The necessity of distinguishing between pre-Montanistic and Montanistic views—The Church as the repository of true doctrine—The Church from the standpoint of discipline.
The Ministry—The threefold ministerial office—The later view—The Bishop of Rome—Lectors and widows.
The Sacraments—Baptism—Full and explicit treatment—Simplicity of the rite—The water of baptism—Reception of the Holy Spirit—The effects of baptism—Objections to baptism discussed—Second baptism—The administration of baptism—Preparation and subsequent conduct.
The Eucharist—No set treatment—Exposition of the Parable of the Prodigal Son—‘ Our daily bread ’—Meaning of repraesentat—The bearing of Tertullian’s philosophy upon the subject.
TERTULLIAN’S view of the nature and the purpose of the Church underwent a great change on his conversion to Montanism, and it is both possible and necessary to distinguish between the views he held prior and subsequent to that conversion.
In his pre-Montanistic days he regarded the Church as the repository of the faith and the guardian of the true doctrine. The essentials of the Christian faith had been declared by Jesus Christ Himself during His earthly life. He had declared to the people publicly, and to His disciples privately, ‘what He was, what He had been, what was the Father’s will which He was administering, what was the duty of man which He was prescribing.’ 1 The disciples were commanded by Him to teach all nations, and to baptize them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This commission they discharged. Commencing in Judaea, they bore witness to the faith in Christ Jesus and founded Churches there. They next went forth to all the world, preaching the same doctrine, and witnessing to the same faith. ‘They then, in like manner, founded Churches in every city, from which all the other |p185 Churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become Churches.’2
Tertullian was repudiating the claim of heretics to be the defenders of the truth, and attacking their ‘Churches.’ So he laid down the proposition that the genus Church must be explained by reference to its origin. But the Christian Churches alone can trace their origin to the apostles, and they alone, therefore, comprise the true Church. Though they are many, their origin is one and apostolic, and they have descended in unbroken succession from the apostles; while the doctrine which they teach has been handed down intact and uncorrupted through this succession.
But here arises a difficulty. What of the Churches which cannot claim an apostolic foundation? How is their authority and genuineness to be maintained? Tertullian meets this difficulty by asserting that consanguinity of doctrine is the seal of unity, the bond of communion, and the test of truth. The true doctrine of Christ was delivered in speech and in letters by the apostles to the Churches which they personally founded. All doctrine which agrees with that must be reckoned as truth, and Churches which hold such doctrine are in communion with the apostolic Churches. The fact is, says Tertullian, that the Churches hold everywhere one and the same doctrine, and this is manifest proof of the existence and reliability of the traditional faith.
Moreover, the Churches which claim to be apostolic in the narrower sense of the word support their claim by the evidence of their registers, which show, e.g. that Polycarp was placed at the head of the Church at Smyrna by John, and that Clement was ordained by Peter. The first bishops of these and other Churches were placed in their sees by apostles. The Churches which cannot claim such direct apostolic appointment yet claim to be apostolic, as has already been said, by virtue of agreement in doctrine.
After his conversion to Montanism the opinions of Tertullian regarding the Church changed. He revolted against the laxity of the moral code promulgated by the Psychics. The decree of the Pontifex Maximus, proclaiming pardon for sexual impurity upon repentance, called forth his ire. That such an |p186 edict should be read in the Church of Christ is more than Tertullian can endure, for she is a virgin, and the betrothed of Christ. ‘Far, far from Christ’s betrothed be such a proclamation. She, the true, the modest, the saintly, shall be free from stain, even of her ears. She has none to whom to make such a promise, and if she had, she does not make it.’ 3
As in pre-Montanist days he had discussed the Church from the standpoint of doctrine only (the Church being the guardian of true doctrine), so in Montanist days he discusses the Church from the standpoint of power only (the Church being the responsible authority in discipline). He combats the notion that Christ’s words to Peter, ‘Upon this rock will I build My Church,’ were addressed to him as the representative of the Church. The words were spoken to Peter personally. ‘To thee’ and ‘thou’ are the words of Christ, and the power was exercised afterwards by Peter, not by the Church. This furnishes Tertullian with a basis for his Montanist view that the Church is composed of spiritual men. ‘For,’ he says, ‘in, accordance with the person of Peter, it is to spiritual men that this power will correspondently appertain, either to an apostle or to a prophet.’4
Thus he is led to state his view that the Church itself is really the Spirit Himself, ‘in whom is the Trinity of the one Divinity,’ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.5 Whenever a number of persons have combined together in this faith they constitute a Church. This Church will forgive sins, but it will not be the Church which consists of a number of bishops, but that which consists of spiritual men.
