Who Was Tertullian?

A Christian apologist and author from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, Tertullian is best-known for his influential theological writing.

Feb 11, 2024By Ryan Watson, MA History, BA History
who was tertullian

 

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, commonly known as Tertullian, was a Christian apologist and author from Carthage. He is known for his extensive writings, and is the first known theologian to use the term “Trinity.” He lived 155-220 CE, and was an early Christian author and apologist. While little is known of his actual life (as with most Christian figures around this time), many of his theological works have been transmitted through the years.  He is considered by many to be the “Father of Western Theology.”

 

Tertullian’s Writing

Tertullian writings. Source: Schilbantiquarian
Tertullian writings. Source: Schilbantiquarian

 

Tertullian’s main work was against the gnostic heresy in the early centuries following the time of the New Testament.  Gnosticism held that there was a “secret knowledge” regarding salvation, and generally held that the physical world was evil (and therefore Jesus was not a physical being), and the spiritual world was what was good. In de Carne Cristi Tertullian writes: “Without true incarnation, there can be no true redemption… God must have flesh, in order to have a real death and real resurrection.”

 

Tertullian also covered church structure, the nature of God, baptism, and many other subjects. He extensively quotes much of the Old and New Testament in his writings.

 

Tertullian and the Trinity

Tertullian, by Levet, 1584
Tertullian, by Levet, 1584

 

In his treatise Against Praxeus Tertullian is the first know author to describe God as “Trinity.” He attacks Praxeus for a teaching regarding God as one person with no separation, denying individual Persons within the Trinity. While Tertullian believed in a sort of created role for the Son and Holy Spirit within the Trinity (akin to what Arius would teach about a hundred years later), he still defended many orthodox positions against heretics.

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Heretical Groups

A Roman holy man, possibly Montanus, or Apollonius of Tyana. Source: The Heraklion Museum, Crete
A Roman holy man, possibly Montanus, or Apollonius of Tyana. Source: The Heraklion Museum, Crete

 

Despite his position against heresy, Tertullian still joined a group called the Montanists, who believed in strict moral standards and opposed the priesthood and church structure of the day (though the group Tertullian joined may have accepted the regular priesthood).  Tertullian liked their morality and believed the church, even at that early a time, was wandering away from Christianity was intended to be. The group of North African Montanists that he joined was the same group mentioned by Augustine years later, calling them the “Tertullianists.”

 

Tertullian’s Famous Sayings

Tertullian’s manuscripts of the Apologeticum. Source: Tertullian.org
Tertullian’s manuscripts of the Apologeticum. Source: Tertullian.org

 

Several popular sayings can be attributed to Tertullian. His early usage of the term “Trinity” in describing God includes the idea that God is one in substance and three Persons: “All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost…” (Against Praxeum). Tertullian wrote “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” because he opposed Christians running from martyrdom, but embracing it and maybe even seeking our martyrdom instead

 

Tertullian’s Place in Church History

Origen, who shares a similar legacy to Tertullian. Source: learnreligions.com
Origen, who shares a similar legacy to Tertullian. Source: learnreligions.com

 

Tertullian’s writings are among the more prolific writers following the time of the Apostles.  While his theology regarding how the Trinity “operates” is not orthodox, and the Catholic Church does not place him among the Apostolic Fathers, he is still so important to Christian theological thought that the title “Father of Western Theology” is ascribed to him. Several other figures, such as Origen, fall into similar categories, where, even though they had what is considered now aberrant beliefs regarding core Christian theological matters, they were important to the development of orthodox theology in their fights against more obvious heresies.

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By Ryan WatsonMA History, BA HistoryRyan Watson is a husband, father, underwriter, writer, and reseller. He graduated with a Bachelor's and Master's in History from Louisiana Tech University in the early 2000s. He focuses on Biblical, post-Biblical, and medieval history with occasional dabblings in other arenas.