Tertullian and Cyprian 2

LEGACY

Tertullian’s writings describe in great detail the life of the Church and he wrote volumes addressing issues facing Christians of his day. Tertullian was an advocate whose sole focus was to win his case, and he fought all the harder because it was his case.

Tertullian’s constant claim in his writings (Specifically: Against Praxeas, Prescription of Heretics and Veiling of Virgins) was that he defended the regula fidei (rule of faith) which he saw as universally held by churches in the apostolic tradition. He defended his faith passionately against any persecutors, and as a consequence he was always prepared to take up any movement which seemed to promise an increase of moral strenuousness, itself a divine commandment. Thus his embracing of Montanism probably had more to do with observed behaviour than received theology.

Tertullian’s most influential work was the definition of the Logos Christology, to which his legal mind gave a clearness in explanation such as had not before existed. He was the first to use the term ‘Trinity’ in writing of the Godhead as he did in his Logos Christology, and his chief work was Against Praxeas in which he defined the Godhead in terms which almost anticipated the Nicene result of more than a century later: “All are of One, by unity of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

Many turns of phrase and uses of terminology from Against Praxeas came to form a permanent part of the Western vocabulary for discussing the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ.

Tertullian has been called the creator of ecclesiastical Latin, and appropriately so. He was the first who wrote fluently in Latin, and in a stylish manner, on Christian subjects; and he himself created an appropriate religious and ecclesiastical terminology without previous examples. Moreover, the terminology he created remained to a large extent normative; it was after taken over by Cyprian and carried further, and was later regarded without question as the accepted terminology of the West. Tertullian is the first instance of a Christian author who rose, even on formal grounds, far above his contemporaries, and proved himself a master of his own language and style.

Tertullian possessed a doctrine of original sin, even if it was not clearly worked out; likewise, his understanding of salvation by grace rather than works was not fully developed. He opened the way for a doctrine of salvation by ‘good works’, at least in part, and he introduced the legal terms of ‘merit’ and ‘satisfaction’ into the Church, and thus laid the foundations on which the doctrine of penance was built.

Tertullian asserted that, though God forgives previous sins at baptism, satisfaction must be made for those committed thereafter by voluntary sacrifices, chiefly ascetic. The more a man punishes himself, the less God will punish him.

Although not regarded as great a theologian as Tertullian, Cyprian was held in great esteem and honour by the Church of his time, and also by later generations. The death of Cornelius enhanced Cyprian’s position as the most experienced bishop of the Western Church. He was often sought for advice, and his answer was regarded as authoritative.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

Baptism was very important to the Church of Tertullian and Cyprian, and, believer’s baptism is still a central part of being a believer and member of the Church today. Also very much a part of the Church today is infant baptism.

The first reference to infant baptism is that made by Irenaeus about 180 when he speaks of ‘all through Christ are born again God, infants and children and boys and youths and old men’. Tertullian attacked the practice of infant baptism, which appeared to be a relatively new practice, and considered that baptism should be held for later years.

Cyprian was ‘an important witness to infant baptism, whose necessity he linked to original sin’. He paralleled infant baptism with circumcision and the practice of infant baptism has continued through to the present day. Perhaps the greatest motive for infant baptism was not theological – but practical. There was a high mortality rate among infants, and graveyard inscriptions from that time attest to infant baptism, which was administered when the child was near to death. The practice seemed to come first, and the theological justification followed on behind.

By the fifth century infant baptism had become general practice in the Church with only a few isolated communities challenging the rite. Augustine of Hippo first gave infant baptism a systemic theological basis, and cemented into the life of the Church the practice which Cyprian had nurtured carefully, even if he hadn’t actually given birth to it.

Tertullian’s emphasis on believer’s baptism has been a feature of Church life through to the present day, and so too has the Cyprian practice of infant baptism. Two lasting ordinances from two men who were very influential in their own day, and still today.

MERIT OR DEMERIT?

Tertullian and Cyprian made major and lasting contributions to the life and thought of the Church. Their emphasis on a very high moral code for Christians is still a predominant feature of some churches and denominations, while the danger of legalism always lurks near those who try to live by it.

Tertullian’s writings, which he often authored to combat heresy, have become foundational theology for the Church in the centuries that followed, and much of Christian language today owes it existence to him. It was d’Aubigné who said that, if the Church in England has witnessed the development of a powerful evangelical life in its bosom, it must not forget the cause, but understand, with Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

Tertullian’s introduction of merit and satisfaction surely created the Church environment in which Christianity seemed more to do with what man could achieve in order to earn salvation than what God has already done for man in Christ, and his idea of man punishing himself to save God the need is shot all through the theology of the Church at large.

A high view of the Church was owned by Tertullian and grew to maturity under Cyprian, and the latter’s insistence on the absolute authority of the bishop is still a widespread reality; in theory, if not always in practice. The autonomy of the bishop in his own church as taught by Cyprian surely laid the foundation stone on which the ‘one-man’ ministry view of church has been built ever since.

Cyprian’s view of the Church as an institution has become so much a part of what church is today, that it is sometimes hard to imagine what else it could, or should, be like. His views on the priestly role of the bishops and the development of Transubstantiation are the cornerstones of church for millions of people, and the papacy is alive and well.

From Tertullian and Cyprian much theology has been formulated, but perhaps we need to remember that these men taught and acted as they saw fit in their own time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to shake a theological fist at them. Rest in peace.