« Prev Appendix IV. The Use of the New Testament in the… Next »


The Use of the New Testament in the Carthaginian (and Roman) Church at the Time of Tertullian

In the works of Tertullian there lies a great body of material from which one may form a judgment as to the use and valuation of the New Testament in the Carthaginian Church. I do not mean the passages in which Tertullian himself makes use of the New Testament, but those passages in which he reports instances where passages from the New Testament were employed as proof-texts against himself by his adversaries the “Lax” or, in his later writings, the “Psychics.” The “Lax” or the “Psychics,” however, formed the majority of the Church, and had probably the body of clergy behind them, so that we thus actually learn the general attitude of the Church towards the New Testament.178178Tertullian is concerned with the Church in Carthage, but in his latest works also with the Church in Rome, which, led by her bishop, rejects Montanism, champions the practices of the “Lax,” and uses her influence in Carthage. The writings of Tertullian form our sole authority for such information concerning that special period, and herein, too, they have no small value for us. If we did not possess them it would have been at least doubtful whether the attitude of the theological writers towards the New Testament was not in advance of the rest of the Church, and that a quite different view prevailed in the communities. 197That Tertullian really had the majority of the community against him is clearly shown by De Virg. Vel., i., among other passages, where Tertullian confesses in the first sentence: “Proprium iam negotium passus meæ opinionis,” i.e. I am again left in a minority and must go on fighting.

In collecting the following passages I have used all the works of Tertullian, so far as they contain appropriate material, with the exception of those written against heretics: hence De Præsc. and Scorpiace have been neglected. These works also contain, it is true, objections and deductions made by the community,179179Tertullian expressly states (De Præsc., 8) that not heretics alone but also “our people” appeal to St Matt. vii. 7 (“Seek and ye shall find”) as a justification for following their impulse to pry into the mysteries of religion. Tertullian declares that the text only refers to the Jews, or, if it also refers to Gentiles (Gentile Christians), it has force only under distinct limitations. but they do not allow of being clearly distinguished from the objections and deductions made by heretics.

The first thing to be stated is that the community already treat the New Testament just in the same way as Tertullian himself, that is, they have the same ideas about the book and therefore apply the same method of interpretation to, and make the same demands upon the book as he. Thus they required that for each regulation in Christian Discipline a text of Scripture must be in existence180180De Spect., 3: “Quorundam fides aut simplicior aut scrupulosior ad hanc abdicationem spectaculorum de scripturis auctoritatem exposcit et se in incertum constituit, quod non significanter neque nominatim denuntietur servis dei abstinentia eiusmodi”; cf. De Spect., 20: “Quam vana, immo desperata argumentatio corum, qui, sine dubio tergiversatione amittendæ voluptatis, obtendunt nullam eius abstinentiæ mentionem specialiter vel localiter in scripturis determinari, qua directo prohibeant eiusmodi conventibus inseri servum dei.” De Cor., 2: “Si ideo dicetur coronari licere, quia non prohibeat scriptura.”—this is, in truth, 198Tertullian’s own opinion, but when he is in a difficulty he renounces it, and in his later works he falls back upon the Paraclete—thus the silence of Scripture upon any point is most significant, for instance: The Apostles cannot have been baptised,181181De Bapt., 12. because the Scripture says nothing about it; while Scripture condemns unchastity it does not deny the possibility of forgiveness, therefore we must accept the possibility,182182De Pud., 18. etc. Again, they agree as to the right of unlimited combination of passages of Scripture: Because in Gal. i. 16, “Flesh and Blood” can be referred to Judaism, so also the “Flesh and Blood” of 1 Cor. xv. 50 can mean Judaism, and the latter passage is therefore to be interpreted: “Judaism cannot inherit the kingdom of God”!183183De Resurr., 50. Further, it is allowable to take one’s stand upon one single text and from this standpoint to regard all others as if they did not exist, or, in other words, to twist them into harmony. This practice drives Tertullian to desperation (vide, e.g., De Pud., 16: “Sed est hoc solemne perversis et idiotis hæreticis, iam et psychicis universis, alicuius capituli ancipitis occasione adversus exercitum sententiarum instrumenti totius [of the whole Bible] armari”); but how often had he done the same thing!

