Friday, July 12, 2019

Hort's Lecture on Tertullian and Cyprian

Fenton John Anthony Hort

            In 1890, Fenton John Anthony Hort (half of the Westcott-Hort duo) delivered a series of six lectures on ante-Nicene fathers.  They were published in 1895, a few years after his death.  What follows here, with slight adjustments, is the fifth lecture in the series.


            The last Father whose life and writings came before us was Clement of Alexandria. In him ancient Christian theology in some important respects reaches its highest point.  There were after him greater as well as more influential theologians, but with all his very manifest defects there was no one whose vision of what the faith of Jesus Christ was intended to do for mankind was so full or so true.
            His great pupil Origen, and one or two of Origen’s own pupils, who worthily carried on the tradition of Alexandrian theology, will I hope come before us next time.  Meanwhile we must turn aside today to a region geographically not remote from Egypt, but in other respects curiously unlike Egypt as regards the Christian theologians whom it bred in the earlier centuries.
            The Roman proconsular province of Africa, approximately what we now in Church History for clearness’ sake call “North Africa,” was, as Mommsen has pointed out, a remarkably insulated region, being shut off from the interior and from the coasts to the East by vast deserts. The most important part of it answers roughly to the modern Tunis, Carthage being the capital. The Mediterranean divided it from Sicily and Italy, but there was close intercourse with Rome by water.  Unhappily we know nothing of the foundation or earlier history of the North African Churches.  But there is good reason to believe that they first created a Latin Bible.
            They also probably contributed largely to the creation of the church organization which became prevalent in the West.  They certainly created the distinctively Latin theology, which, developed especially by Augustine, and again by great theologians of the Middle Ages, and again by the leading Continental Reformers of the sixteenth century, has dominated men’s thoughts in Western Europe respecting God and man, both for good and for evil.  We have to consider today the first two great Fathers known to us from the North African Churches, probably the first two great Fathers whom they produced:  Tertullian and Cyprian.
            Nearly all that we know about Tertullian is gleaned from his own writings, and that is not much. He was probably born somewhere about the middle of the second century, and himself a native of North Africa. At Carthage he would have the fullest opportunity for acquiring the best culture of the time.  Next to Rome, it was the second city of the Western Empire in size and importance; perhaps also, as Mommsen says, the most corrupt city of the West as well as the chief centre of the Latin cultivation and literature.  Tertullian’s writings show what full use he made of these opportunities, as regards Greek and Roman literature.  His occupation was that of an advocate, and the usual course of a lawyer’s training in rhetoric would naturally lead him to spend some time at Athens and at Rome in youth.  To an intelligent young lawyer Rome would be a very attractive place just then, on account of the distinguished Roman jurists of the time.  All this time Tertullian was assuredly a heathen, and apparently a man of vicious life, as he states himself, and as the foulness which ever afterwards infested his mind too painfully confirms.  How he became a Christian he never tells us directly, but it is tolerably clear that he is reciting his own experience when he more than once speaks of the moral impression produced on beholders by Christian martyrs.  So in a famous passage of the Apologeticum [Tert. Apol. 50] addressed to the heathen:
            “We multiply every time that we are mown down by you:  the blood of Christians is seed . . . . That very obstinacy which you reproach us with is a teacher.  For who when he beholds it is not impelled to examine what are the inner contents of the matter?”  Again:   “Every one looking on such endurance, smitten as with a kind of scruple, is both enkindled to examine whence it proceeds, and, when he has discovered, himself also at once follows the truth.”  Within the last few years it has become possible to surmise with some probability what the martyrdoms were which thus changed the course of Tertullian’s life.  We now know that the year 180, the first year of the Emperor Commodus, was the year when seven men and five women from the African town of Scilla were martyred at Carthage. The Acts of their martyrdom are still extant. [See Lightfoot’s Apostolic Fathers (2nd Edition), Ignatius, i. 524 foll.]
