Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Tertullian
TERTULLIAN, whose full name was Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, is the earliest and after Augustine the greatest of the ancient church writers of the West. Before him the whole Christian literature in the Latin language consisted of a translation of the Bible, the Octavius of Minucius Felix—an apologetic treatise written in the Ciceronian style for the higher circles of society, and with no evident effect for the church as a whole—and a list of the books recognized as canonical (the so-called Muratorian fragment). Whether Victor the Roman bishop and Apollonius the Roman senator ever really made an appearance as Latin authors is quite uncertain. Tertullian in fact created Christian Latin literature; one might almost say that that literature sprang from him full-grown, alike in form and substance, as Athene from the head of Zeus. Cyprian polished the language that Tertullian had made, sifted the thoughts he had given out, rounded them off, and turned them into current coin, but he never ceased to be aware of his dependence on Tertullian, whom he designated as κατ΄ έξοχήν his master (Jer., De Vir. III., 53). Augustine, again, stood on the shoulders of Tertullian and Cyprian; and these three North Africans are the fathers of the Western churches.
Tertullian's place in universal history is determined by (1) his intellectual and spiritual endowments, (2) his moral force and evangelical fervour, (3) the course of his personal development, (4) the circumstances of the time in the midst of which he worked.
(1) Tertullian was a man of great originality and genius, characterized by the deepest pathos, the liveliest fancy, and the most penetrating keenness, and was endowed with ability to appropriate and make use of all the methods of observation and speculation, and with the readiest wit. His writings in tone and character are always alike "rich in thought and destitute of form, passionate and hair-splitting, eloquent and pithy in expression, energetic and condensed to the point of obscurity." His style has been characterized with justice as dark and resplendent like ebony. His eloquence was of the vehement order; but it wins hearers and readers by the strength of its passion, the energy of its truth, the pregnancy and elegance of its expression, just as much as it repels them by its heat without light, its sophistical argumentations, and its elaborate hair-splittings. Though he is wanting in moderation and in luminous warmth, his tones are by no means always harsh; and as an author he ever aspired with longing after humility and love and patience, though his whole life was lived in the atmosphere of conflict. Tertullian both as a man and as a writer had much in common with the apostle Paul.
(2) In spite of all the contradictions in which he involved himself as a thinker and as a teacher, Tertullian was a compact ethical personality. What he was he was with his whole being. Once a Christian, he was determined to be so with all his soul, and to shake himself free of all half measures and compromises with the world. It is not difficult to lay one's finger upon very many obliquities, self-deceptions, and sophisms in Tertullian in matters of detail, for he struggled for years to reconcile things that were in themselves irreconcilable; yet in each case the perversities and sophisms were rather the outcome of peculiarly difficult circumstances in which he stood. It is easy to convict him of having failed to control the glowing passion that was in him. He is often outrageously unjust in the substance of what he says, and in manner harsh to cynicism, scornful to gruesomeness; but in no battle that he fought was he ever actuated by selfish interests. What he did was really done for the Gospel, as he understood it, with all the faculties of his soul. But he understood the Gospel as being primarily an assured hope and a holy law, as fear of the Judge who can cast into hell and as an inflexible rule of faith and of discipline. Of the glorious liberty of the children of God he had nothing but a mere presentiment; he looked for it only in the world beyond the grave, and under the power of the Gospel he counted as loss all the world could give. He well understood the meaning of Christ's saying that He came not into the world to bring peace, but a sword: in a period when a lax spirit of conformity to the world had seized the churches he maintained the "vigor evangelicus" not merely against the Gnostics but against opportunists and a worldly-wise clergy. Among all the fathers of the first three centuries Tertullian has given the most powerful expression to the terrible earnestness of the Gospel.
