Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1530
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.