Freed to live through the death of another.

Tag: Asceticism

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.

A Time for Asceticism?

Ever wonder why asceticism figures so prominently in church history? It started very early on. Many of the figures we are much indebted to (Augustine, Jerome, Basil the Great, Benedict, Patrick, etc.) throughout church history have had some strong leanings toward monasticism.

Now that the ‘clean sea breeze of the centuries’ has blown our minds clear from excessive faults, we often look back and wonder with amazement: ‘How could such great Christians have been so blind as to become ascetics?’ We don’t understand what brought them to this.

A bit of background, then, is in order. Christianity was persecuted on and off and to varying degrees for the first few centuries after Christ. It is absolutely miraculous, and a wonderful testimony to the power of the Spirit and the grace of God, that the church continued to grow by leaps and bounds throughout the Empire, even under such hardships. After a while, however, the persecution stopped. When Emperor Constantine was converted (around AD 312) the seeds of ‘cultural Christianity’ were beginning to grow roots. It would still be some years, however, before Christianity became the ‘state religion.’

Up to that point, to identify yourself as a Christian cost you something. You had to be willing to suffer and to lose things you had worked for. Once Christianity became cultural, there were no more martyrs, no more persecution. Now it cost nothing to be a Christian. Anyone could do it. The churches were soon all filled to the brim as people began to realize there was much socially and politically to gain from being a ‘Christian.’

Where once Christianity had been identified with righteousness of life and high moral standards, the now popular religion began to see moral decay from within. The high standards were lowered to the point that one could hardly tell the difference between ‘Christians’ and unbelievers.

Of course, the true believers were put off by this! Moral compromise should never be tolerated in the church, under any circumstances, and they recognized this. They knew that to be a Christian should cost them something, that they should stand out and be different than the decadent culture around them.

So… Christianity is popular and acceptable. It costs nothing to be a Christian. The churches are full of ‘cultural Christians.’ The Christians don’t look a lot different than the decadent society in which they live. (Am I describing their culture or ours?)

Their answer, of course, was that the truest, highest form of Christianity is that which costs the most. So they left everything behind: all their possesions, their family and friends, the luxuries of urban living, the right to marry, and the wealth of food, etc.

The New Testament seems relatively clear that we are not called to an ascetic lifestyle. But rather than condemning these brothers and sisters for fleeing to monasteries, we should seek to understand why they did what they did. And understanding that, we need to emulate their desire to stand out! They were not content with Christians who look just like unbelievers–and we shouldn’t be either!

So we can err by becoming ascetic and we can err by not seeking to be different at all. But we can also err in another way: We can seek to become ‘righteous’ in the way that our philosophical climate deems good. Why did they resort to asceticism when they thought they should be different? Because that’s what the greatest thinkers of their time valued as great righteousness.

When we seek to be different from the culture around us, we need to be careful that we’re not merely emulating the philosophical, ethical ideals of our day. Paul said, ‘Do not be conformed to the pattern of this age,’ and I think he meant it. Which of course means that we need to think hard.

How do I live as a Christian in a way that is different from nominal Christianity, but not simply according to the patterns that the world has established as right and good and self-sacrificing?

All this, of course, means that we need to continue to let that ‘clean sea breeze’ blow… we need to read church history so that we’re not merely influenced by the ideologies of our day. But more than anything, it means we need to be people of the book. We need to read the Word of God and know it intimately so that we’ll be able to discern all that is pleasing and right in the eyes of the God who wrote the book.

That is, after all, why we’re here.

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