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.

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Tertullian: What is the fear of God? How do I know the fear of the Lord?

They say that God is not to be feared; therefore all things are in their view free and unchecked. Where, however is God not feared, except where He is not? Where God is not, there truth also is not. Where there is no truth, then, naturally enough, there is also such a discipline as theirs. But where God is, there exists “the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10; Prov. 1:7) Where the fear of God is, there is seriousness, an honorable and yet thoughtful diligence, as well as an anxious carefulness and a well-considered admission (to the sacred ministry) and a safely-guarded communion, and promotion after good service, and a scrupulous submission (to authority), and a devout attendance, and a modest gait, and a united church, and God in all things.

(Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 43)

 

I’ve struggled for quite some time with the explanation I often hear evangelical-types give about the phrase “the fear of the Lord.” “Of course,” we are told, “we do not really fear God, we just have a reverence, or respect for God.” Charmed, I am sure. I always got the feeling that whatever “fear of God” meant, I wasn’t being given a straight answer.

We are proficient at “interpreting” Scripture when it suits us. Rather, when Scripture is against us. Don’t feel like supporting your needy parents? Just say your goods are devoted to the Lord! Who can argue with that? It is not a new problem.

What Tertullian says about the fear of God certainly rings authentic to me. How do I know if a place, a people, is filled with the fear of God?

Is there seriousness?

Is there honorable, thoughtful diligence?

Is there safely guarded communion?

Is there submission?

Devout attention?

Modesty?

Unity?

How would these questions be answered at churches across the land? I fear to even contemplate. What if the answer to these questions is “no”? Then God is not there. Truth is not there.

No fear, no God.

Thank you for good medicine father Tertullian. O for more doctors so careful in their cures.

A question for pastors, treasurers, financial secretaries, etc.: Why does your church have a savings account?

My opinion of church business meetings vacillates somewhere between complete disinterest and abject abhorrence. When I was younger and knew everything, I wondered why the church I went to had so much money in accounts doing nothing but gaining interest. (It should be noted that, according to Jesus at least, this is only the next to the worst thing that can be done with money- Matt. 25; Luke 19). Now that I am older and know considerably less, I often wonder the same thing. Why do we have so much money in “savings” accounts? A man much wiser put forth the question far more eloquently than I can:

…it was far better to preserve souls than gold for the Lord. For He Who sent the apostles without gold also brought together the churches without gold. The Church has gold, not to store up, but to lay out, and to spend on those who need. What necessity is there to guard what is of no good? Do we not know how much gold and silver the Assyrians took out of the temple of the Lord? Is it not much better that the priests should melt it down for the sustenance of the poor, if other supplies fail, than that a sacrilegious enemy should carry it off and defile it? Would not the Lord Himself say: Why didst thou suffer so many needy to die of hunger? Surely thou hadst gold? Thou shouldst have given them sustenance. Why are so many captives brought on the slave market, and why are so many unredeemed left to be slain by the enemy? It had been better to preserve living vessels than gold ones.

Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, 2.28.137

Why do we have savings accounts when there are souls that need to be saved? I am not sure the Lord is going to be too impressed with our rainy day funds on the Day of His appearing.

Gregory of Nazianzus On Man’s Greatest Pleasure

For nothing is so pleasant to men as talking of other people’s business, especially under the influence of affection or hatred, which often almost entirely blinds us to the truth.

Oration 2 (In Defence of His Flight to Pontus), 1

A stickler might quibble over the taxonomy of sin. There is a perverse pleasure in hateful speech, and a warped joy in the blind lover’s gushing. The pleasures might be different, but they are nevertheless real.

May the Lord keep me from three great sins: talking of other’s business, being overly enamored, hatred.

Gregory of Nazianzus: Prophet of Fundamentalism?

We have opened to all not the gates of righteousness, but, doors of railing and partisan arrogance; and the first place among us is given, not to one who in the fear of God refrains from even an idle word, but to him who can revile his neighbor most fluently, whether explicitly, or by covert allusion; who rolls beneath his tongue mischief and iniquity, or to speak more accurately, the poison of asps.

We observe each other’s sins, not to bewail them, but to make them subjects of reproach, not to heal them, but to aggravate them, and excuse our own evil deeds by the wounds of our neighbors.  Bad and good men are distinguished not according to personal character, but by their disagreement or friendship with ourselves.  We praise one day what we revile the next, denunciation at the hands of others is a passport to our admiration; so magnanimous are we in our viciousness, that everything is frankly forgiven to impiety.

