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Tertullian, Quintus Septimius Florens (c. 160–c. 220)

(c. 160c. 220)

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian, the African Church Father, was born in Carthage and was converted to Christianity about 193. He made early use of his training in rhetoric and Roman law in two apologetic works, Ad Nationes and Apologeticum, written in 197. These owe much to earlier Greek Christian apologies and to the writings of Varro, an Augustan polymath who analyzed religion along Stoic lines; Ad Nationes seems to have been a first draft of the Apologeticum. Tertullian was the first Christian theologian to write in Latin, and most of his works deal with moral and theological issues; all contain elements of polemic either against various aspects of Greco-Roman culture or against Christian heresies. Tertullian's works can be dated by cross-references, allusions to current events, and by his gradual movement toward the ascetic-apocalyptic sect of the Montanists, advocates of the "new prophecy"; he became a Montanist about 206 and later became the leader of a Montanist group in Carthage. Nothing is known of his life after the time of his last literary work, written about 220.

His writings are vigorously, even violently, individualistic in style and often in content; he loved paradox and contradiction, going so far as to claim in De Carne Christi (Ch. 5) that the incarnation of Christ "certum est quia impossibile " ("is certain because impossible"). This claim seems to be based on a line of argument found in Aristotle's Rhetoric (Book 2, Ch. 23, Sec. 22): It is likely that unlikely things should happen. Tertullian's philosophical theology is derived largely from his Greek Christian predecessors (St. Justin Martyr, Tatian, St. Theophilus, Irenaeus); his own contributions are chiefly Stoic in origin. For him philosophy is partly, or sometimes, an enemy of religion ("What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?"), sometimes an ally ("Seneca is often one of us").

Only two of Tertullian's nonapologetic works are primarily concerned with philosophical themes. One is the early treatise Adversus Hermogenes, in which he attacks the doctrine that matter is eternal and claims that Hermogenes derived this belief from Platonic and Stoic sources. His own arguments against the eternity of matter are partly a revision of a lost book by Theophilus, as the common Genesis text indicates. Hermogenes argued that the immutable God cannot have created the world from himself or have begun to create it ex nihilo; therefore he must have made it from matter, to which its imperfections are to be ascribed. God continually "creates," influencing matter as a magnet influences iron. In reply, Tertullian insisted primarily on God's freedom from "necessity." God created by his free will and therefore was not limited by matter.

His other work of philosophical interest is the Montanist treatise De Anima (c. 210213), which is intended to prove that Platonic teaching is false. The soul is actually corporeal and originates from a "soul-producing seed" at the moment of conception. It is not preexistent and does not transmigratean argument directed not only against Platonists but also against Christian heretics, chiefly Gnostic. Tertullian also discusses the human embryo and other related topics. His work is largely based on a treatise on the soul by the Greek physician Soranus, who wrote at Rome early in the second century. From Soranus, Tertullian derives most of his discussions of Plato, the Stoics, Aristotle, Heraclitus, and Democritus. Tertullian's importance thus lies in his mediation of earlier conceptions, Christian and pagan alike, and for his translation of Greek ideas into Latin.

See also Apologists; Aristotle; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Leucippus and Democritus; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Stoicism.


texts and translations

First modern edition by F. Oehler, 3 vols., Leipzig, 18531854; A Reifferscheid et al. (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum XX, XLVII, LXX. Vienna, 1890); and E. Dekkers et al. (Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina, III, Turnhout: Brepols, 1954).

English translations in Ante-Nicene Christian Library VII, XI, XV, XVIII. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 18681870.

Castorina, E., ed. De spectaculis. Florence, 1961.

Evans, E., ed. Adversus Praxeam. London, 1948.

Evans, E., ed. De carne Christi. London 1956.

Evans, E., ed. De resurretione carnis. London 1960.

Pollmann, K. Das Carmen adversus Marcionitas: Einleitung, Text, Übersetzung und Kommentar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991.

Refoulé, R. F. De praescriptione haereticorum. Sources Chrétiennes XLVI. Tübingen, 1910; Frankfurt: Minerva, 1968.

Schneider, A., ed. Ad nations. Rome, 1968.

Waszink, J. P., ed. De anima. Amsterdam, 1947.


Aziza, Claude. Tertullien et le judaïsme. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1977.

Barnes, T. D. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971; rev. ed., 1985.

Braun, R. et al., ed. Chronica Tertullianea et Cyprianea, 19751994: Bibliographie critique de la première littérature latine chrétienne. Paris, 1999.

Bray, G. Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian. London; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979.

Dekkers, E. Tertullianus en de Geschiednis der Liturgie. Münster, 1947.

Dunn, Geoffrey. Tertullian. London: Routledge, 2004.

Fredouille, J. C. Tertullien et la conversion de la culture antique. Paris: Études augustiniennes, 1972.

Moingt, J. Théologie trinitaire de Tertullien. Théologie 6870. Paris: Aubier, 1966.

Nisters, B. Tertullian: Seine Persönlichkeit un sein Schicksal. Münsterische Beiträge zur Theologie 25 (1950).

O'Malley, T. P. Tertullian and the Bible. Latinitas Christianorum Primaeva 21. Utrecht: Dekker & Van de Vegt, 1967.

Osborne, E. F. Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Questen, J. Patrology, II. pp. 246340. Utrecht: Spectrum Publishers, 1953.

Rankin, D. I. Tertullian and the Church. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, U.K., 1995.

Säflund, G. De Pallio und stilistische Entwicklung Tertullians. Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Rom VIII, Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1955.

Sider, D. Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Vecchiotti, I. La filosofia di Tertulliano. Un colpo di sonda nella storia del cristianesimo primitivo. Urbino: Argalìa, 1970.

Robert M. Grant (1967)

Bibliography updated by Scott Carson (2005)

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