[Tertullian] brought into the Church a brilliant legal mind and a gripping mastery of both Latin and Greek penmanship when in his mid-thirties, around 195, he asked for baptism and became a priest shortly afterwards. Twenty years later he was exalting the role of prophecy. In doing so he not only slighted any and all priesthood but also made light of the submission, enjoined by St. Paul, of all gifts of prophecy to the common good of the body. He kept nothing of the reverence which no less a prophetic spirit than Hermas showed toward priests in particular and authority in general. In the second decade of the third century the rise of Montanus and of his two associates, Prisca and Maximilla, was already history. No longer did crowds throng to a plain near Pepuza in Phrygia where those three promised the heavenly Jerusalem soon to appear in the clouds.
Frenzy, when not at high pitch, could appear prophetic inspiration not necessarily leading to uncontrollable convulsions and hysterical utterances. Such inspiration could but greatly appeal to a temperament like that of Tertullian (known by his contemporaries as vir ardens or burning soul) in whom an incisive legal mind was joined with a passionate commitment to the cause in which he believed. Once in the hold of Montanist prophetism the mind in question could not help carrying its logic to its very limits. Hence the most logical thing for Tertullian, the Montanist, to do was to discredit ecclesial authorit, the ever gravest obstacle to the supreme rights of “prophetic” inspiration.
Most revealingly, Tertullian took on the authority of the bishop of Rome in tacit acknowledgement of the pivotal status of his authority in the Church. In doing so Tertullian was most careful not to omit references to the keys given to Peter. As a good lawyer Tertullian knew that it would be self-defeating for him to deny everything to Pope Callistus, the target of his diatribe. He allowed the pope “the duty of maintaining the discipline” and “the headship of ministry, though not the headship of empire.” Such was a clever way of reducing the pope to the level of an administrator however exalted. Intrinsic authority the pope could not have, let alone the “vast power of the forgiveness of sins,” and certainly not on the basis of Christ’s words to Peter. Clearly, Callistus and his predecessors must have referred to those words or else Tertullian would not have stated:
Because the Lord said to Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my Church,” … “To thee have I given the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” or “Whatsoever thou shalt bind or loose on earth shall be bound or loosed in heaven,” you therefore assume that the power of binding and loosing has descended to you or to any church related to Peter. [De pudicitia, ch. 21]
For Tertullian such an inference was arrogance incarnate. “Who and what are you to show mercy, who conduct yourself neither as prophet nor as apostle and are destitute of the virtue that is necessary for one who is merciful?” In the eyes of a Montanist, Callistus’ alleged lack of virtue settled matters. But Tertullian could not deny the lawyer in him, who would settle only with conclusive arguments. He insisted that Christ’s words were addressed to Peter’s person alone and rephrased Christ’s words with the needed emphasis: “On thee, He said, will I build my Church and unto thee will I give the keys, that is, not unto the Church.” If such was the case, not only the successors of Peter were excluded but all bishops, nay, the entire Christian community insofar as it was a Church. Conversely, all those had the power of the keys conferred on them who were as spiritual as Peter was: As this power was conferred upon Peter personally, so it belongs to spiritual men, whether apostle or prophet.” Hence Tertullian had no choice but to say: “The Church indeed will forgive sins but only the Church which is merely a collection of bishops.”
But the force of that logic threatened also the spirituals if what Tertullian added in the same breath was true: “For justice and judgment belong to the Lord, not to a servant; to God alone, not to a priest.” The spirituals were certainly not priests, but if they claimed to be servants (had a Christian any other right than to be a servant?), then their privileged position, too, was threatened. Tertullian could not, of course, be logical to the extent of providing a criterion to distinguish true spiritual persons from Montanus, Prisca, Maximilla, and their kindred. Only those could do this who saw matters as did the anonymous author of an antimontanist tract written shortly before Tertullian became Christian. The description there of Montanus and of the two women as ones “whom the devil stirred up and filled with the spirit of lies” should seem far less important than the remark that “their manner was contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by the tradition from the beginning.”
Of that tradition few were so spirited and incisive defenders as Tertullian was in his Catholic days. Then he kept insisting that in confronting heretics was the most important thing was to deny the very supposition on the basis of which they wanted to argue their case. Such was the gist of Tertullian’s method in his De praescriptione haereticorum or “On the ruling out of court the heretics.” The word praescriptio stands for that move which in Roman legal practice aimed at dismissing the opponent out of court right at the outset. The heretics, Tertullian stated, had no right to argue against Catholics who had been legitimate heirs to the full apostolic tradition. Tertullian’s reasoning tellingly contains a reference to the keys given to Peter. To the claim of heretics that for the full grasp of truth ample time was needed so that the Spirit might reveal its richness to whomever it chose, Tertullian replied: “Was anything withheld from Peter, who was called the rock on which the church should be built, who also obtained the keys of the kingdom of heaven with the power of loosing and binding in heaven and on earth?” [De praescriptione, ch. 22].
In the context of Tertullian’s reasoning this meant the subsequent transmission of the power of the keys to the Church, and with such a fulness as to invest the bishops with intrinsic authority. Hence any effort from the ranks to set up rival bishops was tantamount to schism, and was indeed the “mother of schisms.” The Catholic unity pivoted in the bishops had its contrast in the intrinsically critical attitude of schismatics toward their own presiding officers. In Tertullian’s inimitable phrase, “schism is their very unity.” [De praescriptione, ch. 42].
– Stanley Jaki, OSB