Friday, January 1, 2010

Bardy on Tertullian on the argument from prescription

"One is naturally tempted to compare Tertullian with Saint Irenaeus. . . .  The bishop of Lyon and the priest of Carthage study often the same problems; combat the same heretics; utilize, order to refute error, the same argument from the apostolic origin of doctrines.  But an abyss separates the two men.  Saint Irenaeus is, above all, in everything he writes, the disciple of tradition.  He takes care not to innovate in any way.  He repeats--in an original manner, of course [(d'ailleurs)], and by placing on it the mark of his own mind--whatever he has learned from his masters; and, when he wishes to show where the truth is found, he is content to refer to the churches that preserve the apostolic teaching, [and] to the church of Rome above all.  Tertullian gives a new form to the argument from Saint Irenaeus; he imprints upon it the mark of his juridical mind and proposes a whole theory of prescription.  [The argument from] prescription is a good one [(valable)] to be sure, but the apostolic authority that founds it has, of necessity, faded into the background.  What catches one's eye is the new form that the reasoning and the juridicism that inspires [this argument] has imposed [(prise, taken)].  Is it any surprise, then, if, having become a Montanist, Tertullian abandons the argument from prescription?  It is not he who penned the formula Non est de præscriptione arguendum sed de ratione vincendum.  But this formula of Cyprian does give expression to the thought of Tertullian as it appears in his later writings, [and] in De pudicitia above all.  Of what value is prescription, if reason calls it into question [(lui donne tort)]?  Or, again, if the Holy Spirit adds new teachings to those of the apostles?  Such is in fact the final step in an evolution that one might wish [had been] less rigid.  Carried away by the exaggeration of a merciless logic, Tertullian becomes the doctor of private inspiration after having been that of fidelity to the traditional teachings."

G. Bardy, "Tertullien," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 15.1 (1946), col. 167.  The argument from prescription is the argument from "Uninterrupted use or possession from time immemorial" (Oxford English dictionary), and Bardy elaborates on this, following Tertullian, in col. 146, pars. 2-3:  "in the matter of dogma, possession is equivalent to title."  And "The agreement of [widely scattered] communities among themselves confirms the proof", such that "the argument is solid.  The merit of Tertullian is to have found the definitive formulation of [it]:  Quod apud multos unum invenitur, non est erratum, sed traditum" (De præscr. 27; Bardy cites also 37).  I haven't read the whole article, but went looking for it in response to J. Bellamy, "Assomption de la Sainte Vierge," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 1 (1903), col. 2135:  "In the matter of tradition and of beliefs, it is in the Church above all that prescription is equivalent to title. . . ."

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