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Tertullian n : Carthaginian theologian whose writing influenced early Christian theology (160-230) [syn: Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus]

Extensive Definition

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian, (155222 AD) was a church leader and prolific author of early Christianity. He also was a notable early Christian apologist. He was the son of a Roman centurion. He was raised in Carthage as a pagan. Tertullian denounced Christian doctrines he considered heretical, but later in life adopted views that themselves came to be regarded as heretical. He wrote three books in Greek and was the first great writer of Latin Christianity, thus sometimes known as the "Father of the Latin Church". He was a notable lawyer in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and introduced the term Trinity (Theophilius to Autolycus – 115–181 – introduced the word Trinity in his Book 2, chapter 15 on the creation of the 4th day) as the Latin trinitas, to the Christian vocabulary and also probably the formula "three Persons, one Substance" as the Latin "tres Personae, una Substantia" (itself from the Koine Greek "treis Hypostases, Homoousios"), and also the terms vetus testamentum ("old testament") and novum testamentum ("new testament").
In his Apologeticus, he was the first Latin author who qualified Christianity as the 'vera religio', and systematically relegated the classical Empire religion and other accepted cults to the position of mere 'superstitions'. Later, Tertullian joined the Montanists, a heretical sect that appealed to his rigor and asceticism. . Very little is known about him, and that little is based on passing references in his own writings and on Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, II, ii. 4, and Jerome's De viris illustribus (On famous men) chapter 53.
His father held a position (centurio proconsularis, "aide-de-camp") in the Roman army in Africa. Roman Africa was famous as the home of orators, and this influence can be seen in his style, with its archaisms or provincialisms, its glowing imagery and its passionate temper. He was a scholar, having received an excellent education. He wrote at least three books in Greek, to which he himself refers; 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 took place about 197198 (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 himself said 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).
In the church of Carthage he was ordained a presbyter (priest), though he was married — a fact well established by his two books to his wife and not unusual in its time. In middle life (about 207) he broke with the Orthodox Church and became the local leader and the passionate and brilliant exponent of Montanism, that is, he became a heretic. But even the Montanists were not rigorous enough for Tertullian, and he broke with them to found his own sect. The statement of Augustine (De Haeresibus, lxxxvi) that before his death Tertullian returned to the bosom of the Catholic Church is very improbable.
His sect, the Tertullianists, still had in the times of Augustine a basilica in Carthage, but in that same period passed into the orthodox Church. Jerome says that Tertullian lived to a great age. In spite of his schism, Tertullian continued to fight heresy, especially Gnosticism; and by the doctrinal works thus produced he became the teacher of Cyprian, the predecessor of Augustine, and the chief founder of Latin theology.


General character

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.

Chronology and contents

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 ante-dating 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 Severus' reign (Adv. Marcionem, i.1, 15).
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, Adv. Judaeos, Adv. Marcionem, Adv. Praxeam, Adv. Hermogenem, De praescriptione hereticorum, Scorpiace counteract Gnosticism etc. The other writings are practical and disciplinary, e.g., De monogamia, Ad uxorem, De virginibus velandis, De cultu feminarum, De patientia, De pudicitia, De oratione, Ad martyras etc.
Among the apologetic writings the Apologeticus, addressed to the Roman magistrates, is the most pungent defense of Christianity and the Christians ever written against the reproaches of the pagans, and one of the most magnificent legacies of the ancient Church, full of enthusiasm, courage, and vigor. It first clearly proclaims the principle of freedom of religion as an inalienable right of man, and demands a fair trial for the 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. 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; "In the blood of the martyrs lies the seed of the Church" (Apologeticum, 1). 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 the understanding 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.


General character

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, who drew much of his theories regarding creation from middle platonism. Tertullian, the prince of realists and practical theologian, 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, moved by the noblest impulses known in the Church. It is true that during the third century no mention is made of his name by other authors. Lactantius at the opening of the fourth 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.

