Tertullian & Sola Scriptura

Before I begin, I want to note that Tertullian is not a Church Father. There’s no doubt that he was a genius and produced some great writings during his long career as a Christian apologist; however, his rigidity on moral issues eventually led him to renounce the Church and join the Montanist movement, a bizarre heretical group whose leader claimed to be an incarnation of the Holy Spirit. In spite of the great writings which he contributed to the library of Orthodox Christianity, his later heretical affiliations exclude him from being classed with the Fathers.

Although he is not a Father, I’ve decided to address him here because of his importance to the history of early Christianity. He is often called “the father of Latin Christianity” for having been the first significant Christian author to write in Latin, writing as an Orthodox Christian from about AD 197 to AD 207 and, after that, until AD 220 as a Montanist. In his writings he did a great deal to defend the Christians from the various accusations of immorality that had been leveled against them, including charges that Christians cannibalized infants and committed incest during their services. And not only did he defend Christianity from false accusations, he also went on the offensive against pagans and heretics.

One of his most interesting tracts against heretics, which has great bearing on the issue of whether or not he might have held to Sola Scriptura, is a relatively short writing called The Prescription Against Heretics, in which Tertullian provides “the prescription against heretics”: the Church! He argues that, in a dispute between the Church and some heretical group which has broken off therefrom, the burden of proof lies strictly with the heretical group, as the Church’s very existence, being the only Christian body with a direct physical link to the Apostles, verifies its Truth. I’ll let Tertullian speak for himself on this point:

“Now, what that was which they [the Apostles] preached—in other words, what it was which Christ revealed to them—can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very Churches which the Apostles founded in person, by declaring the Gospel to them directly themselves, both vivâ voce, as the phrase is, and subsequently by their epistles. If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the Apostolic Churches—those moulds and original sources of the Faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) Churches received from the Apostles, the Apostles from Christ, Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged!– initNote(“fnf_v.iii.xxi-p5.1”); //–> as false which savours of contrariety to the Truth of the Churches and Apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the Tradition of the Apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood. We hold communion with the Apostolic Churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth.” – Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 21 [emphasis mine]

He also makes clear, in the chapter before the quote above, that in order for a new Church to be valid it must have a line of succession which it can trace to an Apostolic Church. No one can simply found a brand new Church all on their own — for Tertullian, they’ve got to have credentials, and those credentials are found in Apostolic Succession. Let’s take a look:

“They [the Apostles] then in like manner founded Churches in every city, from which all the other Churches, one after another, derived the Tradition of the Faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become Churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves Apostolic, as being the offspring of Apostolic Churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the Churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive Church, (founded) by the Apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are Apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality,—privileges which no other rule directs than the one Tradition of the selfsame mystery.” – Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 20 [emphasis mine — note that Tertullian’s words here mention all four of the “marks of the Church”: One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic]

As we can see, Tertullian held that there was a single, visible Church which was founded by the Apostles and within this Church was uniquely preserved the Ancient Christian Faith. In fact, for Tertullian, Apostolic Succession was a necessity in determining whether one held to the Ancient Christian Faith; if you didn’t have Apostolic Succession, according to Tertullian, you didn’t have the Faith:

“But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the Apostolic Age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the Apostles, because they existed in the time of the Apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of their] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the Apostles or of Apostolic men,—a man, moreover, who continued stedfast with the Apostles. For this is the manner in which the Apostolic Churches transmit their registers.” – Tertullian, The Prescription Against the Heretics, 32

Now, let’s take a look at what Tertullian has to say about Scripture’s relationship to this Church:

“But even if a discussion [with the heretics] from the Scriptures should not turn out in such a way as to place both sides on a par, (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss: “With whom lies that very Faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule,— initNote(“fnf_v.iii.xix-p6.1”); //–> by which men become Christians?” For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and Faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian Traditions.” – Tertullian, The Prescription Against the Heretics, 19 [emphasis mine]

In fact, according to Tertullian, not only could the heretics not rightly interpret Scripture, but they shouldn’t even be allowed by members of the Church founded by the Apostles to use the Scriptures in debates at all — in fact, according to Tertullian, if you’re not in the Church you’re not even a Christian! Let’s read:

“Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us [the Church], ‘as many as walk according to the rule,’ which the Church has handed down from the Apostles, the Apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, ‘Who are you? When and whence did you come? As you are none of mine, what have you to do with that which is mine?'”- Tertullian, The Prescription Against the Heretics, 37

