Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tertullian and the Parables (part 1)


Tertullian (ca. 155 – ca. 225) is responsible for some of the best-known quotations from the early Church. For example (all quotes but one are from CCEL):

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death (Apology 39; CCEL notes that this apparent praise may be made in the context of mockery of Christians by others).

. . . men are made, not born, Christians (Apology 16).

This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued.
. . .
But go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer . . . .
Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed (Apology 50).

The Son of God was born: shameful, and therefore there is no shame. The Son of God died: absurd, and therefore utterly credible. He was buried and rose again: impossible, and therefore a fact (De Carne Christi 5; Bettenson 126).

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” [referring to Acts 3:5] who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart” [Wisdom of Solomon 1:1]. The Prescription Against Heretics 7)

If I should offer you a rose, you will not disdain its Maker (Against Marcion 15)

Tertullian’s writings offer little information about himself (e.g., he does not even give his full name, although he famously refers to himself as “Tertullian, a sinner”; De Carne Christi 59.3), but the 53rd chapter of Jerome’s Lives of Illustrious Men, “Tertullian the Presbyter,” contains a brief account of some details of Tertullian’s life. Not all the details in Jerome’s treatment seem accurate, but it seems clear that Tertullian was raised as a non-Christian in Carthage in Africa. He appears to have been converted to Christianity after witnessing the courage of Christian martyrs (see Repentance 1.1; see also the above quote about the “blood of Christians”). Less likely, however, are Jerome’s claims that Tertullian was a presbyter and that Tertullian’s father was proconsul or centurion (see Wilhite 19). Some other details are found in the Eusebius’s Church History (2.2.4), who says that Tertullian was a “well versed in the laws of the Romans.” Some scholars like Adolph Harnack interpreted that statement to mean that Tertullian was a lawyer, even equating him with another Tertullianus, a lawyer who lived in Rome and wrote a legal reference book, but that identification most certainly is incorrect. Although Tertullian’s writings contain some legal terminology, those may simply derive from his brilliance as a rhetorician. In addition, scholars also debate whether Tertullian actually became a Montanist as Jerome claimed (Montanism stressed asceticism, eschatology, the immediacy of the Holy Spirit [the Paraclete] including ecstatic prophecy). It is clear, however, that this puritanical movement, which called itself “New Prophecy,” attracted him, with the prophetic immediacy of the outpouring of the Paraclete and its rigorously ascetic lifestyle. For Tertullian, doctrine and ethics were inherently intertwined, and his goal was to obey the demanding law of Christ.  

Tertullian was a vehement apologist for Christianity, polemicist against those he perceived to be heretics, and interpreter of Scripture. He advocated a rigorous, uncompromising Christianity, and his writings advise Christians to separate themselves from pagans to avoid contaminating themselves with their idolatry and immorality. He also defends Christians as good citizens within the Roman Empire, refutes pagan attacks against Christianity, and assails paganism (see his Apology).

Tertullian authored at least thirty-one writings over a span of approximately twenty-five years—the earliest extant Christian writings in Latin (although he also wrote a few in Greek). As a rhetorician who was in vigorous debates with his opponents, Tertullian’s interpretation of Scripture was sometimes contingent on the necessities of the debates in which he found himself. (Dunn, in Bingham 2010: 155). Since Tertullian wrote in in the heat of battle, his use of Scripture is not consistent, but he preferred unadorned simplicity to speculative allegory. Since Tertullian used Scripture as testimony against the speculative doctrines of those like the Gnostics, he wanted to demonstrate certitude with a style of brevity, conciseness, and simplicity. As a rhetorician, he started with what was clear and obvious—often using logic or customary practice as the basis for his arguments—and built his case from there (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 19). Although he recognized the presence of allegory in Scripture, he was restrained in his use of it; the allegorical was used only after the literal is demonstrated to be inadequate (Against Marcion 3.5.3, 4; McKim 2007: 965). He preferred a literal understanding of Scripture when possible, a restraint also partly due to the Gnostics’ extensive use of allegory (see On the Resurrection of the Flesh 63). 

The next post will continue discussing Tertullian’s interpretation of Scripture in general before focusing on Tertullian's interpretations of selected parables.

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