Carthage, Africa, Roman Empire
Carthage, Africa, Roman Empire
|Influenced by||Plato • Stoicism • Philo|
|Influenced||School of Alexandria • Cyprian • Jerome • Augustine • Pope Leo I • Council of Chalcedon • Roman Catholic theology|
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225 AD), was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He is the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy. Tertullian has been called "the father of Latin Christianity" and "the founder of Western theology." Though conservative, he did originate and advance new theology to the early Church. He is perhaps most famous for being the oldest extant Latin writer to use the term Trinity (Latin, trinitas), and giving the oldest extant formal exposition of a Trinitarian theology. Other Latin formulations that first appear in his work are "three Persons, one Substance" as the Latin "tres Personae, una Substantia" (itself from the Koine Greek "treis Hypostases, Homoousios"). He wrote his trinitarian formula after becoming a Montanist. However, unlike many Church fathers, he was never canonized by the Catholic Church, as several of his later teachings directly contradicted the actions and teachings of the apostles. His trinity formulation was considered heresy by the Church during his lifetime, however, it was later accepted as doctrine at the council of Nicea.
Scant reliable evidence exists to inform us about Tertullian's life. Most history about him comes from passing references in his own writings.
According to church tradition, he was raised in Carthage and was thought to be the son of a Roman centurion, a trained lawyer, and an ordained priest. These assertions rely on the accounts of Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, II, ii. 4, and Jerome's De viris illustribus (On famous men) chapter 53. Jerome claimed that Tertullian's father held the position of 'centurio proconsularis' ("aide-de-camp") in the Roman army in Africa. However, it is unclear whether any such position in the Roman military ever existed.
Further, Tertullian has been thought to be a lawyer based on his use of legal analogies and an identification of him with the jurist Tertullianus, who is quoted in the Pandects. Although Tertullian used a knowledge of Roman law in his writings, his legal knowledge does not demonstrably exceed that of what could be expected from a sufficient Roman education. The writings of Tertullianus, a lawyer of the same cognomen, exist only in fragments and do not denote a Christian authorship. (Tertullianus was misidentified only much later with the Christian Tertullian by church historians.) Finally, any notion of Tertullian being a priest is also questionable. In his extant writings, he never describes himself as ordained in the church and seems to place himself among the laity.
Roman Africa was famous as the home of orators. This influence can be seen in his style with its archaisms or provincialisms, its glowing imagery and its passionate temper. He was a scholar with an excellent education. He wrote at least three books in Greek. In them he refers to himself, but none of these are extant. His principal study was jurisprudence and his methods of reasoning reveal striking marks of his juridical training. He shone among the advocates of Rome, as Eusebius reports.
His conversion to Christianity perhaps took place about 197–198 (cf. Adolf Harnack, Bonwetsch, and others), but its immediate antecedents are unknown except as they are conjectured from his writings. The event must have been sudden and decisive, transforming at once his own personality. He said of himself that he could not imagine a truly Christian life without such a conscious breach, a radical act of conversion: "Christians are made, not born" (Apol, xviii).
Two books addressed to his wife confirm that he was married to a Christian wife.
In middle life (about 207), he was attracted to the "New Prophecy" of Montanism, and seems to have split from the mainstream church. In the time of Augustine, a group of "Tertullianists" still had a basilica in Carthage which, within that same period, passed to the orthodox Church. It is unclear whether the name was merely another for the Montanists or that this means Tertullian later split with the Montanists and founded his own group.
Jerome says that Tertullian lived to a great age, but there is no reliable source attesting to his survival beyond the estimated year 225 AD. In spite of his schism from the Church, he continued to write against heresy, especially Gnosticism. Thus, by the doctrinal works he published, Tertullian became the teacher of Cyprian and the predecessor of Augustine, who, in turn, became the chief founder of Latin theology.
Thirty-one works are extant, together with fragments of more. Some fifteen works in Latin or Greek are lost, some as recently as the 9th century (De Paradiso, De superstitione saeculi, De carne et anima were all extant in the now damaged Codex Agobardinus in 814 AD). Tertullian's writings cover the whole theological field of the time — apologetics against paganism and Judaism, polemics, polity, discipline, and morals, or the whole reorganization of human life on a Christian basis; they gave a picture of the religious life and thought of the time which is of the greatest interest to the church historian.
The chronology of these writings is difficult to fix with certainty. It is in part determined by the Montanistic views that are set forth in some of them, by the author's own allusions to this writing, or that, as antedating others (cf. Harnack, Litteratur ii.260–262), and by definite historic data (e.g., the reference to the death of Septimius Severus, Ad Scapulam, iv). In his work against Marcion, which he calls his third composition on the Marcionite heresy, he gives its date as the fifteenth year of the reign of Severus (Adv. Marcionem, i.1, 15)—which would be approximately the year 208.
The writings may be divided with reference to the two periods of Tertullian's Christian activity, the Catholic and the Montanist (cf. Harnack, ii.262 sqq.), or according to their subject-matter. The object of the former mode of division is to show, if possible, the change of views Tertullian's mind underwent. Following the latter mode, which is of a more practical interest, the writings fall into two groups. Apologetic and polemic writings, like Apologeticus, De testimonio animae, the anti-Jewish De Adversus Iudeaos, Adv. Marcionem, Adv. Praxeam, Adv. Hermogenem, De praescriptione hereticorum, and Scorpiace were written to counteract Gnosticism and other religious or philosophical doctrines. The other group consists of practical and disciplinary writings, e.g., De monogamia, Ad uxorem, De virginibus velandis, De cultu feminarum, De patientia, De pudicitia, De oratione, and Ad martyras.
