Helping restore Father's people

to the Ancient Paths of scripture.

Walking in the Ten Words (Commandments) and the Power of the Holy Spirit

(Rev.12:17, Luk.10:19, Mat.28:19-20)

The Repairer of the Breach


Tertullian lived in the ancient city of Carthage in what is now Tunisia, sometime around 200AD. Very little is known about his life - that little comes either from writers two centuries later, or from the scanty personal notes in his works. Much of it has been asserted to be untrue anyway by some modern writers .

He was born a member of the educated classes, and clearly gained a good education. Life in his times wasn't very different in some ways to the modern day - he indulged his passions as he saw fit, including sex, and like everyone else attended the games where gladiators killed each other and criminals were eaten alive, for the enjoyment of the spectators.

But among the sights he saw, was that of Christians being executed this way. He was struck with the courage with which stupid and contemptible slave men and little slave girls faced a hideous death, against all nature; and after investigating, became a Christian himself, and turned his budding talents to writing in defense of this despised and victimised group.

Tertullian was the first Christian writer to write in Latin, and was described three centuries later as writing 'first, and best, and incomparably', of all the writers to do so. (by the unknown author of 'Praedestinatus'). His writing is aggressive, sarcastic and brilliant6, and at points very funny even after 2000 years. He was deeply conscious of his own failings, and had a burning desire for truth and integrity. He was described by Jerome as celebrated in all the churches as a speaker; and his works bear the marks of the need to keep an audience awake! His erudition was immense. Much of what he read is lost, but what remains gives a picture of wide reading, which was celebrated even in antiquity.

He wrote a great number of works - how many is unknown. Thirty-one are extant; lists of known lost works are elsewhere on this site; but we have no reason to suppose this to be anything like an exhaustive list. Most of those extant have come down to us by the slenderest of threads, and the very nature of Tertullian's terse and ironic style, means that copyists made many errors, and in some cases his text is beyond certain restoration. Not all of his works were ever completed.

His most important work is the Apologeticum, in defense of the Christians. Running it close must be Adversus Praxean, in which the doctrine of the Trinity comes into clear focus for the first time, in response to a heretic who was twisting the biblical balance between the persons of the Godhead. In this work, he created most of the terminology with which this doctrine was to be referred (and is still), such as Trinitas, etc.  His discussion of how heretical arguments are in general to be handled in De praescriptio haereticorum also deserves wider recognition.

Tertullian wrote no systematic theology; all of his works are brought forth by a local event, a persecution, or a heretic.

In his time, the church finally decided to reject a movement calling itself 'The New Prophecy', and known later as Montanism. The New Prophecy made no doctrinal innovations, but said that the Holy Spirit was calling Christians to a more ascetic position. But obeying the prophets inevitably meant a problem, if the bishop did not recognise their authority.

Tertullian had grown angry at what looked like compromise creeping into the church - unwillingness to be martyred, willingness to forgive more serious public sins - and aligned himself with the Montanists. It is unclear whether this involved actually leaving the church , but his later works are avowedly Montanist, and one or two explictly attack the mainstream church on these points. As such he was not recognised as a Saint, despite his orthodoxy, and his works were all marked as condemned in the 6th Century Decretum Gelasianum.

His later life is unknown, and we do not know if he was martyred or died of old age as Jerome says.

Churchmen have not liked him - he is not easy reading for those who prefer compromise and ambiguity to truth, and of ecclesiasticism there is no trace in his works. The rhetoric that impressed his contemporaries has been often laid hold of and twisted in misquotations by enemies of the Church. He is often misquoted - and as a subtle and ironical writer, is easy to misquote.

He has been called the first Protestant, as the first Christian writer of impeccable orthodoxy to enunciate the unpalatable truth, that the church was not a conclave of bishops, but the people of the Holy Spirit.

But his legacy was the very shape of Latin Christianity. St Cyprian never went a day without reading him, and called him 'the master'. He gave Christians the means with which to meet paganism on its own ground and defeat it. And whenever the errors against which he wrote resurface, as they do from time to time, what Tertullian had to say about them will again be readable; who wrote 'first and best and incomparably'  against them.

Tertullian (160-220)