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The statement of Jerome—Tertullian’s father a centurion in the service of a Pro-consul—Military metaphors—Home surroundings—School days— Legal studies and their reflection in his writings—Visits to Rome—Pagan experience—Relation to Mithraism—Conversion—Study of Scripture—. Marriage—Social standing—Voyage to the East—Growth in Christian standing—Literary activity. Montanism: reflections of its growing influence upon him—Closing days.

TERTULLIAN, in whom ‘the character and future of the Latin Church were already announced,’ 1 was a native of Carthage. We are told by Jerome 2 that he was the son of a Pro-Consular centurion, that he was of a sharp and vehement temper, that the period of his prominence fell in the reigns of Severus and Caracalla, and that he wrote numerous works. Cyprian, so Jerome had heard, held him in high esteem. He became a presbyter, whether at Rome or at Carthage it is impossible to say, and remained one until past middle life. Then he was driven by the envy and contumelious treatment of the Roman clergy to embrace the opinions of Montanus. He composed several treatises specifically against the Roman Church, and he was reported to have lived to an advanced age.

That is all that we know of the life of Tertullian from the writings of early times, but it is possible to fill in this outline with some confidence from our knowledge of Tertullian’s writings and from the history of the times. It has been held that Jerome deduced the statement that Tertullian’s father was a centurion of Pro-Consular Africa from the statement (in Apologeticus, c. 9) that ‘children were openly sacrificed in Africa to Saturn as lately as the Pro-Consularship of Tiberius, who exposed to public gaze the priests suspended on the sacred trees overshadowing their temple, so many crosses on which  |p25 the punishment which justice craved overtook their crimes, as soldiers of our country still can testify who did that work for that very Pro-Consul.’ According to Rigault, the reading of one MS. is’ the soldiers of our father.’ Whether that was the source of Jerome’s opinion or not, the information has the support of other passages in Tertullian’s writings. His fondness for military metaphors is most marked, e.g. ‘But we were called to the warfare of the living God in our very response to the sacramental words. Well, no soldier comes out to the campaign laden with luxuries, nor does he go to action from his comfortable chamber, but from the light and narrow tent, where every kind of hardness and roughness and disagreeableness must be put up with’ (Ad Martyras, c. 3). ‘When you go over to the enemy’s camp, you throw down your arms, desert the standards and the oath of allegiance to your chief ‘ (De Spect., c. 24). ‘ Well, it is quite true that it is our desire to suffer, but it is to suffer in the way that the soldier longs for war’ (Apol., c. 50). ‘ It is our battle.’ ‘This victory of ours.’ ‘ It is our victory robe, it is for us a sort of triumphal car’ (Apol., c. 50). ‘What soldier, after his discharge, makes satisfaction for his former brands? ‘ (De Poenit., c. 6). ‘Serving as a soldier under this oath, I am challenged by the enemy. If I surrender to them, I am as they are. In maintaining this oath, I fight furiously in battle, am wounded, hewn in pieces, slain. Who wished this fatal issue to his soldier but he who sealed him by such an oath?’ (Scorpiace, c. 4).

These metaphors, with which Tertullian’s writings abound, may well be explained as reminiscences of his early days, when he moved among the military surroundings of a centurion’s home.

That home was not a Christian home. There is no reflection in Tertullian’s writings of the influence of a father or mother of Christian character. On the other hand, there are evidences that he held it to be all but impossible for a Christian to hold office in the service of a Roman dignitary (De Idol., c. 17). Military service he held to be absolutely forbidden to Christians. ‘There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. . . . The Lord, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier’ (De Idol., c. 19). |p26

It was probably a typical home of a Roman Centurion in the service of a provincial Pro-Consul, and derived something of tone from its association with an important official.3 It boasted a nurse, who related to the child such fables as that of the Tower of Lamia and the horns of the sun (A dv. Valent., c. 3). 4 She told him of apples that grew in the sea, and fishes that grew on trees (Adv. Valent., c. 20). 5

In that home the only religion was the paganism of Rome. There the tutelary deities reigned, Consevius and Fluviona, Vitumnus and Sentinus, Diespiter and Candelifera, Postverta and Prosa, each with its appropriate part to play in the process of birth. Farinus and Locutius presided over the function of infant speech. Cunina protected the child’s slumber. Potina and Edula supervised the child’s eating and drinking, Statina taught it to stand, and Adeona and Abeona led its footsteps to and fro (Ad Nationes, II. 11).

All the paganism against which Tertullian contended in his defence of Christianity was found in the surroundings of his own boyhood. The public shows and games, the circus, the theatre, and the amphitheatre, the feasts in honour of the gods and those in honour of men, the public holidays, the decorating of houses and public buildings, formed the ordinary surroundings of the boy’s life.

Then there were the school days, in which the religion of Rome was not neglected. The schoolmaster taught the boys about the gods of the nations, ‘their names, genealogies, honourable distinctions, all and singular.’ He exhorted them to keep all the solemnities and festivals. The pupils paid for their instruction, and it was usual for the schoolmaster to Consecrate the first payment to Minerva.6 At the feasts the school was wreathed with flowers (Idololatria, c. 10).

