Lecture 4: The Latin Church: Tertullian
Course: Church History I
Lecture: The Latin Church: Tertullian
Okay. Let’s pray together, shall we, and we can begin. Father, thank you for all the many things that you give us and bless us this day, we pray, as we work and as we study together. Help us in all that we do that we might grow to be more like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that we might serve him daily in all of the tasks that you’ve set before us and that we might glorify and praise his holy name in our lives this day. For his name’s sake we ask it. Amen.
Today, then, I want to talk about the Latin church, the western church. Let’s just get a little terminology here clear. I use the terms “western church” and “Latin church” as synonymous. This is because what we are talking about – west and east are terms which have a meaning in this context within the Roman Empire, and the maps that I put on the board and I think are still standing because I had them hit on my head yet, are very useful in this respect because the one on the right is the east and the one on the left is the west, you see, so I don’t have to explain it any further than that, which is very useful.
This division is not merely a geographical one but a cultural one and, of course, this is what really matters as far as we are concerned. Because in the east, what you have is an ancient culture or a series of ancient cultures overlaid to varying degrees by Greek language and thought since the time of Alexander the Great. But in the eastern world, apart from what is now Greece and Asia Minor, that sort of area, most of the rest of the territory – Egypt, Palestine, and so on – Greek was a minority language spoken in the towns, spoken by traders, spoken by government officials, and so on. It was a trade language, a contact language. It was not the language of everyday life for most of the people.
Now in the west, you have a different situation. In some places, Greek was also widely spoken and used. This was particularly true in Rome. Rome attracted people from all over the place and so it was only normal and natural that it would be a very international city and there Greek would function much in the way that it did, say, in Alexandria or somewhere like that as a contact language, particularly among the trading class and people of that kind. However, in the rest of the western empire, the Romans colonized in a way that they did not in the east. That is to say, they sent people out from Italy to settle in these places, to settle in Spain, to settle in Gaul which is now France, and to settle in North Africa. And within a relatively short space of time, because these territories did not have ancient established cultures, they didn’t have civilizations of their own which were there beforehand, I mean, it was rather like the invasion of North America, you know, that there were people there and so on, but they weren’t of a very highly developed culture – and so therefore the invaders very soon supplanted the natives or at least overlaid them with their own language and culture, so that the western empire, the western half of the Roman Empire became Latin-speaking and took on a Latin culture in a way that was not true of the east, either with Latin or with Greek. And of course, as you know, at least the European part of the western empire is still Latin to this day because, of course, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French are simply the modern descendents of classical Latin. I mean, that have changed over the years in different places but it is essentially the same thing and we still use the word Latin, of course, to refer to these people in certain contexts. You talk about Latin America, for instance, and you get a picture of what that is in that way.
So this was a long-term, permanent colonization, and the western empire was therefore much more united in itself than the eastern part was. There’s a much greater sense of cultural unity and, of course, this cultural unity was focused very much on Rome. Rome was the city, the only city of any consequence in the west and, therefore, what happened at Rome, what went on at Rome, what passed through Rome, was of much greater significance than what happened anywhere else. And, of course, Rome played a role in the western empire of much greater prominence than, say, Alexandria or Antioch or whatever, Corinth, did in the east. So it’s much more dominant in that way.
Now the other thing we have to remember, though, is that of the western churches Rome was also – this is paradoxical but it’s true – was also the one which was closest to the eastern churches. That is to say, geographically, of course, Rome tends to be on that side. It’s the sort of eastern part of the west. It had a large Greek-speaking population. It was in constant contact with the east. People from the east went there, like the apostle Paul, for example. It wasn’t beyond their reach in that sense. And so Rome maintained links with the eastern churches to a degree which was not true of the western empire further west, say, Spain or somewhere like that. So you see you have this, and because of this – because of this constant connection and so on – Rome appears to be more conservative in many ways than the other western churches. By this I mean that for example Rome continued to use the Greek language in its worship and in its internal church affairs until about the year 250. So for the first 200 years of its existence, the Roman church functioned in Greek. In other words, the preaching, the teaching and the worship and everything else would have been done more or less exclusively in Greek, which was, by the time they finally stopped doing that – I mean, they were the last ones. I mean, it had become very unusual in the western empire to do this.
Now what does this tell us, of course, about the nature of Christianity in the Latin world? It tells us that most Christians for the first, say, 200 years of the church essentially were immigrants. They were traders who had come from the east or people associated with them. We see this, of course, quite clearly in Romans 16 when the apostle Paul who had never been to Rome at that stage, remember, he was writing to – Rome was the only church that Paul wrote to before he actually got there. Anyway, never mind. Irenaeus who came from Smyrna which is in the east. Of course, Smyrna is here. There, if you look it up on a map today, you have to look it up as Izmir in Turkey. But he was summoned from Smyrna to go to Leon which is here – the city of Leon in what is now southern France – to be the bishop of that church following a persecution in Leon which had decimated the existing congregation.
