Fellow Heresy Hunters Beware The Example Of Tertullian
Posted by Job on March 28, 2009
One of the requirements of being an adherent to the Christian faith is that you oft contend for it. Let scripture bear witness that if you are not contending for the faith, then you are not in the faith. Of course, there are many ways to contend for the faith. Deep, intensive and devoted prayer in which we intercede for the lost and ask God to guide and strengthen the found (especially pastors and other leaders). Evangelism. Christian service. Personal piety and obedience. And yes, combating heresies.
Regarding the heresy hunting portion, I cannot help but remember one of church history’s most famous: Tertullian. It was through this brilliant fellow’s writings that we learned of many of the false doctrines plaguing the early church, and one cannot help but be amazed at the intelligence and fearlessness of this person as he took apart the doctrines and the people promulgating them.
However, all was not well with this Tertullian. It appears that this man was something of a rigorist. Rigorism can perhaps be contrasted with legalism, which claims that a person needs to keep certain religious rules and observances in order to be saved. However, it can also be contrasted with pietism, which advocates outward holiness (along with other things mind you!) while never losing sight of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Experts who have studied Tertullian seem to agree that he simply could not abide the fact that people – including those professing to be Christian – were simply going to have flaws. Tertullian was seeking a sort of perfection that Romans 7, among other passages, states that will never exist in this life.
An example: Tertullian claimed that the “sin unto death”, the unforgivable sin, was adultery. Now when one considers the ideas from various competing – and often syncretizing – religious and philosophical groups circulating in that day, this position is not nearly so strange as it sounds; indeed it may have been a widely held position. But still, how convenient is it to take a sin that you haven’t committed and claim that God will not forgive the person who commits that sin? It is a lot easier to condemn the next guy to the lake of fire than yourself, isn’t it? So while this position was, when considering the context, understandable, it simply does not align with what the Bible says.
Now of course, then as now, there were huge problems with the church and the refusal of people to abide sound doctrine and holy living, and it seems for people of Tertullian’s day, there were two options: withdraw to the desert and become a monk, or join the Montanists. Both movements were known for their centering their lives around rigor. Let it be known that the Bible clearly explicitly rejects both. Regarding monasticism, Christians are clearly to be in the world, performing good works, serving, fellowshiping, and evangelizing. As for the Montanists, more on them later.
Tertullian chose the second option, divorcing his wife and choosing Montanism as an outlet for his refusal to acknowledge that “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” is part of the universal Christian experience, and that denying this fact using rigor has the potential to result in people that are twice the sons of hell that they were before.
Now I have a lot of sympathy for the Montanists in some respects, especially when reading about how so many of them were brave in the face of martyrdom at the hands of the state. Still, one cannot get around that they were real pieces of work. The founder of their sect, this one Montanus, claimed to be the Paraclete that Jesus Christ stated would come after He ascended to heaven. Of course, the Paracle is God the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity! The Montanists claimed to be heralds, prophets and apostles if you will, of a new dispensation, or age of grace. The wrath of God was going to fall upon the lukewarm church and wicked world, and a new people of God would be raised up to lead the world into greater spiritual heights.
Speaking of grace, I am willing to extend a bit to the Montanist sect – or at least some of its members that were for a time sincerely deluded by it – as lest we forget these people were operating without such benefts that we have today as an authoritative canon, nearly universal literacy (and inexpensive, freely available Bibles to take advantage of it), doctrines made standard by nearly 2000 years of systematic theology, and the unfolding of history. But what can be said of a brilliant learned man like Tertullian who claimed that adultery was the unpardonable sin divorcing his wife and joining a cult run by a man who claimed to be the personification of the Holy Spirit, thereby making him equal with Jesus Christ and God the Father?
Now it is true that Tertullian ultimately left the Montanists, and those who treasure his contributions to church history and doctrines use this fact to claim that he returned to orthodoxy. I myself wish and hope it to be so, but regrettably, the last reliable information that we have on Tertullian is that he left the Montanists not because they were thoroughgoing purveyors of doctrines of devils, but rather because they were not rigorist enough, and that in response he founded his own sect, the even more rigorist Tertullianists!
Of course, as one who believes in the doctrines of grace, which includes predestination, election, limited atonement, and perseverance of the saints, my stance is that if Tertullian never returned to the faith, then he was never truly in it to begin with. Still, for current and future heresy hunters, his example is instructive, as we must acknowledge what Tertullian refused to do, which is that Romans 7 applies to all members of the Body of Christ, and we should be ever mindful of this fact when we speak and act. Maranatha!