The following passages of the New Testament are alleged by the community against Tertullian:

St Matt. ii. 1 ff. (De Idol., 9).—Magi appear in the New Testament and are not blamed as such, hence Magic and Astrology are not forbidden to Christians.


St Matt. v. 25 (De Fuga, 13).—From the words: ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ, it can be concluded that in Persecution one may, indeed is commanded to, come to terms with the adversary.

St Matt. v. 40 (De Fuga, 13).—From the words: “From him who takes thy coat keep not back thy cloak also,” one may deduce that in times of Persecution one is allowed to mollify the oppressor by yielding to him.

St Matt. v. 42 (De Fuga, 13).—From the words: “Give to him that asketh thee,” it can be concluded that one may save oneself from the persecutor by paying him what he asks.

St Matt. vi. 14 (De Pud., 2).—The general direction, “Forgive,” must be regarded as unlimited.

St Matt. vii. 1 (De Pud., 2).—From the command, “Judge not,” follows the duty of unlimited forgiveness.

St Matt. ix. 15 (De Jeiun., 2).—It follows from this verse that one ought to fast only at the Passion season (“when the Bridegroom is taken away”).

St Matt. x. 23 (De Cor., 1; De Fuga, 1, 6, 9, etc.).—The Christian may, indeed ought to, flee at the time of Persecution (“Flee from one city to another”).

St Matt. xi. 13 (De Jeiun., 11).—The ordinances concerning fasting are abolished because the Law and the Prophets only lasted until John.

St Matt. xi. 19 (De Jeiun., 15).—Seeing that Jesus is pictured as ἐσθίων καὶ πίνων, it is unworthy of a Christian to burden himself with food restrictions.

St Matt. xvi. 18 f. (De Pud., 21).—The bishop of Rome has the right to regard the promise to St Peter as holding good for himself.


St Matt. xix. 14 (De Bapt., 18).—Seeing that Jesus called the children to Himself, one may, indeed ought also to baptise them.

St Matt. xxii. 21 (De Idol., 15; De Fuga, 12).—The text; “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s” may, and ought to determine the behaviour of the Christian in persecutions.

St Matt. xxvii. 19 (De Cor., 9).—Since Jesus wore a crown of thorns, the wearing of garlands ought not to be forbidden to Christians.

St Luke i. 28 (De Virg. Vel., 6).—Mary is here reckoned among women because she was betrothed, not simply as a female (“Blessed art thou among women”).

St Luke iii. 14 (De Idol., 19).—Seeing that John exhorts the soldiers, but does not denounce the soldier’s profession, therefore the profession of a soldier is permissible to a Christian.

St Luke iv. 29 (De Fuga, 8).—From this and similar passages it is to be deduced that, as Jesus withdrew Himself from His persecutors, so also may Christians.

St Luke vi. 30 (De Bapt., 18).—From the general instruction: “Give to everyone that asks thee,” it follows that one must give Baptism to everyone that asks for it (thus Baptism ought not to be delayed).

St Luke vii. 36 ff. (De Pud., 11).—From the story of the woman who was a sinner, it follows that forgiveness must be granted to the Christian even if he has committed deadly sin (sins against chastity).

