Reflection: Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heresies

This paper was initially written for the course Early and Medieval Christianity in Winter 2011.

Alternative doctrines, labelled as heresies, flourished during the 2nd and 3rd century.  One of the most interesting figures of this time was Tertullian, who weighed in both in favour of orthodoxy and then later as a Montanist, one of the “heresies.”  Tertullian’s Prescription against Heretics did not directly dispute the heretical doctrines of his opponents.  Rather, as a lawyer, his argument was based on the idea of the Praescriptio that the heretics did not even have the legal right to present their case (Gonzalez, 174). After an introduction in Chapters II and III about why heresies exist, he presents essentially two points, one which dominates most of the text, and the other that comes near the end and doesn’t quite flow from the other.

To start with the latter, the smaller argument near the end, Tertullian attacks the moral conduct of the heretics (XLI to XLIII).  Whether this is true or not I don’t really know, but it makes a great deal of sense considering his later conversion to Montanism.  Montanism would maintain a moral code even higher than that of mainstream Christianity, so his words against the other heretical groups he probably would later be able to use to some extent against other mainstream Christians.  Furthermore, since he has established loose morality as a hallmark of heresy, in this mindset the strict morality of Montanism could easily be seen as the opposite: more truthful than the lax mainstream.

Chapter XX lays out the heart of the issue which underlines the majority of the rest of the letter, both before and after it: apostolic succession.  It is a very logical concept: Christ gave the truth to the apostles, the apostles gave it to their disciples, and so on.  Those who are continuing to follow that teaching are the ones who are true Christians, whereas those who are not following the teachings passed down are heretics.  Chapter XXI bluntly states that anything which did not come through this apostolic succession is false.  The letters to Timothy, in which faithful transmission of the message is discussed, are seen as evidence for this as a reliable source of truth (XXV).

Apostolic succession first makes its appearance in terms of divisions in the church that heresies cause.  He makes this argument in Chapter V using texts from 1 Corinthians.  Since St. Paul called for the unity of the church and heresies inherently cause divisions in the church, they should not be accepted.  Along the same lines, in Chapter VI Tertullian claims that heresies are an act of self-will rather than the Divine Will.  The reasons for this are that they are not passing on the Divine Will they have heard from Christ (through the apostles), instead causing division by seeking their own will.

Chapter VII claims that the heresies come not from Scripture or the apostolic teaching, but rather through pagan philosophies.  He establishes the Church and the Greek Academy as complete opposites, just as orthodox doctrine and heretical doctrine are completely opposite.  I find this slightly ironic, as there is really no doubt that a lot of Christian thought, orthodox as well as heretical, was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.  I wonder if Tertullian could see ahead, to Augustine and his neo-Platonic thought for instance, whether he would condemn those orthodox thoughts in the same way.  In any case, the apostolic tradition instead includes the Scriptural tradition, which heretics change – like Marcion’s edited canon – but the orthodox church maintain as it was passed down to them (XXXVIII).

The ownership of the Scriptures is itself an issue related to apostolic succession.  Since the heretics are not following in the tradition of the apostles, they do not own the right to interpret the Scriptures.  Therefore they cannot use Scripture to support their opinions (Chapter XV).  They don’t use the Scriptures properly but rather only abuse it for their own purposes (XVII).  As an example of the misuse of Scripture that Tertullian sees in heretical movements, Chapter VIII argues for the heretic’s use as the text “seek, and ye shall find” as incorrect.  The reason for this is that it was said before Jesus’ own identity had been revealed.  Tertullian says that this was said for the Jews as a promise that they can find truth in him if they seek it.  He claims that the heretics are misusing it by still saying that Christians needed to keep seeking to find a different truth in their teachings.  Chapters IX through XI continues the theme of this verse by pointing out that even if the words were aimed at all men, then once you have found, you do not need to continue seeking.  Once you have found the truth, the task is not to seek further, but to believe in that truth.

Chapter XII gives the first meaningful mention of the idea of the Rule of Faith, another concept that would become standard.  Seeking further for truth is promoted, so long as it is within the Rule of Faith, not in contrary teachings.  This allows for the faith to still grow and evolve, but within the teachings of Christ and the apostles (or at least as Tertullian and others in the mainstream interpreted them).  Chapter XIII lays out this Rule of Faith, which easily resembles many of the other creeds we still have from this time period.  Curiosity isn’t necessarily bad, but excessive curiosity which comes with heresy takes people away from Christ’s teachings (XIX).  If a teaching challenges any aspect of this Rule, then it is by definition heretical.

All things considered, Tertullian presents a very internally consistent and logical defense of apostolic succession as being the primary reason why the mainstream Christianity is correct and the other movements are heretical.  He defends the idea of apostolic succession very well, explaining why it is safe to trust this teaching that has been passed down, in ways that it is not safe to trust these upstart movements with different Scriptures and different doctrines.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.