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Outstanding 3d-century theologian and ecclesiastical writer; b. probably at Carthage, c. 160; d. after 220. He was the son of a centurion in the service of the proconsul of Africa. Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus received an excellent education, chiefly in rhetoric and jurisprudence, and was professionally an advocate in the law courts of Rome. It is now generally agreed that he is to be identified with the jurist Tertullian, excerpts of whose writings are quoted in the Pandects.

Career and Character. Converted to Christianity (c. 195), Tertullian became an instructor of catechumens at carthage and in connection with this office began his literary career. As early as 206 his teaching began to reflect Montanist ideas, and c. 212 or 213 he broke with the Church and joined forces with montanism in Africa, becoming the leader of a party subsequently known as Tertullianists. He was certainly married; whether he was a priest is still a matter of dispute.

According to St. jerome (De Viris illustribus 53) he is said to have lived to an extreme old age: "fertur vixisse usque ad decrepitam aetatem." There is no evidence that he returned to the Church before he died. The party that he founded continued in existence for some 200 years, the last remnant being reconciled to the Church by St. au gustine (c. 400).

The tragic course of Tertullian's life was determined, to a great extent, by the defects of his own character. Tertullian was an extremist. He tells that as a young man he "drained the cup of lust to the dregs" and that he had a passion for immoral plays and bloody spectacles in the arena; he was probably initiated into the mysteries of Mithra; and he confesses that he committed adultery frequently. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the exaggerated ascetism of his later views resulted, at least in part, from a reaction of disgust at the licentiousness of his earlier life.

Pierre DeLabriolle speaks of his "mania" for discipline; Matthew Arnold's sonnet on "the stern Tertullian" is well known; in Gibbon's famous indictment he is little better than a sadist; a 20th-century analyst, Bernhard Nisters, refers to schizoid features in Tertullian's temperament and suggests that his rigorism, his intolerance, his disputatious nonconformity, and his violent reaction to opposition approach paranoia. Such estimates are, in themselves, exaggerations. Tertullian's character was difficult, but it was not diseased. He was a man of ardent temperament, passionate, proud, and incapable of compromise with the truth as he saw it. It is true that he was impatient and irritable, but it is equally true that he was honest enough to admit this in the introduction to his beautiful treatise De patientia. Tertullian was a man of strong convictions and great moral earnestness. Through his excessive rigorism he adopted the extreme asceticism that warped his character and ruined his life. John Henry newman has written that impatience is the original sin of heretics; of no one can this be said with greater truth than of Tertullian.

Literary Genius. Tertullian was a literary genius, the greatest Christian writer in the West before St. Augustine and one of the greatest in the whole patristic period. The very characteristics that brought about his downfall contributed to the vigor and highly original quality of his prose. He illustrates perfectly the truth of Buffon's dictum that the style is the man. Tertullian knew the rules of the rhetoricians, and he could compose carefully according to these rules when it suited his purposes to do so. Yet he was too independent a character to be bound by conventional forms.

Tertullian was a writer of marvelous fertility and inventiveness, gifted with a felicity of expression rare among early Christian writers. He coined one epigram, one apothegm after another. He loved the paradox and the reductio ad absurdum. Puns and wordplay are scattered through all of his writings. He had a great power of invective and a genius for dispraise. Sarcasm was one of his favorite weapons. He almost always wrote like an angry man, and even his treatises on the Christian virtues are polemical. tacitus he called a "first class chatterbox and a liar"; aristotle was the "wretched inventor of dialectics"; marcion was "a rat from Pontus who gnaws away at the Gospels." Tags from his writings are known to everyone. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" "The blood of Christians is seed." "It is certain because it is impossible." "Faith is patience with its lamp lit." "God is great when He is small." "Anima naturaliter Christiana." The list is endless.

Tertullian is the most quotable of all ancient Christian writers, and yet, though he is often quoted, he is seldom quoted at length. This is because he had a gift for the phrase rather than the paragraph and because most readers find it easier to appreciate his wit than to follow his arguments.