Tertullian evidently did not follow out his thoughts about the Church to their logical conclusion. He seems to have held the view, even in his Montanist days, that the Church is an outward society, while at the same time he maintained that it was composed of spiritual men. But he makes no attempt to prove the spirituality of the officers and members of the Church as it existed. He rather denied to them that attribute, while he stigmatized them as fuxikoi/. He left to later thinkers the problem of reconciling the two views.
Tertullian respected the Roman Church, not because it was founded by Peter, but because Peter and Paul were both martyred at Rome. For the rest, the Churches were all equal. |p187 ‘How happy is its (i.e. Rome’s) Church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood, where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s, where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s. ’6
THE MINISTRY.—Tertullian mentions the threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. With regard to the rite of baptism, the bishop, who is the ‘ chief priest,’ naturally has the right of administering this sacrament. After him, but with his authority, the right belongs to the presbyters and deacons. It is in the interests of the honour and peacefulness of the Church that this order should be preserved. But the right of administering baptism is not necessarily confined to these three orders. It is seemly that baptism should be performed ordinarily by the bishop, the presbyters, or the deacons, but in cases of necessity the laymen may perform it, for what has been equally received may be equally given. There must, however, be no presumptuous usurping of what is the specific function of the bishop, and in no case is the right to administer baptism to be allowed to a woman.
Tertullian makes it a ground of accusation against the heretics that their Church lacks discipline. The culminating point in the charge is that there is no fixed distinction between the priests and the laity. The same persons are indifferently one day priests and the next day laymen, and vice versa. ‘And so it comes to pass that to-day one man is their bishop, and to-morrow another; to-day he is a presbyter who to-morrow is a layman. For even on laymen do they impose the function of priesthood.’7 A legitimate inference from such a statement is, that in the Christian Churches the distinction between the laity and the priesthood was rigidly kept, and the separate offices of bishop, presbyter, and deacon were kept distinct. It is certain, moreover, that the presbyters were chosen from the laymen, inasmuch as Tertullian exhorts the latter to monogamy, that they may be eligible for presbytership. No information is given by our author as to the way in which bishops were chosen from among the presbyters or as to the specific duties of bishops, presbyters, and deacons. It seems, however, that the bishop was responsible for the internal economy of each particular church, and, probably, when present, presided at the meetings and at the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. |p188
Tertullian also mentions the sovereign Pontiff, the bishop of bishops (‘Pontifex, scilicet, Maximus, Episcopus Episcoporum’). 8 This reference has naturally been taken by Romanists as an allusion to the Bishop of Rome, and they claim that while Tertullian, now a Montanist, did not accept his claim to be Pontifex Maximus, yet his words imply that the Bishop of Rome was generally recognized as holding priority over the other bishops. Such an interpretation, however, is improbable in view of the fact that Bingham shows that the title of Summus Pontifex was applied to ordinary bishops.
There is also found in De Pudicitia, c. 13, the word’ Papa’ occurring in the phrase: ‘Bonus Pastor et Benedictus Papa concionaris.’ This has been treated in like manner by the Romanists as a reference to the Bishop of Rome, but the use of the word in the time of Cyprian9 shows that it was at that time a designation of ordinary bishops.
In De Oratione, c. 28, Tertullian avers that the true priests are those who, being spiritual, offer to God the spiritual sacrifice of prayer.
‘For this is the spiritual victim which has abolished the pristine sacrifices. “To what purpose,” saith He, “bring ye Me the multitude of your sacrifices? I am full of holocausts of rams, and I desire not the fat of rams, and the blood of bulls and goats. For who hath required these from your hands?” What, then, God has required the gospel teaches. “An hour will come,” saith He, “when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and truth. For God is a Spirit, and accordingly requires His adorers to be such.” We are the true adorers and the true priests, who, praying in spirit, sacrifice, in spirit, prayer—a victim proper and acceptable to God, which assuredly He has required, which He has looked forward to for Himself! This victim, devoted from the whole heart, fed on faith, tended by truth, entire in innocence, pure in chastity, garlanded with love, we ought to escort with the pomp of good works, amid psalms and hymns, unto God’s altar, to obtain for us all things from God.’
