The Gift of Provocation? Tertullian Certainly Had It!
He didn’t ‘do’ much reasoned theology; he confronted. Wrong teachings, sloppy morals, lax leaders, cowardly faith, Tertullian laid into them all. His writing is passionate, with holy sarcasm – and at times still funny even today. You sense a ‘wildness’, a burning heart for integrity and justice, contemptuous of all compromise. Here are some examples:
At a time of fierce persecution, when many favoured fleeing, he wrote: The blood of the martyrs is [the] seed [of the church], adding that once you start fleeing, you will never stop fleeing!
Seeing the growing emphasis on education in church leadership, he cried: What has Athens [headquarters of Greek philosophy] got to do with Jerusalem!”
He took aim at worldly pursuits: All public entertainment damages the spirit.
He castigated the folly of persecutors: If the Tiber rises too high, or the Nile too low, the remedy is always to feed Christians to the lions.
He understood the fleshly human nature that he was confronting: The first reaction to truth is hatred.
Perhaps most biting of all is his judgement on self-centred living: Whoever lives only to benefit himself, benefits the world only when he dies!
Yet Tertullian was more than a polemicist. He was deeply conscious of his personal failings; once, he wrote a piece on patience because he knew he had to learn it.
In 202, at the height of his influence, Tertullian shocked everyone by joining a fringe movement called the Montanists. They spoke in tongues, prophesied, had dreams and visions, and promoted strict, holy living. The mainstream Church immediately sidelined him but he didn’t care. His prophetic heart chose spiritual life and movement before popularity.
Still his pen carried all before it. He defended celibacy; opposed military service; cried out against gladiator sports; promoted fasting and spiritual discipline; exhorted Church members to refuse any job carrying worldly prestige; and urged Christians not to accept any bishop who wasn’t a spiritual man.
Tertullian died about 225. He stands out from the crowd as one who never lost his edge or his nerve. A colleague called him ‘the first, the best, the incomparable’. Today, 1800 years on, his works are still read and valued by those who appreciate sharp-edged, confrontational writing and “aggressive” Christianity. Much of that confrontation, at least in his earlier writings, was against heretics, but Tertullian is also remembered as the first of the Church Fathers to formulate a doctrine of the Trinity.
He was undeniably one of those “breakthrough” people, gifted by God to pierce the dullness and oppression which can sometimes settle on Christians and churches. He saw what was blunting the Church’s edge and confronted it, appealing to each heart to part with its idols. Away with mottled Christianity!, he wrote: be one thing or the other.
He was also an enigma: an arch-denouncer of heretics who was himself denounced for heresy in later years. It is revealing that Cyprian of Carthage, who drew extensively on Tertullian, never mentioned him by name. Also, the powers of ‘orthodoxy’ never subsequently canonised Tertullian as a saint – or even as “blessed”.
Some have called Tertullian a bigot. He did lay down the express rule that no speculation outside the ‘Rule of Faith’ was permissible. He was certainly no lamb, and we may wince at some overblown stances, for example his almost gleeful account of the torments of the lost in hell. But we must understand the debating codes of his time, which were very different from today. For example, Tertullian was fond of paradox. He will often push an issue to its purest, most extreme form, in order to see the real nature of the thing under examination. He did not value the ‘fruitful ambiguity’ of the heretic. For him, something is true if Christ taught it, the apostles passed it on, and it is found in the Scriptures. It is therefore non-negotiable. One of his works (none of which is especially long) has 186 references to ‘truth’.
We see this most starkly in Tertullian’s writings against heretics, which did a lot to strengthen the cause of orthodoxy. One writing is called, rather opaquely, “The Prescription of Heretics.” This is an older meaning of ‘prescription’, meaning the cutting short of a question by the refusal to hear the adversary’s arguments, on the ground that key points are already in place which cut the ground from under his feet. So, for Tertullian, it is of no use to listen to heretics’ arguments or refute them, for we have a number of antecedent proofs that they do not deserve a hearing.
This, then, is ‘permitted bigotry,’ and it gives him the solid ground and confidence to lay into any who deviate from it or hold unbiblical opinions. In our day, scientific atheism insists that any and every point of belief should be proven, and many Christians perform various contortions to try to do so. There is something refreshing in Tertullian’s assurance, for example about the Resurrection: it is true precisely because it is impossible. The end of the matter, and opposition should be taken in one’s stride; as he put it: The first reaction to truth is hatred.