Who was Tertullian?

Tertullian was an early church father in Christianity. He was born about 160 and died in 225 A.D. Tertullian was the son of a centurion in the proconsular service. He was evidently by profession an advocate in the law-courts, and he shows a close acquaintance with the procedure and terms of Roman law, though it is doubtful whether he is to be identified with a jurist Tertullian who is cited in the Pandects. He knew Greek as well as Latin, and wrote works in Greek which have not come down to us. A pagan until middle life, he had shared the pagan prejudices against Christianity, and had indulged like others in shameful pleasures.

His conversion was not later than the year 197, and may have been earlier. He embraced the Faith with all the ardour of his impetuous nature. He became a priest, no doubt of the Church of Carthage. Monceaux, followed by d'Ales, considers that his earlier writings were composed while he was yet a layman, and if this be so, then his ordination was about 200. His extant writings range in date from the apologetics of 197 to the attack on a bishop who is probably Pope Callistus (after 218). It was after the year 206 that he joined the Montanist sect, and he seems to have definitively separated from the Church about 211 (Harnack) or 213 (Monceaux).


After writing more virulently against the Church than even against heathen and persecutors, he separated from the Montanists and founded a sect of his own. The remnant of the Tertullianists was reconciled to the Church by St. Augustine. A number of the works of Tertullian are on special points of belief or discipline. According to St. Jerome he lived to extreme old age.

The year 197 saw the publication of a short address by Tertullian, "To the Martyrs", and of his great apologetic works, the "Ad nationes" and the "Apologeticus". The former has been considered a finished sketch for the latter; but it is more true to say that the second work has a different purpose, though a great deal of the same matter occurs in both, the same arguments being displayed in the same manner, with the same examples and even the same phrases.

The appeal to the nations suffers from its transmission in a single codex, in which omissions of a word or several words or whole lines are to be deplored. Tertullian's style is difficult enough without such super added causes of obscurity. But the text of the "Ad nationes" must have been always rougher than that of the "Apologeticus", which is a more careful as well as a more perfect work, and contains more matter because of its better arrangement; for it is just the same length as the two books "Ad nationes".

The "Ad nationes" has for its entire object the refutation of calumnies against Christians. In the first place they are proved to repose on unreasoning hatred only; the procedure of trial is illogical; the offence is nothing but the name of Christian, which ought rather to be a title of honour; no proof is forthcoming of any crimes, only rumour; the first persecutor was Nero, the worst of emperors. Secondly, the individual charges are met; Tertullian challenges the reader to believe in anything so contrary to nature as the accusations of infanticide and incest. Christians are not the causes of earthquakes and floods and famine, for these happened long before Christianity.

The pagans despise their own gods, banish them, forbid their worship, mock them on the stage; the poets tell horrid stories of them; they were in reality only men, and bad men. You say we worship an ass's head, he goes on, but you worship all kinds of animals; your gods are images made on a cross framework, so you worship crosses. You say we worship the sun; so do you. A certain Jew hawked about a caricature of a creature half ass, half goat, as our god; but you actually adore half-animals. As for infanticide, you expose your own children and kill the unborn. Your promiscuous lust causes you to be in danger of the incest of which you accuse us.

We do not swear by the genius of Caesar, but we are loyal, for we pray for him, whereas you revolt. Caesar does not want to be a god; he prefers to be alive. You say it is through obstinacy that we despise death; but of old such contempt of death was esteemed heroic virtue. Many among you brave death for gain or wagers; but we, because we believe in judgment. Finally, do us justice; examine our case, and change your minds. The second book consists entirely in an attack on the gods of the pagans; they are marshalled in classes after Varro. It was not, urges the apologist, owing to these multitudinous gods that the empire grew.

Out of this fierce appeal and indictment was developed the grander "Apologeticus", addressed to the rulers of the empire and the administrators of justice. The former work attacked popular prejudices; the new one is an imitation of the Greek Apologies, and was intended as an attempt to secure an amelioration in the treatment of Christians by alteration of the law or its administration. Tertullian cannot restrain his invective; yet he wishes to be conciliating, and it breaks out in spite of his argument, instead of being its essence as before. He begins again by an appeal to reason.

There are no witnesses, he urges, to prove our crimes; Trajan ordered Pliny not to seek us out, but yet to punish us if we were known; - what a paralogism! The actual procedure is yet more strange. Instead of being tortured until was confess, we are tortured until we deny. So far the "Ad Nationes" is merely developed and strengthened. Then, after a condensed summary of the second book as to the heathen gods, Tertullian begins in chapter xvii an exposition of the belief of Christians in one God, the Creator, invisible, infinite, to whom the soul of man, which by nature is inclined to Christianity, bears witness. The floods and the fires have been His messengers. We have a testimony, he adds, from our sacred books, which are older than all your gods.

Fulfilled prophecy is the proof that they are divine. It is then explained that Christ is God, the Word of God born of a virgin; His two comings, His miracles, passion, resurrection, and forty days with the disciples, are recounted. The disciples spread His doctrine throughout the world; Nero sowed it with blood at Rome. When tortured the Christian cries, "We worship God through Christ". The demons confess Him and they stir men up against us. Next, loyalty to Ceasar is discussed at greater length than before. When the populace rises, how easily the Christians could take vengeance: "We are but of yesterday, yet we fill your cities, islands, forts, towns, councils, even camps, tribes, decuries, the palace, the senate, the forum; we have left you the temples alone". We might migrate, and leave you in shame and in desolation.

