Dr. Ford of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary offers the following essay as part of Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s ongoing conversation about the place of same-sex love in human nature and Orthodox Christian life. We wish to express our gratitude to him for his unique willingness to engage with us on our own pages. 


Tertullian and the Dangers of the Fundamentalist/Sectarian Mindset  

Adapted from the similarly titled chapter six of Dr. Ford’s Wisdom for Today from the Early Church: A Foundational Study (St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2014). 

There seems to be a tendency today among “progressives” to claim that anyone defending traditional sexual morality must be a “fundamentalist.” Just because all traditionalists reject all sexual relations outside of marriage (as the Church always has done) does not mean that all traditionalists are “fundamentalists”—though of course, some of them are.

I have the feeling that there may be some “progressive” Orthodox Christians who are convinced, or at least suspect, that I myself—and by extension, St. Tikhon’s Seminary as a whole—are “fundamentalist.” However, in reality, I frequently emphasize the dangers of fundamentalism/sectarianism in my church history courses at St. Tikhon’s—especially when we talk about the rigorist early heresies of Montanism, Novatianism, and Donatism; when we study Protestantism and Islam; and when we discuss the Old Believers in Russia, ROCOR before the reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007, and modern-day Greek Old Calendarist groups.

Tertullian (c. 150-220) is an especially vivid example of one who actually fell away from the Church through an overly zealous rigorism and legalism regarding the Christian faith. 

Tertullian’s Life

 Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born around the year 150 in the city of Carthage, the leading metropolitan center in all of western North Africa—which ever since the middle of the second century BC had been under the authority of the Romans. Tertullian was most likely a descendant of the Latin colonizers of the region, but he must have picked up something of the fiercely independent spirit of the surrounding native Berber population.

He was raised in a pagan family of moderate means, as his father was a centurion of the proconsular cohort. He received a fine education in Carthage, and then went to Rome for further studies in literature, rhetoric, and law. He also became well versed in history, archaeology, medicine, and philosophy. After finishing his studies, he entered the practice of law. The great church historian Eusebius writes that Tertullian was “an expert in Roman law, and famous on other grounds—in fact he was one of the most brilliant men in Rome” (EH II.2.4).

While in his mid or late 30s, Tertullian was drawn to the faith of the Christians living in Rome, and was baptized. Soon after returning to his native Carthage, he began writing apologetical and anti-heretical works, in which he defended and argued for the truths of Christianity with all the brilliant, relentless logic and cutting wit that he had previously used to win cases in the law courts. He ended up writing a massive number of works on many different themes. And since he was the first major Christian writer to write in Latin, he is considered to be the Father of Latin theology.

However, Tertullian, the former lawyer, wrote his works with a trenchant, harsh, argumentative, militant, rigorist, judgmental, fundamentalistic spirit that eventually contributed to his leaving the Church which had given him birth and nurture in the faith. In about 205 he joined the rigorist, sectarian, proto-Pentecostal group known as the Montanists. 

Very ironically and poignantly, before he became a Montanist, Tertullian had a very clear understanding of the universality of the Church and the consistency of her doctrine through time, with the Church in every place tracing her heritage back to Christ and the Apostles. In addition, Tertullian was at first very clear that the test of sound doctrine was always to measure any belief and/or practice against the unchanging doctrine of Christ and the Apostles as found in all the churches.

So this makes it all the more tragic that, in his later years, Tertullian—who always had a rigorist, purist kind of mentality with a sternly critical view of the surrounding society—was attracted by Montanism. What he found most appealing in Montanism was probably its emphasis on moral and spiritual purity, along with its strict asceticism, heightened eschatological expectations, and ongoing prophecy and other dramatic demonstrations of the gifts of the Spirit. Like the Montanists, he was scandalized by the hierarchical Church’s acceptance of the possibility of repentance for even the worst sins. For instance, he called the Shepherd of Hermas “the Shepherd of Adulterers” (cf. On Modesty, ch. 1; ANF IV, pp. 74-75) because it allowed for a one-time repentance for adultery. He was also disturbed by what he judged to be growing laxity among many of the laity and clergy in the established Church.

Still, it is hard to understand how someone as knowledgeable as Tertullian could have left the hierarchical Church—the very apostolic Church whose doctrine and way of life were the same as that of Christ and the Apostles, according to his earlier writing—to join a heretical sect that was condemned by that Church. Montanism had been officially condemned by local councils in Asia Minor in the 180s and 190s, and by the Church in Rome in the early years of the third century. 

His decision was apparently well thought out. For example, hear how stringently he affirmed the Montanists’ complete rejection of second marriage: 

Christ abolished the commandment of Moses [concerning the possibility for divorce; Matt. 19:3-8]…why then should not the Paraclete [the Holy Spirit] have cancelled the indulgence granted by Paul…? ‘Hardness of heart’ held sway until the coming of Christ; let weakness of the flesh bring its reign to an end with the coming of the Paraclete. The New Law abolished divorce…the New Prophecy abolished second marriage. (On Monogamy, ch. 14; Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers, p. 132; ANF IV, pp. 70-71; my emphasis).

This quotation also reveals how Tertullian accepted the Montanists’ view of history—that there has somehow been a new Pentecost with the Holy Spirit coming upon the Montanist prophets and prophetesses, and thereby inaugurating a new Age of the Spirit.

So we see how thoroughly Tertullian had gotten convinced that, through the various prophecies of the Montanist prophets and prophetesses, the Holy Spirit was doing a new thing in the earth, which the established Church was by and large ignoring, to the great detriment to the spiritual growth of her members, in his opinion. Indeed, as we have said, he got convinced that the established Church had lost the clear guidance of the Spirit and the fervent piety of the apostolic age, so that most of her members no longer were living according to the strict standards of prayer, fasting, personal asceticism, and moral probity that characterized the life of the first Christians. He came to the conclusion that the established Church was beyond hope of rejuvenation and transformation from within. Hence, he broke away to join the Montanists.

