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Tertullian

1. About three years after Irenaeus was chosen bishop of Lyon, in July of 180 AD, there occurred an event whose record provides our first knowledge of Christianity in the province of North Africa: the martyrdom in the capital city Carthage, of twelve believers from the town of Scillium. This event so impacted the outlook of Christianity in this region, that the area long thereafter viewed itself as a church of martyrs. This very outlook is found in the many tracts we have of Tertullian, the first Christian writer of note to use Latin, and the man who gave to Latin theology its vocabulary and basic agenda.

2. Tertullian was a convert to Christianity, a native of Carthage who probably never strayed far from home, and a man whose professional education was in rhetoric. Tertullian bursts on the scene in North Africa in 197 with the appearance of his Apology. He seems to have died around 225. In between these two dates, he published eloquent, witty and argumentative tracts on doctrine and morals which reveal him to have been a masterful debater as well as a Christian of radical and uncompromising spirit.

3. At the heart of Tertullian's theology lies his concern for the purity and holiness of the church, the practical authenticity of its life and teaching. Keeping God's words meant for Tertullian existence in separation from the world, which he saw as having the idolatrous subordination to demons built into the very structure of society. In Tertullian's view, then, Christians had no business serving in the army, in government, in educational institutions, or in any business which directly or indirectly supported pagan religion. Tertullian had little use for believers who fell into serious sin after baptism. In his treatise On Penitence he argued that one, and only one, such fall might be compensated for by a "second repentance". Later, however, reflection on the constant failure of Christians drove him into the sterner position of the Montanists. In his Montanist period, he denied the possibility of any repentance and restoration at all after baptism. There was no room in the church or in Christian life for a serious and deliberate failure to live by the precepts of the Gospel.

4. According to Tertullian, the business of the church was to adhere unquestioningly to the "rule of faith" which was the one key to the Scriptures. Tertullian accordingly turned his rhetorical skills against the heretics of his day, and wrote five books entitled Against Marcion, and another treatise, Against the Valentinians (i.e., Gnostics). He defended the doctrines of creation, of the fleshly incarnation of the Logos, and of the resurrection of the flesh. His most notable contribution to theology was made in the tract Against Praxeas in which he mounted an attack on a "monarchian" teacher who had denied the substantive reality of the Logos as distinct from the father (see II.8). In this work Tertullian evolved the earliest systematic form of the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that there is one divine "substance" which is articulated or "administered" into three distinct but continuous "persons": Father, Logos/Son, and Spirit. At the same time he offered a reflective account of the incarnation, explaining that the person of Christ is a union of two distinct, unconfused "substances", divine and human, in a single "person". This terminology, hard to interpret by reason of the differences between the meaning of Tertullian's Latin terms and those of their modern English derivatives, became the basis of all later Latin and western trinitarian and Christological discourse and formulations.


Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at Amazon.com)

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