Here Tertullian made the acquaintance of literature. Homer, of course, was the Bible of those days, and received due attention.7 Menander, Cato, Ennius, Vergil, Lucretius, if |p27 we are to judge from his writings, supplied the subject-matter of his studies. Poetry seems to have fallen on evil days at this time. Tertullian himself tells us (De Praes. Haer., 39) of the poetasters, commonly called Homerocentones and Vergiliocentones, who flourished in his time. They pilfered from Homer and Vergil, and made ‘patchwork poetry’ by piecing together lines and phrases in miscellaneous confusion.8 Subject matter and verse were alike borrowed, and spoiled in the borrowing. It is not surprising that such a perversion of the poetic art did not appeal to Tertullian. He says that Ennius claimed that he had dreamt that Homer remembered that he had once been a peacock. But, says Tertullian, ‘I cannot for my part, believe poets, even when they are wide awake’ (De Anima, C. 33).

The foundation of his education having been laid in the study of literature, he then entered the rhetorical school, where the theory and art of oratory and some amount of philosophy were acquired. In after years he ridiculed one of his teachers in this rhetorical school. ‘ In the schools of Carthage there was once a certain Latin rhetorician, an excessively cool fellow, whose name was Phosphorus. He was personating a man of valour, and wound up with saying, “I come to you, excellent citizens, from battle, with victory for myself, with happiness for you, full of honour, covered with glory, the favourite of fortune, the greatest of men, decked with triumph.” And forthwith the scholars began to shout for the school of Phosphorus, feu~ (ah)’ (Adv. Valent., c. 8). Here is an indication of the state to which the art of rhetoric had fallen. It had become little more than the empty repetition of sentences in the form of declamation.9 The old dialectic of the time of Cicero had gone, and declamation had been imported from Greece to take its place: Tertullian acquired his rhetoric in such a school. The theory was acquired in the class-room, and visits were then paid to the forum in order to acquire the atmosphere, and to observe the practical application of what had been taught in theory. |p28

Though Tertullian nowhere expressly says that he studied law, as he tells us that he studied medicine and philosophy10 (cf. De Carne Christi, c. 20; De Anima, C. 25; Adv. Marc., II. 16), it is evident that he must have devoted to it the serious study of one who meant to make it his life’s work. His fondness for legal metaphors is most marked, even more so than his predilection for military metaphors. Such terms as satisfacere, offendere, promereri, acceptare, and rependere, play an important part in his theology. God is portrayed at length as a Judge, and the relationship of men to Him is pre-eminently that of criminals to a judge. Law, too, is an important Concept in his view of things, while, as we shall see, legal ideas have affected his exposition of such terms as substantia, persona, and status, and have influenced his ethical teaching.

His readiness to deal with the defence of the Christians from the point of view of criminal procedure and his frequent reference to points of law may be easily explained on the assumption that he had received a legal training. But perhaps the most convincing evidence of his legal training is to be found in his obvious mastery of every artifice of the advocate. His clever reasoning, his powerful declamation, his proneness to special pleading, his ability to pull an opponent’s theses to pieces and to reduce him ad absurdum, his argumentationes ad hominem, all reveal the erstwhile advocate.

 The influence of Tertullian’s legal training upon his theology is particularly noticeable in his treatise De Poenitentia. The nature of the subject here dealt with is such as to illustrate admirably the legal cast of his thought. But the same legal cast may be illustrated freely from his other writings also.

God is the Judge administering justice. ‘Well, since God as Judge presides over the exacting and maintaining of justice, which to Him is most dear, and since it is with an eye to justice that He appoints all the sum of His discipline, is there room for doubting that, just as in all our acts universally, so also in the case of repentance, justice must be rendered to God?’ (De Poenit., c. 2). |p29

God is, however, not only the Judge who administers the law; He is the Giver of the law. It is because He has commanded that man must obey. ‘What God enjoins is good and best. I hold it audacity to dispute about the “good” of a divine precept, for, indeed, it is not the fact that it is good that binds us to obey, but the fact that God enjoins it’ (De Poenit., c. 4). At the same time, what God enjoins is rational. ‘Reason, in fact, is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God, the Maker of all, has not provided, disposed, and ordained, by reason; nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason’ (De Poenit., c. 1).

The fundamental relation of man to God is that of fear (timor). ‘For, if the ground on which you had repented of having sinned was that you had begun to fear the Lord, why have you preferred to rescind what you did for fear’s sake, except because you had ceased to fear? ’ (De Poenit., c. 5).

‘A sinner is bound to bemoan himself before receiving pardon, because the time of repentance is coincident with that of peril and fear’ (De Poenit., c. 6). ‘As soon as you know the Lord you should fear Him’ (ibid.). ‘For the first baptism of a learner is this, a perfect fear’ (ibid.). ‘Thus he fulfilled not repentance either, because he lacked the instrumental agent of repentance, that is fear’ (ibid.).

To sin is to offend (offendere) God. ‘Let him therefore who would not have God offended’ (De Poenit., c. 5) ‘Whereby He who is to furnish (the gift) is ever offended’ (De Poenit., c. 7). ‘It is intolerable, forsooth, to make satisfaction to the offended Lord’ (De Poenit., c. Io). ‘I am drooping, and wasting, and torturing myself, that I may reconcile God to myself, whom by sinning I have offended’ (De Poenit., c. 11; cf. De Patientia, c. 5).

