Tertullian as an Ancient Witness to the Papacy
Article by Jamie Donald
If, because the Lord has said to Peter, "Upon this rock will I build My Church," "to you have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom;" or, "Whatsoever you shall have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens," 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 you," He says, "will I build My Church;" and, "I will give to you the keys," not to the Church; …
-On Modesty, Ch. 21, 220AD
Many protestant commentators take this passage from Tertullian’s tract, On Modesty, to say that he was denying even the possibility of an early papacy or successor to Peter in the seat of the Bishop of Rome. They are absolutely correct when they state this was his opinion concerning apostolic succession when he wrote the tract. However, when the typical protestant commentator takes this one step further and draws the conclusion that the early Christian Church denied a successor to Peter, they are taking both Tertullian and history out of context.
To establish a proper historical context, we must first outline Tertullian’s career. He was originally a lawyer within the Roman legal system and as such was an excellent author and defender of his own thoughts and positions. He was a convert to Christianity and was thought to be ordained as a priest/presbyter. Until circa 203AD his views conformed to orthodox Christianity and he was a prolific author in defense of the faith. Much in the thought process in western Christianity can be traced to Tertullian during his orthodox period. Around 207 he started to become attracted to the heresy of Montanism even though Montanus was long deceased. His writings from this time until about 211 or 212 seem to contain a mixture of orthodox Christianity with an increasing amount of Montanist influence. The last portion of his career saw a full blown development of the heresy in his works and a complete break with the Church.
On Modesty, written around 220AD is in this heretical period of his life. We don’t need to employ guesswork to determine this. In the tract, Tertullian writes, This too, therefore, shall be a count in my indictment against the Psychics; against the fellowship of sentiment also which I myself formerly maintained with them… with “Psychic” being the term he uses for orthodox Christians in the volume. Thus, he admits his former agreement with the Church and that he is now broken from her. This point is important as it demonstrates that the positions which Tertullian affirms are not those held by the Christian Church. When Tertullian argues against a position, he is arguing against what was considered orthodox in the early Church.
Another point recall is that Callixtus was Bishop of Rome when On Modesty was written. At that time, the Church was discovering something that modern Christians are rediscovering today – that the state does not define what constitutes a Christian marriage. In today’s context, Christians – rightfully so – deny that the government of the state can force a homosexual union upon them under the guise of marriage. In the time of Callixtus, the state used state-sanctioned marriages to define the social class of the wedded couple. Callixtus recognized that the state’s concept of marriage had no hold on what constituted a Christian union (the same recognition modern Christians employ when denying gay weddings within the Church) and permitted Christian marriages to be held outside the Roman legal system.
This garnered Callixtus a few enemies. Tertullian was one such enemy, Hippolytus another. In fact, Hippolytus became such a staunch enemy of Callixtus that he set himself up as an anti-pope during this period. Both authors accuse Callixtus of allowing adultery and fornication. It can also be surmised that prior to Callixtus recognizing that Christian unions were not governed by the Roman State’s definition, that some Christians were living together “in sin” (and not yet married by the Church) so as to avoid the penalty of change of social status as dictated by Roman law. Callixtus allowed that the infinite mercy of God would forgive this real sin of adultery or fornication if the Christians were truly repentant and avoided repeating their sin. Presumably, a Church wedding would satisfy the requirement to avoid any more “living in sin.”
While Hippolytus later reconciled himself to the Roman Church and renounced his claim to the bishopric, Tertullian did not. It is in this historical context that Tertullian, as a heretic, writes against the orthodox Church when he penned On Modesty. It is important to note that this tract is not some generalized tract to evangelize non-Christians to some form of (misguided) Christianity. This work was penned specifically against the Christian Church that Tertullian once knew and loved.