This passage may be understood in a figurative sense, so as not to be opposed to the view, which we have noted, of the office of the bishop as a priest. It is the Old Testament |p189 conception of the priest which is here being contrasted with the New.
But the same can hardly be said of the argument in De Exhortatione Castitatis, where Tertullian asks, ‘Are not we laics priests?’ Here the question under consideration is one of discipline, and it is the notion of the layman as a literal priest that is in Tertullian’s mind. He is discussing the rightfulness or otherwise of second marriages, and first establishes the rule that priests are to be men of one wife. He quotes an undiscoverable passage from Leviticus which runs, so he says,’ My priests shall not pluralize marriages.’ He does not refer to 1 Tim. iii. i, 2 and Titus i. 5,6, which might have furnished him with more stable ground for his argument, but he says that the rule is fully and carefully laid down among the Christians that men who are chosen unto the sacerdotal order must be men of one marriage, and some of those who have married a second time have been removed from their office for so doing. Then he infers that what applies to the priest applies also to the layman, for he, too, is a priest. God has made the laity also a kingdom and priests. This amounts to a prohibition of digamy to the laity also.
In this connexion Tertullian lays down the proposition that it is the authority of the Church which has established the difference between the ‘Order’ and the laity. Where the ‘Order’ is lacking the individual is his own priest, baptizing and sacrificing for himself, and he is therefore subject to the same discipline as the priest. It seems a descent from this high claim when Tertullian argues that the laity should abstain from digamy because the presbyters are chosen from among the laity, and that if they marry a second time they cannot be chosen as presbyters. The implication of such an argument is that the laity are only potentially priests, whereas he had already claimed for them that they were actually priests. Speaking of the Holy Spirit, Tertullian says, ‘He is the only prelate, because He alone succeeds Christ.’10
He makes the apostolicity of the Churches depend upon the unbroken succession of the bishops from the apostles, as we have already seen in our treatment of the Church. ‘Let the heretics,’ he says, ‘produce the original records of their Churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running |p190 down in due succession from the beginning, in such a manner that their first distinguished bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic Churches transmit their registers.’11
In De Fuga in Persecutione the same claim is implied. Tertullian, attacking the superiors among the Christians, says, ‘Did the apostles, with so much foresight, make the office of overseer (hanc episcopatui formam) of this type, that the occupants might be able to enjoy their rule free from anxiety, under colour of providing a like freedom for their flock?’
An allusion in De Jejunio Adversus Psychicos, c. 13, indicates that councils or synods were held for dealing with the great questions that affected the Churches. No precise definition of the questions handled, or of the personnel of the councils, is given, but it is in the course of discussing the Church fasts that the reference occurs, and a passage in De Pudicitia, c. 10, indicates that such questions as the canon of Scripture found a place in their deliberations. (The Shepherd of Hermas, says Tertullian, had been pronounced apocryphal by these councils.) The passage from De Jejunio runs thus: ‘Besides, throughout the provinces of Greece there are held in definite localities those councils, gathered out of the universal Churches, by whose means not only all the deeper questions are handled for the common benefit, but the actual representation of the whole Christian name is celebrated with great veneration. And how worthy a thing is this, that, under the auspices of faith, men should congregate from all quarters to Christ.’
There are passing allusions in Tertullian’s writings to lectors, or readers, and widows. The reference to the former gives us no information as to the duties of the lectors, but presumably it was to read the Scriptures to the people. The references to the latter occur: (1) In De Virginibus Velandis, where Tertullian complains that a bishop had admitted a virgin to the office of widow; (2) In De Monogamia; and (3) In De Exhortatione Castitatis. The allusions are by way of exhorting those who contemplate remarriage to consider those who are in the approved order of widows. |p191
THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM.—Tertullian’s teaching as to the mode and meaning of baptism is very full. In his tract De Baptismo the subject is definitely and explicitly treated, and the views there advanced are supplemented by frequent allusions in his other writings. The occasion of his writing De Baptismo was: (1) The need of instructing converts; and (2) The assault upon the faith of those whose faith was not strongly grounded upon reason, made by a woman named Quintilla, who taught that baptism was not necessary.