Gregory of Nazianzus, In Defence of His Flight To Pontus 79-80

The Virginia Tech Shootings and Aurora Colorado

(The following is something I wrote for the church I was attending when the 2007 Virgina Tech shootings occurred. There are several important points of contact with the recent tragedy in Aurora Colorado.)

Like many of you, I spent a portion of Monday night watching news coverage of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. My attention was arrested by a particular comment from one of the anchormen. As he interviewed two students who witnessed the carnage he commented that the shooter seemed to act “methodically, like in the movies like you see people reload in the movies and on television.” To which, one student replied, “Yeah he was… he looked to be trained in how fast he loaded the gun.”[1] My thoughts immediately turned to statements of the church fathers concerning theater. For centuries, a primary argument made against the theater was that it taught people how to commit sin. What could motivate a person to savagely slay 32 souls? Could television and the movies really be the source of his training? Consider the following testimony:

 …on what ground is it right to hear what we must not speak? For all licentiousness of speech, nay, every idle word, is condemned by God. Why, in the same way, is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? How is it that the things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, are not regarded as doing so when they go in at his eyes and ears—when eyes and ears are the immediate attendants on the spirit—and that can never be pure whose servants-in-waiting are impure?…What you reject in deed, you are not to bid welcome to in word.[2]

Each generation is reminded by what it hears, that whatever has once been done may be done again. Crimes never die out by the lapse of ages; wickedness is never abolished by process of time; impiety is never buried in oblivion. Things which have now ceased to be actual deeds of vice become examples. In the mimes, moreover, by the teaching of infamies, the spectator is attracted either to reconsider what he may have done in secret, or to hear what he may do. Adultery is learnt while it is seen…[3]

I am ashamed to tell what things are said; I am even ashamed to denounce the things that are done—the tricks of arguments, the cheatings of adulterers, the immodesties of women, the scurrile jokes, the sordid parasites, even the toga’d fathers of families themselves, sometimes stupid, sometimes obscene, but in all cases dull, in all cases immodest…People flock thither to the public disgrace of the brothel for the teaching of obscenity, that nothing less may be done in secret than what is learnt in public; and in the midst of the laws themselves is taught everything that the laws forbid. What does a faithful Christian do among these things, since he may not even think upon wickedness? Why does he find pleasure in the representations of lust, so as among them to lay aside his modesty and become more daring in crimes? He is learning to do, while he is becoming accustomed to see. [4]

Why should I speak of the actors of mimes, who hold forth instruction in corrupting influences, who teach adulteries while they feign them, and by pretended actions train to those which are true? What can young men or virgins do, when they see that these things are practiced without shame, and willingly beheld by all? They are plainly admonished of what they can do, and are inflamed with lust, which is especially excited by seeing… And they approve of these things, while they laugh at them, and with vices clinging to them, they return more corrupted to their apartments… [5]

The suggestion almost seems too fantastic. Who would be naive enough to believe that TV or movies would cause a person to kill 32 people and then take his own life? For centuries, the church made such an assertion, and its accuracy is once again demonstrated. On Wednesday, New York Times reporter Mike Nizza, in commenting on the materials the killer mailed to NBC, wrote, “The inspiration for perhaps the most inexplicable image in the set that Cho Seung-Hui mailed to NBC news on Monday may be a movie from South Korea that won the Gran Prix prize at Cannes Film Festival in 2004.”[6] The next day, SKY news reported on the same material, “In the chilling video Cho also appears to re-enact scenes from a film detectives say he had repeatedly watched in the days leading up to the massacre.”[7] So where did this young man receive his training? Not in the military. Not a secret jihadi war camp. He learned it in his room…sitting in front of his television.

For centuries, wise leaders of the church railed against all forms of the dramatic arts as inherently sinful. The world continues to demonstrate the fruit of witnessing, learning, and nurturing unrestrained passions. The sinfulness of the world is not the problem, however. If judgment indeed begins in the house of God, the problem is with us.

Consider your weekly TV and movie viewing habits. What blasphemy, what deceit have you been taught? What murder, what adultery have you learned? What judgment, what condemnation have you earned? What grace, what mercy have you spurned? Marvel not at the destruction that is wrought: a person does as he is taught. Ask instead why you continue to teach yourself and your children such things.


[1]NBC Nightly News, April 16, 2007.

