Journal of Theological Studies New Series 22 (1961) pp. 273-9

NOTES ON TERTULLIAN'S INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE

I

TERTULLIAN'S attitude to allegorizing forms an interesting and in some ways surprising subject of study. He, of course, knows of the existence of allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures in his day. He glosses the quae sunt allegorica of Galatians iv. 23 with id est aliud portendentia,1 a definition reminiscent of that of Heracleitus in his Quaestiones Homericae 22.2 He acknowledges that two methods of prophesying were used by the prophets of the Old Testament. One of these was the method of direct prevision, and the other was 'per aenigmata et allegorias et parabolas'. But the instances of this last which he gives are mainly of simple metaphor: Joel iii. 18; Exod. iii. 8; Isa. xli. 19, xliii. 20; Eph. v. 3i-32; and Gal. iv. 22-25.3 He has, however, no objection to traditional Christian allegory used with moderation. He allows, for instance, that the holy land promised to the saints in the Old Testament is Christ himself:  'carnem potius domim interpretandam, quae exinde et in omnibus Christum indutis sancta sit terra, vere sancta per incolatum spiritus sancti, vere lac et mel manans per suavitatem spei ipsius, vere Iudaea per fidei [v.l. dei] familiaritatem.'4 This same allegory is already to be found in the Epistle of Barnabas vi. 8 f. and probably in Acts vii. 3-5. It is interesting to note that Tertullian may be here giving us a clue to the custom of administering milk and honey to the newly baptized [p.274] at their first eucharist, evidenced in Hippolytus's Apostolic Tradition. When he is dealing with the Lord's Prayer he interprets 'thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven' to mean 'thy will be done in us', by a process which he calls interpretatione figurata carnis et spiritus, in contrast to simpliciter intelligendum. And he expounds 'give us this day our daily bread' to mean first (spiritaliter) 'give us Christ himself', and then to refer to the bread consecrated in the eucharist.1 There is no sign anywhere in all Tertullian's writings of the influence, so evident in the works of Clement of Alexandria and of Origen, of Philonic allegory.

But though Tertullian is ready to acknowledge as legitimate the practice of allegorizing Scripture in the Church of his day, and will occasionally have recourse to it himself, he often rejects the practice and his writings leave a general impression that he was suspicious of allegory. He describes the heretics' way of interpreting Scripture, which he rejects,2 as allegoriae, parabolae, aenigmata, and he describes Carpocrates's handling of a Dominical saying thus: 'this is the way in which he twists all that allegory of the Lord which radiates reliable meanings and is to be understood literally at least in its first sense.'3  Gnostic allegory impressed him as dangerous more strongly than Christian allegory struck him as felicitous. Several times he recognizes the possibility of allegorizing a passage but prefers instead the literal sense. He contrasts interpretation in allegories et parabolis with interpretation in definitionibus certis et simplicibus.4 Faced with that thorny problem for all Christian, and for many Jewish, expositors, the laws about forbidden food in the Pentateuch, he refrains from allegorizing them: they were intended to ensure self-control and restraint in eating; complicated regulations about sacrifice were intended to prevent the Jews indulging in idolatry; though he is aware of the possibility of writing 'de arcanis significantiis legis, spiritalis scilicet et propheticae et in omnibus paene argumentis figuratae', he does not expound these, and though he hints that there is a figura of the brazen serpent he does not mention what it is.5 But this avoidance of allegorizing is not confined to the work against Marcion (who had affected to eschew allegorizing). In his De Resurrectione Mortuorum Tertullian maintained that it was unnecessary and wrong to allegorize Scriptural references to the resurrection of the dead, which was the device used by the Gnostics to render these references invalid, and he applies to the prophets the phrase 'sollemnissimam eloquii [p.275] prophetici formarn allegorici et figurati plerumque, non semper'.1 He claims that he could argue for corporal resurrection by allegorizing prophecies, but he refuses to do so, in order to leave himself open to take literally the prophetic statements about the resurrection.2  And though he is ready to allegorize the 'white garments' of the martyrs in Revelation to mean their risen bodies,3 he refers contemptuously to 'the mist of allegory'.4  When therefore we find in the Adversus Iudaeos (vii. 6) the statement that though Isa. xlv. 1 , 2 can be taken in a spiritual manner, yet the words also propria specie sunt adimpleta, because so many people now believe in Christ, we are justified in regarding this as a characteristic view of Tertullian, and a sign of his authorship at least to this point of the work.

