An early Christian writer who flourished around 200 CE

The life of Tertullian is a hard thing to pin down exactly, and even harder to pin down correctly. According to Jerome’s accounts of him, Tertullian was the son of a Roman Centurion, was converted to Christianity in mid life, became a Presbyter and died late in life. However, Jerome’s accounts of this are called into question. According to some scholars, Tertullian must have been converted earlier in life due to evidence in some of his writings, and he died much earlier in his life. As a side note, there is a Jurisconsult in Rome around this time by the name of Tertullian that may or may not be our man. What is not disputed is that he came from and wrote generally in Carthage. He was probably married, due to a document he wrote addressed to his wife, and due to his knowledge of Latin and Greek was probably relatively well educated.

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Prolific Profound Penman and Complicated Controversial Church Father

Sketchy beginnings

Tertullian was born Quintius Septimius Florens Tertullianus to a wife of a Roman Centurian circa 150 A.D. in Carthage, site at that time of the largest Christian population other than Asia Minor in spite of the small amount of Latin speaking denizens (approximately around the modern North African city of Tunis). North Africa would be the staging point for following Church greats, Cyprian (b. 200 A.D. Bishop from 248- d. 258) and more importantly, Augustine (b. 354 Bishop 396 - d. 430) It is assumed that he was raised in a family of moderate means, because of the obvious education in literature, history, law and the Greek classical writings. The rest of his personal life is not well known, but it is guessed that in his youth he had a wife -- as referenced by some writings. Something happened thereafter -- as can be witnessed in his writing with the progressive relatively uncomplimentary treatment of women through his career which one reason will be discussed further on. It has been noted that he was a convert to Christianity in 193, a profound and thorough experience causing him to leave a law career in Rome A.D. He was a presbyter (elder) in the Church, content to serve by writing but had some trouble with some of the the local leadership. He absorbed a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible to add to his already cultural foundation. He wrote his 30 hard to translate expressive Latin manuscripts totalling some 1500 pages until his death in 212, and his association with the Montanists, discussed later, caused most of his books to become anathema in 496. He opposed the idea of uniting Emperial Rome with the Church, on the grounds of its extreme link with idolatry, which finally became reality hundreds of years later.


Contributory Work

Defense of the Faith

His work leaves us with more questions than answers: one important mystery is his surviving, thriving, and producing during a time of some of the most brutal Church persecution. Perhaps Tertullian's apologetics, similar to those of Church Fathers Ignatius], Irenaeus and Justin Marytr just preceding him, spared him such deadly distraction. His titled, Apology argued that the Roman Empire was recognized by Christians as a God-given institution against Chaos. Therefore, as actually defenders of Rome, (by prayer, "vanquish all demons who stir up war...") Believers were never really a threat -- even if they critiqued certain social immoralities (Bacchanalian revelries, infanticide) entertainments (the theater, gladiatorial contest); and certainly pantheistic religion. In his arguments he uses not only his superb intelligence, the legal training received in Rome, but the very practical logic derived from Latin and Greek philosophical sources (Stoicism) he belittled also (Truth could be known only by faith, not reason he taught) -- in essays that exposed the lack of sound reason in Pagan religion:

Turning to your books from which you get your training in wisdom and the nobler duties of life, what utterly ridiculous things I find -- that for Trojans and Greeks the gods fought among themselves like pairs of gladiators; that Venus as wounded by a man because she would rescue her son Aeneas...that Mars was almost wasted away by an almost thirteen months' imprisonment...that Jupiter...foully makes love to his own sister...

...Apology, ch. XIV

His other apologetic work, The Testimony of the Soul explained how the God-created soul has an inclination built in to desire to reunite, if had not been sidetracked by sin.

Disputation of Heresy

Also using his ptolemic powers, Tertullian took issue with the Monarchians and the Marcionites. Tertullian's responses to these challenges helped start to formulate delineations of what Christians should believe in a consistent manner no matter what location the fellowship. Monarchism was an extreme reaction to the duality of God (i.e. the Logos {the Word} -- the Son -- as a separate Diety from the Father) the Marcionites held. The Monarchians' name came from their teaching, whose details varied, of God's monarchia, that is sole government of the Allmighty as one, and that was defended by Tertullian. The problem is when the idea, if taken to it's endpoint would lower Jesus' (who was Kyrios: Greek for Hebrew Adonai - the LORD) and the Holy Spirits' separate true Diety. It had two forms:
  • Dynamic Monarchianism

    • Believed Virgin-born Jesus received dynamis or dunamis - impersonal power - from the Father
    • Called Adoptionists because the dynamis, not received until after His baptism (or even His Resurrection). Theodotus was a main proponent, and the other Novatian, wrote Concerning the Trinity:
      If the Father is one, and the Son another, but the Father is God and Christ is God, then there is not one God but two Gods.
      ...If God is one, then by consequence Christ must be a man, so that rightly the Father may be one God
  • Modalistic Monarchianism
    • Noetus and Praxeas taught what later became known as Patripassianism (after its last teacher's form) argued:
      the Father was born as Jesus and died becoming the Son, resurrecting Himself.
    • Sabellius promoted the modalistic idea of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three aspects (e.g. the Sun is bright, hot, and round).

After contemplating this dilemma, Tertullian borrowed a Roman legal term, substantia (a person's status in a community) to properly describe the Oneness of God, while maintaining that there are three persona (a party in a legal action) administering His being and creation. Tertullian developed ideas of the Trinity that were the template until the time of Augustine. God was alone, but when his Reason and Wisdom combined to to express itself, then there was the Son, whom through went the Holy Spirit Who proceeded from the Father. One of his famous surviving works is the letters to Praxeus. His Christology and Orthodoxy he developed were so important in stemming the tide toward seeing Jesus as no more than an adopted Son when he shows the merged Divine and human natures.