In this connexion two of Tertullian’s sayings are worthy of note. The first is his opening statement: ‘Happy is the sacrament of our water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free unto eternal life.’ That introductory statement will prepare us to find a generous recognition of the efficacy of baptism. The second is that which contains the allusion to i0xqu&j: ‘ But we, little fishes, after the example of our i0xqu&j, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we any safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water.’ This is a play upon the initial letters of the words 'Ihsou~j Xristo_j qeou~ ui9o_j swth&r, which formed a name which was applied to Christ. This statement will likewise prepare us to find emphasis laid upon the place of water in the rite of baptism.
Tertullian commends the simplicity of the Christian rite of baptism in contrast to the elaborate nature of pagan ceremonies. So far from detracting from the value of the rite, its simplicity adds to it, for it is in accordance with the method of God, who employs the foolish things of the world to confuse the wise. Hence, to attain eternal life by being simply dipped in water is a reasonable conjunction of the simplicity and power of God. But not only is water a ‘simple’ element, it has authority by reason of its age and dignity, and power and grace by reason of the brooding of the Holy Spirit upon it at the first.
What is effected by the brooding of the Holy Spirit upon the water it is necessary to consider, because some find in Tertullian’s language the idea of a magical power transferred to the, material element of water. The comparison of the baptismal water with the pool of Bethesda lends support to this interpretation. The medicinal properties of the pool were admittedly magical, and consequent upon the advent of the angel. It is an easy inference that the medicinal virtues of the |p192 font were likewise magical, especially as they, too, are ascribed by Tertullian to the agency of the angel. But ‘that inference, easy though it is, is drawn from an illustration which is at best an imperfect parallel, and it is truer to the thought of Tertullian to regard carefully what he says when he is not indulging in illustration. What he thus says is: ‘All waters, therefore, in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification, for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself; and, being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying.’ Apparently, taking the context into consideration, he means that water is a suitable medium of sanctification, because it was over water that the Holy Spirit brooded at the first, and that it then drank in the power of itself hallowing. The consequence is that, though the water used in baptism is not the identical water upon which the Holy Spirit brooded, it belongs to the same genus, and what was possible (i.e. the sanctifying of the element) in the case of primaeval water is possible to every species of water, so that, whether a man is to be baptized in a sea, or pool, or stream, or lake, or trough, the water is sanctified by the Holy Spirit upon the invocation of God. It must be confessed that there are apparent inconsistencies in Tertullian’s statements, but that seems to be his root conception, and it certainly implies a higher view than that of the magical efficacy of the material substance of the water employed in the rite of baptism.
The healing efficacy of the water of the pool of Bethesda is typical of the spiritual healing effected through the water of baptism. ‘This figure of corporeal healing sang of spiritual healing according to the rule by which things carnal are always antecedent, as figurative of things spiritual.’ Under the Christian dispensation baptism removes the guilt and the penalty of sin, and restores the likeness of God. ‘The guilt being removed, of course the penalty is removed too. Thus man will be restored for God . . . for he receives again that Spirit of God, which he had then first received from His “afflatus,” but had afterwards lost through sin.’
The reception of the Holy Spirit is not, however, conferred by baptism. The latter simply prepares the way by sealing the forgiveness of sins to the faith of the baptized. Following |p193 upon the immersion in water is the anointing with oil. This unction is typified in the Old Testament, especially in the anointing of Aaron by Moses, and it is an outward sign of a spiritual grace, as also is baptism. ‘Thus, too, in our case, the unction runs carnally but profits spiritually, in the same way as the act of baptism itself, too, is carnal, in that we are immersed in water; the effect spiritual, in that we are freed from sins.’ After the unction come the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. This, too, was typified in the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh by Jacob. ‘Then over our cleansed and blessed bodies willingly descends from the Father that Holiest Spirit.’