With the context established, On Modesty can now be properly analyzed. Since we are looking at whether or not Tertullian is a good early witness for some form of papacy or apostolic succession, let’s start with the quote so often used by protestants to show that he was against such a thought. Indeed, he was against the proposition at the time. But as is already noted, he states that he was once in agreement with such a concept. Additionally, history shows that he was arguing as a heretic when he was arguing against it. It’s easy to see from the referenced quote that the concept of the keys being a power given to the Church is what he was denying. In other words, the orthodox position was that the keys represented an authority to the Church which was akin to Peter or of the successor to Peter. At another place in the tract, Tertullian refers to Callixtus as a bishop of bishops and the Pontifex Maximus. Clearly, the concept was not so foreign to the early Church as protestants would have us believe.
But a careful read of On Modesty will show that Tertullian does not deny the concept of an authoritative Church – as assumed by protestants. He quite definitely believes in a Church which has binding authority and the power to forgive sins. It will be seen that he simply believes that it resides with him, in Montanism, as opposed to the Church.
He writes, But, you [the orthodoxy] 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 ... So the question here is "which church has this authority?" Tertullian claims for himself the personal knowledge of the Holy Spirit in an on-going revelation (a basic tennent of Montanism). Clearly, Tertullian is claiming it's his church with this authority which he will exercise. But even he knows the weakness of his position of claiming to be the Paraclete's voice - that anyone could make this claim. He continues, ... but I will not do it, lest they commit others withal. What if a pseudo-prophetic spirit has made that declaration?
It is at this point that Tertullian attacks the concept of the “keys” being handed down by apostolic succession through the Church. Why? Because if he doesn't, he is unable to contest the physical succession which joins Pope Callixtus to Peter. But if he can show the "keys" to be a spiritual form, then Tertullian can assume those keys for himself because he is a spiritual man with his church being the oracle of the Paraclete. The difference being that where Callixtus chooses to loosen, Tertullian chooses to bind. Both claim the same authority.
So he makes that very claim, that he is the spiritual heir to the “keys.” Consider these statements. 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. And, 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. He even claims that this exercise (of the forgiveness of sins through his heretical church) is the voice of God Himself by stating in the very next sentence (after saying that the spiritual men will forgive sins), For the right and arbitrament is the Lord's, not the servant's; God's Himself, not the priest's.
To be certain, in On Modesty, Tertullian does excoriate Callixtus. But first of all, he does so as one who has removed himself from the Church. Second, the censure is not because Tertullian is against a binding/loosing over sins authority by an earthly church. He claims that authority for himself! That any church has this level of authority is something protestants deny. Furthermore, he is claiming this authority because he believes in a continuing source of revelation in his church – another item which protestants deny.
But there is more to On Modesty with which protestants would completely disagree. In arguing against adultery and fornication, Tertullian defines these acts to include any second marriage for any reason – including the remarriage of a widow or widower. He writes, For it makes no difference whether a man assault another's bride or widow, provided it be not his own female; just as there is no difference made by places— whether it be in chambers or in towers that modesty is massacred. Protestants would deny this thought completely and would rightfully point to Ruth, daughter-in-law of Naomi, in the ancestral line of David and of Jesus’ human family, who was a widow and remarried.
Additionally, in On Modesty, Tertullian goes to great length to show that a Christian, once evangelized and converted to Christianity, can no longer be forgiven of his or her sins. In his opinion, God’s great mercy is in forgiving the sins of the nonbeliever who repents and is converted. But after that event, mercy is no longer given, but divine judgment is meted out and the Christian who sins after coming to belief cannot be forgiven.
In summary, while denying that the Bishop of Rome is Peter’s successor in authority over the Church, Tertullian’s On Modesty, provides a very good testimony to the fact that the orthodox Church actually held the position which Tertullian denied. If protestants would still align themselves with his rebuke of Callixtus, then they must realize that the rebuke comes with a lot of baggage; baggage which they would find very distasteful. This baggage comprises the bulk of the tract while the claim that as Bishop of Rome, Callixtus does not enjoy authoritative apostolic succession from Peter is but one small paragraph. The bulk of the writing states that the Christian who engages in serious sin can no longer be forgiven as the mercy God provided at conversion is the only forgiveness to be received; but if such forgiveness is to be given to the repentant, it will come from Tertullian’s church which is (in his mind) the binding authority on Earth.