In AD635, two men were sent out on apostolic missions and, in the face of great dangers, broke through with the gospel in unreached lands. Aidan was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were commissioned and sent to start churches: one at the North-West frontier of civilisation, the other in the far East. Aidan became the Apostle of northern England, Alopen the Apostle to China. Despite their extraordinary linked destiny, they never met or even knew of each other.
Britain at the turn of the 600s was a battleground of warring tribal kingdoms, most of them pagan. A Christian prince named Oswald was sent to the Celtic monastery on the Scottish island of Iona for his own safety. In 634 he felt ready to deliver his kingdom, Northumbria, in the north of England. He defeated the invaders and was crowned king.
One of his first acts was to ask Iona to send someone to convert his pagan subjects. An envoy was sent but returned saying that the Northumbrians were obstinate barbarians, beyond redemption! At this, an Irish monk named Aidan spoke up: it was foolish to expect pagans to accept the strict rules of a Celtic monastery – they must be met on their own level, with grace and humility. For this, Aidan himself was appointed for the apostolic mission to re-evangelise the north of England. It was AD 635.
He established his base on Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast, which became known as Holy Island. Why an island? Because road travel was dangerous because of robbers, and much of the business of life was done by sea. From here teams went out with the gospel, planting churches and establishing centres at Melrose, Jarrow and Whitby. By the time he died in 651, Northumbria was almost wholly evangelised.
Aidan succeeded by developing key relationships with those who helped to expand the work, and by wise and creative planning. He didn’t do all the work himself – at first, he couldn’t even speak the language but needed interpreters. He appointed and trusted many workers. Other noted Celtic saints, Hild (or Hilda), Chad and Cuthbert, built up important ministries under his covering.
But Aidan was a communicator. He could empathise. Any gifts he received from the wealthy, he gave to the poor. This included a fine stallion given to him by the king. The king was furious, but Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more important to you than a son of God?” The humbled king knelt and asked forgiveness.
Aidan’s primary witness was through the genuineness of his life. He refused personal gain, showed no partiality (rebuking kings when they needed it), and practised rigorous self-denial. If the king came to Lindisfarne, he had to eat the same food as the monks and beggars. Aidan’s approach was “Do as I do”, not “Do as I say”, and because his life was open to all, people gladly followed and the Church was built.
ALOPEN: APOSTLE OF THE EAST
In ancient times, China was better known in the West than you might suppose. For centuries a trade route called the Silk Road had linked China with Persia and the West. Arab and Persian merchants settled in China, and Chinese envoys reached ancient Rome. But by the 5th and 6th centuries, tribal wars had shut the Silk Road and made China a closed empire.
The arrival of the T’ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) changed all this. The Chinese army crushed the rebels and a golden age of Chinese culture began. The capital, Chang-an (modern Xi-an), was the largest walled city ever built, with two million inhabitants. The reopening of the Silk Road in 632 brought a new cosmopolitan flavour. The Emperor, T’ai Tsung (known today as Taizong), tolerated all religions and encouraged the discussion of foreign ideas.
The Church saw its opportunity and took it. In 635, the Assyrian archbishop Yeshuyab sent an apostolic team, led by a learned and wise monk named Alopen. They accompanied a traders’ camel train and arrived at Chang-an.
Alopen had done his homework. He knew the very formal Chinese culture and the need to avoid open war with the Buddhists. So for three years, he and Chinese converts worked on the first Christian book in the Chinese language: The Sutra of Jesus Messiah. A sutra was the way Buddhists presented their teachings, as a series of discourses. Alopen was playing them at their own game.
Much reads strangely to Western ears: Jesus is “the Heaven-Honoured One”, the “Master of the Victorious Law”, who has sent “the Pure Breeze” (the Holy Spirit) from “our Three-One”. But the Emperor was pleased with what he read and in 638 made a decree: Alopen’s religion was “wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception and establishing essentials for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man“. The Emperor commanded that a Christian religious centre be built from public funds in the Western merchants’ quarter of the city.
From this base, with a core of just 21 Christians, the gospel spread out into the land. Four regional centres were built and by the time of the next Emperor, Kuo Tsung, there were churches in ten provinces. Alopen was made bishop (or in the quaint Chinese, “Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire”) and the Church was able to put down firm roots in China – which it would need when persecution was unleashed by Empress Wu in 690.