So far we have followed Tertullian’s treatment of the subject in De Baptismo, and we shall return to the subject as there set forth again. But it is wise at this point to notice some other references which he makes to the subject. In De Anima, c. 41, he states that the soul, which has retained something of its original goodness, despite its depravity, is renewed in its second birth by water and by power from above. In De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 47, where he is maintaining the theory that the flesh shall participate in the resurrection, he makes some significant remarks upon baptism. It is the flesh that is baptized, therefore it is reasonable that the flesh should partake in the resurrection, for it is the flesh which is regenerated in baptism. ‘Now it would not at all have been consistent that any rule of holiness and righteousness should be especially enjoined for the flesh, if the reward of such a discipline were not also within its reach; nor could even baptism be properly ordered for the flesh, if by its regeneration, a course were not inaugurated tending to its restitution, the apostle himself suggesting this idea, “Know ye not that as many of us as are baptized into Jesus Christ are baptized into His death? We are therefore buried with Him by baptism into death, that just as Jesus was raised up from the dead, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” And that you may not suppose that this is said merely of that life which we have to walk in the newness of, through baptism by faith, the apostle, with superlative forethought, adds, “For, if we have been planted together in the likeness of Christ’s death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection.” By a figure we die in our baptism, but in a reality we rise again in the flesh.’ The death |p194 in baptism is figurative, but the ‘rising again’ is literal. Some of the effects of baptism are indicated incidentally in Tertullian’s contention with Marcion (Adversus Marcionem, Book I., c. 38). They are the remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Spirit, while baptism itself is designated a’ sacrament of salvation.’
This last remark leads us to notice the names which are applied to baptism by Tertullian. They are, ‘the sacrament of washing’ (eadem lavacri sacramenti), ‘the blessed sacrament of water’ (felix sacramentum aquae nostrae), ‘the sacrament of faith’ (fidei sacramento),’ the layer of regeneration’ (lavacrum regenerationis), ‘the intinctio of repentance’ (intinctionem poenitentiae), ‘the intinctio of the Lord ’(intinctionis Dominiciae), and ‘the sign and seal of faith’ (insigniculo fidei).
To return to the tract De Baptismo, we find that Tertullian treats further of: (a) The distinction between the baptism of John and Christian baptism; (b) The objection that Jesus did not baptize; (c) The necessity of baptism; (d) Paul’s assertion that he had not been sent to baptize, and (e) The unity of baptism. He then mentions the second baptism (i.e. martyrdom), and discusses the questions as to who are competent to administer baptism, what are the times for administering it, what preparation should be made for it, and what conduct should follow the celebration.
(a) The distinction between the baptism of John and Christian baptism lies, according to Tertullian, in the fact that the former was a baptism of repentance only, while the latter included the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hence he infers that the baptism of John was human, in that repentance was a thing within the power of man, whereas the forgiveness of sins, and sanctification, are divine, being within the scope of God’s power alone. The statement that John preached ‘baptism for the remission of sins’ must be understood as spoken in an anticipatory sense. The remission of sins was future.
(b) The difficulty that Jesus did not Himself baptize is met by Tertullian with a double plea that reminds one of the methods of modern legal defence. In the first place it is said that as an emperor is said to proclaim a decree, though he himself does it not, but his officers, or as a prefect is said to punish an offender, though he does it through his underlings, |p195 so it may be said of Jesus that He baptized, although lie did not do so personally, but through His disciples. In the second place, it was not to be expected that Jesus would baptize, because if He baptized into repentance He would have rendered void the work of His forerunner, if He baptized into remission of sins there was no need, as He could forgive sins by a word. He could not baptize into the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit was not yet come, and He could not baptize into the baptism subsequently known as the baptism of Christ, because the efficacy of that font had not yet been established by the passion and resurrection.
(c) It is evident that there were those in Tertullian’s day who maintained that there was no need for baptism, on the ground that the apostles were not (excluding Paul) baptized. Tertullian maintains alternative possibilities in this case. Either the apostles were baptized (like their Master) with the baptism of John, and there was no need of the iterating of baptism’, or they were specially exempted by the Master Himself, after the manner of those to whom He would say, ‘Thy faith hath saved thee,’ and ‘Thy sins shall be remitted thee.’
There were others who cited the instance of Abraham to prove that baptism was unnecessary. To these Tertullian replied that former things must give place to subsequent. Mere faith might suffice for Abraham, but since the nativity, passion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have intervened, the sacrament has been amplified by the sealing act of baptism. The teaching is plain. ‘Go,’ said Christ, ‘teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
(d) That Paul did not baptize was no objection against others baptizing. Besides, even he baptized Gaius and Crispus, and the house of Stephanas. The statement had reference to a peculiar state in the Church at Corinth, and should be understood in the light of those circumstances.
