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Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian (b. ca. 150-160, d. ca. 220-240) was a church leader and highly prolific writer during the early years of Christianity. He was born, lived, wrote, and died in Carthage, in what is today Tunisia.
Tertullian is a controversial individual within the history of the church. On one hand, he was the first great writer of Latin Christianity, often called the "Father of the Western Church." On the other hand, he left the orthodox catholic Church late in his life and joined the heterodox Montanists, a movement considered by many to have been a cult, and was thus never declared a saint by any surviving Christian church.
Of his life very little is known, and that little is based upon passing references in his own writings, and upon Eusebius of Caesarea, Hist. eccl. II, ii. 4, and Jerome, De viris illustribus (On famous men) chapter 53.
His father held a position (centurio proconsularis, "aide-de-camp") in the Roman army in Africa, and Punic influence can be seen in his style, with its archaisms or provincialisms, its glowing imagery, and its passionate temper. He was a scholar, having received an excellent education. He wrote at least three books in Greek, to which he himself refers; but none of these are extant. His principal study was jurisprudence, and his methods of reasoning reveal striking marks of his juridical training. He shone among the advocates of Rome, as Eusebius reports.
His conversion to Christianity took place about 197-198 (so Harnack, Bonwetsch, and others), but its immediate antecedents are unknown except as they are conjectured from his writings. The event must have been sudden and decisive, transforming at once his own personality; he himself said that he could not imagine a truly Christian life without such a conscious breach, a radical act of conversion: "Christians are made, not born" (Apol, xviii).
In the church of Carthage he was ordained a presbyter, though he was married-- a fact which is well established by his two books to his wife. In middle life (about 207) he broke with the Catholic Church and became the local leader and the passionate and brilliant exponent of Montanism, that is, he became a schismatic. The statement of Augustine (De Haeresibus, lxxxvi) that before his death Tertullian returned to the bosom of the Catholic Church is very improbable.
His party, the Tertullianists, still had in the times of Augustine a basilica in Carthage, but in that same period passed into the orthodox Church. Jerome says that Tertullian lived to a great age. In spite of his schism, Tertullian continued to fight heresy, especially Gnosticism; and by the doctrinal works thus produced he became the teacher of Cyprian, the predecessor of Augustine, and the chief founder of Latin theology.
Thirty-one works are extant, together with fragments of more. Some 15 works in Latin or Greek are lost, some as recently as the 9th century (De Paradiso, De superstitione saeculi, De carne et anima were all extant in the now damaged Codex Agobardinus in 814 AD). Tertullian's writings cover the whole theological field of the time-- apologetics against paganism and Judaism, polemics, polity, discipline, and morals, or the whole reorganization of human life on a Christian basis; they give a picture of the religious life and thought of the time which is of the greatest interest to the church historian.
Chronology and Contents
The chronology of these writings is difficult to fix with certainty. It is in part determined by the Montanistic views that are set forth in some of them, by the author's own allusions to this writing or that as ante-dating others (cf. Harnack, Litteratur ii. 260-262), and by definite historic data (e.g., the reference to the death of Septimius Severus, Ad Scapulam, iv.). In his work against Marcion, which he calls his third composition on the Marcionite heresy, he gives its date as the fifteenth year of Severus' reign (Adv. Marcionem, i. 1, 15).
The writings may be divided with reference to the two periods of Tertullian's Christian activity, the Catholic and the Montanist (cf. Harnack, ii. 262 sqq.), or according to their subject-matter. The object of the former mode of division is to show, if possible, the change of views Tertullian's mind underwent. Following the latter mode, which is of a more practical interest, the writings fall into two groups. Apologetic and polemic writings, like Apologeticus, De testimonio animae, Adv. Judaeos, Adv. Marcionem, Adv. Praxeam, Adv. Hermogenem, De praescriptione hereticorum, Scorpiace counteract Gnosticism etc. The other writing are practical and disciplinary, e.g., De monogamia, Ad uxorem, De virginibus velandis, De cultu feminarum, De patientia, De pudicitia, De oratione, Ad martyras etc.
Among the apologetic writings the Apologeticus, addressed to the Roman magistrates, is the most pungent defense of Christianity and the Christians ever written against the reproaches of the pagans, and one of the most magnificent legacies of the ancient Church, full of enthusiasm, courage, and vigor. It first clearly proclaims the principle of religious liberty as an in inalienable right of man, and demands a fair trial for the Christians before they are condemned to death.
