Tag Archives: Tertullian

Quotable Church History — “The blood of the martyrs…”

Today I’m starting a new series on famous quotes from church history.  Most of the quotes will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention — but who knows?  Perhaps you’ll learn something new.  We’ll look at who said it, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

You may have heard it said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  It’s often said to point out that persecution, rather than diminishing the church, often has the opposite effect.  It’s counter-intuitive.  Where do we get this saying from?

The original source is the early church father Tertullian (~155-~240 AD).  He was an African church father based out of Carthage.  He lived in the days of the Roman Empire and so was familiar with persecution and martyrdom.  Tertullian’s most important writing is entitled The Apology, a work in which he provided a defense of the Christian faith to the provincial governors of the Roman Empire.  Towards the end of the document, Tertullian makes the memorable statement:  “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apol. 50.13, original Latin:  “Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum.”).

There is some variation in how these words are translated in various English editions.  Many translators have felt compelled to add some words to explain what the seed is going to produce:  faith, a greater harvest, the church, or a new life.  However, the context is clear enough.  Tertullian believed that God uses martyrdom and persecution in some mysterious way to cause the Christian faith to grow in strength and numbers.

Now one might say that this was simply an observation.  Certainly it seems to be often the case, especially if we consider the global picture.  Considered universally, persecution has been helpless to undo the advance of the gospel.  Even if the faith declines in one part of the world, it moves forward in another part.  Christ continues to preserve and increase his church.

Is there any biblical support for what Tertullian says?  Not directly.  What I mean is that there is no single Bible passage that speaks in exactly those terms.  However, Scripture does speak of how God continues to work in us and through us even when we’re suffering.  In Acts 14:22, after being stoned at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas encouraged their fellow disciples by telling them that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  Or you could think of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  Or later in the same epistle:  “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  Most of all, we think of Christ and the path he travelled:  from suffering to glory.  The cross appeared to be his undoing, but it was anything but!  His blood was seed from which grows our life in him.

Still today Tertullian’s words ring true.  Persecution and martyrdom are horrible phenomena.  Yet God continues to work not only despite suffering, but even through it.  Nothing will stop him from accomplishing his purposes for the gospel.


Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

(to be continued…)