Saturday, March 03, 2007

Tertullian, Heresy and the Rule of Faith.

I'm sure I've admitted it before and I'll admit it again before too long, but I really do like Tertullian; that driven and relentlessly polemical lawyer who, it appears, veered into heresy, but not before leaving us a series of brilliant attempts to figure out the relationship between the Christian and the rest of the world. You would think, given my irenic temper, I would find him rather too much at times (I do think he gets a little too rigorous from time to time), but he asks all the right questions and doesn't put up with theological fuzziness. We spend so much time in the Anglican church (for example), making things fuzzy enough to include everyone, I honestly think that clarity is what we need more.

What got me thinking about this was conversations I've had on the Forbidden Gospels blog as well as the latest pseudo-Biblical tempest in a teapot, the 'Jesus Tomb'. What struck me this week was the impossibility of making oneself clear when the assumptions of the other side are so fundamentally different that we can't even argue from anything resembling common ground. Not that this sense of advanced futility is exactly a revelation to me; I've had more than my share of discussions of this type in my life and I know when I know when the ground goes out from under me in a conversation. I'm just stubborn enough to keep going after that, but I'm never convinced that it is wise to.

All this got me thinking about Tertullian and, specifically, his treatise, the de praescriptione haereticorum. This, I should note, is not one of Tertullian's most liked works, largely because it is pretty clear about what it thinks about heresy: it doesn't like it. In an age when heresy is considered more adventurous than orthodoxy, a condemnation of heresy is an admission of narrow-mindedness and, worse, oppressive tendencies.

Yet, Tertullian has four main points in the whole treatise that we would do well to pay attention to:

1. Don't be surprised that heresy is a powerful force in the world.

This is particularly important point to make today. A even peremptory gaze on the religion and Christianity books shelves of any major book seller will convince you that heretical writers have such a large share of the market that it is wonder that orthodox writers still publish. That is an exaggeration, of course, but not a ridiculous one. There are a large number of authors who are trying very hard to update Christianity in the spirit of the age and the result is confusion and a lot of unsound teaching. I speak, of course, with a bias here, but traditional orthodoxy is hardly the most popular Christian position out there.

In Tertullian's day, heresy had considerable popularity and there were people who were surprised so much at its strength that they began to question whether orthodoxy was as great as they once thought it was. Tertullian's argument is that one should expect heresy to be powerful because it is one of the ways that our faith is proven, by facing false teaching and turning away from it. It wouldn't be much of a test if heresy was obviously weak and foolish. We can, I think, grieve the strength of heresy and the degree to which it leads people astray to an untrue image of God, but we should not be surprised at its existence or even its power.

2. Seeking is fine while you are looking for Christ, but, once, you found him, you don't need to seek.

This is particularly applicable today to my denomination these days. We find so many people who are seeking spiritual answers out there, but very few who actually find them. Yet, so many of us believe that the seeking is the most important thing for a Christian to do. We see this all over the place, but perhaps the best example is a Christian initiation series which promises to allow the space to ask questions, but which instructs its facilitators not to give any answers. While I agree all this emphasis on questions is very post-modern and inclusive, it isn't very helpful for those who would like to bite down on something other than air or who are genuinely seeking Christ in the hopes of finding their connection to God.

Tertullian would have little sympathy with this approach. He is very clear. Seeking makes sense as long as one doesn't believe in Christ or know Christ, but, once we've found our answer, why do we need to seek some more? This comes out all very harsh and judgmental, but, really, there is a tough-minded practicality to this logic. If we have found what we are looking for, why go on looking as if there was a peculiar benefit in the search. This isn't to say that we should hunt down God and shove him into a box, but rather that, once we have found him, we don't fling him aside in search of something different. Once we have found God, I would think that what we would want to do is explore and develop our relationship with Him, not run out the door in the hopes of finding him again. There is, I think, enough to keep us busy learning about God and how we relate to him that we don't need to start the search all over again.

3. Don't argue Scripture with heretics

This is the one I really do have to pay attention to. Tertullian is firmly of the opinion that it does no good and some harm to argue Scripture with people who simply don't interpret it according to orthodoxy or the Rule of Faith. His point is that, not only is the exercise futile (and that is demonstrable), but it actually exalts the alternative view by giving it air time. I think the reason why it is so futile to try is that there is no way that a heretic will agree on rules of exegesis or on the Rule of Faith, so there is no way that your carefully thought out examples will have any bite against their interpretation. There simply is no shared interpretative framework to allow for a clear and achievable standard for falsification of an argument. Yet, by arguing, we are implying that this alternative view has validity, so, as Tertullian suggests, when we stomp off in frustration at our opponent's stubbornness, those who we were trying to save by challenging the non-orthodox views will just walk away, confused at the draw.

I demonstrably get drawn into the futile discussions and I think there are times when I should have just left well enough alone. A large number of these anti- heretical discussions just end in a "You just aren't reading the Bible properly" kind of statement from both sides and little else. Sometimes the best refutation is a thundering silence.

4. The Rule of Faith guides our reading of Scripture

The Rule of Faith to which Tertullian refers here is, of course, the early version of the Creed (de praescriptione haereticorum, 14) and serves as the interpretative framework for reading Scripture. This is interesting because it is clear in Tertullian that the Rule and Scripture should not be considered as succeeding one another, but rather as emerging from the same source: the apostolic testimony about Jesus and his teachings. There is no priority because both the Rule and Scripture are designed to say the same thing, but in different ways. The Rule is condensed Scripture just as Scripture is the Rule expanded with the details of Jesus' life and teachings. They serve as checks against each other to make sure the other is in line with what the apostles taught so many centuries ago.

All this is, of course, clear to anyone who holds an orthodox view of Scripture and theology. That is, it is clear to all within the orthodox tradition (by this I mean Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and many Protestants--a very broad group, I concede and a group whose composition will be disputed), but, equally clearly, disputed by those outside of this tradition. Yet, this takes us back to point three. If we can't agree on the rules of exegesis (which is provided by the Rule), how can we decide on a correct interpretation? The simple answer is that we can't.

Tertullian offers us, in the de praescriptione haereticorum, a carefully reasoned discussion on biblical hermeneutics (ugly word that is). I don't doubt that many who read this blog will dislike it and many more will question whether I really do mean that I abide by the Rule of Faith which Tertullian holds up as the standard for biblical exegesis. That is one of the saddest things about our current state of ecclesial division: there is no clear standard to decide theological arguments between denominations. Yet, if we do return to the Rule of Faith, perhaps we could find enough common ground to work out our differences. At least, at any rate, we will have a common standard to decide on what is and is not a legitimate argument. Perhaps that would be the most profitable line of ecumenical endeavor.



Maureen said...

This was a very good set of comments on Tertullian; I like him too.

I'm going to have to read that particular work. But I wonder if the thing about not arguing the Bible with heretics stems as much from his practical lawyer experience as from his Christian knowledge.

Phil S. said...

Hi Maureen;

Thanks for your comments. I agree, there is very much a lawyer like tone to Tertullian. That makes him rather relentless in his reasoning, but very clear!


John said...

Thanks for bringing this up. His words seem so relevant to me. How did my beloved church get to this point where "orthodoxy" has become a byword and a reproach? I'm returning to the episcopal church after many years away and finding it a very strange place... but feeling at home as well.