Tracts for the Times/Record XVII
TRACTS FOR THE TIMES.
RECORDS OF THE CHURCH,
THE HOLY CHURCH THROUGHOUT ALL THE WORLD DOTH ACKNOWLEDGE THEE.
Tertullian's account of the Rule of Faith.
Tertullian was born at Carthage, in Africa, a heathen; but when he grew up he was converted to Christianity. At length he became a priest, either of the Church of Carthage, or of Rome; it is uncertain which. That is, it is uncertain whether, as we now speak, he took orders in Carthage or Rome; whether he was ordained by the Bishop of Carthage or of Rome. For at that blessed time the whole extent of Christendom was as closely united as the different parts of England are; so that it was all one from which of the bishops of the Church Catholic a Christian was ordained for the ministry. Rome was at that time not more divided from Carthage, or from Corinth, or from Ephesus, or from Jerusalem, than Winchester from London, or Durham, or Oxford, or Norwich. It was natural, indeed, for many reasons, that a man should receive orders from the Church in which he lived; but on fitting reasons a Carthaginian, like Tertullian, might receive his commission from the Bishop of Rome, just as now a native of London, for instance, may become a priest of the Church of Oxford.
This one Christian body, called sometimes Christendom, (which means the kingdom of Christ,) sometimes the Church Catholic, (which means the incorporate society of Christians in all lands, as descended from the Apostles, and governed by the bishops, their representatives,) consisted in the early times of two great portions, those who spoke Greek, and those who spoke Latin, which are sometimes familiarly called the Greek and the Latin Churches. Not that they were really divided, more than the Welsh Dioceses are from the English, but for convenience-sake they were considered as two, according to their respective languages. Writers, from whose works extracts have as yet been made in these Records, all spoke Greek, or (as it is said) were of the Greek Church; Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, and the rest: as to the Christians of Lyons, &c. they were Greeks living in France, at that time a barbarous country. But Tertullian is a writer of the Latin Church; indeed he is the oldest of those whose works have come down to us, having been born about A.D. 160, only sixty years after St. John's death.
Tertullian's works, which have come down to us, are partly defences of Christianity and of the orthodox faith, and partly moral treatises. They are chiefly valuable, as witnesses of the state of the Church so short a time after the Apostles; as witnesses of what the Church then believed, taught, observed; as witnesses to the Creed as we hold it at this day, to Episcopacy, the Apostolical Succession, the Ceremonial of Religion, &c. His own authority indeed is small; for though very powerful as a writer, he was not a sound divine; was extravagant, nay even heterodox, in some of his opinions, and at length fell away into one of the heresies of his time. But all this, of course, does not interfere at all with the value of his writings as bearing testimony to facts, to the existing condition of the Church. And, moreover, as he writes ably, he is instructive on particular subjects, even though he is not a safe guide on the whole.
The work, from which an extract follows, was written when he was about forty years old, and may be called in English, "The Church's Plea (or Demur) against Dissenters." Tertullian's argument is this. "You who dissent from the Church," he says, "are confuted by the very novelty of your doctrine. The true doctrine must be old, and cannot be new; now the Church and its doctrines, which you despise, are much older than all your sects and their respective doctrines. Nay, the Church is as old as the Apostles; it was founded all over the world by the Apostles; and transmits down, from age to age, the doctrines which it received from them. But from whom did you receive your doctrine? Not from the Church, for you have gone out of it. Trace it up even for a few years, if you can; much less can you trace it up to the Apostles. In truth, your doctrine began with you, or at least with your immediate teachers: where was it before? Was it hidden from the Church, that doctrine which Christ commanded should be set up on high among the faithful, like a light within a house? Impossible: it plainly began with you: we can put our finger on the date of its birth; and therefore it is false: for Christ and His Apostles "planted" (1 Cor. iii.) the true Gospel, according to the will of the Father; and he says, 'Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.'" Such is the argument of the work from which the following passages are extracted; which obviously contain an instructive lesson for this day.
[The Separatists of Tertullian's age urged the words of our Lord, "Seek, and ye shall find," in proof that they might allowably strike out their own views (though novel) from the sacred text: he says upon this:—]
"Let us grant it has been said to all, 'Seek and ye shall find;' yet even as to these very words it is convenient to discuss their meaning with some guide of interpretation. No divine saying is so vague and extended, that its mere words are to be adhered to, and their real drift not determined. Now, in the first place, I lay down this proposition: that doubtless some one certain faith was instituted by Christ, which the nations ought by all means to believe; and, in seeking to find it, to seek with the purpose of believing when they had found it. The inquiry after one certain definite appointment (of God) must surely have an end some where or other. You are to seek until you find, and believe when you have found. After this, there is no more to do, but to keep what you have believed; this being in fact one part of your belief, viz. that there is nothing farther to be believed, nor therefore to be sought; inasmuch as you have found and believed that which was appointed by Him, who does not set you to seek any thing else but what he has appointed. I will presently make good, to the satisfaction of all doubters, that we have that in our possession which was appointed by Christ. In the mean time, from confidence in the proof, I anticipate so far as to admonish certain persons that they have nothing to seek beyond what they have already accepted; that that is what they were bound to seek: so that they must not interpret without consideration of the import of the words, 'Seek, and ye shall find.'