The New Testament says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). By their labours, endurance, anointing and above all love, they become fathers to the churches, as Paul, Peter and the others did in the Early Church. It may still be debated whether there are apostles today of the calibre and stamp of Jesus’ Twelve, but the apostolic heart should be something we long to see outpoured more and more, if the Church is regain (and retain) her radicality.
Some of God’s radicals operated in days when the Church was strong and advancing. Others lived in times of hardship, confusion and decline. Their (equally heroic) task was to lead the way to restoration; to ‘rebuild the walls’, like Nehemiah in his day. One such ‘rebuilder’ was Menno Simons (1496-1561).
Born in rural Friesland, son of a dairy farmer, he showed piety and intelligence and at the age of 28 he became a Roman Catholic priest. But he was nagged by inner doubts about some aspects of Catholic practice, so he read widely, including the (officially banned) Martin Luther. The burning of an Anabaptist believer as a heretic, not far from Menno’s home, threw him into mental turmoil. The Anabaptists were everywhere condemned, but their teachings resonated in his own heart. As he studied scripture, he became convinced that he was called to walk with these persecuted brethren.
At this very point, however, the Radical Reformers’ movement was in turmoil. One group, at Münster in Germany, had fallen into religious mania. Nearer to home, a group of Anabaptists had occupied the cathedral in Bolsward and proclaimed revolution. Both groups had been ruthlessly wiped out by the authorities. Even so, Menno sensed that the Anabaptists were at core ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (the Bible, Mark 6:34). In this darkest hour, he felt an inner call from God.
I renounced my worldly reputation and my easy life, he wrote, and I willingly submitted myself to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ. I surrendered my soul and body to the Lord … and commenced in due time … to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard of the Lord,… to build up His holy city and temple and to repair the tumble-down walls.
For the next twenty years he and his family were fugitives. Always in danger, with a price on his head, Menno toured Holland and northern Germany, never staying in one place longer than a few months. He preached, baptised and reconciled brethren. He wrote letters and books setting out a balanced Anabaptist theology. One of his key themes was the ‘new creation’: people, the Church and society can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the love of Christ. In this lies hope for mankind’s future, in any age.
Menno was never captured. Even so, his hardships left him crippled in later years. Only one of his children reached adulthood. And he bore the constant burden of care for the Church. If Almighty God had not preserved me, he wrote, I would have gone mad. For there is nothing on earth that my heart loves more than the Church, yet I must live to see her in this sad affliction.
So he pressed on. Through his labours, Anabaptism was not only saved from extinction but given new vigour. Mennonites gained a foothold in northern Europe, then in America, and they still exist in significant numbers today. Menno’s was an apostolic ministry, not in the out-front manner of a Paul but the more hidden manner of an Epaphras or a Titus. It was also truly radical in that Menno searched for the roots of New Testament Christianity, returned to those roots, and did all he could to protect, strengthen and publicise these roots. Menno offers today’s evangelical Christians an inspiring model of leadership that balances zeal and discipline, passion and theological depth, courage and wisdom.
Church history rightly remembers Nicholas, Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) as a significant figure. He was a religious and social reformer, founder of the Christian community and mission centre at Herrnhut in Saxony, Germany, from which grew today’s Moravian Church. Under his leadership, missionary teams carried the gospel everywhere, from the Inuit of Labrador to the Zulus of South Africa.
It was a phenomenal achievement. What is far less known is how near the whole movement came to collapse, and how it was rescued and restored. In many ways, we will find here a model of good practice in leadership succession and generational transition in a church. The largely unsung hero was Zinzendorf’s successor, August Spangenberg (1704-92).
He had been a theology lecturer but threw in his lot with the Moravians, aged 29. He became the movement’s theologian, apologist, statesman and corrector – for sixty years! At first, he was an assistant to Zinzendorf, who sent him to Pennsylvania to establish churches, communities and schools – and to address opposition from other denominations. Zinzendorf sought Spangenberg’s tutoring when he was preparing for his own Lutheran ordination. If the count was the visionary of the Moravian movement, Spangenberg was his interpreter and enabler.
However, all was not well in the church. Zinzendorf was more of a visionary than a practical administrator. Under his leadership, the church’s expansion was funded by personal loans. By the 1750s, expenditure was out of control and the church had over-extended itself. This precipitated a spectacular crash in the church’s credit rating and reputation. Detractors used the opportunity to attack them. One major objection was to Zinzendorf’s devotion to the wounds of Jesus, which some saw as too Catholic, others as plain weird.
