My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I also blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
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This is my final summary of my summer reading in the writings of the early church. Tertullian is one of my favorite authors from that ancient world, and the following are some of take-aways from my browsing through his works.
But first a few comments on the life and legacy of Tertullian (c. 155-c. 220). He was an apologist and theologian in Carthage, North Africa, then a part of the Roman Empire. His importance can be seen in his confronting heresy, advancing developments related to the Trinity, and clarifying church polity. He also wrote significant works on persecution, and most likely completed the important Martyrdom of Perpetua.
His support for Montanism – a condemned movement – in his later years means that he is rarely called a “church father” and is not considered a “saint.” That being the case, he is still a great read, and there is much to learn from him. Here are some examples to entice you to read more.
Many people are familiar with the fish symbol being linked to the Christian faith. Yet many do not know why. In his work entitled On Baptism he provides a brief explanation of the connection between Jesus and fish: “But we, little fishes, after the example of our ἸΧΘΥΣ Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water…”
His theological concern is for Christians (“little fishes”) to not stray from the church’s practice of water baptism. But in the midst of his argument he uses the acrostic ἸΧΘΥΣ in reference to Jesus. If you take the first letter of each word “Ἰησοῦς Χρῑστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ” (“Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior”) you end up with ἸΧΘΥΣ (“ichthus” or “fish”).
Think of that next time you see a fish bumper sticker.
For years I have warned students to make sure their theological convictions take into account all the relevant truths of the issue at hand – and avoid stressing one thing to the neglect of something else. And low and behold I find Tertullian saying the same thing!
In his Against Praxeas he begins by noting how the devil focuses people on one aspect of the person of Jesus and neglects other aspects – thus distorting and destroying the truth of the incarnate Jesus Christ. In his words: “In various ways has the devil rivalled and resisted the truth. Sometimes his aim has been to destroy the truth by defending it. He maintains that there is one only Lord, the Almighty Creator of the world, in order that out of this doctrine of the unity he may fabricate a heresy.” In this case, the single-minded focus on the unity of God led people away from a more biblical trinitarian view of the godhead. Thus a “truth” leading people astray.
Tertullian’s point is a simple one. Emphasizing a single truth without taking into account other important aspects of apostolic teaching is actually a distortion of the gospel, and, ironically, a departure from the truth. In other words, watch out for those who are too circumscribed in their focus.
A creed (from the Latin “credo” meaning “I believe”) is a brief summary of core convictions. The earliest church creed seems to be “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Philippians 2:11).
While the Apostles’ Creed in its present form can only be traced to around the beginning of the sixth century, the core elements go back to the apostolic age. (The twelve apostles did not write the creed, but it illustrates how the earliest Christians summarized the essentials of the apostles’ message.)
In fact, the second chapter of Against Praxeas has basically the contents of the later Apostles’ Creed – it is almost like reading the creed, but with more details. The importance of this passage in Tertullian is that it demonstrates an ancient and early apostolic tradition (and authority) that shaped the development of the creed.
An even more succinct version can be found in his Prescription Against Heretics:
“Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes 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 diverse 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 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 classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.”
To depart from this “rule of faith” is to depart from a very early version of Christianity – not a wise thing to do.
Tertullian has his strengths, but one area where he went overboard was his zeal for persecution. For instance, writing to those imprisoned he says:
“Nor let this separation from the world alarm you; for if we reflect that the world is more really the prison, we shall see that you have gone out of a prison rather than into one….The prison does the same service for the Christian which the desert did for the prophet….Let us drop the name of prison; let us call it a place of retirement….The leg does not feel the chain when the mind is in the heavens.”
While not everything he says about persecution goes against the apostolic testimony, his zeal for martyrdom, the idealization of suffering, and his belief in the inevitability of Christian success in the face of martyrdom goes too far. In fact, the irony is that his dictum “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” was shown to be only partly true, for 500 years later the church in North Africa would be wiped out by the advance of Islam.
As for those who persecute Christians, Tertullian writes to a Roman ruler named Scapula that, in the end, God will judge those who mistreat Christians: “…no state shall bear unpunished the guilt of shedding Christian blood.” He wrote this as a warning to leaders to back off and treat Christians properly, but it was also a consolation to Christians who were suffering at the hands of unjust rulers. In the end, no bad deed would go unpunished, and the Christian cause would be vindicated.
 “c” (or ca) stands for circa – meaning around or about. Historians use that when the actual date is uncertain.
 On Baptism, 1.
 Against Praxeas, 1.
 Eastern Orthodox recognize it, but they use the conciliar Nicene Creed initially formulated at the Council of Nicaea (325) and affirmed/reworked at the Council of Constantinople (381). The Western Church also professes the Nicene Creed.
 For further reading on the formation of the creed, see Helmut Thielicke, I Believe: The Christian’s Creed (Fortress Press, 1968); Alister McGrath, IBelieve: Exploring the Apostle’s Creed (IVP, 1997); Hans Küng, Credo: The Apostle’s Creed Explained for Today (SCM, 1993); Justo L. Gonzalez, The Apostle’s Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007); Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (Yale, 2003).
 Prescription Against Heretics, 13.
 On Martyrdom, 1.2.
 Apology, 50:13.
 To Scapula, 3.