Among his apologetic writings, the Apologeticus, addressed to the Roman magistrates, is a most pungent defense of Christianity and the Christians against the reproaches of the pagans, and an important legacy of the ancient Church, proclaiming the principle of freedom of religion as an inalienable human right and demands a fair trial for Christians before they are condemned to death.
Tertullian was the first to break the force of such charges as that the Christians sacrificed infants at the celebration of the Lord's Supper and committed incest. He pointed to the commission of such crimes in the pagan world and then proved by the testimony of Pliny that Christians pledged themselves not to commit murder, adultery, or other crimes. He adduced also the inhumanity of pagan customs such as feeding the flesh of gladiators to beasts. He argued that the gods have no existence and thus there is no pagan religion against which Christians may offend. Christians do not engage in the foolish worship of the emperors. They do better: they pray for them. Christians can afford to be put to torture and to death, and the more they are cast down the more they grow; "the blood of the martyrs is seed" (Apologeticum, 50). In the De Praescriptione he develops as its fundamental idea that, in a dispute between the Church and a separating party, the whole burden of proof lies with the latter, as the Church, in possession of the unbroken tradition, is by its very existence a guarantee of its truth.
The five books against Marcion, written 207 or 208, are the most comprehensive and elaborate of his polemical works, invaluable for gauging the early Christian view of Gnosticism. Of the moral and ascetic treatises, the De patientia and De spectaculis are among the most interesting, and the De pudicitia and De virginibus velandis among the most characteristic.
Though thoroughly conversant with the Greek theology, Tertullian was independent of its metaphysical speculation. He had learned from the Greek apologies, and forms a direct contrast to Origen of Alexandria, who drew much of his theories regarding creation from middle platonism. Tertullian, the prince of realists and practical theologian[neutrality is disputed], carried his realism to the verge of materialism. This is evident from his ascription to God of corporeity and his acceptance of the traducian theory of the origin of the soul. He despised Greek philosophy, and, far from looking at Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers whom he quotes as forerunners of Christ and the Gospel, he pronounces them the patriarchal forefathers of the heretics (De anima, iii.). He held up to scorn their inconsistency when he referred to the fact that Socrates in dying ordered a cock to be sacrificed to Aesculapius (De anima, i). Tertullian always wrote under stress of a felt necessity. He was never so happy as when he had opponents like Marcion and Praxeas, and, however abstract the ideas may be which he treated, he was always moved by practical considerations to make his case clear and irresistible. It was partly this element which gave to his writings a formative influence upon the theology of the post-Nicene period in the West and has rendered them fresh reading to this day. He was a born disputant. It is true that during the 3rd century no mention is made of his name by other authors. Lactantius at the opening of the 4th century is the first to do this, but Augustine treats him openly with respect. Cyprian, Tertullian's North African compatriot, though he nowhere mentions his name, was well read in his writings, as Cyprian's secretary told Jerome.
Tertullian's main doctrinal teachings are as follows:
Tertullian was a determined advocate of strict discipline and an austere code of practise, and like many of the African fathers, one of the leading representatives of the rigorist element in the early Church. These views may have led him to adopt Montanism with its ascetic rigor and its belief in chiliasm and the continuance of the prophetic gifts. In his writings on public amusements, the veiling of virgins, the conduct of women, and the like, he gives expression to these views.
On the principle that we should not look at or listen to what we have no right to practise, and that polluted things, seen and touched, pollute (De spectaculis, viii, xvii), he declared a Christian should abstain from the theater and the amphitheater. There pagan religious rites were applied and the names of pagan divinities invoked; there the precepts of modesty, purity, and humanity were ignored or set aside, and there no place was offered to the onlookers for the cultivation of the Christian graces. Women should put aside their gold and precious stones as ornaments (De cultu, v-vi), and virgins should conform to the law of St. Paul for women and keep themselves strictly veiled (De virginibus velandis). He praised the unmarried state as the highest (De monogamia, xvii; Ad uxorem, i.3) and called upon Christians not to allow themselves to be excelled in the virtue of celibacy by Vestal Virgins and Egyptian priests. He even labeled second marriage a species of adultery (De exhortations castitatis, ix), but this directly contradicted the epistles of the Apostle Paul.
His moral vigour and the service he provided as an ingenious and intrepid defender of the Christian religion were, for him, down to his view of Christianity as first and chiefly an experience of the heart.
Tertullian is sometimes criticized for being misogynistic, on the basis of the contents of his 'De Cultu Feminarum,' section I.I, part 2 (trans. C.W. Marx): "Do you not know that you are Eve? The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.”
Tertullian wrote in his book On Patience 5:15 "Having been made pregnant by the seed of the devil ... she brought forth a son." Or, in a different translation, "For straightway that impatience conceived of the devil's seed, produced, in the fecundity of malice, anger as her son; and when brought forth, trained him in her own arts."
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Tertullian's writings are edited in volumes 1–2 of the Patrologia Latina, and modern texts exist in the Corpus Christianorum Latinorum. English translations by Sidney Thelwall and Philip Holmes can be found in volumes III and IV of the Ante-Nicene Fathers which are freely available online; more modern translations of some of the works have been made.
The following chronological ordering was proposed by John Kaye, Bishop of Lincoln in the 19th century:
Probably Catholic (Pre-Montanist):
There have been many works attributed to Tertullian in the past which have since been determined to be almost definitely written by others. Nonetheless, since their actual authors remain uncertain, they continue to be published together in collections of Tertullian's works.
The popular Passio SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis (Martyrdom of SS. Perpetua and Felicitas), much of it the personal diary of St. Perpetua, was once assumed to have been edited by Tertullian. That view is no longer held, and it is usually published separately from Tertullian's works.
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