Tertullian I: Ascetic Theologian

31 Dec

I had this idea that I was going to put everything I had on Tertullian in one post with a caution that it would be long. Well, I’m at over 6600 words right now and still have six major and several minor areas he covers to write about. I don’t know what the final word count will be but I’d guess somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 words. That’s not long, that’s hideous. Instead I’m going to break this into sections because, well, I want people to read them. However, since part of the reason for this blog is for my own benefit as a way to refer back to things, I’m also going to post the monster after I’ve posted the sections. I’ll make sure everyone’s aware that all of the information in that post has already been covered. The title of that post will be, “Tertullian: The Whole Thing.”

I had no idea just how important Tertullian was to the evolution of Christianity. I’ve read books and articles speaking about him in terms such as, “The First Latin Theologian” or, “The Founder of Latin Christianity” and had always figured on these as exaggerations. Now? While labels such as these are overly simplistic and minimize the complexity of how things actually developed, they are indicators of his importance. In looking at his writings I can see direct influences on Christianity to the present day, often transmitted through Augustine. As I was reading through his material I was struck by how his thoughts on the nature of God, the nature of Christ, women, asceticism (maybe) and other aspects of Christianity are seminal and in some cases very close to current Christian Doctrine. He represents the beginning of a break from Platonism and turning away from the knowledge of ancient philosophers, though even he couldn’t escape them completely. I knew Tertullian was important but I had no idea just how much.

To this point most of what I’ve read from pre-Nicene authors has represented a fairly steady progression. Authors such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus show that Christianity was gradually evolving. Ideas, concepts and practices are developing into those that would become common during the Medieval and even Modern periods. With Clement there’s a break, a move away from dogma and back to patterns of Classical Platonic thought where the journey is as important as the destination. This is what makes him so interesting to me. With Tertullian there’s a sharp break in the other direction. There is right and there is wrong. There is truth and there is untruth. There is belief and there is error. He uses a philosophical method of argument; extensive, convoluted logical appeals in support of his position. But this isn’t, apparently, for the purpose of entering into a debate but to reveal and defend the truth. 1

For the most part, I’ll be inserting citations to Tertullian’s material into the text rather than as footnotes. I will have a few notes but as these posts will be heavy on direct quotes I thought this would be cleaner. As I was writing this I realized that short sound bites don’t do Tertullian justice. To get a feel for his arguments, you really need the argument.


Woodcut image of Tertullian. From Wikimedia Commons.

As usual, I’m going to start this off with a brief biography.

Tertullian spent his early life in Carthage, received an extensive classical (philosophical) education, and appears to have converted to Christianity relatively late in life, around 197 or so when he was in his mid-30’s (he is believed to have been born around 160). His early writings indicate a strict, ascetic view of Christianity which becomes more pronounced around 207 and becomes extreme around 215-220. A key aspect of his development is Montanism. Montanism was founded in the middle of the second century and was considered a heresy, primarily because, contrasting with mainstream Christianity, they believed that people continued to receive prophetic visions from God while mainstream opinion was that Christ was the last prophet and this phase of Human development ended with the apostles. Where this sect influenced Tertullian and his writings was in its extreme asceticism. Montanists did not believe in marriage (and certainly not remarriage) and thought the world no longer needed children as the last days were approaching. Tertullian’s writings became particularly strident when a schism developed in the Church and he began writing to defend Montanist beliefs. From the standpoint of posterity, this is also where he got in trouble as much of what he wrote during this period was too extreme for the Church to accept. This is likely the main reason he was never canonized. I was in the middle of reading material from this period when I posted about my dislike for him. Having had a few days to think about it, guess what – I still don’t like him. But I see that he was important and think I can make a decent post. 2

Tertullian seems to have achieved the rank of presbyter, not bishop, but this didn’t reduce the importance of his writings. Jerome says that he lived to extreme old age but as he’s not heard from after about 225 this is questionable. 3