According to Tertullian, the Scriptures belong to the Church which holds the True Faith, and we’ve seen what he says about this Church above. Without this True Church which holds the True Faith, we don’t have the “true Scriptures and expositions thereof.” In other words, as the Orthodox continue to say today, Scripture cannot be interpreted outside of the context of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

In fact, Tertullian, in The Prescription Against the Heretics, advises us that, when debating with heretics, we shouldn’t argue with them out of Scripture at all, as they simply twist it to their own whims and refuse to understand it properly. In fact, he says, we shouldn’t argue with them at all; we should admonish them and if they persist in error, rebelling against Christ and his Church, leave them in their error. And he tells us also what our admonishment should consist of, which is pointing them in the direction of the Church founded by the Apostles and uniquely preserving their Faith.

Now that we’ve looked at exactly what Tertullian believed about the Scriptures, the Church, and the relationship and authority of the two, let’s take a look at one last quote which should leave no doubt as to where he stood on the matter of Tradition and its authority, in which he nearly seems to be arguing against the Sola Scripturists of today:

“And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from Tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading Tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether Tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of Tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with Baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week. We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday. We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign. If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and Faith as their observer. That reason will support Tradition, and custom, and Faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has.” – Tertullian, The Chaplet, 3-4 [emphasis mine — also, compare the list of Traditions which Tertullian mentions here with those still to be found only in the Orthodox Church today]

I highly recommend a reading of The Prescription Against the Heretics for yourself; Tertullian not only provides the prescription against the heretics of his own day, but ours as well. If you’d like to read it, you can do so here; you can also read The Chaplet here. And everything else Tertullian wrote, both Orthodox and Montanist, can be found here.

Father Not Sola Scriptura Sola Scriptura
Didache
St. Clement of Rome
St. Ignatius of Antioch
St. Papias of Hierapolis
St. Polycarp of Smyrna
St. Justin Martyr
St. Melito of Sardis
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
St. Clement of Alexandria
Tertullian
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18 comments

  1. I don't understand this fighting against Sola Scriptura. The very establishment of a Canon implies an attempt to move to Sola Scriptura. Rather than deny Sola Scriptura, why don't Catholics just expand the Canon to include all the writings of the fathers and non-fathers and call it a day? Essentially that's how they work in practice anyway.

  2. The establishment of a canon was not a “move to Sola Scriptura.” The canon was established in order to be able to possess a library of authentically Apostolic writings, standing against the dozens of heretical forgeries bouncing around.

  3. But if it require extra-Biblical doctrines to interpret the Bible then how do you guard against the heretics overriding the text via wrong interpretation? You don't, and the result is your church and all its crazy Gnostic (and not in the good sense) beliefs.

    The Canon WAS intended as a move to Sola Scriptura. It just FAILED. And so, essentially, a new kind of Gnosticism was born. Catholic Gnosticism whereby you just get around the text by saying “we have an oral tradition that interprets the text backwards.”

    For example, Paul says “Purge out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, for you are truly UNleavened.” (1 Cor 5:7) He uses the UNleavened nature of the bread in the eucharist to point to how we should purge out sin. But the Eastern Catholic Gnostic says “although he says 'you are truly UNleavened' he really means 'you are truly leavened with a NEW leaven.'” And thus they impiously add leaven to the eucharist saying that Paul means here that we are not UNleavened but have a new leaven. Yet what Paul says is not “ye truly have a new leaven” but “ye truly are UNleavened.”

    Thus by a new sort of Gnosticism (reading the text and then making it say the opposite of what it says) the Eastern Catholic Gnostics pervert all things in the Scriptures.

  4. Beowulf:

    This is so insane that I shouldn't have to respond to it. But its insanity is also what forces me to respond to it.

    By the way, before I begin here, I find your “post-and-run” style very telling. Every time I refute one of your blatantly unhistorical lies or ask for evidence for your unsubstantiated absurdities you simply stop responding. Very, very telling.

    But if it require extra-Biblical doctrines to interpret the Bible then how do you guard against the heretics overriding the text via wrong interpretation?

    1. Tradition is not necessarily “extra-biblical.” Tradition is simply the correct interpretation of Scripture.
    2. See St. Vincent of Lerins on this topic.

    The Canon WAS intended as a move to Sola Scriptura.

