I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tertullian on Idolatry and Its Taunt-worthiness

What are the consequences of people's rejection to building their lives on a reverent respect and fear of the Lord? One of the consequences is foolishness, the hatred of all knowledge and wisdom and sound instruction (Prov 1:7, 29). This, because a person can’t despise the One in whom are hidden all the riches of wisdom and knowledge and still retain a solid foundation for life (Col 2:3). Every aspect of the unbeliever’s thoughts, words and deeds is resting squarely on a sand-like foundation (Matt 7:24ff).

Additionally, since as humans created to reflect what we reverence, in our unbelief we wind up taking on the dead, impersonal, and irrational characteristics of whatever object we have given God’s place of ultimacy over to (Ps 115:3—8). This idolatry leads us to futile reasoning and hearts of darkness. Finally, our exchanging the natural relationship we are to have with our God for that which is unnatural, worshipping something in creation (ultimately ourselves), leads us to pervert ALL that is natural. Making the natural unnatural and then proclaiming it “natural,” putting our selves as gods, we throw everything upside down and backwards (Rom 1:18ff). What’s saddest is that, we believe the upside down and backwards world is “just the way things are”—in a word, normal.

What the unbelieving world calls “normal,” Paul describes as a world of people who operate within every domain in the “futility of their minds,” and are “darkened in their understanding...hard-hearted” and “ignorant” (Eph 4:17—18). However, Paul also teaches us that God, in the omnipotent power and divine wisdom of the gospel, has made the world’s wisdom to be seen for the foolishness that it is; and the world’s perceived strength as it is in reality, weakness.

Now, as confessing Christians, we at least mentally assent to and affirm the truth of these biblical assessments of the unbelieving rationale (or should!). Far from Freud’s “psycho-scientific” conclusion that, our primary problems are the result of repressed anxieties of our sexual or patricidal tendencies; or Skinner’s excusing inferences from a person’s antecedent sociological depravations of one kind or another, the biblical diagnosis of our problem is simply idolatry. And idolatry makes one stupid—sin is irrationality in its highest manifestation. Despite the perceptions and delusions of the world, this is the reality and nature of the case.

Nevertheless, how often are we honest (or convicted) enough to tell the truth in this regard? Why aren’t Christians more willing to “answer the fool according to his folly” (Prov 1:5), not merely announcing the biblical diagnosis, but demonstrating it as well? As D. A. Carson often says, we’ll never agree on the solution (i.e., the gospel) until we can first agree on the problem (i.e., idolatry). The gospel is the only alternative to idolatry.

There has been one in our past who was not afraid to do these very things: reduce humanity’s dilemma down to the living true God or idols, and then make a mockery of the latter option. This one’s name was Tertullian.

In chapter I of De Idololatria, Tertullian gives a persuasive exhibition of how every sin, vice and avarice is in principle only a flagrant display of the deeper problem of idolatry. “The principle crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry.” This is the opening line of this work, and the thesis that the rest compellingly proves.

Fraud, even, is rooted in idolatry. Tertullian explains, “The essence of fraud, I take it, is, that any should seize what is another’s, or refuse to another his due; and of course, fraud done toward man is a name of great crime. Well, but idolatry does fraud to God, by refusing to Him, and conferring on others, His honors.” Many similar correspondences are draw in this way. He concludes this chapter. “[S]ince all faults savor opposition to God...doubtless, whoever commits a fault is chargeable with idolatry.”

From a biblical perspective, idolatry is the root of all evil; for Tertullian, it was the same.

We insist that idolatry has not only moral but also intellectual fallout—idolatry = irrationality. Tertullian was quite comfortable to repeatedly point this out to his opponents. It must further be borne in mind that, in the late second and early third centuries, the N. African and Asia Minor Christian communities were experiencing a baptism of blood. Tertullian’s penchant for sardonic tones and heckling taunts were on the pains of death. Today, in the West, we fear challenging our Intelligentsians in the academy, for example, lest our grades suffer; we instead regurgitate their buffoonery back to them on tests and in papers, and in the end, place a measure of offering on the alter of rebellious human Reason. Not Tertullian. There was no compromise at any point; there will always be antithesis between the Church and the Academy, between Jerusalem and Athens.

Last night, Beaner and I read a striking example of his canny for making a mockery out of the judgments of idolaters who despised Christians for nothing more than their name. His point was to illustrate how the Emperor and the Senates’ hatred for Christ and his people had driven them to utter madness. This he does in both Apology II, III and Ad Nationes II. The latter makes the point lucid.

“In this case [of those charged only with being Christians] you actually conduct trials contrary to the usual form of judicial process against criminals; for when culprits are brought up for trial, should they deny the charge, you press them for a confession by tortures. When Christians, however, confess without compulsion, you apply torture to induce them to deny. What great perversity is this, when you stand out against confession, and change the use of torture, compelling the man who frankly acknowledges the charge to evade it, and him who is unwilling, to deny it? You, who preside for the purpose of extorting truth, demand falsehood from us alone, that we declare ourselves not to be what we are...To be sure, you put others on the rack and gibbet, to get them to deny what they have the reputation of being. Now, when they deny (the charge against them), you do not believe them; but on our denial [of Christ and the faith], you instantly believe us!”

“Let this perversity of yours lead you to suspect that there is some hidden power in the case under whose influence you act against the forms [of jurisprudence], against the nature of public justice, even against the laws themselves” (Apol. II).

“Upside down and backwards” are the terms we ascribed to the folly of idolatry earlier, and Tertullian has given us a brilliant illustration of it in the antichrist idolaters of his own day. “O miserable deliverance,--under the necessity of the case, a self-contradiction!...Goodness is of less value that hatred of Christians!” (Apol. II, III).

Although Tertullian had some heterodox slippage, not least with his Montanistic leanings, his taunts and censors against the idolatry and heresy of his day were reminiscent of Paul and in parts Jesus also.

That’s Tertullian. But, what about us today?

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