On the other hand, to do good is to satisfy (satisfacere) God. ‘Thus he who through repentance for sins had begun to make satisfaction to the Lord, will, through another repentance of his repentance, make satisfaction to the devil’ (De Poenit., C. 5). ‘What soldier, after his discharge, makes satisfaction for his former brands?’ (De Poenit., c. 6). ‘You have One whom you may satisfy’ (De Poenit., c. 7).

The means whereby God is satisfied is the merit of men. ‘For God, never giving His sanction to the reprobation of  |p30 good (deeds), inasmuch as they are His own . . . is in like manner the acceptor of them, and if the acceptor, likewise the rewarder’ (De Poenit., c. 2). ‘A good deed has God as its debtor, just as an evil has too’ (De Poenit., c. 2). ‘All being competitors for salvation in earning the favour of God’ (De Poenit., c. 6). ‘Or how will there be many mansions in our Father’s house, if not to accord with a diversity of deserts ? (Scorp., c. 6). ‘No one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in the” lower world “some compensatory discipline (De Anima, c. 58). ‘For, strictly speaking, there cannot any longer be aught against the martyrs, by whom in the baptism life itself is laid down ‘ (Scorp., c. 6).

Legal ideas have also affected Tertullian’s exposition of such terms as substantia, persona, and status. The use of these terms in the language of law furnished a simple and clear distinction which Tertullian carried over into his theology. Substantia was, in Roman law, a term of clear definition. It signified the property or possessions of one who was qualified to hold them The one who was recognized by Roman law as qualified to hold such possessions was a persona. The position, or condition, or standing, of such a persona as possessing such substantia was his status. It is easy to understand how such concepts, applied to theological terms, enabled Tertullian to state his views of the relationship of the three Persons in the Trinity, and of the two natures in Christ, with clearness and simplicity.

If substantia stood for property or possessions, and persona for one who had the right of property, and status for the condition of such a persona, then the idea of one substantia in which three personae have equal rights is plain. It is likewise clear that, if divinity is one substantia, and humanity another substantia, that one persona, Jesus Christ, may possess equal rights in both.11

The following passages will illustrate this use of the terms by Tertullian, but it must be noted that he does not, as a rule, speak of two personae or three personae but of’ two’ or’ three’ simply (A dv. Valent., c. 4); ‘personal substances’ (personae substantiales) (A dv. Prax., c. 7). ‘The Son likewise acknowledges the Father, speaking in His own substance’ (‘Fiius ex sua persona profitetur patrem’). ‘But you will not allow Him |p31 to be really a substantive being by having a substance of His own, in such a way that He may be regarded as an objective thing and a person’ (‘Non vis eum substantivum habere in re per substantia proprietatem ut res et persona quaedam videri possit ‘). ‘Whatever, therefore, was the substance of the Word, that I designate a Person’ (‘Quaecumque ergo substantia sermonis fuit, illam dico personam’). ‘In the same manner, the other passages also establish each one of several persons in His special character, addressed as they are in some cases to the Father, or to the Son, respecting the Son, in other cases to the Son, or to the Father concerning the Father, and again, in other instances, to the Spirit’ (‘Sic et cetera quae nunc ad Patrem de Filio, vel ad Filium, nunc ad Filium de Patre, vel ad Patrem, nunc ad Spiritum pronuntiantur; unamquamque personam in sua proprietate constituunt’) (Adv. Prax., c. 11).

‘In what sense, however, you ought to understand Him to be another. I have already explained, on the ground of personality, not of substance, in the way of distinction, not of difference’ (‘Alium autem quomodo accipere debeas, jam professus sum; personae, non substantiae nomine; ad distinctionem, non ad divisionem’) (Adv. Prax., c. 12).

As bearing upon the two natures in Christ, the following passages may be noted. ‘Let us examine our Lord’s bodily substance (corporalem substantiam Domini), for about His spiritual (spiritali, i.e. divine) nature all are agreed’ (De Carne Christi, c. 1). ‘Christ possesses the two substances both of the flesh and of the spirit’ (‘Utramque substantiam Christi, et carnis et spiritus’) (De Carne Christi, c. 18). ‘The condition of the two substances which He Himself bears’ (‘Conditio duarum, substantiarum’) (ibid.). ‘We see plainly the two-fold state, which is not confounded, but conjoined in one person— Jesus, God and Man’ (‘Videmus duplicem statum non confusum sed conjunctum in una persona’) (Adv. Prax. C. 27).

The influence of legal conceptions may also be traced in Tertullian’s endeavour to set forth the relation of the person in the Trinity under the figure of a monarchy. The idea was suggested by the word which was already current, it is true, but the application of the idea (which is perhaps strictly rather political than juristic) to the question of the Trinity of Persons in the divine unity was the work of Tertullian.

