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The Reformed vs. Tertullian on Tradition


“Tradition” has become a dirty word for much of Protestantism today. It is often set up against the “word of God.” One must either choose the “pure Word of God” or the “vain traditions of men.” The latter group is relegated to the same circle of hell as those insufferable, Pope-loving Catholics, clobbered with the baseball bat of association fallacies and laughed out of the room. It has not always been this way, in an older form of Protestantism the question wasn't one of either/or, the question was how can I have a faithful synthesis of a both/and.

What this article seeks to do is to look at how the early Christians conceived of “tradition” in the area of our praxis (such as mode of Baptism, worship, etc.) through the lens of the early thinker Tertullian (A.D. 155-220) in his work De Corona (A.D. 201). This work will show a sharp contrast to two different popular views of tradition in Protestantism. First, it will be against the Reformed notion of the “Regulative Principle,” and second, it will be against the popular notion of worship which has developed in wider evangelicalism. In contrast to these two non-patristic views of the relation of Praxis and Tradition, the view which best represents the witness of Tertullian is that of the Anglican way.

First, I will describe and define the three views which will be compared to that of Tertullian’s, then I will explicate Tertullian’s view in De Corona, and lastly, I will compare the modern views and that of Tertullian’s showing the Patristic nature of the Anglican principle.

The “Regulative Principle”

Although there is a wide range of applications within the Reformed world of the Regulative Principle, from pseudo-Contemporary Christian Worship to a more classically Reformed, Acapella Exclusive Psalmody, we may discern a golden thread that runs theologically between all groups. This golden thread is that all is done “jure divino,” that is, all elements of worship must be done by divine right. In this view scripture clearly and sufficiently commands a law of worship that must be followed by all. This law of worship is discerned through the explicit commands and examples of scripture and through those things implied via good and necessary consequence.

At this point, there is not much difference between the Reformed and Anglican views of praxis, but the Reformed go one step further, that this law of Worship is exclusive. It excludes the church in its’ praxis to permit practices that are not contained in the law of worship in scripture, excluding those things practiced “jure humano” (by human right), whether it be the commands of the church, or unwritten tradition passed down. The church is not permitted to continue those practices of tradition which lie outside of those things established by divine right.

The Westminster Confession of Faith lays this out,

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also...the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men..or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”

The “Evangelical” principle

Next, the modern evangelical principle. This is really a principle without a principle. There is no principled foundation on which this principle stands, but the foundation of taste. The prerequisite which must be fulfilled is that of personal satisfaction and popularity. This view is truly anti-tradition in that it may skim a generalized set of elements that worship contains (music, preaching, baptism, maybe the Eucharist), but the mode in which these generalized principles are carried out is completely determined by the whims of culture. Worship becomes evolutionary, changing from generation to generation as the wider cultural changes. There is a complete disconnect from the balanced emphases and practices which the historic church has carried out.

The Anglican Principle

The Anglican principle in many respects fulfills the characterization often leveled at Anglicans of being the Via Media. The Anglican Principle affirms that the “Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies,” and this power to decree extends beyond those things which are in scripture positively, the only limit being those things “contrary to God's Word written.” We see here the distinction between the Reformed and Anglican views of praxis, in the Reformed view everything must be done by “jure divino,” whereas in the Anglican view they may be done by “jure humano” as long as it does not contradict those things ordered by “jure divino.”

Further, the 39 Articles state,

Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Not only is it wrong in the Anglican view to break those practices which are established by “jure divino,” but it is also wrong to break those traditional practices of the church which are established by “jure humano.” There is one exception to this general principle, those practices which are “repugnant to the Word of God” (referring to certain Medieval innovations) are rejected in the Anglican principle. This is what distinguishes it from the Roman view. The Anglican Principle takes the general body of traditional practices which it received from the Medieval Church and takes those elements which do not contradict the Holy Scriptures.

Tertullian’s View: Scripture

The work which this analysis will be based on is De Corona, a polemical work wherein Tertullian deals with the question of whether a Christian should take the laurel crown in military duty. Tertullian’s ultimate basis for an argument in his various polemical works is scripture. Where scripture speaks on an issue the issue is settled in the mind of Tertullian. This is non-controversial and is universal in Orthodox Christianity of every type.

