Tertullian, the Father of Latin Western Theology and an Advocate of "Freedom of Religion"
Johnson Thomaskutty,
Faculty of New Testament, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

Theology on the Web helps over 2.5 million people every year to find high quality theological resources that will help to equip them to serve God and to know Him better (2 Timothy 2:15). Like other websites that provide free services, it is dependent on donations to enable it to grow and develop and only 0.004% of visitors currently do so. If you would like to support this site, please use one of the options to the right of this message.

I. Prologue

Christianity should come out of its ‘shallow intervention' to a more ‘profound socio-political intercourse'. The role of educated writing is important to reach this destiny. While various postmodern movements and New Age movements are catching the attention of the young, educated masses through their writings, how far our writings come to deal the perplexed worldviews of the contemporary mindset? The need of the hour is rhetorical writers who can influence the new realities and confront the modern challenges. Tertullian's rhetorical writings were grown up to the level of his time and context. His jurisprudential approach to present the matters of Christians before the civil authorities is commendable. In a context where Christians remained as a misunderstood community before both the civil and political authorities, Tertullian made the points clear in an efficacious manner. The aspects like braveness, articulation of rhetoric, sensitiveness, and addressing the issues of the minority-persecuted Christian community were conspicuous in Tertullian's writing style. In a context in which freedom of religion is halted, Tertullian's apologetical and polemic approaches are tools available for the modern Christian thinker to make use.

II. Life and Works

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicized as Tertullian, was a prolific and controversial early Christian author, and the first to write Christian Latin literature. He was born around the year 160 at Carthage (modern Tunis) into a pagan Roman family. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy. Born in North Africa, the son of a Roman centurion, Tertullian was educated at Rome in rhetoric and philosophy, and he probably practiced law there. After being converted to Christianity in 195 or 196, he was ordained a presbyter, and he served the Church in Carthage. He is considered the father of Latin, western Christianity, not merely because he is the first theologian to employ the Latin tongue, but also because of his influence on Cyprian, Augustine, and Jerome. The “Apology” is the best known of his numerous writings because it gives the most comprehensive statement of the Christian position, and because it is free from certain extravagances found in his other writings; the work reflects both Tertullian's mastery of his subject and his legal competence.

Tertullian, as an early Christian author and polemicist, helped to establish Latin—rather than Greek, which was the most widely, used language at that time—as an ecclesiastical language and as a vehicle for Christian thought in the West. He coined many new theological words and phrases and gave currency to those already in use, thus becoming a significant thinker in forging and fixing the vocabulary and thought structure of Western Christianity for the next 1000 years. Because he was a moralist rather than a philosopher by temperament—which probably precipitated his famous question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”—Tertullian's practical and legal bent of mind expressed what would later be taken as the unique genius of Latin Christianity. When he approved innovation, he did originate and advance new theology to the early Church. He is perhaps most famous for coining the term Trinity (Latin “Trinitas”) and giving the first exposition of the formula. Other 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"), and also the terms Vetus Testamentum ("Old Testament") and Novum Testamentum ("New Testament").

Together with Origen, he is one of the two greatest Christian writers of the second and third centuries. Indeed, he was one of the greatest Latin writers ever and it is said that pagans used to read his works simply to enjoy the style. As a fifth-century writer put it, “almost every word he uttered was an epigram and every sentence was a victory”. Or as a modern author said, Tertullian ‘possessed ability rare among theologians: he is incapable of being dull”! Tertullian wrote always as an advocate—defending his own position and attacking all rivals. This he did with the full range of rhetorical skills at his disposal. He has been described as ‘an apologist who never apologized'! His aim was the total annihilation of his opponents. They had to be shown totally wrong—and morally suspect to boot. Tertullian was not being vindictive or dishonest. He was completely convinced about the rightness of his cause and sincerely sought to argue it as best he could. His works are categorized under three sub-groups: (1) Apologetical works; (2) Dogmatic/anti-heretical works; and (3) Practical works.

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. 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 writings may be divided with reference to the two periods of Tertullian's Christian activity, the Catholic and the Montanist, 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, this 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.

Tertullian's canon of the Old Testament included the deuteron-canonical books, since he quotes most of them. He also cites the Book of Enoch as inspired, and thinks those who rejected it were wrong. He seems also to recognize IV Esdras, and the Sibyl, though he admits that there are many sibylline forgeries. In the New Testament he knows the Four Gospels, Acts, Epistles of St. Paul, I Peter (Ad Ponticos), I John, Jude, Apocalypse. He does not know James and II Peter, but we cannot tell that he did not know II, III John. He attributes Hebrews to St. Barnabas. Throughout church history Tertullian has received condemnation for two main reasons: his association with the Montanist movement and because of his supposed anti-intellectualism. However, the vast majority of scholars now agree that the Montanists were doctrinally orthodox, and so there are no grounds for rejecting Tertullian's contribution to theology on the grounds of his association with them.