St Luke xv. (De Pud., 7, 8, 10).—By interpretation of the several traits in the three parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Piece of Money, and the Prodigal Son, it can be shown that these refer only to the 201Christian that has sinned (and not to the heathen), and that therefore forgiveness must be imparted even to one who commits deadly sin.184184One of these special traits is that the woman looks for the drachma in her own house. Tertullian himself had once laid stress upon this point (De Præsc., 12). Elsewhere they bring forward the following points: In Scripture the sheep is everywhere the Christian, the flock is the people, and Christ is the Good Shepherd of His people; the sheep has thus been lost out of the fold; the light that the woman uses is the Word of God that shines in the house (the Church), also the hundred sheep, the ten drachmæ, the broom, all have their interpretation. The elder son is the Jew who grudges the Christian his reconciliation with God the Father. (“My opponents lay special stress upon this point.”) The younger son cannot, however, be the heathen, he can only be the Christian, for “the injunction to repent does not apply to the heathen; for the sins of the heathen are not subject to repentance but are rather to be ascribed to ignorance, which is sinful in the sight of God only because of sin in nature; surely remedies are not used for those who are not in danger. Ground for repentance is only present where knowledge and will are implicated in the sin, where it is possible to speak of guilt and on the other hand of Grace; he alone can mourn, he only can be afflicted who knows what he has lost, and what he will obtain again if he offers his repentance to God, who naturally enjoins this more upon His children than upon strangers.” Concerning these interpretations made by his opponents, Tertullian remarks (De Pud., 8): “With very many interpreters of parables the case is much the same as with those who trim garments with purple. They think that they have brought the tones of their colours into true harmony and by their contrast to have produced a lovely effect, but when the body comes to be fitted with the garment and it is placed in the right light, then the discords clash and reveal the whole construction as a ghastly mistake.”

St Luke xvi. 9 (De Fuga, 13).—From the injunction to make to oneself friends by means of Mammon, it follows that one may use bribes at the time of persecution.

St John iv. 2 (De Bapt., 11).—As Jesus did not Himself baptise, it follows that baptism is not absolutely necessary.


St John iv. 5 ff. (De Pud., 11).—The story of the Samaritan Woman proves that the Church ought to forgive even the grossest sins.

Acts iii. 1 (De Jeiun., 2, 10).—Because Peter went up into the Temple to pray at the ninth hour, this practice should be copied by the Church.

Acts viii. 36 (De Bapt., 18).—From the so speedy Baptism of the Eunuch, one must deduce that it is right and a duty not to delay Baptism.

Acts x. 1 f. (De Idol., 19).—The centurion was converted, therefore the profession of soldier is permissible for Christians.

Acts xv. 19 (De Jeiun., 2).—The Apostles at the Council did not wish to lay any heavy yoke upon Christians, therefore the ordinances of the Montanists concerning fasting are out of place.

Rom. ii. 24 (De Idol., 14; De Cultu, ii. 11).—The name of God ought not to be blasphemed, therefore Christians, in order to give no offence to the heathen, should comply with the customs of heathen festivals and homes, or at least should not show open displeasure with what the heathen do.

Rom. xii. 15 (De Idol., 13).—One must rejoice with those that rejoice, therefore the Christian may join in the public festivals.

Rom. xiii. 7 (De Idol., 13).—As it says: ἀπόδοτε πᾶσιν τὰς ὀφειλάς, the Christian may, and ought to, pay the usual dues on the days appointed by public custom.

Rom. xiv. 4 (De Pud., 2).—This verse stands in the following passage which Tertullian controverts “God is good, indeed is the supremely good, pitiful, merciful, rich in mercy, which He prefers to all sacrifice; He would rather the conversion than the 203death of the sinner; He offers salvation to all men, and especially to those that believe. Therefore, we the children of God must also be pitiful and placable, forgiving one another as Christ also has forgiven us, judging not that we be not judged. For to his own lord each stands and falls. Who art thou that thou judgest another man’s servant? Forgive and thou shalt he forgiven.”

Rom. xiv. 17 (De Jeiun., 15).—The Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, therefore the ascetic rules of the Montanists concerning food are in fault.

Rom. xv. 1 (De Fuga, 9).—From the injunction “to bear with the weak,” it follows that one ought to be gentle with Christians who flee at time of persecution.

