Tertullian: a Church Father with a Confused Legacy.

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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.

Life

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.

Works

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.

Legacy

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.

Conclusion

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.

Tertullian: On Abortion

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Certainly a contentious issue in the political and moral theatres of the modern day, abortion is by no means a new issue.

Tertullian, one of the most well known and prolific of the Early Church writers, had much to say in his many treatises on the Christian faith. Perhaps most well known for his Apology – a fifty chapter defence of the faith addressed to the Emperor himself – Tertullian wrote at length on other issues. His extant corpus includes thirty-one works, with more lost writings known to us. He wrote on a range of issues impacting Christians in the ancient world, from remarriage to persecution and heretical movements. Though he did not write a specific work (that remains for us to read) on abortion, he makes several clear references to the practice. His treatment of the subject is particularly interesting because of his own personal development.

As Tertullian lived and wrote, there is a clear shift in his writings from what we might term an orthodox, Pauline position, to a more ‘Montanist’ perspective. Montanism was a heresy that developed in the second century. What exactly it looked like remains up for debate, but, known as the ‘New Prophesy’ it was famed for its ascetic approach to the Christian life. Whilst Tertullian’s embrace of this heresy is a contentious issue, there is nonetheless a clear progression in his own outlook. The scholar Geoffrey Dunn spoke of “Tertullian’s increasingly Montanist perspective” (2004, 6). My personal view (and one that I would happily discuss) is that Tertullian is, as Christine Trevett has argued “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). By this Trevett means, and I would argue, Tertullian’s rigourist tendencies encouraged him towards the more ascetic, rigorous position of the Montanists.

This background is important. Tertullian’s thinking, whether he moved from a Pauline position to a Montanist one, or whether he simply entrenched further into his own extreme, rigourist tendencies, certainly developed. His stance on the remarriage of widows for example, became increasingly more forceful as his writings progressed. But on abortion? Tertullian maintained a consistent tone and approach. His most famous quote on the topic, from his famous Apology, dates to c.197 AD – early in his career. Other comments, from his treatise On the Soul, date to around 210 AD. Though his thinking on many issues developed from normative to what some may term ‘extreme’, on this (in modern times at least) contentious issue, Tertullian maintained a consistent line. His teaching was in line with a Pauline (and Biblical) outlook, and remained so.

With this background established, let’s briefly look at his words on the subject.

The Apology

Perhaps the most quoted reference to an early, post-Apostolic Christian view on abortion comes from Tertullian’s Apology.

…we are not permitted, since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy the foetus in the womb… It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth.”

Tertullian, Apology 9.8

Tertullian is clear here: life is sacred, and the human babe, born or unborn, has as much a right to life as any man or woman. To kill even the foetus in the womb is murder. Tertullian writes these words in the context of defending the Christian faith against allegations of wrongdoing, moral depravity, and coercive evil. Early accusers against the new faith labelled Christians paedophiles, murderers and even cannibals. Tertullian refutes these claims strongly. They are slander, aimed at tarnishing the Church and making them out as worse even than common criminals. So Tertullian is clear on where the Christian stands. And in regards to murder? From the unborn babe to the aged adult, murder is always prohibited – “once and for all.”

On The Soul

Tertullian has a great deal more to say on this issue. He labels the instruments used to perform such procedures as…

“embruosphaktes [meaning] ‘the slayer of the infant,’ which of course was alive… the doctors all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived…”

Tertullian, On The Soul 25

To His Wife and On Modesty

“Burdens must be sought by us for ourselves which are avoided even by the majority of the Gentiles, who are compelled by laws, who are decimated by abortions; burdens which, finally, are to us most of all unsuitable, as being perilous to faith!”

Tertullian, To His Wife 5

This passing reference to abortion comes in the context of an exhortation to avoid unsuitable practices as a believer. Certain actions, says Tertullian, we must have no part of. His use of abortion as an example illustrates a clear opinion that such a practice is wrong. Likewise, in dealing with the subject of adultery in On Modesty, Tertullian urges his readers to “witness the midwives… how many adulterous conceptions are slaughtered.” In a similar manner, abortion is given a passing and clearly negative reference.

The value of the foetus: The Apology

Tertullian is so wholly negative on this issue because, as mentioned in the earlier quote from his Apology, he considers abortion to be the murder of a human life. This fundamental value of human life is seen in his Apology, continuing from where we left off above…

“To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; It makes no difference whether one destroys a life that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth.” That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.”

Tertullian, Apology 9.9.

To Tertullian, the foetus in the womb is a human life, and you cannot take a human life. Murder is despicable, and it applies within and without the womb.

Summary

Tertullian is clear and consistent on his messaging around this issue. Abortion, for Tertullian, was the detestable act of taking a human life. The foetus was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) – just as much as he was, or the reader to whom he wrote.

Despite his personal development on other issues, Tertullian never wavered in his opinion on this matter. Abortion was wrong, and ought to be opposed by Christian and non-Christian alike. This is not a modern opinion held by certain groups of evangelical Christians. Nor is the argument for the inherent worth of human life in the womb a modern reinterpretation of Scripture. Tertullian is an example of a Christian believer simply reading and applying the fundemental worth of human life to this issue of abortion.