Tertullian's the Prescription Against Heretics

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The early Church was birthed through perseverance against intense persecution: (i) physical persecution by the governments of the time which lauded the oppression, imprisonment, torture and death of Christians for their new religious doctrines; and (ii) intellectual persecution by opposing religious sects who sort to denounce the doctrines of Christianity. The Prescription Against Heretics was written in response to the latter – to defend the tenets of Christianity against the false teachings of heretics and religious-based philosophers. Heretics promoted controversial views which were in opposition to those offered by Christian doctrine, with the intention of creating followers of their beliefs. Religio-philosophers were quasi-Christians who promoted the use of intellect and logic to understand Christianity and in doing so, never becoming Christians. Tertullian saw the end of philosophy as heresy and categorizes both as the same. Tertullian defends Christianity by describing heresies as powerless, fallible and only expressive of a lack of faith; he therefore provides a rule of faith as a measure and the authority for Christianity.

Tertullian was born in the city of Carthage, North Africa, around 160 C.E. He was raised as a pagan, was able to read and write in Greek and Latin and received an excellent education in grammar, literature, philosophy, law and rhetoric. He became a Stoic but later converted to Christianity at the age of forty years. Within medieval Christian history, Tertullian is classified as an Apologist – a theologian who, during the era of violent persecution of Christians, used writings to defend Christianity against its challengers. His apologetic writing, The Prescription Against Heretics, reads as a legal defense argument against philosophers and influential heretics such as Marcion, Plato, Valentinus, Zeno and the Stoics. Many of these were using logic to question Christianity and created doubt in some of the believers, which attracted Christians away from the Faith. In chapter fourteen of The Prescription, Tertullian stated that he felt morally obligated to counteract the teachings of heretics. This was perhaps because he had firsthand experience with the flaws of religio-philosophical reasoning and now, through his conversion, experiencing the personal joys of faith in Christianity.

Tertullian’s first line of defense against heresies was to show that they are indeed powerless and inconsequential to the strength of Christianity. In doing so, he is able to circumvent the trepidation that the early Christians may have had regarding heretical influences. Any advance of a heretical teaching against the Church would be only temporary and unsuccessful; much like a short-lived, passing illness. According to Tertullian, heresies are only powerful in appearance because of the few individuals who were already weak in their faith and allowed themselves to be ensnarled in the whims of false teachings. For these individuals to be drawn away has no effect on the veracity of Christianity. Airing confidence in his argument, Tertullian says, “Heresies derive such strength as they have from the infirmities of individuals – having no strength whenever they encounter a really powerful faith”, his new found faith, Christianity.

As a shepherd expects and accepts that wolves will after his flock and in fact capture a few, in like manner Tertullian parallels the existence of heresies in Christendom. He uses this allegory to encourage the second century Christians with the view that not only did the Lord forewarned the Church that heresies will arise and believers some will indeed be loss but also that they should celebrate their proven faithful to God by not allowing themselves to be trapped by the heretics. Continuing to promote the authority of Christianity, Tertullian asserts that heresies only exist because God is using them to train and strengthen the faith of the believers. Other than that,...
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