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THE PLACE OF TERTULLIAN IN THE HISTORY OF THEOLOGY

The position of Christian doctrine—The influence of Gnosticism—Irenaeus and the Rule of Truth—The lex fidei: its threefold statement—The canon of Scripture—The services of Tertullian in relation thereto—Quotation—Relation to the Rule of Faith.   Reserve or ‘Oikonomia’—Allegorical method—Changing attitude—Valentinianism—Marcion—Montanism—Monarchianism.

TERTULLIAN belongs to that period in the history of Christianity when it was developing doctrinally into a defender of the ‘Rule of Faith,’ when the Scriptures were in process of being formed into a select body of writings, when the episcopal office was assuming importance as an ecclesiastical function, when the reaction which is associated with the name of Montanus was being felt, when the Monarchian controversy was agitating the Church, and when Greek philosophy and Christianity were in process of gradual fusion.

In such a period Tertullian played an important part. He rendered great service as a defender of the ‘Rule of Faith’ against Gnosticism and Marcionitism; he assisted in establishing the authority of the writings of the New Testament, and in indicating the principles of interpretation; the episcopal office was both lauded and derided by him, in his earlier and his later days; in the Montanist reaction he was a leading figure; and in the clash between Greek philosophy and Christianity, which resulted in the assimilation by the latter of all that was best in the former, his services were valuable.

Towards the middle of the second century an interesting stage in the formulation of Christian doctrine had been reached. It was no longer sufficient or safe to proceed without some definite statement of what Christians believed. Hence the baptismal confession of belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit assumed a new significance. It became, not simply the formula, |p14 confession of which was a necessary preliminary to the acceptance into the Christian community of the would-be Christian, but the embodiment of the doctrine handed down from Christ and the Apostles. In the Roman Church certainly, and in other churches probably, the baptismal confession thus became the statement of the creed of the Church. But a further necessity arose of defining what that creed meant. Of what explanations was it susceptible? Which of those explanations was correct? Hence the question of the interpretation of the creed was of the utmost importance.

The Gnostic movement was of great significance, in that it forced the Christian Church to determine and to define what its own beliefs were. By introducing a cosmogony and a theology which claimed to be compatible with the Christian religion, Valentinus and Marcion in particular made it imperative that the leaders of Christian thought should face the problem of deciding what were the doctrines which were based upon that authority.

In the task of confuting the doctrines of Valentinus and Marcion, and of defending the beliefs of the Christian Church, Tertullian took a leading part. Irenaeus had already taken his stand in declaring what the Christian Church believed. He held that the truths expressed in the Roman baptismal confession were the Rule of Truth of the Church. They were derived from the apostles, and had been held as the faith of Christians ever since. They included belief in the ‘unity of God; the identity of the supreme God with the Creator; the identity of the supreme God with the God of the Old Testament; the unity of Jesus Christ as the Son of the God who created the world; the essential divinity of Christ; the incarnation of the Son of God; the prediction of the entire history of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament; the reality of that history; the bodily reception of Christ into heaven; the visible return of Christ; the resurrection of all flesh; the universal judgement.’ 1

Tertullian adopted virtually the same position, save that he employed the name ‘ the Rule of Faith’ to indicate the content of the Christian belief. He has given that ‘Rule of Faith’ in three places, which may here be quoted for the sake of comparison and comment. |p15

De Praescriptione Haereticorum, c. 13: The Rule of Faith is ‘that which prescribed the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in divers manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then), having ascended into the heavens, He sat down at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the power of the Holy Ghost, to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh.’

De Virginibus Velandis, c. 2 : ‘The Rule of Faith, indeed, is altogether one, alone immovable and irreformable, the rule, to wit, of believing in one only God omnipotent, the Creator of the universe, and His Son Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised again the third day from the dead, received in the heavens, sitting now at the right (hand) of the Father, destined to come to judge quick and dead through the resurrection of the flesh as well (as of the spirit).

Adversus Praxean, c. 2: ‘We, however, as indeed we always have done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all the truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oi)konomi/a, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made and without whom nothing was made. Him (we believe) to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her . . . being both man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; (we believe) Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised by the Father |p16 and taken back to heaven to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, (and) that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the Sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’

A comparison of these three statements and their context prompts the following observations:

(1) Tertullian claims that this Rule of Faith has ‘come down to us from the beginning’ (Adv. Prax., 2), that it is ‘constant,’ ‘immovable and irreformable’ (De Virg. Vel., 1), and was ‘taught by Christ’ (De Praes. Haer., 13); and yet, even by his own statement of the Rule of Faith at different times, it is evident that it varies, not only in form, but in content. According to one statement (De Praes. Haer.), God is omnipotent; from the other statements this attribute is omitted. Two of the statements (De Virg. Vel., De Praes. Haer.) say that He is the Creator, but one of them (De Praes. Haer.) states that He produced all things out of nothing, while the other omits this point. The third (Adv. Prax.) attributes the creation of the universe entirely to the Son. Again, one only (De Praes. Haer.) states that Jesus Christ ‘preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven and worked miracles,’ while one (Adv. Prax.) introduces the oi)konomi/a of God and the Paraclete, ‘the Sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’

(2) They include some additions to the Rule of Truth as it is stated by Irenaeus. These are: (a) The universe was created out of nothing; (b) The preaching by Christ of the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven; (c) The Logos, or Word, was first of all sent forth before all things were created, and was the Agent of the Father in the work of creation; (d) The oi)konomi/a of God; and (e) the Paraclete.

(3) Hence we conclude that the Rule of Faith was not as ‘constant,’ and ‘immovable and irreformable,’ as Tertullian would have us suppose. In regard to some of the central truths—such, for instance, as those found in the brief statement in De Virginibus Velandis, the substance is common to Tertullian and earlier Apologists. But Tertullian did not  |p17 hesitate to import into it whatever was necessary to refute the views of heretics or to convey his own opinions. Thus against Hermogenes he introduces the statement that God made the universe out of nothing, and against Praxeas he introduces the statement that God must be believed to be one, but, according to His oi)konomi/a, while, in confirmation of his theory of the Paraclete, he inserts after ‘and in the Holy Ghost’ the addition: ‘the Paraclete, the Sanctifier of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’

Thus, as far as the Rule of Faith is concerned, Tertullian adopted it in essentials from his predecessors, but he added to it, the chief additions being the priority of the Son to all creatures, and His agency in the work of creation, and the qualification of the assertion of the Unity of God by the introduction of the notion of the divine oi)konomi/a.

About the middle of the second century the canon of Scripture was in an interesting state. Earlier, the Scriptures were the Old Testament, and even the four Gospels were not yet invested with canonical authority. To the Old Testament were added the words of Christ and the teaching of Christian prophets. But the conflict with Gnosticism led to the formation of a canon of writings which could be authenticated as apostolical, and to which appeal could be made. The question became acute as a result of the fact that there were writings which claimed to be apostolical and to which the Gnostics appealed. The defenders of the Christian faith, therefore, were driven to make the claim that they alone had apostolic writings, and which those writings were had to be decided. They came to the conclusion that they were those which were habitually read in the churches, and which ecclesiastical tradition ascribed to the apostles. Further, they could only accept those whose teaching was in accord with the Rule of Faith.

We have no direct evidence of the detailed growth of the canon of the New Testament, but in Tertullian we find that it is already fixed, and he takes up the attitude that none but Christians have any right to appeal to the Christian Scriptures in support of their teaching. This is the teaching of his treatise De Praescriptione Haereticorum.

The services which Tertullian rendered in this direction are  |p18 not at all comparable with those of Origen. He complained that the heretics were corrupting the text of Scripture to suit their own ends, but he did nothing in the way of criticism of the text to establish the true readings. Possibly the situation was not so acute in the West at this time as it became soon after in the East. But the fact that Tertullian complains of the corruption of the text shows the direction in which things were trending. He is content, however, to aver that the Christian Church has the correct text. He also complained that the heretics were appealing to writings which were not legitimate sources of truth, but he does not state which writings are legitimate and which are not. He does, however, indicate by his quotations which writings were accepted by the Church in his time.

Positively, his contribution to the discussion of the place and authority of the Scriptures may be summed up under five heads:

(1) His quotation of Scripture is profuse. He quotes or refers to all the books of our Old Testament except Ruth, Ezra, Obadiah, and Zephaniah, and all the books of our New Testament, while of the Apocryphal books he quotes the Book of Wisdom, 2 Esdras, I Maccabees, Tobit, Baruch, and Bel and the Dragon.

(2) He maintained that appeal should be made, not to the Scriptures, but to the Rule of Faith. Tradition, which was handed down from Christ through the apostles and the Churches, provided the test by which even the Scriptures were to be tried. In pursuance of this idea, Tertullian forbade the heretics the use of the Scriptures. The Church alone knew what the Scriptures meant, and alone had the right to use them in argument.  But the Rule of Faith and the Scriptures are in perfect harmony. ‘Now what is there in our Scriptures which is contrary to us?’  ‘What we are ourselves, that also the Scriptures are from the beginning’ (De Praes. Haer., 38).