The difficulty of Tertullian's Latin is notorious, and there are references to it as early as lactantius and St. Jerome. Strangely conceived combinations of words and phrases, highly imaginative metaphors, cryptic allusions, multiple parentheses and antitheses, asyndeton, ellipsis ("Quot verba, tot sententiae" is the judgment of vincent of lÉrins), a unique vocabulary (there are almost a thousand neologisms in Tertullian), and above all an almost breathless brevity contribute to the obscurity of his style. He is, without doubt, the most difficult of all Latin prose writers, and yet so competent a critic as DeLabriolle has stated that after one acquires a taste for his pungent prose, all other Latin writers, including Tacitus, seem insipid; and Professor Wright considers him one of the five Latin writers who have done most to influence the developments of the language.

Writings. Thirty-one authentic treatises of Tertullian are extant. Five others attributed to him are spurious, and there are at least twelve that have been lost, including three of four written originally in Greek. The influence and popularity of these writings during the patristic period is attested by the frequency with which they are quotedoften without acknowledgmentby later Christian writers in the West.

Collections of his treatises were made at a very early date. St. Jerome relates that Cyprian "never passed a day without reading some portion of Tertullian's works"; and his daily request, "Da magistrum" (Give me the Master), suggests that he had in his possession a collection of Tertullian's writings. How many such collections remained after the condemnation of Tertullian's works by the socalled gelasian decree it is impossible to say.

The official opposition of the Church to the teaching of Tertullian is responsible, at least in part, for the defective text tradition of his works. The fact that in spite of this opposition at least six different collections of Tertullian's

writings existed at the beginning of the Middle Ages reveals a liberalism that has not always been recognized as characteristic of this period. The works of Tertullian may be classified as (1) apologetical, (2) controversial, and (3) treatises on Christian discipline and ascetism.

Apologetics. His Apology is one of the great classics of ancient Christian literature. It was written in a.d. 197, shortly after his conversion and well before Montanism became a serious influence in his life. The work is a passionate defense of the truth of Christianity. It was addressed to the provincial governors of the Roman Empire, and its proximate purpose was to prove the injustice of the persecutions directed against Christians. These persecutions arose from ignorance, misrepresentation, and fear. Tertullian's Apology argues brilliantly that the policy followed in the persecutions is inconsistent with the procedure regularly observed in criminal cases tried in Roman courts of justice. It shows that popular charges against the Christians of secret atrocities, sacrilege, and disloyalty are false; that Christian life and worship are blameless; and that Christianity, far from being a threat to the state, is actually one of the greatest sources of its strength because of the good moral lives that Christians lead and because Christianity supplies a sanction for the observance of law to which paganism can never rise.

Polemics. It has already been noted that Tertullian's writing is almost exclusively polemical. His apologetical treatises are concerned with the defense of Christianity against the attacks of paganism and infidelity. His controversial works, in the technical sense of the word controversial, defend Catholic truth against the attacks of heresy. The most important of these are the De praescriptione hereticorum, Adversus Marcionem, Adversus Praxean, and the De anima; of these, the De praescriptione (c. 200) is in a class by itself.

Praescriptio was a technical term in Roman law to describe a form of defense in which a litigant, in a statement prefixed to a brief (praescribere ), took exception to some aspects of his opponent's case and thus attempted to have the case thrown out of court before it came to trial. The form of praescriptio with which Tertullian is here concerned is that of longa possessio. Heretics wish to establish the truth of their position from Scripture. The Church interposes a demurrer at once. Heretics have no right to argue from the Bible, because the Bible is the Church's book and has been the Church's book from the beginning. The content of revelation can be found nowhere except in churches founded by the Apostles, for the churches received the Gospel from the Apostles, either viva voce or in writing; the Apostles received it from Christ, and Christ, from God (De praescr. 21). Therefore no doctrine can be accepted that is contrary to the teaching of the apostolic churches.

Heretics who attempt to defend such doctrine by arguing from Scripture are wrong on two counts: first, because they are innovatorsCatholic truth has been in possession from the beginning, and truth is always prior to error; second, because they are robbersthey are poaching on property that belongs to the Church alone.