The object of our worship is the one God, He who by His commanding Word, His arranging wisdom, His mighty power, brought forth from nothing the entire mass of the world...The eye cannot see Him, though He is manifested.

Though he combatted one heresy, he walks a tightrope concerning the non pre-existance of Jesus and perhaps an overly subordinate relationship (but never inferior and still divine) with the Father who he gave first gradus (rank).

Marcion

Tertullian wrote five books against the double God developed by this Sinopean immigrant to Rome. Marcion had formed his own church after expulsion in 144. Tertullian had to use Scriptures and his organized mind to combat ideas like:

  • The "First God is the One of the Old Testament who was an 'evil' Demiurge.
  • The "Second" God is the One of Love appearing (docetism) as a phantom
  • Judaism was irrelevant.
  • Not only were Paul's and other writings reinterpreted, he wrote a revised, The Gospel according to Luke.

Tertullian's arguments provided a basis for answering these problems that were debated at Nicaea in 325, and settled at Constantinople in 381. But even though he gave an outline for three divine persons existing in one divine nature, it needed Origen's explanation of the eternal relationship of the Son with the Father, and more importantly, the Alexandrian Athanasius' (300-373) homoousios (same being) stand against the Arian belief that Jesus was neither God nor man to formulate what would be considered orthodox theology.

The other problem confronting the Church, was the Gnostic teaching of Hermogenes and Valentinus whose errors were discussed extensively, and can be read today. He believed strongly that only those Holy Spirit anointed could be authorized to accurately interpret the Scriptures, certainly not heretics.

Doctrinal and Pastoral Teaching

Much of his doctrine and theology is put forth in those books combatting heresy, other ideas are in other sources. One general thing can be said for Tertullian's teaching is that he left no grey areas, and he might have had a bit of tunnel vision. It had its strengths and weaknesses because of this insistence. When persecution threatened, he demanded bravery from Christians to remain in their besieged communities rather than emigrate. He used as examples for heroism the more familiar Roman figures. He forbid brethren from serving in the government, especially becoming soldiers.

The Soul

His book on The Soul was a long discourse which exhibited his anti-Platonic and pro-Stoic basis outlook. The antimaterialistic aspects of the newly revived discipline of Plato did not set as well as the Stoics' belief in the real substance of soul and flesh as more Christian in the goodness of both and the impact on the Incarnation and Resurrection.

The Flesh

Armed with this background, he wrote two books about the flesh, one expositing Christ's becoming human, and the other examining the raising of the dead, both considered theological advanced for his time in the West -- the third century -- ideas that would only reach the Eastern church in 449 in the Tome of Leo, and in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon.

Baptism

This use of water to demonstrate the faithful's acceptance by faith Christ's salvation, Tertullian was fanatical. He believed in its regenerative power to the point that he not only opposed infant baptism, but any sin committed after this ordinance could only be purged by a marytr's baptism of fire. This was intensified during Tertullian's Montanist period (future noted).

Regula Fidei

He refered to regula fidei or rule of faith many times in his writings and is believed to be a sort of Apostles's Creed. He took this Roman legal term, regula meaning a law summary that can be cited as an authoritative resume of what statute was said, now used as a convenient manner of stating beliefs.

Holiness

Holiness: also known as pure living, separated for God, or piety, was very important in Tertullian's repertoire. He had writings that condemned pagan practices such as -- sports (only because in that culture there was religious overtones), -- obvious idolatry, -- and the wearing a sort of philosophical cloth 'badge', the pallium. He, of course, warned against sexual immorality, and he was for marriage, but was uptight about sex there, too; but, mainly because of his Montanist association, discussed next. He is famous for his short works geared to women, two addressed to his own spouse. Three others were concerned with virginity. Even though he was more progressive than his Eastern contemporaries, he began to ask for prayer and fasting to replace kissing and blissing.

Escatology

Tertullian's views on the study of prophecy and the end of the world were dispensational. He might have been 1600 years ahead of his time except he saw only three divisions of time (based on the Trinity) in the big picture (as opposed to more than a dozen worked out later by such scholars as John Darby and Thomas Scofield). He believed the first age was the age of the Father as exampled by the Old Testament, the Incarnation showed the Age of the Son, and finally after Pentecost (when the disciples were first filled with the Holy Spirit), we are in the Age of the Holy Spirit. Being in this last age was significant in its call for living a life on this earth as if one is really a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven by denying earthly desires.

The Montanist Problem

Montanism is named after a converted Phrygian pagan priest, Montanus. Around 150 A.D., Montanus brought into his Christian belief system much of the same spritual and ecstatic phenomenon like dancing, speaking in tongues, and visions. His two female partners, (they allowed women in Church administration) Maximilla and Priscilla left their husbands to join this movement emphasizing the necessity to exhibit charisma and desire of marytrdom. Even though one was supposed to marry only once, they condoned leaving a spouse for spiritual grounds. They got in trouble with Bishops by limiting the forgiveness of sins by the three and those who proved to be 'spiritual', and by their making those who did not show their 'anointing' to question their Christianity. In spite of opposition and expulsion, their movement spread and by 202 A.D. Tertullian was ripe for its picking. Just like others before (and after) him, the anticipation of being in a movement that was the one prepared for the Judgement and escape from the world and persecution seduced him into this movement. He sympathized already with the severe call to chaste living (even in marriage)-- a return to life like the early Church.

Finally:

All in all, his work has more gold than stubble for that day in which all will be tested and purged.


Source:

  • A Short History of the Early Church, Harry Boer; Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1979.

  • Great Leaders of the Christian Church; Moody Press: Chicago, Ill., 1986.

  • A History of Christianity, Kenneth Latourette; Harper and Row: San Francisco, 1975.

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