“[...] arguments about Scripture achieve nothing but a stomach-ache or a headache” (Tertullian 42; paragraph 16), so quips Tertullian in his Prescriptions Against Heretics. And in the next paragraph he states, “True, you will lose nothing in the dispute but your voice; and you will get nothing from their blasphemy but bile” (42; Paragraph 17). Then, in exasperation, he states “It follows that we must not appeal to Scripture and we must not contend on ground where victory is impossible or uncertain enough” (42-3; Paragraph 19). For anyone who has ever entered into dogmatic debates with those who are on the fringe of Christianity (for example The Way International, Jehovah’s Witnesses et al) will understand Tertullian’s frustrations. Is it possible that what Tertullian was pointing at with these statements, and what he seems to have meant by them, might be helpful in the 21st Century post-Christian circumstance?
To begin, it appears that Tertullian was fighting hard against an obstinate foe with some difficulty. His declarations appear to have been aiming at the heretics’ feet to try and knock their legs out from under them. If he could take the Scriptures from them in the mind of the common believer, as well as in the mind of the more advanced believer, then the heretics would not be able to effectively misuse Scripture to their own ends. That was why a little further on he attempts to strip them of even the right to have the Scriptures, or the right to interpret them,
Even if a biblical dispute did not leave the parties on a par, the natural order of things would demand that one point should be decided first, the point which alone calls for discussion now, namely, who hold the faith to which the Bible belongs, and from whom, through whom, when and to whom was the teaching delivered by which men become Christians? For only where the true Christian teaching and faith are evident will the true Scriptures, the true interpretations, and all the true Christian traditions be found (43; Paragraph 19).
Therefore, Tertullian was attempting to disarm the heretical teachers, and to do this he would need to take the Holy Scriptures out of their hands. Then if they tried to use them they would be automatically suspect because they were not the rightful heirs of the Faith or the Scriptures.
Yet, what did Tertullian mean when he argued that Scripture alone is inadequate when disputing with heretics? The answer lies somewhere in the situation he found himself in. He was combating the various ways the heretics misemployed the Scriptures. In paragraph 17 he notes the three ways they intentionally misuse and abuse Holy Scripture: (1) They reject “one or another book of the Bible”. (2) What they do accept, they pervert by altering the texts or by inventing new, creative interpretations. (3) And/or they breed a false exegesis of the Scriptures by proof-texting in disingenuous ways, “They rely on passages which they have put together in a false context or fastened on because of their ambiguity”.
The remedy, then, was to first say that their use of Scriptures ‘alone’ was illegitimate, because they were not reading them properly. The Scriptures must be read within the context of the orthodox communion of churches who have been faithfully swimming in the apostolic stream. “Again they (the Apostles) set up churches in every city, from which the other churches afterwards borrowed the transmission of the faith and the seeds of doctrine and continue to borrow them every day, in order to become churches. By this they are themselves reckoned apostolic as being the offspring of apostolic churches” (43; Paragraph 20. Emphasis mine-MWP). This might be best described as something like doctrinal apostolic succession.
Another part of the remedy was to show that these apostolic churches have not only preserved the Faith, but they have preserved the integrity of the Scripture texts and thus the doctrine that flows from the text,
Corruption of the Scriptures and their interpretation is to be expected wherever difference of doctrine is discovered. Those who propose to teach differently were of necessity driven to tamper with the literature of doctrine, for they could not have taught differently had they not possessed different sources of teaching. Just as their corruption of doctrine would not have been successful without their corruption, so our doctrinal integrity would have failed us without the integrity of the sources by which doctrine is dealt with.
Now, in our sources, what is there to contradict our teaching? What have we imported of our own making, that we should find it contradicted in Scripture, and remedy the defect by subtraction or addition or alteration? What we are, that the Scriptures have been from their beginning. We are of them, before there was any change, before you mutilated them (58-9; Paragraph 38).
Is Tertullian’s notion that the Scriptures could only be interpreted by the legitimate apostolic Churches who have maintained the apostolic Faith and kept up the integrity of the text useful in the 21st Century post-Christian American milieu? In other words, is it bare Scripture alone, or is it Scripture within the context of the communion of the Rule of Faith?
Within the framework of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the answer seems to be that we do not agree with bare Scripture alone, but with the notion of Scripture within the communion of the apostolic Faith, especially as it is framed by the Westminster Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. For example, the second ordination vow of a PCA Teaching Elder (pastor) states this:
Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow (The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America 21-5.2)?
Notice in this vow that there is a candid Tertullian-like texture for understanding, interpreting and expounding Scripture. This vow assumes that the Confession of Faith is a better system of doctrine (out of other options), and Teaching Elders are to abide by it. That means that the Confession is both corrective and directive in interpreting Scripture. This vow is affirmed within a tacit ecclesiastical context, because congregations must, at the least, implicitly agree with the Westminster Confession or they would not want these kinds of pastors. And the same tenet holds for the Ruling Elder who vows the exact same thing as the Teaching Elder in this regard.
On reading the Westminster Confession of faith, it becomes quickly clear that the writers were diligently expounding Christian Scripture, but they were doing so in harmony with the earlier Church. There are unmistakable echoes from the Councils of Chalcedon, Orange, and Nicea, as well as early pastors/theologians like Augustine and Cyprian. It appears that the developers of the Westminster Confession of Faith strove hard to maintain doctrinal apostolic succession, and not create something out of thin air.
But doctrinal veracity doesn’t simply flop down out of the sky. It is based on a text whose integrity must be maintained, according to Tertullian. Therefore, the integrity of the Scripture text is referenced in the first ordination vow which mentions belief in the inerrancy of these Holy Scriptures in their original autographs, and that they are the infallible rule of faith and practice, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice” (21-5.1).
Therefore, whether it is overtly acknowledged or not, at least the PCA would seem to agree that Tertullian is right on the money about (1) who has the right to interpret Scripture, (2) what kind of churches are the legitimate churches to do this (doctrinal apostolic succession), and finally (3) the necessity of maintaining textual integrity so as to keep doctrinal integrity.
The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America. 6th Ed. June 2003 ed: The Office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 8 January 2009.
Tertullian. "The Prescriptions against the Heretics." Early Latin Theology; Selections from Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome. Ed. S. L. Greenslade. Vol. 5. The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956. 31-64.