Tertullian was born about 160 A.D. in Carthage in what is modern Tunisia and Algeria. He was the son of a highly placed pagan centurion. Some scholars think that he was the son of a commander of the proconsul’s guard. This may account for his use of military metaphors such as, for example, his remarks that “the Lord, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” Tertullian considered that it was almost impossible for any Christian to hold public office or accept military service. This may be because he was a military man. One was expected not only to swear an oath of allegiance to the emperor but also to the gods.
Tertullian’s early years were surrounded by the household gods or deities of Rome. Later he contended vehemently against paganism. Tertullian had a good education and was a brilliant student. He studied rhetoric, the poets, and philosophy in Carthage and then went to Rome where he read law. He had much learning in Stoicism which remained with him throughout his life even when he became a Christian. He had a negative attitude toward philosophy which he considered profane.
We do not know for certain, what led him to Christianity. It was not unlikely that he was impressed by the example of the Christian martyrs and the impact of the Christian community rather than by a careful comparison of philosophical systems. There was also the spiritual impact of Christians.
Jerome tells us that soon after his conversion about 195 A.D., Tertullian was ordained a presbyter. However, he himself nowhere refers, to his clerical status. Most scholars believe he remained a layman throughout his life.
When Tertullian was converted he turned his genius for debate and argument to the service of the church. He was a prolific writer, a man of immense learning, and an extremely witty man of biting irony and sarcasm. On the persecution of Christians, Tertullian wrote:
But carry on, good officials. You will become much better in the eyes of the people if you will sacrifice the Christians for them. Torture us! Your iniquity is the proof of our innocence. For this reason God permits us to suffer these things… Yet your tortures accomplish nothing, though each is more refined than the last; rather they are an enticement to our religion. We became more every time we are hewn down by you: the blood of Christians is seed (Apology, 50, 12ff).
Tertullian sometimes wrote in Latin and is regarded as the first of the Latin fathers. He was a brilliant and outstanding rhetorician, full of enthusiasm and rugged eloquence. He was a born debater with a supreme command of language: “When we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by God (…) I hear that there has been an edict set forth, and a peremptory one too. The Sovereign Pontiff! - the Bishop of Bishops…”
His writings may be categorized as:
Doctrinal and Polemical
Moral and Practical.
1. His Apologetic Writings
Tertullian was perhaps a representative of the Latin Fathers. He may have practiced as a lawyer before his conversion. He wrote Apology about 197 AD. As a former advocate, Tertullian presented his arguments in legal form, striving to present them convincingly and rhetorically.
His Apology was addressed to the magistrates of the Roman Empire, particularly the proconsul of Carthage. On subject of the persecution of the Christians, he argued that a Christian was not a criminal and that, apart from being a Christian, he had committed no criminal offence. Tertullian skillfully ridiculed the way magistrates tried to persecute Christians. He argued that a magistrate would judge a common criminal and a Christian differently when both denied the charges brought against them, keeping an open mind for the former but allowing his bias to convince him of the latter’s guilt. Tertullian showed the inconsistency of the magistrates and argued against their injustice against natural law, pointing out their discrimination against Christians. As a citizen a Christian had the right to know what the law required of him. Tertullian contended that generally the law required adequate proof of guilt, yet Christians were being persecuted without any concrete proof.
Tertullian also argued that only a bad emperor persecuted innocent Christians. From his study of history he concluded that previous emperors such as Adrian had said that Christians should not be sought out for persecution,–the implicit message being that there was something good about Christianity. The dictum that only bad emperors made bad laws or undertook persecution campaigns was to have serious implications later.
Tertullian was not merely concerned with the refutation of charges against the Christians. Having shown the absurdities of the charges brought against them, he argued that in fact the pagans were guilty of sacrilege and moral laxity: they indeed were the criminals and not the Christians. He then went on to explain the main tenents of Christianity. In response to the accusation that the Christians’ refusal to worship the emperor and to sacrifice to idols was sacrilege, he showed that Christians were law-abiding citizens and that in fact the Christian Bible enjoined Christians to pray for the emperor (as in the Epistle to the Romans and I Timothy). Christians also cared for each other’s well being by looking after orphans, widows and the poor and collected money for charity.
