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Tertullian of Carthage

Tertullian

A woodcut of Tertullian

So far we have read only fathers who wrote in Greek. This is no surprise, given that the apostles and evangelists wrote in Greek, and that in the first several centuries, the language of politics, commerce, and intellect in the Roman Empire was universally Greek and not Latin. Our next father, Tertullian of Carthage, was the first significant Christian author to write in Latin. Thus he earned for himself the appellation “father of Latin Christianity.”

Biography

Little is known for certain about Tertullian’s life. Both Jerome’s Lives of Illustrious Men (ch. 53) and Eusebius’s History of the Church (2.2) give brief biographies of Tertullian, but scholarship that has examined Tertullian’s own writings closely has concluded that these accounts are unreliable.

Tertullian was born in North Africa around 160. North Africa will be important later in our reading as the home of many of the Latin fathers, chief among them Augustine of Hippo. Eusebius writes that he was “a man well versed in the law of the Romans.” Tertullian’s father may have been a centurion. He may have spent some time as a rhetorician or lawyer in Rome, but most of his life was spent in Carthage. In his lifetime Carthaginian Christians experienced persecution, since in his treatise To Scapula, he asks the Roman governor of Carthage to cease persecuting Christians, and since he wrote a treatise On Running Away from Persecution. Several accounts of Carthaginian martyrs contemporary with Tertullian survive.

Map of Carthage in 250

Map of Carthage and other Christian centers in 250

Tertullian mostly likely converted to Christianity from paganism during his adulthood, perhaps between the years 180 and 190. Jerome calls Tertullian a presbyter (or priest) of the church. But when Tertullian compares the clergy and the laity, he seems to include himself with the laity. It is possible that he wrote those works while he was yet a layman. He was probably, though not definitely, married, since he wrote a treatise To His Wife.

Tertullian was a Catholic Christian from the date of his conversion, meaning that he was a member of the orthodox faith and not a part of the numerous breakaway sects. Beginning around the year 206 Tertullian became enamored with Montanism. Montanus was a Christian prophet who was especially ecstatic and extravagant in his prophecies about the Paraclete. He also laid down very strict ascetic guidelines for his followers. Montanus was not at first heretical, but his followers were eventually excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The teachings of the Montanist heresy were greatly exaggerated in the following centuries. Tertullian himself broke with the Catholic Church around 207, and wrote a number of vociferous tracts against the church and its leaders. A very small sect gathered around him; their remnants rejoined the Catholic Church thanks to the reconciliation of Augustine.

Tertullian died in his old age, perhaps around the year 220.

Works

Tertullian wrote in both Latin and Greek, though only his Latin works survive. Altogether some thirty-one of his works survive. We will be reading all of them, starting with his Apology.

Tertullian was a master of prose, with a barbed pen, witty but also humorous. It matters a great deal that Tertullian wrote in Latin. His works originated the distinctive idiom of Western Latin as opposed to Eastern Greek theology. To give but one example: Tertullian was likely the first to translate the Greek word μυστήριον (mysterion) into the Latin sacramentum. If Christianity is essentially a religion of translation, as the missiologist and historian Lamin Sanneh has put it, then to Tertullian we owe the translation of Christianity from its native Greek to Latin, and thus the origination of one of the great linguistic and cultural forms of Christianity.

Chief among his works was the Apology, a statement of Christian beliefs in a genre pioneered by Justin that is by now familiar to us. His other works, To the Nations and On the Witness of the Soul are also primarily apologetic.

Tertullian authored a number of polemical works written primarily against Gnosticism. The chief of these was his five books Against Marcion, which refuted the noted heretic. He takes up such topics as the doctrines of God, of Christ, and of the Trinity, the relationship between reason, tradition, and Scripture, and humans’ resurrection and final judgment in his works Prescription Against Heretics, Against Hermogenes, On the Flesh of Christ, On the Soul, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, and Against Praxeas.

Tertullian was a rigid and ascetic man, as demonstrated by his treatises that describe practices of discipline and morals. These works include On Fasting, On Penitence, and On Modesty. As Tertullian became more and more interested in Montanism, these works became increasingly extreme in the practices that they advocate. These works are useful for as evidences for early Christian practices, especially the practice of penance.

Theology

Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, according to Jerome, “was accustomed never to pass a day without reading Tertullian, and that he frequently said to [his secretary], ‘Give me the master,’ meaning by this, Tertullian.”

In judging Tertullian’s works, it is crucial to keep in mind that his writing developed over time, and that his later, Montanist works have a different theology than his earlier, catholic works. Yet this difference must not be understood too sharply, as all of Tertullian’s writings were enthusiastic and concerned with the Paraclete. We must also keep in mind that Tertullian wrote for different audiences—sometimes to heretics, sometimes to pagans or Roman officials, sometimes to Catholic Christians, sometimes against Catholics—using different rhetorical strategies and modes of argumentation. The result is that Tertullian’s works must be taken as a whole, rather than in parts.

