Tertullian (c. 155 – 240)
One of the most noteworthy personages belonging to the early Church. Born at Carthage (Tunisia) his father being a Roman centurion in the service of the proconsul of Africa. His natural endowments were great, and they were supplemented by a comprehensive course of studies whose fruit appears in the wealth of historical, legal, philosophical, physical, and antiquarian elements contained in his writings. He was destined for the civil service of the empire, and was accordingly trained in Roman jurisprudence and the art of forensic eloquence. His mode of argumentation and terminology everywhere reveal the legal turn of his mind, and his writings in many places throw light on disputed points of the Roman civil law.
Tertullian was converted to Christianity between thirty and forty years of age, and he immediately became its fearless champion against pagans, Jews, and heretics, especially Gnostics. He was the first religious teacher after the apostles who attained to a clear recognition of the mighty contrast between sin and grace, and who presented it in all it force to the mind of the Church. He was married but nevertheless entered the ranks of the clergy. Jerome, says that he was a presbyter of the Catholic Church, but his own writings do not determine whether he was a member prior to his transition into Montanism or not.
The transition to Montanism occurred a few years after Tertullian’s conversion, and about A.D. 202. The act doubtless had its origin in his eccentric disposition and rigorous moral views, which predisposed him to regard that heresy with favor and to dislike the Roman Church. Jerome attributes it to personal motives excited by the jealousy and envy of the Roman clergy, and modern writers have ascribed it to disappointed ambition. We know, however, that the penitential discipline of the Church was administered at Rome with exceeding laxity, and that such indifference was an abomination in the eyes of Tertullian.
Assuredly he did not regard Montanus as the Paraclete. He recognized in the latter simply an inspired organ of the Spirit. He, rather than Montanus, became the head of the Montanistic party in Africa, giving to their undefined views a theological character and a conceded influence over the life of the Church, and establishing it on foundations sufficiently firm to enable it to protract its being down to the 5th century. He died in old age, between A.D. 220 and 240. The assertion that he returned to the Catholic Church before he died is sometimes made, but cannot be substantiated, and the continued existence of the sect of Tertullianists would seem to contradict the assumption.
It is a significant fact that it was precisely this great defender of Catholic orthodoxy against Gnostic heresy who was a schismatic to such a degree that he has never been included by the Church of Rome among the number of her saints, or among that of the patres (Church Fathers).
As a writer, Tertullian was exceedingly fresh and vigorous, but also angular, abrupt, and impetuous. He possessed a lively imagination, a fund of wit and satire, as well as of acquired knowledge, and considerable depth and keenness; but he was deficient in point of logical clearness and self- possession, as well as of moderation, and of a thorough and harmonious culture. He was a speculative thinker, though the bitter opponent of philosophy. His aspiring mind sought in vain for adequate language in which to express itself, and struggled constantly to force the ideas of Christianity within the forms of the Latin tongue. His style thus became exceedingly forcible, nervous, vivid, concise, and pregnant.
His adversaries were assailed without mercy and with all the weapons of truth and of art, and nearly always appear in his writings in ridiculous plight. He was the direct opposite to Origen, holding the extreme position of realism on the borders of materialism. He was, furthermore, the pioneer of orthodox anthropology and soteriology, the teacher of Cyprian, and forerunner of Augustine, in the latter of whom his spirit was reproduced in twofold measure, though without its eccentricities and angularities. It is possible, also, to trace resemblances between him and Luther with respect to native vigor of mind, profound earnestness, unregulated passion, polemical relentlessness, etc.; but the father lacked the childlike amiability of the Reformer, who was both a lion and a lamb.
Tertullian’s writings are usually of brief extent, but they traverse nearly all fields of the religious life, and they constitute the most prolific source for the history of the Church and of doctrines in his time. No satisfactory classification of them can be executed, because but few of them afford the necessary data on which to base a scheme. The classification here presented rests upon the nature of the several writings as being either Catholic or Anti-Catholic, in which light the former are considerably more numerous than the latter.
(I.) Catholic Writings, or such as Defend Orthodox Christianity against Unbelievers and Heretics. — Most of these works date from the Montanist era of the author’s life.
1. Apologies against Pagans and Jews. — First of all, the Apologeticus, addressed to the Roman magistracy, A.D. 198 or 204, and forming one of the best rebuttals of the charges raised by the heathen of the time against Christianity. Similar in character are the Ad Nationes Libri II. In De Testimonio Animae the author develops an argument for the unity of God and the reality of a future state from the innate perceptions and feelings of the soul. In the work Ad Scapulam he remonstrates with the African governor of that name, who was bitterly persecuting the Christians. The Adversus Judmeos Liber draws from the Old-Testament prophets the proof that the Messiah has appeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Particular Gnostical doctrines are, assailed in De Baptismo, a defense of water-baptism against the Cainites and their peculiar theory of a mystical spiritual baptism: — De Anima, an inquiry into the nature, etc., of the soul: — De Carne Christi, a defense of the true humanity of Christ: — and De Resurrectione Carnis, a confutation of the heresy which denied the resurrection of the body. The tract Adversus Praxeam assails the Phrygian Antimontanist Praxeas, and confutes his patri-passionist errors in the interest of the orthodox view of the Trinity.
3. Ethical and Ascetical Writings. — This class is composed of works of small size, but of considerable value to the regulation of practical life and the administration of ecclesiastical discipline. The list includes, De Oratione, an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer and rules for prayer and fasting: — De Spectaculis, a warning against theatrical exhibitions: — De Idololatria: — Ad Uxorem Libri I., advice to his wife to govern her action in case she should outlive him: — De Paenitentia, a Catholic and Anti- montanistic presentation of the doctrine of repentance, dating from the earlier period of his Christian life: De Patientia, a commendation of the virtue of patience, accompanied with a lamentation because of his own lack of that virtue: — Ad Martyros, an exhortation addressed to the confessors who in the time of Septimius Severus awaited. in prison the martyr’s death.
The life of Tertullian has been written by: Neander (1825; 2d ed. 1849).