We are continuing our reading on Tertullian‘s work, On Modesty. In this we find him dancing around the argument, attempting to get to the heart of the matter, but by defeating any roads around. He uses a legal argument and style in that he sets his argument first, and then admits to a portion of that of his opponent, but in doing so, he underscores his own right position. He makes the case the parables of the lost sheep and coin do not refer to Christians (although he makes an allowance for such an erroneous position) but to sinners. In his attempt to explain it, I find an objection against Original Sin, with Tertullian ascribing the entire world to the Flock of God. It may be possible to read in his words original universalism, so that innocents who perish are saved, but sinners are in need for redemption.
You shall have leave to begin with the parables, where you have the lost ewe re-sought by the Lord, and carried back on His shoulders. Let the very paintings upon your cups come forward to show whether even in them the figurative meaning of that sheep will shine through (the outward semblance, to teach) whether a Christian or heathen sinner be the object it aims at in the matter of restoration. For we put in a demurrer arising out of the teaching of nature, out of the law of ear and tongue, out of the soundness of the mental faculty, to the effect that such answers are always given as are called forth (by the question,—answers), that is, to the (questions) which call them forth. That which was calling forth (an answer in the present case) was, I take it, the fact that the Pharisees were muttering in indignation at the Lord’s admitting to His society heathen publicans and sinners, and communicating with them in food. When, in reply to this, the Lord had figured the restoration of the lost ewe, to whom else is it credible that he configured it but to the lost heathen, about whom the question was then in hand,—not about a Christian, who up to that time had no existence? Else, what kind of (hypothesis) is it that the Lord, like a quibbler in answering, omitting the present subject-matter which it was His duty to refute, should spend His labour about one yet future? “But a ‘sheep’ properly means a Christian, and the Lord’s ‘flock’ is the people of the Church, and the ‘good shepherd’ is Christ; and hence in the ‘sheep’ we must understand a Christian who has erred from the Church’s ‘flock.’” In that case, you make the Lord to have given no answer to the Pharisees’ muttering, but to your presumption. And yet you will be bound so to defend that presumption, as to deny that the (points) which you think applicable to Christians are referable to a heathen. Tell me, is not all mankind one flock of God? Is not the same God both Lord and Shepherd of the universal nations? Who more “perishes” from God than the heathen, so long as he “errs?” Who is more “re-sought” by God than the heathen, when he is recalled by Christ? In fact, it is among heathens that this order finds antecedent place; if, that is, Christians are not otherwise made out of heathens than by being first “lost,” and “re-sought” by God, and “carried back” by Christ. So likewise ought this order to be kept, that we may interpret any such (figure) with reference to those in whom it finds prior place. But you, I take it, would wish this: that He should represent the ewe as lost not from a flock, but from an ark or a chest! In like manner, albeit He calls the remaining number of the heathens “righteous,” it does not follow that He shows them to be Christians; dealing as He is with Jews, and at that very moment refuting them, because they were indignant at the hope of the heathens. But in order to express, in opposition to the Pharisees’ envy, His own grace and goodwill even in regard of one heathen, He preferred the salvation of one sinner by repentance to theirs by righteousness; or else, pray, were the Jews not “righteous,” and such as “had no need of repentance,” having, as they had, as pilotages of discipline and instruments of fear, “the Law and the Prophets?” He set them therefore in the parable—and if not such as they were, yet such as they ought to have been—that they might blush the more when they heard that repentance was necessary to others, and not to themselves.
Similarly, the parable of the drachma, as being called forth out of the same subject-matter, we equally interpret with reference to a heathen; albeit it had been “lost” in a house, as it were in the church; albeit “found” by aid of a “lamp,” as it were by aid of God’s word. Nay, but this whole world is the one house of all; in which world it is more the heathen, who is found in darkness, whom the grace of God enlightens, than the Christian, who is already in God’s light. Finally, it is one “straying” which is ascribed to the ewe and the drachma: (and this is an evidence in my favour); for if the parables had been composed with a view to a Christian sinner, after the loss of his faith, a second loss and restoration of them would have been noted.
I will now withdraw for a short time from this position; in order that I may, even by withdrawing, the more recommend it, when I shall have succeeded even thus also in confuting the presumption of the opposite side. I admit that the sinner portrayed in each parable is one who is already a Christian; yet not that on this account must he be affirmed to be such an one as can be restored, through repentance, from the crime of adultery and fornication. For although he be said to “have perished,” there will be the kind of perdition to treat of; inasmuch as the “ewe” “perished” not by dying, but by straying; and the “drachma” not by being destroyed, but by being hidden. In this sense, a thing which is safe may be said to “have perished.” Therefore the believer, too, “perishes,” by lapsing out of (the right path) into a public exhibition of charioteering frenzy, or gladiatorial gore, or scenic foulness, or athletic vanity; or else if he has lent the aid of any special “arts of curiosity” to sports, to the convivialities of heathen solemnity, to official exigence, to the ministry of another’s idolatry; if he has impaled himself upon some word of ambiguous denial, or else of blasphemy. For some such cause he has been driven outside the flock; or even himself, perhaps, by anger, by pride, by jealousy, (or)—as, in fact, often happens—by disdaining to submit to chastisement, has broken away (from it). He ought to be re-sought and recalled. That which can be recovered does not “perish,” unless it persist in remaining outside. You will well interpret the parable by recalling the sinner while he is still living. But, for the adulterer and fornicator, who is there who has not pronounced him to be dead immediately upon commission of the crime? With what face will you restore to the flock one who is dead, on the authority of that parable which recalls a sheep not dead?
Finally, if you are mindful of the prophets, when they are chiding the shepherds, there is a word—I think it is Ezekiel’s: “Shepherds, behold, ye devour the milk, and clothe you with the fleeces: what is strong ye have slain; what is weak ye have not tended; what is shattered ye have not bound; what has been driven out ye have not brought back; what has perished ye have not re-sought.” Pray, does he withal upbraid them at all concerning that which is dead, that they have taken no care to restore that too to the flock? Plainly, he makes it an additional reproach that they have caused the sheep to perish, and to be eaten up by the beasts of the field; nor can they either “perish mortally,” or be “eaten up,” if they are left remaining. “Is it not possible—(granting) that ewes which have been mortally lost, and eaten up, are recovered—that (in accordance also with the example of the drachma (lost and found again) even within the house of God, the Church) there may be some sins of a moderate character, proportionable to the small size and the weight of a drachma, which, lurking in the same Church, and by and by in the same discovered, forthwith are brought to an end in the same with the joy of amendment?” But of adultery and fornication it is not a drachma, but a talent, (which is the measure); and for searching them out there is need not of the javelin-light of a lamp, but of the spear-like ray of the entire sun. No sooner has (such a) man made his appearance than he is expelled from the Church; nor does he remain there; nor does he cause joy to the Church which discovers him, but grief; nor does he invite the congratulation of her neighbours, but the fellowship in sadness of the surrounding fraternities.
By comparison, even in this way, of this our interpretation with theirs, the arguments of both the ewe and the drachma will all the more refer to the heathen, that they cannot possibly apply to the Christian guilty of the sin for the sake of which they are wrested into a forced application to the Christian on the opposite side.