To the legal training of Tertullian is to be attributed also the |p32 distinction which he drew between consilia and praecepta dominica (counsels and precepts of the Lord), between goodness that is due, and goodness that is gratuitous (debita et indebita bonitas), and between the two wills of God, the hidden and the manifested. These all have their root in the idea of a legal relation between God and man. This makes it possible for Tertullian to distinguish between what God may in justice demand of me as His right, and what He may counsel as going beyond the strict limits of justice, and so earning His special favour. ‘Therefore in this case especially, if we do not obey, we a risk, because one may with more impunity neglect an advice than an order, in that the former springs from counsel and is proposed to the will; the other descends from authority and is bound to necessity’ (Ad Uxorem, II. 1).

It is from the legal analogy that he can deduce that there is a goodness to be rendered as a debt owed in return for goodness received, and also a goodness which goes beyond what can be demanded. ‘That is rather a primary and perfect goodness which is shed voluntarily and freely upon strangers without any obligation of friendship. . . . The requirement of the undue is an augmentation of the due benevolence’ (Adv. Marcion, I. 23).

Finally, when the distinction between consilia and praecepta is pressed back to the mind of God, it involves the distinction of two wills in Him—the higher hidden will and the lower manifested one. ‘Therefore, since the only thing which is our power is volition—and it is herein that our mind toward God is put to proof, whether we will the things that coincide with His will—deeply and anxiously must the will of God be pondered again and again, I say, (to see) what even in secret He may will. For what things are manifest we all know’ (De Exhort. Castitatis, c. 2).

Probably it was for the purpose of studying law that Tertullian first went to Rome, but there is no direct confirmation of a visit to Rome for this purpose in his writings. That he did visit Rome from time to time, and knew it fairly well, is evident from various references in his works.12 The first intimation which we have of such a visit is found in Apologeticus (c. 25). When dealing with the various Roman gods, |p33 he there refers to what is evidently a recent incident, which does not reflect any credit upon Cybele. ‘Why, too, even in these days, the Mater Magna has given a notable proof of her greatness, which she has conferred as a boon upon the city, when after the loss to the state of Marcus Aurelius at Sirmium, on the sixteenth before the Kalends of April, that most sacred high priest of hers was offering, a week later, impure libations of blood drawn from his own arms, and issuing his commands that the ordinary prayers should be made for the safety of the Emperor already dead.’ The whole context suggests that this is being written in Rome, and the passage itself bears evidence of being penned shortly after the event to which it refers. ‘In these days’ and ‘the sixteenth before the Kalends of April’ certainly indicate the nearness of the date of writing to that of the death of Marcus Aurelius. The death of Marcus occurred on the 17th of March, A.D. 180. Therefore, Tertullian was probably at Rome at the time or soon after.

Another indication of his being in Rome is found in his narration of an interesting problem which Fuscianus, the Prefect of Rome, had had to decide ‘ recently.’

‘It was from such a source, too, that so flagrant a tragedy recently burst upon the public as that which the Prefect Fuscianus had judicially to decide.’ A boy of noble birth had been lost or kidnapped. Arriving in Asia, he was brought up until of full age and then taken back to Rome and exposed for sale. His own father bought him, and treated him in the degrading fashion in which slave-boys were treated. Eventually, however, his identity was discovered, and the parents, finding that the father had abused his own son, in their despair hanged themselves, while the property was given to the boy.

Here, again, the context favours the supposition that Tertullian had heard this story in Rome itself, and had used it in his argument with the opponents of Christianity.

Another trace of the presence of Tertullian in Rome is found in the treatise De Pudicitia. Combating the custom that had arisen of calling confessors who had suffered in any degree for their faith ‘martyrs,’ he speaks of these martyrs in terms which certainly appear to have a personal reference to Callistus.13 The latter, it is said, had in early life been a slave  |p34 at Rome in the service of Carpophorus, had been involved in some shady transactions of a financial character, and had deliberately attempted to obtain the honour of martyrdom by disturbing a synagogue service. For this he was condemned to the mines in Sardinia, but obtained his liberty when, by the intercession of Marcia, the Christians there were set free. Though Tertullian does not expressly mention these things, it is probable that they were in his mind when he penned De Pudicitia, and that he had been in Rome when these doings of Callistus were in progress.

The reference which Tertullian makes to Praxeas and his work in Rome (Adv. Prax., c. 1) also leaves the impression that he was there when that heretic performed his ‘two services for the devil at Rome.’ Other echoes of events at Rome, which took place when in all probability Tertullian was there, are found in ‘between the laurel trees’14 (in reference to the death of Commodus), ‘bolder than any Tigerii and Parthians (in reference to the death of Pertinax). 15 When he speaks of the deification of Roman Emperors (De Spect., c. 30) he probably has in mind the ceremony at which Pertinax was raised to the rank of the gods, and which he himself witnessed. He definitely refers to one visit to Rome, when he saw ‘the nobility of gems blushing in the presence of our matrons at the contemptuous usage of the Parthians and Medes’ (De Cultu Feminarum, 1. 7), while he speaks of the temple of Pompey, and of the shows at Rome and their pomp, as one who was familiar with them.

