Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1998

Article abstract: Roman theologian{$I[g]Roman Empire;Tertullian} Tertullian was the most outstanding spokesman for Christianity in the Latin West before Saint Augustine; his polemical treatises set the direction for much of Western theology.

Early Life

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian (tur-TUHL-yuhn), left a strong mark on the history of Latin...

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Article abstract: Roman theologian{$I[g]Roman Empire;Tertullian} Tertullian was the most outstanding spokesman for Christianity in the Latin West before Saint Augustine; his polemical treatises set the direction for much of Western theology.

Early Life

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian (tur-TUHL-yuhn), left a strong mark on the history of Latin literature and exercised more influence than anyone but Saint Augustine on the development of theology in the Western church. However, he left but few scraps of biographical information. A short paragraph in Saint Jerome’s De viris illustribus (392-393; On Illustrious Men, 1999) yields few assertions, and only deductions can be drawn from the writings of Tertullian, which are remarkable for their lack of self-revelation. Each item has been closely examined by scholars, and while virtually nothing can be said with certainty about the man, the following picture emerges from a cautious balancing of ancient tradition and modern skepticism.

Tertullian was certainly born and raised in Roman North Africa, in or near the proconsular capital of Carthage, to a prosperous pagan family. His father was probably a career military officer attached to the staff of the proconsul, and several relatives were active in the literary life of the city. Any birth date assigned to Tertullian (usually 155-160 c.e.) is reached by subtracting from 197 c.e., the secure date of one of his earliest works, the Apologeticus (Apology, 1642), enough years—roughly forty—to account for its character as a mature masterpiece of style, argumentation, and Christian apologetics.

Tertullian received the standard education of a well-to-do Roman, culminating in extensive rhetorical training, in which he must have excelled, judging from his subsequent literary career. It is difficult to avoid identifying Tertullian of Carthage with Tertullian the jurist, whose writings are quoted in later Roman law codes. The men were contemporaries; the jurist wrote on questions of military law, and the Carthaginian had a penchant for legalistic language and argument and was declared by Eusebius of Caesarea to have been eminent at the Roman bar. If they were indeed the same person, Tertullian of Carthage traveled to Rome, became a pupil of the great jurist Pomponius, and established among legal scholars of the Empire a reputation that was later vindicated by his apologetic works.

It was probably in early middle age, not long before 197, that Tertullian converted to Christianity. He never discusses his conversion, though he expresses repeatedly an admiration for the constancy of Christian martyrs, their steadfastness in persecution, and their stubborn defiance of Roman authority in the face of death. It was he who coined the saying “The blood of Christians is seed.” He may have been ordained a priest, as Jerome claims, for some of Tertullian’s works are clearly sermons. While Tertullian uses two or three turns of phrase that place him among the laity, these may be rhetorical poses—devices that he uses more frequently than any other Latin writer. He was certainly married, but though he addressed several treatises to his wife, they reveal nothing of her personality or of their relationship. This opacity is characteristic of Tertullian’s writings: He turned consistently outward toward problems and enemies but seldom inward to reflect on himself or friends.

Life’s Work

In the first three or four years of his career as a Christian, Tertullian devoted his rhetorical talents to apologetics—for example, in Ad nationes (197 c.e.; To the Nations, 1869) and the Apology—defending Christianity against pagan hostility with the aim of ending official persecution. These writings provide an invaluable window on primitive Christian belief and practice, but they are so self-righteous and vehement that they must have increased the pagans’ animosity rather than diminishing it. Tertullian’s strategy is often to argue that pagan Romans do not live up to their own beliefs, values, laws, and civic traditions as well as Christians do. This pose claims for the writer a privileged ability to interpret the texts and traditions of others. He denies repeatedly the right of Roman magistrates to judge Christians, on the ground that God’s law is higher than humankind’s, and he makes the claim, remarkable for a lawyer, that no law has binding force unless it is accepted by the individual’s conscience. Such claims to unfettered autonomy of belief and action recur throughout Tertullian’s works.

Tertullian’s theological vision centered initially on the Church, seeing it as the community mediating between God and humans and thus the authoritative interpreter of Scripture and channel of God’s grace. He argued against certain rigorists that postbaptismal sins could be forgiven by the Church, but his lawyer’s training led him to think of sin chiefly in terms of Roman law, the categories of which he introduced into Christian theological vocabulary. He uses the term delictum (crime) much more often than peccatum (sin) and demands confession before a judge, and the imposition of a penalty, to complete the process of expiating wrongdoing. Correspondingly, penances or good deeds “hold God a debtor” and oblige him to grant the doer forgiveness, favor, and eventually salvation.

Tertullian’s logical prowess and penchant for fine distinctions served him well in dogmatic theology. He was the first to use the term “trinity” to describe the relation of Father, Son, and Spirit, and he pioneered the description of Jesus as one person with a divine and a human nature. These positions antedate the Nicene Creed by more than a century and have become standard in all the main branches of Christianity.

