Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Tertullian and Contemporary Biblical Ethics

Tertullian lived ca.150-ca.225 AD. He was born in Carthage, which is in North Africa (so he was probably a little darker than the picture would suggest). He was a man brilliantly gifted by God for writing. He wrote extensively on things like apologetics and ethics and often wrote polemically against the heretics of his day (eg. Marcion and Praxeas). He ably defended both Scriptures and the Trinity. In his writings–which are easily dated from the end of the second and early third centuries–Tertullian quotes from the New Testament, plainly citing it as being on par with Old Testament Scriptures, thus indicating an already accepted Canon, long before Nicaea.

All that said, Tertullian was not perfect (as no saint has ever been). Tertullian was associated with a movement in his day known as Montanism. Based on the teachings of a ‘Prophet’ named Montanus, this group believed that the age in which they lived was the dispensation of the Holy Spirit (the Old Testament was the dispensation of the Father, the Gospels were the dispensation of the Son). Since this was the age of the Holy Spirit, they relied heavily on prophecies and other miraculous revelatory gifts for their doctrine and ecclesiastical practice.

Citing John 16.12-13, Tertullian and the Montanists claimed that the ethics Jesus declared were not finally absolute, nor fully developed, but that they were all that the disciples were able to handle at that point in redemptive history. The Holy Spirit, who was to come, would then have the ministry of revealing a heightened ethic to Jesus’ followers in the days and years to come.

It is absolutely essential to notice, however, to what end Tertullian and friends used this position. They argued for the insufficiency of Scriptural ethics in several areas: namely, marriage / remarriage, and flight from persecution. Whereas Jesus had made allowances for both of these, the Holy Spirit was now teaching them to advance beyond what Scripture had revealed to a higher ethic.

Why in the world would they choose these areas? Because that’s what their culture demanded. Asceticism was the philosophical milk Tertullian had been raised on, and persecution had become the norm for Christians of their day. For Christianity to be consistent, relevant, and morally / ethically contemporary with the philosophical ideals of the day it needed to be advanced from what Scripture had revealed.

The irony, of course, is that looking back from about 1800 years later it seems absurd to us (in a completely removed culture) to suppose the Holy Spirit would counsel against marriage (or even remarriage after one’s spouse dies) or that he would specifically command that Christians not flee, but rather, seek persecution.

Since we don’t breathe that air, it smells real funny to us.

But here’s the thing: People today insist on making the same mistake as Tertullian and the Montanists. No, not with the marriage / remarriage thing or the persecution thing (in fact, we’re tempted to loosen the biblical commands here rather than tighten them), but rather, with the ordination of women to the position of elder, or to accept some forms of homosexuality as legitimate lifestyle alternatives.

People argue now, like Tertullian argued then, that the Bible’s ethics are unfinished; they merely establish a trajectory that we must follow, and by the guidance of the Spirit (and by finding the ‘spirit of the text’) we can ultimately determine a better ethic than the one laid out in Scripture.

But it’s all hoogly! I would be willing to bet–if any of us could be around–that 1800 years from now people will look back on our times and wonder why in the world we would think the Scriptures were insufficient in these areas.

Just like we look back on Tertullian and see him reading Scriptures and conforming Christianity to his culture, so we must see that we ourselves are always being tempted to do the same. The simple fact is that we live in a profoundly feminist, pro-gay culture. The pressure we face is always to accept these things. We have been raised and educated, indoctrinated from our youth to accept these things. The ‘highest’ of ethics in our culture is an accepting one that does not place boundaries on other people, especially when it comes to gender or ‘sexual preference.’

Those are our ‘hot-button issues’, just like Tertullian’s were asceticism and persecution. We must not be like him. We must stand firm and stick to the Scriptures. It is them alone which are able to make us wise for salvation, and them alone which equip us for every good work.

The real questions we must ask are not about whether women should be ordained as elders or homosexuality should be accepted; we already have the answers to those questions!

The real question that needs to be asked is this: Am I willing to stand on the authority of the word of God alone? Do I have enough faith in God to base my ethics on it, even when it makes me appear ‘morally backward’ in a culture of acceptance? Is God’s word enough?

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For a fuller treatment of ‘Trajectory ethics’, see here.
For another post on the influence of asceticism on Christianity, see here.

2 Comments

  1. There’s always a little pressure to “loosen” the commands, and I don’t think it all comes from the godless culture around us. I’ve never seen myself as playing too loosely with scripture, but I HAVE noticed myself moving a little bit in that direction since I’ve been blogging. Not to where I’ve abandoned the word and sold my soul or anything, but when I say “playing loosely” with it, I mean more willing to consider other positions and interpretations than I have been.

    I’m not sure I see the role of women in ministry quite the way you do, but I do still draw my understanding of it from scripture. This may or may not be what your getting at, but when you mention tightening and loosening, I can’t help thinking of Jesus sometimes tightening (as when He’d confront the Pharisees’ self-righteousness) and sometimes loosening (“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” Spirit of the text?).

    I think this constant tension is a good thing, because it keeps us both humble and teachable. Doesn’t mean we have to be stupid. But we do need to be careful.

  2. Derifter, thanks for the comments! As always, I love your input.

    You say that the pressure to ‘loosen’ the commands isn’t always from the godless culture around us. But that, of course, begs the question: from whence does it come?

    Far too often it seems that Christians like to appeal to the ‘enlightenment’ that we have received in our culture that they obviously didn’t have in the culture of the Bible’s day. To be honest, that seems to be hoogly for more than one reason.

    First, it’s flat-out chronological snobbery. Because we live after them we must know more than them. That’s a non-sequitur.

    Second, the Biblical characters and authors were clearly not afraid to be countercultural. In fact, most of them were martyred because they would no longer be conformed to the patterns of this age.

    If the pressure to loosen the commands doesn’t come from the godless culture around us (which, I agree, it does not always…), then it comes from the godless culture within us (the old man, the flesh, the inner sin principle), which is always at war with God and his holiness.

    The specific examples you give from Jesus’ ministry are interesting. With the Pharisees, Jesus played hardball, showing them that they did not measure up to the law that they thought they were obeying. In other words, I wouldn’t call that ‘tightening’ as much as ‘revealing’ to them the real nature and demands of the law for perfection. With the Sabbath, and the other issues he ‘loosens’, that is all tied up with covenantal structures which he has come to change, with the introduction of the new covenant in his blood. This is why he speaks about the new wine and old wineskins… the two covenants cannot be mixed, or else they’ll both be lost.

    These are good things to think about… so thanks for making me think! 🙂

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