Tertullian (Early Church Mini-Bio Series)

Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.

– Tertullian –

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Such a phrase is an incredible depiction of how God is sovereign over persecution to bring His Gospel to all nations. It is commonly assumed that Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160-225) coined this phrase. Actually, his original quotation was the following: “[K]ill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers (allows) that we thus suffer. When you recently condemned a Christian woman to the leno (pimp, i.e. accused her of being a prostitute) rather than to the leo (lion), you made confession that a taint on our purity is considered among us something more terrible than any punishment and any death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (quoted from this article).

As is evident, the theme of martyrdom is carried over from the previous post, and is actually in the same geographical region as last time, North Africa. Rather than keeping in step chronologically with Irenaeus, who died about a year or less before Perpetua and Felicity (so he could’ve even been mentioned before Perpetua and Felicity), I’ve elected to continue in a more regional overview of Christian for this post. Similarly to Justin Martyr, Tertullian was not raised as a Christian, and was not converted until his adulthood. Likewise, he was very prominent in refuting false claims against Christianity. Still, he differed from Justin in certain ways as well, which will be discussed below.

 What makes Tertullian so significant in the grand scheme of (church history) things? While many answers could be given, possibly the most influential and lasting achievement was that he wrote in Latin. Jonathan Hill, in his History of Christian Thought, writes, “As Irenaeus was forging the distinctive Eastern understanding of Christianity, Tertullian was doing the same thing for the West…[He] was the first important theologian to write in Latin” (pg. 32-33). If you study into the Middle Ages, one major issue at play is the progressive wall of division between the West and the East. Constantine’s reign did not just produce religious implications, but geo-political ones as well. Of course, the church and state became terribly intertwined too, so one must remember the historical context. But if we look back to Tertullian, we see the introduction of Latin into Christian writings. Meanwhile, the East preferred Greek. There was finally the major East-West schism in A.D. 1054, but if we look back in history, we can turn to Tertullian’s Latin as one of many factors that influenced the West for many centuries.

A second important aspect of Tertullian’s life and influence is his philosophical method for attaining truth. A simple “google” search of the phrase “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” will bring up many results from Tertullian’s Against Heretics, but it will also bring up many of whom have taken the liberty to mimic this argument structure (e.g., see this post). As you may remember earlier in this series, Justin Martyr was known for considering Christianity to be the “True Philosophy,” and even retained his “philosopher’s cloak” as his preference of apparel. To provide some greater context to the quote, here is a significant section:

“Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer?” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” (Translated by Roberts-Donaldson)

It thus appears that Tertullian was a bit stricter in his understanding of the profitability of philosophy than someone like Justin Martyr. Whereas Justin believed that Christianity, in a sense, “fulfilled” what the philosophers sought after, Tertullian more so sees philosophy as merely human inventions, even including that heresies are philosophy in their nature.

Tertullian was known for being strict. To quote Jonathan Hill again, “Virtually all his works contain graphic warnings of fiery judgment” (HoCT, 33). People sometimes look back at the early church and are quick to assume that since they lived with the possibility of being persecuted that issues such as morality and fighting heresy were on the back burner. Of course, if one reads the New Testament both things were a priority, and if we look further along in history, precisely looking at Tertullian, things are no different. Maybe it was due to Tertullian’s stringent personality, but what is apparent is that Tertullian eventually identified himself within a “movement” of Christians called Montanism, or “New Prophecy.” Some even think that Perpetua and Felicity were Montanists since they lived in the North African region (Montanism was prevalent there) and Perpetua recorded visions (like other Montanists). Consequently, Tertullian is not usually considered a “Church Father,” nor has he been declared a “Saint” in the Roman Catholic Church (see this video for a Roman Catholic perspective). Coming at this issue from a Protestant standpoint, I think that Tertullian has a lot of great writings to offer (and such applies to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox as well), but I also recognize that I would not be in agreement with some of the propagations of Montanism. I don’t think that the Holy Spirit needs to speak through new prophets to clarify apostolic doctrine; I believe we have a sufficient canon (Psalm 19:7; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3). I uphold the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

Finally, while Tertullian’s Montanism controversy is one issue that has caused his legacy to have a bit of a sour aftertaste, one thing that all Christians who believe in Trinitarianism can thank Tertullian for was his development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Of course, believers can look into the Bible to see the revelation of God manifested as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; equal in essence, distinct in Personhood. But it is Tertullian that especially known for articulating this magnificent doctrine. In fact, Tertullian is the first person we know of to have written an entire treatise [Against Praxeas] on the Trinity (Hill, HoCT, pg. 36). As time progressed, men such as Athanasius and Augustine further articulated and defended the all-important doctrine of God being Triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

What do we make of Tertullian? As always, we ought to look at his theology with discernment and his life with great consideration. Certainly, there is a lot to appreciate from Tertullian. Yet, proper criticisms can also be established. As the saying goes, “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” I would submit that Tertullian is one giant that many Christians certainly stand upon.

Church History Tip: Sometimes church history tips are more evident than others. Regarding the name Tertullian, there are two noticeable “T’s” – TerTullian. What doctrine that he helped articulate also began with a “T”? The Trinity! In your studies of church history, I think it is helpful to remember that the Church has greatly profited from Tertullian, especially on Trinitarianism.

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