Tertullian c. 155-60 - c. 245
(Full name Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus.) Roman theologian and apologist.
Considered the father of Western Christian literature, Tertullian was among the most influential of the early Latin theologians. A moralist and polemicist who began his literary career as an eloquent defender of Christianity, Tertullian later abandoned Catholicism in favor of the fervent, puritanical faith known as Montanism. Despite this fact, he is generally recognized as a steadfast proponent of the purity of Christian doctrine and as a tireless enemy of heresy and paganism. His works are thought to have indelibly shaped Latin ecclesiastical literature in the early third century and they continue to retain their vitality and cogency in the contemporary era.
Biographical InformationMany of the details of Tertullian's life are open to speculation and have been reconstructed by scholars using cues from his literary works and from the works of later commentators, particularly St. Jerome. Tertullian was born in the ancient city of Carthage sometime between 155 and 160 A. D., and is believed to have been the son of a Roman centurion stationed in North Africa. Educated in grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, and the law in his youth, Tertullian traveled to Rome as a young man to further his studies. He most likely practiced law there for a time. In Rome he discovered Christianity, and after his return to Carthage in approximately 195 converted to that faith. It was during the final years of the second century that he began to compose his earliest Christian apologetic works, as well as other writings of moral and ascetic theology. By the first decade of the third century Tertullian had risen to became an important and influential member of the African Church, and he increasingly devoted himself to his literary activities. He composed a series of attacks on pagan philosophy and unorthodox Christianity, along with numerous tracts on Christian issues and related subjects. Sometime before 210, Tertullian, having become more and more displeased with the stolidity of many Christians and clergymen, converted to Montanism, a sectarian movement begun by the prophet Montanus and defined by its strident and ascetic moralism. Following his second conversion, Tertullian wrote many of his most vehement pronouncements on the morality of his contemporaries and moved far afield from the orthodox Christianity he had earlier championed. Tertullian wrote his final treatises by or before 222, though he was said to have lived to an advanced age by St. Jerome, perhaps stretching two decades or more from the date of his last works.
Scholars have divided Tertullian's thirty-one extant writings into three general categories: apologetic treatises, polemical-dogmatic works, and moral and ascetical writings. This last group is generally also split by critics who differentiate between Tertullian's writing prior to and after his conversion to Montanism. The first category of apologetic works includes Tertullian's early Ad nationes (c. 197; translated as To the Heathens) and Apologeticum (c. 197; Apology). The former represents his initial condemnation of paganism and defense of the Christian faith, while the latter focuses more specifically on Roman political prejudices against Christians. Other apologetic writings are: De testimonio animae (c. 198-206; The Testimony of the Soul), in which Tertullian argues that pagans often demonstrate their belief in the unity of God; Ad Scapulam (c. 212), an open letter addressed to the Christian-hating proconsul of Africa, Scapula; and Adversus Judaeos (c. 198-206; translated as Against the Jews), which argues that Jewish ideas regarding punishment and retribution should give way to Christ-like forgiveness.
Tertullian's polemical and dogmatic writings roughly span the middle portion of his literary career, from 200 to 213. De praescriptione haereticorum (c. 200; On the Prescription of Heretics), one of his most significant works in this mode, demonstrates Tertullian's considerable knowledge of Roman law and contends that only doctrine derived from the apostolic Church should be construed as true, and that Gnostic teachings may be refuted as heresy. By far Tertullian's longest work, the Adversus Marcionem (c. 207; Against Marcion) was originally composed in five books. In it he explains the true nature of God and Christ and the natural affinity of the Old and New Testaments, and later attacks the New Testament of his close contemporary Marcion. Adversus Praxean (c. 213; Against Praxeas) contains Tertullian's description of the Church doctrine of the Trinity, while De baptismo (c. 198; On Baptism) provides details about the authentic Church baptism, condemning heretical forms of the rite. The remainder of Tertullian's polemical writings, Adversus Hermogenem (c. 200), Adversus Valentinianos (c. 207-08), Scorpiace (c. 203-13), De carne Christi (c. 210), and De anima (c. 210), refute specific Gnostic beliefs or their individual proponents.