Zinzendorf died in 1760 with the Moravian church in a precarious position. Spangenberg was recalled from America and, although Moravian leaders saw themselves as equals, Spangenberg was clearly first among them. Under his leadership, the church felt compelled to turn inwards for a season, to address very real issues. They looked at what was central to their call and the way it had hitherto been expressed, and realised that some realignment was necessary.
They took responsibility for the debts and introduced financial controls. They avoided bankruptcy and achieved financial stability.
They apologised for any extra-biblical teaching, admitting that some of the contentious areas had been Zinzendorf’s “private opinions”, which church members were not required to endorse.
They reiterated their commitment to the Bible and to mission.
These reforms worked, much to Spangenberg’s credit. With disasters averted and unhelpful trappings removed, the vibrant church life and gospel endeavour initiated by Zinzendorf flourished. The Moravians concentrated on what they did best: community and mission. Their fruit was remarkable and highly esteemed. While the Great Awakening won souls in ‘Christian’ Britain and America, the Moravians reaped a harvest among the unconverted in other lands. As the 18th century ended, the Moravians had been successfully rehabilitated as the model of a missional church.
1. The Moravian Church teaches that it has preserved apostolic succession. In Berlin in 1735, several Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut received episcopal ordination from the two surviving bishops of the Unitas Fratrum (the Bohemian Brethren or Hussites). They considered it important to preserve the historic episcopate.
2. In their earlier years, the Moravians took literally Acts 1:26, the drawing of lots, to determine the will and guidance of God. Their covenant of 1727 included the stipulation that at any time, there should be 12 elders leading the church, all appointed by ‘the lot’. Thereafter, ‘the lot’ was used to help decide key matters like the election of elders, or whom to send on mission. Once the lot was consulted, the decision was seen as binding, since God’s Spirit had spoken.
The usual method was to place two pieces of paper in a box, one with “The Saviour approves” written on it, the other with “The Saviour does not approve”. After corporate prayer, a member of the elders’ council then pulled out one of these papers.
‘The lot’ came to be mistrusted. Some feared leaders could manipulate the lot by rewording and redrawing it until they got the answer they wanted. Others, influenced by the Enlightenment, suggested that God was too rational to use such a haphazard system and that the lot was just a matter of luck. By 1800 it was no longer being used in the Moravian churches.
For further insights, see Nigel Tomes, After the Founding Fathers; Historical Case Studies.
The Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers, made a big impact in Britain and America, particularly in the 17th century. Unconventional, largely working class, and given to headline-grabbing methods of spreading the gospel, they carried unusual power – which they attributed to the “inner light” of God in each member. For a good overview of Quaker faith and practice, follow this link.
When it comes to leadership succession (the subject of this series of posts), we search in vain for any succession planning among the early Quakers. There may be two main reasons for this: their accent on mission and, linked with it, the persecutions and imprisonments that they faced. Potential successors to their pioneer and founder, George Fox, might not live to see the day, nor be available for training!
One scholar writes: ‘George Whitehead, by his age, his consistent character and eminent services, approached nearest to the position of successor to George Fox in Britain. His connection with Quakerism dated from its commencement in the north, and he was one of the “valiant sixty” sent out on mission to plant new ‘societies’ in 1654. At eighteen years of age he was the Quaker apostle of Norfolk, and through all the fiery trial of the first generation he bore his full share of labour and of suffering. His comrades succumbed to the rigours of imprisonment; but he survived to the venerable age of 87, and fulfilled 68 years of ministry. When they buried him in Bunhill Fields, in 1722-3, the Quakers lost the last link which connected them with the birth-time of their society.’
This would be entirely consistent with Fox’s insistence on the “inner light” – the Holy Spirit’s inspired guidance in all things. To structure and plan over much would be to overrule the Spirit by the human. Although some might say that the Society of Friends eliminated the clergy, it is more accurate to say that it eliminated the laity. Every Friend (member) was ‘a saint in Christ Jesus’ and should be a minister of religion, a prophet, a mystic, an evangelist, a church administrator – and a potential apostle.
The Quakers have continued to this day, but in a very different form and spirit from the origins. There is still no succession planning, for the same reasons as above, but a web search throws up plenty of material on “Quakers in Transition”. This is telling. Having deliberately thrown out apostolic succession and other things of “hireling ministry” (as they called it, see John 10:12-13), and having with time lost the inspirations and the prophetic anointing of their origins, it remains to be seen how they will handle issues of leadership transition and succession.
My last posts have looked at the model of leadership succession that held unquestioned sway in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches for nearly 1500 years. Then came the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Their champions re-examined many of the centuries-old traditions of the established Church and pressed for sweeping change in doctrine and practice.
What do Protestant theologians make of Apostolic Succession? There is no fixed consensus. Some conservative Anglicans believe that apostolic succession is important as a link to the first church. I once met a bishop of an independent Episcopal denomination in America who carried with him a ‘family tree’ showing his supposed succession going right back to St Peter.
Protestants who reject apostolic succession generally do so from three angles:
- It is a historical fallacy. Early church history is sketchy and records are incomplete. It is hard to justify a clear and undisputed timeline of leaders from the Apostles to the present day.
- It was political expediency, invented by corrupt leaders to establish power and control.
- It is irrelevant. It may have been useful in combating heresy in the first centuries, but it is not explicitly found in the Bible, so we are under no obligation to hold to it. Besides, they point out, the New Testament uses ‘bishop’, ‘presbyter’ and ‘priest’ as alternative names for the same office.
In general, Protestant denominations deny the need of maintaining episcopal continuity with the early Church, holding that the role of the apostles was to be a foundation and that a foundation is not constantly re-laid, but built upon (Eph.2:20). When the apostles died, runs the argument, they were replaced by their writings. To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only meaningful continuity.
There is, however, a Protestant belief in what we might call a “faithful succession” – a spiritual connection to the heart, vision and practice of the first Apostles, in four main areas:
Perseverance in the apostles’ teaching
Commitment to preaching and the proclamation of the gospel
Right celebration of the sacraments, principally baptism and communion
Commissioning others into key areas of service by prayer and the laying on of hands.
Today, Anglicans are passed over by traditional Roman Catholics as being outside the apostolic succession. Anglicans in turn question the validity of Methodist holy orders, because John Wesley stepped outside the apostolic succession to promote his movement. But whose apostolic succession are they meaning? They went out from us, but they were not of us (1 John 2:9) can be used by anyone as a convenient stick to beat others with!
Some Protestant churches, such as Anglicans / Episcopalians, Lutherans, Moravians and Methodists, maintain a version of Apostolic Succession, which they prefer to call “historic episcopate“. I hope to devote a post or two to some examples.
Leadership succession is a big issue in churches and ‘streams’ right now. The appointment of relative outsiders to be the new Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury show that the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations are concerned to have the right person at the helm for a new generation of the Church. Both seem to be making good headway and generating respect.
The many “new churches” that sprang up in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s are having to face the issues too. Their leaders are now in their seventies at least. Having turned away from traditional ordination, what models are there for succession? Does any one seem more fruitful than others? When should a senior pastor initiate the process?
I was asked by my own church to research succession and the process of transition in churches in history. Over the next posts I’ll look at some of the issues, with examples that I found helpful. Logic suggests we start at the beginning, with succession in the Early Church.
The earliest church communities had been founded by itinerant apostles and their teams. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that, when a need arose, suitably qualified men would be considered before God by the governing corpus of apostles, with prayer and fasting [Acts 13:1-3]. On one occasion we find the drawing of lots [Acts 1:21-26. The apostle’s (or apostles’) selection was ratified by the assembly of the local church, leading to commissioning. There is, however, little practical documentation of how prospective successors and key leaders were trained.
With time, the cultural contexts in which those churches were planted produced a variety of patterns for local leadership, some informed by Jewish models, others by Greco-Roman society. By the end of the 1st century, the pattern that emerged was a threefold, “cascade” structure:
(1) A single pastor-bishop, elected by each community and commissioned by a senior apostolic bishop. He presided over all aspects of the congregation’s life and worship. According to Hippolytus’s ‘Apostolic Traditions’, an episkopos, or senior bishop, should be at least 50 years of age. He was empowered to commission and ordain the second tier, namely:
(2) A shared ministry of leaders known as presbyters / priests / elders, elected by the local church-community, who oversaw the life of the church-community under the leadership of the bishop. These were empowered to commission and ordain the third tier, namely:
(3) Service-oriented ministers, called deacons, who assisted the bishop and the presbyter-elders in both ministry and worship [Acts 6:1-7].
In the first generations of the church, each man in tier 1 was expected to find, train and commission men into tier 2. In time, however, training became more a matter of schools; candidates were sent away from churches to be trained as leaders, rather than being trained within them.
Men in tier 2 were expected to find, train and commission both men and women to serve as deacons.
