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Tertullian's Christology


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#1 Evangelion

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Posted 28 December 2002 - 01:05 PM

In my discussion of Arius and his much-maligned Christology (available here), I noted that the presbyter was not attempting to introduce a new Christological model, but merely defending one which had already existed before his time. This model is seen most clearly in the work of men such as as Justin Martyr and Tertullian.

Adversus Praxeus (which was quite possibly written against Irenaeus, as Stuart G. Hall suggests) contains a highly detailed precis of Tertullian's own Subordinationist Christology. One might be tempted to say that it contains many similiarities with Arian Christology. In fact, it is virtually identical.

From Chapter 4 of Against Praxeas:
Look to it then, that it be not you rather who are destroying the Monarchy, when you overthrow the arrangement and dispensation of it, which has been constituted in just as many names as it has pleased God to employ.

But it remains so firm and stable in its own state, notwithstanding the introduction into it of the Trinity, that the Son actually has to restore it entire to the Father; even as the apostle says in his epistle, concerning the very end of all:

'When He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; for He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet;'

following of course the words of the Psalm:

'Sit You on my right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.'

'When, however, all things shall be subdued to Him, (with the exception of Him who did put all things under Him,) then shall the Son also Himself be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.'

We thus see that the Son is no obstacle to the Monarchy, although it is now administered by the Son; because with the Son it is still in its own state, and with its own state will be restored to the Father by the Son. No one, therefore, will impair it, on account of admitting the Son (to it), since it is certain that it has been committed to Him by the Father, and by and by has to be again delivered up by Him to the Father.

Now, from this one passage of the epistle of the inspired apostle, we have been already able to show that the Father and the Son are two separate Persons, not only by the mention of their separate names as Father and the Son, but also by the fact that He who delivered up the kingdom, and He to whom it is delivered up -- and in like manner, He who subjected (all things), and He to whom they were subjected -- must necessarily be two different Beings.
"Two different Persons... two different Beings."

If a modern Trinitarian tried to suggest that the Father and the Son are two different beings as well as being two different persons, he would either be told that he didn't understand the Trinity at all. or condemned as a heretic. But here we have Tertullian affirming that the two are more than just different persons - they are different beings.

This despite his conflicting claim that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit comprise one God in three persons.

Edited by Evangelion, 10 December 2006 - 03:04 AM.

'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#2 Evangelion

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 03:05 AM

Later (in Chapter 8), Tertullian presents a series of analogies which reveal his understanding of the ontological relationship between Father and Son; the Father is the root, while the Son is the tree; the Father is the fountain, while the Son is the river; the Father is the Sun, while the Son is the ray.

This is how he tries to explain that "the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy, whilst it at the same time guards the state of the Economy."

Just how he can say this after insisting that the Father and Son are two entirely different beings, is quite another matter. Trinitarians will doubtless perform one of their famous logic-bending feats in order to reconcile these contradictory declarations, but those of us who understand that logic and reason cannot be permitted to contradict themselves, know better.

Tertullian elaborates in Chapter 5:
But since they will have the Two to be but One, so that the Father shall be deemed to be the same as the Son, it is only right that the whole question respecting the Son should be examined, as to whether He exists, and who He is and the mode of His existence. Thus shall the truth itself secure its own sanction from the Scriptures, and the interpretations which guard them.

There are some who allege that even Genesis opens thus in Hebrew:

'In the beginning God made for Himself a Son.'

As there is no ground for this, I am led to other arguments derived from God's own dispensation, in which He existed before the creation of the world, up to the generation of the Son.

For before all things God was alone—being in Himself and for Himself universe and space and all things. Moreover, He was alone because there was nothing external to Himself but Himself. Yet not even then was He alone, for He had with Him that which He possessed in Himself, that is to say His own Reason.

[...]

Whatever you think there is a word, whatever you conceive there is reason. You must needs speak it in your mind, and while you are speaking you admit speech as an interlocutor with you, involved in which is this very reason whereby, while in thought you are holding converse with your word, you are producing thought by means of that converse with your word.

Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second with you. Now how much more fully is all this transacted in God, whose image and likeness even you are regarded as being, inasmuch as He has Reason within Himself even while He is silent, and involved in that Reason His Word.
The final paragraph is refreshingly direct. It certainly contains nothing that I would disagree with. Indeed, the Christadelphian interpretation of John 1:1-3 uses identical language, expressing identical thoughts. The essential difference with Tertullian's model, of course, is that he believes the Son to have been literally created before all things - just as the Arians did.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#3 Evangelion

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 03:06 AM

Thus far, Tertullian presents God's Reason (in the absence of His spoken Word), but no pre-existent Christ. No literal personality of the Reason of God, and certainly no literal personality of His Word. Nothing "external to Himself." (Tertullian views Christ as "external" to the Father; this is Subordinationist language, and the Arians would later take hold of it.)

The only sense in which God is "Not alone", is that which has immediate reference to the presence of His Reason - and, as Tertullian has already pointed out, human beings are "Not alone" in exactly the same sense. There is no duality of persons before the generation of the Son, let alone a Triune Godhead.

Now Chapter 6, in which he affirms the literal creation of the Son, by reference to Proverbs 8:22 - a standard Arian proof text - using the very same argument which Arius would later employ:
This power and disposition of the Divine Intelligence is set forth also in the Scriptures under the name of Sofia, Wisdom; for what can be better entitled to the name of Wisdom than the Reason or the Word of God? Listen therefore to Wisdom herself, constituted in the character of a Second Person:

'At the first the Lord created me as the beginning of His ways, with a view to His own works, before He made the earth, before the mountains were settled; moreover, before all the hills did He beget me;'

that is to say, He created and generated me in His own intelligence. Then, again, observe the distinction between them implied in the companionship of Wisdom with the Lord.

'When He prepared the heaven,' says Wisdom, 'I was present with Him; and when He made His strong places upon the winds, which are the clouds above; and when He secured the fountains, (and all things) which are beneath the sky, I was by, arranging all things with Him; I was by, in whom He delighted; and daily, too, did I rejoice in His presence.'

Now, as soon as it pleased God to put forth into their respective substances and forms the things which He had planned and ordered within Himself, in conjunction with His Wisdom's Reason and Word, He first put forth the Word Himself, having within Him His own inseparable Reason and Wisdom, in order that all things might be made through Him through whom they had been planned and disposed, yea, and already made, so far forth as (they were) in the mind and intelligence of God.

This, however, was still wanting to them, that they should also be openly known, and kept permanently in their proper forms and substances.
This is no mere figure of speech. We know from his clear statements in the previous chapters, that Tertullian believed the Son to have had a literal beginning in time; a literal creation - before which he did not exist, except as an idea in the mind of God.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#4 Evangelion

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 03:06 AM

Next, in Chapter 7, Tertullian explains how the Son came to be:
Then, therefore, does the Word also Himself assume His own form and glorious garb, sound and vocal utterance, when God says, “Let there be light.” This is the perfect nativity of the Word, when He proceeds forth from God, formed by Him first to devise and think out, and afterwards begotten to carry all into effect --

'When He prepared the heaven, I was present with Him.'


Thus does He make Him equal to Him: for by proceeding from Himself He became His first-begotten Son, because begotten before all things; and His only-begotten also, because alone begotten of God, m a way peculiar to Himself, from the womb of His own heart -- even as the Father Himself testifies: 'My heart," says He, "has emitted my most excellent Word.'

The father took pleasure evermore in Him, who equally rejoiced with a reciprocal gladness in the Father's presence: 'You art my Son, today have I begotten You; even before the morning star did I beget You.' The Son likewise acknowledges the Father, speaking in His own person, under the name of Wisdom:

'The Lord formed Me as the beginning of His ways, with a view to His own works; before all the hills did He beget Me.