We ought at least to be tolerated; for what are we? - a body compacted by community of religion, of discipline, and of hope. We meet together to pray, even for the emperors and authorities, to hear readings from the holy books and exhortations. We judge and separate those who fall into crime. We have elders of proved virtue to preside. Our common fund is replenished by voluntary donations each month, and is expended not on gluttony but on the poor and suffering. This charity is quoted against us as a disgrace; see, it is said, how they love one another. We call ourselves brethren; you also are our brethren by nature, but bad brethren. We are accused of every calamity. Yet we live with you; we avoid no profession, but those of assassins, sorcerers, and such like.

You spare the philosophers, though their conduct is less admirable than ours. They confess that our teaching is older than theirs, for nothing is older than truth. The resurrection at which you jeer has many parallels in nature. You think us fools; and we rejoice to suffer for this. We conquer by our death. Inquire into the cause of our constancy. We believe this martyrdom to be the remission of all offences, and that he who is condemned before your tribunal is absolved before God.

These points are all urged with infinite wit and pungency. The faults are obvious. The effect on the pagans may have been rather to irritate than to convince. The very brevity results in obscurity. But every lover of eloquence, and there were many in those days, will have relished with the pleasure of an epicure the feast of ingenious pleading and recondite learning. The rapier thrusts are so swift, we can hardly realize their deadliness before they are renewed in showers, with sometimes a blow as of a bludgeon to vary the effect. The style is compressed like that of Tacitus, but the metrical closes are observed with care, against the rule of Tacitus; and that wonderful maker of phrases is outdone by his Christian successor in gemlike sentences which will be quoted while the world lasts.

Who does not know the anima naturaliter Christiana (soul by nature Christian); the Vide, inquiunt, ut invicem se diligant (see they exclaim, how they love one another), and the Semen est sanguis Christianorum (The blood of Christians is seed)? It was probably about the same time that Tertullian developed his thesis of the "Testimony of the Soul" to the existence of one God, in his little book with this title. With his usual eloquence he enlarges on the idea that common speech bids us use expressions such as "God grant", or "If God will", "God bless", "God sees", "May God repay". The soul testifies also to devils, to just vengeance, and to its own immortality.

Two or three years later (about 200) Tertullian assaulted heresy in a treatise even more brilliant, which, unlike the "Apologeticus", is not for his own day only but for all time. It is called "Liber de praescriptione haereticorum". Prescription now means the right obtained to something by long usage. In Roman law the signification was wider; it meant the cutting short of a question by the refusal to hear the adversary's arguments, on the ground of an anterior point which must cut away the ground under his feet.

So Tertullian deals with heresies: it is of no use to listen to their arguments or refute them, for we have a number of antecendent proofs that they cannot deserve a hearing. Heresies, he begins, must not astonish us, for they were prophesied. Heretics urge the text, "Seek and ye shall find", but this was not said to Christians; we have a rule of faith to be accepted without question. "Let curiosity give place to faith and vain glory make way for salvation", so Tertullian parodies a line of Cicero's. The heretics argue out of Scripture; but, first, we are forbidden to consort with a heretic after one rebuke has been delivered, and secondly, disputation results only in blasphemy on the one side and indignation on the other, while the listener goes away more puzzled than he came. The real question is, "To whom does the Faith belong? Whose are the Scriptures? By whom, through whom, when and to whom has been handed down the discipline by which we are Christians?

The answer is plain: Christ sent His apostles, who founded churches in each city, from which the others have borrowed the tradition of the Faith and the seed of doctrine and daily borrow in order to become churches; so that they also are Apostolic in that they are the offspring of the Apostolic churches. All are that one Church which the Apostles founded, so long as peace and intercommunion are observed [dum est illis communicatio pacis et appellatio fraternitatis et contesseratio hospitalitatis]. Therefore the testimony to the truth is this: We communicate with the apostolic Churches". The heretics will reply that the Apostles did not know all the truth. Could anything be unknown to Peter, who was called the rock on which the Church was to be built? or to John, who lay on the Lord's breast? But they will say, the churches have erred. Some indeed went wrong, and were corrected by the Apostle; though for others he had nothing but praise.

"But let us admit that all have erred:- is it credible that all these great churches should have strayed into the same faith"? Admitting this absurdity, then all the baptisms, spiritual gifts, miracles, martyrdoms, were in vain until Marcion and Valentinus appeared at last! Truth will be younger than error; for both these heresiarchs are of yesterday, and were still Catholics at Rome in the episcopate of Eleutherius (this name is a slip or a false reading). Anyhow the heresies are at best novelties, and have no continuity with the teaching of Christ. Perhaps some heretics may claim Apostolic antiquity: we reply: Let them publish the origins of their churches and unroll the catalogue of their bishops till now from the Apostles or from some bishop appointed by the Apostles, as the Smyrnaeans count from Polycarp and John, and the Romans from Clement and Peter; let heretics invent something to match this. Why, their errors were denounced by the Apostles long ago.

Finally (36), he names some Apostolic churches, pointing above all to Rome, whose witness is nearest at hand, - happy Church, in which the Apostles poured out their whole teaching with their blood, where Peter suffered a death like his Master's, where Paul was crowned with an end like the Baptist's, where John was plunged into fiery oil without hurt! The Roman Rule of Faith is summarized, no doubt from the old Roman Creed, the same as our present Apostles' Creed but for a few small additions in the latter; much the same summary was given in chapter xiii, and is found also in "De virginibus velandis" (chapter I).

Tertullian evidently avoids giving the exact words, which would be taught only to catechumens shortly before baptism. The whole luminous argument is founded on the first chapters of St. Irenaeus's third book, but its forceful exposition is not more Tertullian's own than its exhaustive and compelling logic. Never did he show himself less violent and less obscure. The appeal to the Apostolic churches was unanswerable in his day; the rest of his argument is still valid.


Catholic Encyclopedia (public domain) JOHN CHAPMAN