Reflections on the Orthodox faith and life in this crazy 21st century world by an Orthodox priest and a few of his friends.
Monday, May 16, 2011
The Role of Tertullian and Irenaeus in the Christological and Ecclesiological Development of the Early Church - Part 1
In the mid-second century, two important historical figures came into prominence in the Christian world: Tertullian and Irenaeus. The former, after producing enough important theological teaching that he is still referred to as “the father of Western Christianity,” adhered himself to the Montanists (cf. the title of the third volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers is “Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian”). The latter is recognized as a true Saint in the Orthodox Church. Both left behind many writings that are helpful to modern Christians, and both helped to shape the theology of the Church. Their effects are still evident in the Church’s Christological and Ecclesiological theology. Both of these men were influential in each of the aforementioned theological areas, but Tertullian was especially influential on the Christological development, while St. Irenaeus had a major impact on the Ecclesiological development. They were contemporaries, addressing heresies that threatened the theology of the Church during the formative years, before the Ecumenical Councils settled these questions. It was partly through their influence and devotion that the Councils had sufficient and proper theology to confront the heresies and to overcome them, leading to a proper understanding of the nature of Christ and the Church.
The influence of Tertullian in the Christological controversies of the late second and early third centuries is evident by the inclusion of his treatise, On the Flesh of Christ, in the aforementioned volume of The Ante-Nicene Fathers. In that text, Tertullian confronted the heresy that Christ had not come in the flesh, as advocated by heretics such as Marcion, Apelles, Basiledes, and Valentinus (footnote in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 3). In contrast to the heretical notion that the spiritual nature of Christ was the only way that He was manifested, Tertullian maintained that Christ did indeed come in the flesh, and that was of paramount importance. He further stated that “the nature of the two substances displayed Him as man and God, - in one respect born, in the other unborn…the divine and the human – is distinctly asserted with equal truth…[the] power of the Spirit proved Him to be God, His sufferings attested to the flesh of man."
In fact, God is presented in the work of Tertullian as eternally existing, and revealing Himself via creation and redemption. These realities are ultimately fulfilled in the incarnation, which was the ultimate aim of God’s purpose. The working out of this redemptive plan led to the distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit. This was one of the earliest expositions of the distinctive members of the Trinity. As such, it introduced the concept of “persons” as existing within the Godhead. Tertullian went so far as to recognize that “…the Word or Son is a ‘Person’… ‘a second in addition to the Father.’ In the third place, however, there is the Spirit, the ‘representative’…[who] issues from the Father by way of the Son…He, too, is a ‘Person.'" Tertullian was even the first to use the word “Trinity” in reference to the Godhead.
He went on to claim that though three persons, the members of the Trinity were from a single source, hence one God. There was no division between the three persons. They were, in fact, of one substance. Tertullian’s strength in this area lies in his understanding that the three persons of the Godhead existed in Trinitarian form, and yet were of one ultimate substance. This terminology would ultimately be adopted by the whole Church as Orthodox theology. He believed and taught that Father and Son “share the same divine nature or essence, and in fact, since the Godhead is indivisible, are one identical being. On the other hand, [as Persons the Father, Son, and Spirit are] admirably suited to express the otherness, or independent subsistence, of the Three”