“Essentials” : Tertullian “The Apology” by Dr. Duane Arnold, PhD
For pastors, they can be a blessing or a curse. I’ve experienced both. They can build up and strengthen a local church, or they can split it in half. They can be your closest confidant in a congregation, or your most bitter adversary.
They can end their time lauded and honored within their community of faith, or they can abandon their fellowship in search of something “more pure”, “more correct”. I’m speaking, of course, about the theologically well read lay person. Ask any pastor or priest and they will have stories to tell, although they may be guarded in what they will reveal. Get together a group of clergy, speaking honestly with each other, and all the stories will come out.
Now, I happen to be an advocate of the theologically well read lay person. Indeed, it was originally my intent as I was reading for my PhD to simply be a lay theologian, which I considered to be an honorable calling, but other forces intervened. In every parish or church in which I have served, I’ve always initiated a program of adult Christian Education, using the very same notes that I used for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in university settings. You see, I believe that we often don’t present adults with the level of Christian education of which they are deserving. We gather together a group which is comprised of adults. Some lack formal education, but through years of accumulated experience in the home or work place, they have a native intelligence, curiosity, and a vast store of wisdom and discernment. Others in the group are university graduates. Still others are professionals. They are doctors, lawyers and teachers. Yet, so often, the material they are often offered in the name of Adult Christian Education is simplistic, or experientially based, or the “what do you think of this passage?” approach. Too often, we sell them short. They deserve better.
There is, however, the other side of the coin. That is the theologically literate lay person who makes himself or herself the arbitrator of all that is correct within the life of a local congregation, without, of course, any pastoral responsibility. Whether it is liturgy, theology, preaching, teaching, music or, indeed, even pastoral practice… they are the expert on what is right or wrong. Moreover, what is “correct” often changes according to the latest book they are reading or the latest interest they have engaged. In my experience, such people tend not to mellow with age, recognizing nuance, but rather become even more insistent on a narrower and narrower view of what is correct, in both doctrine and practice. Most often the pastoral implications and problems engendered by their views and judgements are ignored altogether, at least by them.
The subject of our study today, may perhaps provide a case in point.
Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus was born of pagan parents in Carthage (north Africa) in circa AD 160. From his writings he appears to have been trained as a jurist or an advocate in the imperial Roman legal system. Tertullian converted to Christianity in about AD 193. St. Jerome suggests that Tertullian was a priest, although this is not indicated in any of Tertullian’s writings or other literature of the period. Recent scholarship suggests that he was not ordained. He claims no pastoral authority nor any attachment to a particular ecclesiastical community. Moreover the way in which he deals with theological subjects is slanted to be of interest particularly to the laity and generally reveals the attitudes of a highly educated layman.
Tertullian began writing soon after his conversion, with his most important work, The Apology, being written in AD 197. His literary career would span almost twenty-five years. Most commentators on Tertullian break his numerous writings into three distinct periods: The catholic period, from AD 197-206, in which he promotes standard, orthodox views; The semi-Montanist period, from AD 206-212, in which he begins transitioning to the sect; and The Montanist period, from AD 213-220, during which time he fully embraces the tenets of the sect. After AD 220, we hear nothing more of Tertullian. Jerome tells us that he lived into old age, dying in the 240s. Other sources relate that he may have died as a martyr, although this is not a generally accepted position.
With Tertullian, we not only encounter one of the earliest Christian authors writing in Latin (the new vernacular of the empire) but we find an individual who embodies the theological developments and struggles of the early Church. As a convert, he is different from those we encounter in The Didache or in Ignatius of Antioch. He is from an affluent family, well educated and used to the rough and tumble of arguments in formal litigation. Tertullian is a man of his time. In his writings we find sarcasm, logic, plays on words and scant regard for authority as an end in itself – in other words, a lawyer. Even his journey from paganism, to orthodox Christianity, to the Montanists, tells us something of the tensions and pressures of the Church of his day and, indeed, may well speak to some of the issues of our own time.
In the space allotted, it is impossible to give a complete description of Montanism, but an outline may be helpful. Named after its founder, Montanus (c. AD 170) this was essentially a charismatic/eschatological movement, that initially was considered a sect of Christianity rather than an heretical movement. They exercised extreme rigor in terms of morality (no second marriages, even after the death of a spouse) and in terms of other church practices. Long fasts were obligatory. Flight to avoid martyrdom was prohibited. Even the length of women’s veils was specified. There was an anti-clericalism built into the movement as all believers were considered to be priests, for all could receive charismatic revelations, the gift of speaking in other languages, and prophecies and visions. Women, such as Maximilla and Priscilla (companions of Montanus) exercised the role of prophetesses, apparently along with others. Even Scripture – especially prophecies – could be interpreted in a form of “charismatic exegesis”, in which the ecstatic utterances would provide the eschatological keys to interpretation. Writing in 1881, the German scholar, G. Nathanael Bonwetsch, provides perhaps the best description of early Montanism:
It was an effort to shape the entire life of the church in keeping with the expectation of the return of Christ, immediately at hand; to define the essence of true Christianity from this point of view; and to oppose everything by which conditions in the church were to acquire a permanent form for the purpose of entering upon a longer historical development.
(Now, please note, I have quoted from a nineteenth-century scholar lest any one would accuse me of presenting a contemporary ad hominem argument regarding any particular contemporary group.)
That Tertullian would be attracted to such a sect is not wholly unexpected. In his writings, we can see, from one work to the next, the tone of rigor setting into his thinking. It is obvious that he felt the clergy were failing in their duties in terms of morality and pastoral practice, as he saw it. The only place left to go was a stricter, narrower definition of the faith which had the added benefit of immediate revelation and experience that confirmed his particular view of the Christian life.
The Apology, however, was written during his time as an ordinary catholic Christian and is a careful and polished apologetic filled with treasures. About the same length as Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, it can easily be read in an evening or two. There are fifty short chapters, each one consisting of a few paragraphs. While the overall shape of the book is apologetic in nature, it is also an evangelistic document calling on his readers to embrace the faith. Again, at heart, the apologetic, like that of Irenaeus, is based upon what can be witnessed in terms of how Christians live and conduct themselves:
Among us there is nothing to be said, nothing to be seen, nothing to be heard, of the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theater, the brutality of the arena, and of the vanity of physical culture. (38, 4)
Now I will explain the practices of the Christians… (39, 1)
What is perhaps the most extraordinary, is that all this is written in elegant Latin prose to the very people who are dragging Christians to the arena in Carthage to meet their deaths as martyrs. Yet even the persecution of the Church can be used by Tertuallian to provide an iconic phrase for the ages:
The more we are cut down by you, the more numerous we become.
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church… (50, 12)
If Tertullian had written nothing but this in The Apology, it would be worth its weight in gold. Yet, there is so much more to be discovered here…