            Seventeen years later there was again persecution.  Apparently the Christians, or some Christians, refused to take part in the public festivities, probably involving idolatrous usages, which greeted the final victory of the Emperor Septimius Severus over other claimants of the imperial authority; and accordingly the existing laws seem to have been put in force against Christians, though probably not by the Emperor himself.  At least three of Tertullian’s writings are memorials of this time; his great Apologeticum, a brilliant and elaborate defense of Christians from the charges of all kinds brought against them, abounding in interesting matter of many kinds, and for its own purpose effective; yet all written with an exuberant cleverness which is too often merely painful.  This book was addressed to the governors of provinces, another the Ad nationes to the heathen peoples generally, a third Ad martyres to the Christian prisoners in North Africa.  To this crisis also belong the Acts of Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, which, if not written by Tertullian himself, as some think, at all events proceed from that set of North African Christians of which he was the leader, and show clear signs of a Montanistic feeling.  Of all the genuine Acts of Martyrdom that have been preserved to us these are the most interesting.
            Taking a second leap of fourteen or fifteen years more, we come to another apologetic book of Tertullian’s, addressed to the Proconsul Scapula.  Severus had died at York in February 211, and persecution broke out afresh quite early in his successor Caracalla’s reign.  Thus we have Tertullian coming forward as an apologist at two distinct and distant crises.
            But, if he was an energetic defender of the Church, he also became a hardly less energetic assailant of the Church.  Jerome writes of him, “Till middle life he was a presbyter of the Church [this by the way is the only evidence we have, though it is probably sufficient, that Tertullian was ever more than a layman], but, Jerome proceeds, “having afterwards fallen away to the doctrine of Montanus through the envy and contumelies of the clergy of the Roman Church, he refers to the new prophecy in many books.” Jerome then enumerates certain books, now lost, which he calls specially written against the Church. The statement is crude in form, and evidently colored by reminiscences of Jerome’s own quarrels with the Roman clergy of a century and a half later: but the substantial facts were probably to be found in those books now lost. There are sufficient echoes of them in the existing books.  Every one must be struck by the parallelism with the story of Hippolytus, all the more when it is remembered that he and Tertullian were contemporaries.  In more respects than one, they must have had strong mutual sympathies, though Hippolytus, as far as we know, kept clear of those special eccentricities which, as we shall shortly see, were the fundamental cause of Tertullian’s eventual separation from the great body of the Church.
            The story which we have just been reading carries us to what was doubtless the governing interest of Tertullian’s life, his relations to what is called Montanism.  This, you will remember, was an enthusiastic popular religious movement, originating in the uplands of Phrygia.  It was the erratic form taken by a great impulse towards reformation which went through various churches late in the second century, partly due to a survival from an earlier stage of Christianity, but still essentially a reaction and an innovation.  Briefly, its characteristics were these; first, a strong faith in the Holy Spirit as the promised Paraclete, present as a heavenly power in the Church of the day; secondly, specially a belief that the Holy Spirit was manifesting Himself supernaturally at that day through entranced prophets and prophetesses; and thirdly, an inculcation of a specially stern and exacting standard of Christian morality and discipline on the strength of certain teachings of these prophets. 
            An increase in the numbers and prosperity of the Church having brought an increase of laxity, it was not unnatural that attempts should be made to stem it by a rigorous system of prohibitions.  To these three characteristics of Montanism may be added two others, fourthly, a tendency to set up prophets against bishops, the new episcopal organization being probably favorable to that large inclusiveness of Christian communion in which the Montanists saw only spiritual danger; and fifthly, an eager anticipation of the Lord’s Second Coming as near at hand, and a consequent indifference to ordinary human affairs.
            Now it was the rigorous moral legalism of Montanism that probably first attracted Tertullian.  With a man of vehement and ill-disciplined character, as he was, and always remained, conversion from heathenism might naturally be accompanied by a violent rebound: and traces of this are seen in what are apparently his earliest writings; and then after a time we find him drawn on from Montanist morality and discipline to belief in the Montanist prophets, and to the ecstatic type of inspiration which they represented, and to their peculiar form of devotion to the Paraclete.  But all this time he is simply a partisan within the Church, not in any way separated from it.  But there is a third stage in which he writes clearly as the member of a different body, claiming to be made up of ‘men of the Spirit,’ while he sneers at the members of the great Church (the worldly Church, he would say) as being only psychici, ‘men of the soul.’  In what manner he and his ‘men of the Spirit’ became finally detached from the Church; whether e.g. they seceded or (more probably) were expelled, we do not know.
