Scant reliable evidence exists to inform us about Tertullian's life. Most history about him comes from passing references in his own writings.
According to church tradition, he was raised in Carthage and was thought to be the son of a Roman centurion, a trained lawyer, and an ordained priest. These assertions rely on the accounts of Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, II, ii. 4, and Jerome's De viris illustribus (On famous men) chapter 53. 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 utilized 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 mis-identified only much later with the Christian Tertullian by church historians.) Finally, any notion of Tertullian being a priest is also questionable. In his extant writings, he never describes himself as ordained in the church and seems to place himself among the laity.
Roman Africa was famous as the home of orators. 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. 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 perhaps took place about 197–198 (cf. Adolf 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 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 220. In spite of his schism from the Church, 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.
Thirty-one works are extant, together with fragments of more. Some fifteen 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 gave 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 antedating 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 the reign of Severus (Adv. Marcionem, i.1, 15) --which would be approximately the year 208.
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, and Scorpiace were written to counteract Gnosticism and other religious or philosophical doctrines. The other group consists of practical and disciplinary writings, e.g., De monogamia, Ad uxorem, De virginibus velandis, De cultu feminarum, De patientia, De pudicitia, De oratione, and Ad martyras.
Among his apologetic writings, the Apologeticus, addressed to the Roman magistrates, is a most pungent defense of Christianity and the Christians against the reproaches of the pagans, and an important legacy of the ancient Church, proclaiming the principle of freedom of religion as an inalienable human right and demands a fair trial for 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. He argued that 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 the martyrs is seed" (Apologeticum, 50). 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 guarantee of its truth.
The five books against Marcion, written 207 or 208, are the most comprehensive and elaborate of his polemical works, invaluable for gauging the early Christian view 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 of Alexandria, who drew much of his theories regarding creation from middle platonism. 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 3rd century no mention is made of his name by other authors. Lactantius at the opening of the 4th 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:
- 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).
- 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') emphasised the manifold character of God. 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). As regards the question whether the Son was coeternal with the Father, many believe that Tertullian did not teach that. 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 Pope Callixtus I for allowing such people in when they show repentance.
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 their 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).
- In that last breaking wave of delight, do we not feel something of our very soul go out from us?
His moral vigour and the service he provided as an ingenious and intrepid defender of the Christian religion were, for him, down to his view of Christianity as first and chiefly an experience of the heart.
Tertullian is occasionally considered as subscribing to misogyny, on the basis of the contents of his 'De Cultu Feminarum,' section I.I, part 2 (trans. C.W. Marx): "Do you not know that you are Eve? The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.”
Tertullian wrote in his book On Patience 5:15 "Having been made pregnant by the seed of the devil ... she brought forth a son." Or, in a different translation, "For straightway that impatience conceived of the devil's seed, produced, in the fecundity of malice, anger as her son; and when brought forth, trained him in her own arts."
The following chronological ordering was proposed by John Kaye, Bishop of Lincoln in the 19th C.:
Probably Catholic (Pre-Montanist):
There have been many works attributed to Tertullian in the past which have since been determined to be almost definitely written by others. Nonetheless, since their actual authors remain uncertain, they continue to be published together in collections of Tertullian's works.
- Initial text of article from The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Philip Schaff, public domain
- This Holy Seed: Faith, Hope and Love in the Early Churches of North Africa Robin Daniel, (Chester, Tamarisk Publications, 2010: from www.opaltrust.org) ISBN 095385634.
- T.D.Barnes, Tertullian: A literary and historical study Oxford, 1971; reprinted with appendix of revisions 1985.
- Ekonomou, Andrew J. 2007. Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes: Eastern influences on Rome and the papacy from Gregory the Great to Zacharias, A.D. 590-752. Lexington Books.
- Tertullian's works in many languages, including Latin, and English, website intratext.com.
- English translations of all Tertullian's works can be found in Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors, 1867–1872, Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translation of the writings of the fathers, down to AD 325, Edinburgh: T&T Clark: Vol. 7 (Tertullian's Against Marcion), Vol. 11(Tertullian's Treatises, Pt. 1), Vol. 15 (Tertullian's Treatises, Pt.2), Vol. 18 (Tertullian's Treatises, Pt. 3)
- Secondary sources:
- EarlyChurch.org.uk Detailed bibliography and on-line articles.
- Jerome's On Famous Men Chapter 53 is devoted to Tertullian.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Tertullian
- Tertullian in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
- The Tertullian Project, a site which provides all of the works of this Father of Church in Latin, translations in many languages, manuscripts etc.
- J. Kaye, Bishop of Lincoln (1845, third edition) The Ecclesiastical History of the Second and Third Centuries, illustrated from the writings of Tertullian. London: Rivington.
- Works by or about Tertullian in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
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