Results tagged “Tertullian” from Reformation21 Blog

Ressourcement: retrieving our past for present faithfulness, part 2
Love and Its cost in The Letter to Diognetus

The Apostle Paul's descriptions of the social fabric of the pagan world of his day are not pleasant. "Living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another" (Titus 3:3) is the way that Paul depicts life in the first-century world, for example, in his letter to Titus. No wonder that Christian communities stood out like brilliant lights in a dark firmament (Philippians 2:14). 

"O the sweet exchange"

The pagan Diognetus, to whom an anonymous Christian author wrote in the late second century, is another powerful witness to the fact that life in the Church was qualitatively different from the pagan world, for he asked this author--thus in part prompting the letter that we began to look at last month--"What is the warm fraternal affection they [i.e. believers] all feel for one another?"[1] The author's answer to this question is tied to his argument for the antiquity of Christianity. The author has argued that God revealed his plan of salvation to none in the past but his "beloved Son"--a weak argument as it fails to take account of the place of the Old Testament in salvation history as was noted last month. The author continued: when human beings realized their utter and complete inability to gain heaven by their own strength and were conscious of their sin and impending judgment, God, 
did not hate or reject us or bear us ill-will. Rather, he was long-suffering, bore with us, and in mercy he took our sins upon himself. He himself gave his own Son as a ransom for us--the Holy One for the godless, the Innocent One for the wicked, the Righteous One for the unrighteous, the Incorruptible for the corruptible, the Immortal for the mortal. For what else was able to cover our sins except his righteousness? In whom could we, who were lawless and godless, have been justified, but in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange! O the inscrutable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation!--that the wickedness of many should be hidden in the one Righteous Man, and the righteousness of the One should justify the many wicked![2]
The use of the term "ransom" at the head of this passage recalls the statement of Jesus in Mark 10:45 about the ultimate purpose of his coming into the world, his substitutionary death on behalf of sinners: "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." 

The Letter to Diognetus has five dialectical ways of expressing this act of substitution, one of which--"the Righteous One for the unrighteous"--almost exactly reproduces a phrase from 1 Peter 3:18. What is highlighted in this dialectic are the twin soteriological themes of the Son's utter sinlessness and humanity's radical depravity. This is a truly marvelous text, as the author, overwhelmed by what took place at the cross, is lost in rapture, awe, and praise. Here, as so often happens in the writings of Paul, theology gives way to doxology: "O the sweet exchange! O the inscrutable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation!" 

Imitating God

The author is now ready to answer Diognetus' question about the love of Christians for one another. Christians love one another because God first loved them when they were sinners and showed that love through the awesome substitutionary sacrifice of his own beloved Son on their behalf. Embracing the Son's death for one's sins by faith alone--earlier the author had stated that God "has only revealed himself to faith, by which alone are we permitted to know God"[3] --leads to a desire to imitate God, the great Lover of mankind.
God loved the race of men. It was for their sakes that he made the world; it was to them that he gave dominion over everything in it. On them he bestowed reason and understanding, and they alone received permission to lift their eyes to him. He formed them in his own image; he sent his only-begotten Son to them; he promised them the kingdom of heaven, and to those who have loved him he will surely give it. Once you have grasped these truths, think how your joy will overflow, and what love you will feel for him who loved you so.[4]
And it is in this mutual love of believers for one another and for their neighbors that evidence is seen that "God lives in heaven" (10.7). Christian love is thus a key evidence for the truth of the Christian worldview.

Pagan hatred & Christian martyrdom

However, like many other peoples in history, those of the Roman Empire responded to Christian love with fear and hatred, ostracism and persecution. This hatred and the Christian response to it are mentioned a number of times in the letter. For example, in chapter 5 of the Letter to Diognetus we read this about these early Christians:
They show love to all men--and all men persecute them. They are misunderstood, and condemned; yet by suffering death they are quickened into life. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance. They are dishonoured, yet made glorious in their very dishonour; slandered, yet vindicated. They repay calumny with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evildoers; and under the strokes they rejoice like men given new life. Jews assail them as heretics, and Greeks harass them with persecutions; and yet of all their ill-wishers there is not one who can produce good grounds for his hostility [5]
As this passage lays bare, Christians were verbally abused by their fellow Greeks and Romans, despoiled, put on trial as evil-doers, and condemned to death. Notice, though, how they reacted: with love: "they show love to all men."

