Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Tag: Church History (page 2 of 2)

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.

Gnosticism: A Very Brief Introduction

In our times Gnosticism has had a startling revival. It continues to pop up in popular books, magazines, news articles, etc. Where did this thing called Gnosticism come from? Who were some of the key players?

What follows is a very brief introduction to the second-century Gnosticism engaged by early Christians like Irenæus (c.130-c.202).

The Gnostics were individuals who belonged to various religious movements, who believed that people could be saved only by their knowledge (gnosis). This knowledge was secret—known only by those to whom it had been revealed by God. Though Gnostics were involved in a variety of religions and sects, they particularly flourished through their association with the fringes of Christianity.

Gnosticism is known widely for its particularly sharp dualism: that which is “spiritual” is good, but that which is physical is bad. This influenced everything they thought and taught. For example, creation was the result of the fall of “wisdom.” Thus, even the very act of the creation of the physical was a result of sin. The one sent by God to be the redeemer of the universe, then, is sent so as to bring a “secret knowledge” to God’s people by which they may be saved.

Also as a result of this sharp dualism morals of Gnostics varied. Some believed that since knowledge of the spiritual was all that was required for salvation how one behaved physically was of no relevance, and thus rampant immorality was encouraged. Others argued that since the physical was bad, it should not be indulged in any sense. This latter group was the more common position and resulted in drastic asceticism. Under this view marriage, sexuality, wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and many other things essential to the Christian life had to be abandoned.

The Christology of Gnostics was affected drastically by the idea that anything physical is evil. They were forced to hold to a Docetic view of Christ, insisting that he was not human, nor physical, nor were his sufferings real. Rather, all of these were mere apparitions.

The Gnostics were also dualists in their view of God. They saw a sharp contrast between the God of the Old Testament and the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The God of the Old Testament was a God of justice and anger, committed only the nation of Israel, willing to destroy all the nations of the world for their sake. The God of the New Testament, they argued, is much more merciful and loving. The God of the Old Testament created the world which is physical and therefore evil, but the God of the New Testament is spiritual and is concerned with saving people through a secret knowledge of the spiritual which is revealed in Jesus.

The Gnostics were prolific writers and produced many works still extant even now. The Mandaean communities currently living in modern day Iraq and Iran are the only remnant of Gnosticism in today’s world. Even this sect, however, did not come into existence until at least the second century ad and thus had no influence on the world of Christ or the writing of the New Testament.

It is argued that Simon of Acts 8 was a prototype which later Gnostics would follow and modify. Several other key Gnostic figures and teachers include Cerinthus, Marcion, Basilides, Carpocrates, and the most prominent teacher, Valentinus.

Good Stuff to Read

If you’re like me, you can’t help but feel horribly ignorant with regard to much of our Christian heritage. I know a few of the main figures, but very little aside from the biggest names.

It has been a wonderful blessing to study this past year or so under Dr Haykin at TBS because he has done so much to bring church history to life for me. Fortunately, he does it in a way that challenges you with very practical application to the Christian life that we live now. It is no mere academic exercise.

I’m currently going through a couple of Dr Haykin’s books and have enjoyed another one previously, so I thought I’d recommend them to whoever thinks they’d like to make themselves a little more familiar with a couple of our forefathers in the faith.


I had the chance to read this book several years ago. It simply contains about 50 of Watts’ lesser known hymns. Absolutely fantastic devotional material.


Oliver Cromwell is an absolutely fascinating character who is often written about and studied, but few have come to appreciate the Puritan spirituality that pervaded all of his life and his thought.


Whitefield is always a wonderful study. The devotion with which he writes stirs the heart.

These books are all available from the Joshua Press website and are all very inexpensive. The format is simple and easy to read: the first section contains writings by Dr Haykin overviewing the spirituality of the person in question. The other part of the book is made up of selections from their writings so that you can familiarize yourself with the figure in a firsthand sense by engaging with the primary sources (and you don’t even have to go to a library!).

These books are absolutely wonderful because they introduce you to some key figures of our faith without being incredibly demanding of your time or mental energy. And as with everything Dr Haykin does, these books are primarily concerned with practical spirituality and how our lives can be more conformed to the image of Christ by the power of the Spirit now because of what these men wrote so long ago.

A Little More on Humility…

This past year in my Early Christian Spirituality course at TBS we had a lecture on Basil of Caesarea’s theology of humility. His twentieth homily was full of great theological insight and practical suggestions for how to live with greater humility.

One of his suggestions for how to stir up humility is simply to recall one’s past sins. It is only possible for me to become proud and think more highly of myself than I ought when I forget what I ought to think of myself–namely, when I forget what I’ve done and what I deserve from a holy God.