1 Cor. i. 17 (De Bapt., 14).—Paul says that Christ had not sent him to baptise, therefore one can even omit Baptism.

1 Cor. v. 10 (De Idol., 14, 24).—Paul does not desire that a man should go out of the world, and does not forbid intercourse with heathen, therefore a Christian may frequent heathen meetings, festivals, etc.

1 Cor. vi. 18 (De Pud., 16).—Paul says that the fornicator sins εἰς τὸ ἴδιον σῶμα, therefore he does not sin εἰς τὸν θεόν.

1 Cor. vii. (De Idol., 5; Ad Uxor., i. 3; ii. 1 f.; De Exhort., 3, 4; De Pud., 1, 16; De Monog., 3, 11).—This chapter is exploited to prove (1) the unrestricted right to marriage, (2) the right of second marriage, and (3) of marriage with heathen, etc.

1 Cor. vii. 20 (De Idol., 5).—The injunction that each should abide in his κλῆσις justifies every Christian 204in abiding in his trade, even if it brings him into touch with idolatrous worship.

1 Cor. viii. 8 (De Jeiun., 15).—What Paul here says about food and eating puts Montanist asceticism in the wrong.

1 Cor. ix. 22 (De Idol., 14).—“I am become all things to all men” can and ought to serve as a maxim of broadmindedness for the Christian in his converse with heathen.

1 Cor. ix. 24 (De Spect., 18).—One may go to the games in the “Stadium,” seeing that the “Stadium” is mentioned in the Bible.185185This is a peculiarly characteristic piece of exegesis: “Quod si et stadium contendas in scripturis nominari, sane obtinebis.” It depends upon the axiom, “We have no right to blame what is not blamed in Holy Scripture,” an axiom which is already found in Irenæus, and is also employed by the “Lax” to defend magic and astrology (vide supra on St Matt. ii. 1 f.).

1 Cor. x. 25 (De Jeiun., 15).—One may eat anything that is sold at the shambles; one must deduce all the consequences of this permission, and these are straight against Montanist asceticism.

1 Cor. x. 33 (De Idol., 14).—The Apostle’s saying, πάντα πᾶσιν ἀρέσκω, ought to lead the Christian to the greatest accommodation in converse with heathen.

1 Cor. xi. 5 (De Orat., 21 f.; De Virg. Vel., 4).—As in this passage women and not virgins are spoken of, there is no need for the latter to be veiled.

2 Cor. ii. 5-11 (De Pud., 13-17).—Seeing that here forgiveness is granted to an incestuous man, the Church must treat fornicators and adulterers in the same way.

2 Cor. xii. 7 (De Pud., 13).—The fact that the messenger 205of Satan did not even spare Paul shows that deliverance into his power cannot mean eternal damnation.

Gal. iv. 10 (De Jeiun., 14).—The Christian that observes special days as festivals, as do the Montanists, falls under the condemnation of the Apostle.

Ephes. iv. 27 (De Fuga, 9).—The warning: μὴ δὶδοτε τόπον τῷ διαβόλῳ is neglected if one simply faces the devil when he is active in persecution; one must rather flee from him.

Ephes. v. 16 (De Fuga, 9).—The injunction: “Redeem the time because the days are evil,” refers to right conduct in persecution, i.e. one must flee, one must bribe, etc.

1 Thess. iv. 11 (De Idol., 5).—The command to work with one’s hands justifies every Christian who remains in his trade, even if thereby he cannot avoid coming into touch with idolatrous worship.

1 Tim. i. 15 f. (De Pud., 18).—The saying: “Christ is come to save sinners,” obliges the Church to limitless forgiveness.

1 Tim. i. 20 (De Pud., 18).—Hymenaeus and Alexander are delivered to Satan ἵνα παιδευθῶσιν, thus deliverance to Satan does not always mean damnation.