The Sectarian Mindset

Tertullian’s willingness to break away from the established Church and join a sect is an example of the hallmark characteristic of what can be called the sectarian or fundamentalist mindset. Here is a list of other typical characteristics of this mindset which, like various gnosticizing tendencies, has been a constant temptation for the members of the established Church through the centuries: 

  • A lack of love for the established Church, and a lack of trust that she is always being guided by the Spirit of Truth and being protected and built up by Christ Himself;
  • The continuing existence of the sectarian group is justified/bolstered mainly by ongoing criticism and disparagement of the canonical Church;
  • Pridefulness and self-righteousness; judgmentalism of and even contempt for those in the established Church;
  • Excessive rigorism and a legalistic spirit concerning penitence, fasting, asceticism, the adornment of women, second marriages, fleeing in times of persecution, reception of converts, length of the worship services, head coverings for women in the services, and certain moral issues; 
  • A generally harsh attitude towards the non-Orthodox, spurning relations with them; 
  • A generally negative attitude towards the world and human accomplishments; 
  • A tendency to overly identify with one particular political and/or economic and/or social philosophy or movement; 
  • An over-emphasis on the End Times, with an insistence that Christ will return within one generation; 
  • Danger of the group becoming further extreme and even bizarre in practices and/or doctrine; 
  • A tendency of the sectarian movement to break up into further segments (so typical of Protestant denominationalism), as the spirit of judgmentalism and criticism gets directed towards one’s own group.

Tertullian and the Montanist movement which he joined exemplified many, if not all, of these typical traits of the sectarian/fundamentalist mindset. Since the lure of this same mindset is still so strong in our own day—especially, it seems, for new converts to Orthodoxy—I think it’s prudent to take the time to show how harsh and self-righteous this world-view really is, as seen in the extreme, rigorous writings of Tertullian as a Montanist. The lesson becomes all the more vivid for us when we see the tenderness and compassion that marked his pre-Montanist writings on certain selected themes, and compare those passages with what he wrote as a Montanist on these same topics. 

In this brief adaptation of my chapter, I’ll only include one such example: 

Concerning a Negative View of Children

With rigid consistency, Tertullian continues to rant against the natural rhythms of daily life, even though he himself was married!—in railing against the bearing and raising of children. For example, he exclaims, “No wise man would ever willingly have desired sons!” (Exhortation to Chastity, ch. 12;  ANF IV, p. 57). In this same work he says sarcastically, “We marry, therefore, daily. And marrying, let us be overtaken by the last day, like Sodom and Gomorrah—that day when the ‘woe’ pronounced over ‘those who are with child and giving suck’ [Matt. 24:19] shall be fulfilled—that is, over the married and the incontinent; for from marriage result wombs, and breasts, and infants” (Exhortation to Chastity, ch. 9; p.  55). And in On Monogamy, he says with great sarcasm, “Let them accumulate by their repeated marriages fruits right seasonable for the last times—breasts heaving, and wombs qualmish, and infants whimpering” (ch. 16; ANF IV, p. 72).

Very tellingly, in writing years earlier against the Gnostic Marcion, Tertullian wrote with great sensitivity and compassion about child-bearing and child-raising, as he addressed Marcion directly:

Describe the womb as it enlarges from day to day, heavy, troublesome, restless even in sleep, changeful in its feelings of dislike and desire. Inveigh now likewise against the shame itself of a woman in travail which, however, ought rather to be honored in consideration of that peril, or to be held sacred in respect of (the mystery of) nature. Of course, you are horrified also at the infant, which is brought into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb. You likewise, of course, loathe it even after it is washed, when it is dressed out in its swaddling-cloths, graced with repeated anointing, smiled on with the nurse’s fawning glances.        

This revered course of nature, you, O Marcion, are pleased to spit upon; and yet, in what way were you born? You detest a human being at his birth; then after what fashion do you love anybody? Yourself, of course, you had no love for, when you departed from the Church and the faith of Christ. […] Well, then, in loving mankind He loved His nativity also, and His flesh as well. Nothing can be loved apart from that through which whatever exists has its existence. Either take away His nativity, and then show us your man; or else withdraw the flesh, and then present to our view the being whom God has redeemed—since it is these very conditions which constitute the man whom God has redeemed. And are you for turning these conditions into occasions of blushing to the very creature whom He has redeemed, censuring them too, as being unworthy of Him who certainly would not have redeemed them had He not loved them? 

Our birth He reforms from death by a second birth from heaven; our flesh He restores from every harassing malady. When leprous, He cleanses it of the stain; when blind, He rekindles its light; when palsied, He renews its strength; when possessed with devils, He exorcises it; when dead, He reanimates it. So then, shall we blush to own it?…believing in a God that has been born, and that of a virgin, and of a fleshly nature too, who wallowed in all the before-mentioned humiliations of nature? (On the Flesh of Christ, ch. 4; ANF III, p. 524; my emphasis). 


How ironic, tragic, poignant—and telling—it is that the “Father of Latin theology” actually dies outside the Church as a Montanist—a member of a sectarian, schismatic group that was repeatedly condemned by the Church. May we all take to heart the lesson he gives us concerning the dangers of the temptation to yield to the harsh, rigorist, judgmental, sectarian, fundamentalist mindset.

David C. Ford is professor of church history at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a BA in History from Colgate University, an MDiv from Oral Roberts University, and a PhD in Church History and Historical Theology from Drew University. His published works are listed on his faculty profile.

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