(3) He opposed the doctrine of ‘Reserve,’ or oi)konomi/a, according to which Christ taught the apostles secret doctrines which were not revealed to ordinary Christians. He rebutted this idea of the Gnostics by expounding the texts upon which it was based, i.e. 2 Cor. xii. 4; 1 Tim. vi. 20; and 2 Tim. i. 14. These texts do not support the idea of the Gnostics, of a secret doctrine, and the apostles taught the whole truth to the  |p19  whole Church. ‘Openly did the Lord speak, without any intimation of a hidden mystery,’2 As for the apostles, they in their Epistles ‘besought men that they would speak one and the same thing, and that there should be no divisions and dissensions in the Church, seeing that they, whether Paul or others, preached the same things.’ 3

(4) He used the allegorical method of interpretation, e.g. ‘There is one flesh of man (that is, servants of God but really human), another flesh of beasts (that is, the heathen of whom the prophet actually says “Man is like the senseless cattle”), another flesh of birds (that is, martyrs who essay to mount up to heaven), another of fishes (that is, those whom the water of baptism has submerged)’ (De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 52). The prayer for daily bread is to be understood spiritually: ‘For Christ is our Bread, because Christ is life and bread is life . . . and so in petitioning for daily bread we ask for perpetuity in Christ and indivisibility from His body’ (De Oratione, c. 6). The first Psalm is not only a description of a just man of old, it is an interdicting of the shows, for ‘divine Scripture has ever far-reaching applications; after the immediate sense has been exhausted in all directions, it fortifies the practice of the religious life, so that here also you have an utterance which is not far from a plain interdicting of the shows’ (De Spect., c. 3 ; cf. also Adv. Marc., II. 19, 21, 22, III. 5,6, 14., 19, V.1).

But Tertullian does not emphasize the difference between the plain and the figurative sense of Scripture, and certainly is no supporter of the idea that there are different meanings of Scripture for different classes of men, after the manner of the Gnostics and the Alexandrian theologians. Whatever is plain narrative is such for all men, and where a figurative meaning is to be discovered it is open to all.

(5) His attitude towards the Scriptures underwent a change. In his earliest writings Scripture proof is deemed so necessary that he wrests a passage to support his theme (De Spect., 3). A little later the voice of the Spirit is sufficient without the support of the written word (De Idololatria, c. 4). 4 In De Praescriptione Haereticorum the Scriptures are overshadowed |p20 by the Rule of Faith. By the time that De Corona Militis was written the sufficiency of custom where Scripture proof fails is affirmed, while at the close of his life he became so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the New Prophecy that him it constitutes a new and final authority, whose relation to the Scriptures he has not clearly set forth.

It remains briefly to outline the attitude of Tertullian towards three movements of his time—Gnosticism, Montanism, and Monarchianism.

Gnosticism was largely the outcome of the endeavour men of a philosophic turn of mind to blend the Christian revelation with Oriental speculation in order to build up a religious philosophy of life. Despite its apparently fantastic speculations, and the ultimately immoral conclusions of some of its teaching, it was an honest attempt to solve the problem of evil and its relation to God. It took a variety of forms which defy clear classification. The two exponents of Gnosticism whom Tertullian set himself to oppose chiefly were Valentinus and Marcion.

Against the followers of Valentinus he wrote a special treatise.5 He says that they have fabricated their theories out of Scripture, but are most difficult to engage in argument, because they either assume an air of ignorance or affirm that they entirely agree with their opponents. They, however, brand the Christians as simple folk, as though wisdom could not co-exist with simplicity. Tertullian then exposes the absurdity of their doctrines, believing that that method in itself is enough to discredit them. In so doing he follows, as he says, Justin, Miltiades, Irenaeus, and Proculus. He enumerates the aeons and emanations of this theory, and indulges in much raillery at their expense. The conception of the Demiurge, the travesty of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the three natures of man (spiritual, psychical, material), the resulting confusion of moral values, and the Judgement, are subjects for Tertullian’s mirth, satire, and denunciation. He concludes with a few short chapters dealing with the varieties in doctrine among the followers of Valentinus.

Against Marcion he composed five books.6 The main point in the theory of Marcion was that the God of the Old Testament was not the God represented in the New Testament. |p21  The God of the Old Testament was just, but he was not good. Tertullian’s first book against Marcion was directed against this ‘God’ of Marcion. He maintains that there can be only one supreme God, and then exposes the contradictions and absurdities in which Marcion’s theory involves him. He also shows the danger to morality and religion attaching to such a doctrine.

In Book II. Tertullian makes the point that the Creator, the Demiurge, whom Marcion belittles, is none other than the true God, and is identical with the God of the New Testament. In Book III. he proves that Christ is the Son of God, that He was the Agent of God in Creation, that He was foretold by the prophets, and that He became incarnate. Book IV. continues the argument concerning Christ, and is based upon the third Gospel, which was the only one whose genuineness was acknowledged by Marcion. Book V. carries the argument further by showing that the Epistles of Paul, so far from supporting Marcion, as the latter claimed, are entirely on the other side. Paul’s God is the God of the Old Testament.