            Personal squabbles, such as Jerome speaks of, may well have been mixed up with intolerances on either side, or on both. The time when this took place was probably some twenty years more or less from the beginning of the century.  Jerome tells us that Tertullian is said to have lived to an extreme old age.  This is all that we know.
            Besides Tertullian’s apologetic writings, nearly all of which have been already noticed, he was the author of a number of tracts of greater or less length addressed to Christians on various subjects belonging to morality or religion; e.g. theatrical representations, idolatry (i.e. as mixed up with various trades and public occupations), the soldier’s chaplet (the laurel crown which he held to be implicated in idolatry), flight in persecution, ‘Scorpiace’ (martyrdom), prayer, patience, baptism, repentance, two books to his wife (against second marriage of women), adornment of women, exhortation to chastity (against second marriage of men), monogamy, modesty (Pudicitia, chiefly on the question of admitting penitents), fasting, against the Psychici, veiling of virgins, and the cloak (i.e. the philosopher’s cloak, as now worn by Christians).  Besides these more or less practical writings, there are eight or nine more of a strictly doctrinal character, chiefly intended directly or indirectly for the confutation of Pseudo-Gnostics or other supposed heretics; but including a very important treatise against Praxeas in which the doctrine of the Trinity is defended against the Roman Sabellians against whom Hippolytus wrote.
            Three of the treatises bear the titles ‘On the Flesh of Christ,’ ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ ‘On the Soul.’  Much the longest is the treatise against Marcion in five books, probably founded on earlier Greek writings. In spite of its reckless scurrility of tone, it contains many passages both beautiful and true.  The most popular however of all these doctrinal works, and virtually a preface to them, is one entitled ‘On the Prescription of Heretics.’  The main drift of this most plausible and most mischievous book is this:  you try to argue with heretics and to convince them, and you do no good; you discuss Scripture with them and appeal to its authority, and again you do no good; the only way to overcome them is to shut them up sharply with what the Roman law calls Prescription, and tell them our belief is the belief of the Churches which trace back their origin to the Apostles, and therefore it must be the true belief. It was pardonable enough that Tertullian should not have in mind the living growth of belief which had been always going on in these very churches.  But it is another thing to find him making war on all free action of the mind and conscience in the things of faith, and assuming that there are no depths of Divine truth beyond the doctrines which men have been able to formulate for public acceptance.
            His complaint is not only against ‘heretics’ but also against ‘nostri’; he names no names, but what he says seems specially directed against Clement of Alexandria.  It grieves him much that an appeal is made to our Lord’s words “Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you,” which he explains away by a series of ingenuities, beginning with the assertions that having been uttered early in our Lord’s ministry, while He was as yet imperfectly known, they ceased to be true afterwards, and that they were addressed to the Jews alone.
            This is a sufficient illustration of Tertullian’s characteristic defects. To understand him rightly we must remember that under the Roman lawyer was probably hidden the man of Carthaginian i.e. the Phoenician blood. As in the case of Tatian, his utter want of sympathy with Greek and Roman greatness is probably due to the inborn sense of alien race.  To the same source may perhaps be also traced his violence, his passion for bitter antagonisms. But it is a relief to read the touching words in which, writing on Patience, he bewails his own want of it. 
            “It will be a kind of solace to dispute about that which it is not given me to enjoy, like sick men, who, since they are removed from health, do not know how to cease speaking about its advantages. So I, poor wretch (miserrimus ego), always sick with the heats of impatience, must needs sigh after and call after and discourse about that health of patience which I fail to possess. . . . .  Patience is so set at the head of the things of God, that no one can observe any precept, or perform any work well pleasing to the Lord, if he be a stranger to patience.”