The Roman mode of executing enemies of the state and criminals varied, for Roman punishment was tailored to the social status of the criminal rather than the crime. Thus, beheading was the major form of execution for citizens of the Empire who committed a capital offence. Non-citizens and slaves could be exposed to a whole range of horrific means of execution, including burning and being mauled to death by ferocious beasts. Both of the latter are mentioned in this letter. In 10.8 we read of believers who "endure for righteousness' sake a transient flame."[6] And at the close of chapter 7 the author mentions death by wild beasts: 
[Have you not seen Christians] flung to the wild beasts to make them deny their Lord, and yet remaining undefeated? Do you not see how the more of them suffer such punishments, the larger grows the number of the rest? These things do not look like the work of man; they are the power of God, and the evident tokens of his presence.[7]
The way in which the author views the martyrdoms of believers is noteworthy. They are, first of all, a means by which the church grows. As the North African theologian Tertullian (fl.190-215) once put it: "the blood of Christians is seed."[8] Second, the author of the Letter to Diognetus sees in the steadfastness of the martyrs nothing less than a proof for the truth of the martyrs' testimony. Apologetics in the Ancient Church took place not only by means of reasoning through the spoken word and such tracts as this letter, but also in the midst of horrific martyrdoms. 

Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165), who himself was martyred, was brought to Christ by watching the way that believers died in the arena. "When I myself revelled in the teachings of Plato," he tells us, "and heard the Christians misrepresented and watched them stand fearless in the face of death and every other thing that was considered fearful, I realized the impossibility of their living in sinful pleasure."[9]  Similarly, Tertullian spoke of the apologetic power of those who shed their blood for their love of Christ: "whoever beholds such noble endurance will first, as though struck by some kind of uneasiness, be driven to enquire what is the matter in question, and, then, when he knows the truth, immediately follow the same way."[10]

Learning from the past

In any defence of the Christian Faith, God's revelation of himself in his Son, Jesus Christ, and Christ's death for sinners must play the central role. It is the death of the Son that frees men and women from sin and shame and bondage to idolatry, and thus enables them to genuinely participate in God's love, both as recipients and as agents of love to others. 

Another important element in witness is the love of Christian believers for one another, their life together, and even their dying for their faith. To pick up on this final point of dying for one's faith: this treatise is a marvellous witness to the fact that the Ancient Church knew there are some things more important than life itself. In the words of Justin Martyr: "the lover of truth must choose, in every way possible, to do and say what is right, even when threatened with death, rather than save his own life."[11]

Michael A.G. Haykin is the Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has written widely on the Ancient Church and eighteenth-century Dissent


[1] Letter to Diognetus 1.1.

[2] Diognetus 9.2-5, trans. Michael A.G. Haykin.

[3] Letter to Diognetus 8.6, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), 147, altered.

[4] Letter to Diognetus 10.2-3, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 148, altered.
[5] Letter to Diognetus 5.11-17, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 145.
[6] Letter to Diognetus 10.8, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 149, altered.

[7] Letter to Diognetus 7.8, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 146. At the beginning of this verse there is a gap in the manuscript, and the material enclosed in square brackets is supplied to make sense of what follows.

[8] Apology 50.13, trans. Emily Joseph Daly in her, Rudolph Arbesmann and Edwin A. Quain, trans. Tertullian: Apologetical Works and Minucius Felix: Octavius (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 125.

[9] Second Apology 12, trans. Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr (New York: Christian Heritage Inc., 1948), 132.

[10] To Scapula 5, trans. Rudolph Arbesmann in his, Daly, and Quain, Tertullian: Apologetical Works, 161.

[11] First Apology 2.1, trans. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, 34.

A Baptist preacher I know once informed me that while Presbyterians trace their lineage to the 16th century reformer John Calvin, Baptists trace theirs to the first century prophet John the Baptist. Though most Baptists I know aren't hugely invested in the antiquity or catholicity of their peculiar beliefs, the implications of this preacher's claim for the validity of our respective traditions -- and specifically our convictions regarding baptism -- were intended to be fairly obvious. I responded with a remark about the glaring absence of Baptist fossils in the church historical record between the 1st and 16th centuries. He thought discussion had turned to a subject he enjoyed even more than that of denominational differences -- namely, evolution -- and the conversation moved on.

If the first person to administer Christian baptism, at least to a convert if not to his/her children, counts as the first "Baptist," then that title does very likely belong to John or one of Christ's apostles (depending on how one relates John's baptism to Christian baptism; cf. Acts 19.1-7). If, however, by "Baptist" we mean one who by conviction claims that none but those who make a mature and credible profession of faith should receive the sacrament of baptism, then I posit that the very first proven "Baptist" theologian was the late 2nd/early 3rd century African theologian Tertullian.

Tertullian wrote a book on baptism (De baptismo) in the first decade of the 3rd century --roughly 170 years after Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism (Matt. 28.19). In that work we encounter the earliest argument to my knowledge against the practice of baptizing infants; which practice, his argument as such clearly indicates, was rather common in the church in Carthage (and presumably beyond), despite the rather extraordinary, recent claim by Michael Haykin that the "Ancient Church largely" knew only believer's baptism "up until the fifth century."

