Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus)

African moralist, apologist, and theologian. Few details of his life are certain. Reared in the cultured paganism of Carthage, he imbibed a solid literary, rhetorical, and perhaps legal training. He possibly practiced as an advocate, but is not identifiable with the Roman jurist Tertullianus, though he probably visited Rome. After moderated immorality he became a Christian in unknown circumstances, plausibly influenced by the fortitude of martyrs. He married a Christian wife, and may have had children and become a widower, rejecting remarriage as a Montanist.* He was not a presbyter, but most likely a catechist or teacher. After espousing “the new prophecy,” he left the catholic church c.206. Augustine* reported that he later abandoned Montanism and founded the Tertullianists, whose last remnant had rejoined the catholic church in Carthage in Augustine's lifetime. However, “Tertullianist” was probably the African name for Montanist.

Tertullian is known almost exclusively through his writings. His Greek works (on baptism, games, and shows, and on veiling of virgins, i.e., for local Greek-speaking Christians) have not survived, but thirty-one Latin works remain, the first significant corpus of Christian Latin literature. (Lost works included Ecstasy, Paradise, Fate, the Hope of Believers, Flesh and Soul, and Against the Apellians.) His writings span the period roughly from 196 to 212; their order and individual dating are often uncertain. They are nearly all controversial, revealing an initial preoccupation with apologetic and Christian mores, later partly displaced by refutation of heretics and Gnostics, though Montanism accentuated his ethical-ascetic thrust.

Several apologies, notably the Apology itself (c.197), highlight the legal and moral absurdities of persecution, while To the Martyrs (197) encourages Christian “athletes” in prison. The Stoic-indebted Testimony of the Soul (198) discerns the anima naturaliter Christiana in spontaneous ejaculations like “Good God!”

The Prescription of Heretics (203; ET S.L. Greenslade, 1956) refuses them appeal to the Scriptures, which rightfully belong only to churches with apostolic pedigrees. Gnostics* and Docetists* are the targets of several works c.204-7, especially The Soul (c.206; ed. J.H. Waszink, 1947), a lengthy learned rebuttal of Gnostic psychology. Against Marcion (207/8; ET E. Evans, 2 vols., 1972), twice rewritten and expanded, utilizes earlier lost refutations and constitutes an invaluable source. The Montanist Against Praxeas (c.210; ET Evans, 1948) is the most advanced exposition to date of Trinitarian doctrine.

From the first, Tertullian's practical works advocate disengagement from pagan society. Idolatry (196/7; ET Greenslade, 1956) blacklists numerous professions contaminated by paganism (cf. The Soldier's Garland, 208) while other treatises deal with Women's Dress (196-c.206) and Shows (196/7). His move into Montanism intensified this rigorism. After reluctantly condoning remarriage in To His Wife (c.200), he condemned it outright in Monogamy (c.210; both ET W.P. Le Saint, 1951). Once he tolerated flight from persecution, but later Flight in Persecution (c.208) outlawed any “unspiritual” avoidance of martyrdom. The catholic Penitence (c.200) permitted one postbaptismal penance, but when the bishop of Carthage extended it to adultery and fornication, the Montanist Purity (c.210; both ET Le Saint, 1959) reserved its authorization to the “pneumatics” who judged it never expedient.

Tertullian also produced the earliest exposition of the Lord's Prayer in Prayer, and the first extant treatise on Baptism (both c.200; ET Evans, 1953, 1964). They are homiletic-catechetical in form, like Penitence and Patience (c.200); other writings may have similar origin or structure.

Tertullian's sophistic brilliance and literary versatility, ruthless vigor as disputant and polemicist, fecundity in uttering memorable dicta, and fervent religious immediacy make him a captivating writer as well as a priceless mirror of early African Christianity. He influenced magisterically the ethos of the African Church and subsequent theology not only in the West, by providing terminology for classical Trinitarian and christological formulations and by advancing dogmatic development. He fostered juridically colored Latin interpretations of the work of Christ and relations between God and man, although facile assumptions have magnified the importance of his legal expertise. The chief non-Christian influences on his thought were Stoicism and the rhetorical tradition.

I. Works: details in J. Quasten, Patrology 2 (1953), pp. 248-340; Corpus Christianorum 1, 2 (1954); T.D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (1971); complete ET in Ante-Nicene Christian Library 7, 11, 15, 18 (1868-70).

II. Studies: P. Monceaux, Histoire Littéraire de l'Afrique Chrétienne 1 (1901); A. d'Alès, La Théologie de Tertullien (2nd ed., 1905); R.E. Roberts, The Theology of Tertullian (1924); J. Morgan, The Importance of Tertullian in the Development of Christian Dogma (1928); A. Beck, Römisches Recht bei Tertullian und Cyprian (1930); W. Bender, Die Lehre über den Heiligen Geist bei Tertullian (1961); R. Braun, `Deus Christianorum': Recherches sur le Vocabulaire Doctrinal de Tertullien (1962): J. Moingt, Théologie Trinitaire de Tertullien (4 vols., 1966-69); T.P. O'Malley, Tertullien and the Bible (1967); R.D. Sider, Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (1971); J.C. Fredouille, Tertullien et la Conversion de la Culture Antique (1972); G. Claesson, Index Tertullianeus, 3 vols. (1974- 1975).