Tertullian and the Legal Bias in Western Theology

In my recent posts on the atonement, I have been stressing, both in terms of the biblical witness as well as patristic precedents, the ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ aspects of the atonement that are often overlooked, ignored, or outright rejected in much Western, and particularly Protestant, theology that tends to favor a more ‘legal’ or ‘forensic’ view. Within a legal framework, sin is typically construed as a ‘transgression’ or ‘infraction’ of God’s law, and salvation is consequently predicated upon tertullian_thevet_300dpi‘forgiveness’ or ‘acquittal’ from the guilt and penalty of sin. That which makes forgiveness and acquittal possible, of course, is Christ’s atonement that satisfies the demands of God’s justice by making ‘reparation’ and ‘paying the penalty’ on our behalf.

Now the legal/forensic frame is certainly one of the prominent ways in which the New Testament depicts the atoning work of Christ. Yet, as I have argued in recent posts, the legal/forensic frame does not exhaust the New Testament’s teaching on this topic, for the biblical authors realized that without an ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ dimension, the atonement would have been incapable of doing anything to remedy the inherent sinful corruption for which we had incurred sin’s penalty in the first place. So what is to explain the strong emphasis in Western theology on the legal/forensic aspect of the atonement to the detriment of others?

Although much could be said in response, I think that it is helpful to consider how the church father Tertullian may have contributed to this trajectory. Although the influence of Tertullian on the Western church may pale somewhat in comparison with that of Augustine, he nevertheless contributed significantly to the direction of Latin-speaking tradition, so much so that he has been called ‘the father of Latin Christianity’ and ‘the founder of Western theology’. Here is how J.N.D. Kelly summarizes Tertullian’s view on the atonement:

In contrast to the progress it had made in regard to original sin, Latin theology remained curiously backward and meagre in its treatment of the redemption. A fresh approach might have been expected from Tertullian, whose legal outlook led him to emphasize the necessity of reparation for offences committed, and who transferred the idea to theology. Thus he has the theory that good deeds accumulate merit with God, while bad deeds demand ‘satisfaction’—we observe the introduction of this important conception into Christian thought.

Taken in conjunction with his doctrine of original sin, it might have enabled him to deal in a fresh way of his own with the problem of atonement. In fact, however, while using his ideas about satisfaction to explain the restoration of relations between the individual sinner and God, he altogether fails to apply them to the mediatorial role of Christ. He lays greater stress, indeed, on Christ’s death than does Irenaeus, speaking of it as ‘the whole weight and fruit of the Christian name … the supreme foundation of the gospel’. Not only did Christ die for us, but He was sent for precisely this purpose. Indeed, ‘neither could our own death have been annulled except by the Lord’s passion, nor our life have been restored without His resurrection’. His death, further, was sacrificial; ‘it was necessary for Him to be made a sacrifice for all nations’, and ‘He delivered Himself up for our sins’.

These thoughts, however, while they may well contain the germ of a doctrine of substitution, are nowhere expanded or worked up into a synthesis, and there is a distinct tendency in Tertullian to reduce Christ’s achievement to ‘the proclamation of a new law and a new promise of the kingdom of heaven’, and to represent Him as ‘the illuminator and instructor of mankind’.[1]

The only point that I wish to make from Kelly’s characterization of Tertullian is this: we need to remember that our understanding of the atonement, like all of our other theological views, did not simply drop out of the sky, nor did we suddenly discover them by simply interpreting the plain meaning of Scripture in a vacuum. Our theological commitments have a long intellectual history behind them that, for various reasons, have sometimes tended to focus on certain aspects of the biblical witness while neglecting others. In Tertullian’s case, his personal outlook played a significant role in leading him to emphasize the legal/forensic dimension of Scripture’s teaching on sin and salvation.

I am not attempting to draw a straight genealogical line between Tertullian and contemporary Western thinking on the atonement, although I suspect that his influences still lingers in the background. Ultimately what I am saying is that there are historical precedents for the emphases that we find in Western theology, and we would do well to know what that history is so that we do not absolutize one particular view (such as the legal/forensic, or even the incarnational/ontological!) to the exclusion of the rest of Scripture’s teaching on Christ’s salvific work. To do so would be to miss the glory and grandeur of all that the gospel proclaims!


[1] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. p.177.


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