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Tertullian

TERTULLIAN

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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