We may note here briefly the fact that Tertullian knew the pagan life of his time from experience. He asserts the fact in De Spect., c. 19: ‘As to Christians, I will not insult them by adding another word as to the aversion with which they should regard this sort of exhibition, though no one is more able than myself to set forth fully the whole subject, unless it is one who is still in the habit of going to the shows.’ His reference to adultery (‘I, for myself, am quite sure that it is in no other flesh than my own that I have committed adultery’),16 however, is not to be taken too seriously. It may be simply a generalization in which he includes himself in order not to give offence to his readers, or it may be that in accordance with his strict view of morality he here identifies  |p35 the impure impulse with the overt act. But the whole picture which he draws of pagan life is the picture of one who had known it intimately. He knew the power of pleasure to bias men’s judgement as to what was lawful, and knew the arguments which naturally commended indulgence to those who took part in them. The technical parlance of the shows is made to suit the purpose of his argument. Speaking of the application of the first Psalm to the question of attendance at the shows, he says, ‘They call the spaces between the seats going round the amphitheatres and the passages which separate the people running down, ways.17 The place in the curve where matrons sit is called a chair.18 Therefore, on the contrary, it holds unblessed is he who has entered any council19 of wicked men, and has sat in any chair of scorners’ (De Spect., c. 3). After dealing in academic fashion with the origin and history of the shows, the circus, and the theatre, Tertullian speaks in familiar fashion of their effect upon those who visit them. ‘The show always leads to spiritual agitation’ (De Spect., c. 14). As for the circus, ‘See the people coming to it already under strong emotion, already passion blind, already agitated about their bets. The praetor is too slow for them; their eyes are always rolling, as though along with the lots in his urn, then they hang all eager on the signal; there is the united shout of a common madness. Observe how “out of themselves” they are by their foolish speeches. “He has thrown it!” they exclaim, and they announce each one to his neighbour what all have seen.’ The theatre is in like manner vividly portrayed. The buffoon, the pantomime, and the harlot, the last especially, are drawn from life. The descriptions of the racecourse and the amphitheatre also have vivid and lifelike touches, while the conclusion of the topic—’ I would rather withal be incomplete than set memory a-working’—clinches the argument that the author has been drawing upon his own recollections.

An interesting though not important point is raised by the question whether Tertullian was ever initiated into the mysteries of Mithraism. It is possible that he was, for Mithras worship was well known in Rome at this time. It had been introduced from the East by Pompey, and attained the height of its popularity under Commodus. There were elements in  |p36 Mithraism which would naturally appeal to the young Tertullian, dissatisfied as he was with the emptiness of the paganism of his day.

The notices which he makes of this religion in his writings are neither numerous nor lengthy, and they may here be quoted with advantage. ‘The lions of Mithras are philosophical sacraments of arid and scorched nature’ (Adv. Marc., I. 13), ‘If my memory still serves me, Mithras there (in the kingdom of Satan) sets his mark on the forehead of his soldiers, celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown’ (De Praes. Haer., c. 40). ‘Blush, ye fellow servants of his, henceforth not to be condemned even by him, but by some soldier of Mithras, who at his initiation in the gloomy cavern in the camp, it may well be said, of darkness, when at the sword’s point a crown is presented to him, as though in mimicry of martyrdom, and thereupon put upon his head, is admonished to resist, and cast it off, and if you like transfer it to his shoulder saying that Mithras is his crown’ (De Corona Militis, c. 15). These passages read like the words of one who is not repeating rumours, but calling to remembrance things that he has seen ; and when we remember that the mysteries of Mithras were jealously guarded secrets, it need cause us no surprise that, if Tertullian had known something of them from his own experience, he yet said very little about these mysteries.

Of Tertullian’s conversion neither he nor Jerome has spoken, so that we can only conjecture from what we know of his early life and his character and from stray hints in his writings. It was evidently a change over from paganism, since we have seen that his early life was not spent in Christian surroundings. He speaks, indeed, of ‘the sins of our early blindness,’ and acknowledges that ‘these things (the truths of the Christian religion) were once with us, too, a theme of ridicule.’ His conversion led to a changed attitude towards the pagan life of Rome, and doubtless to a moral change in his own life. How was such a change effected? It was not by a careful comparison of the various philosophical systems, leading to the rejection of them one by one, and to the acceptance of Christianity as the best philosophy of life, after the manner of Justin Martyr. To Tertullian, Christianity was |p37 not a philosophy; it was a revelation. It was simply an amplification of the knowledge of God which had been given to the natural, untutored human soul—an amplification given by Christ. It was not an achievement of the human intellect; it was a gift of God received by faith. It was along these lines that Tertullian’s conversion came. There was no thought of the sacrificial death of Christ, no mystical union with Him, and no transference of His merit. It was rather a transaction between God and himself, in which he received the fuller revelation of God given to the Christian Church, and, once for all, determined to order his life in accordance with the teaching of that Church. But that is not to say that there was not a real spiritual experience involved. It may have been that the young man, who could find no satisfaction in the superficialities of Roman religion, turned to Mithras, and there found something which appealed to his heart, but yet failed to give abiding satisfaction. Later he turned to the Christian religion, and found the fullness of revelation and peace of mind for which he yearned. Whether it came by way of vision, as might be suggested by his statement ‘Most men come to God by visions,’20 or in less dramatic fashion, it had on his part a great fear, and on God’s part a perfect righteousness, tempered with mercy to the soul that came to Him.

