Why Does Tertullian Call the Apostle Paul "The Apostle of the Heretics?"

June 24, 2012

I have been reading up on the church fathers...and am just facinated by the different beliefs of that era. Tertullian wrote calling the apostle Paul "the apostle of the heretics" so I doubt if he would have quoted anything from Paul, but it makes me wonder why he should say such a thing. Could it be that the letters of Paul at that time were more gnostic and were later redacted/revised to the versions we now have?

This discussion started with the e-mail to the left. Tom is citing Douglas Del Tondo and his text "Jesus Words Only."  I am not reviewing the Del Tando book because it became quite clear to me that he has either not read enough of the writings he cites OR he is purposefully misleading people. I am finding this more than I would have guessed - people misrepresenting early church writings to bolster their already established positions. In my opinion, this does not serve Christ well.

I think you are mistaken about Tertullian. He cites Paul in a positive way. Not sure what you are referring to - if you know the reference, please send it to me.

It could be that Tertullian is referencing Marcion's use of Paul. Marcion was a Gnostic and rejected most of the NT, only accepting Paul's letters and Luke's gospel since Luke was a companion to Paul.
Here is the text in question:

I desire to hear from Marcion the origin of Paul the apostle. I am a sort of new disciple, having had instruction from no other teacher. For the moment my only belief is that nothing ought to be believed without good reason, and that is believed without good reason which is believed without knowledge of its origin: and I must with the best of reasons approach this inquiry with uneasiness when I find one affirmed to be an apostle, of whom in the list of the apostles in the gospel I find no trace. So when I am told that he [i.e., Paul] was subsequently promoted by our Lord, by now at rest in heaven, I find some lack of foresight in the fact that Christ did not know beforehand that he would have need of him, but after setting in order the office of apostleship and sending them out upon their duties, considered it necessary, on an impulse and not by deliberation, to add another, by compulsion so to speak and not by design [i.e., on the Road to Damascus]. So then, shipmaster out of Pontus [i.e., Marcion], supposing you have never accepted into your craft any smuggled or illicit merchandise, have never appropriated or adulterated any cargo, and in the things of God are even more careful and trustworthy, will you please tell us under what bill of lading you accepted Paul as apostle, who had stamped him with that mark of distinction, who commended him to you, and who put him in your charge? Only so may you with confidence disembark him [i.e., Paul]: only so can he avoid being proved to belong to him who has put in evidence all the documents that attest his apostleship. He [i.e., Paul] himself, says Marcion, claims to be an apostle, and that not from men nor through any man, but through Jesus Christ. Clearly any man can make claims for himself: but his claim is confirmed by another personís attestation. One person writes the document, another signs it, a third attests the signature, and a fourth enters it in the records. No man is for himself both claimant and witness. Besides this, you have found it written that many will come and say, I am Christ. If there is one that makes a false claim to be Christ, much more can there be one who professes that he is an apostle of Christ.... [L]et the apostle, belong to your other god...."Against Marcion," cir. 212AD

This is indeed a text from Tertullian's Against Marcion. Tertullian is pushing Marcion to prove his version of the apostle Paul.
The text you are citing is attacking Marcion's Paul.

If you read a bit further after this section of Book V you will read where Tertullian says:

"I do not calumniate him whom I defend. I deny him to compel you to defend him. I deny him to convince you that he is mine....If you challenge us to your belief, tell us what things constitute its basis."

Tertullian is using somewhat legal argumentation and rhetorical style to push against the position of Marcion. This is why we have to be careful when reading the early fathers - their writing methods are usually very different from what we are used to.

This seems to be from www.jesuswordsonly.com?
THIS is the problem with reading men like Douglas Del Tondo and David Bercot: they have an established theological position, a dogma, and they look for ANYTHING in the early church writings to bolster their position. These two men (and others like them) either have not read enough of the writings they cite OR they are purposefully misleading people. I would like to think it is the former; to purposefully mislead is to lie.

Tertullian quotes from the apostle Paul in several writings, even in Against Marcion as mentioned above. He does so in positive ways that make it obvious that he,
1. Views Paul as a legitimate apostle
2. Sees Paul's letters as inspired text

"Rightly, then, did Peter and James and John give their right hand of fellowship to Paul, and agree on such a division of their work, as that Paul should go to the heathen, and themselves to the circumcision." Against Marcion V.3

The remainder of Book V is all about Tertullian proving Marcion wrong and showing how Paul agrees with the other apostles and with the message/gospel of Jesus.

