Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume IV/Tertullian: Part Fourth/On Modesty/Chapter 21

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV, Tertullian: Part Fourth, On Modesty
by Tertullian, translated by Sydney Thelwall
Chapter 21
155847Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV, Tertullian: Part Fourth, On Modesty — Chapter 21Sydney ThelwallTertullian

Chapter XXI.—Of the Difference Between Discipline and Power, and of the Power of the Keys.

If the apostles understood these (figurative meanings of the Law) better, of course they were more careful (with regard to them than even apostolic men).  But I will descend even to this point of contest now, making a separation between the doctrine of apostles and their power.  Discipline governs a man, power sets a seal upon him; apart from the fact that power is the Spirit, but the Spirit is God.  What, moreover, used (the Spirit) to teach?  That there must be no communicating with the works of darkness.[1]  Observe what He bids.  Who, moreover, was able to forgive sins?  This is His alone prerogative:  for “who remitteth sins but God alone?”[2] and, of course, (who but He can remit) mortal sins, such as have been committed against Himself,[3] and against His temple?  For, as far as you are concerned, such as are chargeable with offence against you personally, you are commanded, in the person of Peter, to forgive even seventy times sevenfold.[4]  And so, if it were agreed that even the blessed apostles had granted any such indulgence (to any crime) the pardon of which (comes) from God, not from man, it would be competent (for them) to have done so, not in the exercise of discipline, but of power.  For they both raised the dead,[5] which God alone (can do), and restored the debilitated to their integrity,[6] which none but Christ (can do); nay, they inflicted plagues too, which Christ would not do.  For it did not beseem Him to be severe who had come to suffer.  Smitten were both Ananias[7] and Elymas[8]—Ananias with death, Elymas with blindness—in order that by this very fact it might be proved that Christ had had the power of doing even such (miracles).  So, too, had the prophets (of old) granted to the repentant the pardon of murder, and therewith of adultery, inasmuch as they gave, at the same time, manifest proofs of severity.[9]  Exhibit therefore even now to me,[10] apostolic sir, prophetic evidences, that I may recognise your divine virtue, and vindicate to yourself the power of remitting such sins!  If, however, you have had the functions of discipline alone allotted you, and (the duty) of presiding not imperially, but ministerially;[11] who or how great are you, that you should grant indulgence, who, by exhibiting neither the prophetic nor the apostolic character, lack that virtue whose property it is to indulge?

“But,” you say, “the Church has the power of forgiving sins.”  This I acknowledge and adjudge more (than you; I) who have the Paraclete Himself in the persons of the new prophets, saying, “The Church has the power to forgive sins; but I will not do it, lest they commit others withal.”  “What if a pseudo-prophetic spirit has made that declaration?”  Nay, but it would have been more the part of a subverter on the one hand to commend himself on the score of clemency, and on the other to influence all others to sin.  Or if, again, (the pseudo-prophetic spirit) has been eager to affect this (sentiment) in accordance with “the Spirit of truth,”[12] it follows that “the Spirit of truth” has indeed the power of indulgently granting pardon to fornicators, but wills not to do it if it involve evil to the majority.

I now inquire into your opinion, (to see) from what source you usurp this right to “the Church.”

If, because the Lord has said to Peter, “Upon this rock will I build My Church,”[13] “to thee have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom;”[14] or, “Whatsoever thou shalt have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens,”[15] you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter?  “On thee,” He says, “will I build My Church;” and, “I will give to thee the keys,” not to the Church; and, “Whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound,” not what they shall have loosed or bound.  For so withal the result teaches.  In (Peter) himself the Church was reared; that is, through (Peter) himself; (Peter) himself essayed the key; you see what (key):  “Men of Israel, let what I say sink into your ears:  Jesus the Nazarene, a man destined by God for you,” and so forth.[16]  (Peter) himself, therefore, was the first to unbar, in Christ’s baptism, the entrance to the heavenly kingdom, in which (kingdom) are “loosed” the sins that were beforetime “bound;” and those which have not been “loosed” are “bound,” in accordance with true salvation; and Ananias he “bound” with the bond of death, and the weak in his feet he “absolved” from his defect of health.  Moreover, in that dispute about the observance or non-observance of the Law, Peter was the first of all to be endued with the Spirit, and, after making preface touching the calling of the nations, to say, “And now why are ye tempting the Lord, concerning the imposition upon the brethren of a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to support?  But however, through the grace of Jesus we believe that we shall be saved in the same way as they.”[17]  This sentence both “loosed” those parts of the law which were abandoned, and “bound” those which were reserved.  Hence the power of loosing and of binding committed to Peter had nothing to do with the capital sins of believers; and if the Lord had given him a precept that he must grant pardon to a brother sinning against him even “seventy times sevenfold,” of course He would have commanded him to “bind”—that is, to “retain”[18]nothing subsequently, unless perchance such (sins) as one may have committed against the Lord, not against a brother.  For the forgiveness of (sins) committed in the case of a man is a prejudgment against the remission of sins against God.

What, now, (has this to do) with the Church, and your (church), indeed, Psychic?  For, in accordance with the person of Peter, it is to spiritual men that this power will correspondently appertain, either to an apostle or else to a prophet.  For the very Church itself is, properly and principally, the Spirit Himself, in whom is the Trinity of the One Divinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[19]  (The Spirit) combines that Church which the Lord has made to consist in “three.”  And thus, from that time forward,[20] every number (of persons) who may have combined together into this faith is accounted “a Church,” from the Author and Consecrator (of the Church).  And accordingly “the Church,” it is true, will forgive sins:  but (it will be) the Church of the Spirit, by means of a spiritual man; not the Church which consists of a number of bishops.  For the right and arbitrament is the Lord’s, not the servant’s; God’s Himself, not the priest’s.


  1. Eph. v. 11.  See ch. xviii. above.
  2. Mark ii. 7; Luke v. 21.
  3. Comp. Ps. li. 4 (in LXX. Ps. l. 6).
  4. Matt. xviii. 22.
  5. Comp. Acts ix. 36–43; xx. 9–12.
  6. Comp. Acts iii. 1–11; v. 13–16.
  7. Acts v. 1–6.
  8. Acts xiii. 6–12.
  9. Comp. 2 Sam. xii. 1–14, etc.
  10. Kaye suggests “apostolica et prophetica”—“apostolic and prophetic evidences;” which is very probable.
  11. Comp. 1 Pet. v. 1–4.
  12. Comp. John xv. 26.
  13. Matt. xvi. 18.
  14. Matt. xvi. 19 ad init., incorrectly.
  15. Matt. xvi. 19.
  16. Acts ii. 22 et seqq.
  17. See Acts xv. 7–11.
  18. Comp. John xx. 23.
  19. See de Or., c. ii.
  20. See Matt. xviii. 20.