(e) Regarding the unity of baptism, Tertullian points to the fact that Christian baptism differs from Jewish in that it neither needs, not is capable of, repetition. ‘We enter, then, the font once, once are sins washed away, because they ought never to be repeated. But the Jewish Israel bathes daily, because he is daily being defiled . . . happy water, which |p196 once washes away, which does not mock sinners (with vain hopes), which does not, by being infected with the repetition of impurities, again defile them whom it has washed.’
As to the possibility of a second baptism, Tertullian takes the view held, by the African Church and developed by Cyprian, that it does not exist. Heretical baptism is no baptism at all, because the heretics have not the same God, nor the one Christ. If they desire to enter the Christian Church, it follows by implication, though Tertullian does not say it, that they must submit to the Christian rite of baptism. It does not seem, however, that the question, which became so acute later, as to whether baptism administered by heretics was valid, arose in Tertullian’s time, so we are not able to say what his views were. Probably he would have agreed with those who held that the validity of the Sacrament depended upon its being duly administered within the Church rather than with those who favoured the validity of the rite in itself, by whomsoever it was administered.
The honourable esteem in which martyrdom was held is reflected in the view taken of martyrdom as a second baptism. The grounds for calling it so were that Jesus had said, ‘I have a baptism to be baptized with,’ when He was already baptized, and that John had described Him as coming by water and the blood. Further, the water and the blood that issued from the Saviour’s side were figures of baptism by water and blood. Martyrdom was a form of baptism which obviated the necessity of prior baptism, and which restored to the sufferer the privileges of a baptism which he had lost.
Before following further the treatment of the subject of baptism in the treatise De Baptismo we may conveniently note here that in De Corona Militis, c. 3, Tertullian supplies us with a few interesting details as to the mode of administration of baptism. He tells us that the candidate for baptism, before entering the water, makes, in the presence of the congregation, and under the hand of the president, a solemn renunciation of the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Then follows a threefold immersion—an amplification of the command of Christ in the gospel. After that, they taste a mixture of milk and honey, and refrain from their daily ablution for a week. |p197
This account may be supplemented by the following references:
Adversus Praxean, c. 26: ‘And, lastly, He commands them to baptize into the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, not into a unipersonal God. And, indeed, it is not once only, but three times, that we are immersed, into the three Persons at each several mention of their names.’
De Baptismo, c. 7: ‘After this, when we have emerged from the font, we are thoroughly anointed with a blessed unction.’
De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 8: ‘The flesh is anointed.’
De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 26: ‘The oil of God’s unction.’
De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 8: ‘The flesh is signed (with the cross).’
De Spectaculis, c. 4: ‘When entering the water, we make profession of the Christian faith in the words of its rule, we bear public testimony that we have renounced the devil, his pomp, and his angels.’
Returning once more to the tract De Baptismo, we may follow out Tertullian’s treatment. The persons who are competent to administer baptism are: (1) The chief priest, who is the bishop, who would undertake to perform the rite if present; (2) Next to the bishop, the presbyters and deacons, who, however, would not perform the ceremony without the authority of the bishop; (3) Next to these two classes, and in their absence, even laymen had the right to perform the ceremony, ‘since what had equally been received might equally be given.’ Ordinarily, the performance of the ceremony was the function of the Bishop, and should be carried out by him. But in case of necessity it devolved in succession upon the presbyters and deacons, and upon laymen. But in no case could it be performed by a woman.
As to the persons who were to be baptized, Tertullian advised caution. Not to every one who asks is the privilege to be granted, lest pearls should be cast before swine. It is preferable to delay baptism whenever possible, but especially in the case of children. ‘Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins?’ The unwedded and the widowed should be encouraged to delay baptism, because in certain directions they were free from temptations which might accrue later and prove too strong for them. The belief of |p198 Tertullian that heinous sins after baptism were unpardonable on earth (whatever might be the case in heaven) accounts for his desire that Christians should delay baptism as far as possible ‘If any understand the weighty import of baptism they will fear its reception more than its delay.’
Concerning the times most suitable for baptism, Tertullian says they are: (1) The Passover time, which is most suitable of all; and (2) The period of Pentecost, i.e. the whole space between Easter and Whitsuntide. But the peculiar aptitude of such times lies simply in their solemnity; it does not affect the communication of grace in baptism. That is the same every day. ‘However, every day is the Lord’s; every hour, every time, is apt for baptism; if there is a difference in the solemnity, in the grace, distinction there is none.’
