Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mathison Cont. (Tertullian)

[Read my prefatory piece on Mathison's "The Shape of Sola Scriptura" here.]

It's been a little while since I've addressed the underlying research and analysis used by Keith A. Mathison in his articulation of the doctrine of sola Scriptura. I've noted that the entirety of his popular work is centered around the principle that the Reformers sought to return the Church to a view of Scripture that he calls "Tradition I". This is contraposed against, inter alia, "Tradition II", which is defined as "the concept of tradition that allows for an authoritative extra-biblical source of revelation. (p. 39)" [Note: the Apostolic Churches do not claim to rely on continuing general revelation in order to teach authoritatively.]

So far I have considered his treatment of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria. I am unpersuaded by Mathison's claims that the early Church Fathers proffered a view that the Regula Fidei was "inscripturated" into the Bible to be the sole norm and authority of the Christian Faith.

That dusting off having been accomplished, let me take up Mathison's discussion of Tertullian, the 2nd Century ecclesial author (later turned heretic).

Mathison says. Like Irenaeus, Tertullian taught that the oral preaching of the Apostles was written down in Scripture. He rebuffed a teaching of Docetism by saying that "there is no evidence of this, because Scripture says nothing." He condemns the idea that the Apostles did not reveal all to all men but instead disclosed some of their knowledge only to a few and in secret.

Tertullian believed that the Scriptures furnish us with a rule of faith, and this rule of faith is the "hermeneutical context for a proper interpretation of Scripture." Because the Scriptures and the Regula Fidei both have the apostles as their source, they are mutually reciprocal and indivisible.

My analysis. Tertullian rebuffed an aspect of a certain heresy by saying that it lacked evidence in Scripture. It does not follow that Tertullian believed that all Truth is contained within Scripture (i.e., sola Scriptura). Any adherent to Tradition II could equally criticize for lack of evidence a heretical belief on account of Scripture saying "nothing" of it. Crudely stated: Scripture contains Truth; many derivative Truths can be deduced from Scripture; therefore, a teaching that is not derivable from Scripture lacks evidence. This accounts for Tertullian's view, without requiring Tradition I.

That Tertullian condemned the Gnostics for claiming that there were secret written teachings of the Apostles speaks nothing to Tradition I or II. The Catholics and Orthodox do not maintain that they derive teachings from any secret revelations given only to Bishops.

A little digging through Tertullian's work has been revealing. He taught that the Holy Spirit sat in Office over the churches, not permitting them to understand or believe differently than that which He (the Spirit) was "preaching by the Apostles" (On the Prescription of Heretics, Ch. XXVIII). He famously said (with sarcasm) that the heretics could validate their claims of having Apostolic teaching by unfolding "the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such manner that their first bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles." The Bishops he called "transmitters of the apostolic seed" (Ibid., Ch. XXXII). Finally (of my brief surveillance of his work), he notes the double honor of Rome's apostolic authority (Ibid., Ch. XXXVI).

Lastly, Mathison's view that the Regula Fidei is particularly authoritative (though "indivisible" from the Scriptures) because it derives from the Apostles is nothing short of fascinating (and enticing). The view seems necessary to prevent rejection of the early Creeds. But this rule of faith exists nowhere in writing -- it is notional, and at best made analogous to the Apostles' Creed by Mathison. So he acknowledges that there is a deposit of all Truth in the Church, that it is properly handled and interpreted within the Church, but then maintains that the early Church Fathers recognized its as no more than co-extensive with Scripture. Up until that last part, Mathison's is a very Catholic sounding view.

Conclusion. Mathison has yet to show a belief from the early Church that the Bible, the "inscripturation" of the Regula Fidei, had any authority independent of the Apostolic Successors within the Church. Such independence has to be shown though for sola Scriptura to stand.


Canadian said...

Heres's an interesting entry from the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia off of the CCEL website.,fidei#highlight


Thos said...


Great find, thanks!

Regula Fidei: "It is presupposed that this truth takes for the Christian community a definite, tangible form, such as the law was for the Jews (Rom. ii. 20), in a body of doctrine not merely held and taught by the Church, but clearly formulated."

Better still: "The ante-Nicene church never considered as the Rule of Faith the Bible or any part of it."

Lastly, "With Tertullian the regula fidei is identical with the sacramentum fidei, the rule of faith with that which he so often designates as the oath of allegiance of the soldiers of Christ (Ad martyras, iii.)."

Mathison's view that the early Church Fathers saw the regula fidei as co-extensive with and "inscripturated" in the Bible does jive with the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, a protestant work.

Thanks again. Peace in Christ,

Canadian said...

You meant "does'nt jive" right?

Thos said...


Oops. The excluded negative. I hate that. Thanks, I meant "doesn't jive" for sure.

Peace in Christ,