Monday, 26 April 2021

Two African giants of the early church

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.

While I have highlighted the unusual nature of Tertullian’s teaching it should be noted that he made a significant contribution to our understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.  Although the concepts behind the Trinity are clearly taught in the Bible, they are not formulated into a systematic theology there and the term trinity is not used.  Tertullian leaned on his training in law and explained that God exists in one substance, or essence, and yet God is three persons.  He is also credited as the first of the church fathers to use the term trinity.

Augustine (354-430)

If you are only going to read one book from the church fathers, you would probably do no better than Augustine’s Confessions.  His ‘Confessions’ is the story of how Augustine became a Christian, and also has some chapters of his thoughts on some issues.  Its opening passage contains the immortal words, ‘you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’  Augustine is a champion of God’s grace.  The book is written in the form of a prayer that we are invited to listen in to.

Augustine was born in what is now modern Algeria in 354.  His father was Patrick and his mother Monica.  He had a very close relationship with his mother, although it could be stormy.  Monica was a Christian, but Patrick was not.  Augustine rejected the faith of his mother.

Patrick’s mother also lived with the family and Monica did not always find this easy.  However, Monica was a wonderful witness, and Patrick and her mother-in-law did come to faith.  Augustine explains that she won them through her gentleness, courtesy and love.  Monica prayed very hard for her son’s conversion.  He would not come to faith until he was thirty-two, a year before Monica died.

As Augustine looks back on his life in ‘Confessions’, he sees a story that is all about his sin and God’s grace.  He agrees with the doctrine of the sinful nature and how we are sinful from birth (Psalm 51:5).  He tells of how he enjoyed stealing pears from his neighbour’s orchard, not because he was hungry, but because of the enjoyment of sin.  He would though the pears away once he had them.  He comments of his childhood, ‘such tiny a child, yet so great a sinner.’

At the age of sixteen, Augustine moved to Cartage to study rhetoric.  He became someone who lived in lustful pleasure.  Of arriving in Cartage, he says, ‘I came to Cartage and all around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves.’  He was deeply sexual and yet struggled with his conscience.  He famously prayed, ‘Lord, make me chaste [sexually pure] but not yet.’  He had a concubine with whom he had a son.

He was searching, but he went down some dead paths.  He became involved in a cult called Manicheism.  The main issue that Manichaeism addressed was where does evil come from.  Like other groups influenced by Gnosticism, they saw the material world as evil.  Their concept of a god was something that was detached from his creation. 

Augustine asked the local Manichean leaders questions, but they could not answer him.  They told him that the main leader was coming to visit, and that he would be able to deal with Augustine’s questions.  However, Augustine was not satisfied with his answers and left the group.  He became sceptical and began to lose hope that truth could be found.  But he did not give up looking.

When he was twenty-nine Augustine decided that if he wanted to reach the pinnacle of his career in rhetoric he would need to go to a more influential city.  Monica was heart-broken when she heard his plans.  It was bad enough that he was away in Cartage, but so much worse that he would be even further away in Rome.  She feared that she would lose influence over him and that it would be less likely that he would become a Christian.

He told her that he was going and then he changed his mind and said that he would not go.  This went on for a while until he eventually slipped away on a boat before she knew about it.  While this may have seemed a disaster to Monica, it was actually a part of God’s bringing Augustine to himself.  Augustine writes, ‘by her flood of tears, what she was begging of you, my God, was that you would not allow me to sail.  Yet in your deep counsel you heard the simple point of her longing.’  God goes deeper than our words as we pray and answers the heart cry that prompts those words.

Milan was actually a more significant city than Rome at that time, so Augustine went from Rome to Milan.  There he met someone who would be used very influentially in his life—Ambrose the bishop of Milan.  He writes, ‘all unknowing I was brought by you to him, that knowing I should be brought by him to you.’

Augustine had looked down his nose at the Bible.  He felt that the language of the Bible was not sophisticated enough.  He did, however, start attending church in order to hear Ambrose.  It was not to hear the truth but to listen to Ambrose, who he had heard was a wonderful communicator.  ‘My pleasure was in the charm of his language.’  He also began to be moved by the music in the church.

Ambrose befriended Augustine.  Again, it was not truth that attracted Augustine to Ambrose but the fact that Ambrose was kind.  ‘I began to like him as a human being who was kind to me.’

His attitude to the Bible was changing and it was when he was outside in the garden of a friend in Milan that he was brought to faith.  There he heard a child repeatedly say ‘tolle lege’ (meaning ‘take and read’).  He wondered if this chant was a part of some game, but he could not think what game it could be.  He took it as a word for himself and opened the book of Romans at random.  What he read changed his life: ‘Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy’ (Romans 13:13).  He was thirty-two.  He regretted that he took so long to come to faith, writing, ‘I have learned to love late.’

He would return to north Africa and become bishop of Hippo (in modern Algeria).  Later, when he was dying, he had the words of the Psalms of confession posted on the walls of his room, where he would spend his time confessing his sin and thanking God for his great grace.

While Augustine had a great concept of the God of grace, there are some areas of our thinking where we may want to disagree with him, for example, Augustine believed in purgatory and praying for the dead.

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.

Augustine’s understanding of grace was that God took the initiative to save people.  It is not just that humankind cannot choose to obey God, humankind will not.  Humankind is responsible for their evil because in doing wrong we are doing what we want to do.  We will not choose him unless he gives us faith.  Augustine spoke of a captive free will (liberum arbitrium captivatum).  It is only by grace we can have a liberated free will (liberum arbitrium liberatum).  Grace works in the depraved nature to bring about a new nature.     

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