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TERTULLIAN (160?225?), Quintus Septimius Florens, first Christian theologian to write extensively in Latin. An African, Tertullian laid the foundations for Western theology through the range of issues he addressed and his precise formulations. Although he became an adherent of the Montanist sect, his thought exerted much influence on Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (248258), and later Latin authors.


Little is known of Tertullian's life. Data supplied by Jerome in his Lives of Famous Men (392393) were apparently inferred from remarks in Tertullian's own writings and are now generally discounted by scholars. Probably born and reared in Carthage, he received an excellent education and was considered one of the luminaries of his day. Although he employed considerable legal jargon and argument in his writing, he probably cannot be identified with the jurist Tertullianus whose opinions were cited in the Digest and Codex Justinianus. His extensive legal knowledge would have come from classical education.

Tertullian converted to Christianity around 193 to 195, doubtless attracted by the discipline of Christians, especially their willingness for martyrdom. His unusual gifts, education, and commitment quickly propelled him into a position of leadership, but, contrary to Jerome's assumption, he was never ordained a presbyter or elder in the Carthaginian church, identifying himself several times in his writings as a member of the laity. He did, however, preach or teach, for several of his writings are sermons.

Sympathetic by inclination with the rigorous views of discipline held by the Montanists, a charismatic sect that originated in Phrygia about ce 170, Tertullian veered toward that sect as the catholic church in North Africa moved away from it. For him this entailed no radical shift in views, but rather a hardening of certain ones held earlier on remarriage, flight to avoid persecution, and repentance for serious sinsall of which, as a Montanist, he prohibited absolutely. His new affiliation notwithstanding, he continued as the chief spokesman against gnosticism and Marcionism and as the major theologian in the West until Augustine.

After several years in the Montanist camp Tertullian separated from them and formed a sect of his own called Tertullianists, which still existed in Augustine's heyday (c. 400430). This schism could well have resulted from the growing tendency of Montanists to make exaggerated claims for their founder Montanus, as Tertullian was horrified by any ideas that were not thoroughly orthodox.

Throughout his career Tertullian belonged to the literary circles in Carthage. In his writings he cited numerous classics, perhaps drawn in part from anthologies but certainly also from works he knew in depth. As a stylist, he surpassed both Jerome and Augustine. He was a creative and passionate debater whose erudition and technique place him in the second Sophistic movement. The exact date of his death is unknown.


Tertullian's writings, thirty-one of which are extant, are notoriously difficult to date. They were once neatly divided into pre-Montanist, or catholic, and Montanist, according to "Montanistic" allusions. Recent studies, however, have demonstrated Montanist leanings not only in Tertullian but in early North African Christianity, hence this method has been discarded and the dating of many works revised.

The writings range across a wide spectrum, but they can be conveniently grouped under the headings of apologies for Christianity, treatises on the Christian life, and antiheretical works. In the summer of 197, Tertullian drafted two apologies, To the Nations and Against the Jews, the latter intended for Christian readers but never completed. Shortly thereafter, he revised To the Nations and published it as the finely argued and highly stylized Apology, his best-known work. In On the Testimony of the Soul he departed from his custom of citing scriptures and elaborated a purely psychological argument set out briefly in chapter 17 of the Apology. Years later, in 212, he reiterated in summary form arguments of the Apology in an appeal addressed to Scapula, proconsul of Africa, to halt the persecution of Christians.

Tertullian reflected a characteristic rigorist bent in the sermons and treatises on Christian life he composed throughout his brief career; his tone merely became sterner in Montanist days. In what is probably his earliest writing, On the Shows, dated 196 or early 197, he explained why Christians should not attend pagan games, theatrical productions, or contests. He saw no hope for the person who attended, for "he openly 'denies,' who gets rid of the distinctive mark by which he is known." To go from church to the shows is to go "from sky to stye." In On Idolatry he widened his prohibitions. Christians had to live with pagans, he said, but they did not have to sin with them. In On the Dress of Women, at least part of which was composed in his catholic years, he urged Christian women to set themselves apart from pagan women in clothing, adornment, hair style, and even in the way they walked. About the same time he exhorted Christians in The Martyrs to view prison as a place of withdrawal from the corrupt world and their imprisonment as discipline for heavenly citizenship.

In other treatises titled On Baptism, On Prayer, On Repentance, On Patience, and To His Wife now dated between 198 and 203Tertullian exhibited similar tendencies to distinguish Christian from pagan life. Those being baptized should come not to have sins forgiven, he insisted, but "because they have ceased sinning." For those who sin after baptism martyrdom is "a second baptism." In some contrast to his later stance in On Modesty, written about 210 or 211, Tertullian reluctantly followed the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140) in permitting repentance for serious sins following baptism, but he openly expressed admiration for the Montanist prohibition of second marriages and refusal to grant forgiveness to fornicators or adulterers. In To His Wife he urged her, first, not to remarry if he should die, but then, if she should nevertheless marry again, not to marry a pagan. On Modesty classified second marriages, whether after the death of a spouse or not, "the same as adultery" and labeled Hermas "the shepherd of adulterers." In On Patience Tertullian lauded patience as the Christian virtue par excellence, especially in the face of death and martyrdom.