Tertullian had not read the Scriptures before his conversion, but he must have given himself to an earnest study of the sacred writings some time between that event and the appearance of his earliest treatises. We are able, however, to trace the results only; the process is hidden. Soon we find him appearing as a Christian writer. His first effort was the little tract De Baptismo. One point of importance for the filling in of his life-story is found here. We know from his later writings that he was married, since he addressed two of them to his wife. The probability is that he was already married when he wrote De Baptismo, since be there says that the unmarried ought not to be baptized, because of the danger of their lapsing into sin, with the added temptations of married life. We are able to form some idea of his social standing. He was the son of a centurion in the service of a provincial Pro-Consul, but in later times he had attained to the rank of knight, and  |p38 it is possible that this enhancement of his social position is be connected with his marriage.

There are many indications that he was well-to-do. Such phrases as ‘ our very domestics,’ 21 ‘ our slaves,’ 22 ‘ and the fact that he nowhere favours the liberation of slaves, but is against the equalizing of social conditions,’ 23 are indication of the class to which he belonged. He speaks of ‘store-room and pantry’24 and of kindling perfume in his house when he desires it, 25 with the air of refinement, while he does not trouble to hide his contempt for the vulgar poor. He thought it worth while making a will,’ 26 and complained of the burden of taxation just when the propertied classes were affected most severely. 27 He never sides with those who regard riches as in themselves wrong from the Christian point of view, though he does admit that riches in themselves are not important. Liberality was evidently not a strong point with him. The expense of banquets caused him to sigh, 28 and he complained that the hand cannot always be open. 29 The poor Christians, he says, are God’s loved ones30 — but he was not among them, and when he says that in the house of God few are rich31 he leaves the impression that he belonged to the minority.

At all events, Tertullian seems to have been free from the necessity of working for a living, and thus able to devote himself to the work of combating heresy and establishing the claims of the Christian religion. To this work he gave the best years of his life.

His easy circumstances enabled Tertullian to undertake a journey to the East. Travelling in those days was no uncommon thing, and the Christians certainly were infected with the ‘wanderlust.’ He visited the chief cities of Greece, 32 but whether his stay was long or short we cannot say. It was sufficient to give him some knowledge of Grecian life, both Christian and pagan, and to make himself acquainted with  |p39 the movement which took its origin from the Phrygian Montanus. That movement had a great attraction for him, and gradually won his complete allegiance. That Tertullian’s journey to the East was made at an early stage in his career as a writer is evident from the fact that he mentions the synods which were held in Greece (they were held from A.D. 192—194), and from the reflections of his experience which are found in his writings from this time onwards.

He wrote on various aspects of the Christian life—on baptism, prayer, penitence, modesty, patience.33 He fought with his pen the case of the Christians against the heathen populace and against the authorities of the Roman Empire. He contended with heretics, and with the philosophies that underlay their teaching, and in so doing expounded the dogmatic teaching implied in the Christian Rule of Faith. Finally, he embraced the teaching of Montanus, and turned his apologetic ability into a contest with the Roman Church on account of its moral laxity.

This last phase of Tertullian’s activity demands some notice. By this time he was well known far beyond the circle of the Christian community at Carthage. He greatly desired to see the Catholic Church following the example of the Phrygian community. That community had fallen under the influence of the teaching of Montanus, and had learnt to give to the activity of the Spirit the chief place in its worship, while the communications of the Spirit were written down, and, being regarded as authoritative revelations, were given a place at least equal to that occupied by the Scriptures. Tertullian had a great deal of secret sympathy with this teaching, and its influence begins to peep through in his treatise Adversus Valentinianos.

It is important to notice that he still adheres to the Catholic Church as the authentic Church. He quotes as his authorities ‘Justin, philosopher and martyr, Miltiades, the sophist of the churches, and Irenaeus, that very exact inquirer into all doctrines.’ But he also puts side by side with them the Montanist Proculus, ‘our own Proculus, the model of chaste old age and Christian eloquence’ (Adv. Valent., c. 5).

Through the three earliest books against Marcion, and De Pallio, and De Anima, the same quiet introduction of the |p40 teaching of the ‘New Prophecy’ is continued. At the close of Adv. Marc., I., Tertullian discusses the question of marriage and refutes the Marcionite doctrine, not from the standpoint of orthodox Church teaching, but from the point of view which he has acquired from Montanism. He shows that the effect of Marcion’s doctrine is to proscribe marriage entirely and to that he opposes the doctrine of the Paraclete on the subject. ‘For,’ he says, ‘we do not reject marriage, but refrain from it. Nor do we prescribe sanctity as the rule, but only recommend it, observing it as a good, yea even the better state, if every man uses it carefully, according to his ability; but at the same time vindicating marriage whenever hostile attacks are made against it as a polluted thing, to the disparagement of the Creator.’ The Christian rule, which prescribes the limitation in the matter of marriage to one is ‘maintained by the authority of the Paraclete’ (Adv. Marc., I. 29).