Tertullian was anxious to demonstrate that Christians were in a class set apart. Christianity was the religion of Christ crucified as set out in the Bible which was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Apology was the greatest of his works. He was acquainted with the stream of Christian tradition and he read and used the work of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and others. Thus he wrote. “We have not out of our own mind fashioned our own materials since these have been produced by holy excellent men.” He admitted his indebtedness to these men.
In the Apology, Tertullian sought to set forth the reason for the persecution of the Christians. He showed that Christians suffered from the ignorant prejudice of their neighbours: “Because they were already disliked, they want to know no more.” He wrote further: “The truth ought to be sorted out. If the rulers were not afraid, they ought not to forbid the truth to reaching their ears by the secret pathways of a noiseless book.”
Tertullian sought to counter the strong feeling against Christianity which led to the Edict of the Emperor in 202 A.D. He then answered the five main charges often levelled against the Christians.
On atrocities based on rumours, he wrote, “If you cannot do it you ought not to believe it of others; for a Christian is a man as well as yourself.”
Concerning the charge that they worshipped novel (new) and strange gods, he traced the origins of such beliefs and maintained that pagans themselves ridiculed and despised their gods or deities.
On the charge of treason, Tertullian argued that Christians prayed for the safety of the emperor:
But look at the Christian! (…) Not a man is ashamed of it; not a man regrets - unless, indeed, that he was not a Christian earlier. If he is denounced as a Christian, he glories in it. If he is accused he does not defend himself. When he is questioned he confesses without any pressure. When he is condemned, he renders thanks.
Tertullian attacked the belief that the widespread multitude of believers might be a danger to the empire. How could a group of people considered to be insignificant be a threat to the empire? He argued that, far from Christians constituting a threat, they were, in fact, the most loyal members of society.
- On calamities attributed to the Christians (it was being claimed that the existence of the Christians brought the anger of the gods on the world) he wrote:
If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky does not move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, they cry at once, “The Christians to the lions!” (See Apology 40. 2)
Tertullian claimed that the calamities attributed to Christians had appeared before. He showed that great disasters had been experienced even before Christians were ever heard of.
- On the charges that Christians were useless in the affairs of the state, Tertullian queried,
How can this be? We live among you, eat among you, eat the same food, wear the same clothes, etc. Our compassion spreads more in the street than yours does in the temples. He pleaded with eloquence for the superior moral life of the Christians. “We alone are without crime.” He dismissed the charge of immorality laid at the door of the Christians and pointed out that all the crimes attributed falsely to Christians had long been committed and tolerated by pagans. He claimed that Christians were good citizens, paying their taxes, obeying all just orders and laws. They joined no subversive activities. Tertullian laid bare the emptiness of polytheism. He had a deep conviction of God as judge and of men standing before the finality of Divine Law.
2. Against the Marcionites and the Gnostics
Between 130 and 180 A.D., a succession of teachers working mainly in Alexandria dominated Christian intellectual life and spread their influence to Italy and Rome, Asia Minor and even among the Christians in the Rhone valley.
The gnosis or knowledge that the Gnostic leaders claimed to possess was theirs through some instantaneous illuminating process giving them understanding of the Word of God. The Gnostics claimed to protect their believers not only from fate and the astral powers but also from error. The Gnostics proclaimed themselves Christians. They cared little for the beliefs of the orthodox communities. Knowledge, to them, was superior to faith. Theirs was the secret teaching of Jesus, passed on through His disciples, males and females, to the Gnostic teachers. They had little to say about the second coming and the last judgment. Considering themselves perfect they ridiculed the food regulations observed by orthodox Jews and orthodox Christians. They were skeptical about the value of imitating Christ through martyrdom.