1 Tim. iii. 2 (De Monog., 12).—Monogamy is only demanded of a bishop, therefore other Christians can marry again.

1 Tim. iv. 3 (De Jeiun., 15).—The description of heretics as those who “refrain from meats” applies to the Montanists.

1 Tim. v. 11-15 (De Monog., 18).—The advice of the Apostle that the young widows should marry again hits the Montanists.

Tit. i. 15 (De Cor., 10).—“To the pure all things are 206pure”—thus one need not be over-anxious about avoiding what belongs to idols.

1 John i. 7–10; ii. 1 (De Pud., 19).—From these passages it follows that even the Christian cannot avoid sin, and that the forgiveness of God through Christ is boundless (καθαρίζει ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσις ἀδικίας). Christ is the advocate and mediator in regard to all sins.

Rev. ii. 20–22 (De Pud., 19).—From what is said about Jezabel we may conclude that sins of whoredom admit the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

Hermas Vis. v. (De Orat., 16).—Hermas sat down after he had ended his prayer, hence Christians also should sit down after prayer.

Hermas Mand. iv. 3, 4 (De Pud., 10).—These passages prove the possibility of a second repentance and the right to marry again.186186That the Shepherd of Hermas was used at the beginning of the instruction of catechumens is clear from De Pud., 10.

Acta Pauli (De Bapt., 17).—The example of Thecla authorises women to administer Baptism.

These instances of interpretation on the part of the community have been collected from fourteen treatises, and though a few may have been invented by Tertullian, the great majority of them are “genuine.” They prove:

1. That the New Testament, in same compass in which Tertullian knew and used it, lay before his opponents in the Church, i.e. the majority of its members;187187Notice especially the references to the Acts of the Apostles, 1 John, Revelation, and Hermas. It is significant that references to the Acts and Hermas are found already in the earliest works (De Bapt., De Orat., De Idol.). On the other hand it is not certain that the community regarded the “Apostolus” as closed; indeed the reference to the Acta Pauli makes this supposition improbable for the earlier period.


2. That their valuation of the book, the principles of interpretation they employed, etc., were exactly the same as those of Tertullian,188188We must beware of defining Tertullian’s attitude towards Holy Scripture simply in accordance with his controversial work De Præsc.; we must throughout also take his other treatises into consideration. According to De Resurr., 3, in controversy with heretics about doctrine, one must take one’s stand on “scripturis solis.” The strongest expression that Tertullian ever used in reference to Scripture stands in Adv. Hermog., 22: “Adoro scripturæ plenitudinem”; note, however, that he does not say: “Adoro scripturam.” however much they differed from him in the employment of those principles in particular cases. The New Testament stands for them as a Canon side by side with and of equal dignity with the Old Testament; it contains as a divine fountain of justice (“Instrumentum divinum”) laws of the Christian life that are absolutely valid, thus it contains the “ius divinum.” At the same time his opponents, just like Tertullian himself, recognise a distinction in degree between the two Testaments to the advantage of the New (“The Law and the Prophets are until John”); and the grand conception “Evangelium expunctor totius retro vetustatis” (Tert., De Orat., 1) is never disputed, rather it is confirmed by them;

3. That, though the general impression that we receive from these expositions is unfavourable, it is obvious, nevertheless, that Tertullian has only picked out those that were offensive to him, and that some of them are certainly to be preferred to interpretations which Tertullian himself gives. We also now understand why Tertullian clung to the sayings of the 208Paraclete in order to get over the difficulty of the uncertainty and even “Laxity” of many commands in the New Testament.

We may then adopt as our conclusion: At least as early as the last decade of the second century there existed in the Church of Carthage (not only for Tertullian) a second Canon of Holy Scripture comprising two divisions treated as equal in dignity—Gospels and “Apostolus”—in compass essentially the same as that of the Muratorian Fragment, and in all probability with the “Apostolus” still open—open, that is, for genuine Apostolic works that might yet appear.

« Prev Appendix IV. The Use of the New Testament in the… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection