Tertullian was born in North Africa in Carthage (now Tunisia) between approximately 155 –160 CE. Carthage was only second to Rome as a cultural and educational seat in the West. His proper name in full Latin is Quintus Sepimus Florens Tertullianus. He was the son of a Roman centurion and both parents were considered pagans. (1) Most of the writings on the life of Tertullian were written more than a century after his death. This makes for great debate among modern day scholars as to the accuracy of Tertullian’s documented life. Since Tertullian’s parents were pagan, his early religious experience was probably polytheistic in nature.
Tertullian received an exceptional education in grammar, rhetoric, literature, philosophy, and law. He was able to read and write in Greek and Latin, though his writings in Greek have not come down to us. After he completed his education in Carthage he went to Rome in his late teens or early twenties to further his study and begin a career as a lawyer. (2) Through great debate it has been said that Tertullian is the jurist mentioned in the Pandects or Digest, a collection of legal opinion compiled under the aegis of the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian. (3)
Tertullian remained a pagan until his middle life but while in Rome he became interested in Christianity. He like other pagans of the time had indulged in shameful pleasures according to Christianity. This conversion is said to have taken place towards the end of the 2nd century after he returned to Carthage and was married. Though he left no accounts of his conversion to Christianity, his early works, Ad martyras (“To the martyrs”), Ad nationes (“To the Nations”), and Apologeticom (“Defense”) clearly shows that he was impressed by Christian attitudes and beliefs. (4)
He was very impressed with the courage and determination of the martyrs, their moral rigor, and uncompromising belief in one God. Towards the end of the 2nd century approximately 197 CE, the church in Carthage became large, firmly established, and well organized. The church in Carthage was rapidly becoming a powerful force in North Africa. Tertullian’s earlier works were as a layman and afterwards he became an ordained priest. Tertullian emerged as a leading member of the African church. He devoted most of his talents and time in instructing the unbaptized seekers and the faithful, as well as, being a literary defender (apologist) of Christian beliefs and practices. (5) His passion for truth led him into polemics with his enemies, pagans, Jews, heretics, and later Catholics.
The most famous work of Tertullian was Apologeticom (Defense). This treatise was written in defense of Christians against pagan charges of immorality, economic worthlessness, and political subversion. (6) De Praescriptione haereticorum (On the Prescription of the Heretics) was the most important of his treatises refuting heresy. He argued that the church alone has the authority to declare what is and what is not orthodox Christianity. Tertullian, to his credit has written over thirty treatises. Most of his treatises were in the form of arguments where he was able to make use of his education in rhetoric, grammar, literature, philosophy, and law. He mainly used legal jargon and rhetoric to make his points. When Tertullian was in his 40s to mid 60s he devoted himself mainly to literary pursuits. He began to develop an original and unprecedented Latin style. He was always reviewing and changing his own writings. This made it difficult for the reader who looks for the logical, hermeneutical, and theological principals. (7)
Tertullian was known as the greatest theologian of the West until Augustine. Many of the western church fathers admired him, such as Cyprian and Jerome. Tertullian broke away from the orthodoxy of the church around 207-210 CE to join the Montanist, a new prophetic sectarian movement founded by a Phrygian prophet, Montanus. This sectarian movement had spread from the Asia Minor to Africa. The Montanist encouraged prophesying, supported a rigorous form of asceticism and demanded moralism. Jerome became very distressed by Tertullian’s change. After supporting the Montanist dogma, Tertullian became a critic of orthodox Christians accusing them of moral laxity. (8)
Tertullian then gave himself fully to the defense of his newfound movement as an articulate spokesman. Like all Montanist, Tertullian held the belief that all Christians should welcome persecution as the martyrs did. The Montanist had increasing conflict with church authorities and finally was declared heretical. For Tertullian the Montanists were not strict enough for him. He broke away from them to found his own group, called the Tertullianists. This sect seemed to have existed until the 5th century in Africa.
According to tradition, Tertullian lived to be an old man. It was not until Augustine that Tertullian and his writings were reconciled with the Roman Church. His last writings date from 220 CE and he is said to have died sometime after 220 CE. (9)
Tertullian’s writings have survived the ages due to his new theological view of vertian scriptures. He was the first Latin writer to formulate Christian theological concepts, such as the nature of the Trinitas (Trinity) to describe the Godhead. In doing so he paved the way for the development of orthodox Trinitarian and christological doctrines. He is described as brilliant, sarcastic, and intolerant. This intolerance comes out with his skeptical view on the value that Greek philosophy had in articulating Christian truths. Tertullian asked the Greeks “What does Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (10) Christian writers also value many of Tertullian’s other writings, especially De Bapismo (On Baptism) and De Oratione (On Prayer), for the understanding they shed on contemporary religious practices.
In the 1st and early 2nd centuries the Apostolic Fathers began to write on “What does it mean to be a Christian”? Some of the Apostolic Fathers included: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. (11) These writers started their writings immediately after the New Testament was written. After that period of time were those writers who tried to define Christianity and another group of writers emerged during the end of the 2nd century and beginning of the 3rd century. This group of writers was known as the Apologist. They defended Christianity and laid the groundwork for original orthodox Christianity. Some of these writers included Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Athengoras.
During the 1st and 2nd century there were various interpretations of what it meant to be a Christian. Many converts coming into Christianity came from several different religious and cultural backgrounds. (12) These different backgrounds influence the way people interpreted Christianity. This gave rise to what was called heresy. The word derives from the Greek word hairesis meaning choice. (13) New thoughts were called heresy because those individuals chose to have views that differed from the official teachings of the church. There were many heresies that arose during the early church. Some of the popular heresies included Gnosticism, Marcion, Montanism, and Monarchianism. In his treatise, Tertullian cites Marcion and Stoicism as heresies. Those involved with the church felt that these alternative views of Christianity were wrong and potentially dangerous for faith.
There were philosophical schools of thought that emerged in the East and West during the 2nd century. Aristotle’s school existed in the East, in Alexandria, Egypt. He considered himself to be a realist. This school held view of a transcendent God and read the Bible allegorically and mystically looking for the hidden meaning. They valued observation, believed reality is found in common experiences and actions in the visible world, and truth is found in the here and now. (14)
The Alexandrine school felt that God was above the creative order. They were tolerant of dualism. It was possible for them that two entities that are distinct and equally real could share the same nature or essence. Plato’s school existed in the West, in Antioch, Syria. He considered himself to be an idealist. In this school they held the view of an immanent God and read the Bible literally and historically seeking the meaning intended by the writer. They valued searching for the ultimate reality, believed life is a reflection of an eternal reality, and that ultimate truth is found outside of the human experience. (15)
The Antiochian school felt that God is continually present in and with the creative order. They were intolerant of dualism stressing the unity of nature. It was impossible for them to conceive that two entities that were distinct and equally real can share a common nature or essence. Though the schools had different philosophies and views of the Bible, they agreed on two points. The first point they agreed on was that a person could obtain real knowledge of the universe and that there is a universal plan. The second point was the human soul is set apart from other living beings.
The Apologists/Church Fathers, who read the Septuagint and interpreted the scriptures, began to give basic explanations in the form of treatises. The Fathers of the Greek Church in the East of the 2nd and 3rd centuries consisted of Justin Martyr, Ireanaus, and Clement of Alexandria. The Fathers of the Latin Church in the West during this time period consisted of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. These were the ones who wrote various treatises to help shape and form the orthodoxy of Christianity. (16)
During this period in history the Roman Empire was considered polytheistic and Christianity was forbidden. There were several people that lived in Rome that were persecuted for their beliefs. These individuals are considered martyrs for dying for their belief in Christianity. A brief description of the power structure of the Roman Empire and the Roman persecutions of Christians during the life of Tertullian (155- 220 CE) will be discussed. From 161 – 180 CE Marcus Aurelius was Emperor. He was a Stoic who opposed Christianity on a philosophical basis and Christians were blamed for natural disasters. Martyrs of that time period included, Justin Martyr, Pothinus, and Blandina. Septimus Severus was Emperor from 202 – 211 CE where conversion to Christianity was forbidden. The persecution was aimed at teachers and new converts. He tried to unify the empire and have religious harmony through syncretism. All gods were welcome but you must worship the sun god. Leonidas, Irenaeus, and Perpetua were martyred. (17)
This was a very troubling time for Christianity during the time of the persecutions. Many people wanted to be martyred to get the “fast ticket” to heaven. After the persecutions another form of practicing Christianity emerged. Individuals began to practice Monasticism. These individuals usually take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, practiced asceticism, and lived apart from the rest of the world. (18) This gave rise to the building of several monasteries. This also gave rise to the Anchorites, those who were walled in with no way of getting in or out.
Tertullian wrote De Praescriptione haereticorum (On the Prescription of the Heretics) a forty-four-chapter treatise possibly around 200 CE. There are several title variations for this treatise: De Praescriptione haereticorum, Incipit de praescrptione haereticorum, and Incipit liber eiusdem de praescriptionbus haereticorum.The title of this treatise refers to a common practice in the Roman legal system. A lawyer could use a “prescription” that could prevent a case from coming to trial on the basis of a legal technicality. (19)
Tertullian stated that heretics did not need to be given a fair hearing because they gave up their right to defend their views. In his view Christian scriptures are the only grounds for theological debate. Since heretics have renounced the church and scriptures they are not Christians. Tertullian felt that if the heretics were able to use the scriptures to defend themselves they might lead others away from the church. So why allow them to defend themselves in court using the scriptures?
Tertullian’s wrote this treatise in the form of a legal simile or argument. He listed the following as the characteristics of heresy: it tests people’s faith, was predicted by Christ, and condemned by Paul who uttered a warning against philosophy and vain deceits. It is caused by endless and unfettered curiosity. The heretic can be easily discovered because they continually seek without ever finding and always doubting the scriptures that Christians believe without question. (20) Tertullian’s argument relied on two scriptures:
Matthew 7:7, “seek and ye shall find” and Luke 18:42, “your faith has saved you.” (21)
According to Tertullian the heretics still seeks, they cannot have found, since they have not found, they can not believe, and if they do not believe, they are not Christians. (22) The skillful heretic can therefore confuse those who believe in the Bible, though they do not. Tertullian tries to convince his readers that any use of the scripture is illegitimate.
Therefore, the heretic according to Tertullian has no right to quote or discuss the Bible.
In his treatise he had to answer the question, “How can we know who is right?” He stated that Jesus choose twelve disciples to be teachers of humankind. After Jesus’ resurrection he ordered the eleven apostles to “go ye therefore teaching all men, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (23) The eleven preached the faith or gospel, founded churches, and the church is considered apostolic as long as unity is maintained. Tertullian dealt with three possible objections: that the apostles did not know the entire truth, they did not reveal all they knew, and that the heretics are so removed from perverting the truth that they are rescuing it from misinterpretation by the churches.
To further thwart the heretic’s use of philosophy to defend themselves, Tertullian asked this question in chapter seven of the treatise ”What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (24) He asked this question to point out that philosophical methods of inquiry have nothing to do with teaching by the authority of the scripture. Tertullian had a very negative attitude towards pagan philosophy, though he does not deny that it may contain some elements of truth. (25) He states that when heretics use philosophy to assist in defending themselves, they can not remain faithful to the truth in the scriptures.
In further pursuing his Prescription Against the Heretic, Tertullian continually cited the Bible. This was to show that the Bible is the only authority in matters of the church. He used the Bible that the heretics did not believe to show why they should not be given a court trial. Paul counseled Titus that heresy is a sin of the flesh. He is told to shun the heretic because that person is perverted and sinful and standing self-condemned. (26)
In this treatise, Tertullian’s argument against giving the heretics when they cited reasons that the Bible and Christian faith was inferior. He argued on various issues, such as pagan philosophy, rules of faith, and the ignorance of the heretics. He attempted to argue on every point he felt that the heretic would consider. This accounts for this treatise being forty-four chapters long. He wanted to really ensure that the heretic would be denied a trial. Since the heretics did not respond to the challenges of Tertullian they were for the most part denied a trial. It does seem odd that the heretical sects that existed at the time would respond but Tertullian almost made it impossible for them to.
The primary theological theme in this treatise of Tertullian’s is “faith seeking understanding.” (27) Tertullian was very interested that a person must have faith in order to understand the scriptures. He felt that if a person would truly search the scriptures then they should find the truth. This is why he felt the heretics were ignorant because they did not know how to search thus making their faith weak. However, some of the sects that were labeled heretical had some well-educated people in them and even some of these heretics came out of Christianity. This kind of faith that Tertullian discussed is one that does not question using other methods (philosophy) but one that accepts the answer that the Bible gives as the correct authoritative answer. He felt that faith is the basis for the scriptures and the church was founded through apostolic succession.
Tertullian’s treatise laid out the evil effects of heresy. He considered that if they were granted a trial that others would become perverted and would lose their faith. Heretics for the most part would reject either the entire Bible or one or more of its books. Tertullian’s treatise could also be viewed as trying to win the heretics back to Christianity by showing them the errors of their ways. This makes this treatise very important during the time period it was written. In the late 2nd century and early 3rd century heresies were coming up all over Rome and in Carthage due to persecutions of Christians and different interpretations of the Bible. Some read the Bible literal while other read it allegorically.
So it can been seen that Tertullian was defending Christianity, teaching, and preaching.
(1) F. A. Wright, Fathers of the Church (London Press 1928) 26.
(2) Wright, 27.
(3)Robert D. Sider, Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (Oxford University Press 1971) 77.
(4)Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Vol. 2 (Oxford University Press 1953) 28.
(5) Sider, 23.
(7) Hans Von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Latin Church (Stanford University Press 1960) 123.
(8) Campenhausen, 134.
(9) Campenhausen, 144.
(10) Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (Harper & Row, Publishers 1968) 99.
(11) Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought Volume I (Abingdon Press 1970) 123.
(12) Gonzalez, 121.
(13) Donald McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Westminster John Knox Press 1996).
(14) Julia Speller, Lectures on the History of Christian Thought, Chicago Theological Seminary, 2000.
(16) Wright, 34
(18) McKim 177
(19) S. L. Greenslade. Early Latin Theology: Selections from Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome (Westminister John Knox Press 1956) 78
(20) Joseph Betty. Tertullian’s Prescription of the Heretics. (Oxford 1722) 313
(21)Holy Bible King James Version
(22) Betty 23
(23) Matthew 28:19
(24) Tillich 234
(25) Jean Danielou, The Origins of Latin Christianity, (Westminster Press 1977) 209
(26) Titus 3:10
(27) McKim, 282
Rev. Damon R. Jones is an Associate Minister serving at Calvary Baptist Church of Chicago, where he has been a Religious Educator for over seven years. Rev. Jones pursuing his Doctorate of Ministry focusing in Christian Education and Urban Ministries at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He received both his Master of Divinity (2005) and M.A. in Religious Studies (2002) from The Chicago Theological Seminary, his B.S. in Sociology from Illinois State University and A.A.S. from Illinois Central College. Damon has taught as an Adjunct Professor at Trinity Christian College teaching both African American History and Sociology courses.
Copyright© 2007 Damon R. Jones. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission BlackandChristian.com.