[2]Tertullian, De Spectaculis available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.iv.v.xvii.html

[3]Cyprian, Epistle to Donatus available online at http://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.iv.i.html

[4]Anonymous, On the Public Shows (attributed to Cyprian) available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.vii.ii.html

[5]Lactantius, Divine Institutes, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf07.iii.ii.vi.xx.html

Wisdom from my fathers: Cyprian On the Mortality

It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. Therefore until this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal receive immortality, and the Spirit lead us to God the Father, whatsoever are the disadvantages of the flesh are common to us with the human race. Thus, when the earth is barren with an unproductive harvest, famine makes no distinction; thus, when with the invasion of an enemy any city is taken, captivity at once desolates all; and when the serene clouds withhold the rain, the drought is alike to all; and when the jagged rocks rend the ship, the shipwreck is common without exception to all that sail in her; and the disease of the eyes, and the attack of fevers, and the feebleness of all the limbs is common to us with others, so long as this common flesh of ours is borne by us in the world.

Unless the battle has preceded, there cannot be a victory: when there shall have been, in the onset of battle, the victory, then also the crown is given to the victors. For the helmsman is recognized in the tempest; in the warfare the soldier is proved. It is a wanton display when there is no danger. Struggle in adversity is the trial of the truth.

Why, then, do we pray and ask that the kingdom of heaven may come, if the captivity of earth delights us.

There is no advantage in setting forth virtue by our words, and destroying the truth by our deeds.

We regard paradise as our country—we already begin to consider the patriarchs as our parents: why do we not hasten and run, that we may behold our country, that we may greet our parents?

The preceding words are all from the treatise On the Mortality by Cyprian of Carthage. The occasion of the treatise was an outbreak of a plague. The treatise offers good medicine to one of the ills of the Western church: the idea that God wants you to be, and even promises you will be, healthy and prosperous. Cyprian demonstrates the Scriptural, theological, and logical reasons such thinking must be abandoned.

A Church Father walked into a chapel service in Wisconsin…

“On Thursday, March 15, a plethora of special student-led activities heralded the opening day of the NCAA tournament. The chapel hour was dedicated to the festivities, with the entire Northland family gathering in the gym to hear members of the Athletic Department staff discuss their bracket picks, to watch clips of tournament highlights from the past several years, and to cheer on fellow students who attempted close-up, free-throw line,and half-court shots for a chance to win various prizes. After chapel, pizza was served picnic-style, encouraging students to enjoy the bright sunshine and each other’s company. Dinner was served the same way and was followed by Quartermania in the Rec.Hall, with root beer floats, shaved ice, and various other treats available for $.25 throughout the evening.” (http://ni.edu/about-us/news/spring-2012/march-madness/)

We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition, when we give up the very things which are the basis of their representations. Among us nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theater, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground. Why do you take offense at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures? If we will not partake of your enjoyments, the loss is ours, if there be loss in the case, not yours. We reject what pleases you. You, on the other hand, have no taste for what is our delight.

Tertullian, Apology, 38

Creation: How Does the Bible Interpret Genesis 1?

As we consider the debate between those who hold to believe in some form of evolution and those who believe in the traditional Christian belief in direct creation by God over the course of six 24-hour days; one question that has to be answered is “What does the Bible say about the creation of the universe.” In other words, it does not really matter what the traditional Christian belief is. The central question is, “What does the Bible, in fact, teach?” Or, to put it more humbly, “What does the Bible seem to teach?” As we consider texts that speak directly about the creation of the universe, what is the picture they paint?

Genesis 1 is obviously an important place to start. Several aspects demand our attention. First, there are the repeated “let there be” statements followed by “and there was;” “and it was so;” or “God made.” It is hard to escape the immediacy that these statements imply. Furthermore there are the repeated “there was evening, and there was morning, the first [second/third/fourth etc.] day.” In any other discourse if someone talked like this there would be little chance of being misunderstood. If someone made an appointment and said, “After three evening and mornings, after three days, I will meet you.” It would be, or should be, pretty clear when the meeting was supposed to happen. Granted, there are some biblical contexts in which “day” does not mean a 24-hour time period. But our basic methodology is not to ask what a word can possibly mean from other contexts, but what a word most likely means in its present context. We must investigate how the Bible speaks about creation and its days in other contexts that speak of creation; not how it speaks about “days” in contexts that have nothing to do with creation.

This leads to a consideration of Exodus 20:8-11 a context that speaks of days and creation. The Israelites were commanded to work 6 days of the week and cease from their labor on the seventh day of the week. There is no ambiguity here and all interpreters can only assert that such a command was understood and practiced with a literal understanding of the words. The Israelites worked Sunday through Friday and ceased labors on Saturday. Even now, nearly 4,000 years later, the Jewish people practice this. Verse 11 appears to be equally unambiguous: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” The six days of labor for the Israelites match the six days of labor of the Lord. What indication is there in the text that anyone should take verses 8-10 literally, but not verse 11? Indeed, the very basis for a literal interpretation for verses 8-10 is a literal interpretation of verse 11. When the Bible speaks of days and creation, the Bible seems to interpret the event literally.

