Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Spirituality of Tertullian

This is a short summary of the spirituality of Tertullian that I had to write based on a lecture on early Christian spirituality delivered by David Robinson from Westminster Chapel (the one in Toronto, not the one in London). I submitted this to Dr. Michael Haykin yesterday.

Tertullian is widely considered to be one of the earliest of the Latin church fathers. He comes from Carthage, North Africa. This region was originally settled by the Phoenicians (who came to be known as the Punics), and has been under Roman occupation since the second century B. C., towards the end of the Punic Wars, and was resettled during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Christian missionaries arrived in Carthage sometime around the second century from either Rome or Asia Minor (though more likely the latter, since Tertullian appears more Antiochene in his thinking), and it was witnessing the martyrdom of these early Christians that drove Tertullian to convert to Christianity.

This early church father has received a bad reputation from many scholars who are critical of his writings and the way he expresses himself. He is regarded as being sarcastic, anti-philosophical and misogynistic. The fact that he converted from orthodox Christianity to Montanism is also used as grounds to criticize him. However, once one is able to get past these criticisms, one can see a lot of merit in his character. He is very gospel-centered, is passionate about upholding the truth, is a deep thinker and a humble man (who considers himself to be “someone of no rank”). He is also a good rhetorician and can write in both Greek and Latin (although it is only his Latin writings that have survived). He is also highly influenced by Irenaeus of Lyons.

Tertullian’s writings can be classified into three main categories: Apologetics, refutation of heresy, and doctrinal/moral instruction. All of these writings were produced as a response to a specific movement or event that took place during his lifetime. For example, his most famous work was a five-volume refutation of the heretic Marcion. This work is considered to be a classic example of Tertullian’s writing, and demonstrates his wittiness and sharp rhetorical skills when addressing important issues. Tertullian refutes Marcion by taking the latter’s own canon and demonstrating that its contents support orthodox Christianity rather than Marcionite dualism.

In his writings, Tertullian displays the profundity of his thought. For example, he saw scripture as the Vox Domini (voice of God), was a very avid proponent of Old Testament typology (for example, if it had anything to do with wood, he connected it to the cross), and considered the Old Testament to be full of sacramenta (mysteries). His theology was quite word-centered; he believed that the Bible was at the centre of the life of the Church. He also argued that the Bible was the unique property of the Church, and only “holy persons” (whom he most likely would have equated to prophetic figures, not the bishops and presbyters). He is an important witness when it comes to the canon of scripture, since he quotes virtually all of the New Testament books except for the second and third epistles of John. He argued against Roman persecution, stating that it only caused more people (such as himself) to convert to Christianity. He demonstrated the superiority of Christianity over the pagan religious systems, demonstrating for example, the unique simplicity of baptism over and against the pomp of the pagan rituals. His treatises on moral instruction set the pace for many Christian writers to come after him. A prominent example is his writing on Patience, which was the first treatise of its kind in Christian literature, and was picked up in the writings of later church fathers such as Augustine of Hippo. Perhaps most significantly, he was also the first to use the term Trinitas to refer to the nature of the Godhead, describing God as being one substantia but three personae.

It is generally believed that Tertullian had converted from orthodox Christianity to “The New Prophecy”(today known as Montanism) around 206 or 207 A. D., although some have suggested that he merely had sympathies for the sect, and did not actually become a member of them. This sect, having been founded during the early 170s in Asia Minor by Montanus and the two “prophetesses” Prisca and Maxmilla, was very charismatic (putting much emphasis on prophecy and ecstatic utterances), disregarded ecclesiastical authorities, and put high value on martyrdom and asceticism (hence the description of Montanism as the “Church of the Martyrs”). Tertullian’s adherence to Montanist distinctives is seen most clearly in his ecclesiology; for him, the Church was God’s pure bride, and it did not have room in it for sinners. This is seen in his arguments against the admission of adulterers and fornicators back into the fellowship of the Church after they have committed grievous sin. This rigorist stance was common among many North African Christians, as seen not only in Tertullian, but also in later North African Christians such as Cyprian of Carthage and the Donatist movement. Also, for Tertullian, the Church wasdefined by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and criticized the mainstream Church for neglecting the gifts of the Spirit. He demonstrates this in his treatise against a Modalist from Rome by the name of Praxeas. In it, he accused the latter of “crucifying the father and putting to flight the paraclete.” Finally, he regarded the Church as “the people who anticipate the Kingdom,” which points to his inaugurated eschatology.

In summary, Tertullian can be said to be one of the most interesting characters of the Christian period. He is very witty in his writings, is very forceful in making his points and argues quite well, even when it turns out upon closer examination that his views are wrong. Through the influence of his writings, he set the pace for future Latin church fathers (especially North African ones) to come.

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