Tertullian

The North African theologian and apologist Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220) was the founder of Latin Christian theology. The first major Christian writer to use the Latin language, he gave to Latin Christian thought a decidedly legal stamp.

Born Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus in Carthage, the capital city of Roman Africa, Tertullian was the son of an army officer in a family that was not Christian. He received a full liberal education and entered the practice of law, living apparently for a time in Rome. In his mid-30s he was converted to Christianity and, back in Carthage, became one of the leading figures in the Christian community of that city, though he did not enter the ordained ministry.

Tertullian quickly took up the task of the written defense of the Christian Church in a setting in which violent persecution by the state was a recurring reality. His Apology, addressed to the governors of the Roman provinces, is notable for its skillful legal argumentation as well as for the glimpses it affords into the life of the early Christian Church. The verve, colloquial quality, wit, and frequent sarcasm of his style make him one of the most engaging of early Christian writers.

Tertullian holds an important place among Catholic authors who sought to define and to defend the faith of the Church against those heretical interpretations and speculations that are called Gnosticism and Marcionism. In his writings against these heresies the following themes are prominent: the Bible is rightly interpreted only in the Church, where the tradition of belief coming from Christ and the Apostles is preserved; the Rule of Faith (a summary of Christian teaching similar to the later Apostles' Creed) is the proper guide to interpretation of Scripture since it is acknowledged by all the local churches founded by the Apostles, churches in which an unbroken succession of bishops from the Apostles guarantees a continuity of teaching coming from Christ; and the God of the Jewish Scriptures is identical with the God of Christian faith, Jesus being the Messiah promised by those Scriptures.

A moral rigorist at heart, Tertullian at about the age of 50 abandoned the Catholic Church for the severely moral-istic Christian sect called Montanists. From this position he railed against Catholic "laxity, " for example, in readmitting to Communion those who had fallen into serious sin after their baptism. While a Montanist, he wrote a work, Against Praxeas, that was subsequently held in high honor by Catholics and in which for the first time an explicit doctrine of the Trinity was formulated. Within Montanism, Tertullian appears to have founded his own party, the Tertullianists. The end of his life is shrouded in obscurity, the date of his death being only an intelligent guess.

Further Reading on Tertullian

The best general book on Tertullian is T. D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (1971). A fine appreciation of smaller scope is contained in Hans von Campenhausen, Men Who Shaped the Western Church (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Barnes, Timothy David, Tertullian: a historical and literary study, Oxford Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, 1971.

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