Discipline and Asceticism. Tertullian's treatises on Christian discipline and asceticism, especially those that he wrote during the semi-Montanist and Montanist periods, are the least satisfactory of all his works. It is often said that Tertullian was a good logician but a poor casuist. This is a perspicacious appraisal, and it helps a great deal toward a more accurate, if not a more sympathetic, understanding of the man and his work. In the realm of abstract ideas, in apologetics, and in what is now called dogmatic or systematic theology, Tertullian is a model of good sense and objectivity. But when questions of conduct arise, for reasons that lie deep in the influences that had shaped his character, he seems to lose all sense of proportion, all appreciation of the force of an argument. His puritanical prejudices take over, and it is then that he abdicates reason in favor of emotion.

Tertullian's rigid moral code is most apparent in such treatises as the De spectaculis (c. 197202), which forbids Christians to attend public amusements of all kindsathletic events, the circus, the theater, gladiatorial combatsbecause of his belief that these amusements have their origin in idolatry and are a source of immorality. The De cultu feminarum (c. 197202) condemns the use of cosmetics, jewelry and other popular feminine adornments. Sin and death, it is stated, came into the world through a woman; therefore the only proper garb for a woman is the garb of penitence and mourning. The fanatic's preoccupation with details of legislation appears in the De virginibus velandis (before 207), which tells women to the inch how long their veils must be and what part of the head and neck they are to cover.

The evolution of Tertullian's teaching on marriage and remarriage affords a typical illustration of the gradual deterioration of his thought from Catholic orthodoxy to the harsh extremes of Montanist heresy. The beautiful treatise addressed to his wife, the Ad uxorem (c. 200), advises widows to remain unmarried, although it asserts that second marriage is no sin. In the De exhortatione castitatis (c. 204212) his earlier counsel has become a strict command; and in the Montanist tract De monogamia (c. 217) he stigmatizes all second marriage as adultery, one of the capital sins that the Church may not absolve.

A similar evolution is to be found in his treatises on penitence. The Catholic work De paenitentia (c. 203) he places no restriction of any kind on the Church's power to forgive sins. The Montanist De pudicitia (after 212 or 213) introduces a distinction between remissible and irremissible sins, conceding a power to the bishop to forgive the former but restricting forgiveness of the latter to God alone.

Erudition and Doctrine. Although Tertullian, on occasion, attempted answers to metaphysical questions, his works, on the whole, reveal that his interests were scholarly rather than speculative. He may well have been one of the most learned men of his day. This was certainly the opinion of St. Jerome, a man of immense erudition himself; and Vincent of Lérins, after stating that Tertullian, of all Latin Christian writers, is facile princeps, challenges his readers to name anyone who was "better versed in things human and divine."

His knowledge of literature, both sacred and secular, was prodigious. He quoted from more than 100 different authors, and he was thoroughly familiar not only with the extensive heretical literature of the day but also with that of all the great philosophical systems of the Graeco-Roman world.

Theology. Almost all the crucial questions of theology are treated somewhere or other in his writings. It is impossible, in a brief synopsis, to do justice to the richness, variety, and permanent importance of his thought. In controversy with Hermogenes and Marcion, Gnosticism and paganism, he was concerned with the existence and the essence of God, His unity, His creative activity, and His divine providence. He writes of tradition and the rule of faith, original sin and Redemption, grace and free will, the Church and the Sacraments (especially Baptism and the Eucharist), prayer and worship, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. He is one of the earliest witnesses to the Church's doctrine on merit, satisfaction, and purgatory.

No one can know the history of the Sacrament of Penance in Christian antiquity unless he knows the treatises De paenitentia and De pudicitia of Tertullian. The closely reasoned arguments with which he defends the teaching authority of the Church in the De praescriptione hereticorum are of value for all time. He has a specialist's knowledge of the Bible, and he quotes it with an amazing facility and frequency. His works furnish invaluable source material for Scripture scholars interested in textual criticism, the history of the canon, the origin of the Latin Bible, and early theories of exegesis.

