Before the invention of modern transport, it was actually quicker to travel by sea than by land. Although the Romans did build great roads, shipping was the main means of transporting goods. So, while by road, northern Africa man seem far from Rome, by sea it is much closer.
Northern Africa was a Roman province known simply as Africa, and Carthage (located now in Tunisia) was the main city. Northern African Christianity was strong until just before the 8th century when the region was overthrown by the Arabs.
The earliest writing (around A.D. 180) we have from the church in north Africa is of a church that is suffering persecution. We see in these writing that the north Africans were wrestling to form a theology of persecution. They concluded that persecution is to be welcomed. They saw persecution as a sign of faithfulness.
But what do you do about the many people who fall under persecution? These people were regarded as a problem in north Africa in a way that they were not in other places. The northern African church is known for its strictness. One of the answers given to those who had ‘lapsed’ under persecution was, ‘if you really want to show us that you are sincere, then next time persecution comes along, go out and get yourself martyred.’
This strict line towards those who ‘lapsed’ is known as the ‘rigorist’ view. One of these rigorists was a man called Tertullian.
Tertullian (A.D. 155-240)
Tertullian was the most significant theologian of the second and third centuries in northern Africa, but as we will see his views were far from what we would consider evangelical theology.
Tertullian had a sharp tongue and could be cutting in his writings. He also had a very clever turn of phrase and some of his sayings have lasted to our time. It was Tertullian who said that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’
Tertullian was very strict. He believed that Christians should cut themselves off from the world. He wrote against Christians partaking in or watching sports. He told soldiers that they should not salute the emperor (as such a salute was acknowledging the emperors claim to be the son of god). In fact, he didn’t think Christians should be in the army. He also thought that Christians didn’t think that Christians should be involved in politics.
Tertullian developed a three-fold view of virginity. The first virginity was what we were born with. The second virginity was what we commit to when we become a Christian (we commit to seeking to be sexually pure). But the third virginity, that he thought to be the best of all, was virginity in marriage—he advocated getting married, but not having sex with your spouse. He thought married virginity this was most commended because it involved constantly resisting temptation.
He believed that the persecution that the church was experiencing was a sign that Jesus was very close to returning. For that reason, he believed it was very important that his wife should not get pregnant, for he believed that if she was pregnant when Jesus returned then she would be pregnant for all eternity.
Why did Tertullian have such strange views?
I was listening to a lecture about Tertullian, where I got the material for this talk, and one of the students asked, ‘did he read his Bible at all?’ The answer was that he was an avid reader of the Bible, but he came to the Bible with certain wrong assumptions.
For example, he was influenced by Stoic philosophy that believed that the spiritual was actually a highly developed form of mater. This is seen in his understanding of baptism. Tertullian believed that what happened at baptism was that when a priest blessed the waters the Holy Spirit entered the water. Then waters of baptism then penetrated the pores of the person being baptised and cleansed them from their sin. As a result of such thinking about baptism he argued against infant baptism—for if you baptised a baby then the chances are that the baby will later commit some serious sin and lose their chance of salvation. Their only hope then would be to be saved through martyrdom. He argued that people should not be baptised until they are around thirty because then they will have done all the sinning that they want to (as if!). In fact, this belief that it is baptism that saves you, with no clear understanding of how to be forgiven for sin after baptism, led to the later practice of death-bed baptisms. This idea of needing some rite of cleansing at the end of one’s life is still seen in the Roman Catholic teaching of ‘extreme unction’ (the last rites).
Tertullian believed that the Old Testament was that it was not strict enough. He believed that was why the Law of Moses could not save you. He felt that Christ came to give us a stricter law. His thinking can find some justification in Jesus’ teaching on divorce and marriage. Moses had allowed for divorce in many circumstances, but Jesus now limit divorce to situations of adultery. He explained that Moses’ more liberal view on divorce was a concession to the hardness of the people’s hearts (Matthew 19:8). Tertullian actually went further than Jesus’ words in the gospel and allowed for no divorce—he argued that Jesus’ words were a concession that was in place until the gospel was fully established in the church. This is part of the reason why the Roman Catholic church does not allow divorce in any circumstances even though Jesus allowed it in the case of adultery.
Tertullian also began the idea that a saint was not every ordinary Christian (as it is in the New Testament) but that saints were an elite class of Christian. Tertullian was not made a saint by the church, probably because he was later associated with the Montanist sect.
Pelagius verses Augustine
One of the debates that will occur right throughout the history of the church relates to the nature of the human will after the fall of Adam. In particular, in what sense is our will free and to what sense are we slaves to our sinful nature. Two of the first figures to debate this issue were Augustine and Pelagius.
It is not entirely sure where Pelagius originates from. Jerome thought that he was Irish, saying that he was stuffed with Irish porridge—he was tall and heavy. He became better known when he moved to Rome.
Pelagius argued that the sin of Adam, called original sin, was not passed down or imputed to the rest of humankind. He said that Adam and Eve simply provided the bad example that was followed by their offspring. Because he believed that the will on humankind was completely free, Pelagius believed that grace simply helped humans to know what to do to live holy lives and that human beings were by nature capable of following God’s commands.
On the other hand, Augustine, argued that the sin of Adam affected the will of every human being that followed, and that by nature we are incapable of loving God or following his commands. Therefore, grace not only shows us the truth but enables us to follow the truth.
Pelagius’s thinking also meant that he believed that Jesus did not come to pay the price of our guilt on the cross, but simply to set a moral example for us to follow. This meant that human beings were responsible for their own salvation.
Pelagius’s views were condemned in a number of church councils.
Augustine believed that salvation depended on God rather than humankind. Augustine believed the whole debate hinged on Pelagius’s rejection of original sin. If humankind is free for sin’s grip, then grace would never be necessary. Augustine argued from Psalm 51 and Romans 5 and pointed out that the results of Adam’s sin is that ‘there is none who seek after God’ (Romans 3:11).
Augustine explained the effect of the fall and redemption with the following Latin phrases:
Posse peccare—before the Fall humankind had the ability to sin.
Posse non peccare—before the Fall humankind had the ability not to sin.
Non posse non peccare—after the Fall humankind is not able not to sin.