Now this is very interesting because, you see, the fact that somebody living here or people living here would think it was perfectly natural to write all the way over here, you know, to get somebody as their next pastor, in effect. To sort of go all this way and Irenaeus made his way there and, of course, Irenaeus was Greek-speaking and presumably ministered to the church in Leon in Greek, which means, again, that they must have been a fairly select minority in that city because Greek was not the general spoken language in that part of the world at that time. You see what I mean? And yet the church saw nothing wrong with this or nothing odd about this. So really what you’re talking about is what we would today call an expatriate congregation. I mean, people who worshiped and ministered in a language which was not the local tongue of the people living there at that time, which of course in turn means that the Christian gospel had not yet penetrated very deeply into the local culture, because as soon as it did, of course – as soon as it sort of got outside this little group – then the language in which they functioned would change because once you start spreading the gospel locally, the local people would not have been able to follow Greek. And people like Irenaeus would no longer be called to minister in a congregation like that because they wouldn’t be able to communicate. You see what I mean? So we learn a lot about this kind of thing from evidence like that.
Now the one area which was an exception was North Africa, this area along here. The Romans called this part, this area here, Africa. That was what Africa meant to them. So that the Romans would not, for example, have regarded Egypt as part of Africa. That was a different place. And, of course, they knew nothing about sub-Saharan Africa. That was something beyond their reach. But neither would they have referred to this area over here as Africa either. All right? Africa was basically this part here, what is modern Tunisia and perhaps a bit of the eastern Algeria and so on. And Africa – Roman Africa – was a very rich, very prosperous province. It had originally been settled from Phoenicia, from Tyre and Sidon. The Phoenicians had sailed west. They had established the colony of Carthage there, and they had erected a great trading empire which the Romans had defeated in a series of wars and finally conquered and destroyed. Carthage was destroyed about 100 years before Julius Caesar. In fact, exactly in the year 146 B.C. But Julius Caesar himself in 46 B.C. – in other words, exactly 100 years later – reestablished Carthage as a Roman city. This was at the same time as places like Corinth and Philippi were established as Roman colonies. If you study the New Testament, you’ll learn that, that they were Roman settlements. But whereas Corinth and Philippi very quickly became Greek to all intents and purposes – I mean, they were Roman colonies in theory but as far as the language and culture was concerned, they were full of Greek people – Carthage did not. Carthage remained Roman, Latin-speaking, in a way that the other places were not. And in the second century A.D., it was the second city of the Latin empire. Carthage was a great cultural center. There was a great educational establishment there. It was in every way a kind of second Rome and certainly the most developed and prosperous part of the western empire apart from Italy itself.
Now one thing you have to remember, of course, and it’s easy to forget this, is that until the invention of railways which was more recent – well, you know, not everyone knows – that in the 19th century, the quickest way to travel was by sea, not by land. I mean, the Romans did build roads and they were great road-builders and they marched around with their armies and so on, but even so, sea travel was much quicker and more efficient and safer than land travel was. So if you look at the map and look where Rome is and where Carthage is, you see that in fact by sea they are quite close. You know, they’re not that far away. And, therefore, of course, communication was constant across this part of the Mediterranean and this is one of the reasons why North Africa was as prominent as it was. But it was in North Africa which seems to have been less influenced by the Greek element. There must have been Greeks there; there are Greeks everywhere, but they didn’t dominate in the way that they did in other places and, therefore, the church that we know existed there in the second century is the first one to our knowledge which used Latin as its everyday language, where the worship and so on of the church was in Latin, and, therefore, of course, much more readily accessible to the majority of the population. In other words, people, you know, it was indigenous in a way that was not the case, say, in Gaul, in Leon at that particular period.
And this was going to have quite an effect longer term because the North African church acquired a distinct identity and indeed took a leadership role in the Latin world for several hundred years beginning about just before the year 200 and carrying on really for the next 250 years at least. And so it was quite a remarkable development which occurred in that part of the world during those centuries, especially so because the North African church had a characteristic identity. It was odd in its own way, and so for it to be dominant was quite interesting because it had its eccentricities which were not necessarily that widespread elsewhere.