Specific teachings

Tertullian's main doctrinal teachings are as follows:
  1. The soul was not preexistent, as Plato affirmed, nor subject to metempsychosis or reincarnation, as the Pythagoreans held. In each individual it is a new product, proceeding equally with the body from the parents, and not created later and associated with the body (De anima, xxvii). This position is called traducianism in opposition to 'creationism', or the idea that each soul is a fresh creation of God. For Tertullian the soul is, however, a distinct entity and a certain corporeity and as such it may be tormented in Hell (De anima, lviii).
  2. The soul's sinfulness is easily explained by its traducian origin (De anima, xxxix). It is in bondage to Satan (whose works it renounces in baptism), but has seeds of good (De anima, xli), and when awakened, it passes to health and at once calls upon God (Apol., xvii.) and is naturally Christian. It exists in all men alike; it is a culprit and yet an unconscious witness by its impulse to worship, its fear of demons, and its musings on death to the power, benignity, and judgment of God as revealed in the Christian's Scriptures (De testimonio, v-vi).
  3. God, who made the world out of nothing through his Son, the Word, has corporeity though he is a spirit (De praescriptione, vii.; Adv. Praxeam, vii.). However Tertullian used 'corporeal' only in the stoic sense, to mean something with actual existence, rather than the later idea of flesh. In the statement of the Trinity, Tertullian was a forerunner of the Nicene doctrine, approaching the subject from the standpoint of the Logos doctrine, though he did not fully state the immanent Trinity. His use of trinitas (Latin: 'Threeness') emphasised the manifold character of God. In his treatise against Praxeas, who taught patripassianism in Rome, he used the words, " Trinity and economy, persons and substance." The Son is distinct from the Father, and the Spirit from both the Father and the Son (Adv. Praxeam, xxv). "These three are one substance, not one person; and it is said, 'I and my Father are one' in respect not of the singularity of number but the unity of the substance." The very names "Father" and "Son" indicate the distinction of personality. The Father is one, the Son is one, and the Spirit is one (Adv. Praxeam, ix). The question whether the Son was coeternal with the Father Tertullian does not set forth in full clarity; and though he did not fully state the doctrine of the immanence of the Trinity, he went a long distance in the way of approach to it.
  4. In soteriology Tertullian does not dogmatize, he prefers to keep silence at the mystery of the cross (De Patientia, iii). The sufferings of Christ's life as well as of the crucifixion are efficacious to redemption. In the water of baptism, which (upon a partial quotation of John 3:5) is made necessary (De baptismate, vi.), we are born again; we do not receive the Holy Spirit in the water, but are prepared for the Holy Spirit. We little fishes, after the example of the ichthys, fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water (De baptismate, i). In discussing whether sins committed subsequent to baptism may be forgiven, he calls baptism and penance "two planks" on which the sinner may be saved from shipwreck — language which he gave to the Church (De penitentia, xii).
  5. With reference to the rule of faith, it may be said that Tertullian is constantly using this expression and by it means now the authoritative tradition handed down in the Church, now the Scriptures themselves, and perhaps also a definite doctrinal formula. While he nowhere gives a list of the books of Scripture, he divides them into two parts and calls them the instrumentum and testamentum (Adv. Marcionem, iv.1). He distinguishes between the four Gospels and insists upon their apostolic origin as accrediting their authority (De praescriptione, xxxvi; Adv. Marcionem, iv.1–5); in trying to account for Marcion's treatment of the Lucan Gospel and the Pauline writings he sarcastically queries whether the "shipmaster from Pontus" (Marcion) had ever been guilty of taking on contraband goods or tampering with them after they were aboard (Adv. Marcionem, v.1). The Scripture, the rule of faith, is for him fixed and authoritative (De corona, iii-iv). As opposed to the pagan writings they are divine (De testimonio animae, vi). They contain all truth (De praescriptione, vii, xiv) and from them the Church drinks (potat) her faith (Adv. Praxeam, xiii). The prophets were older than the Greek philosophers and their authority is accredited by the fulfilment of their predictions (Apol., xix-xx). The Scriptures and the teachings of philosophy are incompatible, insofar as the latter are the origins of sub-Christian heresies. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" he exclaims, "or the Academy with the Church?" (De praescriptione, vii). Philosophy as pop-paganism is a work of demons (De anima, i); the Scriptures contain the wisdom of heaven. However Tertullian was not averse to using the technical methods of Stoicism to discuss a problem (De anima). The rule of faith, however, seems to be also applied by Tertullian to some distinct formula of doctrine, and he gives a succinct statement of the Christian faith under this term (De praescriptione, xiii).
  6. Tertullian was a defender of the necessity of apostolicity. In his Prescription Against Heretics, he explicitly challenges heretics to produce evidence of the apostolic succession of their communities.
Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed.

