Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tertullian and the Parables (part 2)

A bit more context is needed before discussing Tertullian’s utilizations of the parables. Some comparison with Irenaeus is helpful as well.

In a way similar to Irenaeus, Tertullian argues from the “rule of faith” found in scripture (i.e. the essential doctrines of authentic apostolic tradition). Against Marcion, he, like Irenaeus, declares that the God of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures was one and the same. The rightful use of scripture is determined and practiced by the church with the focal point being the authority of the bishops and, through apostolic succession, receiving that authority from Christ through the apostles and the (legitimate) succession of bishops. Tertullian also, like Irenaeus, believes in the coherence of Scripture, so any apparently relevant passage in Scripture may be used to interpret another passage; obscure passages are interpreted by the clear ones; and when interpreting a text, one must take the whole of Scripture into account. 

More relevant to the parables, Tertullian explains his principles of interpretation and his views about literal and allegorical interpretations in his work, Against Marcion. He argues that Christ is the Son of God who created the world, was predicted by the prophets, and was made incarnate (3.5). Tertullian then observes that some types of scripture, like aspects of prophetic writings, do not permit a literal reading. The “prophetic style” means that “very many events are figuratively predicted by means of enigmas and allegories and parables, and that they must be understood in a sense different from the literal description.” Joel 3:18, for example (“the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk”), does not mean that the mountains actually will drip wine and that milk will flow down from the hills. And, in an apparent paraphrase of Isaiah 41:18-19, Tertullian points out that God does not literally “offer his services as a water-bailiff or a farmer when he says, ‘I will open rivers in a land; I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the box-tree.’” Such passages are allegorical and should be interpreted as such. Even when metaphorical elements occur, though, the literal aspects can still be critical, as in the case of the connection between the corporeal and the spiritual in the resurrection:

Now, although there is a sketch of the true thing in its image, the image itself still possesses a truth of its own: it must needs be, therefore, that must have a prior existence for itself, which is used figuratively to express some other thing. Vacuity is not a consistent basis for a similitude, nor does nonentity form a suitable foundation for a parable (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 30).

An example of Tertullian’s use of the parables to demonstrate the oneness of God, the continuity between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and the authority of the apostolic tradition may be found in his brief discussion of the Wheat and the Weeds parable. The parable becomes an important instrument in his rhetorical toolbox to argue against Marcion’s view that the “just” God of the Hebrew Bible was different from the “good” God of Christians. Thus in his The Prescription Against Heretics (Chapter 31, “Truth First, Falsehood Afterwards, as Its Perversion”) Tertullian interprets the wheat and weeds in a relatively simple figurative sense: the apostolic “truth” has priority over the heretical “falseness” as evidenced by the Lord sowing “the good seed of the wheat” first. Only later is the crop “adulterated” by the “useless weed of the wild oats” that is sown later by the “enemy the devil.” Tertullian also connects the seed of the parable of the Sower with the seeds in this parable to note that the word of God is the wheat seed in this parable:

For herein is figuratively described the difference of doctrines, since in other passages also the word of God is likened unto seed. From the actual order, therefore, it becomes clear, that that which was first delivered is of the Lord and is true, whilst that is strange and false which was afterwards introduced. This sentence will keep its ground in opposition to all later heresies, which have no consistent quality of kindred knowledge inherent in them—to claim the truth as on their side.

The next post will place Tertullian's views on the parables and allegory in the context of his view of Greek philosophy and the gnostics (i.e., the what has Athens to do with Jerusalem quote) and his interpretation of the Wise and Foolish Virgins parable.

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