"But the import of this saying is determined by three particulars; the matter, the time, the manner: by the matter, that you should consider what is to be sought; by the time, when it is to be sought; by the manner, how far. Now that is to be sought, which Christ instituted; then, of course, when you do not find it, so long, of course, until you find it. But you have found it, when you have attained to belief, for you would not have believed, if you had not found; as neither would you have sought, unless that you might find. For where shall inquiry come to an end? where faith take her stand? where discovery gain her discharge? With Marcion? nay, Valentinus also sets up 'seek, and ye shall find.' With Valentinus? nay, Apelles too will beset me with the same declaration: and Hebion, and Simon, and all, one after another, have nothing else but this same text, by which to insinuate themselves into my approbation, to bind me to their cause. I shall therefore come to no result, while I meet on every side, 'seek, and ye shall find.'
[To understand the above argument, it must be borne in mind that at baptism the Creed was committed to and accepted by the new Christian. Thus the time of belief was a certain definite date, to which Tertullian refers. It must be observed also, that the persons he speaks to were Separatists, who had been baptized in the Church, not regular hereditary Dissenters.]
"Although we were to be for ever inquiring, yet where ought we to seek? Among heretics, where all is extraneous and adverse to the truth we hold, whom we are forbidden to approach? What servant expects food from one who is a stranger, not to say an enemy to his master? What soldier looks for presents and pay from unallied, not to say hostile princes, unless he be a downright deserter and rebel? Even she who sought diligently, sought her piece of money in her own house; he who asks for loaves, knocks at a friend's, not a stranger's door; and the widow interceded with a hard judge, but not an enemy. Let us then seek at home, and from those who are our own, and of that which is our own; and inquire respecting that only which may be called in question without injury to the Rule of Faith."
"But the Rule of Faith (that we may now profess what we mean to defend,) is this:—That there is One only God, and no other Creator of the world beside, who brought all things out of nothing by His own Word sent forth before all things: that this Word, called His Son, appeared in the name of God to the Patriarchs in different ways; was always heard in the Prophets; and at last conveyed by the Spirit and power of God the Father into the Virgin Mary, became flesh in her womb, and lived as her Son Jesus Christ; afterwards proclaimed a new law, and a new promise of the kingdom of Heaven, wrought miracles, was crucified, rose again on the third day, was taken into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father; sent the power of the Holy Spirit in His stead, to guide believers; will come with glory to take His saints to the enjoyment of eternal life and His heavenly promises, and sentence the profane to eternal fire, bringing to life again good and bad, together with the resurrection of their flesh. This Rule, instituted, as it shall be proved, by Christ, has no questions raised about it among us, except such as heresies introduce, and such as constitute men heretics.… O novice, it is better to be ignorant, lest you should learn what you ought not, now that you know what you ought. 'Thy faith,' he says, 'hath made thee whole;' not a perverse troubling of the Scriptures. Faith has for its object the Rule. The law of life is given you; keep it, and you are made whole: but this cross-examining of Scripture springs from restlessness; pursue it, and it brings, not salvation, but mere credit for cleverness. Let restlessness yield to faith; fame among men to salvation of the soul."
[Next, he shows the futility of arguing with men who mutilate and alter the Scriptures; but this topic does not so nearly concern us at this day: though we cannot tell what is coming upon us. He then proceeds as follows, to show that there is nothing gained in arguing from Scripture, when God has given us so clear a guide in the Rule of Faith, i. e. the Creed preserved in the Church; for, though that Rule is also contained in Scripture, and may be proved from it, yet heretics will say it cannot; whereas they cannot deny the Creed came from the Apostles.]
"But for that person, if there be such, for whose sake you descend to a comparison of Scriptures, to confirm him when in doubt, will he incline to truth, or rather to heresies? Influenced by the very fact, that he sees you have hitherto gained no ground, and stand even with your adversary in denying this point and defending that, he will undoubtedly leave this even contest in still greater uncertainty, not knowing which he is to judge to be heresy. For surely nothing can hinder them retorting upon us, if they are minded, the charges we bring against them. Nay, they must, in self-defence, say that we rather introduce corruptions of Scripture, and false expositions, inasmuch as they claim truth for themselves. Therefore I do not advise appeal to the Scriptures: it is a ground in which there can be either no victory, or a doubtful one, or one as good as doubtful. For although the comparison of Scripture did not end so as to place either party on an equality, the order of things requires that this point should be first advanced, which is now the only question: viz. To whom belongs the faith itself? Whose are the Scriptures? By whom, and through whom, and when, and to whom was that system of instruction committed, by which men are made Christians? For there, wherever the truth of Christian instruction and faith shall be proved to be, there will be the truth of the Scriptures, and of expositions, and of all Christian traditions."
[This ground of the truth is of course the Church. Tertullian does not mean to decry arguing from Scripture; he only says, it will not silence a subtle and perverse disputant; whereas the Rule of Faith must silence them, it is so clear. Again he argues, Were not the Scriptures committed to the Church? therefore the Church is the appointed interpreter of them. Since his time, the Church has gone wrong; but what he says is quite true of the primitive Church. And this is the rule of the Church of England, to interpret Scripture according to the usage of the first centuries.]
(To be continued.)
The Feast of St. Matthew.
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