Monday, April 13, 2015

Tertullian: Lawyer Theologican of North Africa by Chris White


 Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullian  (160-225 AD) became a Christian at age 37 but left no record for posterity of how his conversion came about. Many believe he was moved by the testimony of the many Christian martyrs he witnessed in North Africa.  It was him who said "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church" meaning that Roman persecution was supposed to destroy the church but often had the opposite effect and instead was a powerful inspiration to the world that the gospel was so true that believers were willing to die for it.  And so, whatever the actual cause of Tertullian's conversion, his writings indicate his in particular was both sudden and decisive.

Tertullian was a Carthaginian by birth and it seems his entire life, with the exception of a brief period in Rome where he was a lawyer, is centered in Roman North Africa (modern day Tunisia).  What little we know about his background is that his father was a Roman centurion and this comes from the historian Eusebius and Saint Jerome.
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His ministry for which he is known as a "church father" was that of an apologist (or defender of the faith) and a polemicist (one who defends a point of view within the Christian community).  Some believe he was a priest for a period of time which sheds some light on the fact that in the early church priests were certainly allowed to have wives.  We know that two of Tertullian's many books were actually dedicated to his wife.

As a "church father" Tertullian is known for his outspoken and critical viewpoints.  He had great clarity on many doctrinal and moral issues but also was prone to be rigid and some might say even judgmental.  After a time he left the Catholic fold, apparently because he felt they were not 'Christian' enough and joined a sect known as the Montanists.  In time, they too, were not Christian enough and so he abandoned them and formed his own group called the "Tertullianists".  Although there is scant evidence to prove it, St. Augustine claims that in the end, Tertullian came back to the Catholic church before he died.  In point of fact, he was never considered for sainthood, as many of the other fathers were, but he is universally considered the father of Latin or Western theology because his writings were so influential on both St. Cyprian and St. Augustine.

In a time of persecution, Tertullian writes to the Roman authorities: “We are but of yesterday (Christianity was a fairly new movement at the time), but we have filled every place among you---cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum---we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.” Tertullian stated that Christians should be tolerated because they were the best citizens and were no threat to the Empire because of their strong scriptural ethic of obedience to government as appointed by God.

Tertullian also argued for complete separation from the pagan culture in the area of theater, gladiator games, banquets and the like.  Such things were incompatible with the Christian faith.  The North African tradition in the Church was ultra strict moral codes.  In general they were quite austere and disciplined in their personal life and expected all in the Church to agree.  There were not a lot of gray areas concerning matters of preference or amusement.  This certainly stands in sharp contrast to our day where many Christians are entirely too engaged with the secular culture.

Tertullian obviously would have a very difficult time living in today’s Church.  Theater was absolutely incompatible with all that was of God and developing human virtue.  He saw immorality on the stage and called it utterly godless and believed Christians should shield their eyes from such things.  Married women were to put away all fancy jewelry and precious stones and dress modestly and simply.  A single woman was to be completely veiled in public.  Second marriages were considered a form of adultery.  He was a man of extreme moral standards but he also is known to have had a lifestyle that reflected this.  On balance, he was a later in life convert and had indulged in many of the sins of his culture.  He was not prudish, but saw things as they were in Roman society and was not impressed.

Theologically, Tertullian was a strong proponent of the idea that God is the same in the Old Testament as the New Testament. Christ was the fulfillment of all messianic prophecy and the Church alone carried on the legitimate faith of the Apostles.  His view has shaped Bible interpretation ever since making the Old Testament an extended introduction to the New Testament and not seeing it as something incompatible with the faith of the Cross.

Tertullian was not much into interfaith dialogue: “You will lose nothing but your breath and gain nothing but vexation from their blasphemy.”  He also viewed efforts to harmonize Christianity with philosophy (as was popular in his day) as wrong-headed.  "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" was his statement on this subject.  In contradistinction to many others before and after him, Tertullian didn't look at Plato and Aristotle as Greek forerunners of the gospel, but forerunners of many pagan heresies that infected the church.

A site with all things "Tertullian"

Tertullian himself developed his theology in the same ad hoc tradition of the apostles.  He was less inclined to speculate about the mysteries of God and more interested in applying the faith to the issues facing the church in the here and now.  Some have thought him to have a streak of anti-intellectualism but nothing could be further from the truth.  His writings indicate a broad awareness of the philosophical and theological issues of his day, he just was not enamored with philosophy and secular wisdom.  Tertullian did love a good argument, especially with heretics, and this is what makes his writing and points lively and engaging even today.

