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
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
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
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,
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).
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.
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
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.