The importance of Tertullian’s combat with Marcion, however, does not lie so much in the discrediting of the arguments of the latter as in the fact that from the impetus which it gave to his mind he was led to state with clearness the Christian position, and to work out in various directions the implications of the doctrines held in the Church.

The movement associated with the name of Montanus owes its importance in the first place, as Harnack shows, to the fact that it coincided with a reaction among the Phrygian Christians against the generally accepted ecclesiastical position, and in favour of a return to the primitive apostolic Christianity; and, in the second place, to the fact noted by Neander that it won the support of Tertullian. It originated with Montanus, but his character and abilities were not such as to give it much weight. The principle, however, that underlay his teaching was one of far-reaching importance. Briefly stated, the principle was that the continuance of the prophetic spirit in the Church to the time of Montanus was maintained. The Christian Church was settling down to the conviction that revelation was a thing of the past. The Scriptures were closed, and the work of the Church in regard to them was one of interpretation merely. The Church was an organization with |p22 traditions, but with no creative power, and it was hardening into a definite mould. Against this state of things the Phrygian Church in particular was revolting. It stood for the belief in the free operation of the Spirit; and in the Montanist movement, with its doctrine of the Paraclete, and the emergence of a new order of prophets, it found an opportunity of giving expression to its own convictions.

With Tertullian himself it was very much the same. The growing hierarchical spirit of the Church was uncongenial to his nature. The free creative spirit of the Montanist movement appealed strongly to him, and as the years went by the breach between him and the mother Church grew wider. He said nothing of the extravagant claims of Montanus, but gave himself with unstinted ardour to the movement. For a long time the two tendencies, so opposite in their direction, were found side by side in him. He strove hard to reconcile them, but, though he went over ultimately to the Phrygian sect, and yet never forsook the general teaching of the Church on important doctrines, he failed in the end to reconcile them, and his latest writings show this failure.

Monarchianism developed in opposition to Gnosticism, and in its inception was an orthodox movement. The teaching of the Gnostics imperilled the doctrine of the unity of God. Hence the need arose for defending that doctrine, and the simpler folk in particular were led to emphasize their belief in the monarxi/a, or sole sovereignty of God. But it was soon evident that such emphasis was likely to react in turn against the belief in the true divinity of Christ. When the attempt was made to solve the problem of how to relate the unity of God with the divinity of Christ, a diversity of opinion arose. Some upheld the divinity of Christ, but reduced His person to no more than a mode of existence of the Father. Others upheld the divinity of Christ, but made it a divinity of power only. The former are known as modalistic Monarchians, the latter dynamic Monarchians. The one whom Tertullian found it necessary to oppose belonged to the former class.

Praxeas would have been odious to Tertullian in any case, since he was an opponent of the Montanists. He further aroused the ire of Tertullian by his Monarchian teaching. ‘He did two things for the devil at Rome,’ said Tertullian. |p23 ‘He drove out prophecy and introduced heresy, put to flight the Paraclete and crucified the Father.’ 7

Against this man and his teaching Tertullian wrote a treatise, in which he set forth the relation of the Son to the Father. He maintained that God is to be thought of as one, but in connexion with His own economy, and so Tertullian developed his doctrine of the Trinity. Tertullian was the first to apply the term ‘Trinitas’ to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,8 and his doctrine is a remarkable foreshadowing of the orthodox position reached at the Council of Nicaea. It has some crudities, and is in some respects less carefully stated than the later doctrine of the Church, but it is so complete a statement of the doctrine that it is difficult to realize that Tertullian belongs to the end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries.

 

 

Notes on chapter have been placed here because of the change of format from page to HTML.

1. p. 14 n. 1 Harnack, vol. ii., p. 29, English translation.

2. p.19 n.1 De Praes. Haer., 26.      

3. p.19 n. 2 Ibid.

4. p.19 n. 3 ’ Why recall anything more from the Scriptures? As if . . . the voice of the Holy Spirit were not sufficient.’

5. p.20 n. 1 Adversus Valentinianos.

6. p.20 n. 2 Adversus Marcionem I., II., III., IV., V.

7. p.23 n.1 Adversus Praxean, I.

8. p.23 n.2 Theophilus had used the term ‘Triad’ (tria&doj), but the Triad of which he speaks is ‘God, and His Word, and His Wisdom ‘—‘ In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries are types of the Trinity (tria&doj), of God, and His Word, and His Wisdom.’ (Ad Autolycum, c. 15).

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This document ( last modified 14th July 2001) from the Tertullian Project.
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