Many of Tertullian's theological viewpoints are widely held today.  For example on the origin of the human soul, he held the Traducianist idea that human souls are neither pre-existent or a completely new creation by God, but rather the human soul is generated from Adam through the natural process of human generation.

Regarding Original Sin, because the soul proceeds from your natural parents, it is born fallen and is actually in bondage to Satan.  That said, he held that there was an innate goodness and naturally Christian soul in everyone that remains asleep until it is reawakened by the Gospel and comes to spiritual health.  This view tends to be far more optimistic than what many statements in the New Testament would allow from my perspective, but nonetheless, it is held in some parts of the universal church.

A short video on the Life of Tertullian

Probably what Tertullian should be best known for is his very early formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.  Although this doctrine would receive further refinement in later theologians and Church councils, Tertullian provided an early enunciation that the Godhead was three persons with one substance.  Obviously more needed to be said, but it's existence shows that sects which malign this doctrine as a much later innovation in the Christian faith are wrong.  It, in fact, was a very early doctrine.
Icon of the Trinity

Tertullian had very strong views about baptism including a complete rejection of infant baptism which was widely practiced by the ancient church.  His thought is that the redemption of the Cross only became efficacious to an individual through adult water baptism.  Of course this viewpoint feeds the idea that the grace of God is only received by sacramental works, but this was a development in a later time.  Tertullian, like other Christians of his time period, struggled with the issue of post-baptismal sin.  Specifically, they wondered how believers could be right with a holy God having sinned after leaving the purifying waters of baptism where all sins were once washed away?  For some Christians the solution was quite simple.  They would postpone their baptism until they were on their deathbed.  A smart solution in some regards because if you are on your deathbed, you probably aren't going to commit too many sins afterwards.  Of course this is risky behavior in the sense that death comes without prior notice to many people and so there might not be an opportunity for a last-minute baptism.
Early baptistries often looked like crosses

In this vein, Tertullian and others believed that sins committed after baptism could be regularly atoned for by works of penance where godly sorrow was expressed to the church for having sinned after baptism and then efforts were made by the repentant to do good works which would 'counter-act' the effect of the sin.  Tertullian took this even further suggesting that in some cases a person might have sinned so grievously that the safest course of action was to receive what is called a 'baptism of blood'.   This idea comes from Christ's words in Luke 12:50 where he speaks of going to Jerusalem to die on the cross as a baptism.  In this case, Tertullian is suggesting that post-baptismal sin could be atoned for by the shedding of your own blood by offering oneself to martyrdom.  It is odd that it didn't occur to him that Christ's death on the cross was efficacious to cover all sins past, present, and future, but every generation of the church has its points of insight and blindness, including our own.

The New Prophecy

Finally, Tertullian had a very high view of Scripture in his writings.  He believed they were the authoritative tradition handed down by the Church.  The Gospels especially have full apostolic authority.  The Old Testament prophets because of their ancient origins and their proven authority by fulfilled prophecy are superior to all other philosophies and religions.  Where Tertullian differs from the long standing orthodoxy of the church is that he believed the Holy Spirit was continuing to speak with authoritative revelation to the church after the close of the canon.  In this regard, he may be forgiven because though he lived after the last of the apostolic books were composed, he lived long before the canon was fixed in the 4th century.  This viewpoint is largely a result of his engagement with a sect known as "the New Prophecy" or more commonly the Montanists.  This group was led by a man named Montanus who claimed to be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit and two women who were his prophetesses.  They were claiming to be receiving new information from God that was actually contrary to the explicit statements of scripture.  This is not just an issue regarding a viewpoint of prophecy, but one of theology proper.  Would God speak in such a way as to be inconsistent with what He spoke in earlier times?
The Holy Spirit speaks primarily through the Apostles

The long view of this issue is that the Holy Spirit does speak to the Church in every generation and time, but it is in concord with what He has already spoken by the Apostles and Prophets who wrote the scriptures.  Although the Montanists were discredited by the church at large in their own time, it is a mistake that occurred at other times in the history of the church.  In our day a couple of well-known varieties of this error are found in the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Latter Day Saints.

Many have attacked Tertullian’s orthodoxy because of his association with the Montanists and his supposed anti-intellectualism.  In some regards this is not without warrant.  But on balance, Tertullian was a pioneer theologian and a man with deep passion for the truth and the Lord of that truth.  Like all those who gone before us, we must learn from both their insights and mistakes and trust that God has the ability to use both for the building up of his church. 

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