In his teaching on the Trinity and the Incarnation, Tertullian made his most significant contributions to dogmatic theology. His language is remarkably precise for the early period at which he wrote. In the Adversus Praxean, particularly, his phrasing is so felicitous that some of the formulae found there have been taken over by the Church and are still regarded as definitive expressions of Catholic faith. As far as is known, the first use of the Latin word trinitas with reference to God is found in Tertullian's Adversus Praxean and De pudicitia. He was the first to use the term persona in a Trinitarian and Christological context, asserting that the Logos is distinct from the Father as person and not as substance and that the Holy Spirit is the "third person" in the Trinity (Adv. Praxean 12).

Tertullian states unequivocally that there are two natures, one human and one divine, which are joined in the one person, Jesus Christ (Adv. Praxean 27). He adds that the two natures remain distinct, in spite of their union; and he insists that they in no sense form a kind of tertium quid, "some composite essence formed out of two substances." Thus Tertullian refuted monophysitism before it arose. His formula, salva est proprietas utriusque substantiae (Adv. Praxean 27) was borrowed by Leo the Great in his Tome to Flavian, and was eventually incorporated verbatim into the definition of the Council of Chalcedon. It may very well be that the Western Church was spared the ravages of the Christological controversies that divided the East because of its satisfaction with the Christology of Tertullian's Adversus Praxean.

Errors. 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 arian ism the Church rejected as heretical. His views on the origin of the soul are infected by traducianism, and his teaching on God and the angels makes it clear that he was unable to conceive noncorporeal substance. His mariol ogy contains much that is admirable, but it is defective in its denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Tertullian's eschatology is chiliastic, and his preoccupation with what he conceived to be the proximity of the Parousia contributed, no doubt, to the formation of his views on the austere Interimsethik that he demanded of Christians. Although his distrust of human reason has sometimes been exaggerated, it must be admitted that he set up an opposition between faith and philosophy that is in striking contrast to the attitude of his Alexandrian contemporaries Clement and Origen.

The specifically Montanist errors that Tertullian espoused in later life were concerned, for the most part, with matters of discipline and asceticism. He insisted, for example, that flight during time of persecution was equivalent to apostasy, and he rejected the relatively mild legislation of the African Church on fasting in favor of the severe and frequent xerophagies demanded by the new prophecy. Outside the area of morals, his most dangerous Montanist errors lie in (1) his belief that the utterances of the Montanist prophets are the authentic word of God and (2) his defective ecclesiology.

As a Montanist, Tertullian held that there exists an internal "Church of the Spirit," which he contrasts with the external "Church of the bishops" (De pudicitia 21). He considered that all who possess the Spirit, whether they be priests or laymen, have powers that, in fact, are proper to the hierarchical order alone; and his principle that no one can communicate the Spirit except those who possess the Spirit, adumbrates donatism.

One can only regret that so great a talent as Tertullian's was dedicated to the defense of rigorism and heresy for so many of his most productive years and that, in spite of the magnificent contribution to the Church that his literary legacy represents, he cannot be recommended without reserve to Christian readers or honored with a place among the fathers of the church.

Bibliography: Opera, ed. e. dekkers et al. 2 v. (Corpus Christianorum. Series latina 12; Turnhout, Belg. 1954); ed. a. re ifferscheid et al., 5 v. in Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 20 (1890), 47 (1906), 69 (1939), 70 (1942), 76 (1957). b. nisters, Tertullian: Seine Persönlichkeit und sein Schicksal (Münster 1950). h. hoppe, Syntax und Stil des Tertullian (Leipzig 1903). r. braun, Deus christianorum: Recherches sur le vocabulaire doctrinal de Tertullien (Paris 1962). a. d'alÉs, La Théologie de Tertullien (2d ed. Paris 1905). r. e. roberts, The Theology of Tertullian (London 1924). j. morgan, The Importance of Tertullian in the Development of Christian Dogma (London 1928). c. de l. shortt, The Influence of Philosophy on the Mind of Tertullian (London 1933). j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1950) 2:246340. o. bardenhewer, Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, 5 v. (Freiburg 191332) 2:377442. e. f. osborn, Tertullian: First Theologian of the West (Cambridge 1997).

