Tertullian lived in the ancient city of Carthage in what is now Tunisia, sometime around 200AD. Very little is known about his life – that little comes either from writers two centuries later1, or from the scanty personal notes in his works2. Much of it has been asserted to be untrue anyway by some modern writers 3.
He was born a member of the educated classes, and clearly gained a good education. Life in his times wasn’t very different in some ways to the modern day – he indulged his passions as he saw fit, including sex, and like everyone else attended the games where gladiators killed each other and criminals were eaten alive, for the enjoyment of the spectators2.
But among the sights he saw, was that of Christians being executed this way. He was struck with the courage with which stupid and contemptible slave men and little slave girls faced a hideous death, against all nature; and after investigating, became a Christian himself, and turned his budding talents to writing in defense of this despised and victimised group4.
Tertullian was the first Christian writer to write in Latin 5, and was described three centuries later as writing ‘first, and best, and incomparably’, of all the writers to do so. (by the unknown author of ‘Praedestinatus‘). His writing is aggressive, sarcastic and brilliant6, and at points very funny even after 2000 years7. He was deeply conscious of his own failings8, and had a burning desire for truth and integrity9. He was described by Jerome as celebrated in all the churches as a speaker10; and his works bear the marks of the need to keep an audience awake!11 His erudition was immense. Much of what he read is lost, but what remains gives a picture of wide reading12, which was celebrated even in antiquity12a.
He wrote a great number of works – how many is unknown. Thirty-one are extant; lists of known lost works are elsewhere on this site; but we have no reason to suppose this to be anything like an exhaustive list. Most of those extant have come down to us by the slenderest of threads, and the very nature of Tertullian’s terse and ironic style, means that copyists made many errors, and in some cases his text is beyond certain restoration. Not all of his works were ever completed13.
His most important work is the Apologeticum, in defense of the Christians. Running it close must be Adversus Praxean, in which the doctrine of the Trinity comes into clear focus for the first time, in response to a heretic who was twisting the biblical balance between the persons of the Godhead. In this work, he created most of the terminology with which this doctrine was to be referred (and is still), such as Trinitas, etc14. His discussion of how heretical arguments are in general to be handled in De praescriptio haereticorum also deserves wider recognition.
Tertullian wrote no systematic theology; all of his works are brought forth by a local event, a persecution, or a heretic.
In his time, the church finally decided to reject a movement calling itself ‘The New Prophecy’, and known later as Montanism15. The New Prophecy made no doctrinal innovations16, but said that the Holy Spirit was calling Christians to a more ascetic position. But obeying the prophets inevitably meant a problem, if the bishop did not recognise their authority.
Tertullian had grown angry at what looked like compromise creeping into the church – unwillingness to be martyred, willingness to forgive more serious public sins17 – and aligned himself with the Montanists. It is unclear whether this involved actually leaving the church 17a, but his later works are avowedly Montanist, and one or two explictly attack the mainstream church on these points. As such he was not recognised as a Saint, despite his orthodoxy, and his works were all marked as condemned in the 6th Century Decretum Gelasianum.
His later life is unknown, and we do not know if he was martyred or died of old age as Jerome says18.
Churchmen have not liked him – he is not easy reading for those who prefer compromise and ambiguity to truth, and of ecclesiasticism there is no trace in his works19. The rhetoric that impressed his contemporaries has been often laid hold of and twisted in misquotations by enemies of the Church20. He is often misquoted21 – and as a subtle and ironical writer, is easy to misquote.
He has been called the first Protestant, as the first Christian writer of impeccable orthodoxy to enunciate the unpalatable truth, that the church was not a conclave of bishops, but the people of the Holy Spirit22.
But his legacy was the very shape of Latin Christianity 23. St Cyprian never went a day without reading him, and called him ‘the master’24. He gave Christians the means with which to meet paganism on its own ground and defeat it25. And whenever the errors against which he wrote resurface, as they do from time to time, what Tertullian had to say about them will again be readable; who wrote ‘first and best and incomparably’ 26 against them.
For all works cited, look at the bibliography for a full reference.
1. See St. Jerome‘s biography.
2. He was brought up a pagan (De paenitentia 1.1), had a relative who turned a philosophical dialogue (the Pinax attributed to Cebes, the friend of Socrates) into a cento of Virgilian verse (De praescriptio haereticorum 39.4), knew the rhetorical schools and could quote the peroration of a popular rhetor, named Phosphorus (Adversus Valentinianos 8.3), delighted in adultery (De resurrectione mortuorum 59.3), and he married a Christian girl after conversion (De uxorem). His movement towards Montanism is attested by notes referring to them (e.g. Adversus Praxean 1) and is discussed by Barnes.