Regarding the kind of conduct that is fitting before and after baptism, Tertullian teaches that the preliminaries of baptism are prayer, fasting, and all-night vigils, with the public confession of all bygone sins. Such confession serves a double purpose. It makes satisfaction for former sins by mortification of the flesh and spirit, and it lays beforehand the foundation of defence against temptations to come. After baptism, fasting is not prescribed, as it is an occasion of joy; though others thought that the example of Jesus in fasting for forty days after baptism ought to be followed.
THE SACRAMENT OF THE LORD’S SUPPER.—The doctrine of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper does not receive at Tertullian’s hands anything approaching the same consideration as that given to baptism. There is no set treatment of the subject at all in his writings, and the incidental allusions are far from conclusive evidence as to his views on the subject. They have been claimed as supporting both the Roman and the Protestant theories by the defenders of each. It is only fair to insist that in a matter of this kind due regard should be paid to the incidental nature of Tertullian’s allusions. The subject is one that demands the utmost discrimination in the use of words, and, even when such care has been observed, the history of the Church shows that misunderstandings and misinterpretations have been rife. When a writer, especially such a writer as Tertullian, with his mind intent upon the development of an argument on another subject, makes passing mention |p199 of the eucharist, it is manifestly misleading to treat his statements as though his words had been chosen with meticulous care to express his views of the eucharist itself. The very fact that he has not written explicitly on this subject may be due to his not having thought out any theory of the eucharist, though such a negative argument must not be pressed. However, bearing this in mind, we may glean what we can of his thoughts on this theme.
Expounding the parable of the Prodigal Son, he draws a parallel between the Prodigal of the Gospel and the prodigal of his own time, who also, in a figure, squanders his substance and feeds swine, remembers his Father, receives the robe, and the ring, and ‘thenceforward feeds upon the fatness of the Lord’s body, the eucharist, to wit’13 The phrase ‘eucharistia scilicet’ may, as Kaye14 remarks, be a gloss. Whether that is so or not, the language is evidently figurative all through the passage, and to build upon this statement the theory that Tertullian believed in transubstantiation is to erect a weighty superstructure upon a foundation of sand.
The statement, ‘The flesh feeds upon the body and blood of Christ that the soul likewise may fatten on God,’15 carries us no further. It is no more than a rhetorical climax to a culminating series of statements showing the close connexion of body and soul in the religious life. It is probably a condensed statement of the thought,’ The flesh feeds upon the bread and wine, which represent the body and blood of Christ, and at the same time the soul is nourished by partaking, as it were, of God.’ The two thoughts have been ‘telescoped,’ so to speak, in the hurry of a rhetorical statement. The thought expressed elsewhere, that the soul feeds upon the same material food as the body, confirms this view, for the soul does not on that condition require the bread and wine to undergo a transformation into the actual body and blood of Christ in order to become food for the soul.
Dealing with the fifth clause in the Lord’s Prayer,16 Tertullian uses the words, ‘ Then, too (we find) that His body is reckoned to be in bread: “this is My body.” The statement is brought in somewhat abruptly. Tertullian has just been referring to the passage in John vi. where Christ says, ‘I am the Bread of |p200 Life,’ where the ‘bread’ is evidently figurative, and the transition to the brief statement from Matt. xxvi. 26, where the bread is literal, and the body of Christ is figurative, is awkward. The parallel would be closer and the awkwardness not so apparent if the ‘bread’ is still figurative, and the body of Christ is still literal, in the sentence, ‘This (bread) is My body.’ But, on the other hand, the sentiment of the whole passage is against such a construction. The thought that dominates the whole passage is that the clause in the Lord’s Prayer is a petition for spiritual food, and that Christ is that spiritual food. ‘For Christ is our Bread, because Christ is Life, and bread is life.’
A passage in De Resurrectione Carnis bears this out. There it is said, ‘Constituting, therefore, His word as the life-giving principle, because that word is spirit and life, He likewise called His flesh by the same appellation; because, too, the Word had become flesh, we ought therefore to desire Him, in order that we may have life, and to devour Him with the ear, and to ruminate on Him with the understanding, and to digest Him by faith.’17 It is difficult to believe that a man who could pen such a clear statement of the appropriation of Christ by faith could hold the belief that the substance of the body and blood of Christ were present in the eucharist under the semblance of bread and wine.
