Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (CE160-CE 225) was the first significant Christian author to write in Latin, and one of the most prolific. As early church historian Jerome wrote:
Now finally Tertullian the presbyter is ranked first of the Latin writers after Victor and Apollonius.
A brilliant writer, he was known for his wit, his biting criticism of opposing viewpoints, and his sarcasm; aspects of his writing that transcend translation such that they are obvious even to the modern English reader. Jerome summed it up well when he said:
He possessed a sharp and violent talent, and flourished in the reigns of Severus and Caracalla. He wrote many volumes, which I shall omit because they are well-known. I myself saw a certain Paul, an old man of Concordia (which is a town in Italy): he told me that as a youth he had seen a man at Rome, who had been the secretary of the aged Cyprian, and who recalled that Cyprian would never let a day pass without reading Tertullian, and that he often said to him 'Give me my master', clearly meaning Tertullian.
Tertullian did the Church the service of crystalizing the concept of the Trinity (or at least the vocabulary used to describe the Trinity), elucidating the sin nature of man and the salvation purchased by Christ, defending the chain of custody as concerns the truth about Christ, and arguing for the literal second coming of Christ.
Like any human author, Tertullian was not without error. Some of his writings and formulations were later adapted to justify legalistic doctrines. But a circumspect examination of his writings is well worth the while of a dedicated student of the history of theology and the Church.
Early life and ministry
What information is available on the life and background of Tertullian is either gleaned from clues and scant personal references in his writings, or from church tradition. As a consequence, most of his biography is speculative.
According to Jerome’s De virus illustribus, Tertullian was the son of a Roman centurion stationed in Carthage in Northern Africa. Tertullian was born and raised in a pagan culture, and clearly received a first-class education in both the Greek and Roman traditions.
It is speculated that Tertullian practiced Law as his profession, mostly because of his heavy use of legal terms and reasoning in his writings. Tertullian’s conversion to Christianity occurred well into his adulthood, probably in his 30’s or 40’s.
Much like the Apostle Paul, once Tertullian was converted he launched almost immediately into a zealous defense of the Christian faith, using his extensive education and brilliant intelligence as his weapon. In Carthage where Tertullian lived, the Roman persecution of Christians was extreme. This did not hold Tertullian back from risking his life by directing a number of his writings to the pagan culture, defending the Christian belief and denouncing the pointless torment they received. Especially representative of this kind of writing is his Apologeticus, a book wherein he uses his extensive knowledge of the law to show the injustice of the way in which Christians were being treated and the virtue of Christianity versus the depravity of paganism.
As Tertullian proved himself entirely devoted to the Christian cause, he was soon appointed as an elder in the church at Carthage.
A passionate man, Tertullian was frustrated at the complacency he saw creeping into the church doctrine and leadership. It was perhaps for this reason that later in his ministry, he became enamored of a new sect called Montanism, which was heavily charismatic. Much of his later work was written defending this belief.
In the second century Greek was rapidly being replaced by Latin as the common language. With Rome dominating the world scene for almost 200 years, Hellenistic beliefs and culture were giving way to the Latin mindset which was more utilitarian and less philosophical.
During this time period, Carthage was a center of heavy persecution for Christians. This extreme persecution had an impact on the doctrine of the church in Carthage and of Tertullian specifically. The persecution was taken as a sign that the return of Christ was imminent, and the church in Carthage proudly embraced persecution and martyrdom as evidences to their commitment to and favor from God. The Church in Carthage tended to look down on those Christians who fled persecution and caved to cultural pressure to hide or denounce their Christian beliefs. Often these people were refused re-entry into the church. Tertullian’s beliefs about how Christians were to live and to behave were based on the idea that Christ was going to return at any moment. An example of this was his belief regarding abstinence, which he thought should be practiced universally by both the married and the unmarried; in part because of the rejection of carnal desires in favor of spiritual ones, and in part because he did not think it wise to bring children into the world when Christ would be returning at any moment.
Tertullian wrote close to fifty known books, thirty-one of which are still extant. The majority of his works were written in response to heresy or a defense of Christianity. Since he never authored a (known) systematic theology, and because his views on some doctrines seemed to fluctuate across his writings, it would be difficult to reconstruct his theology in its entirety.
Tertullian was fluent in both Latin and Greek, and wrote works in both, but the majority of his writings were composed in Latin. While he was never sainted by the Catholic Church, the fact that he wrote in Latin and some of his more legalistic doctrines have made him a favorite of Roman Catholics. He was influential in their ideas on baptism and on the virtues of life-long abstinence.
Tertullian’s writings were largely reactive in nature. He wrote to address challenges to his beliefs from within and without the Christian Church. He wrote to the surrounding culture, denouncing the reasonless attacks they made on Christians and condemning their hedonistic and bloodthirsty ways in his brilliant Apologeticus. He wrote against a variety of doctrines, especially those that used Aristotelian philosophy to support “Christian” beliefs. He is famous for having said “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” meaning that one should lean on what the Apostles received from Christ and not Hellenistic ideas in order to support the Church’s doctrine:
All doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches, those nurseries and original depositories of faith, must be regarded as truth, and as undoubtedly constituting what the churches received from the Apostles, what the Apostles received from Christ, and what Christ received from God.
-Prescription against Heretics 21