But what about the act of creation? How does the Bible present the act of creation outside of Genesis? Consider the following texts:

 Psalm 33:6-9  By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

Psalm 148:1-5- Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created.

Isaiah 45:12, 18- I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Romans 4:17  as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

2Peter 3:5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God,

Hebrews 11:3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

Again, what is the impression that these verses leave the reader with. It certainly seems that the Bible wants its reader to believe that everything that came into existence came into existence because of the command of the Lord. It appears that the Psalmist, Isaiah, Paul, Peter, and author of Hebrews all understood Genesis chapter one in a “literal” manner.

A common method of contrarians is to atomize the Bible. They seek to separate texts off from one another and explain away details through using irrelevant data. It is certainly important to know the lexical meanings a word can have: even the word day.[1] But the safest way of interpretation is to seek what a word means in its own context and in contexts that are closest in content. If you want to know what “day” means in Genesis 1, look for how the Bible speaks about creation.

When the Bible talks about creation it constantly does so in a way that reinforces a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Maybe that is why the church has believed it for 2,000 years.


[1] Basil the Great makes a forceful point: “It is the opposite of day which was called night, and it did not receive its name until after day. Thus were created the evening and the morning, Scripture means the space of a day and a night, but calls them both under the name of the more important: a custom which you will find throughout Scripture, Everywhere the measure of time is counted by days, without mention of nights. ‘The days of our years,’ says the Psalmist. ‘Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been,’ said Jacob, and elsewhere ‘all the days of my life.’ Thus under the form of history the law is laid down for what is to follow.” (Hexaemeron, Homily 2). Critics debate over what the word “day” means all the while ignoring that God himself define is in the the text: evening and morning.

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 11 The Father and Son share one Glory One Power

Though considered the 11th sermon in the series, this sermon is in some ways a first even though it was second. Confused yet? It appears that this sermon was the second sermon that John Chrysostom preached in Constantinople after his appointment as bishop. After an introduction in which he encourages his hearers and alludes to some elements of his first sermon in Constantinople, the preacher delves into the subject matter rather conversationally (1-7).[1]

Would it be better to base argument on the Old Testament or the New? Chrysostom astutely observed that it would be better to start with the Old Testament. He reasons that using the Old Testament allows him to confront a greater number of heretics (8). In many ways his reasoning still applies today. Non-Christians are not going to be surprised if the New Testament speaks of the glory of Jesus. No one is surprised to find Ipads in an Apple store. But if the glory of Christ can be demonstrated from the Old Testament, it is an even more impressive argument apologetically speaking.

Chrysostom begins at the beginning with the statement “Let us make man in our own image” (12-13). By saying “Let us” the Father demonstrates that the Son is an equal part in the work of creation. The Father has no counselor: Scripture makes this clear. But to show the glory of the Son, Scripture calls him Wonderful Counselor. No man knows the mind of the Lord. No one knows the Father except the Son. The Father creates man in counsel with the Son.

Together they make man in the image of God.

…when God said: “Let us make man,” he did not add: “According to your image which is less than mine.” Nor did he say: “According to my image which is greater than yours. What did God say? “According to our image and likeness.” And by speaking in this way, he showed that there is a single image of the Father and the Son. (23-24)

Chrysostom supports this assertion of equal power and glory with some careful exegesis. He notes to sit on a throne demonstrates power and glory, while to stand at a throne demonstrates the mark of a subordinate waiting for orders (25). So the Old Testament several times makes mention of the myriad of hosts attending the throne.[2] The Son is not one of these countless ministers to the Lord. The Son is seated with the Father, sharing in one glory.

Chrysostom concludes in his customary fashion: a pastoral exhortation. The preacher encourages his hearers not to forsake the assembly. Church[3] is where believers are fed by the word of the Lord (30). The gathering of the church is to be valued above all earthly treasure, there is nothing more valuable (31-33). The mere attendance is an encouragement to believers and a shame to the enemies of the cross (33-37). The habit of gathering serves to encourage other believers to faithfulness. When Christians see other members of the church lax in their attendance it is discouraging to them and might lead them to stop attending as well. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is what the church is: the body of Christ. As its head, Christ is always present when his church gathers. But where is his body?

Therefore, do not let the head to be allowed to set foot in this sacred place without its body, let not the body be seen without its head, but let whole human beings come in, head and body… (39)


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] Dan. 7:9-10; Is. 6:1-2; 1 Kings 22:19

[3] By “church” I mean the gathered assembly of believers to worship the Lord and edify one another.