Sometimes, however, instead of genuine humility, I find that meditating on past sins (or even present sinfulness) just produces feelings of guilt and regret. I think about wrong things that I’ve done and how horrible they were. Then I think about the ongoing consequences of things I’ve done (how I’ve made people feel or things that happen to others as a result of my sins) and it just gets worse.

The trouble of course is that my focus is on the wrong place. The thing which should create in me the deepest and truest humility is looking at the cross. Despite what I so often see, the worst consequence of my sin isn’t the hurt feelings of other people–it is the death of the Son of God. As the hymnwriter put it:

“Thus while his death my sin displays in all its blackest hue…” 

The truth is that while the cross reveals grace and mercy, wrath and justice, it also reveals truth about me. Nowhere do I see the true end of all my sins and my sinful heart better than in the cross.

What is the cross? It is the place where the only one who was ever innocent, the only one who was ever truly pure, was beaten and mocked, whipped and murdered for me. Why? Because that’s what my sins deserve.

But the hymnwriter didn’t stop there…

“Thus while his death my sin displays in all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace, it seals my pardon too” 

This is the mystery of grace in the wonder of the cross. The only truly beautiful, truly innocent, truly perfect man to walk this earth in nothing but love became the victim of violent hatred–and I was the offender. But yet, in this–the greatest of all travesties, that God would be rejected by man–my pardon is sealed. It is complete. He accomplished it all.

In the cross I see the absolute depravity of my sin… the absolute godlessness of my soul left to its own power. If given my way, I would kill God. But here’s the irony: in God’s grace, my God was killed for me. What wonderful grace!

How can the recipient of such grace know anything but humility? How can pride find a place in any heart which has rightly evaluated the cross?

“Thus while his death my sin displays in all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace, it seals my pardon too.
With pleasing grief, and mournful joy, my spirit now is filled;
That I should such a life destroy… yet live by him I killed.” 

Go figure: the answer to something in the Christian’s life is to look more to the cross… who would’ve thought? No fancy programs, no insider-tricks… just look to the cross.

What does it mean that Christ died for me? It means my sin deserved death. If my sin doesn’t deserve death, and Christ died, then we mock the cross and make God out to be a liar. The cross, then, was superfluous.

But if my sin was so deep that I would desire the death of God, and that I deserved the eternity of punishment Christ bore on my behalf, then I need to do some serious thinking about who and what I really am. This type of thinking can lead only to deepest despair for those outside of Christ. But it will lead to endless joy and deepest hope for those who have seen their burdens tumble to the sepulchre.

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.

The Abandonment of Christian Atonement

Christians never cease to amaze me. In our contemporary ‘conversation’ we find people rejecting the idea of penal substitution, the imputation of righteousness, justification by grace alone, through faith alone, etc., etc., etc.

The thing that really bothers me about this is the arrogance with which such historic Christian doctrines are tossed aside in such a cavalier manner. We are told that these ideas of God being ‘angry’ and desiring to make his Son pay the ‘punishment’ as a ‘substitute’ to give us a ‘forensic’, ‘legal’ righteous standing before God are western, modern, and un-nuanced. We are told that for hundreds of years we’ve been reading the New Testament through the eyes of Luther, rather than first-century Judaism.

Bogus.

Below is an excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus, written in the second-century AD, one of the earliest extant apologies for the Christian faith outside of the New Testament. In this section the author discusses the nature of the atonement, as taught in the New Testament. What this is an attempt to show is that the abandonement of penal substitutionary atonement which accomplishes justification (including the imputation of righteousness) by grace alone through faith alone is not just an abandonment of modern, western Christianity, but is an abandonment of historic, biblical Christianity at its very core.

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But when our iniquity was fulfilled and it had been made fully manifest that its reward of punishment and death was awaited, and the season came which God had appointed to manifest henceforth His own goodness and power (O the exceeding kindness and love of God!), He did not hate us or repel us or remember our misdeeds, but was long-suffering, bore with us, Himself in mercy took on Him our sins, Himself gave up His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for the wicked, the innocent for the guilty, “the just for the unjust”, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for mortals. For what else could cover our sins but his righteousness? In whom was it possible for us, wicked and impious as we were, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O work of God beyond all searching out, O blessings past our expectation, that the wickedness of many should be hidden in one righteous Man and the righteousness of the One should justify many wicked!


— Taken from The Epistle to Diognetus, IX.2-5. The is one of the earliest extant apologies for the Christian faith, written in the second century ad, within decades of the death of the apostle John.

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