The other thing you have to know about the North African church is that despite the fact that it flourished for many hundreds of years and produced some of the greatest names in early Christian literature, when the territory was eventually conquered by the Muslims, which Carthage fell to the Arabs in the year 698, and since that time it has been dominated by Arabs and Muslims, and in North Africa the Christian church was wiped out completely. I mean, today all Christians that you find in North Africa just about are either foreigners or a few people who have been converted in recent years, but basically the North African church as it existed in ancient times has disappeared and disappeared with a degree of completeness that is almost unique in the world. So that is the other side, if you like, of the North African church. It’s a very strange body in many different ways.
When we come across it first around about the year 180 or so, we come across it in a very interesting way and that is the earliest testimony we have from North Africa is of a church which is suffering persecution and it is particularly interesting because the people who were martyred were people from a small village – not from Carthage itself but from a village outside – and this is an interesting thing because it demonstrates to us that Christianity by that time had actually reached the villages. And this was something which had happened there which obviously had not happened in other parts of the western world at that stage. And so you can see the effect of preaching in the local language and so on, that actually the word had spread more widely and it’s interesting to see that it had gone beyond the city and beyond the sort of trading class and people like that, that you would expect to be in the church. It was something more widespread than that.
But of particular significance for us is the role which persecution and martyrdom were going to play in North Africa because it was there more than anywhere else that the church took persecution to heart. Not only did they suffer – of course, everybody suffered it – but it was the North Africans who came up with a theology of persecution. It was they who said persecution is something to be welcomed. Jesus said, “Blessed are ye when men shall persecute, to revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” You know, in the beatitudes in Matthew 5. And this became a kind of rallying cry in North Africa. To be persecuted is a good thing because it shows that you are being faithful to the truth. And so this got worked in very much to the teaching and preaching in North Africa.
Of course, North Africans, like anybody else, didn’t necessarily live up to the expectations very often because, as you can well imagine, when persecution was threatened, there were always large numbers of people who ran away. But in North Africa these people became a problem. They were regarded as a problem in a way that they were not in other places. This is the interesting point, you see, that they were denounced from the pulpit. They were almost persecuted by the church if they ran away, and of course, once the persecutions were over, they tried to come back in. They were refused entry, because it was in North Africa, again, more than anywhere else, that the Christian church came to the conclusion that if you ran away in persecution, you weren’t worth having, and they didn’t really want you back in the church. So forgiveness for this was difficult if not impossible to obtain, and in fact the answer to this problem as suggested in North Africa was, well, there’s no point knocking on the door of the church asking for readmission. We’re not going to have you back. If you want to prove your credentials, next time a persecution comes along, go out and get martyred and then we’ll know you’re sincere, that you mean it. So this rigorist line, this strict line was taken in North Africa, and strictness is characteristic of the church.
Now we know more about the North African church than we do about other early Christian communities thanks to the work of Tertullian. Tertullian was the great theologian of the late second and early third centuries. We are extremely fortunate in the fact that most of what he wrote has survived, so we have 31 books written by him over a period of about 15 or 16 years. It’s hard to say, but you can date his writings from about 196 to about 212 – incidents that he refers to, you know, during that period. And so 15 years and 31 is not bad going, really. About two books a year on average. And his books are extremely interesting for several reasons. First of all, they’re highly quotable. Tertullian was a very memorable writer, and a lot of the quotations that you come across from the early church in fact come from him. I mean, it was he, for example, who said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” In other words, the more people you kill, the more people are converted to Christianity because they see how serious it is. It was he who said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what has Greek philosophy got to do with Christian revelation? What’s the connection? And so it goes. I mean, he’s frequently quoted in this way because he had a memorable turn of phrase.
His writing suggests that he was probably a fairly nasty sort of character. Well, one of these people who could sort of – he had a good turn of phrase but you know that can sometimes be very hurtful and so on, because you can say things that are quite witty and even true but they wound other people because of the way you say them. And Tertullian seemed to have been like that, a sharp tongue he had in different ways. However, having said that, in his own way, he did in fact care about people and care about them quite deeply and this is why we know so much about what the ordinary Christians were like at that time because he wrote about them and he wrote to them and he told them what they should be doing, in his opinion. And that, of course, tells us what was going on. It gives us a picture of life in the early church.
Tertullian believed that Christians must cut themselves off from the world as much as possible. He thought that the biggest problem the church faced was compromise with the pagan environment roundabout. And so, for example, he wrote a book about games, because the Romans liked games. They liked sort of theater and outdoor performances of one kind or another, gladiators, fighting and all that. And Tertullian said you mustn’t do this; you mustn’t go to this because these things are pagan. They are part of idolatrous worship and so on, and for a Christian to be seen either participating or even spectating in this sort of thing is a denial of faith. So games are out. He wouldn’t get very far around here, would he?