Tertullian writes:

It may be better to delay Baptism; and especially so in the case of little children. Why, indeed, is it necessary -- if it be not a case of necessity -- that the sponsors too be thrust into danger, when they themselves may fail to fulfill their promises by reason of death, or when they may be disappointed by the growth of an evil disposition? [...] Let [children] come, then, [when] they grow up...; let them become Christians when they [are] able to know Christ! Why does the innocent hasten to the remission of sins?

Tertullian's suggestion that infants -- those brought to the baptismal font not by virtue of their own choice but by the hands of "sponsors" -- be denied baptism until later in life rests on a number of significant assumptions: 1) that baptism positively effects the remission of sins; 2) that infants, though born relatively "innocent" (Tertullian lacks a developed doctrine of original sin), will often grow up to commit fairly significant sins; 3) that since one cannot be re-baptized for "the remission of sins" later in life, one might -- depending on the gravity of his/her sins later in life -- cut themselves off from the hope of salvation by their post-baptismal sins.

Tertullian argues, then, that baptism would best be postponed until one reaches an age and station in life where he/she is less likely to make their baptism superfluous by sinning so seriously after baptism that he/she ends up damned. If parents are prevented (by death) from fulfilling their own promise to raise their child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, or if, despite their best efforts at parenting, an "evil disposition" develops in their child, then let that child get the serious sins out of his/her system and only then, when better prepared to live the Christian life, be baptized. Tertullian at this stage in his career believed that God would forgive every baptized person one serious sin (adultery, apostasy, etc.) in their Christian life. He later came to the conviction that God would forgive no serious sins after baptism. Either way, best to commit your serious sins before baptism and let them be washed away by the same.

Of course, the force of Tertullian's logic could lead one to postpone baptism until rather late in life (though that would involve something of a gamble, since one might die unexpectedly, thereby losing the opportunity while living to have his/her sins remitted). In fact, Tertullian himself extends the logic of his argument to young, unmarried persons, who -- he believes (or perhaps remembers) -- might find themselves particularly prone to serious sexual sin:

For no less cause should the unmarried also be deferred [from baptism], in whom there is an aptness to temptation, ...until either they are married or are better strengthened for continence. Anyone who understands the seriousness of Baptism will fear its reception more than its deferral.

Whatever the (de)merits of Tertullian's theology of baptism, one thing is particularly noteworthy regarding his argument against infant baptism. That is the failure to advance what would have been, in his day, the most compelling point of all against the practice: that it was novel and/or unfamiliar to Christians in other parts of the Mediterranean world. In the ancient world, antiquity and uniformity were universally valued more than novelty and/or provinciality. Ancient Christians regularly signaled their preference for what was old and regular in their apologetic for Christian beliefs and practices against Judaism, Greco-Roman polytheism, and Gnosticism (think, for example, of the repeated claim among Christian apologists that Plato had learned his monotheism and doctrine of creation from reading their Scriptures). All Tertullian really needed to do to convince Carthaginian Christians to stop bringing their newborn children to the baptismal font was say, "Hey, we Christians never did this before!", or perhaps, "Hey, Christians aren't doing this in Alexandria or Rome!" (the beliefs and practices of which churches were well known to those in Carthage).

The reason Tertullian couldn't advance such an argument should be fairly obvious: Christians in each of these regions had been bringing their children to the baptismal font for as long as they could remember. The antiquity of the practice is reflected, I suggest, even in the slight hesitation Tertullian himself expresses about his argument: "It may be better," he writes, not "we must" or "we should." He himself would have baulked at urging too strongly the cessation of a well-practiced custom.

And so, while debates continue (as they must) about Scripture's teaching on the question of whether children of believers should receive the (new) covenant sign (as they had the old), we can at least make headway in determining who was the very first theologian to explicitly pose that children of believers should not be baptized. It was, I suggest, Tertullian (and after him, almost nobody until the sixteenth century...). Kudos to my Baptist friends for having such a distinguished, and old, theologian as the first certain defender of their cause, subsequent gaps in the Baptist fossil record notwithstanding.

And let me point out to my Baptist friends that the actual practice of paedobaptism is documented prior to Tertullian's rejection of paedobaptism. Indeed, it's documented by Tertullian's own work; Tertullian was, after all, objecting to something that was happening, not to a hypothetical scenario in which some harebrained believer took it into his or her head to baptize a baby. So the earliest documented practice of paedobaptism precedes the earliest explicit objection to paedobaptism. My tradition is older than yours.