I have several topics I’m going to briefly cover here even though there’s enough material for some of these to create individual posts. But I think a dozen Tertullian posts is enough. The reason why I’ve had so much to say about him is that Tertullian is writing for a different reason than prior authors. The Apologists such as Justin Martyr wrote to defend their faith against Pagan and Jewish criticism. Irenaeus was concerned with countering heresy. Clement wanted to help Christians negotiate conflicts between living within the Church and as Roman citizens. Tertullian writes from within the Church, to the Church, to explain what it means to be a good Christian. He covers more topics and in greater depth than anyone who came previously. It’s a new direction for Christian writing and I think noting this and what he says is important to illustrate a direction the Church would eventually go in. Unfortunately, by briefly covering a bunch of subjects this post is going to be a bit clunky. Anyone who’s read this blog for very long knows I like to cover things in some depth.
First I want to mention a few things I’m not going to talk about. Tertullian wrote an Apology which I didn’t find terribly different from those of the second century. Roman Gods were demons or famous men, Moses predates Greeks who borrowed their ideas from him, the only accusation against Christians which sticks is their name, etc. He also wrote against the Jews with, again, fairly standard themes. His Prescription Against Heretics and other heresiologies, while providing some interesting concepts on philosophy and the Trinity, don’t provide any information on heresy which Irenaeus failed to cover. In his various writings he shares previously offered thoughts on the Resurrection of the Body.
However he does bring up other issues I’ve not seen before. I’ll briefly (and insufficiently) touch on some of these.
Tertullian’s with everyone else on Martyrs being especially blessed and believing they may ascend to Heaven more quickly than the normal believer. In contrast to Clement, he opposes fleeing from persecution but advocates standing your ground and accepting Martyrdom. His treatise (written as a letter), Of Flight in Persecution (de fuga in persecutione) addresses this specific theme:
“For if persecution proceeds from God, in no way will it be our duty to flee from what has God as its author; a twofold reason opposing; for what proceeds from God ought not on the one hand to be avoided, and it cannot be evaded on the other. It ought not to be avoided, because it is good; for everything must be good on which God has cast His eye.” Of Flight in Persecution, IV
As usual, when there’s something in scripture Tertullian disagrees with, he finds a way around it. Despite Christ advising the Apostles to flee in the Gospels, such as in Matthew, X.23, this does not apply to Christians of his day. That was advice given to the very first Christians, Christ’s companions, so they might live to preach and spread the Word of the Gospel. The Word has been spread so this advice no longer applies (this isn’t his only reason for contradicting Jesus’ advice but I won’t cover all of them or I will need a separate post). (Of Flight in Persecution, VI-X)
As he finishes up, Tertullian equates fleeing persecution with denying Christ, “You have confessed Him; so also, on the account of your unwillingness to confess Him before many you have denied Him. … The refusal of martyrdom is denial.” (Of Flight in Persecution, XII) “He who fears to suffer, cannot belong to Him who suffered.” (Of Flight in Persecution, XIV)
It will surprise nobody that Tertullian condemns idolatry, as does every other Christian author. There are many reasons given for this ranging from the Ten Commandments to a general, “this is what the Roman do – worship stone and wooden images.” However Tertullian goes further than previous authors in his treatise On Idolatry (de idololatria).
Writing during an early stage of his career, Tertullian contradicts his later opinions of philosophy and advocates that it’s permissable for a Christian to learn from, but not teach, pagan literature, “Learning literature is allowable for believers, rather than teaching; for the principle of learning and of teaching is different. If a believer teach literature, while he is teaching doubtless he commends, while he delivers he affirms, while he recalls he bears testimony to, the praises of idols interspersed therein.” (On Idolatry, X
Where this really gets interesting is when Tertullian tells Christians that they can engage in no profession which might somehow contribute to Idolatry. Is a Christian involved in the production or trade of incense? Then he is guilty of idolatry for these are used in ceremonies. Do you raise livestock which may be used in the ceremonies? Train gladiators who may participate in the games? “No art, then, no profession, no trade, which administers either to equipping or forming idols, can be free from the title of idolatry …”
One of Tertullian’s most famous works, The Shows (de spactaculis) is really an extension of this theme. Shows, the theater, the circus, and games are all dedicated to the Roman Gods. These are, then, idolatrous, and Christians are forbidden from participating in or attending them. Demons and evil spirits feast on these events and the blood spilled there.
