Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tertullian (part 7): The Prodigal Son and Principles of Parable Interpretation

The Prodigal Son, Max Slevogt
 
I found this image on a website in Russian (translated into English by Chrome, fortunately; "Orthodoxy and the World"). The web page collects a number of images of the Prodigal Son parable, and it includes this painting of the Prodigal Son by Max Slevogt that I had never seen before. Thought I'd use this painting for my last post on Tertullian.
 
As noted in a previous post (see part 6), Tertullian charges that the ingenious interpretations of the parables by the "heretics" are predetermined by their theological presuppositions: “Loosed as they are from the constraints of the rule of truth, they have had leisure, of course, to search into and put together those things of which the parables seem (to be symbolical).”

Faced with that problem, Tertullian then offers some “general principles of parabolic interpretation” (On Modesty, Chapter 9). Interpreters should not “twist all things (into shape)” in their expositions, should avoid contradictions, and should not overextend allegorical meanings into every detail of a parable, because “the subtlety of forced explanations generally lead [one] away from the truth”: “There are, moreover, some points which are just simply introduced with a view to the structure and disposition and texture of the parable, in order that they may be worked up throughout to the end for which the typical example is being provided.”

How does this approach apply to the parable of the Prodigal Son? The context demands, Tertullian says, that this parable will have the same basic meaning as the other two “lost” parables in Luke 15 and that it speaks to the same problem: the “grumbling” of the Pharisees and scribes about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Tertullian also invokes the historical context to argue that the “publicans” were “heathens” (non-Jews): “if any doubts that in the land of Judea, subjugated as it had been long since by the hand of Pompey and of Lucullus, the publicans were heathens, let him read Deuteronomy: ‘There shall be no tribute-weigher of the sons of Israel’” In addition, Tertullian reasons that Jesus would not have been criticized for eating with Jews but only for eating with “heathens, from whose board the Jewish discipline excludes (its disciples).”

The younger brother cannot symbolize the Christian who wanders away from God, who squanders away such gifts as baptism and the Holy Spirit and eternal hope, because then “the whole ‘substance’ of the sacrament is most truly wasted away.” An apostate cannot recover the “garment,” the robe of the Holy Spirit and the “ring,” the sign and seal of baptism, because then “Christ will again be “slaughtered.” If that were true, Christians would not be afraid to “squander” what they could easily recover, because such security whets an appetite for sin.

Instead of these "false interpretations," Tertullian wants to recover the meaning intended by Jesus: “our interpretation shall be simply governed with an eye to the object the Lord had in view.” Jesus came to save the perishing, so, as noted above, the younger brother signifies the “heathen” who could have recognized the wisdom of God but didn’t (cf. Rom. 1:21). Although they had received wisdom from God, they “squandered it” through their moral failings and handed themselves over to “the prince of this world.” Then, lacking the sustenance of “vital food,” they saw Christians engaged in God’s work, who had an “abundance of heavenly bread.” The heathen then “remember” that God is their Father and return to the father to receive “again” what they had lost through the transgression of Adam and to feed on the “‘fatness’ of the Lord’s body,—the Eucharist.” It is thus the “heathen” who return to God who become and objects of envy as noted by the text: “of course it is immediately over the first calling of the Christian that the Jew groans, not over his second restoration: for the former reflects its rays even upon the heathen; but the latter, which takes place in the churches, is not known even to the Jews.”

That ends the series of posts on Tertullian and the parables. I haven't decided yet where next to turn on the blog. Perhaps Origen.  

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