In the third category of Tertullian's writings are grouped his several practical, moral, and ascetical treatises, many of which were written in the latter portion of his literary career, during the time of his greatest adherence to the Montanist faith. His Catholic, moral works include: De oratione (c. 198), a treatise giving instructions on prayer, specifically on the "Our Father"; De patientia (c. 200), which discusses the virtue of patience; and De paenitentia (c. 203), a treatise on the proper penance to be performed after committing a Sin. One of Tertullian's pre-Montanist practical and ascetical treatises, Ad martyres (c. 197) reflects his attempt to mitigate the suffering of imprisoned Christians. Other practical works include: De spectaculis (c. 197), an injunction against the immorality of pagan theatre; De cultu feminarum (c. 200), a condemnation of contemporary feminine dress and adornments; and Ad uxorem (c. 206; translated as To His Wife), in which he asks that his spouse not remarry after his death. Tertullian revisited many of these same themes in his Montanist writings, often stating his opinions much more stridently. De exhortatione castitatis (c. 208) and De monogamia (c. 217) both condemn the practice of second marriage. De virginibus velandis (c. 207) states that virgins should wear veils whenever they appear in public; De corona (c. 211) attacks the pagan custom of crowning soldiers and rejects the possibility of Christian service in the military; De idololatria (c. 211) strictly forbids the practice of idolatry; and De pallio (c. 213-22) includes his personal remarks on the efficacy of the cloak as opposed to the Roman toga. Tertullian's Montanist moral treatises oppose the ideal of Christian flight from persecution (De fuga in persecutione, c. 212) and defend Montanist fasting practices (De ieiunio adversus psychicos, c. 213-22). De pudicitia (c. 217-22) demonstrates a radical change from Tertullian's earlier thought by denying the Church's power to forgive sins.
Tertullian's extant writings have survived into the modern era primarily through five manuscripts, along with additional fragmentary document evidence. The Corpus Trecense was originally codified around 523 and is today available through a twelfth-century text. The original Corpus Masburense is thought to have been compiled before 494 and exists in a manuscript dating from 1550. Also compiled before 494, the Corpus Agobardinum includes twenty-one of Tertullian's works—the primary text of this corpus is the Codex Parisinus latinus (1622, referred to as the Agobardinus). A fourth manuscript, the Corpus Cluniacense, is the largest, containing twenty-seven treatises and can be traced to the middle of the sixth century. The Codex Ottobonianus latinus provides further textual evidence and includes excerpts from De pudicitia, De paenitentia, De patientia, and De spectaculis. A manuscript fragment of the De spectaculis dating from the ninth century seems to imply the existence of another corpus. As for the lost works of Tertullian, many references to these appear throughout the extant treatises and in the writings of later commentators. Scholars have been able to include several treatises Tertullian composed in Greek along with his seven-book De ecstasi, which dealt with the pronouncements of Montanist prophets, among Tertullian's lost works.
Largely condemned for his Montanist apostasy by writers in the early Christian and Medieval eras, Tertullian has since the nineteenth century been recognized for his immense contribution as the progenitor of Latin ecclesiastical literature. Modern critical interest in Tertullian's writings has, in addition to the ongoing process of translation and exegesis from Medieval Latin texts, focused on several common themes relating to the apologist's style, intention, and views on Christianity. While scholars universally agree that Tertullian's style, whether in the original Latin or in translation, is marred by obscurity and dislocution, most have acknowledged that the difficulty of his writings is matched by the brilliance of his insights and the acuteness of his knowledge. Other topics of particular interest to scholars have been Tertullian's view of the authentic Church and his battles against heresy, his much-publicized and often-misinterpreted distaste for philosophy, the relation of his writings to those of early Latin scripture and his understanding of those texts, and the development of his own thought in the Catholic and Montanist phases of his career. In relation to this last point, several commentators have attempted to date precisely the composition of Tertullian's treatises in order to trace the effects of Montanism on his view of contemporary Christianity and of the Church. Scholars have frequently taken an interest in Tertullian's famous paradox, which states, "And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible." Many commentators have seen this statement as an encapsulation of Tertullian's rhetorical method and as a touchstone for his complex theology.