            Apart from the infectiousness of his intolerance, Tertullian did serious injury to the Church of his own age and of later ages by beginning the process of casting the language of theology in the molds supplied by the law courts.  In the Bible legal images take their place among a variety of other images, but that is quite another thing from the supremacy which legal conceptions of spiritual things acquired through the reckless use of legal phraseology.  But, when the worst is said, Tertullian remains one of the greatest of the Fathers, always needing to be read with the utmost caution, but almost always amply worth reading; not the less perhaps because it needs some labor to extract the meaning from his closely condensed and epigrammatic sentences.  He is a man of true genius; and not that only but also a man of warm and passionate Christian feeling; and moreover one who, despite the obstacles created by his own theories, had a keen eye for many not obvious aspects of truth, which presented themselves to him for the most part in sudden flashes, and so by their frequent contradictions reflect the moods of a fiery soul, itself always full of contradictions.

            As a sample of his more quiet controversial vein, in which he is something much better than controversial, we may take a few words of his on the creation of man, in refutation of Marcion’s theory that the God of creation and of the Law was only a just God, not a good God. [See Tertullian adv. Marc. ii. 4.]   The exaggerations here and there do not spoil the general drift:
            “Meanwhile the world consisted of all good things, thereby sufficiently showing beforehand how much good was in store for him for whom this whole [sum of things] was being prepared.  Lastly, who could be worthy to inhabit the works of God but His own image and likeness?  That also was wrought by Goodness. . . .  Goodness spoke [the words].  Goodness fashioned man out of slime into such a substance of flesh built up into so many qualities out of one matter, Goodness breathed [into him] making him a soul that was living, not dead. Goodness set him to enjoy and reign over all things, and moreover to give them names. Goodness yet further bestowed fresh enjoyment on man, that, although a possessor of the whole world, he should dwell in a specially pleasant region by being shifted into Paradise, already out of a world into a Church. The same goodness provided also a help for him, that nothing good might be wanting; for it is not good, God said, that man be alone: He knew that man would profit by the sex of Mary and thenceforward of the Church. [In this curious limitation the Montanist speaks.]    “But even the Law which thou blamest, which thou twistest into themes of controversy, it was Goodness that enacted it for the sake of man, that he might cleave to God, for fear he should seem not so much free as abandoned, on a level with his minions the other living creatures who had been cast loose by (from?) God and were free through His scorn of them; but that man alone might have the boast of having been alone worthy to receive a Law from God, and that, being a reasonable living creature with a capacity for understanding and knowledge, he might be held in likewise by that very liberty which belongs to reason, being subject to Him who had subjected to him all things.  And in like manner it was Goodness that wrote on this law the counsel of observing it, ‘In the day that ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die,’ for it graciously showed the issue of transgression, for fear ignorance of the danger should help towards neglect of obedience. . . .  I call on thee therefore to recognize thus far the goodness of our God as shown by works that were good, by blessings that were good, by acts of indulgence, by acts of Providence, by laws and forewarnings that were good and gracious.”

            Jerome tells us that once in North Italy he had met an old man who told him how when he was quite young he had in like manner seen at Rome a man of great age, formerly a notary of Cyprian’s, and had heard from him how Cyprian was accustomed to pass no day without reading something of Tertullian’s, and how he used often to say to him, “Give me the Teacher,” meaning
Tertullian.  This curious little reminiscence links together the two greatest men in the North African Church before Augustine.  Strictly speaking Cyprian was not a theologian, while he was a great ecclesiastical ruler. His writings show hardly any appropriation of the deeper elements in Tertullian’s thoughts, those in which he claims affinity to Greek theology, perhaps partly due to borrowing from it.  But the Roman legalism, which was so potent an ingredient in Tertullian’s ways of thinking and speaking, acquired still greater force in its guidance of a man of simpler and more direct mind like Cyprian, accustomed through life to derive his thoughts of social order from the provincial administration of the Roman Empire, and when he had become a Christian bishop, writing almost always under the impulse of grave practical responsibilities. The depth and purity of his own religious feeling makes itself felt almost everywhere in his writings; yet the conceptions of the Church and its institutions which he sets forth, and which thenceforward dominated Latin Christianity, were indeed most natural under their circumstances of time and place, but not less truly involved injurious limitations and perversions of the full teaching of the Apostles.
            We have the great good fortune of possessing a large amount of Cyprian’s correspondence during the last ten years or so of his life, and also a memoir of him by his deacon Pontius.  We have also from his pen about a dozen tracts on religious or disciplinary subjects. He bears well the testing of his inner self which these materials render possible. There is nothing petty and nothing ungoverned about him.  He is always pursuing high ends according to the best of his lights with entire self devotion and seldom failing in patience and gentleness.  He lived habitually in accordance with what he wrote in his early tract to his friend Donatus:  [See Cypr. ad Donat. 4. 5.]