(3) The course of Tertullian's personal development fitted him in an altogether remarkable degree to be a teacher of the church. Born at Carthage of good family—his father was a "centurio consularis"—he received a first-rate education both in Latin and in Greek. He was able to speak and write Greek, and gives evidence of familiarity alike with its prose and with its poetry; and his excellent memory—though he himself complains about it—enabled him always to bring in at the right place an appropriate, often brilliant, quotation or some historical allusion. The old historians, from Herodotus to Tacitus, were familiar to him, and the accuracy of his historical knowledge is astonishing. He studied with earnest zeal the Greek philosophers; Plato in particular, and the writings of the Stoics, he had fully at command, and his treatise De Anima shows that he himself was able to investigate and discuss philosophical problems. From the philosophers he had been led to the medical writers, whose treatises plainly had a place in his working library. But no portion of this rich store of miscellaneous knowledge has left its characteristic impress on his writings; this influence was reserved for his legal training. His father, whose military spirit reveals itself in the whole bearing of Tertullian, to whom Christianity was above everything a "militia," had intended him for the law. He studied in Carthage, probably also in Rome, where, according to Eusebius, he enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most eminent jurists. This statement derives confirmation from the Digest, where references are made to two works, De Castrensi Peculio and Quæstionum Libri VIII., of a Roman jurist named Tertullian, who must have flourished about 180 A.D. In point of fact the quondam advocate never disappeared in the Christian presbyter. This was at once his strength and his weakness: his strength, for as a professional pleader he had learned how to deal with an adversary according to the rules of the art—to pull to pieces his theses, to reduce him ad absurdum, and to show the defects and contradictions of his statements,—and was specially qualified to expose the irregularities in the proceedings taken by the state against the Christians; but it was also his weakness, for it was responsible for his litigiousness, his often doubtful shifts and artifices, his sophisms and argumentationes ad hominem, his fallacies and surprises. At Rome in mature manhood Tertullian became a Christian, under what circumstances we do not know, and forthwith he bent himself with all his energy to the study of Scripture and of Christian literature. Not only was he master of the contents of the Bible: he also read carefully the works of Hermas, Justin, Tatian, Miltiades, Melito, Irenæus, Proculus, Clement, as well as many Gnostic treatises, the writings of Marcion in particular. In apologetics his principal master was Justin, and in theology proper and in the controversy with the Gnostics, Irenæus. As a thinker he was not original, and even as a theologian he has produced but few new schemes of doctrine, except his doctrine of sin. His special gift lay in the power to make what had been traditionally received impressive, to give to it its proper form, and to gain for it new currency. From Rome Tertullian visited Greece and perhaps also Asia Minor; at any rate we know that he had temporary relations with the churches there. He was consequently placed in a position in which he could check the doctrine and practice of the Roman Church. Thus equipped with knowledge and experience, he returned to Carthage and there laid the foundation of Latin Christian literature. At first, after his conversion, he wrote Greek, but by and by Latin almost exclusively. The elements of this Christian Latin language may be enumerated as follows:—(i.) it had its origin, not in the literary language of Rome as developed by Cicero, but in the language of the people as we find it in Plautus and Terence; (ii.) it has an African complexion; (iii.) it is strongly influenced by Greek, particularly through the Latin translation of the Septuagint and of the New Testament, besides being sprinkled with a large number of Greek words derived from the Scriptures or from the Greek liturgies; (iv.) it bears the stamp of the Gnostic style and contains also some military expressions; (v.) it owes something to the original creative power of Tertullian. As for his theology, its leading factors were—(i.) the teachings of the apologists; (ii.) the philosophy of the Stoics; (iii.) the rule of faith, interpreted in an anti-Gnostic sense, as he had received it from the Church of Rome; (iv.) the Soteriological theology of Melito and Irenæus; (v.) the substance of the utterances of the Montanist prophets (in the closing decades of his life). This analysis does not disclose, nor indeed is it possible to discover, what was the determining element for Tertullian; in fact he was under the dominion of more than one ruling principle, and he felt himself bound by several mutually opposing authorities. It was his desire to unite the enthusiasm of primitive Christianity with intelligent thought, the original demands of the Gospel with every letter of the Scriptures and with the practice of the Roman Church, the sayings of the Paraclete with the authority of the bishops, the law of the churches with the freedom of the inspired, the rigid discipline of the Montanist with all the utterances of the New Testament and with the arrangements of a church seeking to set itself up within the world. At this task he toiled for years, involved in contradictions which it took all the finished skill of the jurist to conceal from him for a time. At last he felt compelled to break off from the church for which he had lived and fought; but the breach could not clear him from the contradictions in which he found himself entangled. Not only did the great chasm between the old Christianity, to which his soul clung, and the Christianity of the Scriptures as juristically and philosophically interpreted remain unbridged; he also clung fast, in spite of his separation from the Catholic church, to his position that the church possesses the true doctrine, that the bishops per successionem are the repositories of the grace of the teaching office, and so forth. The growing violence of his latest works is to be accounted for, not only by his burning indignation against the ever advancing secularization of the Catholic church, but also by the incompatibility between the authorities which he recognized and yet was not able to reconcile. After having done battle with heathens, Jews, Marcionites, Gnostics, Monarchians, and the Catholics, he died an old man, carrying with him to the grave the last remains of primitive Christianity in the West, but at the same time in conflict with himself.
