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.

Cyprian of Carthage: Transformed by the Gospel

Martyred in 258 AD, Cyprian was a North African Bishop who chose to follow Christ ahead of the temptations and trappings of an elite upbringing.

The ruins of Roman Carthage.

Little is known of Cyprian’s early life. But by all accounts he was a wealthy member of the Roman provincial elite. Born Thascius in the early third century, as a young man he would have had an excellent and diverse education. Thascius was taught oratory, rhetoric and grammar, and would have been well versed in the poetry and prose of the ancient world. His extant works betray a well read, well taught individual, whose command of oratory in particular shines through in his writing.

With such a privileged background, Thascius would have known the luxury and trappings of upper class provincial Roman life. Rich and varied food and drink, sexualised relationships and interactions with a variety of partners, and lavish dinner parties, drinking competitions and high society soirees. To tear oneself away from a life of indulgence and privilege is always a challenge (and is part of the reason Christ Himself taught that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:25.) But through the ministry of a humble Christian teacher, Cyprian’s life displays the saving power of the Gospel to do just that.

The Life of Cyprian, by Pontius the Deacon, is our most contemporaneous source on Cyprian’s life. Pontius was a Carthaginian churchman who served as a Deacon under Cyprian’s leadership. His work is short, but it crucially describes just how one particular priest, Caecilius (from whom Thascius took his new name), was used by God to dramatically transform this member of the provincial Roman elite into a humble servant of the True and Living God.

He had a close association among us with a just man, and of praiseworthy memory, by name Caecilius, and in age as well as in honour a presbyter, who had converted him from his worldly errors to the acknowledgment of the true divinity. This man he loved with entire honour and all observance, regarding him with an obedient veneration, not only as the friend and comrade of his soul, but as the parent of his new life.

Pontius the Deacon, Life of Cyprian 4.

Pontius makes clear the affection Cyprian had for Caecilius. Indeed, there are echoes of how Paul describes his relationship with Timothy. Paul describes Timothy as his son several times – “…I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord,” “Timothy, my true son in the faith…” (1 Cor 4:17; 1 Tim 1:2). There is a spiritual tenderness. Paul led Timothy to faith, Caecilius did likewise for Cyprian. There is tenderness because at the heart of the New Birth of the Christian is a right orientation of love. God loves us, and yet we willingly reject Him. Instead, we project our love on created things, and not our Creator. Cyprian had lived for around 35 years before his conversion, loving the vices and pleasures of the Roman elites. Satisfying himself in the gratifications of the sinful flesh. Yet when Caecilius introduced him to the Gospel, his eyes were opened. His love was reorientated, upon the Father who adopted Him, the Son who died for him, and the Spirit that works within him. And that love overflows to his new family: the church. Caecilius is part of that, and his role in teaching Cyprian the Gospel meant that affection was clear to see. Indeed, from the time of his conversion, Cyprian’s love for the people of God becomes evident in the way he begins to live.


The Gospel transformed Cyprian.


From ambitious and successful provincial elite, Cyprian became a willing and humble servant of the Lord. He gave away his wealth, supporting the poor and needy. His considerable wealth was rapidly disseminated around the family of believers, and those struggling in the city of Carthage. Within two years of his conversion, Cyprian was ordained, and his heart for pastoral leadership is evident in his writings. His extant letters betray a pastoral heart for stumbling saints, struggling sinners, and needy believers. 

Cyprian was committed to encouraging his readers to keep on in their faith, to depend on God alone for their strength and salvation. One short quote, from a letter to Donatus, illustrates his practical, pastoral encouragement to depend on God alone.

“Be constantly committed to prayer and to reading [Scripture]. By praying, you speak to God, in reading, God speaks to you.”

Cyprian, To Donatus, 15.

Cyprian became Bishop of Carthage, the leader of the small Christian community there. Under his leadership the Carthaginian church endured two major persecutions. Both were costly to the Church, and to Cyprian, but it was the second which proved fatal for Cyprian himself.

Imprisoned under the orders of the proconsul of the region, Galerius Maximus, Cyprian was tried before the proconsul in open court. The death sentence was pronounced when Cyprian refused to recant. His faith superseded his allegiance to Rome, and he would not deny the sovereign lordship of Christ to save his own life. Execution by beheading was the judgement, and records indicate that on September 13th, 258, Cyprian was beheaded outside of the city.

Cyprian led the church in Carthage for only a decade or so, and his emphasis on pastoral leadership was clear and helpful. The transformation of the Gospel is evident in the story of Cyprian. His change from wealthy and lavish provincial elite, to servant hearted church leader is miraculous. The Gospel has the power to save sinners, and Cyprian’s story is of exactly that saving grace.


But Cyprian was not a perfect saint. His life was marred by the reactions and interactions to those who fell away during the intense periods of persecution. Labelled the lapsi – the fallen, these Christians faced ostracism from the community of believers. Genuine repentance was often rejected, and the affair became a dirty period in the history of the Carthaginian church. Cyprian found himself caught between groups that accepted these lapsed back into the fold, and those who could never accept them. He took a firm moderate position, at times helping the situation, at times inflaming it. Eventually, some fifty years after Cyprian’s death, this crisis escalated to a full blown eccesliastical schism. Those who could not accept the lapsed, then known as traditores (lit. those who handed over) for their handing over of the sacred texts and communion vessels of the church during the persecutions, broke away to form their own church. The two Christian groups periodically clashed, often violently, and even the then Emperor Constantine had to repeatedly step in to the conflict.

Cyprian was not the perfect church leader. By no means was he a complete role model, or morally virtuous exemplar. But he is a wonderful example of a redeemed sinner. A man whose life was so utterly transformed by the Gospel that he went from the hedonistic pleasures of Roman upper class youth, to the pastorally hearted and humble martyr for Christ. Through the gentle ministry of Caecilius, Cyprian was transformed by the powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The writer to the Hebrews tells his readers (13:8)  that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” Cyprian’s life is testament that 200 years after the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that was most certainly true. Today, some 2000 years later, Christian men and women across the globe are testament to the enduring truth of this message.