Meet Tertullian – a theologian of the late 2nd/early 3rd century.
He spent most of his life in the African city of Carthage – modern day Tunisia – where he was trained and educated as a lawyer. He had a keen legal mind communicating with the smooth, precise language of the courtroom. He was also the son of a well-known Roman Centurion.
Late in his life, Tertullian became a Christian while visiting the great city of Rome. After returning to Carthage, he put his keen, legal mind to work defending his new Christian faith.
Tertullian is a complicated character in Church history. On the one hand, he was a strict defender of Christian orthodoxy. Many of his writings were composed to contradict the common heretics of the day. Gnosticism, in one way, shape or form, was all the rage during Tertullian’s day. He used his courtroom acumen to fight off their advances.
On the other hand, however, Tertullian joined a group of thinkers later in life called the Montanists; this was a group that was more or less universally condemned by the Church at large as heretics!
So, you see the irony then. Tertullian fought off heretics on one front only to join them on the other! Scholars still struggle to understand all this. Like I said, its complicated …
At any rate, Tertullian wrote a collection of apologetic works defending the Church against Imperial persecution and against heresy. Some of his more famous works are The Prescriptions Against the Heretics, Against Praxeas and Against Marcion. By the way, you can tell an apologist by the title of their works; they almost always begin with the word ‘against’. Also, all of his works were written in Latin, landing him the title Father of the Western Church.
Unlike last week’s Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian was totally opposed to obscure speculations and abstract philosophical thinking. The point of theology, in Tertullian’s mind, was not to brandish all sorts of wild ideas of what God could do, rather it was to remember what God did do – to explain it plainly.
Tertullian helped shape theological discussion in at least two ways …
For one, he contributed greatly to theological thought on the Trinity and Christology. Much of the language we use to describe the Trinity and the Person of Christ finds its origins in Tertullian’s Western legal language. This gets worked out most in Against Praxeas. He begins a well-known Trinitarian mantra: One Substance, Three Persons. He also uses the language of One Substance, Two Persons in Christ’s Incarnation. While the language is a bit vague here in the beginning, it gets picked up and teased out in the Council of Nicea and later in the Council of Chalcedon. You could say Tertullian founded an Orthodox language of the Trinity.
Tertullian also helped shape the way we think about reading and interpreting Scripture. He was insistent that the interpretation of Scripture always take place within the context of the Church and its interpretive tradition. To ignore the way the church has read Scripture through the ages is to run the risk of speculative innovation and worse yet – eventual heresy! In other words, no one comes to the text in a vacuum; read Scripture with the Church and measure your thoughts against what it’s taught.
This conviction of course, comes out of his repeated encounter with heretical views; particularly Gnosticism. What is common, in his mind, is that the unorthodox readings of Scripture almost always proofread and twist the text to mean what they want it to mean. To counter that danger, Tertullian demands a reading of Scripture that takes into account the Church’s tradition of interpretation. If he’s heavy handed on this point, it’s because of the pervasive danger of Gnostic heresy; he’s concerned with protecting his flock from false sheep.
Well ladies and gentlemen, here he is …
Tertullian, meet the world!
World, meet Tertullian!