Moral principles

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), called upon Christians not to allow themselves to be excelled in the virtue of celibacy by Vestal Virgins and Egyptian priests, and he pronounced second marriage a species of adultery (De exhortations castitatis, ix).
Those who believe Tertullian went to an unhealthy extreme in his counsels of asceticism, might easily forgive him because of his moral vigor and the great service he provided as an ingenious and intrepid defender of the Christian religion. With Tertullian, as with Martin Luther and John Wesley, Christianity was first and chiefly an experience of the heart.
Because of his schism with the Church, he, like the great Alexandrian Father, Origen, has failed to receive the honor of canonization.
Tertullian is occasionally considered as an example of the misogyny of the early Church Fathers, 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 in his book ON PATIENCE 5:15 "Having been made pregnant by the seed of the devil ... she brought forth a son."

Prophetic exegesis

Tertullian was the first Latin church father to use the prophecies to show the superiority of Holy Scripture over all pagan productions.

Christ the Stone that smites the Image

Tertulian declares Christ to be the stone of Daniel 2 that will smite at His second coming the "secular kingdom" image.
"Now these signs of degradation quite suit His first coming, just as the tokens of His majesty do His second advent, when He shall no longer remain 'a stone of stumbling and rock of offence,' but after His rejection become 'the chief corner-stone,' accepted and elevated to the top place of the temple, even His church, being that very stone in Daniel, cut out of the mountain, which was to smite and crush the image of the secular kingdom. Of this advent the same prophet says: 'Behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days; and they brought Him before Him, and there was given Him dominion and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed."

Antichrist — Beast — Man of Sin is Near

Like Irenaeus, Tertulian identifies the Antichrist with the Man of Sin and the Beast. On the one hand he speaks of many antichrists — as indeed John himself does — men who rebel against Christ at any time. Yet on the other hand he expects the specific Antichrist just before the resurrection, as a persecutor of the church, under whom the second company of martyrs, awaited by those under the altar of the fifth seal, will be slain, and Enoch and Elijah will meet their long delayed death. Unlike Irenaeus, however, Tertullian does not describe Antichrist as a Jew sitting in a Jewish temple at Jerusalem. Indeed, he says that the temple of God is the church. He expects Antichrist soon.

Rome’s continuance delays Antichrist’s appearance

Commenting on the Antichrist of 2 Thessalonians 2:3–6, he observes that it is the Roman state that is the restraining "obstacle" which, by being broken up into the "ten kingdoms," would make way for Antichrist.
" 'For that day shall not come, unless indeed there first come a falling away,' he [Paul] means indeed of this present empire, 'and that man of sin be revealed,' that is to say, Antichrist, 'the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or religion; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, affirming that he is God. Remember ye not, that when I was with you, I used to tell you these things? And now ye know what detaineth, that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work; only he who now hinders must hinder, until he be taken out ol. the way.' What obstacles is there but the Roman state, the falling away of which, by being scattered into the ten kingdoms, shall introduce Antichrist upon (its own ruins)? And then shall be revealed the wicked one, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming: even him whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish.'

