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Tertullian - his Life and Work

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Tertullian (160-220) was the first major early Christian author to write in Latin. Because of this, he was the first author to employ many theological terms which were used in later theological debates, and which have now become part of the Christian vocabulary. He is particularly remembered as being the first author to use the word ‘Trinity’ to describe the nature of the God-head. He had an outstanding command of the Latin language, writing with fiery eloquence, and had a most memorable way of expressing his thoughts.

He lived almost all his life in Carthage, having been born in the middle of the second century into a pagan family, where he was educated as a lawyer. He became a renowned court lawyer in Rome until he was converted in 196, after which he returned to Carthage. His conversion was mostly as a result of seeing the faithfulness of the Christian martyrs. He brought his legal skill into the church and used much of his legal terminology in his writings. Like many north Africans, Tertullian was a zealous follower of Christ, setting an extremely high standard of Christian living and morality. He became increasingly disillusioned by the worldliness of the Catholic Church. He became attracted by the zealousness and rigorous moral demands of the Montanists, who he eventually joined. Before he joined the Montanists, he served as a presbyter in the church in Carthage.

In his books he covered a wide range of subjects, including the defence of Christianity to the Roman authorities, attacking heresies, the moral behaviour of Christians, as well as doctrinal subjects.

He wrote several apologetic writings, the most well-known being ‘The Apology’, which he wrote soon after his conversion. This was addressed to the Roman authorities, and using his legal arguments, he showed that only bad emperors had persecuted the church. He also demonstrated that the laws against Christianity were illogical and that the persecution of the church was illegal.

Countering different heresies, he wrote several volumes. His ‘Prescription of Heretics’ against the Gnostics, was written while he was still in the Catholic Church. He showed that the truth was given to the church by Christ and then passed as the rule of faith from the original apostles through the apostolic church, rather than being discovered as the result of the speculations of the heretics. He declared that heretics had no right to refer to Scripture. He also wrote ‘Against Marcion’, demonstrating the unity between the God of the Old and New Testaments. While a member of the Montanists, he wrote ‘Against Praxeas’, in which he attacked modalism, accusing Praxeas of having put the Paraclete to flight, as well as crucifying the Father.

In writing about baptism he criticised the baptism of infants, suggesting that baptism is best left until later in life, as only one mortal sin can be forgiven after baptism. His ‘On the Soul’ is the first Christian writing on psychology. While in the Montanists, he attacked the worldliness of the church, saying that it was lax and corrupt, arguing for strict church discipline of lapsed believers.