3. Notably T.D.Barnes in his revisionist study. See bibliography.
4. No-one actually knows why or how this bright young pagan came to Christ, as Barnes has pointed out. However many writers (including Bardenhewer, Quasten) have seen Tertullian’s description of how the sight of Christians in the arena affects the pagan in the Apologeticum as autobiographical. It is certainly true that Tertullian returned to the theme that the true note of a Christian is the willingness to face martyrdom (De corona, De fuga in persecutione).
5. See Quasten, II. Of course there are earlier scraps of work – the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs – but these are anonymous. See also Vincent of Lerins in 434AD, Commonitorium, 17, where he describes Tertullian as ‘first of us among the Latins’ (Quasten IV, p.549).
6. General agreement among writers both ancient and modern that have been cited so far on this one.
7. For an example that appeals to me, see Apologeticum 40: “If the Tiber rises so high it floods the walls, or the Nile so low it doesn’t flood the fields, if the earth opens, or the heavens don’t, if there is famine, if there is plague, instantly the howl goes up, “The Christians to the lion!” What, all of them? to a single lion?”
8. See the end of De Baptismo, where he asks the newly baptised to pray for “Tertullian, a sinner”. Or the introduction to De Patientia, where he describes himself, “always burning with the fires of impatience”.
9. The word veritas (truth) is used 162 times in one of his works (Quasten, vol 2, p.247).
10. See Jerome’s version of Eusebius’ Chronicle, entry for 208AD, here (from Barnes).
11. In my opinion, anyway.
12. See Barnes, p196, for an assessment. See also p.332 of the postscript in the 2nd edition, for a qualification, that Tertullian may have depended more on encyclopedias than he had at first thought. But see also F.G.Kenyon, Books and Readers, p36, for a different view on the need to use compendia of knowledge – cheap papyrus books mean that at that period, there is no real need to suppose the unavailability of the actual texts quoted.
12a.Vincent of Lerins in 434AD, Commonitorium, 17
13. Lists of works are derived from Quasten, and Barnes. Text problems are likewise discussed by both, and in the introductions of the critical editions. For an example of the problems, see T.R.Glover on the Apologeticum, p.xxii ff. For the unfinished nature of Adversus Judaeos and De cultu feminarum I, see Barnes, .
14. For Trinitas, see Quasten, vol 2, p286, who gives ch.2 of Adversus Praxean as the first use of Trinitas as a technical term by a Latin writer.
15. For Montanism, see the references to Eusebius and Epiphanius on my Montanism page. It’s a large issue, and only peripheral to Tertullian, so I’ve not listed much on this. Barnes gives some references, p130ff.
16. According to Tertullian, in the fragment of his lost work De ecstasi quoted by the author of Praedestinatus.
17. De fuga in persecutione, De pudicitia.
17a. The earliest statements in favour of the argument that he did leave are by Jerome and Augustine. But there are some scholars who do not accept that they had any special knowledge. It is therefore argued that in view of the way that the early church venerated North African ‘Montanists’ like St.Perpetua, and the use of Tertullian by St. Cyprian, that he must in fact have never been condemned, or done more than take part in a para-church grouping of those influenced by Montanism. See Tabbernee, Montanist Inscriptions, pt II for this, and references to other scholars. In fact this view seems to have become orthodoxy in anglophone circles. The original article was Douglas Powell, Tertullianists and Cataphrygians(1975). I understand the issue is discussed in David Rankin, Tertullian and the Church, (Cambridge University Press 1995),xvii+229 pp, 35, on p.27 with full bibliography, but I haven’t seen this.
18. Jerome says he lived to an advanced old age, Barnes suggests we do not know this is true, and since his last known works place him about the age of 40, for all we know he may have been martyred (p.59).
19. T.R.Glover, Apologeticum, ix.
20. T.R.Glover, Apologeticum, x-xi, for examples of Gibbon and Matthew Arnold doing just that.
21. See Bartlett’s quotations, for both the erroneous and correct versions of De carne Christi 5: “It is certain because it is impossible.” NB: Certum est, quia impossibile est. This is usually misquoted, “Credo quia impossibile” (I believe it because it is impossible).
22. Barnes, p84, quoting De pudicitia 21.17.
23. He has been called the Father of Latin Christianity, but I don’t have a reference for this. The introductions to Quasten, Souter’s editions of Adversus Praxean, Bardenhewer, make his position in Latin Christianity clear.
24. According to Jerome (see above).
25. Barnes, p101-2.
26. Praedestinatus I, 26.