I’ve re-written this section several different times and am still not sure it captures what I want to express but I’ll have a go anyway. There are some things about Tertullian which are very intriguing. One of these is trying to assess how influential he was during the Medieval period. As I’ve tried to relate, he is the first to offer some concepts which later became prominent themes in Christianity. His thoughts on Original Sin and the way he defines the Trinity are significant advances over anyone who wrote earlier, at least that I’ve come across. It’s difficult to say whether these were innovations of his, or if his writings reflect what was already believed in the Church, at least at Carthage. I expect I’ll learn more on this as I continue and I also expect to find that it was a mix of the two.
As I’m now in the middle of Origen I’ve found it interesting that he, not Tertullian, seems to have drawn more attention from modern historians. Is this because Tertullian’s writing style is so harsh and unappealing? Is Origen considered a better example of the merging of philosophy and Christianity? Is it because much of Origen has been lost and historians are trying to recreate what he may have contributed based on fragments and subsequent developments? Or is Tertullian just simpler to understand where modern historians look at him and what’s already been written and don’t think there’s much more to be said? Origen’s influence is more subtle. At this moment in time I’d say that of the two, Tertullian was more influential though I have a lot yet to read and may change my mind.
I’ve written enough on him that I think you can figure out what I thought was important. I have been struck by his inconsistent consistency and my summaries of his thoughts on marriage and military service capture this, I hope. The change in tenor and content in these areas is a nice micro-example of how people often respond when threatened, by retreating even more strongly into their core beliefs. I think Tertullian’s fate points to an important difference between the pre- and post-Nicene Church. Tertullian’s group, the Montanists, appears to have been labeled as heretical. Yet they were not cast out of the Church, at least not all of them. Even at his most strident, Tertullian writes as a member of the Church, to misguided colleagues, not to enemies. Two centuries later and I think it likely that he would have been cast out of the Church and anathematized.
My focus on specific concepts may have detracted from, or at least lacked enough emphasis on, an area where I think Tertullian profoundly influenced those who would follow. Perhaps even more than his thoughts on specific aspects of dogma and doctrine, where Tertullian had a great detail of impact was by introducing a new type of dialogue; one less interested in debate and discussion and a search for truth but focusing instead on the certainty of belief and providing defined, stricter guidelines regarding what it meant to be a Christian. To this point Christian authors had been engaged in discussion and debate. They had points upon which they were beginning to reach agreement. Christ certainly was the Son of God, he was crucified, died and was resurrected. Men could be saved, body and soul. Those who lived sinful lives would be punished. However there remained points of debate. Did God intend that men would reside in Hell permanently or might they also be saved after a period of punishment? How did Adam’s sin impact Humans, particularly after the resurrection; was this sin redeemed by Christ’s death so that men and women were born with a “clean slate” or did this open a path for redemption despite people being weighed down by Adam’s transgression? Should Christians live as part of Roman society or separate themselves from it? These and other issues were points for discussion and debate, so Christians might draw closer to understanding God and the truth.
Tertullian didn’t bother with that. There was fact and falsehood, truth and lies. He believed what he believed and this was what all Christians should believe. Once a Christian believed and understood, the need for further investigation was ended. I have profound doubts as to whether this was good for the development of Western Civilization but good, bad, or indifferent, it certainly was there. Tertullian comes across as far more Medieval in his outlook than Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, or even Irenaeus. In fact he comes across as less interested in debate and discussion than many Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries. This is an essential element of his legacy.
I feel as if my use of large chunks of quoted text rather than picking things apart in more detail was a bit of a shortcut and maybe more exposition on my part would have been helpful. But that takes more time and once I was several thousand words into this I began to realize that the only way I’d ever finish would be to let Tertullian speak for himself. Fortunately, while he often took a long time to come to his concluding statements, once he got there he didn’t mince words. This type of tactic works much better for him than for those who were more nuanced. I don’t think I’ll be able to use this method when I talk about Origen.
That’s it for Tertullian. I wish I could say that’s all I have but it isn’t. I could probably add another 10,000 words. And as I finish this up I’m wondering what will happen when I get to Augustine. Tertullian’s source information was a full volume and another hundred pages or so in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series. Augustine gets 8 books all to himself and his influence is so much greater. Yeesh.
I haven’t been able to come up with a succinct statement to wrap all of this up. Instead I’ll defer to Eric Osborn who quotes J. Danielou:
Tertullian’s achievement was not merely cultural and linguistic, but above all intellectual. For ‘despite his obvious originality, he displays those characteristics which are to be found throughout Latin Chistianity: a realism which knows nothing of the Platonist devaluation of matter; a subjectivity, which gives special prominence to inner experience; and a pessimism which lays more stress on the experience of sin than on transfiguration’. 1
NOTE: Below I’m including all of the sources I used throughout these twelve posts even though I used very few of them for this one.
1 Osborn (1997), p. 7, quoting J. Danielou, The Origins of Latin Christianity (London, 1977) I finished Osborn while I was in the middle of writing this series of posts and as much as possible stayed away from using him. His book is a detailed discussion of what Tertullian meant in his various writings. Well, I had my own ideas about what he wrote and wanted to share them, even if they’re wrong. This is a good book though a bit pricy. I don’t think he said I was wrong too often.
Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.
Kleist, James A., trans., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers Number 6. New York: Newman Press (1948). ISBN:0-8091-0247-1.
Osborn, Eric, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1997). ISBN: 978-0-521-52495-7.
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.
Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.