Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tertullian - The Heretical Defender of Orthodoxy

Tertullian was an interesting, not to mention a controversial, individual. He worked to clarify many of the key doctrinal issues of his day. He also held a number of debatable positions. He probably coined the term "Trinity," and he defended it against all comers. He opposed those who said that God could could not become man because matter is evil and who also advocated a complicated hierarchy of divine manifestations. He also opposed the idea that God merely manifested Himself in different forms at different times. Though he had not fully thought it through, he held that God was Three in One at the same time, which made it  possible to maintain the deity of Christ, without denying or diminishing the reality of the Incarnation. He was also a defender of the Christian faith in opposition to paganism. In doing this, he took a strong stand against Greek philosophy, which he held was the source of many of the doctrinal ideas he opposed.

But even more than Irenaeus, he emphasized the continuity of the church and the teachings it passed on as the key preventative of doctrinal error. Then he became a Montanist. The Montanists were a break-off sect that emphasized the charismatic gifts, particularly speaking in tongues and prophesy, which were no longer widely practiced in the more conventional branch of the  church. Therefore, we have an interesting irony that one of the chief defenders of the continuity of the church ended up becoming part of a break-off sect. But Tertullian's original teaching continued despite this. One of his disciples, Cyprian, affirmed that it was wrong to break the unity of the organizational church for any reason and that those who did so would lose their salvation.

 But Tertullian's greatest weakness was his tendency toward legalism and strictness. He was in favor of a strict set of rules. He also advocated dealing sternly with Christians who fell into clear-cut sin. He is to be commended for taking his Christianity seriously; I am convinced that is the reason he joined the Montanists. But his idea of serious Christianity was harsh and unloving. This could have been his response to the persecution of Christians in his time, which resulted in Christians who had failed in some way being looked down on.

All in all, Tertullian was a complicated mix, who contributed things good and bad to the history of the church. But he is an indication of how people cannot always be forced into the nice, neat categories that we might want to put them in.       

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