Much mystery surrounds the life of this prolific writer. Born in the mid second century (c.155AD), Tertullian lived for most of his life in Carthage in North Africa. A bright and articulate man, he wrote dozens of works during his lifetime, of which a great number have survived. Though his teaching was broad and articulate, his hard line and rigorist tendencies have led to an awkward position in the history of Christian thought.
Though the circumstances of his birth and childhood are largely unknown, Jerome claims that Tertullian was the son of a centurion based in North Africa (Jerome, De Viris Illustribus 53), and this was likely a non-Christian household. Certainly he was well educated during his youth, indicating that perhaps his parents had means enough to provide a quality schooling. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.2.4) described Tertullian as “well versed in the laws of the Romans,” and his own writings betray an educated man practiced in rhetoric and oratory.
Tertullian’s own writings provide further glimpses into his life. He notes in the opening of his tract On Repentance (1.1) that he was once “blind, without the Lord’s light,” suggesting a pagan past and adding weight to the argument that he was born to pagan parents. Tertullian also alludes to his conversion, with a short section in his Apology (50.1) hinting that he came to faith as an adult.
Regardless of the exact circumstances of his conversion, it is clear that Tertullian wholly embraced his new faith, recognising it for the truth that it is. Though Jerome labels him a presbyter (De Vir. Ill. 53.1), he doesn’t seem to have entered an office of the church, yet openly identifies as one of the laity who often preached on Sundays, suggesting that he was a lay elder within his local church leadership (See Exhortation to Chastity 7.3, On Monogamy 12.3, On the Soul 9.4). His new faith prompted him to put his extensive education to good use, and he began to write. Thirty-one of his works have survived to us, though he likely wrote a great many more.
Though a sizeable number of his works have survived to reach us, even Jerome, writing in the late fourth century, mentions that works of Tertullian had already been lost (De Vir. Ill. 53.5). Tertullian made comment about a vast array of matters, from monogamy, fasting, marriage and empty spiritualism to the soul, baptism, prayer and resurrection. His works were clearly extensive! He also bears the notable title of being the first (surviving) church father to write in Latin rather than Greek.
He is perhaps most famous though for two parts of his literary career. His many writings against the heretical followers of Marcion, Valentinus and others showed his desire to contend for a true and Biblical Christian faith. It was in one of these polemical texts, Ad. Praxeam (Against Praxeas) that Tertullian coined the word ‘trinitas‘, the first writer to use this word to describe the Biblical truth of who God is – one God, three persons. Trinity.
His most famous work though defended his faith not against heretical insiders, but against powerful outsiders. Tertullian’s Apology, a fifty chapter masterpiece, is a defence of the Christian faith, addressed to those ruling over the Empire. An early and excellent example of the apologetic genre, Tertullian’s Apology confronts the main accusations levied against this young faith, and contends that Christians are in fact the best of citizens, serving the greatest of Gods. Accused of sedition, sectarianism, cannibalism and much more, Tertullian argues that Christians are in fact gracious, loving and obedient. They pray for their rulers and fellow man, and serve rightly in society, defying only what is unholy and unjust.
Tertullian has occupied an interesting position in Christian history. Despite his orthodox teaching and Biblical faithfulness, his at times harsh writing tone and the hard line he takes on controversial issues means that he’s sat uncomfortably in the narrative of church history. There are two points to make here.
Though he writes against a wide variety of heretical views, Tertullian has often been considered to have shifted from orthodoxy to Montanism. The so called New Prophecy of Montanus was a spiritualist heresy that appeared in the late second century and demanded a rigorous, almost ascetic approach to the Christian life. Though many consider Tertullian to have shifted into this sect, I believe a close reading of his writings suggests a less clear conclusion on the matter. Though Tertullian was a rigorist in his approach to the life of the Christian, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I believe we ought to take the line of Christine Trevett, who took a more nuanced position that Tertullian was “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). His inclination might be towards the practices of this movement, yet his theological disposition remained resolutely Pauline.
The second point to note is that his teaching is largely protestant in disposition. Some have labelled him as ‘the first protestant’ – and he certainly fits awkwardly within a Catholic teaching of early Christian history.
Though much of the man remains a mystery, his writings offer a window into who and what he was. No doubt a stern and even harsh teacher, Tertullian maintained the authority of Scripture, the value of the local church, and the supremacy of Christ alone throughout his life and writings. He holds an uncomfortable position in Christian history, and he is by no means perfect in every word he writes. Yet he is a valuable author for several key theological developments, as well as an articulate and consistent defence of the true faith. He was an interesting man who perhaps ought to be read more widely and whose works remain of significant value.