III. His Thought

The “Apology” was written against the background of the imperial persecution of the Church, and it was intended to instruct the Romans concerning the true nature of the Christian faith. With the logic of a trained pleader and with a minimum of passion, Tertullian criticized imperial edicts and the manner in which they have been implemented by the courts; in effect, he pleads for “freedom of religion”. Ordinary offenders, he says, are tortured to make them confess their crimes; but Christians are tortured to make them deny their beliefs. The whole judicial procedure thus becomes a farce. Tertullian's argument has a positive and a negative side. On the one hand, the author gives a careful, detailed exposition of the beliefs and practices of the Church of his day; on the other hand, as a former pagan, well-placed for observing Roman society, he gives a telling expose of the immorality and irreligion of those who put the Christians to death.

Christians are charged with not believing in the gods of the Romans. This is true, says Tertullian, but it is no scandal. There are tribes throughout the Empire which do not believe in the Roman gods, yet they have permission to practice their religion. Moreover, philosophers, such as Socrates, are held in honor, in spite of the fact that they deny the gods. According to Tertullian, Christians worship “the One God” who by His word and power has created and sustains the world. Although He is not visible, every man has some notion of Him because He is manifest both in the works of nature and in the native testimony of the soul itself. In evidence of the latter, Tertullian cites such pagan expressions as “God is great and good”, “May God give!”, and “I commend myself to God”. But, says Tertullian, for our better knowledge of Him, God has also given us a written revelation of Himself. Tertullian stresses the antiquity of this revelation, which was given to the Hebrews. It antedates Homer, the tragic poets, and philosophers, who, in Tertullian's opinion, probably drew upon it.

As to the pagan divinities, Tertullian holds the view, known anciently as euhemerism, that the gods are men who, after their death, were made objects of worship. There are, then, in actuality, no gods other than God. But, according to Tertullian, there are devils, which take advantage of men's idolatrous propensities and appear to them as gods in order to enslave their souls to darkness. The simplicity of Christian worship must be difficult for those to grasp who are accustomed to the florid festivals of Gaia or of Bacchus, writes Tertullian. The service of Christ consists in reading the Scriptures, in prayer, in exhortation and censure. Once a month, Christians gather donations for the poor and the unfortunate. They call one another “brethren”, not in the hypocritical manner of those who curry favor of one another, but because of their common mother, Nature. Thus, Christians think of pagans as their brothers and sisters; but they feel special kinship toward those who have been led to the common knowledge of God.

More serious, perhaps, was the charge that Christians were disloyal to Caesar, inasmuch as they refused to offer sacrifice to him as to a god. Tertullian insists on the distinction made in the Gospels between that which is Caesar's and that which is God's. Christians are even willing to call Caesar “lord”, so long as it is understood that this is not a title of divinity. They also pray for Caesar and for the preservation of Roman rule. The same kind of reply is brought to the charge that, in causing the sacrifices to be neglected, Christians are responsible for various natural calamities. The charge had better be turned against the heathen themselves, says Tertullian, considering the hypocritical and perfunctory manner in which they perform their religious rites. If the well-being of the Empire depended on the gods, as is maintained, then the pagans should take it those disasters are warnings to themselves. In any case, says Tertullian, there were natural catastrophies before there were Christians.

IV. Recapitulation

In our evaluation of the life and work of Tertullian, we reached into a position that he was a great orator and an advocate of freedom of religion par-excellence. Writing at a time when it was not even dreamed that Christianity might become the imperial religion, Tertullian saw no possibility of compromise between Christianity and secular culture. The civil disabilities imposed by the government upon Christians were, in his opinion, the manifestation of “a certain system” which is opposed to God and His truth, and he was determined to fight this injustice. The existence of organized opposition to Christianity did not surprise Tertullian or particularly disturb him; but in his apology he challenges the assumption that government must serve this pagan outlook. Tracing the mischief to the Greek and Roman practice of deifying civic values, he argues for the complete secularization of the political order, and for complete religious tolerance. He insists that by paying taxes and obeying the laws, as well as by their prayers, Christians do fulfill their obligations as citizens. The purposeful style of “making the civil and political authorities confirmed” was a strategically intertwined one by Tertullian. In majority of his intellectual masterworks, he caricatured the context of “majority-minority stratification” and “atrocities against the Christians” in order to get the problems solved drastically.

For Further Reference:

Dockery, David S. Biblical Interpretation Then And Now: Contemporary Hermeneutics In The Light Of The Early Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of Christianity. Augsburg: Fortress Publishers, 1984.

Hinson, E. Glenn. “Tertullian”. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 14. Ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1987: 406-408.

Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. San Francisco: Harper, 1978.

Lane, Tony. The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought. Sydney: A Lion Book, 1984.

Magill, Frank N. Ed. Masterpieces of Christian Literature: In Summary Form. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963.

Norris, Richard A. God and World in Early Christian Theology: A Study in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1966.




Become a Patron!Buy Me a Coffee! Support this siteSponsored Ad: Biblemesh ActivEreader