Similarly, towards the end of Adv. Marc., III., an incidental reference to the ‘New Prophecy’ shows in what direction Tertullian is moving. Speaking of the divinely built city of Jerusalem let down from heaven, he says, ‘This both Ezekiel had knowledge of, and the Apostle John beheld. And the word of the New Prophecy, which is a part of our belief, attests how it foretold that there would be for a sign a picture of this very city exhibited to view previous to its manifestation. This prophecy, indeed, has been very lately fulfilled in an expedition to the East’ (Adv. Marc., III. 24).

In De Pallio he seeks to justify his adoption of the ascetic’s mantle instead of the gown. He closes his justification for such a step by saying of the mantle, ‘I confer on it likewise a fellowship with a divine sect and discipline’ (De Pallio, c.6).

In De Anima Tertullian brings in, to prove his doctrine of the corporeity of the soul, the evidence of a Montanist sister, who was in the habit of receiving visions. He professes his belief in spiritual charismata. ‘We acknowledge spiritual charismata or gifts.’ The visions are, he claims, well tested,  and their content is offered by him as indubitable proof of the corporeity of the soul.

At the close of De Anima he says, regarding his belief that the soul undergoes some compensatory discipline in the ‘lower world’34 without prejudice to the final resurrection, ‘This  |p41 point the Paraclete has also pressed home on our attention in most frequent monitions, whenever any of us has admitted the force of His words from a knowledge of His promised spiritual disclosures.’

In these passages Tertullian speaks as one who has definitely accepted the doctrine of the ‘New Prophecy,’ it is true, but who nevertheless has no quarrel with the Catholic Church on that account. The new doctrine has by no means superseded the general Church doctrine. It has scarcely even coloured it. It is more in the nature of an addendum to the faith than a change in it, and the spirit which animates Tertullian is that of one who finds in the Church a brotherhood which includes the Romans and the Phrygians.

With the next series of writings, however, we meet a different spirit. The times have changed externally, and questions have arisen in which the Montanist fervour of Tertullian leads him to adopt an attitude towards these questions which is the reverse of the attitude of a large number, not only of the rank and file, but of the officers of the Catholic Church. Persecution is impending, and the question whether Christians ought to hide their convictions, or publicly adhere to them and suffer the consequences, becomes acute. The majority were for protecting their lives at any cost of principle, and the officers of the Church were amongst the foremost in precaution and flight. Tertullian was for maintaining his principles, and suffering, if need be, for the faith, though he does not counsel rash and foolish courting of martyrdom. It is fidelity for which he stands. The coward earns his contempt. ‘Their pastors are lions in peace, deer in the flight,’ and the members are ‘making ready their luggage, are equipped for fleeing from city to city’ (De Corona Militis, c. 1). ‘But when persons in authority themselves—I mean the very deacons and presbyters and bishops—take to flight, how will a layman be able to see with what view it was said, “Flee from city to city”? (De Fuga, c. 11).

The source of the difference in attitude in Tertullian’s mind is plain. ‘It is plain that as they have rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit they are also proposing refusal of martyrdom’ (De Corona Militis, c. 1). ‘ If any one recognizes the Spirit also, he will hear Him branding the runaways’ (De Fuga, c. 11). ‘It is not asked who is ready to follow the broad way, |p42 but who the narrow. And therefore the Comforter is requisite who guides into all truth and animates to all endurance. And they who have received Him will neither stoop to flee from persecution nor to buy it off; for they have the Lord Himself, One who will stand by us to aid us in suffering as well as to be our mouth when we are put to the question’ (De Fuga, c. 14).

Here the influence of Montanism upon Tertullian is evident and the difference with the Catholic Church is plainly leading to a divergence in doctrine upon some questions which have mainly to do with practical life.

A further stage is reached in the latest of Tertullian’s writings, De Virginibus Velandis, Adversus Marcion, book V., Adversus Praxean, De Exhortatione Castitatis, De Monogamia De Jejunio, and De Pudicitia. Here the references to Montanism are so abundant that the conclusion lies near that  Tertullian believes the doctrine of the Paraclete to be, no merely a desirable addendum to the Christian faith, but the maturity of the Christian revelation. Hence it assumes a new importance, for it brings in a distinction between the spiritales, who, as the followers of the Paraclete, are superior, and the psychici, or carnal Christians, who are inferior.

The effect of this fully developed Montanism upon Tertullian’s theology may now be briefly described. The most important question from a theological point of view is to determine how far his Montanism has affected his doctrine of God. In Adversus Praxean we have a definite avowal that our author is a disciple of the Paraclete, and is, as such, opposing the heresy of Praxeas. ‘We, however, as we always have done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men, indeed, into all the truth) believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation or oi)konomi/a.’ Then Tertullian repeats the Rule of Faith of the Catholic Church as he has given it before, and in essentials it is the same. The only noteworthy feature is that, instead of ‘the Holy Ghost’ simply, he now writes ‘the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the Sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’

In his exposition of the relationship of the three Persons in the Godhead Tertullian argues the question without showing any Montanistic bias, and, even while dealing (briefly, it is  |p43 true) with the Holy Spirit, there is nothing to indicate that be identified the latter with Montanus. He speaks of him as the Paraclete, but here, as elsewhere, Tertullian seems not to have taken from Montanism its grotesque features, but simply to have accepted the teaching that the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit, is the third Person of the Godhead, sent from the Father at the prayer of the Son, to continue and complete the work of the Son in revelation. Together with this, however, Tertullian has accepted the doctrine of ecstasy, according to which those who believe in the Holy Spirit may in a state of trance receive divine revelations.

