Another of the Church Fathers to whom we would call attention in connection with our discussion of the early views of the Church particularly as concerning the tremendous esteem in which the office of bishop was held is Tertullian. In our last two articles we called attention to the writings of Ignatius and Irenaeus and noticed that the latter even calls the bishops the successors of the apostolate.
Tertullian, the first great writer of Latin Christianity and one of the most original characters of the ancient Church, was born at Carthage between the years, 150 and 160, and died there between the years 220 and 240. This city in North Africa was also the city in which Cyprian lived. In fact, Tertullian was the teacher of this famous Church Father. Very little is known of Tertullian’s life. He was a scholar, having received an excellent education. His principal study was jurisprudence (the study of law), although he was also a great student of philosophy and history. He studied law and practiced in Rome. His conversion to Christianity took place about the year, 197-198. This event must have been sudden and decisive; he himself said that he could not imagine a truly Christian life without such a conscious breach, declaring: “Christians are made, not born.” In this understanding of Christ he did not advance much beyond Justin (the great apologete of the early Christian Church) and Irenaeus, but he was very gifted in the use of language and was therefore also to state the true doctrine concerning Christ more clearly and precisely than anyone before him had been able to do. He was ordained a presbyter in the church at Carthage (although he was married—something which the Roman Catholic Church may well bear in mind). In middle life (about the year, 207) he broke with the Catholic Church (thus the Church of his day was called and this must not be confused with the Roman Catholic Church of our day) and thereby became a schismatic. The statement of Augustine that he returned into the bosom of the Catholic Church shortly before his death is considered very improbable. Tertullian has been likened to a fresh mountain torrent, tumultuous, clear and precise, and making its own path. His writings cover the whole theological field of the time —he wrote against Paganism and Judaism, discussed polity, discipline, morals. His writings are full of life and freshness. They are written in a refreshing style, peculiarly his own.
Tertullian claimed that the keys of the kingdom were given to Peter alone and not to the bishops. All spiritual men, according to this eminent Church Father, are successors of this apostle. This sentiment is clearly set forth in the following quotation: “But, you say, ‘The Church has the power of forgiving sins….If, because the Lord has said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock will I build My Church, to thee have I given the keys of the heavenly kingdom,’ or, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have bound or loosed in earth, shall be bound or loosed in the heavens,’ you therefore presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter? ‘On thee,’ He says, ‘will I build My Church;’ and, ‘I will give to thee the keys,’ not to the Church; and ‘Whatsoever thou shalt have loosed or bound,’ not what they shall have loosed or bound…What, now (has this to do) with the Church, and your (church), indeed, psychic? For, in accordance with the person of Peter, it is to spiritual men that this power will correspondingly appertain, either to an apostle or else to a prophet…And accordingly ‘the Church,’ it is true, will forgive sins: but (it will be) the Church of the Spirit, by means of a spiritual man; not the Church which consists of a number of bishops. For the right and arbitrament is the Lord’s, not the servant’s; God’s Himself, not the priest’s.”
It is evident from this quotation that Tertullian, although he held the office of bishop in high esteem, opposed the idea of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. It is true that this Church Father wrote these words after he broke away from the Catholic Church of his day (not, we understand, the Roman Catholic Church of our day), but the fact of his opposition of the preeminence of one bishop surely indicates that there was certainly no established doctrine in his day concerning the primacy of the bishop of Rome.
It was especially by Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage who died in the year, 258, who wrote profusely on the office of bishop and ascribed tremendous importance to it. According to him, they are really the successors of the apostles. This appears from the following quotation: “Our Lord, whose precepts and admonitions we ought to observe, describing the honor of a bishop and the order of His Church, speaks in the Gospel and says to Peter: “I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build My Church: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers.”
Moreover, this renowned Church Father, discussing the office of bishop, maintained that the bishops represent and preserve the unity of the Church, and that he who is not with the bishop is simply not with the Church. Attend, if you please, to the following quotations: “And the Lord also in the Gospel, when the disciples forsook Him as He spoke, turning to the twelve, said, ‘Will ye also go away? Then Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life; and we believe, and are sure, that Thou art the Son of the living God.’ Peter speaks there, on whom the Church was to be built, teaching and showing in the name of the Church, that although a rebellious and arrogant multitude of those who will not hear and obey may depart, yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor. Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God’s priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut or divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of the priests who cohere with one another.”
However, we would conclude our quotations from Cyprian by calling attention to what this eminent Church leader has to say in connection with a “bishop of bishops.” The following is very much to the point: “You have heard, my dearly beloved colleagues, what Jubaianus our co-bishop has written to me, taking counsel of my poor intelligance concerning the unlawful and profane baptism of heretics, as well as what I wrote in answer to him, decreeing, to wit, what we have once again and frequently determined, that heretics who come to the Church must be baptized and sanctified by the baptism of the Church. Moreover, another letter of Jubaianus has also been read to you, wherein replying, in accordance with his sincere and religious devotion, to my letter, he not only acquiesced in what I had said, but; confessing that he had been instructed thereby, he returned thanks for it. It remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. But let us all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there.”
These quotations from Cyprain speak for themselves. It is true that he also wrote the following:
“There is one God, and Christ is one; and there is one Church and one Chair (by one chair he meant: one center of authority)”. And he continued also in the following vain: “He who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian. He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother. There is no salvation out of the Church. The Church is based on the unity of the bishops. The bishop is in the Church, and the Church is in the bishop. If anyone is not with the bishop he is not in the Church.”
Concluding our article on the early views of the Church, the views that were prevalent in the Church during the first three centuries of the New Dispensation, we may observe that they were characterized by vagueness and indefiniteness. The office of bishop was held in tremendously high esteem. The bishops were regarded as the successors of the apostles, and the unity of the Church was inseparably connected with them. There was no salvation outside of the Church and one could not be in and with the Church and separate himself from the bishop. On the other hand, however, there was no established doctrine concerning the primacy of the bishop of Rome. The Church at Rome may have been regarded ever so highly, but Cyprain clearly rejected the theory of a “bishop of bishops.” Nevertheless, one can easily understand that this early age of the Church, because and by its very vagueness and indefiniteness, laid the foundation of the later hierarchy. Once having ascribed such tremendous importance to the office of bishop it was but another step toward bestowing more recognition upon one bishop than another. However, we will call attention, the Lord willing, to the development and rise of the papacy in later articles. First, however, we must call attention to the early views of the sacraments.