II

Indeed Tertullian's interpretation of Scripture, where he is not using any and every argument in order to indulge in special pleading, leaves a very favourable impression on the modern reader. Its characteristics are common sense, realism, and restraint. This is particularly true of one of his longest works, the Adversus Marcionem. 'Sed malumus in scripturis minus, si forte, sapere quam contra'5 is a very good exegetical maxim, and one to which Tertullian usually confines himself. He tells us that our Lord's words recorded in Scripture can be interpreted in one of three ways. We immediately recall the literal, moral, and spiritual senses of Origen; but Tertullian intends nothing of the sort: our Lord will himself interpret the parable for us, as in the parable of the sower; or the evangelist will preface the teaching by a preliminary remark, as in the parable of the unjust judge; or the meaning is to be readily discerned from the parable itself, as in the parable of the unfruitful tree.6  He understands, none better, that Christians must accept the embarrassing particularity of the Old Testament revelation:

What is sillier, what more open to criticism, than the demand by God for blood sacrifices and reeking holocausts? What is more open to criticism than the cleansing of vessels and beds? What is more indecent than the additional indignity inflicted on the flesh which is already ashamed? What so base as the promulgation of retaliation? What so despicable as picking and choosing among foods? Every heretic, you need not tell me, laughs at the whole Old Testament. For God chose the foolish things of the world in order to put to shame the wise, &c.7

Perhaps the most remarkable evidence of Tertullian's ability as an [p.276] expounder of the Bible is his insistence that a passage must be taken in its original sense, and interpreted according to the situation in which it was uttered or written. Several examples of this trait could be given. In order to refute the heretics' use of the text 'seek and ye shall find' (Matt. vii. 7), Tertullian divests these words of every reference to the contemporary church and interprets them as a command to the apostles to discover, at that early stage in their discipleship, what Jesus was.1 The command, 'when they persecute you in one city, flee into another' (Matt. x. 23), he refuses to take as a universal command, but he regards it as limited to the apostles and conditioned by the circumstances of its utterance: 'et personas suas habent et tempora et causas',2  and not long afterwards he adds 'omnium iam nunc dominicarum pronuntiationum suae sunt et causae et regulae: termini non in infinitum nec ad omnia spectant'.3  In another work he has some very sensible things to say about the interpretation of our Lord's parables. The psychici (i.e. antiMontanist Catholics) apply the parable of the lost sheep to the erring Christian, allegorizing it thoroughly. Tertullian answers that it applied to people involved in the situation then obtaining, that is, to the Gentiles; 'or how can the Lord be represented as someone scoring debating points (cavillator responsionis) by leaving out the immediate meaning which he ought to emphasize and contriving a meaning referring to the future?'4 A danger for all interpreters of parables, he adds later, is that men are tempted to pull the meaning of them in some other direction than the material of the parable can really afford. It is reminiscent of actors who allegoricos gestus accommodant canticis which are quite alien to the situation, the plot, the scene, and the character, and yet are very appropriate.5  Later still he returns to the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Why a hundred sheep, he asks? And why mention the sweeping of the house? Origen might have answered, because a hundred is a mystic number, the square of ten, and there were ten virgins in the parable and ten commandments, and because the Logos sweeps falsehood from our souls. Tertullian simply says that if it is necessary to explain how welcome is the recovery of one sinner, then a large number of saved must be contrasted with him, and because the actions of a woman looking for money would include the use of a broom. And he adds, speaking of allegorical interpretations of parables: 'fanciful notions of this sort both render some passages uncertain and often by the ingenuity of forced interpretations lead away from the truth. Some things, however, have been stated literally [in the parable] in order [p.277] to support the parable and make it orderly and coherent, so that people may be brought to that point for which the illustration is designed.'1 Here Tertullian's interpretation is neither Alexandrian nor Antiochene. It is simply an example of the working of robust common sense.

