Tertullian:
Father of Latin Christianity

By Matt McKeown

The fiery tongue of Tertullian still speaks.

St. Augustine of Hippo is probably the most famous of the Church Fathers who wrote in Latin, but he himself was heir to a tradition rooted in Roman Africa. At the head of that tradition stands Tertullian: too dubiously orthodox to earn the title of sainthood, he nevertheless set the standard for Latin theology for centuries, coining terms and ideas that are in use to this day—like the word trinity.

Tertullian was born in Carthage in the mid-second century. He grew up a pagan, and may have practiced law for some time before converting to Christianity in his early forties. Though he spoke Greek, which was the principal common language of the Mediterranean at the time, Latin was his native language. He is thought to be the first significant theologian in history to have written in Latin.

Much of his work was apologetical, polemic, or both. Christianity was still illegal in the Roman Empire at the time; enforcement of the law was irregular, depending both on the attitude of the emperor—only a handful of whom were active persecutors—and the compliance of local magistrates, who were often more concerned that there should be no public disturbance than that there should be no crime. But persecutions did break out, and Christians did lose their lives. Some of these accusations were rather fantastic: some Romans claimed that Christians practiced incest and ate children in secret. Others had better, if ironic, grounding: a popular charge against Christians at the time was that they were atheists, since they did not believe in the native gods of Rome, or those of foreign mystery cults, or even the divinity of the emperor.

Tertullian argued back against these charges, articulating actual Christian beliefs, and pointing to the virtuous public conduct of Christians to back up his case. Perhaps due to his background in the courts, Tertullian had a gift for both imagination and invective. He was particularly fond of vaunts: the expression “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” is lifted almost directly from his writings, and he did defiantly say Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est: “It must be credible, because it is stupid.”

He also turned his pen against Christian heresies, especially Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a class or collection of heresies, vaguely defined by a number of shared traits more than an official organization: the doctrine that matter is evil, a belief in secret knowledge, and complex pantheons of deities or angelic beings frequently appear. One important Gnostic, Marcion, was famously excommunicated by the Church of Rome in 144. Marcion founded his own movement, rejecting the whole Hebrew Bible and much of the New Testament and denying that Christ had a real human body. Marcionism (and several other Gnostic sects) were still thriving in Tertullian’s day, and he wrote books arguing against their systems on several grounds.

We are of yesterday and we have filled every place among you: cities, islands, fortresses, towns, marketplaces, palaces ... we have left you nothing but the temples.

Tertullian

One argument, which would mount in importance as history passed, was that the churches founded personally by Apostles—Rome, Antioch, Ephesus, and the like—did not recognize Gnostic claims. Their traditions were public knowledge and formed an unbroken succession. This outlook characterized the general belief of early Christians; St. Irenæus of Lyons, who lived a generation before Tertullian, advanced the same doctrine.

This doctrine became less convenient to him as time went on. In the early third century, he became involved with the Montanist movement, which originated in Asia Minor. The Montanists emphasized ecstatic prophecy and were extremely morally rigorous, which evidently appealed to him: among other things, they forbade widows to remarry (rather than merely discouraging remarriage, as the mainstream Church then did). This severity manifested in other areas too. St. Cyprian, a later bishop of Carthage strongly influenced by Tertullian, advanced the theory that sacraments performed by priests who had apostatized under persecution were invalid; this led to the schismatic Donatist movement, which railed against the mainstream Christian belief that every sin, even apostasy, could be forgiven.

It has also been asserted (somewhat dubiously) that the Montanists were the first to explicitly call the Holy Ghost God; this fit in with Tertullian’s interest in the increasing definition of the Trinity. He bitterly attacked the thought of Praxeas, a theologian who claimed that the Father and the Son were merely two roles taken by God rather than separate persons, and thus made God the Father subject to the Passion, a doctrine the mainstream Church abhorred. As it happened, Praxeas also opposed Montanism—as Tertullian put it, he “expelled the Holy Ghost and crucified the Father.”

Since Montanism was later denounced as a heresy, later Church Fathers were ambivalent about Tertullian in turn. However, it is not totally clear whether he in fact broke communion with mainstream Christianity in his own practice; the Christians of Roman Africa were famously rigorous and passionate themselves, and may have made more room for Montanism than other regions. His interests, and many of the movements they inspired, were inherited, two centuries later, by St. Augustine—of whom more, at another time.

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Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you enjoyed this piece, you may also like our profile of the great Medieval philosopher Maimonides, or our discussion of the idea of immortality in the broader history of thought. Or tune in to our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate discusses current events affecting education with scholars and activists.

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