For Tertullian, a scriptural proof is not only found in those explicit statements of scripture but is also found in those issues which can be discerned via good and necessary consequence as is seen in De Spectaculis. In the issue stated in De Corona there is no explicit statement in scripture of that effect, neither is an argument from good and necessary consequence made by Tertullian, because of this Tertullian points to tradition and reason as the foundation for his argument for the practice of denying the crown, drawing out larger implications.


For Tertullian, the traditional practice of the church is properly authoritative. This is something which ought not to be questioned but simply believed. The traditions that Tertullian speaks of are not written traditions but are oral traditions passed down through the liturgical life of the church, being sealed with the seal of authenticity via its continuous usage. This is how Tertullian proves his point in De Corona without a single word of scripture. He points back to and argues from the traditional practice of the church, pointing to many other examples of authoritative tradition, and reasoning with the reader why tradition is authoritative.

It is appropriate to quote Tertullian in full,

“And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism [he lists multiple practices which are traditional and authoritative, yet are not found in scripture]…If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has. Meanwhile you will believe that there is some reason to which submission is due. I add still one case more, as it will be proper to show you how it was among the ancients also. Among the Jews, so usual is it for their women to have the head veiled… In this particular case, too, or, in fact, in that of any other, I demand the dress-law. If I nowhere find a law, it follows that tradition has given the fashion in question to custom, to find subsequently (its authorization in) the apostle's sanction, from the true interpretation of reason. This instances, therefore, will make it sufficiently plain that you can vindicate the keeping of even unwritten tradition established by custom; the proper witness for tradition when demonstrated by long-continued observance. But even in civil matters custom is accepted as law, when positive legal enactment is wanting; and it is the same thing whether it depends on writing or on reason, since reason is, in fact, the basis of law. But, (you say), if reason is the ground of law, all will now henceforth have to be counted law, whoever brings it forward, which shall have reason as its ground. Or do you think that every believer is entitled to originate and establish a law, if only it be such as is agreeable to God, as is helpful to discipline, as promotes salvation, when the Lord says, But why do you not even of your own selves judge what is right? And not merely in regard to a judicial sentence, but in regard to every decision in matters we are called on to consider, the apostle also says, If of anything you are ignorant, God shall reveal it unto you; he himself, too, being accustomed to afford counsel though he had not the command of the Lord, and to dictate of himself as possessing the Spirit of God who guides into all truth. Therefore his advice has, by the warrant of divine reason, become equivalent to nothing less than a divine command. Earnestly now inquire of this teacher, keeping intact your regard for tradition, from whomsoever it originally sprang; nor have regard to the author, but to the authority, and especially that of custom itself, which on this very account we should revere, that we may not want an interpreter; so that if reason too is God's gift, you may then learn, not whether custom has to be followed by you, but why.”


We saw a bit in the tail end of the last quote Tertullian weights in on how reason weighs into this balance of Scripture and Tradition, saying, “so that if reason too is God's gift, you may then learn, not whether custom has to be followed by you, but why.” This is, in a short phrase, Tertullian’s whole view on the matter, that is, we ought never to use our reason to judge the tradition (whether), but we may use our reason to discover the reasons for the tradition (why). This type of humility and submission to the tradition is found in such a thinker as St. Thomas Aquinas, and this is the model of doing theology, having our Sed Contra wherein we discern the mind of the Tradition and then having a Respondeo where we fight for the truth, goodness, and beauty of the tradition, never letting our minds wander off of the safe path provided for us there.


The Conclusion ought to be clear here. Neither the Reformed nor the evangelical views reflect the mind of the Fathers on this issue. For Tertullian we, 1. Are not limited in our submission to only those laws established jure divino in scripture, but the conscience is clearly bound by traditional modes of worship, and 2. We are not permitted to alter or question these forms or worship passed down, they are irreformable. It is exceedingly clear from these two facts which Tertullian asserts that both the views of the Reformed and of the evangelical are wrong.

It is equally clear that the best option of the three is the Anglican view, for the Anglican view conscientiously seeks to be faithful to THE tradition, the one of the pure and undivided church, the one which Tertullian refers to. It does not matter if the novelty is an 11th-century innovation of the Roman Church, or a 17th-century innovation of the Puritans, if it is an innovation and not properly an Apostolic practice it has no place within the Anglican church and ought to be eliminated. This is the mind of Tertullian and this is the mind of the Anglican Church.

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