It is sometimes argued that the Didache (or ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’), dated by most scholars to the late 1st century, disproves such a ‘cascade’. Chapter 15 contains the words: Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Some observers see in the words “for yourselves” a more democratic, grass-roots process than a monarchical one. However, the Didache may simply be describing the process we find in Acts 6, where the Jerusalem congregation was told to put forward suitable and respected candidates, whom the apostles then commissioned by the laying on of hands. For further discussion of the Didache on leadership, follow this link.
The Ordained Ministry in the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Church, chapter ‘Ministry in the Second Christian Century, 90 – 210 AD’, which includes a detailed look at Hippolytus’s Didascalia (‘Apostolic Traditions’).
Thomas M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries.
Since posting this, I have received some helpful insights and comments from David Valentine, via the ‘Patristics for Protestants’ Facebook page. He has kindly given his permission to reproduce them here.
On the tier 1 bishops, for example, the evidence for such mono-episcopacy is far thinner than this article would suggest. As the big promoter of this model, Ignatius of Antioch appears to be the exception rather than the norm – and even he is not inside the first century, as the article implies. The evidence of Clement of Rome, Hermas, Justin and every Roman source (before we even reach non literary evidence such as archaeology) is of a more collegiate, team-based leadership, at least in the imperial capital, until near the end of the second century, when Irenaeus starts providing bishop lists that lack any corroborating evidence in the surviving literature before his time. He may be publishing something accurate, but we lack the evidence to check this and everything else says no, at least for Rome. In Alexandria, working back from Origen’s time (only decades after Irenaeus, and less after Hippolytus) the same pattern seems to be repeated as with Rome: teams of presbyters working together, with a fairly sudden appearance of mono-episcopacy in the first half of the third century, even later than Rome. Smaller cities may have had single leaders earlier, but in the case of Antioch alone (a big city) we have this strong tier 1 model.
Some excellent Anglican studies have suggested that the role of ‘bishop’ was simply that of the relatively rich householders who hosted meetings. It was only good manners that the hosts should preside, unless an apostle or prophet (according to Didache) was present; but this was not simply intended to perpetuate the existing social structure within the Church for all time.
I agree with your observation that the apostles tended to let local churches sort themselves out and be as autonomous as possible, with exceptions as the apostles discerned the need for more direction. Clement of Rome does point to an ongoing respect for the appointments of the apostles, but he can be placed as early as AD 68 – contemporary with the last canonical literature – rather than the ’90’s.
Having waded and brooded for some years on these things, I remain sceptical about what happened after the apostles. We just don’t know if there was a scheme of succession and how it worked. Paul’s own trajectory could even have set a precedent for charismatic leadership appointed in each generation by God. If the Lord could simply leapfrog the Twelve and start a new stream with a fresh appointment, then Paul’s model of seeking ‘the right hand of fellowship’ to ensure continuity while starting a whole new apostolic stream, could have been perpetuated after him, as it has throughout church history. Wesley, for example, sidestepped Anglican tradition and initiated his own ‘apostolic stream’ by ordaining ministers, and this fresh stream has continued through Methodism and Pentecostalism. Perhaps Paul is the real precedent here.
In the early 18th century, a revival took place in middle Europe that has received little attention. It had something most unusual about it: it was a revival among the children.
Lutherans were being increasingly marginalised by the Roman Catholic authorities in Silesia, (the borderlands of Poland and Czech today), but the schoolchildren would not accept this. Some time in 1707, the children of Sprottau (today Szprotawa) started to meet in the field outside the town, two or three times a day, to pray for peace in the land and for freedom of religion. They would read some Psalms, sing hymns and pray, some of them lying prostrate, and close with a blessing.
The movement spread through the mountain villages of Upper Silesia and into the towns. Not all adults were happy about this, fearing the consequences; some tried locking their children in the house, but they would climb out of the windows! In some villages, Roman Catholic children joined the Lutheran children to pray.
Some adults were drawn to the move of God. They would form a circle around the praying children. In some places, the combined number might reach 300 souls. Magistrates brought pressure to bear to disperse these meetings. One bailiff came with a whip, but when he heard the prayers, he could not use it.
Out of this “children’s revival” grew a movement of renewal that touched the area. In time, it found its centre in the Lutheran Jesuskirche church in Teschen (now Cieszyn), which opened in 1750. Here, so many attended services that hundreds had to stand outside the building. Sunday services began at 8 a.m. and continued through the day, in several languages. In turn, the Teschen church provided some of the original members of Count Zinzendorf’s community and fellowship at Herrnhut, known in the English-speaking world as the Moravians.
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.