My overall impression of Tertullian is that he looked to describe Christianity in as simple of a way as possible. For him, there are very few grey areas. The world is composed of contrasts, conflict, and opposites. Something is either right or wrong, good or evil. There are a few exceptions to this but in most cases these involve the newly converted. For example, marriage to a non-Christian is strictly forbidden, particularly for women, but if you were already married when you converted, continuing that marriage is OK. He has similar views on military service. Based on my limited knowledge of philosophy, it appears that I may need to read up on Stoicism. He certainly isn’t Platonist, not with his emphasis on a world in conflict, absolutes, and good vs evil. Plus he comes out and tells us he’s relying on Stoics. 4

In comparing him with other Christian authors, much of what he writes reminds me of Augustine. This was more of a sense than my being able to match quotes but, while he is more extreme in some cases, much of it is reminiscent. I’ll wait until I get to Augustine to try to match specifics back. He also comes across as something of an anti-Clement. Clement of Alexandria believed philosophy was useful, that Christians should vigorously study and learn, they should be moderate in dress and sexual relations and they should participate in various aspects of Roman life. I’ll expand more on this as I get into the post but Clement and Tertullian are at odds in many areas.

One other interesting Tertullian characteristic, and one which echoes a similar evolution in Augustine, is how his views changed over time. With Augustine these stricter, more absolute views resulted from conflicts with Pelagians and Donatists. With Tertullian these arose due to conflicts with the mainstream Church. His Montanist sympathies resulted in, once the Montanist-mainstream Church conflict got going, a series of what can only be called apologies but in this case defending Montanist views and explaining why these were consistent with scripture and should not be a reason to cast out the sect. As I read his material, the use of the term Psychic became indicative of something written during the period when this conflict existed. 5

Tertullian was always strict and ascetic, even in his early writings. Clearly the Montanist views on areas of Christian life such as marriage, fornication and adultery, and the folly of pleasure, appealed to him. Honestly, what I was reading of his often reminded me of something which might have been written into a rule or as guidance for a monastic order. Things were extremely strict but his views on the nature of God and Christ were fairly Orthodox for the time. Another significant influence was his belief that the Last Days were near. Why should anyone have children or marry, or do anything pleasurable which might distract them from preparing for God’s judgement?

He wrote on a wide variety of topics. I have a feeling that if I could force myself to read him again I’d find even more to write about but specific areas I’ll be covering are (not necessarily in this order):

  • The Trinity
  • Baptism
  • Original Sin
  • Purgatory
  • The Nature of Christ
  • Philosophy
  • Repentance, Penance and the Remission of Sins
  • Women
  • Military Service
  • Pleasure
  • Sex and Marriage
  • Miscellaneous Things I find Interesting

I’ll combine some of these so don’t expect 12 posts but there will be several. Also, I’m going to leave the same bibliography for all posts at the bottom of the page even though I may not use something in a particular section. And if this reads like it’s been chopped into pieces, this will be because it’s been chopped into pieces.

1 I’ve just started reading Origen’s De Principiis and he’s much more in the Clement style. He proposes questions and things to think about, often without giving definite answers. I have no idea if there was any sort of “Alexandrian” vs “Carthaginian” type of Christianity developing around this time (actually I have an idea or two but I’ll wait until I read further to post about it) but the differences in their styles are pronounced. It will be interesting as I move forward to see if Tertullian’s absolutism begins a progression of the Church in that direction or if this is something which is set aside, to be picked up later by Augustine. The reality is it’s probably a mix of the two as the Arian controversy of the 4th century helped create an Orthodox camp which held fairly strict views on various aspects of Christianity.

2 I’ve mentioned this before but want to remind everyone that when I use terms like “the Church” or “mainstream Christianity”, what I mean by this is the branch of early Christianity which would evolve into the Orthodox Catholic Church. Prior to Nicaea there was no “the Church” in the sense that we understand it today, though things seem to have been moving in that direction.

3 Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men (De viris illustribus), LIII.

4 Tertullian, de Anima (On the Soul) V.

5 Tertullian’s use of Psychic does not resemble the modern, English usage of the word but is used to represent a Christian who is ruled by his or her animal passions.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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