One of the factors that favoured the development of Gnosticism was the prevalence of dualistic and pessimistic beliefs underlaying much of popular religion of that period, whether pagan or Jewish: “If God was Goodness, how could one explain the existence of evil except that the matter whence the world was created was evil?” The Greek distinction between flesh and spirit and the destinies awaiting each was paralleled in Judaism by speculation concerning the two ways of life and death set before Israel (in Deut. 30:15 ff). To these tensions on the metaphysical level were added conflicts over moral obligations of the individual under the law resulting from Gnostic-type speculation.
This was the formidable polemical situation with which Tertullian had to contend. From 207 A.D. onwards, Tertullian’s main opponents were the Marcionites and the Orthodox Christians in Carthage. He regarded Marcion as the most dangerous enemy of the church and wrote his longest single work against him. A more general attack on heresy is found in his Prescription against Heresies.
In combating the heresies Tertullian dwelt upon the argument that the “Catholic” church had received its Scripture and its teaching directly from the Apostles. The heretics, he maintained, had no right to the Scripture. The true faith is that which is preached everywhere as opposed to the Gnostics’ claim to esoteric knowledge.
Thus he wrote, “What in so many congregations is always recognizable as the very same cannot be erroneous: it must be tradition.”
The heretics will not listen and understand that a search is sensible when one does not yet know the truth, and that with Christ and His gospel, we have reached the end and goal of our seeking. True faith is always simple (Against Marcion 5,20)
Tertullian’s attack on Monarchianism and his contribution to the vocabulary of Western Trinitarian thought is also to be noted. Monarchianism was an unsatisfactory early answer to the problem that was to bring bitter division to the church in the fourth century, the problem of how to reconcile the divinity of Christ with the unity of God.
Tertullian made an important contribution to the debate in his Treatise against Praxeas. He described God as “one substance consisting in three persons.” He dealt exhaustively with the unity in the Trinity and did not proceed to the further problem that arose, namely, that of the equality of rank between the divine personae. Furthermore, he was not a philosopher and it is not easy to determine the precise meaning of the Latin words substantia and persona which he used. Nevertheless his teaching represented an achievement for future orthodoxy.
3. Moral and Practical Writings
Perhaps the Romans’ attempt to tame and standardize the traditional oath had something to do with the persecution which resulted in martyrdom. Tertullian wrote a tract to encourage those about to suffer martyrdom. Martyrdom became the aim of Christianity, a society fed with a profound belief in the necessity for a pure membership, in the reality of God’s judgment and in the ever-present guidance of the Holy Spirit. He rejected any compromise with the world and the affairs of the world. “He (the Christian) finds God, makes him known and then puts a practical seal on all theoretical questions about God with his action.” Apology, 46, 9.
The persecution edict of Septimus Severus against converts to Judaism and Christianity in 202 - 203 A.D. brought out the determination of the Christians. Tertullian taught that the last days were at hand: “What we await is the trumpet of the Angel.” A Christian’s destiny was to be a martyr. By this he would win forgiveness of his sins and spread the kingdom of Christ. His opposition to the orthodox clergy in Rome and Carthage was characteristic. He joined the Montanists. By this the new prophecy gained its greatest success.
However, his conversion to Montanism did not mean the abandonment of previously held convictions. The Holy Spirit was perpetually active and its manifestation through the Phrygian prophetess was a further evidence that the end was imminent.
Tertullian accepted this advocacy for even sterner morality for the priesthood. He had allowed flight in time of persecution but in De Fuga he did not. He had conceded to a widow the right to remarry but in De Monogamin he refused it. It was the Holy Spirit who inspired the church and its members. Baptism, he contended, would not be administered by one who was in a state of sin. Martyrdom, for Tertullian, was a second baptism which would wash away sins committed after the first baptism. On confession, martyrdom became the aim of a Christian life.