(4) What has just been said brings out very clearly how important in their bearing on Tertullian's development were the circumstances of the age in which he laboured. His activity as a Christian falls between 190 and 220, a period of very great moment in the history of the Catholic church; for within it the struggle with Gnosticism was brought to a victorious close, the New Testament established a firm footing within the churches, the "apostolic" rules which thenceforward regulated all the affairs of the church were called into existence, and the ecclesiastical priesthood came to be developed. Within this period also falls that evangelical and legal reaction against the political and secular tendencies of the church which is known as Montanism. The same Tertullian who had fortified the Catholic church against Gnosticism was none the less anxious to protect it from becoming a political organization. Being unable to reconcile incompatibles, he broke with the church and became the most powerful representative of Montanism in the West.
Although Tertullian's extant works are both numerous and copious, our knowledge of his life is very vague. He cannot have been born much later than about 150. His activity as a jurist in Rome must fall within the period of Commodus; for there is no indication in his writings that he was in Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius, and many passages seem to preclude the supposition. The date of his conversion to Christianity is quite uncertain; there is much in favour of the years between 190 and 195. How long he remained in Rome after becoming a Christian, whether he had attained any office in the church before leaving Rome, what was the date of his visit to Greece, on these points also we remain in ignorance. It is certain that he was settled in Carthage in the second half of 197, the date of his writing his Apologeticus and (shortly afterwards) his two books Ad Nationes; we also know that he became a presbyter in Carthage and was married. His recognition of the Montanistic prophecy in Phrygia as a work of God took place in 202–203, at the time when a new persecution broke out. For the next five years it was his constant endeavour to secure the victory for Montanism within the church; but in this he became involved more and more deeply in controversy with the majority of the church in Carthage and especially with its clergy, which had the support of the clergy of Rome. As Jerome writes (De Vir. Ill., 53): "Usque ad mediam ætatem presbyter fuit ecclesiæ Africanæ, invidia postea et contumeliis clericorum Romanæ ecclesiæ ad Montani dogma delapsus." On his breach with the Catholic church, probably in 207–208, he became the head of a small Montanist community in Carthage. In this position he continued to labour, to write, and to assail the lax Catholics and their clergy until at least the time of Bishop Calixtus in the reign of Elagabalus. The year of his death is uncertain. Jerome (ut sup.) says: "Fertur vixisse usque ad decrepitam ætatem." That he returned at last to the bosom of the Catholic church is a mere legend, the motive of which is obvious; his adherents after his death continued to maintain themselves as a small community in Carthage. Although he had left the church, his earlier writings continued to be extensively read; and in the 4th century his works, along with those of Cyprian, were the principal reading of Western Christians, until they were superseded by those of Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory. Jerome has included him in his catalogue of Christian "viri illustres," but only as a Catholic to whom reference should be made with caution. 
The works of Tertullian, on the chronology of which a great deal has been written, and which for the most part do not admit of being dated with perfect certainty, fall into three classes, the apologetic, the polemical theological, and the ascetic. And in point of time also three periods can be readily distinguished, the years 202–203 and 207–208 constituting the divisions. Some of the things he wrote have unfortunately disappeared,—in particular the De Spectaculis, De Baptismo, and De Virginibus Velandis in Greek; his works in Latin on the same subjects have survived.
I.Works dating from before 202-203.—To this class belong the Apologeticus (197) and the two books Ad Nationes, De Spectaculis, De Idololatria, De Cultu Feminarum Libri II., De Testimonio Animæ (written soon after the Apologeticus), Ad Martyres (perhaps the earliest of all), De Baptismo Hæreticorum (now lost), De Baptismo, De Pœnitentia, De Oratione (the last three written for catechumens), De Patientia, Ad Uxorem Libri II., De Præscriptione Hæreticorum, and Adv. Marcionem (in its first form). The Apologeticus, which in the 3d century was translated into Greek, is the weightiest work in defence of Christianity of the first two centuries. Respecting its relation to the Octavius of Minucius Felix much has been written; to the present writer it seems unquestionable that Tertullian's work was the later. Of great moment also is the De Præscriptione Hæreticorum, in which the jurist is more clearly heard than the Christian. The De Spectaculis and De Idololatria show that Tertullian was already in a certain sense a Montanist
- Compare also the judgment of Hilary and of Vincent of Lerins, Commonit., 24.