Tertullian uses the word repraesentat as an indication of the relation between the bread and the body of Christ. In Adversus Marcionem he says: ‘Nor the bread by which He represents His own proper body.’ The question is, What does the word repraesentat here signify? Does it mean ‘to exhibit,’ and so support the view that Tertullian is a transubstantiationist, or does it mean ‘to signify’? Some allowance must be made for the view Tertullian takes of the nature of a sacrament. But we saw that he believed in the case of baptism, that it was possible for one to go through the form of baptism without true repentance and faith, and that in that case the immersion and the unction were of no avail. He says that the water is sanctified, and that the oil of unction is holy, but he would probably have said in the same way that the bread and wine were holy, without going so far as to say that they changed their substance. |p201 There is no justification in Tertullian’s writings for the statement that the bread and wine were ‘exhibitions’ of the body and blood of Christ; they were rather ‘signs’ of them.
Again, in the same treatise, there occurs an unmistakable reference to the bread as figurative of the body of Christ. ‘This tree it is which Jeremiah likewise gives you intimation of when he prophesies to the Jews, who say, “Come, let us destroy the tree with its fruit, that is His body.” For so did God, in your own gospel, even reveal the sense when He called His body bread, so that for the time to come you may understand that He has given to His body the figure of bread, whose body the prophet of old figuratively turned into bread, the Lord Himself designing to give, by and by, an interpretation of the mystery.’
In combating the theory of Marcion that Jesus had a phantom body, Tertullian bases one of his arguments on the use made by Jesus of bread as a figure of His body. It is only possible to use a figure of that which has real existence, so Christ could not have spoken of bread as a figure of His body unless that body really existed. In this connexion Tertullian says, ‘Then having taken the bread, and having given it to His disciples, He made it His own body by saying, “This is My body,” that is, the figure of My body.’
But most important of all in its bearing upon this subject is the philosophy of Tertullian. He repudiates at length the theory that the senses are unreliable witnesses of the actuality of the outer world. There may be illusions; hallucinations sometimes occur to individuals; but in the main the impressions conveyed by the senses correspond to the outward phenomena, and the senses are dependable instruments of the soul. Hence we should expect Tertullian to refuse to believe such a theory as that which asserts that the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents remain the same. He actually, in this very argument, mentions the wine in a sense which shows at least that he was not aware of such a notion. ‘We may not call into question the truth of the senses, lest we should, even in Christ Himself, bring doubt upon the truth of their sensation, lest it should be said . . . that the taste of the wine was different from that which He consecrated in memory of His blood.’ |p202
To sum up: the truth seems to be that Tertullian had no developed theory of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to give. The philosophical questions that troubled later writers had not yet arisen, and, as in the case of the doctrine of the Trinity, to which he had given much thought and attention, expressions occur which would have been avoided if he had been writing in the light of later controversy, so, more emphatically, in the case of this sacrament, to which definite thought had not been given by him, statements were penned which had no relation to later controversy, and which would never have been penned if he were writing when those questions emerged, or later.
1. p.183 n.1 De Praescriptione Haereticorum, c. 20.
2. p.185 n.1 De Praescriptione Haereticorum, c. 20.
3. p.186 n.1 De Pudicitia, c. 1.
4. p.186 n.2 De Pudicitia, c. 21 ; cf. Scorpiace, c. 10.
5. p.186 n.3 Ibid.
6. p.187 n.1 De Praescriptione Haereticorum, c. 36.
7. p.187 n.2 Ibid., c. 41.
8. p.188 n.1 De Pudicitia, C. 1.
9. p.188 n.2 Cler. Rom. ad Cler. Carthag. Epistles, 8, 23, 31, 36.
10. p.189 n.1 De Virginibus Velandis, c, 1.
11. p.190 n.1 De Praescriptione Haereticorum, c. 32.
12. p.190 n.2 De Fuga in Persecutione, c. 13.
13. p.199 n.1 De Pudicitia, c. 9.
14. p.199 n.2 Writings of Tertullian, p. 426.
15. p.199 n.3 De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 8.
16. p.199 n.4 De Oratione, c. 6.
17. p.200 n.1 De Resurrectione Carnis, c. 37.
Greek text is rendered using the Scholars Press
SPIonic font, free from here.
This document ( last modified 14th July 2001)
from the Tertullian Project.
© Epworth Press, Methodist Publishing House. Reproduced by permission.