Tertullian, the Pope, and the Church

In March, Lord willing, I will be traveling to Zambia to teach a course on the book of Hebrews to sophomores at International Bible College. In the process of preparing materials for the course I was gathering information for a sidebar on Tertullian and read a great summary and evaluation of his life and ministry:

When one only sees his thought in all its greatness, in the end, it is precisely this greatness that is lost. The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others’ weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We, instead, always need forgiveness.[1]

Tertullian’s place in the pantheon of theologians is illustrated by some of the appellations given him: “the father of Latin theology”, “the father of ecclesiastical Latin”, etc. Tertullian gave us the word Trinity. He was the first to use “person” and “substance” in Trinitarian discussion. He was the first to refer to the church as “mother.” On estimate credits him with coining over 900 terms. Humanly speaking, Tertullian provided the language of orthodox.

Yet he left the church. Through a desire for more rigorous holiness, he left the church for the heretical fellowship of the Montanists.

This remains a constant temptation. Man is proud. It is easier to look down on others than to come down to help them. There are some who seem to be always exposing the sin of others or trumpeting their own righteousness. It must be a miserable struggle to decide which sin to engage in today. But take rest troubled soul: exalting in your own righteousness or scorning the sin of others both end at the same destination.

One might say that Tertullian is the Barry Bonds of the church fathers. His theological talent and ability is recognized by all, but is forever marked by an asterisk. Because he was too good for the church, Tertullian was not a great theologian.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, The Fathers of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 34-35.

Helmut Thielicke on the Seduction of Truth

Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other man who does not know this and that. I have greater possibilities and also greater temptations. Anyone who deals with truth—as we theologians certainly do—succumb all too easily to the psychology of the possessor. But love is the opposite of the will to possess. It is self giving. It boasteth not itself, but humbleth itself. . . . This disdain is a real spiritual disease. It lies in the conflict between truth and love. This conflict is precisely the disease of theologians.

Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1962), 16, 17.

A Little Exercise is a book that should probably be required reading for every Bible college student and should certainly be required for every seminary student.

One thing I appreciated about my time in Bible college was the requirement to be involved in a local church ministry. This at least provided an opportunity to hinder the outbreak of the disease Thielicke discusses. It is certainly possible to be learning Monday through Friday and be an arrogant, pompous, know-it-all while serving on Sunday. But the great thing about 6 year olds is that they are not too easily impressed with all of your theological learnin’. I am thankful that I was not allowed to just go off and sit in judgment of some pastor who spent 70 hours caring for a flock and didn’t have the same three weeks I did to come up with an exegetical outline of Ezekiel 25.

“Knowledge is power.” Which is why it is so dangerous. Men like power and some find that knowledge is their best avenue to gaining it. These men are the most dangerous of the power-hungry. They seek to control people not through brute force—which can always be overcome by bruter force—but through a more insidious control of mind and will. Men like Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Jack Schaap tread the winepress of destruction with far greater effectiveness than any despot. Their body counts may be lower, but that is only because their victims live even while dead.

And you see how easily it is to put off this threat. Thielicke is not talking about cult leaders and despots. He is talking about pastors and professors. He is talking about men who love truth. But who love it too much. So here, if anywhere, is where all truth ceases to be God’s truth. When my grasp of the truth becomes the clutching of a bludgeon I have lost the very truth I pursue. For the wisdom from above is first peaceable…