Babylon the recognized figure of Rome

The "Babylon" of the Apocalypse is applied to the city of Rome and her domination.
"So, again, Babylon, in our own John, is a figure of the city Rome, as being equally great and proud of her sway, and triumphant over the saints."
He depicts her as "drunk" with the blood of martyred "saints." Such was the obviously immediate application.

Rome’s break up signal for End

"There is also another and a greater necessity for our offering prayer in behalf of the emperors, nay, for the complete-stability of the empire, and for Roman interests in general. For we know that a mighty shock impending over the whole earth — in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes — is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman empire. We have no desire, then, to be overtaken by these dire events; and in praying that their coming may be delayed, we are lending our aid to Rome's duration."

Prophecy spans first and second Advents

Tertullian regarded prophecy as largely prefiguring, in orderly succession, the chief events and epochs of the church and the world from Christ's first advent to His second coming, and assures us that the events surrounding the second advent, such as the resurrection, were as yet unfulfilled.

Millennium follows Resurrection of Dead

"Our inquiry relates to what is promised in heaven, not on earth. But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem, 'let down from heaven,' which the apostle also calls 'our mother from above;' and, while declaring that our citizenship, is in heaven, he predicates of it that it is really a city in heaven. This both Ezekiel had knowledge of and the Apostle John beheld. . . .
"This city [new Jerusalem] has been provided by God for receiving the saints on their resurrection, and refreshing them with the abundance of all really spiritual blessings, as a recompense for those which in the world we have either despised or lost; since it is both just and God-worthy that His servants should have their joy in the place where they have also suffered affliction for His name's sake."

After Millennium, world’s destruction and Heaven

"Of the heavenly kingdom this is the process. After its thousand years are over, within which period is completed the resurrection of the saints, who rise sooner or later according to their deserts, there will ensue the destruction of the world and the conflagration of all things at the judgment: we shall then be changed in a moment into the substance of angels, even by the investiture of an incorruptible nature, and so be removed to that kingdom in heaven."

Seventy Weeks fulfilled by First Advent

Tertullian contends that by the prophecy of Daniel's seventy weeks the time of Christ's incarnation, as well as of His death, is foretoId. He gives an extensive sketch of the chronology of the seventy weeks of years, starting them from the first year of Darius, and continuing to Jerusalem's destruction by the Romans under the command of Titus. This was to show that the seventy weeks were then fully completed, the vision and prophecy thus being sealed by the advent of Christ, which he places at the end of the sixty-two and one-half weeks.


Tertullian's writings are edited in volumes 1–3 of the Patrologia Latina. English translations by Sidney Thelwall and Philip Holmes can be found in volumes III and IV of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.
  • Apologeticus pro Christianis.
  • Dissertatio Mosheim in Apol.
  • Libri duo ad Nationes.
  • De Testimonio animae.
  • Ad Martyres.
  • De Spectaculis.
  • De Idololatria.
  • Accedit ad Scapulam liber.
  • Dissertatio D. Le Nourry in Apologet. libr. II ad Nat. et libr. ad Scapulam.
  • De Oratione.
  • De Baptismo.
  • De Poenitentia.
  • De Patientia.
  • Ad Uxorem libri duo.
  • De Cultu Feminarum lib. II.
  • De Corona Militis.
  • De Fuga in Persecutione.
  • Adversus Gnosticos Scorpiace.
  • Adversus Praxeam.
  • Adversus Hermogenem.
  • Adversus Marcionem libri V.
  • Adversus Valentinianos.
  • Adversus Judaeos.
  • De Anima.
  • De Carne Christi.
  • De Resurrectione Carnis.
On morality
  • De velandis Virginibus.
  • De Exhortatione Castitatis.
  • De Monogamia.
  • De Jejuniis.
  • De Pudicitia.
  • De Pallio.


  • Initial text of article from The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Philip Schaff, public domain
  • This Holy Seed: Faith, Hope and Love in the Early Churches of North Africa Robin Daniel, Tamarisk Publications, 1993. ISBN 0-9520435-0-5

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