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Now finally Tertullian the presbyter is ranked first of the Latin writers after Victor and Apollonius.
A brilliant writer, he was known for his wit, his biting criticism of opposing viewpoints, and his sarcasm; aspects of his writing that transcend translation such that they are obvious even to the modern English reader. Jerome summed it up well when he said:
He possessed a sharp and violent talent, and flourished in the reigns of Severus and Caracalla. He wrote many volumes, which I shall omit because they are well-known. I myself saw a certain Paul, an old man of Concordia (which is a town in Italy): he told me that as a youth, he had seen a man at Rome, who had been the secretary of the aged Cyprian, and who recalled that Cyprian would never let a day pass without reading Tertullian, and that he often said to him ‘Give me my master’, clearly meaning Tertullian.
Tertullian did the Church the service of crystallizing the concept of the Trinity (or at least the vocabulary used to describe the Trinity), elucidating the sin nature of man and the salvation purchased by Christ, defending the chain of custody as it concerns the truth about Christ, and arguing for the literal second coming of Christ.
Like any human author, Tertullian was not without error. Some of his writings and formulations were later adapted to justify legalistic doctrines such as those advanced by the Roman Catholic Church. However, a circumspect examination of his writings is well worth the while of a dedicated student of the history of theology and the Church.
Early Life and Ministry
What information is available on the life and background of Tertullian is gleaned either from clues and scant personal references in his writings, or from church tradition. Consequently, most of his biography is speculative.
According to Jerome’s De virus illustribus, Tertullian was the son of a Roman centurion stationed in Carthage in Northern Africa. Tertullian was born and raised in a pagan culture, and clearly received a first-class education in both the Greek and Roman traditions.
It is speculated that Tertullian practiced Law as his profession, mostly because of his heavy use of legal terms and reasoning in his writings. Tertullian’s conversion to Christianity occurred well into his adulthood, probably in his 30’s or 40’s.
Much like the Apostle Paul, once Tertullian was converted he launched almost immediately into a zealous defense of the Christian faith, using his extensive education and brilliant intelligence as his weapon. In Carthage where Tertullian lived, the Roman persecution of Christians was extreme. This did not hold Tertullian back from risking his life by directing a number of his writings to the pagan culture, defending the Christian belief and denouncing the pointless torment they received. Especially representative of this kind of writing is his Apologeticus, a book wherein he uses his extensive knowledge of the law to show the injustice of the way in which Christians were being treated and the virtue of Christianity versus the depravity of paganism.
As Tertullian proved himself entirely devoted to the Christian cause, he was soon appointed as an elder in the church at Carthage.
A passionate man, Tertullian was frustrated at the complacency he saw creeping into the church doctrine and leadership. It was perhaps for this reason that later in his ministry, he became enamored of a new sect called Montanism, which was heavily charismatic. Much of his later work was written defending this belief.
In the second century, Latin as the common language was rapidly replacing Greek. With Rome dominating the world scene for almost 200 years, Hellenistic beliefs and culture were giving way to the Latin mindset, which was more utilitarian and less philosophical.
During this time period, Carthage was a center of heavy persecution for Christians. This extreme persecution had an impact on the doctrine of the church in Carthage and of Tertullian specifically. The persecution was taken as a sign that the return of Christ was imminent, and the church in Carthage proudly embraced persecution and martyrdom as evidences to their commitment to and favor from God. The Church in Carthage tended to look down on those Christians who fled persecution and caved to cultural pressure to hide or denounce their Christian beliefs. Often these people were refused re-entry into the church. Tertullian’s beliefs about how Christians were to live and to behave were based on the idea that Christ was going to return at any moment. An example of this was his belief regarding abstinence, which he thought should be practiced universally by both the married and the unmarried; in part because of the rejection of carnal desires in favor of spiritual ones, and in part because he did not think it wise to bring children into the world when Christ would be returning at any moment.
Tertullian wrote close to fifty known books, thirty-one of which are still extant. The majority of his works were written in response to heresy or a defense of Christianity. Since he never authored a (known) systematic theology, and because his views on some doctrines seemed to fluctuate across his writings, it would be difficult to reconstruct his theology in its entirety.
Tertullian was fluent in both Latin and Greek, and wrote works in both, but the majority of his writings were composed in Latin. While he was never sainted by the Catholic Church, the fact that he wrote in Latin and some of his more legalistic doctrines have made him a favorite of Roman Catholics. He was influential in their ideas on baptism and on the virtues of life-long abstinence.
Tertullian’s writings were largely reactive in nature. He wrote to address challenges to his beliefs from within and without the Christian Church. He wrote to the surrounding culture, denouncing the reasonless attacks they made on Christians and condemning their hedonistic and bloodthirsty ways in his brilliant Apologeticus. He wrote against a variety of doctrines, especially those that used Aristotelian philosophy to support “Christian” beliefs. He is famous for having said “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” meaning that one should lean on what the Apostles received from Christ and not Hellenistic ideas in order to support the Church’s doctrine:
All doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches, those nurseries and original depositories of faith, must be regarded as truth, and as undoubtedly constituting what the churches received from the Apostles, what the Apostles received from Christ, and what Christ received from God. – Prescription against Heretics 21
Tertullian was the type of person who had an opinion on practically everything. Volumes could be written on the things he strongly believed, and on how his beliefs changed over time. Because Tertullian strongly disliked Platonist philosophy, he tended toward an extreme materialism. He believed, for instance, that the Spirit which people received at baptism was a material substance that mixed with the water and physically entered the body of the believer.