Not long after the year 200, Tertullian’s energies turned to polemical treatises against Gnostics and other heretics, especially the ascetic Marcionites. In these contentious and angry pieces he seems to take on many of the characteristics of his opponents, sinking deep into moral rigorism and antisocial attitudes. He was forced consequently to make ever more contorted and idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture to score points against them. By around 210, he had drifted away from the mainstream of orthodox Christianity into Montanism, a sect that claimed that its private revelations superseded those of the New Testament and that opposed a pure, invisible, “spiritual” Church to the corrupt, visible church of the bishops and clergy. Thereafter, Tertullian increasingly stressed the role of private illuminations from the Spirit and the ability of each Christian to interpret Scripture for himself, outside, or even against, the tradition of the Church.

Though he is famous for comparing classical philosophy unfavorably with Christian theology—“What . . . has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”—he does not reject the formulations and arguments of philosophy but only their claim to compel assent—so strong was his determination to be utterly unfettered in his choice of belief. In fact, he formulates his own positions much more often in philosophical than in biblical terms, quoting Scriptures more for slogans and proof texts than to develop any genuine biblical theology. His major treatise De anima (210-213; On the Soul, 1870), for example, is based on Stoic theory, affirming that the substance of the cosmos is all one, with no distinction of matter and spirit. Tertullian drew the explicit conclusion that soul-substance, as well as body-substance, is passed on from parents to children and laid thereby the foundation for the doctrine of Original Sin, unknown previously.

Having always tended toward absolutism, Tertullian became more extreme and rigorous in his Montanist phase. He reversed his earlier position that sins could be forgiven, claimed that anything that is not explicitly commanded by Scripture is forbidden, and became so confident of his own interpretations as to revoke divine commands from the Old Testament and apostolic counsels in the New. In his last writings his tone is bitterly antisocial and misanthropic; here he pictures himself as living in a world bound for damnation and gloats over the impending deaths of his enemies. Apparently he broke with Montanism in his last years to found his own sect, the Tertullianists, which survived some two centuries until the time of Augustine. His last datable writing was done in 217; according to Jerome, however, he lived to an advanced age.

Significance

Tertullian’s Latin prose style is the most vehement, tortuous, and pyrotechnic ever produced, the ultimate flower of the genre of controversy, lush with innovative vocabulary and quotable phrasing. This power, however, was in the hands of a tortured spirit, a man who was hostile, suspicious, and self-righteous, alienated from the world, from others, and, ultimately, from himself. His writings exhibit many of the traits associated with the authoritarian personality. Rejecting first pagan religion, then the Roman Empire, then orthodox Christianity, and finally the Montanist heresy, he ended his days in an idiosyncratic splinter group defined solely by himself.

Though Tertullian’s writings were condemned by the Church in the sixth century, his genius blazed theological paths that are followed to this day: the doctrine of Original Sin, the Trinity of Persons in God, and the dual natures of Jesus. His legalism and penchant for quid pro quo justice set the tone for Western Christianity’s outlook on sin, forgiveness, grace, and salvation for fourteen centuries, until Martin Luther supplied a corrective. His insistence on the validity of philosophical concepts led to the Roman Catholic tradition of reasoning from natural law, as his rejection of the binding force of philosophical conclusions on his absolute God led to the primacy of scriptural authority in Protestantism. His early argument that Scripture belongs to the Church and can only be interpreted rightly by the Church in accord with its traditions is still a mainstay of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thinking. His later emphasis on private interpretation of scriptural texts provided a strong impetus to the Protestant Reformation. Combined with his moral rigorism and rejection of a visible Church in favor of a “spiritual” or personally defined one, it has exerted continuing influence on Fundamentalism.

Further Reading:

Barnes, T. D. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. This specialized work presents all the evidence ever likely to be available concerning Tertullian’s life and the dates of his writings. Barnes subjects the material to an extremely narrow and skeptical criticism, ignoring or dismissing ancient testimony. His conclusions must be taken into account, but their radical denials should be balanced by the recognition that ancient authorities had available to them more and better sources than do modern scholars.

Bray, Gerald L. Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979. An excellent overview of Tertullian’s thought. It is particularly helpful in synthesizing his positions, which often appear fragmentarily in scattered works and which changed drastically during his writing career.

Morgan, James. The Importance of Tertullian in the Development of Christian Dogma. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1928. Classic work surveying Tertullian’s contributions in various areas, and thus somewhat superficial in each. Bray’s work (see above) supplies more up-to-date interpretations.

Osborn, Eric. Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A major reappraisal of Tertullian’s theology and its influence on the West and Christianity.

Roberts, A., and J. Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vols. 3 and 4. Reprint. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994. This is a reprint of the 1925 American edition of the nineteenth century British Ante-Nicene Christian Library. The translation is somewhat archaic, and it is sparsely annotated, but these volumes offer the only English versions of many of Tertullian’s works, including Ad Scapulam.

Tertullian and Minucius Felix. Apology, De spectaculis, Octavius. Translated by T. R. Glover and G. H. Rendall. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. A translation of Tertullian’s best-known work, with Latin text. The text of Minucius Felix is interesting as he is the only known Christian Latin writer before Tertullian. “Minucius” may in fact be a pseudonym used by Tertullian for his first Christian work.

Warfield, B. B. Studies in Tertullian and Augustine. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. This essay on Tertullian gives the best treatment of his power and originality as a theologian, using his Trinitarian doctrine as focus for the study.

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