This is a theme which I was really tempted to devote a post to. However Tertullian’s thoughts are simple enough that I don’t really need to, it just would have been one of the more entertaining topics to talk about. In essence, any passions are to be guarded against. Pleasure is no exception and must be avoided, particularly strong feelings, which may lead to desire, which may lead to covetousness, and so on. The Shows, XV-XVII
Related to this – or maybe not but it’s notable enough that I have to mention it someplace – is where he mentions that when assessing what is acceptable behavior, Christians should not search scripture to avoid what is forbidden. Instead, they should read scripture with an eye on what is specifically permitted and only engage in these behaviors:
“For if it shall be said that it is lawful to be crowned on this ground, that Scripture does not forbid it, it will as validly be retorted that just on this ground is the crown unlawful, because the Scripture does not enjoin it. What shall discipline do? Shall it accept both things, as if neither were forbidden? Or shall it refuse both, as if neither were enjoined? But ‘the thing which is not forbidden is freely permitted.’ I should rather say that what has not been freely allowed is forbidden.” The Chaplet (de corona), II.
To be fair, the above must be a rhetorical device. After all, I don’t believe scripture ever specifically gives a person permission to, for example, trim a hangnail or try on a pair of sandals to see if they fit but I can’t imagine he thinks these sorts of activities should be forbidden. It does, however, show the lengths he was willing to go to argue against what he felt was an overly permissive Church and loose living by Christians.
The Vengeful God
Tertullian’s God is not the gentle God of love but a fierce, vengeful God. Tertullian intersperses his thoughts on this in a variety of areas. Some earlier authors proposed that all souls will eventually be saved, if appropriately purified. Tertullian’s God is not so forgiving. From fear comes love and obedience. “Foolish man[Marcion], do you say that he whom you call Lord ought not to be feared, whilst the very title you give him indicates a power which must itself be feared? But how are you going to love, without some fear that you do not love?” Against Marcion, I.XXVII
God has a responsibility to punish, “Moreover, it would be a more unworthy course for God to spare the evil-doer than to punish him, especially in the most good and holy God, who is not otherwise fully good than as the enemy of evil, and that to such a degree as to display His love of good by the hatred of evil, and to fulfil His defence of the former by the extirpation of the latter.” Against Marcion, I.XXVI
This concept is not precisely new, it’s just that Tertullian goes beyond any previous author in discussing it, to the extent of contradicting “turn the other cheek” in favor of “an eye for an eye.” “Eye for eye does our God require; but your god does even a greater injury, (in your ideas,) when he prevents an act of retaliation. For what man will not return a blow, without waiting to be struck a second time.” Against Marcion, II.XXVIII
Several times he comes very close to saying that God actually created evil, rather than this being a result of free will, as most other authors say. God creates a penal evil; evil which is actually divine retribution, “Of the latter class of evils which are compatible with justice, God is therefore avowedly the creator. They are, no doubt, evil to those by whom they are endured, but still on their own account good, as being just and defensive of good and hostile to sin. In this respect they are, moreover, worthy of God.” Against Marcion, II.XIV
The Last Days (of Rome)
Tertullian also provided a twist on The Last Days. He stands with the majority (to be honest I can’t think of an exception) of prior authors in believing that the Last Days are near. However several times he asserts that man will know that the Apocalypse has arrived when the Roman Empire comes to an end. “For we know that a mighty shock impending over the whole earth — in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes — is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman empire.” Apology, XXXII
“A Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor of Rome, whom he knows to be appointed by his God, and so cannot but love and honour; and whose well-being moreover, he must needs desire, with that of the empire over which he reigns so long as the world shall stand — for so long as that shall Rome continue.” To Scapula, II
This is a new and interesting take on the Last Days. It was a common theme in post-Nicaean Christianity. Once Christianity became, not just legitimate but the official religion of the Empire, a reason for the Empire’s existence became so the Word of God could be more easily spread to all (Roman) people. Once the Word had been sufficiently spread, the Empire’s purpose would be fulfilled and it could end. Hydatius seems to share this viewpoint. Tertullian is the only pre-Nicene author I’ve read who believes this. He seems to be well ahead of his time with this concept.
By this time the idea that God created matter, rather than working with preexisting matter, seems to have been well on the way to becoming established. Justin Martyr, writing 60 years earlier, believed that God used unformed matter (First Apology, X) but every later author that I recall felt otherwise. Still, it appears that some Christians continued to believe as Justin had. Tertullian’s treatise, Against Hermogenes was written against a Christian whose sole crime was believing that God used pre-existing matter to create the universe.
In some ways I felt this was a weak treatise overall. One of Tertullian’s foremost thoughts is that if God had not created matter, Hermogenes was stating that matter had more power. Earlier Christians had often denounced Roman Gods as mere objects of stone or wood and discussed how sculptors would have demonstrated power over them by being able to mold their matter as they saw fit. The same should hold true for God molding the world. Still, by devoting an entire treatise to the subject of matter, Tertullian advances this discussion considerably. One important development is when he counters Hermogenes’ assertion that if God created matter he must also have created evil. First and simplest is his statement that Hermogenes’ argument that matter was both good and evil and the world is stuck with evil because God did the best with what he had to work with is a denial of God’s omnipotence and changes the very nature of God. (Against Hermogenes, I) Additionally, it provides an excuse for men to do evil; if they are created from evil matter, how are they to blame for their actions? (Against Hermogenes, XII)
My Original Sin and Purgatory posts already discuss some aspects of the soul. Beyond these two ideas (and the necessity of baptism) I think it’s important to mention that in his Treatise on the Soul (de anima), as with other topics, by the sheer amount of time and depth of argument which Tertullian is willing to invest, he moved the conversation related to the soul’s nature significantly forward.