            “To God belongs whatever power we have.  From that source we draw our life, from that source we draw our strength, from that source is taken and embraced the energy by which, while still placed here, we discern beforehand the signs of the things to come.  Let only there be fear to guard innocence, that the Lord, who by the visitation of the heavenly mercy has graciously shone into our minds, may be held fast through righteous conduct as the guest of a mind that delights Him, lest the security thus received breed heedlessness and the old enemy steal in anew.” . . . “The Spirit,” he proceeds, “streams forth incessantly, overflows abundantly: let only our breast be athirst and open, as is [the measure] of faith to receive that we bring to it, such is [the measure] of inflowing grace that we drink in.”
            Cyprian was apparently converted to the Gospel in middle life.  He was what we should call a country gentleman, and at the same time a man of good Latin education.  Not long after he became a Christian he sold his estates, wholly or in part, to give the proceeds to the poor; though ultimately they were restored to him by the liberality of friends. Very early after his baptism he was admitted to the presbyterate, and shortly afterwards, while still accounted a neophyte, he was elected Bishop of Carthage.
            He was evidently popular with the laity, with whom the election seems to have chiefly rested.  His social position by itself could hardly have won for him such a mark of confidence; doubtless he was already before his conversion known as a man of virtuous life and high public spirit.  It was no light task that was laid on him by his election.  Persecution had slumbered for about a generation, and as a consequence various abuses had sprung up in the Church, the bishops and clergy not excepted.  But after a year and a half came the persecution of Decius, the same persecution in which, as we saw last week, Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem, perished in prison.  Its fires were not without a purifying effect on the Christian community, but it shortly gave rise to a difficult question of discipline which much exercised Cyprian, the treatment of those who had “lapsed” or fallen away under terror of death or torments.  On the one hand there was a strong party of mere laxity at Carthage, on the other a strong party of unswerving and indiscriminating severity at Rome; and the controversy was complicated by purely personal elements, Cyprian’s election not having been by any means universally acceptable.  Of course it would be impossible to give now a narrative of the complicated transactions at Carthage and at Rome. It must suffice to say that Cyprian took an intermediate and carefully discriminative course, and that his policy was at last substantially adopted, though presently he was constrained by the force of circumstances, and especially a lesser persecution under Gallus, to accept a more indulgent set of rules than at first.
            Presently North Africa was invaded by a terrible pestilence from the East which lasted on for long years afterwards.  Cyprian instantly stood forward to organize his Christian flock for measures of help and relief, pecuniary and personal, insisting strongly on the duty of helping heathens as well as Christians in the spirit of true Sonship, following the example of Him who sends His rain and sunshine on all alike.
            Presently a fresh controversy arose when Stephen became Bishop of Rome. The former controversy had left behind it an unhappy schism, the followers of Novatian having split off from the Church at large in the name of stricter discipline.  The question now was whether persons having received Novatianist baptism, and subsequently joining the Church, needed to be baptized over again, or only to be received with laying on of hands. On this point Cyprian threw all his strength into the stricter theory, which had been falling into disuse in the West, and induced a large synod of North African Bishops to support it unanimously; while Stephen upheld the view that ultimately became fixed in the West, condemning such a repetition of baptism, only unfortunately he upheld it with much violence and intolerance.
            Stephen died in August 257.  In the same month a fresh persecution began under Valerian, and Cyprian was at once banished, though treated with remarkable respect and forbearance by the heathen authorities; and in his banishment he devoted himself to plans for help of other sufferers.  But in about a year the persecution assumed a more terrible form.  Xystus, Bishop of Rome, was beheaded as he sat preaching in his episcopal chair in one of the Roman cemeteries, and Cyprian returned to Carthage to await his now inevitable doom. The trial took place.  The sentence was read: “It is decreed that Thascius Cyprianus be executed by the sword.”  The record then proceeds, “Cyprian the Bishop said, ‘Thanks be to God.’”


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