Tertullian wrote treatises on many aspects of chastity. His view may best be described in contrast with those of Callistus, Bishop of Rome, who was probably the object of his scorn in On Chastity. Callistus proclaimed the right of the bishop to grant forgiveness after suitable penance to those who had committed grave sins. Callistus was faced with the question of whether he should bring sinners back by exercising clemency or whether by severity he should drive them back into paganism.
He chose clemency. By this way alone, he believed. could the church be led out of separation from the world. For Tertullian, this was an abomination and he greeted Callistus’ policy of clemency with indignation. He was prepared to consign the world to perdition and save only the elect. The church must be “without spot or wrinkle” and separated from the world. Thus were the lines of the classic argument on the doctrine of the church laid down.
Tertullian was in many ways the embodiment of the western spirit. This appears in the practical and non-speculative orientation of his thinking, in his emphasis upon the will and upon discipline, in his tendency towards social issues, and in the legalistic frameset of his thought. In such an age, that a figure so turbulent and rebellious–he was a man in revolt against the Modalities or Monarchianism, against Gnosticism and the Marcionites, he wrote Against Praxeas–should have lived long and died a natural death at the ripe age of eighty is indeed curious.
Christology is the doctrine of the person of Christ. Tertullain had to define the church’s tradition of the incarnation of Christ on two different fronts:
(a) Against pagan polytheism
(b) Against Monarchianism in the Christian church.
In addition to this he was to fight against the disruptive and divisive tendencies of Marcion and Valentinus, two of the leaders of Gnosticism. Tertullian formed his Christological terminology to combat these forces. The sources of his theological formulae were the Bible, Judaism, Gnosticism, popular and legal language. Stoicism was particularly helpful to him for theological reflection.
In his endeavours against pagan polytheism, he first clarified the Christian concept of God, particularly the notion familiar among the Hellenistic Jews of Alexandria: the historical revelation of God which the Jews had received; the advent of the Son of God which had been prophesied and which, for the Christians, had taken place in Christ. Tertullian, however, had to explain two things if he was not to give assistance to heathen polytheism: how this Son of God does not, as the Son, destroy the singleness of God and how it happened that he could become man in a way different from the heathen mythologies.
Tertullian saw the framework in terms of an economic Trinity: God the Father remains the ruler and retains the sovereignty. But the administration of the rule is handed over to the Son. The monarchy, Tertullian explained, is further guaranteed by the inner unity in the substance of Father, Son and Spirit. When Tertullian used the concept of “spirit,” it meant first and foremost the character of the reality of both the Father and the Son.
He therefore began his thinking from the unity of God. The Father is the guarantee of this unity of the monarchy. The Son (Christ) is assigned the second position and the Holy Spirit the third. Tertullian was not thinking of a purely static situation within God, the metaphysical Trinity, but of an economic, organic and dynamic threeness. His idea of unity is not mathematical but philosophical, an organic unity, not an abstract bare point, Father, Son and Spirit are in the one reality of God, For Tertullian, the second and third persons proceed from the unitas substantia because they had a task to fulfill. Only the Father remains completely transcendent.
Because Tertullian thus had the unfolding of the divine threeness already happening with a view to creation and redemption, the step to the doctrine of the Trinity was easily taken. The controversy with Monarchianism and Patripassianism carried on in the Praxeas gives us Tertullian’s characteristic christological ideas and terminology. The tri-personality of one God is an unconditional presupposition for his understanding of the mystery of the incarnation. As regards Tertullian’s contribution, it is really only certain elements in his vocabulary along with his clear perception of what main errors had to be avoided that became crucial and of final importance for christology - in vocabulary particularly, his use of substantia and persona.
G. A. Oshitelu
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This article is reproduced, with permission, from The African Fathers of the Early Church, copyright © 2002, by G. A. Oshitelu, Ibadan, Nigeria. All rights reserved.