One of Tertullian’s key theological contributions was his doctrine of the Trinity. In arguing against Marcion, who believed in a cruel god of the Old Testament and a gracious God of the New Testament, Tertullian argued for the unity of God. In arguing against Praxeas, who probably held to the heresy of modalism or patripassianism, 1 Tertullian argued that God was a Trinity (trinitas), a word that he was the first to use. He distinguished between the Father, Son, and Spirit as each being a different person (persona), yet sharing a union of substance (substantia). Tertullian thus contributed some of the key ideas and vocabulary of the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, eventually formalized at the Councils of Nicaea (315) and Constantinople (381). Tertullian also understood the Son to be of two natures, divine and human, a position later defined at the Council of Chalcedon (451). Though Tertullian argued that the Son was derived from the Father, his deviation from Nicene orthodoxy is understandable since a fuller theological statement of the doctrine of the Trinity would not be worked out for well over a century.

Ruins of Carthage

Ruins of Carthage

Tertullian writes frequently on the relationship between Scripture and tradition or the rule of faith (regula fidei), that is, the Christian teaching passed down from the apostles that preceded the written record of the Scriptures. Tertullian argued for and used the Scriptures as authoritative, while holding that what made the Scriptures authoritative was their agreement with the tradition from which they were derived. As Geoffrey Dunn argues, “We find in Tertullian the priority of Tradition over Scripture (to use the language of the sixteenth-century Reformations) because Scripture is a record of Tradition.” Tertullian defended the authority of all the Scriptures against Marcion, who greatly reduced the canon to some of the epistles of Paul and parts of Luke’s Gospel.

Tertullian also deals with a host of other theological questions, among them the doctrine of the soul. His writings are an important witness to practices among early Christians, though as stated earlier, his own proclivities were far more radically ascetic than those of other Christians.

Alternate editions and sources

English translations of Tertullian’s works have been published in the Fathers of the Church series: Rudolph Arbesmann, et al., trans., Tertullian, Apologetical Works (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1950; reprint, 2008) and Tertullian, Disciplinary, Moral and Ascetical Works (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1959; reprint, 2008). Those with access to a university library can find the Latin text of Tertullian’s works in the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, volume 1, Opera Catholica (Brepols, 1954) and volume 2, Opera Montanistica (Brepols, 1954). The Latin texts and English translations of the Apology and On the Spectacles have been published in the Loeb Classical Library edition, edited and translated by T. R. Glover. Tertullian’s treatise On the Lord’s Prayer has been published in Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Tertullian, Cyprian, And Origen On The Lord’s Prayer (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), part of the excellent Popular Patristics Series. Three of the less studied treatises are translated, with a sixty-page introduction to Tertullian, in Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (London: Routledge, 2004).

The fullest biography is Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). Barnes doubts most of the details given by Jerome and Eusebius. Tertullian’s theology is treated in Eric Osborn Tertullian, First Theologian of the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). See also the Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Tertullian.” The Tertullian Project contains bibliographies and primary texts.

  1. The idea that Father, Son, Spirit were merely different modes of God, and thus that the Father suffered on the cross.

2 Comments

  1. Last I heard there was some doubt about Tertullian’s status as a heretic if only because the New Prophecy movement was not as stigmatized in Tertullian’s own day as in that of St. Jerome (one of the prime patristic witnesses against Tertullian’s orthodoxy). For all his robust criticisms of the church and her hierarchy, Tertullian may well have still considered himself a “catholic,” i.e. part of the orthodox fold. GIven that his writings never explicitly encourage his readers to break from the church, and likewise given the high regard the venerable St. Cyprian maintained for Tertullian, “the master,” it seems reasonable to suppose Tertullian never entered into actual schism with the church. He may well have maintained some highly controversial sympathies, yet the evidence for his willful resistance against the church’s authority is lacking (cf. Stewart Sykes, introduction to “On the Lord’s Prayer,” SVS Press).

  2. Daniel,

    Thanks for the detailed comment. I agree that Tertullian shouldn’t be judged badly for his Montanist leanings, so I tried to soft-pedal his dissent from the church in this introduction.

    The question of whether Tertullian formally broke with the Catholic Church, or if the Catholic Church broke with him, is of course a separate question. Barnes writes, “Tertullian’s views did not commend themselves at all widely and were, perhaps even formally, condemned as heretical” (139).

    Barnes’s final paragraph of his chapter on “The New Prophecy” is helpful in evaluating Tertullian:

    Tertullian’s Montanism must be assessed dispassionately. His literary technique improved with age, and his orthodox on matters of doctrine remained impeccable, but his position in the Christian society of Carthage deteriorated. Montanists were excluded from the church, their New Prophecy rejected and derided. Tertullian attempted persuasion, to no avail. In similar circumstances, what man of his talent and predispositions could refrain from polemical attack? The Holy Spirit still spoke to men: the majority of Christians in Carthage simply refused to listen. The Adversus Praxean exemplifies a paradox: Tertullian helped to rescue the Catholic CHurch from theological heresy precisely because he was a Montanist.

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