The Teachers of the Church: Tertullian of Carthage (Part 2)

The History of Christianity #50

Our Scripture verse today is James 1:18 which reads: “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

Our quote today is from Tertullian of Carthage. He said: “The first reaction to truth is hatred.”

Today, we are looking at “The Teachers of the Church” (Part 7) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Tertullian of Carthage (Part 2)

In order to show that scripture belongs to the church, it suffices to look at the various ancient churches where scripture has been read and interpreted in a consistent manner since the days of the apostles. Rome, for instance, can point to an uninterrupted line of bishops joining the present time – the late second century – to the apostles Peter and Paul. And the same is true of the church in Antioch as well as of several others. All of these apostolic churches agree in their use and interpretation of scripture. Furthermore, by virtue of their very origin the writings of the apostles belong to the apostolic churches.

Since scripture belongs to the churches which are the heirs to the apostles, the heretics have no right to base their arguments on it. Here Tertullian uses the term prescription in the other sense. Since heretics have no right to interpret scripture, any argument with them regarding such interpretation is out of place. The church, as the rightful owner of scripture, is the only one that has the right to interpret it.

This argument against the heretics has repeatedly been used against various dissidents throughout the history of Christianity. It was one of the main arguments of Catholics against Protestants in the sixteenth century. In Tertullian’s case, however, one should note that his argument was based on showing continuity, not only of formal succession, but also of doctrine, through the generations. Since this continuity of doctrine was precisely what was debated at the time of the Reformation, the argument was not as powerful as in Tertullian’s time.

But Tertullian’s legalism goes beyond arguments such as this. His legal mind leads him to affirm that, once one has found the truth of Christianity, one should abandon any further search for truth. As Tertullian sees the matter, a Christian who is still searching for further truth lacks faith. He said:

“You are to seek until you find, and once you have found, you are to believe. Thereafter, all you have to do is to hold to what you have believed. Besides this, you are to believe that there is nothing further to be believed, nor anything else to be sought.”

This means that the accepted body of Christian doctrine suffices, and that any quest for truth that goes beyond that body of doctrine is dangerous. Naturally, Tertullian would allow Christians to delve deeper into Christian doctrine. But anything that goes beyond it, as well as anything coming from other sources, must be rejected. This is particularly true of pagan philosophy, which is the source of all heresy, and is nothing but idle speculation. He said:

“Miserable Aristotle, who gave them dialectics! He gave them the art of building in order to tear down, an art of slippery speech and crude arguments…which rejects everything and deals with nothing.”

In short, Tertullian condemns all speculation. To speak, for instance, of what God’s omnipotence can do is a waste of time and a dangerous occupation. What we are to ask is not what God could do, but rather what has God in fact done. This is what the church teaches. This is what is to be found in scripture. The rest is idle and risky curiosity.

This, however, does not mean that Tertullian does not use logic against his adversaries. On the contrary, his logic is often inflexible and overwhelming, as in the case of the Prescription. But the strength of his arguments is not so much in his logic as in his rhetoric, which sometimes leads him to sarcasm. For instance, in writing against Marcion he tells his opponent that the God of the church has made this entire world and all its wonders, whereas Marcion’s god has not created a single vegetable. And then he goes on to ask, what was Marcion’s god doing before its revelation? Is the divine love that Marcion touts an affair of the last minute? Thus, through a unique combination of mordant irony and inflexible logic, Tertullian became the scourge of heretics and the champion of orthodoxy.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Teachers of the Church: Tertullian of Carthage.

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