 

III

Since Tertullian held these exegetical principles, it is not surprising to find that he does not allegorize the Old Testament law wholesale. We have already seen that he regarded the ritual commandments of the law as designed simply to keep the Jews out of mischief. This is an opinion to be found in several writers before Tertullian's day, notably in Justin Martyr.2 Tertullian can admit that the Old Testament law performed an educative function. Christ, he says, bade us give to him that asketh us, but the law had reached the point of commanding men to return at sundown clothes taken in pledge: 'it was then gradually shaping the faith of some people towards the perfect splendour of Christian discipline by some preliminary demands for a mercifulness which was still a tentative (balbutiensis) one.'3  The law was an immature Gospel or the Gospel in nuce. He explains it thus: 'But even if we do allow a distinction between them, it is a distinction achieved by improvement, by expansion, by progress. Just as the fruit is distinguished from the seed, although the fruit derives from the seed, so the Gospel is distinguished from the law, even while it proceeds from the law, distinct from it but not incompatible with it, different but not opposed.'4

It is clear that Tertullian held that what was permanent or unchanged in the old law was its moral commandments. The Ten Commandments are the prima lex dei, the sanctissima lex.5 This was a law which Christ fulfilled but did not abolish: 'onera enim legis usque ad Iohannem, non remedia. Operum iuga reiecta sunt, non disciplinarum. Libertas in Christo non fecit innocentiae iniuriam.'6  The law which remains is summarized thus: 'Manet lex tota pietatis sanctitatis humanitatis veritatis castitatis iustitiae misericordiae benevolentiae pudicitiae.'7  He apparently imagines that these moral commandments were confined [p.278] to the tables of the first law, the tablets which Moses broke in anger when, having just received them from God, he came down from Sinai only to witness the worship of the golden calf by the people of Israel; Tertullian describes the custom of virgins veiling themselves on the approach of puberty as 'tabellae priores naturalium sponsarum et nuptiarum'.1 He does not directly tell us what were the contents of the second tablets, produced after the destruction of the first, though it looks as if he thought that they contained the ritual and sacrificial enactments, designed for the temporary function of keeping the Jews under the old dispensation out of mischief. When therefore we find the argument advanced in Adversus ludaeos, ii. 1-14, that the law given through Moses was not the first law but that God gave to Adam in paradise a lex primordialis consisting of the double commandment to love God and to love his neighbour and the moral commandments of the Decalogue, and that this was observed by the patriarchs before Abraham and was known to all men descended from Adam all over the world, we can recognize this teaching as consistent with Tertullian's views and accept it as a slight confirmation of the hypothesis that he was in fact the author of at least the first part of this work.

This attitude to the old law did not, however, prevent Tertullian from approving of at least one entirely ritual observance, the refusal to eat flesh from which the blood had not been drained. He tells us that, so far from eating infants' blood, Christians abstain even from'animals which have been strangled or have died of themselves in case we should be contaminated even by the blood which is stored in the flesh', and that at their trials Christians are offered sausages filled with blood because it is known that Christians will not eat such things.2 And he believes that among the original commands made to mankind and confirmed or revived in Christ were 'libertas ciborum et sanguinis solius abstinentia'.3  He betrays the fact also that some Catholic Christians of his day were in the habit of observing the Jewish Sabbath.4

Hitherto we have had much reason to respect and even to agree with Tertullian's handling of the place of the law of the Old Testament in the life of the Christian. It may not have been original or brilliant, but it [p.279] was founded on good sense and good feeling. Unfortunately, Tertullian did make one innovation in his treatment of this subject, and that a deplorable one. Having virtually removed the burden of a legalistic Old Testament religion, he introduced a legalistic New Testament one. Some people, he says, think that Christians have nothing to do with law. He agrees that the burdens of the law which even the fathers of old could not bear should be dispensed with: 'but the matters which concern righteousness not only remain unimpaired but are even expanded, in order of course that our righteousness may exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. If righteousness, then also modesty.'1  A little later he is writing 'Nunc ad legem proprie nostram, id est evangelium, conversi.'2  And finally he argues that the old law allowed a woman to marry again after her husband's death; Christians have died to the law and are no longer bound by it; therefore they are forbidden to marry after their first partner's death.3  It is characteristic of Tertullian that by far the longest chapter in his book on the Lord's Prayer should be the twenty-second in which he deals with the insignificant question of whether virgins should be veiled during public prayer. He cheerfully converts into a legal code of behaviour for Christians the sayings of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount about lusting after a woman and nursing anger in the heart.4  He decides the question of whether Christians can be soldiers simply on one word of Christ, his telling Peter to put up his sword, disregarding all other evidence.5  He rejects the law of Levirate marriage, as superseded in Christ, but allows the condemnation of marriage with foreigners under the old law to apply to Christians marrying pagans.6  He maintains that though Jewish feasts and fasts and ceremonies are abrogated, yet all the more are nova sollemnia instituted by Christ. These are (for anti-Montanist Catholic Christians, anyway) the observance of Easter, the observance of fifty days after this as a joyous festival, and the consecration of the fourth and sixth day of the week to fasts.7 And he believes that Joel (i. 14) foretold that the apostles and (Montanist) prophets would sanction fasting and 'observances reverencing God'.8  The tendency to turn Christianity into a baptized Judaism, observable in many aspects of the life and the thought of the third-century church, finds its earliest exponent in Tertullian.