Ad martyres (theological treatise) c. 197
Ad nationes [To the Heathens] (theological treatise) c. 197
Apologeticum [Apology] (theological treatise) c. 197
De spectaculis (theological treatise) c. 197
Adversus Judaeos [Against the Jews] (theological treatise) c. 198-206
De testimonio animae [The Testimony of the Soul] (theological treatise) c. 198-206
De baptismo [On Baptism] (theological treatise) c. 198
De oratione (theological treatise) c. 198
Adversus Hermogenem (theological treatise) c. 200
De cultu feminarum (theological treatise) c. 200
De patientia (theological treatise) c. 200
De praescriptione haereticorum [On the Prescription of Heretics] (theological treatise) c. 200
De paenitentia (theological treatise) c. 203
Scorpiace (theological treatise) c. 203-13
Ad uxorem [To His Wife] (treatise) c. 206
Adversus Valentinianos (theological treatise) c. 207-08
Adversus Marcionem [Against Marcion] (theological treatise) c. 207
De virginibus velandis (treatise) c. 207
De exhortatione castitatis (treatise)...
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*Principal English Translations
On the Testimony of the Soul and On the 'Prescription' of Heretics [translated by T. H. Bindley] 1914
Tertullian's Treatises Concerning Prayer, Concerning Baptism [translated by Alex Souter] 1919
Against Praxeas [translated by Alex Souter] 1920
Concerning the Resurrection of the Flesh [translated by Alex Souter] 1922
Apology, De spectaculis [translated by T. R. Glover] 1931
Tertullian's Treatise against Praxeas [translated by E. Evans] 1948
Apologetical Works [translated by Rudolph Arbesmann] 1950
On the Soul [translated by E. A. Quain] 1950
The Testimony of the Soul [translated by R. Arbesmann] 1950
Tertullian: Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage [translated by William P. Le Saint] 1951
Tertullian's Tract on Prayer [translated by E. Evans] 1953
Tertullian's Homily on the Incarnation [translated by E. Evans] 1956
Tertullian: The Treatise against Hermogenes [translated by J. H. Waszink] 1956
Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works [translated by Rudolph Arbesmann] 1959
Tertullian: Treatises on Penance [translated by William P. Le Saint] 1959
Tertullian's Treatise on the...
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SOURCE: "Tertullian," in A History of Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, 1942, pp. 210-26.
[In the following excerpt, Goodspeed surveys Tertullian's writings and briefly summarizes the main characteristics of his literary style.]
In the latter part of the first century the writing of Latin literature was already passing into the hands of provincials, men from North Africa and Spain, like Seneca, Martial, and Quintilian. The district about Carthage was particularly active in literary lines, and it is not strange that it was there that the Bible began to be translated into Latin. It was there, and not in Rome, that Latin Christianity had its beginning and that it soon began to express itself vigorously in Latin books.
The first great figure in Latin Christianity was Tertullian, or Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, to give him his full name. He was born in Carthage, about A.D. 155-60, of good family, and seems, from what he says in his writings, to have visited Athens and Rome in early life, studying to be a lawyer and entering fully into the excesses of heathen life in those centers. At Rome he seems to have practiced law and taught rhetoric, with marked success. There, it appears, he was converted, and he returned to Carthage a Christian. Jerome says he became a presbyter in the church there. At any rate, he threw himself into the Christian cause with...
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SOURCE: "To His Wife: Introduction," "An Exhortation to Chastity: Introduction," and "Monogamy: Introduction," in Tertullian: Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage: To His Wife, An Exhortation to Chastity, Monogamy, translated by William P. Le Saint, The Newman Press, 1951, pp. 3-9, 39-41, 67-9.
[In the following excerpt, Le Saint examines Tertullian's three treatises on marriage—Ad uxorem, De exhortatione castitatis, and De monogamia—maintaining that these works demonstrate "the gradual deterioration of his thought from Catholic orthodoxy to … fanatical Montanism."]
The three treatises on marriage, [Ad Uxorem, De exhortatione castitatis, and De monogamia] …, though not generally classified among Tertullian's major compositions, are works of considerable interest and importance. Patrologists and students of the history of dogma have long recognized their value as aids in tracing the gradual deterioration of his thought from Catholic orthodoxy to the harsh extremes of fanatical Montanism.1 The professional theologian finds here source material which, with certain judicious reservations, can be used in support of the argument from tradition for theses on such vital subjects as the sacramental nature of marriage, the Church's jurisdiction over the marriage of Christians, the indissolubility of the contract-bond. Specialists in other fields are acquainted with...
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SOURCE: "On Penitence: Introduction" and "On Purity: Introduction" in Tertullian: Treatises on Penance: On Penitence and On Purity, translated by William P. Le Saint, The Newman Press, 1959, pp. 3-13, 41-52.
[In the following excerpt, Le Saint discusses and compares Tertullian's two treatises on the subject of Christian penitence—De pudicitia and De paenitentia.]
Orthodox Christianity regards the doctrine of the divine forgiveness of sins as an essential article of faith. The nature of this forgiveness, its manner and measure, its causes and its effects, have all been subjects of controversy, but whoever accepts the Apostles' Creed as an expression of elementary Christian doctrine professes his belief in the basic truth that in some sense, in some way and under certain conditions God does pardon the sins of men. This belief has its foundation in Scripture1 and finds its historical expression in the traditional teaching of the Church. The great interest of Tertullian's treatises on repentance derives from the influence which they exercised on the development of this tradition in the West, and from the contribution which they make to our understanding of the Church's ministerial forgiveness of sins at a period quite close to the apostolic or sub-apostolic age. By common consent of competent critics they are the two most important documents of ancient Christian literature for the study...
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SOURCE: "Tertullian's Scorpiace," The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. XX, 1969, pp. 105-32.
[In the following essay, Barnes argues that Tertullian's Scorpiace was composed in 203-04, rather than during his post-207 Montanist period, as many scholars have contended.]
Modern scholarship has been unjustly selective in its treatment of Tertullian. Some of his works, most notably the Apologeticum and De Pallio, receive lavish attention and repeated investigation; and even a lost treatise is capable of provoking lengthy speculations.2 Yet other works, ultimately of no less importance, suffer almost total neglect. The consequences have been serious, for the general understanding of Tertullian no less than for the interpretation of the neglected treatises. Although the two most recent studies devoted specifically to its elucidation were published in 1927 and 1886,3 the Scorpiace is habitually misdated by nearly a decade—and that under the influence of those two fundamental errors which, above all else, have so far prevented an accurate delineation of Tertullian's intellectual development.
The first error is to confuse Montanism with enthusiasm.4 Even if Montanists manifested enthusiasm, Montanism possessed a definite and definable theological content. It is wrong to assume that Tertullian must already have embraced Montanist...
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SOURCE: "Miles Gloriosus: The Christian and Military Service according to Tertullian," Church History, Vol. 39, No. 3, September, 1970, pp. 285-98.
[In the following essay, Gero investigates significant changes in Tertullian's attitude toward Christian military service, arguing that "Tertullian at first condoned Christian service in the army, but later, when he recognized its dangers … firmly and totally came to oppose it."]
The aim of this paper is to throw some light on Tertullian's attitude to military service. His statements on this subject are highly useful for a more accurate understanding of his own changing views on the empire and the duties of citizenship. They are also important evidence for marking a crucial stage in the pre-Constantinian evolution of the relations of church and state. It will be seen that the whole question of Christians serving in the Roman army becanie relevant only in the late second century; Tertullian is one of the earliest literary witnesses for this momentous development. Therefore, on both counts, the texts deserve close scrutiny.