Tertullian was the first to break the force of such charges as that the Christians sacrificed infants at the celebration of the Lord's Supper and committed incest; he pointed to the commission of such crimes in the pagan world, and then proved by the testimony of Pliny that Christians pledged themselves not to commit murder, adultery, or other crimes; he adduced also the inhumanity of pagan customs, such as feeding the flesh of gladiators to beasts. The gods have no existence, and thus there is no pagan religion against which Christians may offend. Christians do not engage in the foolish worship of the emperors; they do better, they pray for them. Christians can afford to be put to torture and to death, and the more they are cast down the more they grow; "the blood of Christians is seed" (chap. l.). In the De Praescriptione he develops as its fundamental idea that, in a dispute between the Church and a separating party, the whole burden of proof lies with the latter, as the Church, in possession of the unbroken tradition, is by its very existence a guaranty of its truth.
The five books against Marcion, written 207 or 208, are the most comprehensive and elaborate of his polemical works, invaluable for the understanding of Gnosticism. Of the moral and ascetic treatises, the De patientia and De spectaculis are among the most interesting, and the De pudicitia and De virginibus velandis among the most characteristic.
Though thoroughly conversant with the Greek theology, Tertullian was independent of its metaphysical speculation. He had learned from the Greek apologies, and forms a direct contrast to Origen. Origen pushed his idealism in the direction of Gnostic spiritualism. Tertullian, the prince of realists and practical theologian, carried his realism to the verge of materialism. This is evident from his ascription to God of corporeity and his acceptance of the traducian theory of the origin of the soul. He despised Greek philosophy, and, far from looking at Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers whom he quotes as forerunners of Christ and the Gospel, he pronounces them the patriarchal forefathers of the heretics (De anima, iii.). He held up to scorn their inconsistency when he referred to the fact that Socrates in dying ordered a cock to be sacrificed to AEsculapius (De anima, i.). Tertullian always wrote under stress of a felt necessity. He was never so happy as when he had opponents like Marcion and Praxeas, and, however abstract the ideas may be which he treated, he was always moved by practical considerations to make his case clear and irresistible. It was partly this element which gave to his writings a formative influence upon the theology of the post-Nicene period in the West and has rendered them fresh reading to this day. He was a born disputant, moved by the noblest impulses known in the Church. It is true that during the third century no mention is made of his name by other authors. Lactantius at the opening of the fourth century is the first to do this, but Augustine treats him openly with respect. Cyprian, Tertullian's North African compatriot, though he nowhere mentions his name, was well read in his writings, as Cyprian's secretary told Jerome.
Tertullian's main doctrinal teachings are as follows:
(1) The soul was not preexistent, as Plato affirmed, nor subject to metempsychosis or reincarnation, as the Pythagoreans held. In each individual it is a new product, proceeding equally with the body from the parents, and not created later and associated with the body (De anima, xxvii.). This position is called 'traducianism' in opposition to 'creationism', or the idea that each soul is a fresh creation of God. For Tertullian the soul is, however, a distinct entity and a certain corporeity and as such it may be tormented in Hell (De anima, lviii.).
(2) The soul's sinfulness is easily explained by its traducian origin (De anima, xxxix.). It is in bondage to Satan (whose works it renounces in baptism), but has seeds of good (De anima, xli.), and when awakened, it passes to health and at once calls upon God (Apol., xvii.) and is naturally Christian. It exists in all men alike; it is a culprit and yet an unconscious witness by its impulse to worship, its fear of demons, and its musings on death to the power, benignity, and judgment of God as revealed in the Christian's Scriptures (De testimonio, v.-vi.).
(3) God, who made the world out of nothing through his Son, the Word, has corporeity though he is a spirit (De praescriptione, vii.; Adv. Praxeam, vii.). However Tertullian used 'corporeal' only in the stoic sense, to mean something with actual existence, rather than the later idea of flesh. In the statement of the Trinity, Tertullian was a forerunner of the Nicene doctrine, approaching the subject from the standpoint of the Logos doctrine, though he did not fully state the immanent Trinity. In his treatise against Praxeas, who taught patripassianism in Rome, he used the words, " Trinity and economy, persons and substance." The Son is distinct from the Father, and the Spirit from both the Father and the Son (Adv. Praxeam, xxv.). "These three are one substance, not one person; and it is said, 'I and my Father are one' in respect not of the singularity of number but the unity of the substance." The very names "Father" and "Son" indicate the distinction of personality. The Father is one, the Son is one, and the Spirit is one (Adv. Praxeam, ix.). The question whether the Son was coeternal with the Father Tertullian does not set forth in full clearness; and though he did not fully state the doctrine of the immanence of the Trinity, he went a long distance in the way of approach to it (B. B. Warfield, in Princeton Theological Review, 1906, pp. 56, 159).