 

Notes to p.273:
1.  Adv. Marcionem, v. 4. 8.  In every case except two I have used the text of Tertullian printed in the series Corpus Ckristianorum (Turnhout, 1954). The two exceptions are T. R. Glover's edition of the Apologeticus (Loeb Classics, London, 1931) and J. N. Bakhuyzen van den Brink's edition of the Adversus Praxean in the series Scriptores Christiani Primaevi (The Hague, 1946).
2.  o gar alla men agoreuwn tropoV, etera de vn legei shmainwn epwnumwV allhgoria kaleitai.
3.  Adv. Marcionem, iii. 5 . 2, 3;  cp. v. 6. 1 and 5.
4.  De Resurr. Mort. xxvi. 11.

Notes to p.274:
1 De Oratione, iv. 1. and vi. 2.
2 Scorpiace, xi. 4.  
3 De Anima, xxxv. 2.
4 Adv. Praxean, xiii. Cp. Adv. Hermogenem, xxxiv. 3.
5 Adv. Marcionem, ii. 18. 2, 3 ; 19. 1 ; 22. 1 , 2, 3.

Notes to p.275
1 De Resurr. Mort. xix. 2 and xx. 
2 Ibid. xxvi. 1 .
3 Ibid. xxvii. i. 
4 Ibid. xxviii. 5. 
5 De Pudicitia, ix. 22.
6 De Resurr. Mort. xxxiii. 5. 
7 Adv. Marcionem, v. 5. 10.

Notes to p.276
1 De Praescr. Haer. viii. 1-4. 
2 De Fuga in Persec. vi. 1.
3 Ibid. xiii. 2. 
4 De Pudicitia, vii. 3. 
5 Ibid. viii. 10, 11 .

Notes to p.277
1  Ibid. ix. 2, 3.
2  For other early views of the significance of the Jewish law see my Allegory and Event, pp. 289-97. Tertullian does, of course, as has already been indicated, admit within limits the predictive function of the law. See (e.g.) De Monogamia, vi. 3.
3  Adv. Marcionem, iv. 17. 2.
4  Ibid. iv. I I. i 1. Cp. Melito, Homily on the Passion (ed. Bonner), 40, 42 f., 44 f., p. 113.
De Pudicitia, v. 1, 5. 
6  Ibid. vi. 3. 
7  Ibid. vi. 4.

Notes to p.278
1.  De Virg. Vel. xii. 1 ; cp. De Corona, iv. 1-3.
2.  Apologeticus, ix. 13. This was in fact quite a widespread, though not widely publicized, custom among Christians in the second century. See Minucius Felix, Octavius, xxx. 6; Eusebius, H.E. v. 1. . 26.
3.  De Monog. v. 3.
4.  De leiun. adv. Psych. xiv. 3. This too was a fairly widespread custom even outside North Africa in Tertullian's day. See Origen, Hom. on Jeremiah, xii. 13, and C. w. Dugmore, The Influence of the Synagogue upon the Divine Office, pp. 29-36.

Notes to p.279
1.  De Monog. vii. 1, 2 . 
2.  Ibid. viii. 1.  
3.  Ibid. xiii. 3.
4.  De Idol. ii. 3. 
5.  Ibid. xix. 1-3. 
6.  De Monog. vii. 5.
7.  De leiun. adv. Psych. xiv. 1, 2. 
8.  Ibid. xvi. 4.


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