In relation to other questions, however, such as chastity, marriage, divorce, fasting, Tertullian’s views are very much coloured by his Montanistic predilections. He can no longer speak in glowing terms, as in Ad Uxorem, of the beautiful fellowship of married believers. Marriage is not unlawful, but it is not ideal. It is better to be continent throughout life.35 Divorce is prohibited according to the teaching of Christ. 36 Frequent fasting is enjoined. The objection to the Paraclete and his prophets arises, not from doctrinal considerations, but from the fact that they enjoin fasting. 37

Jerome says that Tertullian is reported to have lived to a very advanced age. Like Origen, he missed the glory of martyrdom for the faith, though, like him, he had exhorted others to stand fast in the faith, and to seal their testimony with their blood. 38


1. p.24 n. 1 Harnack.

2. p.24 n. 2 Catalogus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum.

3. p.26 n.1 Cf. Noeldechen, Tertullian dargestellt, p. 14.

4. p.26 n.2 ‘infantia inter somni difficuitates a nutricula audisse lamiae turres et pectines solis.’

5. p.26 n.3 ‘puerilium dicibulorum in man poma nasci et in arbore pisces.’

6. p.26 n.4 Cf. Augustine Confessions, book i.: ‘Appointing a salary beside the scholars’ payments.’

7. p.26 n. 5 'I was forced to learn the wanderings of one Aeneas . . . and to weep for dead Dido’ (Ibid.). ‘The wooden horse lived with armed men.’ ‘For Homer also curiously wove the like fictions and is most sweetly vain’ (Ibid.).

8. p.27 n.1 Irenaeus (I. 9). gives illustrations of this curious art: ‘Thus saying, there set forth from his house deeply groaning’ (Od. K. 76). ‘The hero Hercules conversant with mighty deeds’ (Od. p. 26). ‘Eurystheus, the son of Athenelus, descended from Perseus.’ ‘That he might bring from Erebus the dog of gloomy Pluto’ (II. O. 368) (Il. T. 123). ‘Mid he advanced like a mountain-bred lion confident of strength (Od. J. 130). ‘ Rapidly through the city, while all his friends followed’ (II. w. 327).

9. p.27 n.2 See Augustine Confessions, book i., for a description of this oratory.

10. p.28 n.1 De Anima, c. 2 : ‘Now I am not unaware what a vast mass of literature the philosophers have accumulated concerning the subject before us, in their commentaries thereon—what various schools of principles there are, what conflicts of opinion, what prolific sources of questions, what perplexing methods of solution. Moreover, I have looked into medical science also, the sister (as they say) of philosophy.’

11. p.30 n.1 It is misleading, however, to over-emphasize the legal element in Tertullian’s conception of substantia as Harnack seems to do. See chapter vi. for a full statement of Tertullian’s view.

12. p.32 n.1 For Tertullian’s acquaintance with Rome cf. Hesselberg, Tertullian’s Lehre, pp. 25 ff., Noeldechen, Tertullian dargestellt, pp. 25 ff.

13. p.33 n.1 The story of Callistus is told in Hippolytus, Philosophumena, book IX., c. 7.

14. p.34 n.1 Apologeticus, c. 35.

15. p.34 n.2 Ibid.

16. p.34 n.3 De Resurr. Carnis, c. 59.

17. p.35 n.1 Vias.

18. p.35 n. 2 Cathedra.

19. p.35 n.3 Consilium.

20. p.37 n.1 De Anima, c. 47 : ‘Et major pene vis hominum ex visionibus Deum discunt’ (Migne); ‘Per visa et insomnia ad fidem christianam vocantur’ (Rigault).

21. p.38 n.1 Apologeticus, 7.

22. p.38 n.2 De Cultu Feminarum, II., 5, 10; Ad Nationes, I., 7; De Resurr. Carnis, 16.

23. p.38 n.3 De Patientia, c. 15 (cf. cc. 7, 10) ; De Idololatria, c. 18.

24. p.38 n.4 Ad Uxorem, II. 4.

25. p.38 n.5 De Corona Militis, 10.

26. p.38 n.6 Ad Uxorem, I. 14.

27. p.38 n.7 De Fuga in Persecutione, c. 52.

28. p.38 n.8 Apologeticus, 6.

29. p.38 n.9 Adv. Marcionem, IV. 16.

30. p.38 n.10 De Poenit., c. 9.

31. p.38 n.11 Ad Uxorem, II. 8; De Cultu Feminarum, II. 13.

32. p.38 n.12 De Exhort. Cast., c. 13.

33. p.39 n.1 See Appendix I.

34. p.40 n.1 ‘in infernis’ (De Anima, c. 48).

35. p.43 n.1 De Monogamia, passim.           

36. p.43 n.2 Ibid., c. 9.       

37. p.43 n.3 De Jejunio, c. 1.

38. p.43 n.4 Tertullian, Ad Martyras; Origen, Exhortation to Martyrdom.


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