Church History for Dummies #4: Tertullian

Tertullian was born in around AD 160 and lived in the city of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia), the capital of the Roman province in Africa, eventually dying in around AD 225.

Besides his several works, not much is known about Tertullian. What we do know is that he was born into the educated classes, himself receiving a good education. He also attested to his pagan upbringing, being familiar with philosophical dialogues and even indulging in sexual immorality. It wasn’t until Tertullian observed the many Christians who suffered in the gladiatorial games that his interest in Christianity was piqued. Upon investigating their immense courage, he himself became a Christian and married a Christian woman.

As a Christian, Tertullian devoted his brilliant and sharp mind to the defence of Christian orthodoxy. Historically, he is attributed as being the first Christian writer to write in Latin; his legacy charting the way forward for later Latin Christianity. His writing style was known to be sarcastic and vigorous. His works can be summed up into three main subjects: first, Christianity’s attitude toward the Roman state and society; second, the defence of orthodox beliefs against heresy; and third, the moral behavior of Christians.

Of the many works identified as Tertullian’s only thirty-one remain extant. His greatest work was undoubtedly his Apologeticum, a defence for the tolerance of Christianity. Other major works included his five books Against Marcion in which he defended the use of the Old Testament by the Christian church, and the oneness of God, both as Creator and Savior. Tertullian is also the first to endeavour to clearly lay out a doctrine of the Trinity in his work Adversus Praxean. From this work we are indebted to Tertullian for establishing much of the technical terminology that we still use today.

Interestingly, Tertullian was not liked by churchmen. The question of whether or not he left the church still remains unclear. Tertullian is known for having aligned himself with the Montanists, a movement that gathered around a more ascetic lifestyle and invited what was termed the “New Prophesy.” Tertullian went so far as to defend this movement at the expense of the mainstream church. Due to this shift from the mainstream beliefs, he was not considered a saint and his works were formerly condemned in the 6th century Decretum Gelasianum.

In one sense, Tertullian stands as the first ‘Protestant’: a Christian writer avowed to orthodoxy, all the while rejecting the bishops as the esse of the church, arguing instead that the church were the people of the Holy Spirit.


Sources:

  1. Tim Dowley, ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity: Second Edition (Fortress Press, 2014), 51.
  2. http://www.tertullian.org/readfirst.htm

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