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History of the 3rd Century Church: Part 3

Nov 02, 2007

While Origen was rising as the foremost biblical expositor in the East, Tertullian was the greatest Latin writer of the West. Tertullian was born around 145-150 A.D. and died about 220, though some date his death as a very old man about 240 A.D.

Tertullian was a Roman lawyer and teacher of rhetoric until he was thirty or forty years old, at which time he became a Christian. His conversion is generally dated around 185 A.D. when Clement was taking over the great School in Alexandria after Pantaenus set off as a missionary to India.

The Roman world in which Tertullian found himself saw the Roman Church divided into three groups. Besides the "orthodox" group represented by Victor, there were the heretical followers of Marcion and Montanus.

Marcion taught a type of reformed Gnosticism. Whereas the earlier Gnostics had heathen mythology as their basic teaching, with elements of Christianity added to it, Marcion pretended that his gnostic teachings were based upon the Bible. Marcion first cut the Bible away from its historical roots. He treated Christianity as a new religion, pitting the Old Testament in opposition to the New, instead of seeing the New as a development rooted and based in the Old.

Marcion also taught that there were three primal forces in the universe. First, there was the good and gracious God, revealed by Christ. Second, there was the devil, who ruled physical matter and heathenism. Thirdly, there was the Creator, the finite, imperfect, angry Jehovah of the Jews. He seems to have differed with the Gnostics and Greeks, who taught that the Creator was the Demiurge--a "devil" figure. Yet he believed that the God of the Old Testament was essentially an inferior Jewish God. Obviously, he could not believe that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of the Old Testament Jehovah.

Justin, the Christian philosopher, was in Rome to combat Marcion before Tertullian's conversion, and Tertullian continued the opposition after Justin's martyrdom in 166.

The third schismatic group in Rome during the last half of the second century was Montanism. Montanus was from a small town in Phrygia in Asia Minor. Though some of his beliefs were novel, his primary characteristic was his fanatical application of holiness, which always ends in fleshly self-righteousness. Montanus fell into some kind of ecstatic experience, which, if we knew its precise nature, would probably be easily seen in some sections of the Pentecostal Church today. He considered himself to be the inspired organ of the Paraklete, the Comforter. With him also were two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, who left their husbands to be part of this prophetic ministry of Montanus.

Montanism called itself the "New Prophecy" movement. It was a reaction against both clericalism and the perception of reduced holiness in the Church.  Montanus taught that all believers were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, to the point of making priesthood superfluous. In many ways, they fell into the same error as found in the Korah rebellion (Num. 16:3). Korah rebelled against the legitimate authority of Moses on the grounds that God speaks to all men.

The other problem in those days was manifested when the people demanded that Moses hear God and tell them what He said--making Moses the one responsible to hear God on their behalf (Ex. 20:18-21). These two "horns of the bull" represent two extremes. God has indeed raised up individuals with specific callings; yet God also speaks to all believers by the Holy Spirit.

Montanus represented the view of the Korah rebellion. It was a view that seemed to be based in truth, but in its outworking was found to be rooted in rebellion against God. They thought of themselves as the spiritual (pneumatic) Christians, and considered the other Christians to be fleshly, or soulish (psychical). The Montanists thus represented a Pentecostal revival of sorts, complete with tongues and prophecy. Their opponents were the more "orthodox" believers, who would today be called the traditional churches. By this time in history, the gifts of the Spirit were largely a thing of the past, though even the orthodox churches firmly believed in prophecy and even miracles.

But Montanism attacked the Church as being inferior, less holy, and more carnal. In its blind zeal for holiness, it alienated the mainstream Church and set a standard of righteousness that was unattainable for the average Christian. When such standards are set, it is not long before believers find it necessary to pretend to be what they are not in order to retain the image of holiness. In time, such believers labor under guilt until they can stand it no longer. Discouraged and disillusioned, they leave the Church and think of themselves as "lost forever." They tried, but could not be good enough to be true Christians, so they give up and try to obtain some happiness on earth before they die and go to hell.

Nonetheless, by the end of the second century, much of the Church had already fallen into the original problem that surfaced in the days of Moses. It was the problem of clericalism--sending Moses up the mount to hear God on behalf of the people. The common people had steadily lost the right to hear God for themselves. This was an unconscious development in the Church as it struggled for unity, for in practice, however many believers are allowed to hear God's voice is how many opinions there will be. As love wanes, this ultimately destroys unity.

Into this disunified Roman world Tertullian was thrust. Tertullian was born in Carthage (in North Africa), where His father served as captain of a Roman legion. Tertullian received a good education and could write in Greek as well as Latin.

Tertullian was the first of the great Latin writers. Because of his talent, the Latin Church began to gain prestige. Whereas the Apostolic Church was Hebrew, and the second-century Church literature was Greek, Tertullian's Latin writings put the Latin Church onto the path of dominance by the following century. It is significant, however, that the great Latin fathers came from Carthage, and not Rome.

The ancient rivalry between Carthage and Rome left its individualistic imprint upon the Carthaginian Christians. Tertullian had been made a presbyter in the Roman Church around 190 A.D., but showed his individuality as well as his zeal for holiness by joining the Montanists around 199 A.D. Jerome later excuses Tertullian, telling us that he was driven to the Montanists by the envy and insulting treatment he received at the hands of the Roman bishops at the time, particularly Zephyrinus, who succeeded Victor in 198 A.D. After leaving the Roman Church, Tertullian returned to Carthage, where he composed most of his important writings.

Much of Tertullian's efforts were spent in dealing with the heretics, for Montanism was not so much a heresy as such, but a reform movement.

It was common Church belief that a person could be baptized only once, and that this act washed away all past sin. For any sins committed subsequent to baptism, the sinner had to do penance. Tertullian believed that baptism should be performed upon infants, in order to assure their salvation quickly. But, he said, there were seven "deadly sins" which would condemn even believers. So baptized believers were held to a high moral standard. Tertullian condemned the moral laxity ("greasy grace") of the Roman Church for offering forgiveness through penance to believers who had sinned.

Others believed that baptism should be put off so that the sins of one's youth could be covered by baptism. Many even put off baptism until their death beds, as did the Emperor Constantine.


This is the third part of a series titled "History of the 3rd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 3rd Century Church


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