For if indeed Wisdom in this passage seems to say that She was created by the Lord with a view to His works, and to accomplish His ways, yet proof is given in another Scripture that 'all things were made by the Word, and without Him was there nothing made;' as, again, in another place (it is said),

'By His word were the heavens established, and all the powers thereof by His Spirit'

-- that is to say, by the Spirit (or Divine Nature) which was in the Word: thus is it evident that it is one and the same power which is in one place described under the name of Wisdom, and in another passage under the appellation of the Word, which was initiated for the works of God? which 'strengthened the heavens;' 'by which all things were made,' 'and without which nothing was made.'"
Tertullian's generation of the Son definitely has a beginning in time, and his use of the Wisdom passages in the OT demonstrate that he believed the Son to have been literally created - just as the JWs believe today, and just has Arius had done in the 3rd Century AD.

There is no "eternal Sonship" here, nor is there an "eternal begetting" or an "eternal generation."
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#5 Evangelion

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 03:07 AM

Let us summarise what we have learned of Tertullian's Christology:
  • The Son has first existed only in the mind of God, in the form of His thought.

  • Later, God speaks - then (and only then) does Christ exist in a literal, personal way.

  • The Son owes his existence to God's decision to speak His Word; he is formed by God.

  • He has a "nativity" - this is the point at which he literally comes into being as a personal entity.

  • He is later "begotten" - this is the point at which he is born as Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem.
This is clearly Arianism by another name. Indeed, it is the very Christology for which Arius himself was criticised.

Anyone who tries to claim that Tertullian was a 100% orthodox Trinitarian (or even a semi-orthodox Trinitarian) is either lying, misreading Tertullian, or fooling himself. Tertullian was an Ontological Subordinationist, and his precise use of Ontological Subordinationist language (which he carefully explains to his reader, every step of the way), proves this beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Yes, he was a "pre-Arian" Arian.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#6 Evangelion

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Posted 10 December 2006 - 03:19 AM

In closing, I would like to present a lengthy citation from Stuart G. Hall's celebrated and frequently reprinted work, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church:
The term 'economy' (Gk oikonomia, Lat. dispensatio) sums up Tertullian's idea. The term needs care. Originally referring to household administration or 'stewardship', it came to be used in ancient theology to refer to God's dispensations for creating and saving the world; among the Greeks in particular 'the oikonomia by itself often meant the saving work of Christ in the flesh - what moderns often refer to broadly as 'the incarnation.'

In modern theology 'economic trinitarianism' is a doctrine of the Trinity in which God is three in his works, but one in his being; it means that to us he operates in a threefold way, but may in himself be one and simple. It contrasts with 'immanent' or 'essential' trinitarianism, where the being of God in himself has a threefold quality. That is not what Tertullian, or any other ancient writer means by oikonomia, though it can be debated whether Justin, Irenaeus or Tertullian is an economic trinitarian in the modern sense.

Justin probably is: in eternity the Father is one, and his logos becomes another beside him for and in creation. Irenaeus is not (though sometimes said to be), because he repudiates the 'economic' models used by Justin, even though he regards the inner being of God as beyond our knowledge and is not strictly an essentialist either. Origen we shall find (p. 106) to be an essentialist: God, his Son and his Spirit are co-eternal and eternally distinct.

Tertullian uses the figure of the Word being put forth at creation just as the apologists do: the immanent reason (ration) of God is always with him, and that already meant that God was not alone, but had as it were another beside himself even before the creation of the world (Prax. 5); still the 'complete birth of the Word' was when he 'came forth from God' with the sound, 'Let there be light' (Prax. 7.) He is perhaps an 'economic trinitarian' trying to be an 'essentialist.'
Kelly (Early Christian Doctrines, 1978) and Grillmeier (Christ in Christian Tradition, 1975) also argue (though far more strongly than Hall does) that Tertullian (along with Irenaeus and Hippolytus) was indeed an economic, and that, consequently, his Christology was defective. Wiley (Christian Theology, 1943) takes it a step further, observing that Tertullian's reaction against Monarchianism led him dangerously close to the opposite extreme (tritheism.)

Tertullian himself lamented that he was repeatedly accused of preaching two or three gods, and we know that he was certainly not alone in this regard.

If the Christians of Tertullian's day were attacking him for what they perceived to be tritheism, it cannot be claimed that Trinitarianism was taught by the apostles and accepted as "orthodoxy" before the Council of Nicaea.

Edited by Evangelion, 21 April 2010 - 06:13 AM.

'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.




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