I could cite many examples of Tertullian quoting Paul as inspired, but how about one clear example?

On Baptism, chapter 15
There is to us one, and but one, baptism; as well according to the Lord's gospel as according to the apostle's letters, inasmuch as he says, "One God, and one baptism," and one church in the heavens.

The most holy apostle has said, that "all things are lawful, but not all expedient." Ch 17

Tertullian also cites Paul in On Monogamy and On Modesty.

I cannot see the point of Tertullian's argument. He seems to be scoring an "own goal" by arguing against Paul. Every 'put down' of Marcion's Paul could equally apply to his (Tertullian's) Paul, so it does not make sense. Secondly, Tertullian's arguments against Paul seem pretty clear whereas the bit you quoted showing Tertullian's support of Paul appears a little obscure. I mean I have no idea what he means by "I deny him to compel you to defend him. I deny him to convince you that he is mine...."   - Tom

I understand, but you have to realize that many of the early church fathers wrote in a fashion that seems convoluted to our modern ears. It was part of philosophical rhetoric and argumentation. Tertullian is attacking Marcion's "Paul" as a false apostle, an apostle for the heretics (like Marcion).

You should also realize that Marcion had been dead for like 30 years when Tertullian writes this treatise against him - this was also common. Thus Tertullian is not actually arguing WITH Marcion, but with Marcionism.

Good historians will say things about Tertullian like this:

"...brilliant, exasperating, sarcastic and intolerant...delighting in logical tricks and with an advocate's love of a clever sophistry if it will make the adversary look foolish...Every page [of the Apology] is written with the joy of inflicting discomfort on his adversaries....but in such a manner as to embarrass his own friends and supporters." (just as you have pointed out below - he seems to be attacking the real Paul).    ~ Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, p.91
"In the fiery zeal of his moral essays there is an intense seriousness and ethical passion which go far to reward the reader who can be patient with his tortuous arguments..."    ~ Chadwick, p.92
Tertullian used "short sentences and phrases usually set in parallel, and with an antithetic content; he made use of puns...rhyme [obviously lost in English translation]; he piled on questions, gave pointed answers in a staccato style, sometimes in such a twisted form of expression that the meaning becomes enigmatic."    ~ Hans Lietzmann, The Founding of the Church Universal, pp.219-20

More on Douglas Del Tondo
Mr. Del Tondo reached out to me via e-mail pointing to a few comments I had written and challenging me that I had wrongly called him a liar. That was not my intention and I edited the comment because upon reading it again I realized that it could be interpreted wrongly.

We exchanged close to twenty e-mails, almost all cordial. Del Tondo is an educated man, a lawyer, and well-trained in Latin and Greek. I readily admit that he has far more training in classical languages than me - I only read Greek and I would never hold myself up as an expert.

I made some statements regarding comments Del Tondo made on a particular page of his web site. He retorted that I had not read all of what he has said and pointed me to more pages on his site. He was correct again, thus what you read below has been edited from the original to soften some of my comments. I made some comments that should contain more nuance, thus the edits.

Del Tondo makes many statements about Marcion and the early church which are correct, but then goes off the rails with his opinions which are not grounded in solid history - this is my opinion, but I will attempt to illustrate this point. Del Tondo is driven by the belief that Paul of Tarsus, writer of many NT letters, was not an apostle. More than that, he believes that Paul's writings were not seen as inspired in the early church and should not be considered inspired today. His main work, "Jesus' Words Only" illustrates his position: ONLY the teachings of Jesus constitute the TRUE gospel. He holds to the position of some early Jewish Christians that did in fact reject Paul's teachings. Some referred to these as Ebionites. At the end of his page on Tertullian, Del Tondo sums it up: "Hence, without a doubt, Tertullian meant Paul was the "apostle of the heretics," i.e., Paul was their messenger on the abrogation of the Law, and was not the messenger of Jesus Christ for that point or any other issue at all." (bold text added by me for emphasis)

Now, I want to make it clear that throughout our exchanges Mr. Del Tondo was reasoned and cordial. I consider him a follower of Jesus and a "Christian," although he might not like that appellation. I hope he considers me a true follower of Jesus, but I doubt it, for I not only think Paul was indeed an apostle, I think Jesus specifically called and appointed him to reach the Gentiles more or less in the fashion he did - by calling them NOT to follow the covenant of Moses. Del Tondo believes that Paul was a false prophet predicted by the prophet Ezekiel,

It is important to understand this MAIN thesis of Del Tondo because it leads everything he writes and it informs all the data he reads. This is what led me to state at the top of this article: "...Del Tando...has either not read enough of the writings he cites OR he is purposefully misleading people. I am finding this more than I would have guessed - people misrepresenting early church writings to bolster their already established positions."