But anyhow, this is the way in which he said you must draw the line. You cannot do this. He told soldiers that they should not salute the emperor because the form of salutation in the Roman army was actually a form of worship to the emperor as the son of a god and a Christian could not do this and it was better to suffer persecution or being thrown out of the army. And anyhow, said Tertullian, Christians shouldn’t be in the army to begin with, so you shouldn’t do that either so cut off from that as well.
Christians should not engage in public debate or politics – the politics of the time – because that was corrupt and so on, and it was much better to withdraw from that and to spend your time meditating on the scriptures rather than arguing in the forum about different sort of political or social and political issues of the day, so there again, cut yourself off from that. He was less rigorous in some ways than people like Tatian in the east. He was not particularly ascetical, not by the ancient standards, but of course a modern reader might not pick this up. I mean, let me give you an example. He believed in matrimony. He thought it was fine to get married because the Bible said this was all right but not to sleep with your wife because that was taking things too far. You see what I mean? And he was actually quite amusing on this because he developed his whole concept of virginity is a fascinating subject to study, because Tertullian said there are three kinds of virginity: there’s the virginity that you’re born with – you just have it from birth – and he said that’s fine, but he said there’s no particular merit in that because you didn’t do anything to get it. It’s something you were stuck with and so that’s that, really, so he wasn’t against it but he didn’t sort of particularly praise it either. And then he said there’s the virginity of people when they’re converted. You become a Christian and you swear off sex when you become a Christian. That’s the second kind of virginity. And he said that’s better than the first kind because you’re actually giving something up rather than just going on as if it never existed and so on, so from Tertullian’s point of view, that was an improvement. And then the third kind of virginity which he thought was the best of all was to get married and then not sleep with your wife or husband – well, lie in the same bed together but don’t actually touch each other, and he said this was the highest form of virginity of all because you expose yourself to temptation and resist it on a daily basis. You know, that was his notion. I mean, can you imagine? And he wrote all this to his wife. I don’t know. I mean, I just dare anyone to try that.
But anyhow, he did this kind of thing and he had a logic to this. I mean, you have to try to appreciate this. He believed that Christ was coming again any moment. There was no time to lose. That persecution was a sign of the end of time, and therefore the Christian had to keep his bags packed because any moment now Christ will come again, and if you’re not ready, you’re going to miss out on this. And he actually told his wife, you know, he said this is why you must not get pregnant, because if you get pregnant and Christ comes again, then you’ll be pregnant in eternity and you don’t want that. I mean, that’s a pretty effective threat, you know. Imagine sort of saying don’t get pregnant because if Jesus comes back you’ll be pregnant forever. This was his way of thinking. And so you can see that although it’s a sort of screwy idea from our point of view, you can see that it does have its own funny sort of logic to it.
Having said that, though, I think we have to also say that Tertullian’s whole view of women was rather ambivalent, shall we say. I mean, he loved his wife and he thought that was fine and, as I say, he held that idea, but he also believed that the sin of Adam was not eating the apple; the sin of Adam was listening to his wife, and he was quite sort of down on that and he said you really must realize that this is not the way that we should go as Christians. So his whole approach to this kind of thing is rather ambivalent, shall we say. He’s trying to sort of justify marriage and things like that on the one hand, but on the other hand advocating something which is rather sort of odd in a different kind of way. And this runs right through his whole way of thinking. I’m saying this because the kind of tensions, the kind of things he is saying got very deeply rooted into the Latin church, particularly the notion that celibacy and abstinence from sexual relations was somehow a holier thing to practice, became very deeply rooted in the western church, and even today, of course, in the Roman Catholic church, if you want to be serious about serving God, you’re expected to give all that up if you’re going to be ordained or something like this. So this has had a very long history and this is why you have to sort of pay attention to it.
Tertullian also had a very strange idea of baptism. Strange to us, that is. And the reason he had this idea was that he was a materialist. He had been educated in stoic philosophy, and stoicism is a form of materialism. When I say “materialist,” I do not mean materialist as you would think of this today but rather he believed that spiritual things – the spirit – was actually a very highly refined form of matter. And for him, for his way of thinking, this was a good thing because he said because spirit is a highly refined form of matter, it can integrate with the rest of the material world. There’s no dichotomy. There’s no fundamental division between the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh. And so that is actually a good thing, a positive thing to have said. But when it comes to something like baptism, you see, Tertullian believed that what happened in baptism was that the spirit entered the water. The water would be consecrated and the spirit would be called down into the water, but because the spirit is a highly refined form of matter, it sort of comes into the water rather like something like coffee or something that you put into water, sort of color the water, and sort of mix in with it so it’s a different kind of water that you’re dealing with now. And then he said, well, the person baptized would be dunked in this water and then what would happen was – why was baptism necessary? Well, baptism as sort of spirit-filled water, this spirit-filled water would penetrate through the pores of the body, and as the water would go into your physical body, the spirit would go with it. And, of course, the spirit in the water would then affect the spirit in your body and act as a cleansing agent. You see, it would sort of connect in this way, and so he believed that if you were baptized you would be born again automatically. You would be regenerated because it was like being dunked in some kind of cleanser or something. You would just sort of go into this and it would – as long as you stayed in long enough, I suppose, to let it sort of sink in, it would kind of sink into your body and then through your body into your soul and cleanse your soul from sin in this particular way. So he believed in what we now call baptismal regeneration for this rather strange reason. However, having said that, because of that, Tertullian also rejected infant baptism.
Now it’s important that we understand this because a lot of Baptists today quote him as if he were some kind of second century Baptist. Well, you know what I mean. They think because he rejected infant baptism he must be a Baptist. But actually this is not true because although the practice, his understanding of when you should administer baptism, was the same. His theology, what he thought happened in baptism was completely different. Tertullian did not deny - he said if you baptize an infant, he didn’t deny that it took effect. I mean, as far as he was concerned, anybody who was baptized was regenerated by the act of baptism, whatever age they were and whether they understood what was going on or not. That wasn’t the problem. The problem for him was a pastoral one. He said it’s not fair to baptize babies because if you baptize a baby, then the baby will be saved, the baby will be cleansed from sin, without realizing it. And so the chances are that the baby will grow up and sin and therefore lose its chance of salvation because there’s only one baptism. And if you do that – if you sin after baptism, then the only way out for you is martyrdom. And he said it’s a bit unfair to impose this on a little kid without realizing it. So his solution – and he actually details this out at some length – is to say, well, let the kids grow up. Let them sin while they’re teenagers and things like that. And he said wait till they get to about 30 and then you can baptize them. Because by the time they’re 30, they’ll have done all the sinning they want to do. They’ll have had enough of that. They’ll just want to settle down and become couch potatoes for the rest of their lives so you can baptize them then.
Now, of course, this is not what Baptists today think. This has nothing to do with this. But it was the origin of something very interesting in the early church because when people took on board Tertullian’s idea, when they started to think about this, they said, well, you know, actually there are people who get past 30 and they’re still sinning. Well, we know this, don’t we? We’re always meeting people in their thirties who haven’t quite grown up yet. And this is what Tertullian says – oh, not Tertullian, the early church, it’s how they reacted. They said, well, you know, what’s to say that when you turn 30 you’re going to stop sinning. And so out of this comes the idea that it’s best not to get baptized until you’re on your deathbed. And so deathbed baptism became quite a common thing, and even later on when it was rejected – when people said, well, this is a crazy idea; this is not what baptism is all about and we’ve got to rethink the whole thing – the notion that you should do something on your deathbed to prepare you for the next life, for going into the next life, that was kept. And so in the medieval church you have what they call the last rites, which is an anointing, extreme unction and so on, and the priest would come around and sort of anoint you with oil and so on just before you died, and this was a survival in the middle ages of this practice of deathbed baptism in the early church which grew out of the notion that if you sinned after baptism you would lose your salvation. You see what I mean? How these things sort of – one thing leads to another and before very long you have a whole sort of pastoral practice which has grown up based on some rather dubious theology to begin with. So Tertullian kind of contributes, if you like, to this sort of thing.
In other areas, he was, however, much more successful, and this we also need to look at a little bit. Particularly in his understanding of the Trinity. When Tertullian sat down to argue his case, to argue that God was a Trinity, he began with the assumption that there is only one God, that whatever else you say, the God of the Bible is a single being. There’s only this one God. Therefore, he said, you must find the three – the father, son and Holy Spirit – have somehow got to be identified inside the one God. And this is fundamental to Tertullian’s way of thinking. The three persons are to be found inside the one God. It was Tertullian who first used the word “person” to describe the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. He got this word from Roman law because in Roman law a person means somebody who can sue or be sued. All right? In other words, a legal entity.
Now you need to understand this because in Roman law a person is not the same thing as a human being. In Roman law, women and children and slaves were not persons. So the word “person” only applied to adult male citizens because only an adult male citizen could actually be sued or sue in a law court. All right? They had legal existence, legal personality, in a way that, say, women, children, and slaves did not have. All right? That’s one thing. But the other thing which is more complicated still is that it was possible to have legal personality without being human or indeed without existing in the normal sense of the word. And you say, well, what do you mean? Well, if you went into business, for example, you could set up a company and the company would acquire legal personality in its own right even though the company does not really exist as a thing. You see what I mean? And the word for this, of course, establishing the legal identity of a company, was giving it a body. In other words, making it a person as we would understand it, and the word for giving something a body is incorporation. And of course we still use the word “incorporation” in this sense. So you can sue a company because a company has legal personality in this way. And this is a meaningful thing within law but you need to see this.
Now it’s important for the Trinity because, of course, when Tertullian uses the word “person” to describe the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, his main concern is that the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit will be regarded as responsible agents. In other words, the father “does” things, the son “does” things, the Holy Spirit “does” things, and you can deal with them. You can have a relationship with them, that God has created you and me in his image and likeness. In other words, he has made us persons and because we are persons and God is three persons, we can enter into a personal relationship with him. And having a personal relationship with God means that you can pray. It means that God can do things for you that you can kind of sort out your relationship so that you have a good relationship, a right relationship, and of course the whole work of salvation. Christ’s death on the cross has to be understood in this way.
Now this is extremely important for us, because by doing this and by sort of talking in this way, what Tertullian was doing was establishing his theological perspective on the basis of law, Roman legal concepts. And western theology, that is, the theology of both the Catholic and Protestant churches, ever since has reflected this background, this juridical background. Now we have to again be very careful about saying this and how we say this because it’s so easy to misunderstand. It does not mean that western theology is legalistic. Legalism is the abuse of the law, not the right use of it. But western theology thinks in legal categories. It defines things in this way. And so virtually every word that you use in theology like “justification,” “election,” “adoption” and all these words have a legal background. You see, they come from the world of law and politics. And it’s extremely important that you understand this because it’s within that context, you see that the theology is developed. So, for example, in the case of the atonement – Christ takes my place on the cross; he dies for my sins; he pays the price for my redemption and so on; I am acquitted of my sins – the picture is one of going to court, being judged for your sins, and the judge takes your place on the cross. The judge pays the price for you so that you don’t have to go to jail, otherwise known as hell, because you are delivered and you can go to heaven.
So the background imagery that is being presented here is imagery which comes from the world of the law courts. Now Tertullian justified this. He said this is the right way to think because this was the way the Old Testament thinks. The Old Testament is a book of law. The Jewish people developed law and legal things as the basis of understanding their own faith. Judaism is worked out in legal terms and, therefore, Christianity which is after all an outgrowth of Judaism can do this as equally well and come up with a viable theological perspective.
Now once you understand this, you can then understand the next stage when Tertullian says that the difference between the Christian gospel and the Jewish law is not one of quality. It’s not that the Christian gospel is a fundamentally different thing to the Jewish law but one of degree. In other words, the Jewish law was not capable of saving you because it was not strict enough. Moses was a liberal because Moses permitted things like divorce.
Now you can see how Tertullian gets this out of the New Testament, in a way, because the question of divorce actually comes up in the New Testament in Matthew 19 and the whole problem of Moses, and Jesus says, well, Moses allowed it because of the hardness of your heart but I say unto you “no.” If a man divorces his wife for any reason other than adultery, he is committing sin. So Tertullian sort of picks this up and says, see, the difference between Jesus and Moses is that Jesus is more limited in what he’s prepared to allow. He’s stricter because remember the disciples’’ reply, well, if you can only get divorced because of adultery, how can you ever get married? Who wants to get married if there’s no way out at the end? Well, I mean, that’s what they say in Matthew. So Tertullian says, look at that. The Jews sort of just ran around doing whatever they liked and Jesus sort of comes and tries to sort of close the door and make it much stricter.
But then, of course, the issue comes up, well, Jesus still permitted divorce in cases of adultery. And Tertullian says this is because Jesus was dealing with a situation which could not be remedied overnight. There had to be a time of transition. There had to be a period of grace whereby people with bad habits were given time to correct them. And we can understand something of this because you sometimes see this sort of thing in the church today. Someone becomes a Christian having lived a sort of rather worldly kind of life and it may take them time to change. You know what I mean? Like they may not be able to stop smoking overnight or give up drinking just like that or stop playing the lottery. You know what I’m saying? It takes a little while before they get integrated into what you think as the norm of Christian behavior. And this is the way Tertullian thought about it. He said, well, Jesus is dealing with people who just can’t change totally overnight so he allows a few loopholes, a few escapes here, but of course once his teaching gets properly anchored in people’s minds, then these exceptional cases, these loopholes, will be closed. Because the principle is you get married, you stay married, and that’s that and there really isn’t any ground for divorce. And over time the permission which Jesus granted for adulterers to divorce, this door would be gradually shut.