Tertullian was also fairly legalistic in some of his views. He considered the New Testament injunctions to physical purity to be transitionary, meaning that they did not go far enough. Since (he said) Jesus and Paul were introducing a new belief system to sinful pagans, they commanded behaviors that were achievable by those people. As time goes on, however, Christians needed to act in ways that were more and more austere and becoming to their belief system. So whereas Christ commanded no divorce except in the case of infidelity, Tertullian suggested that Christians take the next step, so to speak, and never divorce for any reason. Whereas Paul condemned sexual activity except in the case of marriage, Tertullian said that the next obvious stage was no sexual activity whatsoever. While he believed that baptism removed a person’s sins, he was against infant baptism because he believed the person should make a conscious decision to have their sins removed. He suggested people wait until well into their adulthood to be baptized, as the removal of sin was a one-time occurrence, and they should be at a point in their life where they were not liable to sin anymore.
These are, of course, examples of Tertullian’s more extreme positions. Much of what he wrote has informed theology and doctrine up to present time.
One of Tertullian’s most important contributions to theology is what he wrote on the Trinity. The distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit had long been recognized by believers, but there was still a struggle theologically to reconcile the three. Three concepts that some early theologians advanced to explain the distinction between the Father and the Son were Subordinationism, Adoptionism and Modalism. Subordinationism taught that the Son was divine but inferior and subordinate to the Father. Adoptionists taught that Christ was a natural human being that was overcome or infused by God with divinity. This preserved monotheism at the expense of the deity of Christ. Modalism said that The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were simply roles that God adopted at any particular time, or “masks” that God wore, similar to an actor taking on a character in a play. In his book Our Legacy, Dr. John Hannah says:
Though the early church leaders rejected Adoptionism and Modalism as well as set forth arguments for the deity of Christ, they were not able to articulate the Trinity of God without appearing to express the distinction between the Father and the Son in some form of Subordinationism … more than any other early church leader (Tertullian) developed the distinct terminology for the discussion of the doctrine of God. -John Hannah, Our Legacy, page 78
Tertullian coined the words “Trinity” (trinitas), “Persons” (persona), and “Substance” (essential/ substantia) in reference to the triune nature of God, terms that have been adopted into the creedal phrase “Three persons, one substance” that is still used in most mainstream denominations.
Everywhere I hold one substance in three cohering… All are of one, by unity of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into Trinity, placing in their order the three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; three however… not in substance but in form, not in power but in appearance. -Tertullian, Against Praxeas
Another important contribution Tertullian made to the doctrine of the early church was his assertion regarding the sin nature of humans, and the necessary sacrifice of Christ. Dr. Hannah explains Tertullian’s writings on sin nature:
Tertullian… viewed Adam as a historical figure and the human soul as having been created by God in him and passed, along with the body, from parent to child (a view called traducianism). “We acknowledge, therefore, that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul begins at conception. Life begins with the soul begins.” (The Soul 27). Further, he argued that every soul, though possessed of free will, is innately stained with the result of Adam’s error. However, he did not set forth a clear doctrine of Adamic solidarity by explaining the manner of our participation in Adam’s progeny. Instead, our inheritance from Adam is a disordered sensuality, a proneness to irrationality. In the matter of inability and freedom, Tertullian was inconsistent. He waffled between the two views, first asserting one and then the other without seeking to explain how both might be valid. “Some things are by virtue of the divine compassion, and some things are by virtue of our agency” (21). However, he stated that as the branch of a wicked tree cannot bear good fruit unless it be grafted into a good tree, and as the branches are not self-grafting agents, so God’s grace is greater than our free wills. -John Hanna, Our Legacy, pages 208-209
And his view on Christ’s sacrifice:
(Tertullian) carried his training in law into the defense of Christianity. Understanding that an offense mandated a recompense, he argued that Christ lived and died for the sinner, satisfying God for wrongs done. In doing so he became the first church leader to use the term “satisfaction” in reference to our Lord’s death. -John Hanna, Our Legacy, page 153
As mentioned previously, the imminent return of Christ was a very heavy influence in Tertullian’s beliefs and ways of thinking. Since Christianity had been around for almost 200 years by this time, many Christians were becoming disillusioned over the fact that Christ had not yet returned. Some Christian leaders were beginning to teach that the return of Christ was spiritual and allegorical. Tertullian defended end-times prophecy as a literal return of Christ:
We confess that a kingdom has been promised to us on earth, but before heaven and in another state of existence. It will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely built city of Jerusalem, let down from heaven… After its thousand years are over, during which period the resurrection of the saints will be completed, who will rise earlier or later according to their merits, there will be the destruction of the world and the conflagration at the judgment. –Against Marcion 3.24.3
In the online database, “Theopedia,” the entry on Tertullian has this to say:
Tertullian’s Apology (Apologeticus) is one of the best-known works of the pre-Nicene era. In it, he provides not only a stirring defense of Christianity to the Roman rulers, but takes exhaustive measures to show that Roman culture and religion is inferior and hopeless when compared to Christianity.
This ancient work is surprisingly appropriate for a modern audience in an age and culture which is rapidly adopting the mindset and values of pagan cultures, and increasingly condemning and criminalizing Christianity while promoting practically every other belief system. The modern Christian would do well to study the writings of a man so well-acquainted with cultural persecution. Tertullian’s work is also worth studying for a window into the thought that has shaped modern theology on both sides of the fence. He was a man of great intellect and passion and a worthy addition to any Christian’s library.
By Joel Furches