I do believe he misrepresents Tertullian and early Christianity when he says,
"In the end, Tertullian even suggested '[Paul] is the apostle of the heretics.' (Tertullian, Adversus Marcion 3:5)"

Del Tondo is correct when he says that Tertullian actually said this, but he does not accurately reflect Tertullian when he concludes that Tertullian held that Paul "was not the messenger of Jesus Christ for that point or any other issue at all."
I have already gone over what I believe the correct reading of the text is above. I contacted published Tertullian scholar, Geoffrey Dunn on this issue and he confirmed what I thought, basically giving the same views as I summarized above. Dunn agreed with Del Tondo's reading of the Latin text, but as I mentioned, states that this is clearly Tertullian arguing his point and contrasting Marcion's Paul with the orthodox Paul.

Del Tondo repeatedly refers to Marcion's gospel as "faith alone" and contrasts that of Tertullian as one that required obedience. He should have made it clear that Marcionites were expected to shun ALL the joys of the world including family. Clement of Alexandria tells us that Marcionites abstained from marriage and thus sexual relations. (Miscellanies III.3.12) Del Tondo says that he does reference this elsewhere, but in fairness I think he should keep that fact front and center if he is going to call Marcion's gospel "faith alone."

Del Tondo seems to paint Marcion and his followers as undisciplined sloths. The truth is that Marcion was a Gnostic, and as such represented the strict side of Gnosticism (according to Clement) that maintained all earthly/fleshly pleasures were sinful.

At the same time, Tertullian was known to be one of the strictest early church fathers. He is from North Africa which was always a hotbed for activism against Rome, disputing the bishop of Rome, and later in church history even leading the way with violence in the Donatist controversy. As an example, Tertullian rejected The Shepherd of Hermas as the "Shepherd of adulterers" while Rome and Alexandria accepted The Shepherd as inspired text. Any reader who wants to affirm the strict views of Tertullian should read my paper on Second Repentance to realize that Tertullian is not as strict on holiness as is sometimes alluded to.

Del Tondo also cites David Bercot as an expert witness (read my review of Bercot). The problem is that, like Del Tondo, Bercot is either ignorant of early church history OR he purposes to mislead his reader. Bercot describes Gnostics in a fairly accurate way, but he fails to explain to the reader that there were actually two different types of Gnostics. Del Tondo and Bercot present Gnostics as those who believed their salvation was completely devoid of works. While there were groups like this (ie., the Carpocratians, see Ireneaus, A.H. I.25.4) Marcion's sect was completely different as I have already explained above. But Del Tondo and Bercot fail to explain this. It is easier to make the Gnostics out to be "salvation by grace alone" liberals and to then link this with the apostle Paul.

Next Del Tondo states that "Jesus and the early church had a solution to prevent Paulís teachings from overturning those of Jesus." He lists the publication of James, Jude, 2 Peter and the Revelation. This is interesting for a few reasons:

1. Jude, 2 Peter and the Revelation were among the last writings to be affirmed as "inspired" by the majority of the early church. All three had difficulty being affirmed partly because of authorship questions, but also due to containing apocalypticism.

2. The segment of the early church Del Tondo speaks of is NOT the church represented by Irenaeus, Justin Martyr or Tertullian, but the anti-Pauline group that is behind the Psuedo-Clementine writings, the Preaching of Peter, and the Acts of Paul all of which were never affirmed by the majority of the early church. These documents all contain elements of the sect commonly referred to as the Ebionites by the early fathers. These were Jewish Christians that never accepted Paul's leadership and focused on the Jewish aspects of faith.

On the particular page in question Del Tondo fails to mention this fact. He prefers to make it sound like his brand of Jewish, pro-Law of Moses faith was the norm. It WAS prior to Paul, but that was Paul's mission - to open the gospel to the Gentiles without the encumbrances of the Jewish ceremonial laws. One can disagree with Paul's opinion - I do think James disagreed, but Del Tondo's view requires something of a conspiracy theory. There WAS an anti-Pauline movement within the orthodox believers, but it did not last long and it was not affirmed by any early fathers. As we have already seen, Tertullian does NOT distance himself from the apostle Paul.

Questions, Comments or Criticisms:
You can send an email to directly to me Al Baker, CH101.
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