Chapter 3

Tertullian: Theologian


Although Paul writes to the Corinthians that the general rule of God in the church of Christ is that "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called" (I Cor. 1:26), nevertheless, God is sometimes pleased to give to the church of Christ men of outstanding ability and great intellectual, moral, and spiritual strength, who stand as giants in the annuls of the church's history.

Such a man was Tertullian.

Though he is little known and though the Roman Catholic Church, with some reason, considers him a heretic and apostate, he remains a towering figure whose importance in the church stands on a par with such men as Augustine, Luther and Calvin.

Much of his life has been lost in the dusty past. Only the sketchiest of details have come down to us.

He was from Cathage, a city whose importance in the history of the Roman Empire is known to the youngest of school boys who have learned a bit of ancient history.

The church of the third century had spread throughout the Roman Empire. It was divided geographically and nationally into two parts. The Eastern Church, including Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Egypt, was basically Greek. It spoke the Greek language and possessed the speculative Greek mind. The Western Church, including Italy, Spain, Gaul, and North Africa, was Latin. It spoke the Latin language and was under the influence of the practical Roman mind with its emphasis on law. Tertullian belonged to the Western Church.

Christianity had come to North Africa early, probably from Italy. But the Lord's work there brought much fruit and by the middle of the third century 90 ministers were laboring in the area of the province in which Carthage was found. Tertullian had reminded the pagans in his own land of these blessings of God.

If we wanted to act not simply as secret avengers but as open enemies, what effective opposition could be offered us? We are but of yesterday, and yet we have filled all the places that belong to you -- cities, islands, forts, towns, exchanges; the military camps themselves, tribes, town councils, the palace, the senate, the market-place; we have left you nothing but your temples.

The church in North Africa had come to know what persecution was, for the sands of this part of Africa had been soaked with the blood of countless martyrs. Tertullian spoke out of personal experience when he wrote that the "blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." In an angry defense of the Christians, Tertullian had charged the Empire with unjust hatred against Christianity.

The term "conspiracy" should not be applied to us but rather to those who plot to foment hatred against decent and worthy people, those who shout for the blood of the innocent and plead forsooth in justification of their hatred the foolish excuse that the Christians are to blame for every public disaster and every misfortune that befalls the people. If the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile fails to rise and flood the fields, if the sky withholds its rain, if there is earthquake or famine or plague, straightway the cry arises: "The Christians to the lions!"

His Early Life

Tertullian was born in Carthage from heathen parents. no one knows the date of his birth. The guesses range from A.D. 145 to A.D. 160, although the earlier date is probably nearer the truth. His father was a Roman centurion in the army of Africa, something like an "aide-de-camp" to a higher officer. Because his father had higher aspirations for his son, Tertullian was prepared for civil service in the empire through training in jurisprudence and the art of forensic eloquence. His unusual intellectual abilities soon put him at the head of his peers.

All this was abandoned when he was converted to Christianity. Although he does not speak of his conversion in his writings, he alludes to the fact that it was a sudden and dramatic event. He writes: "Christians are made, not born," and uses this to describe God's sudden work which brought him from the darkness of paganism to the light of the gospel.

His Life's Work

From the time of his conversion, he became an unrelenting opponent of every enemy of the church and a vehement and forceful defender of the faith. He was a man of great ability, surpassed by few in the church's history. But he was also a man of sharp and vehement temper, quick of wit and able to wield an often bitter and satirical pen against those who denied the faith. His writings use language which reminds one of Luther: he was not afraid to call his enemies anything within even the widest bounds of decency. He fought hard and long and fearlessly in defense of the faith.

Within ten years of his conversion, he became a presbyter in the church. This is rather surprising in light of the fact that he was married, for the church already at that early date tended to frown on married men holding special offices in the church. In two letters of great length to his wife he extolled the blessedness of the marriage state, warned against adultery and immodesty, and produced some writings which are pertinent to our own immoral age.

Tertullian was a fierce enemy of all who attacked Christianity. He defended the church against paganism and despised pagan philosophy. He fought against the heretic Marcion, the first higher critic of Scripture, who attacked the infallible inspiration of God's Word. He wrote at length against the Gnostics.

This latter is of no little importance. The Gnostic heresy, which caused the church so much grief in her early history, can very well be classified as the first attempt to establish a worldwide religion to which all men could subscribe. it fused together into one system elements of Christianity, of Greek philosophy, and of Oriental mysticism. It proposed a religion acceptable to all men because it kept what was supposed to be the best elements in every religion. It is like much of modern ecumenism which also seeks to forge a system of doctrine which can be acceptable to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and pagans.

