addition to his use of poisonous beasts, the bishop also accuses his theological foes of sexual deviance. Indeed, he connects the two, alleging a "bond between heretical teachings and sexual licentiousness. In so doing the bishop "combined a rhetoric of poison with a rhetoric of sexual slander to produce a new way of thinking about, and creating, theological difference." Epiphanius lists the various sects and teachings along with their animal comparison as warnings of sources of poison and infection for the body of the church, and then positions his Medicine Chest as the antidote.
It should be noted that by using his rhetorical approach Epiphanius is classifying his theological opponents "as other than normal, other than human." As he would have the reader understand it, these [b]easts have no theological or moral compass." Joseph Verheyden in his article "Epiphanius of Salamis on Beasts and Heretics: Some Introductory Comments" from the Journal of Eastern Christian Studies (Volume 60, 1-4, pages 143-173), explains why the bishop used this approach. In his view, it had a "powerful effect" on the human emotions involved. Using this imagery of dangerous beasts would capture the imagination of readers through fear.
What are we to make of this approach? On the one hand the idea that the church is a physical body is echoed in the words of the Apostle Paul with his imagery of a body and members as various parts each working together as part of a greater whole. Paul and other New Testament authors are concerned about the health of the body, and false teachings were a challenge. The defense of the faith would also seem legitimate, as the oft-cited passage in 1 Peter indicates where we are called to "give to everyone who asks of you a reason for the hope within you" (3:15).
But there are also reasons to be concerned about the approach of Epiphanius. In the title to this post I refer to it as an "ancient-future apologetic," because this apologetic from years past in the church reminds me of a 20th and 21st century approach to theological difference in relation to "religious others" popularized by the late Walter Martin in his Kingdom of the Cults. You can read my critical assessment of Martin's approach to heresy here. I wonder to what extent Epiphanius helped put forward something of a template that later Christian heresiologists like Martin would pick up and popularize for a new audience.
Then there is the question of comparing theological opponents to snakes and other poisonous creatures. True, Jesus uses the metaphor of a brood of vipers (Matthew 12:34) in reference to the Jewish religious leaders of his day, but he was drawing upon the tradition of Jewish prophets and speaking as Messiah in critique of an abuse of power within Second Temple Judaism. Does this justify the use of language that can be construed as dehumanizing for all theological opponents by the church? This approach seems to come close to what Myron Penner has called "apologetic violence," or in my preferred terminology, "predatory apologetics." Penner defines this "apologetic arguments [that] are used to treat people badly...When they are used to demean, ridicule, show-up, or hurt another person in any way, I call that a form of violence."
Surely there must be a way in which Christians can witness to their faith and defend it when necessary that avoids the dehumanization of others. In my view the approach of Epiphanius seems difficult to square with the Apostle Peter's instruction to engage others "with gentleness and respect." It is important to recognize our differences and contrast the gospel and a Christian worldview with contemporary alternatives, but how we go about doing this in a Christ-like way in our post-Christendom and pluralistic context is one of the leading challenges of contemporary discipleship.