During his Montanist years, Tertullian sharpened the lines separating Christian and pagan. In On the Wearing of the Laurel Wreath he set forth the rule that whatever scriptures do not explicitly permit is forbidden. Since wearing the laurel was of pagan origins, it was idolatrous and thus prohibited for Christians, as was military service. In On Flight in Persecution Tertullian negated the more humane view presented in To His Wife and On Patience and sternly forbade escape. Persecution is God's, not the devil's, will, thus no Christian should flee. He saved his harshest words, however, for the Valentinian gnostics who encouraged the faithful to flee persecution. Their teaching he called the "scorpion's sting" in a work bearing that title. In On Exhortation to Chastity and On Monogamy the formidable rigorist stoutly defended the Montanist insistence on a single marriage and preference for celibacy. Christian perfection, he argued, descended from virginity from birth, to virginity from the new birth, to continence within marriage. Against the Marcionites, however, Tertullian did affirm the sanctity of marriage. In On Fasting he commended also the zeal of Montanists for more fasts. In On the Veiling of Virgins he urged virgins to take the veil and flee the temptations of the world.

Apart from his curious defense of his wearing the pallium as an appropriate Christian "philosopher's" dress, the remaining writings of Tertullian are antiheretical. Here, too, Tertullian manifested his separatist inclinations. "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the church with the academy, the Christian with the heretic?" he demanded to know. Like Irenaeus, he proceeded to set forth the "prescription" that heresy represented a departure from the truth that Christ delivered to the apostles and they to apostolic churches. He reiterated the point in the polemic Against Hermogenes, in which he countered the view that God created the soul from preexistent matter. In a more extensive work, On the Soul, Tertullian again took up his cudgels against the philosophers, "those patriarchs of the heretics." Although grudgingly admitting that some philosophers had happened on the truth, he himself insisted on obtaining truth from revelation, including that obtained through Montanist seers. A prophetess, for instance, confirmed his (and the Stoics') concept of a corporeal soul. In his five books Against Marcion, the longest of his writings, and in the treatises On the Flesh of Christ and On the Resurrection of the Flesh he repudiated Marcionite and Valentinian views as being of pagan origin. Similarly, the polemic Against the Valentinians ridiculed the Valentinian system for inconsistencies and contradictions characteristic of pagan philosophies. Finally, in Against Praxeas he rejected modalism in godhead on the grounds of inconsistency and its conflict with "the rule of truth."


Tertullian labored assiduously to defend Christianity from the culture of his day. With that end in view he accentuated the authority of the rule of truth, a summary of the faith, and of the Bible interpreted more or less literally but with careful reference to context and his own situation. He also invented ecclesiastical Latin. These factors notwithstanding, he in no way equaled Irenaeus, whose treatise Against Heresies he invoked often, in development of a biblical theology. On the contrary, he drew many of his basic presuppositions from Stoicism and thus laid the ground for a distinctive Latin theology. His enduring contribution lay in his gift for finding apt formulas to state particular truths of faith.

Stoicism influenced Tertullian's concept both of God and of the soul as corporeal. He asserted that nothing can exist without a body. Thus, even though God is spirit, God is also body. So also is the soul corporeal. If it were not corporeal, it could not desert the body.

From this important assumption Tertullian deduced another: the transmission of sin through generation. Every human soul is a branch of Adam's soul; therefore, every soul inherits characteristics of Adam's soul, including sin. Tertullian, however, did not add to this a conclusion Augustine reached, that is, that guilt is also inherited.

In his refutation of modalism Tertullian won a victory for the Logos Christology of the apologists and Irenaeus. The first to use the term Trinitas ("trinity"), he argued that one God is simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not successively, as Praxeas held. Simultaneity is possible if the Trinity is "one substance in three persons": "three, however, not in unchangeable condition, but in rank; not in substance, but in attitude; not in office, but in appearance;but of one nature and of one reality and of one power, because there is one God from whom those ranks and attitudes and appearances are derived in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit." At the same time Tertullian recognized that to say the Son is "of one substance" with the Father poses a problem for his humanity and might lead, as it did later, to confusion as to the Son's personhood. Anticipating later debate, he repudiated the idea of a mixing or confusion of natures in some tertium quid.

On some matters of doctrine Tertullian's Montanism left a mark, although it is difficult to say exactly what the mark was, since both Montanism and Tertullian adhered rather closely to primitive Christian views. Most significant was his acceptance of the eschatological framework of Montanist thought. According to this, the age of the Paraclete promised in John 14:16 was inaugurated by Montanus and the prophets Priscilla and Maximilla. The dawning of this dispensation signaled a time of new prophetic revelations and of greater Christian disciplinefasting, prohibition of second marriages, and willingness to suffer martyrdom. Christ was expected to return soon and set up his millennial kingdom with headquarters at Pepuza in Phrygia, Montanus's hometown. In the interim the church would be divided. On the one side were the psychics, on the other the pneumatics. The former, catholics, would not accept the discipline of the new prophecy; the latter, Montanists, would. In line with this understanding of the church, the Montanist Tertullian shifted his views of ministry so as to give a greater weight to prophecy.

Given his allegiance to Montanism, a sect increasingly regarded as heretical, it is remarkable that Tertullian had so great an impact on later Christian theology. This must have been due not to his personality but to his unquestioned orthodoxy on most matters and his genius for coining just the right phrase.

See Also



An excellent critical edition of the whole corpus of Tertullian's writings now exists in the Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vols. 1 & 2 (Turnhout, Belgium, 1954). A complete translation can be found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vols. 3 & 4 (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1956). Numerous recent works have debated critical problems regarding Tertullian's life and thought. A searching examination of biographical and literary matters is to be found in Timothy D. Barnes's Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford, 1971). A valuable older work, by James Morgan, The Importance of Tertullian in the Development of Christian Dogma (London, 1928), is in need of updating. Most recent studies have focused on particular aspects of Tertullian's theology, but Gerald L. Bray's Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian (Atlanta, 1979) has attempted a more comprehensive treatment. T. P. O'Malley's Tertullian and the Bible: Language-Imagery-Exegesis (Utrecht, 1967) also supplies helpful insight into this important aspect of Tertullian's writings.

E. Glenn Hinson (1987)

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