Ancient Road Publications



By Kyle Pope

In the middle of the second century a son was born in Carthage to a high officer of the African Roman garrison.   Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus, known to history as “Tertullian,” was one of the most prominent and prolific Latin writers in early church history.  While students of the Bible will often encounter references to Tertullian,  we may not know how to value such things if we don’t  understand his place in church history.

The Life of Tertullian

            Educated in law, rhetoric and literature Tertullian accepted Jesus around 193.  One of his first written works, his Apology, argues against the legality of the persecution of Christians, something which may have influenced his own conversion.  Around 203 Tertullian became associated with the “Montanist” movement and separated himself from mainstream churches dominated by the bishop of Rome.  Montanism held that an outpouring of gifts of the Holy Spirit was beginning which would usher in a millineal reign on the earth.  This movement advocated strict morality and objected to the moral lenience of mainstream believers.  Tertullian called them psychoi “those following the soul,” as opposed to his own pneumatikoi “those following the spirit.”  Tertullian remained a Montanist until his death around 225.

The Beliefs of Tertullian

            In the works of Tertullian, the student of church history can get a glimpse at the kind of gradual moves towards error that would blossom into the false doctrines of Apostolic Succession, Original Sin and Transubstantiation developed later by Augustine, Aquinus and Calvin.  In none of these, however, do we see Tertullian accepting the extremes of later theologians.

Apostolic Succession -  In his work entitled Prescriptions Against Heretics  Tertullian makes it clear that he believed that churches established by the Apostles were the standard by which sound doctrine was to be determined (20,21).  However, he also maintained that sound teaching ultimately determined whether a church was “apostolic.”  He wrote - “Though they cannot produce an Apostle... for their founder, still, if they unite in holding the same faith, they equally are reckoned apostolic because of the kinship of their teaching...” (32, Bettenson).  His own separation from the Roman catholicism of his day shows that he did not believe that succession alone determined truth.

Original Sin - In the anti-gnostic works, Against Marcion,  Tertullian claims that the phrase “children of wrath” in Ephesians 2:3  “...makes it clear that sins, the lust of the flesh, unbelief, anger are imputed to the nature that is common to all men” (5.17, Bettenson).  Yet, he did not believe that this “imputation” was so complete that it robbed man of freewill (Concerning the Soul 21), the capacity to do good (ibid. 41) or demanded infant baptism (seeConcerning Baptism 18 - where he speaks of infants in the “age of innocence”).   

Transubstantiation -  Like many early writers Tertullian calls the bread of the Lord’s Supper “the Body of Christ” (Concerning Modesty 9; Concerning Idolatry 7).  However, in his discourses Against Marcion he explains the Lord’s claim “this is my body” to mean “the figure of my body”1 (4.40, Donaldson).2

Various Views

            In the great volume of writings produced by Tertullian he writes on many issues.  Tertullian believed that baptism was necessary for salvation (Concerning Baptism 2,5) and rejected salvation by faith alone (ibid. 13).  Like many early Christians he condemned second marriages altogether (Concerning Monogamy 14).  He believed in the triune nature of God (Against Praxeas 25).  He described the collection for the saints as a freewill offering, which by his time it was taken once a month (Apology 39).  What he calls the “love-feast” (agape) he describes as a “potluck” kind of common meal with no connection to the Lord’s Supper (ibid.).  Finally, he believed in Hades as described in Luke 16 (Concerning the Soul 58).

             Tertullian does reflect the the moves towards apostasy that were a part of his age.  He held the odd view that there was only one opportunity for repentance after baptism (Concerning Repentance 7).  He also believed in  “mortal” and “venial” sins (Concerning Modesty 19) and spoke of the bishop of Rome as the “Supreme Pontiff” and “bishop of bishops” (ibid. 1).  distributum discipulis, corpus illum suum fecit, Hoc est corpus meum dicendo, id est, figura corporis mei.

2 Modern commentators try to interpret Tertullian’s use of the Latin word figura, to mean that the figure was also the thing which it represented (see Bettenson, p. 205-6ff.).  The context of Tertullian’s statement discredits this argument.  In the same text, using the verb form of the word, he claims the old law “figured” Christ’s death.  He is obviously not suggesting that the law literally became Christ’s dying body, but a symbol of what would later be accomplished.           

Works Cited

Bettenson, Henry.  The Early Church Fathers.  London: Oxford Press.  1958.

Greenslade, S.L. Early Latin Theology.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press.  1956.

A. Roberts and J Donaldson Ante-Nicene Fathers.  Volume 2.  American Edition.  1975 reprint.

Pope, Kyle. "Tertullian" Biblical Insights 2.6 (June 2002): 22.  

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