Among the issues he discusses is a firm denial that the soul is divisible, as philosophers and some earlier Christians believed. 1 The soul is created at conception. He is the first author I recall who states that the soul is delivered into a woman by semen and men can feel this happen, ” … I cannot help asking, whether we do not, in that very heat of extreme gratification when the generative fluid [semen] is ejected, feel that somewhat of our soul has gone from us?” Treatise on the Soul, XXVII
One of his main points throughout this treatise is that the soul is corporeal. It has weight and substance, though this is different from man’s physical body. It must be as it rules men and moves them and how could something without substance cause motion? Within this treatise Tertullian states that all men are created equal intellectually but their environment results in different results. He mentions health, bodily condition, what nation and beliefs one is born into, and exposure to education, “How much more will those accidental circumstances have to be noticed, which, in addition to the state of one’s body or health, tend to sharpen or to dull the intellect!” Treatise on the Soul, XX
Proof of Christ’s Divinity
Tertullian uses a new strategy in trying to prove that Christ was the promised Messiah, the Savior. When looking for quotes on the nature of Christ I came across this passage which I think is illuminating:
“I am safe, if I am not ashamed of my Lord. ‘Whosoever,’ says He, ‘shall be ashamed of me, of him will I also be ashamed.’ Other matters for shame find I none which can prove me to be shameless in a good sense, and foolish in a happy one, by my own contempt of shame. The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible.” On the Flesh of Christ, V
There are two points from this passage. One is that man should not be ashamed of his flesh (though of course he should not adorn it either). The other is a rhetorical device of Tertullian’s which fits with the modern saying, “That story’s too crazy not to be true/for someone to have made up.” Tertullian uses this regularly as proof of the reality of Christ. What good would it have been for the prophets to declare (as some heretics state they did, for example in Isaiah) that Christ was to be born of a young woman? Young women have kids all the time. But for someone to be born of a virgin? This shows the miraculous intervention of God. He uses a similar argument regarding Christ’s resurrection. That he died is one thing for all men die. But to be resurrected?
There’s actually a third point but I already covered it in my post on the nature of Christ. Christ was willing to subject himself to every humiliation which man might undergo, to the point of being hung from a tree, pronounced as a curse in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 21.23
Prior to Tertullian, every author I’ve read tried to make sense of the virgin birth and resurrection by explaining the Old Testament prophecies in such a way as to predict Christ. Tertullian does this plenty but here he tries something new. I thought the “too crazy not to be due to God’s intervention” strategy was impressive. The guy was harsh, absolute and aggressive but he could also be brilliant.
There are various points which I found interesting but aren’t that significant. For example, it appears that during the early third century, while Mary was definitely a virgin when she bore Christ, there was no requirement that she remained a virgin afterward (Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity), as Tertullian relates that it is certain that Christ had brothers. On the Flesh of Christ, VII
Also, as what was and was not scripture continued to be defined, Tertullian is critical of the Shepherd of Hermas but places a great deal of value on The Epistle of Barnabas. (On Modesty, XX
One item is, I think, notable for its lack of mention. It’s obvious, I hope, from what I’ve written that Tertullian was very ascetic, particularly regarding sexual activity. However I do not believe he ever mentions or hints at any sort of monasticism, either eremetic or cenobitic. I can’t say whether this means that no type of ascetic activity was taking place or just that he believes that a Christian should be a member of the larger community but I found this interesting.
I think it’s important to note that of the authors I’ve read, Tertullian shows more familiarity with the New Testament than anyone who preceded him. In particular he relies on the Pauline letters but he also quotes from the Gospels and Acts quite often. Earlier Christians relied more heavily on the Old Testament, particularly to provide evidence from prophets foretelling the coming of Christ.
That’s it for topical posts about Tertullian. I’ll have one more short post as a summary (this one ended up much longer than I hoped it would be, over 3,000 words) and then I can move on to someone or something else.
1 Platonists, for example, believed in a soul containing three natures where only the intellectual or logical nature would survive death while the emotional and desirous/appetitive parts would cease to exist. Early Christians often had trouble describing what the soul is or how it functioned. Many pretty much ignored the subject beyond stating that man had free will and the soul would be resurrected and either saved or punished.
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.
Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.