A detailed exposition of this history of the early Christian attitude to war cannot be given here; the reader is directed to the ample scholarly literature dealing with the subject.1 However, a brief account of some very relevant aspects of the outlook of the apostolic and sub-apostolic church will be...
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SOURCE: "Tertullian of Carthage," in The Early Christian Apologists and Greek Philosophy, Van Gorcum & Comp. B. V., 1973, pp. 40-58.
[In the following essay, Timothy explores the sustained antipathy toward Greek philosophy in the writings and thought of Tertullian.]
Tertullian is a man clearly with a quarrel on his hands. Dispensing with preliminaries he throws down the challenge to his opponents with these words:
"Our contest lies against these things, the institutions of our ancestors, the authority of tradition"—by which he means, as the context shows, the tradition of paganism—"the laws of our governors and the reasonings of the wise."
The last-named come in particularly for the full brunt of his attack, for out of their own conjectures they have ingeniously composed their physical philosophy. Their systems which existed in a crude form in the apostolic times, though found of late in a somewhat polished form, are still essentially the same. If there is any basis for comparison between them and the Christians, it consists in what they have borrowed from Christianity and not Christianity from them, for "which of the poets or the sophists", asks Tertullian, "has not drunk at the fountain of the prophets?"
They have perverted what they found in scripture by altering what pleased them to suit their...
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SOURCE: "Tertullian's Argumentation in De praescriptione haereticorum 20, 1ff.," Vigiliae Chris-tianae, Vol. 31, No. 1, March, 1977, pp. 35-46.
[In the following essay, Bastiaensen probes Tertullian's rhetorical strategies in his writings against heresy.]
Tertullian's De praescriptione haereticorum does not cease to arouse the interest of the scholarly world. Not to mention other problems, up to this day the dispute continues about the important term praescriptio: has it a juridical background, as Mr. Michaelides maintains, in accordance with many previous commentators,' or is it a more general term of argumentation and discussion, as Mr. Fredouille thinks?2 In view of this and other disagreements we may foresee for some time to come the continuing of the discussions on Tertullian's treatise. In those discussions inevitably will keep coming up questions concerning the interpretation of chapter 20ff., as this section of the work, in particular the end of chapter 21, still has not yielded all its secrets. In the next pages a cautious attempt will be made to outline the course of the argumentation from 20,1 onward and, within this cadre, to establish more specifically the exact meaning of the last paragraphs of chapter 21.3
Tertullian starts by alluding to a number of doctrinal points concerning God, the Son and the Son's mission. It is a repetition...
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SOURCE: "Tertullian and the New Testament," in The Second Century: A Journal of Early Christian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 191-207.
[In the following essay, Jansen studies Tertullian's views on and interpretation of the New Testament.]
Various aspects of Tertullian's use of the Bible have received scholarly attention. One excellent study has been devoted to Tertullian and the Old Testament.1 The present essay2 deals with Tertullian and the New Testament.
Tertullian and the Canon of the New Testament
By Tertullian's time the basic scope of the New Testament had taken shape in the West. Tertullian has citations or clear allusions to all of the New Testament books except James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John.3 However, citation as such does not necessarily answer the question of canon. We are still in a fluid period—witness the Muratorian Canon list. The word "canon" is not yet employed to designate a fixed body of Holy Scripture, and the Latin equivalent, regula, points to a fixed summary of apostolic faith rather than to writings. In Tertullian the world instrumentum most nearly includes what we would call "canon."4 For example, in Modesty 10.12 Tertullian asks sarcastically whether the Shepherd of Hermas "deserved to be included in the sacred canon"...
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SOURCE: "Tertullian's 'Political Ecclesiology' and Women's Leadership," in Studia Patristica, Vol. XXI. Papers Presented to the Tenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 1987; Second Century: Tertullian, the West, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, Athanasius, edited by Elizabeth A. Livingstone, Peeters Press, 1989, pp. 277-82.
[In the following essay, Torjesen examines Tertullian's scathing denunciation of women's leadership in the Church, noting that he saw the Church as a public and political body and, therefore, not the proper domain of women.]
