"Where diversity of doctrine is found, there must we suspect corruption both of the Scripture and of the exposition." –Tertullian
Ran across this on the internet this morning. Synchronicity. For today the Gospel from Luke (Luke 4: 14-21) features Jesus offering a new take on scripture and doctrine in his hometown synagogue. Upon reading what very well may have been the lectionary reading for his day from Isaiah 61 he sits down. People are expecting a comment. He does not disappoint. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Next Sunday comes part II of this episode – the part where his radical view of Isaiah’s proclamation leads to people seeking to hurl Jesus off a cliff! The hometown crowd was not really prepared for what the local boy had to say.
For when he amplifies the somewhat cryptic commentary, he extends all this talk of “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” to all people everywhere, giving as his sole examples famous gentiles of the Bible. Talk about diversity! Imagine that! Jesus suggesting, no even asserting, that God’s Love, Grace and Mercy extends beyond the boundaries of our tiny sectarian societies.
So it will turn out that those who suspect “corruption both of the Scripture and of the exposition” are those who turn against and away from Jesus. We might well ask, “Who is this Tertullian anyway?”
Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 CE) was a prolific Christian writer and apologist credited with virtually inventing Christian theology, wrote extensively and persuasively on the Trinity, and yet was one of the few early Christian “fathers” who has never been canonized by the Church on account of some rather odd and even heretical views he held.
He was, as one can readily see, more than somewhat conservative – and why not. Writing Christian apologetics in a hostile Roman province in Africa was dangerous business. Many are those who lost their lives simply being Christian, let alone becoming a public defender of the rapidly growing cult.
He was a Montanist, itself a cult within the early church that offered diverse doctrine, much of it well outside the mainstream church – never a bad thing in and of itself! According to Wikipedia (save you the time) although it came to be labeled a heresy, the movement held similar views about the basic tenets of Christian doctrine to those of the wider Christian Church. It was a prophetic movement that called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic. Parallels have been drawn between Montanism and modern day movements such as Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and the New Apostolic Reformation.
His views on women, for instance, do not hold up terribly well. Again from Wikipedia: Tertullian is sometimes criticized for being misogynistic, on the basis of the contents of his 'De Cultu Feminarum,' section I.I, part 2 (trans. C.W. Marx): "Do you not know that you are Eve? The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.”
So, despite his many positive traits, and much thoughtful theological reflection, Tertullian held some truly suspect views, explaining why even the Catholic Church would hold off from proclaiming him a saint and doctor of the church.
I found myself “remembering” all this because to pull out his one quote suspicious of any kind of theological diversity or exploration beyond what he found to be acceptable as a way of mocking or condemning diversity of opinion with a “credible” ( and I use the term loosely) voice from the early church is at the least troubling, and at worst dangerous.
Jesus, the one many of us look to as Lord and Savior, died for not only holding radical new theological ways of thinking, but for actually living them out. Arguably, Tertullian is considered heretical by some for his similar penchant to “think outside the box” as we say today.
So why the fear? For that is what it is when we shy away from theological innovation and condemn it as “corruption of both of Scripture and of the exposition.” Especially when the subtext seems to suggest we need to be suspicious of “others” unlike ourselves, whatever shape that takes: gays, lesbians, transgendered and bisexual individuals; those for or against abortion; those of other race, religious, ethnic and social backgrounds; ordaining women, marrying same-sex couples, “allowing” women to become bishops; those who favor gun control, those who reserve the right to arm themselves to the teeth; the list can go on and on. We can always find one more group or class of persons utterly unlike ourselves of whom we allow ourselves to be afraid.
I keep re-reading and re-reading Luke chapter 4. Jesus is rejected for having a radical interpretation of Isaiah, and for accepting “the other,” all others – not some others, not a lot of others, but even those who condemn him to death upon a Roman Cross, those who taunt him as he is gasping for his last breath, and those who to this day are afraid of him.
At his river baptism in the Jordan, he heard a voice, “You are my Beloved son; I am well pleased with you.” He spent a long time in the wilderness sorting out just what that meant. He came out of his wilderness time-out and temptations , and set about helping others, all others, to know and accept that they too are Beloved in God’s eyes – that God is well pleased with them as well. He seemed convinced if people would accept that basic theological truth about themselves that they would not only come to love themselves, but would reach out in love and compassion to others as well – all others, including those with diverse views different from their own. He literally went to the stake on that belief and that assertion.
Then he returned to demonstrate that the radical understanding of God and God’s Word that he was living has an eternal, ongoing significance for us all. He returned to affirm that we have nothing to fear among varied and divergent views of the Holy – the Holy which in all truth is unknowable in its entirety. I have to believe that even Tertullian, now living in the very heart of God’s radical love for all things, seen and unseen, has begun to see the light and may very well have already retracted his pronouncements uttered out of fear so long long ago. Wouldn’t that be Good News! Amen.