[w. le saint]


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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)


views updated May 29 2018


The North African theologian and apologist Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220) was the founder of Latin Christian theology. The first major Christian writer to use the Latin language, he gave to Latin Christian thought a decidedly legal stamp.

Born Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus in Carthage, the capital city of Roman Africa, Tertullian was the son of an army officer in a family that was not Christian. He received a full liberal education and entered the practice of law, living apparently for a time in Rome. In his mid-30s he was converted to Christianity and, back in Carthage, became one of the leading figures in the Christian community of that city, though he did not enter the ordained ministry.

Tertullian quickly took up the task of the written defense of the Christian Church in a setting in which violent persecution by the state was a recurring reality. His Apology, addressed to the governors of the Roman provinces, is notable for its skillful legal argumentation as well as for the glimpses it affords into the life of the early Christian Church. The verve, colloquial quality, wit, and frequent sarcasm of his style make him one of the most engaging of early Christian writers.

Tertullian holds an important place among Catholic authors who sought to define and to defend the faith of the Church against those heretical interpretations and speculations that are called Gnosticism and Marcionism. In his writings against these heresies the following themes are prominent: the Bible is rightly interpreted only in the Church, where the tradition of belief coming from Christ and the Apostles is preserved; the Rule of Faith (a summary of Christian teaching similar to the later Apostles' Creed) is the proper guide to interpretation of Scripture since it is acknowledged by all the local churches founded by the Apostles, churches in which an unbroken succession of bishops from the Apostles guarantees a continuity of teaching coming from Christ; and the God of the Jewish Scriptures is identical with the God of Christian faith, Jesus being the Messiah promised by those Scriptures.

A moral rigorist at heart, Tertullian at about the age of 50 abandoned the Catholic Church for the severely moral-istic Christian sect called Montanists. From this position he railed against Catholic "laxity, " for example, in readmitting to Communion those who had fallen into serious sin after their baptism. While a Montanist, he wrote a work, Against Praxeas, that was subsequently held in high honor by Catholics and in which for the first time an explicit doctrine of the Trinity was formulated. Within Montanism, Tertullian appears to have founded his own party, the Tertullianists. The end of his life is shrouded in obscurity, the date of his death being only an intelligent guess.

Further Reading

The best general book on Tertullian is T. D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (1971). A fine appreciation of smaller scope is contained in Hans von Campenhausen, Men Who Shaped the Western Church (1964).

Additional Sources

Barnes, Timothy David, Tertullian: a historical and literary study, Oxford Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, 1971. □


views updated May 23 2018

Tertullian (c.160–c.225), Christian father. He was born in Carthage and became a Christian before 197. He was the first important Christian writer in Latin, with a long and various list of works (the chronology of which is disputed). He eventually left the Catholic Church in favour of Montanism. His Apology (c.197) has the typical concerns of the apologists of the time, resting on the view that there is a natural basis for the recognition of God's action in Christ—i.e. the argument that there is ‘anima naturaliter Christiana’, the soul naturally Christian'. In his Apology there already appears the rigorous commitment to the faith summarized as ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’—though he wrote, ‘We grow just as much as we are mown down by you, the seed is the blood of the Christians.’ His moral and disciplinary works (e.g. The Soldier's Crown, On Penitence) are rigorous in their insistence on separation from pagan society. The corresponding rigour in his adherence to the faith is epitomized in his sentence, Certum est quia impossibile est, ‘It is certain because it is impossible’, (De Carne Christi). His theological works are mainly polemical. The most important are De praescriptione haereticorum (Against Heretics, following the model of Irenaeus), Against Marcion, and Against Praxeas (attacking modalism and formulating a doctrine of the Trinity).


views updated May 11 2018

Tertullian (c.160–c.240), early Christian theologian. His writings include Christian apologetics and attacks on pagan idolatry and Gnosticism. He later joined the Montanists, urging asceticism and venerating martyrs.