The same, of course, for the advice which Paul gives to widows under the age of 60 to remarry. Tertullian says, well, that was again a transitional provision of the law. You had these sort of 25-year-old widows running around in Corinth and so on and it was hard for them to sort of realize that they had to live a life of chastity and purity and so on, and so Paul said, well, for goodness sake, get married again. But really, deep down inside, this was a concession to their weakness, not something that he recommended as such. So Tertullian picks this up and says, well, you see what I mean? Here we are. Paul allowed this kind of thing to go on for a while because he knew things couldn’t change overnight, but now we’ve got to the point where we understand the gospel. We know what it’s all about and we need to close this door as well.
And so Tertullian’s views, you see, basically were that as Christianity becomes more deeply rooted, as people get more and more filled with the spirit, so the concessions, the exceptions, the tolerance which you find in the New Testament of certain kinds of failure will also be withdrawn. And so by saying this, Tertullian opens the door to the idea that the Christian church can impose stricter rules on its members than the rules which are found in the New Testament.
Now you have to be careful here because Tertullian would argue and he would say that it’s not that the rules I am imposing are stricter than the ones that Jesus imposed, I’m actually doing what Jesus did in principle because Jesus didn’t believe in divorce. This is not something that Jesus thought was a good idea. Jesus only tolerated it in certain cases because he had no choice. I mean, it was that, or lose them altogether, you know. You just had to sort of do this when people come into the church.
You see something similar in tribal cultures which practiced polygamy. What do you do if somebody becomes a Christian and this man has four wives? Do you say, well, send three of them away. All right. But then the question is which three are you going to send away. And the church would probably say, well, you send away the second, third and fourth, and the person concerned will say, no, I’ll send away the first, second and third because I realized the fourth is the one I really wanted or is the youngest one or whatever. It’s a very – well, you laugh, but this is a real problem in some places, you know, you have no idea. Which three are you going to send away? But you see what I’m saying; you could end up creating more injustice in this way than just saying to yourself, all right, well, you were polygamous before, you just stay that way. Look after your four wives but the next generation won’t be polygamous. Your children will have only one wife or one husband and will carry on like that, but we won’t disturb this social arrangement in your generation. It’s a transitional thing. And you can imagine this sort of thing going on.
This is how Tertullian argued. This is how he interpreted the New Testament. And he’s basically saying don’t judge Jesus by what he permitted; look at what Jesus actually wanted, what he would have preferred and say that’s what we’re going for. In other words, aim high. Because Tertullian’s whole way of thinking was you should practice, you should strive to be as much like what Jesus wanted you to be as possible and not go running through the New Testament looking for verses which will allow you to escape from the harder provisions of the law. You see what I mean? Don’t say, oh well, Jesus wouldn’t really have minded. I know I’m not as good as all that, but say to yourself, I must do what is right in the strictest sense.
Now this way of thinking again entered into the mindset of the Latin church. And indeed it still is, certainly in the Roman Catholic church to this day because the Roman Catholic church still does not permit divorce. There is no divorce in a Catholic church. You can have your marriage annulled, which is not the same thing because annulment is saying there never was a marriage, but there’s no ground to divorce, not even for adultery. So the Roman Catholic church today actually follows what Tertullian advocated on that basis. This is what I’m saying when I’m talking about this. This is not just something that happened a very long time ago and far, far away and can be forgotten. It’s something which has actually penetrated and entered into the teaching and preaching of a large section of the Christian world to the present time. So see the long-term implications of all of this and be aware of how it can affect you or how it can affect certain people.
Yes? Well, transubstantiation didn’t really – no, that didn’t – for some reason that didn’t come into it at this time. I mean, you can maybe draw those conclusions but he never seemed to talk very much about that. Baptism was his big thing. He was very hot on that. But communion, no, he doesn’t say much about it. Don’t ask me why. It just wasn’t a big issue for him.
Yeah, I mean, it makes sense but it’s not something we find in his writings. I don’t know why. For some reason. No, they didn’t. The controversy over transubstantiation was very much later. By that time, things had moved on. They were thinking in a different way. I mean, you can see how Tertullian would have slaughtered into it easily enough. It’s just that it didn’t happen in his time and we have to say, well, for whatever reason that was not a controversy. I mean, I accept the logic of what you’re saying but the actual historical fact is that he didn’t talk about that. And why? I don’t know why. It just didn’t happen. So you just have to say, well, it didn’t happen and leave it like that.
