Continuing our reading of Tertullian‘s work, On Modesty, we come to the ancient author’s piece on the dangers of transgression in interpretation. At several points, he make references to a strict form of biblical interpretation opposing, and predating, the methods employed by the Alexandrian school which insignificant things are used for great truths – such as the 100 sheep.
According to some sources this was one of the Tertullian’s last works, perhaps 222.
Chap. IX. – Certain General Principles of Parabolic Interpretation. These Applied to the Parables Now Under Consideration, Especially to That of the Prodigal Son.
We, however, who do not make the parables the sources whence we devise our subject-matters, but the subject-matters the sources whence we interpret the parables, do not labour hard, either, to twist all things (into shape) in the exposition, while we take care to avoid all contradictions. Why “an hundred sheep?” and why, to be sure, “ten drachmas?” And what is that “besom?” Necessary it was that He who was desiring to express the extreme pleasure which the salvation of one sinner gives to God, should name some special quantity of a numerical whole from which to describe that “one” had perished. Necessary it was that the style of one engaged in searching for a “drachma” in a “house,” should be aptly fitted with the helpful accompaniment of a “besom” as well as of a “lamp.” For curious niceties of this kind not only render some things suspected, but, by the subtlety of forced explanations, generally lead away from the truth. There are, moreover, some points which are just simply introduced with a view to the structure and disposition and texture of the parable, in order that they may be worked up throughout to the end for which the typical example is being provided. Now, of course the (parable of) the two sons will point to the same end as (those of) the drachma and the ewe: for it has the self-same cause (to call it forth) as those to which it coheres, and the selfsame “muttering,” of course, of the Pharisees at the intercourse between the Lord and heathens. Or else, if any doubts that in the land of Judea, subjugated as it had been long since by the hand of Pompey and of Lucullus, the publicans were heathens, let him read Deuteronomy: “There shall be no tribute-weigher of the sons of Israel.” Nor would the name of publicans have been so execrable in the eyes of the Lord, unless as being a “strange” name, – a (name) of such as put up the pathways of the very sky, and earth, and sea, for sale. Moreover, when (the writer) adjoins “sinners” to “publicans,” it does not follow that he shows them to have been Jews, albeit some may possibly have been so; but by placing on a par the one genus of heathens – some sinners by office, that is, publicans; some by nature, that is, not publicans – he has drawn a distinction between them. Besides, the Lord would not have been censured for partaking of food with Jews, but with heathens, from whose board the Jewish discipline excludes (its disciples).
Now we must proceed, in the case of the prodigal son, to consider first that which is more useful; for no adjustment of examples, albeit in the most nicely-poised balance, shall be admitted if it shall prove to be most hurtful to salvation. But the whole system of salvation, as it is comprised in the maintenance of discipline, we see is being subverted by that interpretation which is affected by the opposite side. For if it is a Christian who, after wandering far from his Father, squanders, by living heathenishly, the “substance” received from God his Father, – (the substance), of course, of baptism – (the substance), of course, of the Holy Spirit, and (in consequence) of eternal hope; if, stripped of his mental “goods,” he has even handed his service over to the prince of the world – who else but the devil? – and by him being appointed over the business of “feeding swine” – of tending unclean spirits, to wit – has recovered his senses so as to return to his Father, – the result will be, that, not adulterers and fornicators, but idolaters, and blasphemers, and renegades, and every class of apostates, will by this parable make satisfaction to the Father; and in this way (it may) rather (be said that) the whole “substance” of the sacrament is most truly wasted away. For who will fear to squander what he has the power of afterwards recovering? Who will be careful to preserve to perpetuity what he will be able to lose not to perpetuity? Security in sin is likewise an appetite for it. Therefore the apostate withal will recover his former “garment,” the robe of the Holy Spirit; and a renewal of the “ring,” the sign and seal of baptism; and Christ will again be “slaughtered;” and he will recline on that couch from which such as are unworthily clad are wont to be lifted by the torturers, and cast away into darkness, – much more such as have been stripped. It is therefore a further step if it is not expedient, (any more than reasonable), that the story of the prodigal son should apply to a Christian. Wherefore, if the image of a “son” is not entirely suitable to a Jew either, our interpretation shall be simply governed with an eye to the object the Lord had in view. The Lord had come, of course, to save that which “had perished;” “a Physician.” necessary to “the sick” “more than to the whole.” This fact He was in the habit both of typifying in parables and preaching in direct statements. Who among men “perishes,” who falls from health, but he who knows not the Lord? Who is “safe and sound,” but he who knows the Lord? These two classes – “brothers” by birth – this parable also will signify. See whether the heathen have in God the Father the “substance” of origin, and wisdom, and natural power of God-ward recognition; by means of which power the apostle withal notes that “in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom knew not God,” – (wisdom) which, of course, it had received originally from God. This (“substance”), accordingly, he “squandered;” having been cast by his moral habits far from the Lord, amid the errors and allurements and appetites of the world, where, compelled by hunger after truth, ” he handed himself over to the prince of this age. He set him over “swine,” to feed that flock familiar to demons, where he would not be master of a supply of vital food, and at the same time would see others (engaged) in a divine work, having abundance of heavenly bread. He remembers his Father, God; he returns to Him when he has been satisfied; he receives again the pristine “garment,” – the condition, to wit, which Adam by transgression had lost. The “ring” also he is then Wont to receive for the first time, wherewith, after being interrogated, he publicly seals the agreement of faith, and thus thenceforward feeds upon the “fatness” of the Lord’s body, – the Eucharist, to wit. This will be the prodigal son, who never in days bygone was thrifty; who was from the first prodigal, because not from the first a Christian. Him withal, returning from the world to the Father’s embraces, the Pharisees mourned over, in the persons of the “publicans and sinners.” And accordingly to this point alone the elder brother’s envy is adapted: not because the Jews were innocent, and obedient to God, but because they envied the nation salvation; being plainly they who ought to have been “ever with” the Father. And of course it is immediately over the first calling of the Christian that the Jew groans, not over his second restoration: for the former reflects its rap even upon the heathen; but the latter, which takes place in the churches, is not known even to the Jews. I think that I have advanced interpretations more consonant with the subject-matter of the parables, and the congruity of things, and the preservation of disciplines. But if the view with which the opposite party is eager to mould the ewe, and the drachma, and the voluptuousness of the son to the shape of the Christian sinner, is that they may endow adultery and fornication with (the gift of) repentance; it will be fitting either that all other crimes equally capital should be conceded remissible, or else that their peers, adultery and fornication, should be retained inconcessible.
But it is more (to the point) that it is not lawful to draw conclusions about anything else than the subject which was immediately in hand. In short, if it were lawful to transfer the parables to other ends (than they were originally intended for), it would be rather to martyrdom that we would direct the hope drawn from those now in question; for that is the only thing which, after all his substance has been squandered, will be able to restore the son; and will joyfully proclaim that the drachma has been found, albeit among all (rubbish) on a dungheap; and will carry back into the flock on the shoulders of the Lord Himself the ewe, fugitive though she have been over all that is rough and rugged. But we prefer, if it must be so, to be less wise in the Scriptures, than to be wise against them. We are as much bound to keep the sense of the Lord as His precept. Transgression in interpretation is not lighter than in conversation.
Tertullian turns the bad interpretive method around – pointing out that if the Younger is indeed the Christian, then other matters must follow – so he labels the ‘substance’ of the father in the language of Hebrews 6.