Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tertullian, Against Praxeas

As I spend the next 3-4 months reading the Fathers around the topic of the Trinity, I will post a number of summaries/introductions like this, introducing a particular work, its context, themes, arguments.

Tertullian: ca. 150-225 AD, one of the first, and most definitive, of the Latin Fathers. Converted with a background in rhetoric and law, he was a powerful apologist and advocate for the faith.

Against Praxeas is written, probably, before 208 AD. Praxeas can be placed theologically as a Monarchian modalist, holding that the Father and the Son are the one and the same (person).

Tertullian defends in this work the unity of substance of the Godhead, and the distinction of the Persons. He represents the ‘monarchy’ of God as sole rule, but says this is not threatened by the multiplicity of persons at all. Rather, only the doctrine of a second God (such as Marcion presented) would overthrow the monarchy of God.

His arguments focus primarily on distinguishing without dividing the persons, especially the Father and the Son. He refers to the Rule of Faith, and provides a summary of the traditional teaching. He develops analogies of the Sun and its rays, a Tree and its root, a Fountain and its river. His scriptural arguments spend significant time in Proverbs 8:22-301, involves a thorough reading of the Gospel of John, and employs clear logic to make Praxeas’ position nonsensical. Tertullian also spends some time on the visibility and invisibility of God, developing an argument that the appearances of God in the OT are to be referred to the Son, though as an image, mirror, enigma, rather than the fullness of his visibility in the incarnation. He introduces and distinguishes between the Unity of God in substance, and the diversity of the Persons in economy.Lastly, he does not neglect the Spirit, but develops his distinct Person in the same way, and he also treats the two natures of Christ.

Key quotes:
The famous line, “drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucifed the Father”, appears in Chapter 1, describing Praxeas, who opposed the Montanists, and his monarchianism implies Patripassianism.

Summary of position, “All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of dispensation [oikonomia] is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order [dirigens] the three persons... three, however, not in condition [statu], but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect [specie]; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power.”

Concerns? Tertullian uses some language that in later Patristic discourse would be used more precisely, and so some of his phrases sound concerning, though a broader acquaintance with Tertullian’s theology will show his Trinitarian orthodoxy. He speaks of the Son proceeding from the Father, is prepared to employ the terminology of prolatio, which the Valentinians also use (Tertullian is careful to qualify his usage). Some of his analogies, of the attribute of Reason being with God in the beginning, and from this his Word coming forth, are also concerning, but must be read against his other works.

Concluding thoughts: Against Praxeas is a short work, and could easily be read with profit in a single sitting. It represents one of the earliest attempts to formulate trinitarian doctrine, and provides a significant witness to Latin thinking in Africa. Tertullian’s use of scripture is edifying, and his treatment of John shows exactly how significant that gospel was in this area of doctrine. Tertullian is also more than capable of the quick quip, and his style, even in the ANF translation, is enjoyable to read.

1 Pr 8:22-30 seems a favourite text for Patristic discussion of the pre-existent Son, and I hope to do some significant investigation of that text at a later time.


Roger Pearse said...

Remember to use the Evans translation rather than the older ANF one (I haven't checked which you used). Both are online.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks Roger. I am locked in, a little, in that my bibliography says I will read ANF/NPNF translations for most of my primary sources. Nonetheless, I will certainly read over the Evans translation. I've been reading a little of 'Ad Martyras' in the latin as well, which is great fun.