Friday, November 06, 2009

Tertullian On The Historical Shallowness Of Catholic Mariology

Yesterday, I linked to a collection of articles that document widespread absence and contradictions of the Catholic view of Mary in early church history. Below are some examples taken from Tertullian. Regardless of whether you agree with his conclusions on every issue, he does reflect the shallow roots of the Catholic view of Mary, in contrast to the deeper roots of an Evangelical view of her.

Since Catholics often cite the concept that nothing is impossible with God when arguing for their beliefs about Mary (it's not impossible for God to preserve her from sin, to assume her bodily into Heaven, etc.), Tertullian's comments on the abuse of that concept bear repeating:

"Well, but 'with God nothing is impossible.' True enough; who can be ignorant of it? Who also can be unaware that 'the things which are impossible with men are possible with God?' 'The foolish things also of the world hath God chosen to confound the things which are wise.' We have read it all. Therefore, they argue, it was not difficult for God to make Himself both a Father and a Son, contrary to the condition of things among men. For a barren woman to have a child against nature was no difficulty with God; nor was it for a virgin to conceive. Of course nothing is 'too hard for the Lord.' But if we choose to apply this principle so extravagantly and harshly in our capricious imaginations, we may then make out God to have done anything we please, on the ground that it was not impossible for Him to do it. We must not, however, because He is able to do all things suppose that He has actually done what He has not done. But we must inquire whether He has really done it. God could, if He had liked, have furnished man with wings to fly with, just as He gave wings to kites. We must not, however, run to the conclusion that He did this because He was able to do it." (Against Praxeas, 10)

Catholicism makes claims about Mary's status such as:

"Mary has by grace been exalted above all angels and men to a place second only to her Son, as the most holy mother of God who was involved in the mysteries of Christ: she is rightly honored by a special cult in the Church." (Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution On The Church", no. 66)

No such assessment of Mary is found in Tertullian, but he does write of angels:

"Respecting, then, this frail and poor, worthless body, which they do not indeed hesitate to call evil, even if it had been the work of angels, as Menander and Marcus are pleased to think, or the formation of some fiery being, an angel, as Apelles teaches, it would be quite enough for securing respect for the body, that it had the support and protection of even a secondary deity. The angels, we know, rank next to God." (On The Resurrection Of The Flesh, 5)

Tertullian apparently didn't believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. He writes that Jesus' brothers were "really" his brothers, his "blood-relationship" (Against Marcion, 4:19). Elsewhere, Tertullian comments:

"Behold, there immediately present themselves to us, on the threshold as it were, the two priestesses of Christian sanctity, Monogamy and Continence: one modest, in Zechariah the priest; one absolute, in John the forerunner: one appeasing God; one preaching Christ: one proclaiming a perfect priest; one exhibiting 'more than a prophet,' - him, namely, who has not only preached or personally pointed out, but even baptized Christ. For who was more worthily to perform the initiatory rite on the body of the Lord, than flesh similar in kind to that which conceived and gave birth to that body? And indeed it was a virgin, about to marry once for all after her delivery, who gave birth to Christ, in order that each title of sanctity might be fulfilled in Christ's parentage, by means of a mother who was both virgin, and wife of one husband." (On Monogamy, 8)

He says that Mary is representative of both ideals, monogamy and continence. She represented virginity for a while, then represented monogamy within marriage. The latter seems to replace the former, as something distinct from it, which is a denial of the perpetual virginity doctrine.

He mentions some of the sins he thinks Mary committed in the context of Matthew 12:46-50, and he goes on to interpret Luke 11:27-28. Notice that he makes such comments in the same treatise in which he refers to Mary as a second Eve. Unlike Roman Catholics, Tertullian didn't associate the concept of a second Eve with concepts like lifelong sinlessness:

"First of all, nobody would have told Him that His mother and brethren were standing outside [Matthew 12:46-50], if he were not certain both that He had a mother and brethren, and that they were the very persons whom he was then announcing,--who had either been known to him before, or were then and there discovered by him; although heretics have removed this passage from the gospel, because those who were admiring His doctrine said that His supposed father, Joseph the carpenter, and His mother Mary, and His brethren, and His sisters, were very well known to them....But there is some ground for thinking that Christ's answer denies His mother and brethren for the present, as even Apelles might learn. 'The Lord's brethren had not yet believed in Him.' So is it contained in the Gospel which was published before Marcion's time; whilst there is at the same time a want of evidence of His mother's adherence to Him, although the Marthas and the other Marys were in constant attendance on Him. In this very passage indeed, their unbelief is evident. Jesus was teaching the way of life, preaching the kingdom of God and actively engaged in healing infirmities of body and soul; but all the while, whilst strangers were intent on Him, His very nearest relatives were absent. By and by they turn up, and keep outside; but they do not go in, because, forsooth, they set small store on that which was doing within; nor do they even wait, as if they had something which they could contribute more necessary than that which He was so earnestly doing; but they prefer to interrupt Him, and wish to call Him away from His great work. Now, I ask you, Apelles, or will you Marcion, please to tell me, if you happened to be at a stage play, or had laid a wager on a foot race or a chariot race, and were called away by such a message, would you not have exclaimed, 'What are mother and brothers to me?' And did not Christ, whilst preaching and manifesting God, fulfilling the law and the prophets, and scattering the darkness of the long preceding age, justly employ this same form of words, in order to strike the unbelief of those who stood outside, or to shake off the importunity of those who would call Him away from His work? If, however, He had meant to deny His own nativity, He would have found place, time, and means for expressing Himself very differently, and not in words which might be uttered by one who had both a mother and brothers. When denying one's parents in indignation, one does not deny their existence, but censures their faults. Besides, He gave Others the preference; and since He shows their title to this favour--even because they listened to the word of God--He points out in what sense He denied His mother and His brethren. For in whatever sense He adopted as His own those who adhered to Him, in that did He deny as His those who kept aloof from Him. Christ also is wont to do to the utmost that which He enjoins on others. How strange, then, would it certainly have been, if, while he was teaching others not to esteem mother, or father, or brothers, as highly as the word of God, He were Himself to leave the word of God as soon as His mother and brethren were announced to Him! He denied His parents, then, in the sense in which He has taught us to deny ours--for God's work. But there is also another view of the case: in the abjured mother there is a figure of the synagogue, as well as of the Jews in the unbelieving brethren. In their person Israel remained outside, whilst the new disciples who kept close to Christ within, hearing and believing, represented the Church, which He called mother in a preferable sense and a worthier brotherhood, with the repudiation of the carnal relationship. It was in just the same sense, indeed, that He also replied to that exclamation of a certain woman [Luke 11:27-28], not denying His mother's 'womb and paps,' but designating those as more 'blessed who hear the word of God.'...For it was while Eve was yet a virgin, that the ensnaring word had crept into her ear which was to build the edifice of death. Into a virgin's soul, in like manner, must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced. But (it will be said) Eve did not at the devil's word conceive in her womb. Well, she at all events conceived; for the devil's word afterwards became as seed to her that she should conceive as an outcast, and bring forth in sorrow. Indeed she gave birth to a fratricidal devil; whilst Mary, on the contrary, bare one who was one day to secure salvation to Israel, His own brother after the flesh, and the murderer of Himself. God therefore sent down into the virgin's womb His Word, as the good Brother, who should blot out the memory of the evil brother." (On The Flesh Of Christ, 7, 17)

"For to the Son of God alone was it reserved to persevere to the last without sin." (The Prescription Against Heretics, 3)

"The Lord knew Himself to be the only guiltless One, and so He teaches that we beg 'to have our debts remitted us.'" (On Prayer, 7)

Not only does Tertullian never encourage prayers to Mary, but as you go through his treatise on prayer, you see that he repeatedly makes comments that seem to exclude prayers to anybody other than God. He explains that prayer is a sacrifice to God, which would exclude praying to anybody else:

"We are the true adorers and the true priests, who, praying in spirit, sacrifice, in spirit, prayer,-a victim proper and acceptable to God, which assuredly He has required, which He has looked forward to for Himself! This victim, devoted from the whole heart, fed on faith, tended by truth, entire in innocence, pure in chastity, garlanded with love, we ought to escort with the pomp of good works, amid psalms and hymns, unto God's altar, to obtain for us all things from God." (On Prayer, 28)

Tertullian seems to have been part of the ante-Nicene consensus against the veneration of images, which means that he wouldn't have agreed with the Roman Catholic practice of venerating images of Mary.

1 comment:

  1. Good post Jason.

    BTW, I have met one knowledgeable Catholic who dislikes Tertullian and dislikes his standing as an Early Church Father.