Semi-Random Thoughts, a Little on Tertullian and a Bit on Historical Models

22 Dec

I really have fallen off on my posting lately. I just have a lot going on, some of it personal and some professional. I’ll leave the personal alone, for now, but on the professional side I’ve moved from working in this office to working in this office. This is a parallel transfer, not a move up or down, other than now being head of the office (so maybe it is a bit of a step up) but it’s a new location, new co-workers, and new clientele. I can’t swear that my posting frequency will radically increase in the near future, however the main reason, overall, for this post is to get myself back in the habit. I have a few days off around Christmas and maybe I’ll put something together, or at least finish that second post on Irenaeus which I started last August.

For the past several weeks I’ve been reading Tertullian. This has been a slog. There is some interesting material but there’s been an unfortunate side effect. I don’t like him. Personally.

Obviously I don’t know the man, but from what I’ve read (which is all but the about 50 pages I have left from the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series) I’ve developed a personal distaste for him. This is important, and unfortunate. I think it’s very important to try, as well as we can, to understand, at least a little, where historical figures were coming from and develop some empathy for them. I’m having trouble doing this with Tertullian. He is so absolute, so rigorous, so unwilling to entertain the legitimacy of any opinion but his own, even from other Church authorities, that I can’t seem to get my empathy mode going. As yet another point highlighting my own ignorance, before going through his material I’d read how Tertullian is often referred to as, “The first of the Latin Theologians.” Silly me – I thought this meant he was the first to write his stuff in Latin. I now think – and I have a secondary book on him to read to confirm if this is the case – that this means that he is the first to adopt a completely different method of argument from prior Greek authors. Maybe method is a bit wrong as he does use philosophical arguments, but he doesn’t believe the writings of the ancient philosophers contain any hint of wisdom and he doesn’t say, “This is what I think, here’s why and you should consider this,” but rather, “This is what I think, here’s why, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.” Whether he felt this way when he wasn’t writing or not is another thing but all I can go by is what’s in print. I’ll have more analysis of him later but I wanted to get this preamble out of the way to warn you of this basic fact; I don’t like Tertullian. On a visceral level. So far as I can recall, this is a first when it comes to a source author.

To add to this potpourri of a post, a few months ago several posts were written which discussed new findings which were at odds with established historical models. I’ve mentioned several times that as I learn more I’ve come to increasingly distrust models. It’s not so much that patterns didn’t exist – they did. And I don’t see the problem with using them in books or in teaching. You can’t just teach everything so some synthesis is necessary. But so often it seems that researchers have a preexisting bias toward a model and view any new findings through this model-tinted lens. Katy Meyers has a very good post on Bones Don’t Lie about discovering that some Etruscan skeletal remains had been wrongly identified re their sex and how this is indicative of how modern bias and a reliance on models can lead researchers down the wrong path. This post becomes really good about halfway through it, just beyond the second image. Rosemary Joyce at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives also wrote an interesting post about this same discovery.

You know, when I started writing the above paragraph I was sure I could come up with another post or two on the same basic theme but my memory of who wrote what seems to be flawed. Instead I’ll offer two new blogs I’ve come across:

James Palmer has a blog, merovingianworld which I’ve found interesting. I have one of his books, Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World, 690-900 on my to-read shelf and have come across his name plenty of times but haven’t read much of his stuff.

From an American-centric perspective, in her blog, Manuscript Road Trip, Lisa Fagan Davis has been taking a virtual tour where she discusses holdings of medieval manuscripts in the United States on a state-by state basis. Lisa is co-author of an online resource, Directory of Institutions in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings so she’s well qualified to embark on this trip. Oh, and if you know of anything in North Dakota, please let her know.

That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ll have more to come shortly and if you know of a way for me to start feeling warm and fuzzy towards Tertullian, let me know.


Posted by on December 22, 2013 in Blogology, Historiography, Other Blogs, Resources


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5 responses to “Semi-Random Thoughts, a Little on Tertullian and a Bit on Historical Models

  1. Carla R.

    January 11, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    I completely understand your distaste of models, I think it takes something away from really analyzing aspects of history, and enforces our modern ideals onto a place and time where it doesn’t belong. However, history professors love their models, and they wouldn’t be getting their tenure if they didn’t get to sit there and create something out of their scholarship. I rarely see eye to eye with the history professors that I have either had classes or had long conversations with, they get so ethnocentric and on their high horses…. they get my gourd. Or they get things wrong.

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 11, 2014 at 7:27 pm


      Thanks for your comment. I understand why models exist and they have some utility. But as you say, they often color critical thinking, research and analysis. It can certainly be irritating sometimes. Hopefully you can come across profs who aren’t overly wedded to their theories. They do exist.

  2. cate

    January 12, 2014 at 12:03 am

    I am very late to your postings on Tertullian – but as to your quest for some empathy for him – I too find it difficult to be able to relate to historic figures who seem so rigid. But a friend pointed out to me that often that rigidity, that certainty, masks fear. Tertullian is afraid – he is afraid of his own weaknesses, his own passions, he is afraid of losing control of them hence his need for such rigid discipline. The more rigid – the more fearful. It still is hard to warm up to him – but I hope that might help you a bit.

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 12, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Hi Cate, thanks for commenting.

      I think you’re on to something. As I’ve been going through his material a second time to make posts I’ve found it interesting how often he advocates delaying baptism. He has this idea that post-baptism your soul in some ways is in more peril than before – you’ve made a promise to God and if you break that promise you may be in big trouble. Prior to baptism you are permitted to do a lot because that “one baptism for the remission of sins” is still in your pocket like a giant get out of jail free card.

      My impression has been that as he’s writing, after conversion, Tertullian has a sense of revulsion when he reflects on how he led his life prior to entering the Church. I think this may also be behind the way he despises philosophers; he feels they misled him down the wrong path and hates them for it, as he hates his former life.

      The end result is Tertullian is trying to warn others not to be seduced by various things, particularly pleasures of the flesh. He writes about this in a pretty personal manner, like he’s been there. My sense is that Tertullian does feel fear but he’s secure enough in himself that this isn’t about his own weakness but the weakness of others. He was seduced by this other life, why wouldn’t everyone be susceptible to it?

      This is just my impression and it isn’t far from what you mentioned. It’s also very ahistorical. I’ve been debating including thoughts on this in my Tertullian wrap-up post. My historian friends might not be able to write in this way as much of it’s conjecture but I’m not a historian so maybe I can get away with it.

      I think it’s important to add that combined with this is a defensiveness because of the way he feels Montanists have been unfairly attacked by the mainstream Church. His rigidity becomes extreme during this period.

      My dislike of Tertullian has become less as I’m somewhat removed from right when I was reading him but his rigid outlook still bothers me. I’m a bit curious if I’ll feel the same way when I start reading Augustine’s anti-Pelagion and anti-Donatist material. I’m only partly successful in removing myself from being brought up in a society where religious freedom is a right. That certainly colors my feelings. (You may have just gotten a preview of a good chunk of my Tertullian wrap-up post.)


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