The thesis of this communication is that Tertullian's attitude towards women's leadership is a consequence of his concept of the church as a body politic. First, I would like to refresh your memory of Tertullian's views on women's leadership and then briefly outline his political ecclesiology. This will prepares us for the analysis of three passages on women's leadership where we will see how Tertullian's condemnation of women's leadership is determined by his political ecclesiology.
Women of the congregations familiar to Tertullian assumed a wide variety of activities, teaching, baptizing, exorcising and healing. The leader of the Cainite congregation was a woman and a theologian. Her arguments regarding the nature of baptism occupy Tertullian's rhetorical and exegetical skills for long stretches of his...
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SOURCE: "Conclusions: The Church according to Tertullian" in Tertullian and the Church, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 111-16.
[In the following excerpt, Rankin comments on Tertullian's view of the authentic Church and the imagery he uses to describe it.]
Occasional references to an 'ecciesia in caelis' can be found in Tertullian's writings. Yet, for the most part, Tertullian sees the true church as an historical, empirical reality the authentication for which can be found at least partly in the present age. This reality is partly determined by the nature and the circumstances of the church's foundation by the apostles, and partly by its Spirit-driven activity in the present time, but, above all, by its present nature, consistent with its promise as the eschatological community, as both the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ.1 This church in the power of the Spirit, which power enables it to become now what it is in promise, is not yet the Kingdom of God, but its anticipation in history.2 In this Tertullian differs from both Origen and Clement of Alexandria, for example, for whom the present reality is but an imperfect shadow of some heavenly, as yet unrealised ideal. Tertullian is consistent in his understanding of the historical and empirical nature of this church, and, in this sense, no significant difference is discernible in his ecclesiology in the transition from...
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SOURCE: "Simplicity and Perfection" in Tertullian, First Theologian of the West, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 1-26.
[In the following excerpt, Osborn observes the essential importance of simplicity, founded on the perfection of Christ, in Tertullian's thought.]
'We also are religious and our religion is simple', objected the Roman proconsul to the martyr Speratus, at his trial near Carthage on 17 July 180. 'If you will listen calmly', replied Speratus, 'I shall tell you the mystery of simplicity.1 Tertullian was not the only African who liked paradox.2 Speratus claims simplicity for Christians rather than pagans. He counters the accusation that Christians are secret and sinister, by asserting that their secret is simplicity. He draws on the New Testament account of the mystery of salvation. The writer to the Ephesians had been concerned to tell the nations of the unsearchable riches of Christ and to bring to light 'the economy of the mystery which has been hidden from all ages in the God who created all things' (Eph. 3.9). The church declares to heavenly powers the manifold … wisdom of God (Eph. 3.10), which is the divine mystery. The end of salvation, the vision of Christ and the church present a great mystery (Eph. 5.32).
Tertullian's lust for simplicity, supported by superlatives, persists throughout his work and is a good place to begin a study of...
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Ayers. Robert H. "Language, Logic, and Reason in Tertullian." In Language, Logic, and Reason in the Church Fathers: A Study of Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas. Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1979, pp. 7-60.
Analyzes Tertullian's attitude toward reason and philosophy, arguing that his thought exhibits a basic consistency and appeal to rationality.
Barnes, Timothy David. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, 320 p.
Attempts to reconstruct Tertullian's life from extant biographical material and his own writings.
Bray, Gerald. "The Legal Concept of Ratio in Tertullian." Vigiliae Christianae 31, No. 2 (June 1977): 94-116.
Explores Tertullian's use of the word ratio in a philosophic sense, arguing against the contention that "Tertullian assimilated ratio to God in imitation of the Stoics."
Daly, Cahal B. Tertullian the Puritan and His Influence: An Essay in Historical Theology. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1993, 221 p.
Studies Tertullian's theology of the Church in the context of the history of Christian penance.
de Labriolle, Pierre. "The First Christian Fathers in the Latin Tongue: Tertullian." In History and Literature of Christianity from Tertullian to Boethius. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd.,...
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