Against this fierce attack on the church Tertullian waged uncompromising war. He insisted that the Christian faith was unique among all the religions of the world because it had its origin in Scripture and Scripture was given by God. All other religions were apostate and deviations from the truth.

It is not surprising that this stand did not win Tertullian friends. It was opposed then as it is now, for it is the enemy of all compromise and unholy toleration.

But Tertullian did not only wield his fiery pen against heretics of every sort; he also devoted his energies to the development of the truth. This is beyond doubt his outstanding contribution to the history of Christ's church.

Two areas especially are notable in this respect.

Although his successor in North Africa, Augustine, was the one used by God to develop the doctrines of total depravity and sovereign and particular grace over against Pelagianism and Semi-pelagianism, Tertullian anticipated Augustine in some respects. "He was the pioneer of orthodox anthropology and soteriology, the teacher of Cyprian (another North African theologian, HH), and forerunner of Augustine, in the latter of whom his spirit was reproduced in twofold measure, though without its eccentricities and angularities."

One striking instance of this is his doctrine of traducianism. Traducianism teaches that the soul of a man is given him, along with his body, from his parents and is not specially created by God at the moment of conception. While the rightness or wrongness of this doctrine is not so important to us, it becomes important because Tertullian taught it in defense of the truth of original sin; i.e., that sin was transmitted through conception and birth to result in a depraved nature. We receive a corrupt body and soul from our parents because both body and soul come from our parents. He was far ahead of his times in this respect and almost alone taught this important truth.

What gives Tertullian a place of lasting importance in the memory of the church is his teachings concerning the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.

To appreciate this, we must understand that the church did not have at this time any formulated doctrine of these important truths. They are, of course, the most profound in all the Christian faith. And the church struggled with them. How can God be both three and one? If God is three, it would seem as if the Christian religion taught a polytheism little different form paganism. If God is one, Christ cannot be God. How can these problems be solved?

Many answers were suggested, but every time an answer was given, the church looked at Scripture and condemned it as being contrary to the teaching of God's Word. It took a long time before the church was ready to say what Scripture in fact did teach on these important points. Partly the problem was that the church had no adequate terminology to express this truth because the terms we use, such as person, essence, nature, subsistence, are not biblical terms. The church had, so to speak, to develop and agree upon a terminology which it could use to express the teachings of Scripture. It was not until A.D. 324, and only after a long and bitter struggle, that these problems were solved and the great Creed of Nicea drawn up.

One striking feature of these controversies was the fact that they were almost exclusively limited to the Eastern Church. The Western Church never did have any trouble with these problems, was not bothered by these heresies, and had, almost from the outset, a correct understanding of these difficult questions. That this was true was due to the genius of Tertullian. He was the one who, a century before Nicea, understood the doctrine, taught it and wrote about it, and gave to the church terms which we still use today, terms such as "trinity," "person," and "substance." He was the first to teach that God was one in essence and three in person.

I find this almost beyond understanding. While storms of controversy tore the Eastern Church apart over these difficult doctrines, the West went on its quiet way, undisturbed by the storms, firmly rooted in these truths, all because of the labors of Tertullian who taught them a century before Nicea.

His Last Years

But the story of Tertullian is not complete without its last sad chapter.

The last years of Tertullian (he died somewhere between 220 and 240) were spent as a member of a sect, the sect of the Montanists.

The Montanists started a movement within the church which emphasized the mystical and subjective, and which has its modern manifestation in Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement. They were an ascetic sect characterized by protests against worldliness and carnality in the church, but tending towards outward forms of self-denial which Paul describes as having no profit. They held to subjective revelation through the Spirit and special manifestations of the Spirit in those who were Spirit-filled. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

Many students of church history debate the question why Tertullian joined this sect. Some ascribe it to his eccentricity, some to his radical nature, some to his ascetic bent. We cannot tell. What we do know is that Tertullian did protest vehemently against all forms of worldliness and spiritual carnality within the church. And it may be that the ascetic character of the Montanists appealed to him. At any rate, in this sect he spent the last years of his life, and as a member of this sect he died. Augustine says that Tertullian returned to the church before his death, but there is no evidence that this is true. It is a sad ending to a gifted man, and we leave judgment to the Lord. The greatest of men in this world of sin have their faults. Our trust is not in men, but in the Lord.

His membership with the Montanists is, however, an abiding warning that such movements as Montanism and Pentecostalism rush into the church as a mighty wind to fill a spiritual vacuum created by world-conformity and dead orthodoxy. Let us learn history's lessons and be wise.