Tertullian Misses the Gospel

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading through some of the early church Fathers. Overall, it’s been a rewarding experience, and at times even enjoyable. I’m not writing negatively because I think all good Protestants should bash the Fathers to prove their orthodoxy. On the contrary, we Protestants could probably use quite a bit more familiarity with and appreciation for the first five centuries of Christianity. I’m writing because Tertullian touched me emotionally, and when I read certain statements indicating a sub-biblical gospel, it hurt. It hurt because I really like Tertullian, and I didn’t want to see those things in his books. I’m also writing this because I think we Christians could benefit from contemplating what led to his misunderstanding of the gospel, and what are its effects.

Tertullian believes that there are several unforgivable sins – “murder, idolatry, fraud, apostasy, blasphemy; (and), of course, too, adultery and fornication; and if there be any other ‘violation of the temple of God'” (On Modesty, 19). This alone appears unnecessarily harsh to Protestants, but Tertullian goes farther still. It is not that the Church (or at least the New Prophets, i.e., Montanists) lacks the power to forgive these sins; they do have the power, but they ought not forgive such sins (On Modesty, 21). Disregarding Tertullian’s scriptural arguments, which are intriguing, his practical argument is that such leniency will simply encourage more sin in the Church, which is clearly unacceptable. There are a few hints that perhaps God in his mercy will forgive the repentant, but in any case, they cannot be returned to the fellowship of the Church.

I almost wept when I read this. What a twisted view of the gospel! Yet, it is more profitable to explain the context of this error than simply to decry it. We must start with Tertullian’s view of the Church. He is a perfectionist, or nearly so. The Church is the bride of Christ, so no spot or blemish should be allowed in it. Anyone who could be condemned by the outside world on moral grounds should have already been cast out of the assembly (Apology, 44). Tertullian’s apologetic strategy both presupposes and necessitates this perfectionist tendency. Tertullian’s main argument for Christianity is the moral blamelessness of Christians. According to Tertullian, Christians simply don’t engage in bad behavior, at least nothing too bad. Although he does grant that Christians may need one (and only one) dose of post-baptismal forgiveness for some non-mortal sin (On Repentance, 7), Tertullian does not paint a picture of Christians struggling against sin, except in an unending stream of victories.

Tertullian’s view of the Christian life is intertwined with his beliefs concerning baptism and repentance. A sinner should not approach baptism carelessly, but with faith and firm repentance in hand (On Repentance, 6). As Eric Osborn summarizes, “We are not baptized so that we may stop sinning, but because we have stopped sinning” (Tertullian, 171). Baptism washes away sin and original sin. Osborne explains that Tertullian believes that the human soul, as created, was originally good and that that good part remains in man. Original sin forms a second nature, both different and lower (On the Soul, 16, 41), that veils or blocks out the higher nature so that it is rarely seen. Baptism, then, removes the veil and enables the repentant sinner to make good on his commitment to the new life (Tertullian, 166-7).

Using a similar picture, I think of Tertullian’s doctrine of salvation in terms of two window washers. One day, both washers look at their windows and notice how dirty and ugly they are, covered with filth and almost entirely opaque. Acknowledging the sordid condition of their windows and resolving to do better, they turn to their manager, who has more powerful cleaning tools than they possess. The manager comes out and cleans their windows for them until they are spotless, transparent. He shows them how to use the tools and charges them to keep their windows clean. If a few specks of dirt happen to get on the window, they can clean it, but if the window should ever again resemble its filthy state, that washer may as well leave his tools and go home.

Under this arrangement, the first washer cheerfully begins to keep his window clean. As he goes along, though, he keeps noticing spots that he missed, or that seem to be reappearing whenever he moves on to another part. He begins scrubbing faster, but in his carelessness he seems to miss more and more spots. The dirty looks from the other washer only unravel him more. In desperation, he appeals to his friend, “Your window looks so clean! Can’t you help me with mine?” The other washer barks out a derisive laugh. “Ha! Help you? We’ve been given the same opportunity, and look how well I’m doing. If you were really trying, surely you’d be doing better than that. I could help you, but if I helped every window washer who asked me, I’d only be encouraging laziness. As for you, I’d rather you just give up and go home. We’ll find someone else who can live up to being a window washer.” So the frustrated washer does go home, wondering how he could have been doing so poorly when that other washer did so well. Unbeknown to him, the successful washer had only kept his window so clean by ignoring the bottom two inches, which had become so crusted with grime that the casual observer wouldn’t even realize that portion was supposed to be part of the window.

Tertullian in his perfectionism fails to understand the extent of the law – lust is as adultery, hatred as murder – and the purpose of the law – to lead men to cast themselves on Christ. His repentance is the moral resolve of an unregenerate man, and his regeneration through baptism effects only a second chance with better equipment. His attitude toward repentant sinners is that of a haughty “older brother” who thinks he always keeps the Father’s commands. Although I am deeply thankful for his work on the trinity and Christ, and for his refutation of heretics, I must conclude that Tertullian misses the gospel.

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Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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