Thursday, December 01, 2016

Tertullian and modern Western feminists

Tertullian, the well-known early Father of the Church (d. 220 A.D.), has been cherrypicked on by feminists -- particularly that infamous cherry, the phrase he wrote ostensibly describing woman as the "gateway of the Devil".  F. Forrester Church, a theologian (and, being a Unitarian minister, one could hardly accuse him of being an anti-liberal misogynist), studied the matter in scholarly detail.  One may read his analysis in his article ("Sex and Salvation in Tertullian") to get his full argument.  I'll quote from it and discuss it here.

For example, Church begins:

Did he consistently blame woman for the fall? Is her natural status held to be inferior to that of man? Does Tertullian apply an ethical double standard when instructing women and men in matters of discipline? Are women really represented in his writings as "the weaker sex?" 

About his first question, Church writes that the so-called "gateway passage" is the only place in all Tertullian where the exclusive culpability of Eve is spelled out. He cites a separate writing in which Tertullian blames the fall on gluttony, that Adam succumbed to eating the forbidden fruit because he let himself be led by his stomach's appetite rather than his brain. Church concludes that Tertullian was adapting his argument to his larger context, which in this work, De cultu feminarum, was the "proper" comportment of women in society, using Eve's role in the fall and focusing on it for rhetorical purposes.  One would be inaccurate to glean from this that Tertullian held women uniquely responsible for the fall and for thus being the "gateway to the Devil". At the very least, by the same logic, one would have to upbraid Tertullian as strongly for his "anti-stomach appetite" bias.

Furthermore, Church goes on to note that in another Tertullian work (Adversus Iudaeos), the culpability for the fall is equally shared by both Adam and Eve, and then in yet another of his works (De patientia), their equality in this respect is even more emphasized. Better yet, in his works Adversus Marcionem and De exhortatione castitatis, Church tells us, Tertullian argues that it doesn't matter who helped to seduce Adam -- the responsibility for his fall is on his shoulders alone. Then according to Church, in his work De testimonio animae, Tertullian writes at length about the plan of salvation for Mankind, and in this plan, Tertullian sees the main culpability for the fall, and thus the need for redemption, in Adam, while Eve only figures in the exposition "incidentally".

As Church notes about Tertullian from this particular work:  

Inherited sin, passed on through the process of generation, stems directly from Adam. When he was given over to death on account of his sin, "the whole human race, infected with his seed, were made the carrier of his condemnation."... ...Eve is peripheral to Tertullian's conception of the fall. According to him, the devil is to blame for the woes of humankind, and Adam is responsible.

Church's analysis has many more layers of complex argument using meticulous citations from Tertullian's full corpus that similarly tend to undermine the supposed extremism & misogyny which feminists have found in the one passage they cherrypick.

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