The Teachers of the Church: Tertullian of Carthage (Part 3)

The History of Christianity #51

Our Scripture verse today is 1 Corinthians 14:1 which reads: “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.”

Our quote today is from Tertullian of Carthage. He said: “We worship unity in trinity, and trinity in unity; neither confounding the person nor dividing the substance. “

Today, we are looking at “The Teachers of the Church” (Part 8) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Tertullian of Carthage (Part 3)
Around the year 207 AD, Tertullian – that staunch enemy of heresy, that untiring advocate of the authority of the church, joined the Montanist movement. Why Tertullian took this step is one of the many mysteries of church history, for there is little in his own writings or in other contemporaneous documents that tells us of his motives. It is impossible to give a categorical answer to the question of why Tertullian became a Montanist. But it is possible to note the affinities between Tertullian’s character and theology, on the one hand, and Montanism on the other.

Montanism is named after its founder, Montanus, who had been a pagan priest until his conversion to Christianity in 155 AD. At a later time he began prophesying, declaring that he had been possessed by the Holy Spirit. Soon two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, also began prophesying. This in itself was not new, for at that time, at least in some churches, women were allowed to preach or prophesy. What was new, and gave rise to serious misgivings, was that Montanus and his followers claimed that their movement was the beginning of a new age. Just as in Jesus Christ new age had begun, so was a still newer age beginning in the outpouring of the Spirit. This new age was characterized by a more rigorous moral life, just as the Sermon on the Mount was itself more demanding than the Law of the Old Testament. At least some Montanists affirmed that this more rigorous law included celibacy.

The rest of the church opposed the preaching of the Montanists not because they prophesied, but because they claimed that with them the last age of history had dawned. According to the New Testament, the last days began with the advent and resurrection of Jesus, and with the giving of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost. As years went by, this emphasis on the last days being already here was progressively forgotten, to the point that in the twenty-first century many find it surprising. But in the second century the conviction of the church was very much alive, that the last days had already begun in Jesus Christ. Therefore to claim, as the Montanists did, that the end was beginning then, with the giving of the Spirit to Montanus and his followers, was to diminish the significance of the events of the New Testament, and to make of the Gospel one more stage in the history of salvation. These were the consequences of Montanism that the church could not accept.

Tertullian seems to have been attracted by Montanist rigorism. His legal mind sought perfect order, where everything was properly done. In the church at large, in spite of all its efforts to do the will of God, there were too many imperfections that did not fit Tertullian’s frame of mind. The only way to explain the continuing sin of Christians was to see the church as an intermediate stage, to be superseded by the new age of the Spirit. Naturally, such dreams were doomed to failure, and some ancient writers tell us that toward the end of his days Tertullian was sufficiently disappointed with Montanism to found his own sect – which those ancient writers call the Tertullianists.

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

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