IV. General Considerations Concerning Patristic Testimony
Patristic testimony, although it has limitations, provides contemporary information about early Christian history, and consequently has definite value in the study of events of its era. A Christian writer who lived not long after the composition of the gospels would be more likely to advance correct theories about their origin than would, say, a German rationalistic critic writing eighteen hundred years ex post facto. Nevertheless, patristic compositions are manifestly inferior to the NT in matters of history. First, they are uninspired. Second, unlike Scripture, God has not promised to preserve them, so textual questions can arise which make their current texts uncertain. Third, assuming a lack of Catholic or other heretical interpolation in our current texts, many patristic writers held to dangerous doctrinal errors, which tended to increase in number as their distance from the first century increased; baptismal regeneration appears very early, and idolatry, hierarchicalism, the real presence, and other Popish errors quickly followed. Believers who opposed the Babylonian apostasy were labeled heretics, and their writings were destroyed. Many extant ante-Nicene writers, and certainly those after the Constantinian revolution, must not be considered members of true churches of Christ, nor among the number who have received the NT gospel of justification by faith alone. Despite these drawbacks, valuable historical testimony, including textual-critical material, may be gleaned from their compositions.
V. Patristic testimony to the continued existence of the autographa
Tertullian, in his The Prescription Against Heretics, states:
Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; (and there too) you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus. Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! See what she has learned, what taught, what fellowship has had with even (our) churches in Africa! One Lord God does she acknowledge, the Creator of the universe, and Christ Jesus (born) of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God the Creator; and the Resurrection of the flesh; the law and the prophets she unites in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles, from which she drinks in her faith.[i]
The Prescription was written c. A. D. 200.[ii] Schaff indicates that the phrase “authentic writings” here (Latin, authenticae), “may refer to the autographs or the Greek originals,” or at the very least to “full unmutilated copies as opposed to the garbled ones of the heretics.”[iii] There is no definite reason why the phrase would not refer to the autographs themselves; this would suit Tertullian’s argument, that “the Christian Scriptures . . . are a deposit, committed to and carefully kept by the church,”[iv] which the heretics have perverted, better than the alternative sense. What would better prove heretical corruption of Scripture than a reference to the still extant autographs themselves?[v] However, the second sense would still support a long period of accurate transmission, for “full unmutilated copies” requires an absence of corruption. Tertullian continues, “What of our own have we introduced, that we should have to take it away again, or else add to it, or alter it, in order to restore to its natural soundness anything which is contrary to it, and contained in the Scriptures? What we are ourselves, that also the Scriptures are (and have been) from the beginning.”[vi] His argument assumes the orthodox, unlike their heretical opponents, possess uncorrupted Scripture. Tertullian affirms that the autographs, or at least copies a very small number of generations from them, were still preserved in the churches that had received them at the beginning of the third century.
Furthermore, Tertullian, in book four of his Five Books Against Marcion, while arguing against Marcionite alteration of Scripture, declares:
On the whole, then, if that is evidently more true which is earlier, if that is earlier which is from the very beginning, if that is from the beginning which has the apostles for its authors, then it will certainly be quite as evident, that that comes down from the apostles, which has been kept as a sacred deposit in the churches of the apostles. Let us see what milk the Corinthians drank from Paul; to what rule of faith the Galatians were brought for correction; what the Philippians, the Thessalonians, the Ephesians read by it; what utterance also the Romans give, so very near (to the apostles), to whom Peter and Paul conjointly bequeathed the gospel even sealed with their own blood. We have also St. John’s foster churches.[vii]
Context points to the conclusion that the “sacred deposit” kept in the “churches of the apostles” would include the autographical MSS, the uncorrupted foundation of apostolic doctrine and the counterpoint to the corruptions of Marcion and his disciples. He likewise affirms that the “the (Gospels) of the apostles have come down to us in their integrity . . . [and] Luke’s Gospel [which was doctored by Marcion] also has come down to us in like integrity until the sacrilegious treatment of Marcion.”[viii] In his Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian speaks of the “Christian Scriptures . . . [as] my property. I have long possessed it; I possessed it before you [heretics of his day]. I hold sure title-deeds from the original owners themselves, to whom the estate belonged. I am the heir of the apostles. Just as they carefully prepared their will and testament, and committed it to a trust, and adjured (the trustees to be faithful to their charge), even so do I hold it.”[ix] He considered the Scriptures he used “sure title-deeds from the original owners,” which were “carefully prepared” and passed down uncorrupted from the apostolic churches to the African churches where he ministered. Tertullian, in these texts, appears to affirm that the originals were still extant in the apostolic churches in his day, while faithful copies made from them were widely circulated.
Note: this entire study is available as an essay here.
[ii] Pg. 941, “Tertullianus,” in A Dictionary of Christian Biography, ed. Henry Wace & William C. Piercy, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994 (reprint of A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature, pub. John Murray, London, 1911).
[iii] Footnotes cite by module number, footnote number, and paragraph number. The patristic work will also be cited if it is not clear. This note is AN:383:20808, that is, the Ante-Nicene module, footnote #383 (to Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics), paragraph #20808 in the module.
[iv] AN:XXXVII:20374. This is the title to the section of Tertullian’s work, and it accurately details his point, although these are not his ipsissima verba.
[v] Many other patristic writers likewise affirmed that heretics deliberately corrupted Scripture; for example, “The Arians are repeatedly charged by St. Ambrose with falsifying and manipulating Scripture for their own ends . . . the same charge is a common one against all heretical bodies in early days” (Prolegomena to St. Ambrose: “On the Doctrine of St. Ambrose,” NPN-2:IV:58093). Many of the CT’s corruptions are deliberate alterations of the TR originated by Arians and others to support their heresies.