Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentecost, Reconciliation, Popery & Tertullian

The year is 219 AD, Zephyrinus' right hand, the archdeacon Callistus had just been elected pope which led to the great Roman priest and theologian Hippolytus electing himself as anti-pope. Tertullian had already been a part of the Montanist heresy for more than a decade and had officially split from the Church some 8 years ago (Harnack) or possibly 7. The controversy was two fold. First, Hippolytus accused Callistus of following in Zephyrinus' indecisive ways concerning Monarchianism, especially Modalism. There's lots of names for various beliefs here so to keep it simple, I'll just summarize that in various forms they overstressed the unity of the Father and Son to the point where they taught it was permissible to say that the Father had suffered on the Cross. Zephyrinus refrained from pronouncing on this as their errors weren't entirely clear yet. (This is long before Nicaea had laid out the Trinity). In fact, Tertullian became the first Christian to use the word Trinitas in a treatise against Praxeas, one of the Monarchians! Callistus in return charged Hippolytus with the opposite extremity: Ditheism. The other fault that Hippolytus accused Callistus of, and Tertullian shares his complaint, was receiving those who had committed mortal sin back into communion after due penance. Tertullian writes:

I now inquire into your opinion, (to see) from what source you usurp this right to the Church. If, because the Lord has said to Peter, Upon this rock will I build My Church, to you have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom; or, Whatsoever you shall have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens, you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter? On you, He says, will I build My Church; and, I will give to you the keys, not to the Church; and, Whatsoever you shall have loosed or bound, not what they shall have loosed or bound. For so withal the result teaches. In (Peter) himself the Church was reared; that is, through (Peter) himself; (Peter) himself essayed the key; you see what (key): Men of Israel, let what I say sink into your ears: Jesus the Nazarene, a man destined by God for you[1], and so forth. (Peter) himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ's baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom, in which (kingdom) are loosed the sins that were beforetime bound; and those which have not been loosed are bound, in accordance with true salvation[2];

What is most interesting is that Tertullian proves here that the Pope was already using the argument that his authority was based on the Lord’s declarations to Peter, most notably in Matthew 16:18[3]. Tertullian advances two basic counterpoints against Callistus: 1. The keys were given to Peter alone and 2. The keys were actualized by Peter’s homily – converting Jews and therefore ‘opening the gates’ of Christianity. Tertullian’s argument fails on a couple of levels. First, he was simply wrong on the issue he was debating (and once again, the Roman bishop was right). The Church is a hospital for sinners not a hotel for saints. (And before any Protestants get too excited about Tertullian's response here, remember that you'd be on the wrong end according to Tertullian or to Rome - you don't even think there is such thing as mortal sin, penance or absolution!) Second, we have already seen in writers like Irenaeus that the Roman bishop was seen as the successor of Peter and that Rome held preeminence over other Churches on account of her succession. Tertullian is decidedly out of touch with the Catholic Church here (as he himself would have actually admitted by this point. He considers the Catholic Church to have fallen into apostasy). However undeveloped Ireaneus’ ecclesiology may have been here, we can safely say that it has already been the tradition of the Church to regard the bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter and to see him in a paternal role and those tendencies would only increase from here. Finally, like others who do so today, Tertullian rejects the primacy of the Roman bishop predominantly because he is in disagreement with him and not because the primacy or authority doesn’t belong to him. This would be like be disagreeing with my boss on an issue and then from there no longer considering him my boss. Now Tertullian would disagree here.. but look at how far he's come. Listen to his words more than a decade earlier:

Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood![4]

My how the tables have turned! Now on the reconciliation business...

This is all quite interconnected as I will attempt to show however clumsy it turns out. First, the prooftext for reconciliation:

First Matthew 16:18 - Peter is the Rock on which the Church will be built - he is given the keys
16:19 - Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven & vice versa

Next Matthew 18:18 - Same as 16:19

And of course John 20:23 - Doesn't get much clearer than this - (in the context of sending his apostles) if you forgive sins they are forgiven if you don't they are not.

Today is Pentecost Sunday and John 20 is associated with Pentecost (the birth of the Church) because it is in the context of sending the apostles to do His work (which including forgiveness of sins) and the promise of the Holy Spirit. So much for John. We shall focus on the Matthean passage since that is what Tertullian does.

There are two issues at stake. 1. Church authority and 2. Church power

Tertullian rightly recognizes that Callistus is presuming to have both. Both the authority of the apostles (namely Peter) rests on his shoulders and the power to forgive sins (and these two things must be seen as inseparable). You cannot have power without the authority and vice versa.

The context of Matthew 16 is fairly obvious in linking these together - Peter is the foundation of the Church and he is also given authority that extends beyond the temporal world. In fact he's given the very keys to the kingdom.

But I really want to focus on Matthew 18. Verse 18 is a pretty straight forward repetition of 16:19. First of all, when Jesus repeats Himself, we'd do well to pay close attention. But the context of 18 is more telling than the mere proof text lets on at first. Verse 14 says that God is not willing that any be lost. Similarly, 21-22 Jesus tells Peter that he must forgive a man not seven times but seven times seventy. With verse 18 at the center of this forgiveness sandwich, we should be learning closer and closer to Callistus' theology and further and further from Tertullian's strict, pretension and even prideful one (you don't sense any bias in my opinion do you?). Verses 15-17 mark the only other place (besides 16:18) where Jesus mentions the word Church. He paints a picture of an authoritative Church - one that can be used for disciplinary actions if need be. But it is important to remind ourselves again that the context is in forgiveness and the emphasis is on the Church's authority to forgive rather than punish. Hence she has the authority to loose or bind.

To summarize the context in which the authority was given to the apostles to bind or loose:

1. In the context of the sending of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church
2. In the context of Church as an authoritative institution
3. In the context of Peter as the head of the Church
4. In the context of the Church having authority to reprimand
5. In the context of the understanding that it is God's desire that none should perish (fall away from the Church/be bound/sins not forgiven) leading too:
6. In the context of God's will for repetitive forgiveness of an offender.

Folks, it wasn't a coincidence. God meant to put all these things together and Tertullian has badly missed the mark on this one. He missed it on Peter as the head of the Church, he missed it on the Church continuing on in the authority and vocation of the apostles and worst of all, he missed it on God's patience with us sinners and His unlimited mercy.

I personally thank God that Tertullian was wrong on this issue because by his theology, I'd be in Hell with no chance of reconciliation since I have committed mortal sins after baptism. For those Protestants who disagree with his ideas of reconciliation but want to agree with his rejection of the Catholic Church, I would advise you to think and pray long and hard about whether one can freely accept one and reject the other or if perhaps these issues really are inseparably linked as I have tried to show here.

[1] Acts 2:22, this passage (Acts 2:14-41) shows Peter’s speech at Jerusalem on Pentecost in which three thousand Jews converted to Christianity.

[2] Tertullian On Modesty 21

[3] Protestant historian Bruce Shelley admits this: Shelley 1996, 74 contradicting his statement on 133 at least to a degree.

[4] Tertullian Prescription Against Heretics 36

1 comment:

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Tim brings out some good points on this issue. I especially think this debate on the legitimacy of the Roman See so early in the history of the Church is an important marker as far as how the Catholic Church understood the role of Rome in ecclesiastical matters.

St. Hippolytus, defender of the orthodox faith pulled no punches on Callistus,

"(Callistus) even permitted women, if they were unmarried and burning up at an unsuitable time of take a man of their choosing as bedfellow...and to regard such a one as a husband, though not lawfully married. For this reason women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly as to expel what was being conceived...See then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time" (Omnium hearesium refutatio. 9, 12)


R.E. Aguirre