    Present your historical evidence for statement. Find even one of the individuals involved in the process of creating the New Testament who claimed that this new compilation was intended to contain everything pertaining to the Faith.

    Your discourse on leavened vs. unleavened bread isn't worth responding to, as absurd as the application of that particular verse is.

  5. “Your discourse on leavened vs. unleavened bread isn't worth responding to,”

    I don't see why not. Everyone who has ever read the New Testament recognizes that unleavened bread is supposed to be used in the eucharist, except for the in the Eastern Orthodox Church where the taint of Chrysostom's misinterpretation has grown like a cancer.

    It is a clear example of what the accumulation of tradition does. It makes it to where the text of Scripture becomes your enemy because you have accumulated all these moronic interpretation from vaunted 'doctors' and 'saints' and can't let them go even in the face of the most obvious passages of Scripture. This is the sort of idiocy that rejecting Sola Scriptura brings you to.

  6. Everyone who has ever read the New Testament

    Everyone? Really? Everyone? That's a big word. Hm… I only know of three Christian groups that use unleavened bread — the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans (though the practice isn't universal amongst the last two even). But maybe the rest of us haven't read the New Testament? That must be it, right?

  7. Oh, and, as usual, you ignored my requests for historical evidence for your insane claims. Maybe you should stop making things up and trying to pass them off as facts online? Nobody is buying it.

  8. Justin Martyr is the earliest of your writers also and he says he believes nothing unless he reads it in the Scriptures. I know Catholic liars say that Ignatius came before him. There was never any Ignatius nor anyone else before Justin. Justin is the beginning of Catholicism. And he believed in Sola Scriptura.

  9. 1. What's your historical evidence that Ignatius comes later than Justin?

    2. Cite a passage from St. Justin Martyr that you think endorses Sola Scriptura in.

  10. Everyone knows Ignatius is a fraud. There never even was an Ignatius. It needs no proof. Long and short versions of his letters all messed up and clearly made up. It proves itself.

    I'm not going to waste my time re-reading all of Justin when you are the one who needs to do so. But Justin says everything he believes he believes because he found it in the Scriptures not because he was told by any man. And that's nearly an exact quote. I'm sure this one is in the Dialogue with Trypho. He also speaks of the Scriptures as the only true and safe philosophy. That makes oral tradition an unsafe philosophy.

  11. 1. Who is “everybody?” Name one decent respectable scholar who doubts that Ignatius existed or that the shorter versions of his letters are authentic.

    2. Justin said no such thing. I suggest you read my post on St. Justin Martyr and Sola Scriptura.

  12. He does say it. And I could challenge you in the opposite direction to show where Justin ever speaks of tradition rather than Scripture, for he never does. But he refers all things to the Scriptures, as Trypho notes.

  13. Right, and I'm supposed to take your assertion that he says it over my own reading of it. Okay. Again, if you want to be taken seriously it's time you actually start presenting evidence rather than baseless assertions. You've got this and several other posts outstanding, awaiting your presentation of supporting evidence.

  14. Justin did, in fact, say that if he did not find it in the Scriptures, he would not believe it, but this was in reference to the teachings concerning the Messiahship and lordship (and, though in a primitive way, the divinity) of Christ. The context of this quote does not in any way apply to methods of worship, eucharistic practices, ecclesiology, or any of the other teachings on which Orthodox and Protestants disagree. In quoting the Fathers like this we must be clear on exactly why it was that a given Father was using a given Scripture for a certain purpose.

    As for Ignatius being a forgery, well, Protestant scholars such as J. N. D. Kelly would disagree with you; his work Early Christian Doctrines makes use of Ignatius' work without apology (see HERE for some citations), and he is not alone in doing so.

  15. Nothing in the NT says explicitly whether to use leavened or unleavened bread. While one might suppose that Christ used unleavened bread, Christ is now risen, and so should his body in the bread, so we argue. Also, the argument has been made that the Gospels use the word artos which in all cases means leavened bread, and not Azymos (unleavened bread).

    Besides which, if Christ was eating the feast of unleavened bread pre-resurrection, but that feast ended with his resurrection, and since we live in post resurrection times, so does the feast of unleavened bread.

    And furthermore, the feast of unleavened bread is really a kind of lenten fast – it is eating basic food as a kind of mourning. But in celebrating the resurrection, which the eucharist is, such mourning is inappropriate, which is why Sundays are considered a feast not fast day, it remembers the triumph of the resurrection, not the mourning of the cross.

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