Tertullian Essay - Critical Essays



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 Information

Many 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.

Major 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.

Textual History

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


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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]...

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Edgar J. Goodspeed (essay date 1942)

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...

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William P. Le Saint (essay date 1951)

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...

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William P. Le Saint (essay date 1959)

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...

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Timothy D. Barnes (essay date 1969)

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...

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Stephen Gero (essay date 1970)

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...

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H. B. Timothy (essay date 1973)

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...

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A. A. R. Bastiaensen (essay date 1977)

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....

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John F. Jansen (essay date 1982)

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...

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Karen Jo Torjesen (essay date 1989)

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...

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David Rankin (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)

Eric Osborn (essay date 1997)

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...

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Further Reading

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."...

(The entire section is 391 words.)