(4) In soteriology Tertullian does not dogmatize, he prefers to keep silence at the mystery of the cross (De Patientia, iii.). The sufferings of Christ's life as well as of the crucifixion are efficacious to redemption. In the water of baptism, which (upon a partial quotation of John 3:5) is made necessary (De baptismate, vi.), we are born again; we do not receive the Holy Spirit in the water, but are prepared for the Holy Spirit. We little fishes, after the example of the ichthys, fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water (De baptismate, i.). In discussing whether sins committed subsequent to baptism may be forgiven, he calls baptism and penance "two planks" on which the sinner may be saved from shipwreck-- language which he gave to the Church (De penitentia, xii.).
(5) With reference to the rule of faith, it may be said that Tertullian is constantly using this expression and by it means now the authoritative tradition handed down in the Church, now the Scriptures themselves, and perhaps also a definite doctrinal formula. While he nowhere gives a list of the books of Scripture, he divides them into two parts and calls them the instrumentum and testamentum (Adv. Marcionem, iv. 1). He distinguishes between the four Gospels and insists upon their apostolic origin as accrediting their authority (De praescriptione, xxxvi.; Adv. Marcionem, iv. 1-5); in trying to account for Marcion's treatment of the Lucan Gospel and the Pauline writings he sarcastically queries whether the "shipmaster from Pontus" (Marcion) had ever been guilty of taking on contraband goods or tampering with them after they were aboard (Adv. Marcionem, v. 1). The Scripture, the rule of faith, is for him fixed and authoritative (De corona, iii.-iv.). As opposed to the pagan writings they are divine (De testimonio animae, vi.). They contain all truth (De praescriptione, vii., xiv.) and from them the Church drinks (potat) her faith (Adv. Praxeam, xiii.). The prophets were older than the Greek philosophers and their authority is accredited by the fulfilment of their predictions (Apol., xix.-xx.). The Scriptures and the teachings of philosophy are incompatible, in so far as the latter are the origins of sub-Christian heresies. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" he exclaims, "or the Academy with the Church?" (De praescriptione, vii.). Philosophy as pop-paganism is a work of demons (De anima, i.); the Scriptures contain the wisdom of heaven. However Tertullian was not averse to using the technical methods of Stoicism to discuss a problem (De anima). The rule of faith, however, seems to be also applied by Tertullian to some distinct formula of doctrine, and he gives a succinct statement of the Christian faith under this term (De praescriptione, xiii.).
Tertullian was a determined advocate of strict discipline and an austere code of practise, and like many of the African fathers, one of the leading representatives of the rigorist element in the early Church. These views may have led him to adopt Montanism with its ascetic rigor and its belief in chiliasm and the continuance of the prophetic gifts. In his writings on public amusements, the veiling of virgins, the conduct of women, and the like, he gives expression to these views.
On the principle that we should not look at or listen to what we have no right to practise, and that polluted things, seen and touched, pollute (De spectaculis, viii., xvii.), he declared a Christian should abstain from the theater and the amphitheater. There pagan religious rites were applied and the names of pagan divinities invoked; there the precepts of modesty, purity, and humanity were ignored or set aside, and there no place was offered to the onlookers for the cultivation of the Christian graces. Women should put aside there gold and precious stones as ornaments (De cultu, v.-vi.), and virgins should conform to the law of St. Paul for women and keep themselves strictly veiled (De virginibus velandis). He praised the unmarried state as the highest (De monogamia, xvii.; Ad uxorem, i. 3), called upon Christians not to allow themselves to be excelled in the virtue of celibacy by Vestal Virgins and Egyptian priests, and he pronounced second marriage a species of adultery (De exhortations castitatis, ix.).
If Tertullian went to an unhealthy extreme in his counsels of asceticism, he is easily forgiven when one recalls his own moral vigor and his great services as an ingenuous and intrepid defender of the Christian religion, which with him, as later with Martin Luther, was first and chiefly an experience of his own heart. On account of his schism with the Church, he, like the great Alexandrian Father, Origen, has failed to receive the honor of canonization.
Initial text from Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religion
- English translations of Tertullian's writings can be found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
This Holy Seed: Faith, Hope and Love in the Early Churches of North Africa Robin Daniel, Tamarisk Publications, 1993. ISBN 0952043505
- The Tertullian Project Latin texts, translations in many languages, manuscripts etc.
- Jerome's On Famous Men
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