Now what Tertullian was after and what was the basic sort of driving thrust of his thought was that you must become holy. God is holy. If you are going to stand in the presence of God, you must also be holy. How do you become holy? You become holy by keeping God’s law. In this way, Tertullian was subtly more Jewish than Christian. And I say “subtly” because, of course, he would not have seen it that way. But in effect this is what you end up with because for him the gospel is a means of making yourself perfect. If you follow the teachings of Jesus as they are written, you can actually become a better person. And the whole structure of theology in the Middle Ages for a thousand years, more than a thousand years, after Tertullian’s death, was really geared to fulfilling this desire. All the teaching of the church, all the spiritual exercises, everything that was done, the aim was to become holy, to get closer to God. And of course the people who succeeded, the people who managed to get so close to God that they were virtually in Heaven already even though they were still wandering around on earth, these were the saints.
And Tertullian stands at the head of a long tradition whereby sainthood – because the word “saint” and the word “holy” is the same thing – whereby sainthood is reserved for a spiritual elite, which of course is not the teaching of the New Testament, because in the New Testament everybody is a saint. All those – well, not everybody, but all Christians are saints. Because to be a Christian is to be a saint, to be called to be a saint. But Tertullian begins the process by which this word becomes more restricted in meaning and only a small number of people can really truly be regarded as having achieved sainthood.
Now it’s important to understand this because this is precisely what Martin Luther attacked. Martin Luther believed that no matter how hard you tried you could not become more holy in yourself. That sainthood was not something you could acquire by effort. That to be justified before God in Christ means to be justified while you are still a sinner. Tertullian could not have accepted this idea. As far as Tertullian was concerned and indeed the western church after him for over a thousand years, there is really no difference between justification and sanctification. The more sanctified you are, the more justified you are. If you lose your sanctification, you lose your justification, because the two are one and the same. In other words, because sanctification is a process, is an ongoing thing, is a sort of sliding scale, you can be more or less sanctified. You can be more or less justified. The result of this, of course, is that you cannot have assurance of salvation because if justification is measured by sanctification, there’s no way of telling whether you will have your sanctification this time tomorrow in the degree that you have it now. So if you lose your sanctification, if you turn away from the Lord in some way or other and you become less holy in your mind and behavior or whatever, then you run the risk of losing your salvation. So you cannot guarantee; there’s no assurance in this way.
And what Tertullian ended up doing, of course, was he ended up proclaiming a kind of salvation – a doctrine of salvation – which became a new slavery for those who were in the church because you were forever wondering whether you have actually done all that you need to do in order to achieve it. Yes, all the time. But, you see, the thing is, yes, of course, he read the Bible, but as I’ve already pointed out it’s how you read the Bible. If you read the Bible with this kind of lens and you say to yourself, well, Jesus was just stricter than Moses. It’s not what Jesus was prepared to tolerate; it’s what Jesus actually really wanted that counts. You see what I mean? Once you start reading it like this, you can say, well, that is what the Bible really means. I mean, he, of course, knew that the Bible was full of things that didn’t agree with what he thought, but his answer to that was – as I pointed out – well, that was a time of transition; you were moving from one to the other and so, therefore, you’re going to get loose ends in the New Testament because you can’t just change everybody overnight. You see what I mean? That was his understanding, that the New Testament came from this period of grace, of transition, before the strictness of the new law kicked in.
I mean, we’re used to this. We’re used to it because every time a law is passed like in Alabama saying that you have to have compulsory car insurance or something like that. There’s a period of grace before they actually start enforcing it. You see what I mean? And this is what Tertullian says. He said the New Testament lays down the principles but, of course, in the time of Jesus and Paul, they don’t actually enforce it because they’ve got to get through people’s heads that this is what they’re supposed to do. And then after there’s been enough time to sort of learn it, then we’ll start enforcing it. You see what I mean?
It’s a very legal approach to life. I mean, to understand it, all you have to do is look around you. I mean, every time a new regulation is introduced, anywhere, they sort of publish it and say, you know, as of such-and-such a day, we’re going to do this, that, or the other. But they realize that it’s going to take a little while before people actually get into the swing of it, so they don’t really bother enforcing it for the beginning. And then it’s only after they assume people must have learned by now that – bang – they start enforcing it. You know what I’m saying. This is common. And that’s how he read the New Testament. I mean, this is not how we read the New Testament because we read the New Testament as God’s eternal word not the transitional provisions before the age of perfection shall come. You see my point?
But remember also – and this is where I have to leave you today – that Tertullian always believed that the second coming was tomorrow. I mean, he had a very lively expectation of the imminent return of Christ. There was a sense of crisis, a sense of emergency, which, of course, was strengthened by the reality of persecution, so you have to bear that in mind as well. The context in which he is writing encouraged this kind of extremism and the only difficulty is that aspects of it have survived one way or another to the present time, and that’s’ really what I’m trying to point out.