Heroes of the Faith: Tertullian
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, (c. 155 – c. 240 AD), commonly known as Tertullian, was a prolific early Christian theologian from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He is the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy, including contemporary Christian Gnosticism. Tertullian has been called "the father of Latin Christianity" and "the founder of Western theology." Though conservative, he did originate and advance new theology to the early Church. He is perhaps most famous for being the oldest extant Latin writer to use the term Trinity (Latin: Trinitas), though a similar word had been used earlier in Greek, and giving the oldest extant formulation of the Trinitarian terminology later adopted as the modified Nicene Creed at the 2nd Ecumenical Council, the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, or as the Athanasian Creed, or both. Other Latin formulations that first appear in his work are "three persons, one substance" as the Latin "tres personae, una substantia" (itself from the Koine Greek "treis hypostases, homoousios"). He wrote his trinitarian formula after becoming a Montanist. However, unlike many Church Fathers, he was never recognized as a saint by the Church, as several of his teachings on issues such as remarriage for widows and fleeing from persecution (both of which he condemned) contradicted the teachings of the Church.
Scant reliable evidence exists to inform us about Tertullian's life. Most history about him comes from passing references in his own writings.
Roman Africa was famous as the home of orators and this influence can be seen in his style with its archaisms or provincialisms, its glowing imagery and its passionate temper. He was a scholar with an excellent education. He wrote at least three books in Greek. In them he refers to himself, but none of these are extant.
According to church tradition, he was raised in Carthage and was thought to be the son of a Roman centurion; Tertullian has been claimed to be a trained lawyer, and an ordained presbyter. These assertions rely on the accounts of Eusebius of Caesarea's Church History, and Jerome's De viris illustribus (On Famous Men). Jerome claimed that Tertullian's father held the position of centurio proconsularis ("aide-de-camp") in the Roman army in Africa. However, it is unclear whether any such position in the Roman military ever existed.
Further, Tertullian has been thought to be a lawyer based on his use of legal analogies and an identification of him with the jurist Tertullianus, who is quoted in the Pandects. Although Tertullian used a knowledge of Roman law in his writings, his legal knowledge does not demonstrably exceed that of what could be expected from a sufficient Roman education. The writings of Tertullianus, a lawyer of the same cognomen, exist only in fragments and do not denote a Christian authorship. (Tertullianus was misidentified only much later with the Christian Tertullian by church historians.) Finally, any notion of Tertullian being a presbyter is also questionable. In his extant writings, he never describes himself as ordained in the church and seems to place himself among the laity.
His conversion to Christianity perhaps took place about 197–198. The event must have been sudden and decisive, transforming at once his own personality. He said of himself 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).
Two books addressed to his wife confirm that he was married to a Christian wife.
In middle life (about 207), he was attracted to the "New Prophecy" of Montanism, and seems to have split from the mainstream church. In the time of Augustine, a group of "Tertullianists" still had a basilica in Carthage which, within that same period, passed to the orthodox Church. It is unclear whether the name was merely another for the Montanists or that this means Tertullian later split with the Montanists and founded his own group.
Jerome says that Tertullian lived to a great age, but there is no reliable source attesting to his survival beyond the estimated year 225 AD. He continued to write against heresy, especially Gnosticism. Thus, by the doctrinal works he published, Tertullian became the teacher of Cyprian and the predecessor of Augustine, who, in turn, became the chief founder of Latin theology.
Though thoroughly conversant with the Greek theology, Tertullian remained independent of its metaphysical speculations. He had learned from the Greek apologies, and offered a direct contrast to Origen of Alexandria, who drew many of his theories regarding creation from Middle Platonism. Tertullian 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. Although he was by nature a polemicist no mention is made of his name by other authors during the 3rd century. Lactantius at the opening of the 4th century is the first to do so: Augustine, however, treats him with respect. Cyprian, Tertullian's North African compatriot, though nowhere mentioning his name, was well read in his writings, according to Cyprian's secretary in a letter to Jerome.
Tertullian's main doctrinal teachings are as follows:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 state the immanent Trinity. His use of trinitas (Latin: 'Threeness') emphasized the manifold character of God. In his treatise against Praxeas, who taught patripassianism in Rome, he used the words "trinity", "economy" (used in reference to the three persons), "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 another, and the Spirit is another ("dico alium esse patrem et alium filium et alium spiritum" Adv. Praxeam, ix), and yet in defending the unity of God, he says the Son is not other ("alius a patre filius non est", Adv. Prax. 18). He says that all things of the Father belong also to the Son, including his names, such as Almighty God, Most High, Lord of Hosts, or King of Israel. Yet even though Scripture talks about two gods and we say the Son is God when referred to by himself, this does not make two gods, but one, because the Son is entitled to be called God "from the unity of the Father". The question whether the Son was coeternal with the Father Tertullian does not set forth in full clarity; 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. The Catholic Encyclopedia comments that for Tertullian, "There was a time when there was no Son and no sin, when God was neither Father nor Judge." Similarly J.N.D. Kelly has stated: "Tertullian followed the Apologists in dating His 'perfect generation' from His extrapolation for the work of creation; prior to that moment God could not strictly be said to have had a Son, while after it the term 'Father', which for earlier theologians generally connoted God as author of reality, began to acquire the specialized meaning of Father and Son.". As regards the subjects of subordination of the Son to the Father, the New Catholic Encyclopedia has commented: "In not a few areas of theology, Tertullian’s views are, of course, completely unacceptable. Thus, for example, his teaching on the Trinity reveals a subordination of Son to Father that in the later crass form of Arianism the Church rejected as heretical."
- 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 baptismo, vi.), humans are born again; the baptized does not receive the Holy Spirit in the water, but is prepared for the Holy Spirit. Humans are little fishes—after the example of the ichthys, fish, Jesus Christ—are born in water (De baptismo, i).
In discussing whether sins committed subsequent to baptism may be forgiven, Tertullian 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).
- 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, 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, insofar 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 defender of the necessity of apostolicity. In his Prescription Against Heretics, he explicitly challenges heretics to produce evidence of the apostolic succession of their communities. "Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed."
- Fornicators and Murderers should never be admitted into the church under any circumstances. In De pudicitia, Tertullian condemns Roman Bishop, Callixtus I for allowing such people in when they show repentance.
- Tertullian was a premillennialist, affirming a literal resurrection at the second advent of Jesus at the end of the world, not at death.
- Concerning the image prophecy of Daniel 2, Tertullian identified Jesus, at his second advent, as the stone cut out of a mountain that strikes and destroys the image of “secular kingdoms.” He compares this with Daniel 7, 'Behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days; and they brought Him before Him, and there was given Him dominion and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed."
- Like Irenaeus, Tertullian equated the Antichrist with the ‘’Man of Sin’’ and the ‘’Beast’’. He expected a specific Antichrist just before the resurrection, as a persecutor of the church, under whom a second company of martyrs will be slain. Unlike Irenaeus, however, Tertullian does not consider the Antichrist to be a Jew sitting in a Jewish temple at Jerusalem. Rather, the Antichrist comes out of the church.
- Tertullian applied the Biblical figure of Babylon to the city of Rome and her domination. He portrayed Rome as drunk with the blood of martyred saints.
- Tertullian maintained that the thousand years of Revelation will follow the resurrection of the righteous dead on the earth with the New Jerusalem, preceding the eternity of heaven. The earth is destroyed after the one thousand years and the saints moved to the kingdom of heaven.