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The Existence of God—The argument from Creation and Providence. The argument from the ‘soul by nature Christian’ —The argument from Scripture—The unity of God—The first article of the’ Rule of Faith —Against heathen polytheism, against Marcion, against Hermogenes.

The Comprehensibility of God: A fundamental assumption of Tertullian— The visible and the invisible.

The Corporeity of God—The idea Stoic, but also found in Melito.

Moral attributes of God—Goodness—Evidenced in Creation; in communication of His nature; in the law. Justice—coeval with goodness—No realization of the love of God—The Trinity—Doctrine stated in Apologeticus and Adversus Praxean—The oi0konomi/a of God—The Son—The Holy Spirit.


IT is vain to seek in the writings of Tertullian for a systematic presentation of the arguments for the existence of God, after the manner of a modern treatise on systematic theology. Such a statement would have been foreign to the age, and outside the pale of what the Christian apologist considered to be his sphere. Nevertheless, there is system and order in the presentation of Tertullian’s thought; but it is system and order determined and shaped by the nature of his subject, and by the exigencies of his arguments with his adversaries.

The two passages which bear most directly on the existence of God are Adversus Judaeos, c. 2, and Apologeticus, cc. 17—20.

In the former of these two passages we have merely a statement of the relation of God to the world. He is described as the Founder of the universe, the Governor of the whole world, the Fashioner of humanity, the Sower of universal nations.

In the latter of the two passages Tertullian is setting forth the nature of the God whom the Christians worship, in contrast to the gods who are the objects of pagan worship, and in refutation of the foul report current among the heathen that |p121 the Christians worship an ass’s head. Having defined the nature of the ‘one God,’ he continues: ‘And this is the crowning guilt of men that they will not recognize One of whom they cannot possibly be ignorant.’ The indubitable proofs of the existence of this ‘one God’ are:

(1)       The evidence of the works of His hands.

(2)       The testimony of the ‘soul by nature Christian.’

(3)       The revelation contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, whose authority is attested by their antiquity and majesty.

There are echoes of these sentiments in other passages. Taken together, they show us that in Tertullian the reflective and the intuitive tendencies blend. He is ready to argue for the existence of God, and he marshals when necessary the arguments from creation and providence, from the ‘soul by nature Christian,’ and from Scripture. But, on the other hand, he is more often content to rest in the assumption of the existence of God as a thing that needs no proof. These two tendencies are characteristic of the time in which he lived; the latter an inheritance from the Old Testament, the former called out by the exigencies of polemic.

Of the arguments which Tertullian employs it is necessary to say:

(1)       The argument from creation and providence is, in his eyes, so simple as to be self-evident. He derides the philosophers for their vain speculations, and praises the simple Christian for discovering God. ‘There is not a Christian workman but finds out God and manifests Him, and hence assigns to Him all those attributes which go to constitute a divine being, though Plato affirms that it is far from easy to discover the Maker of the universe, and when He is found it is difficult to make Him known to all’1Here the anti-speculative tendency of Tertullian is most marked. The creation is there; its design is obvious; the creation and the design postulate a Creator and Designer. That Creator and Designer is God. For Tertullian that suffices. It presents a result; it provides a cause. Moreover, it is eminently practical.

(2)       The argument which Tertullian derives from the ‘soul by nature Christian ‘appears to savour rather of the advocate’s plea ad hominem than of the theologian’s grateful discovery  |p122 of a new support for the truth. The evidence which he adduces seems to be finical and unsubstantial. It is based on the involuntary exclamations of the pagans, who say, ‘God is great and good,’ ‘Which may God grant,’ ‘God bless thee,’ and the like. These are the foundation for saying that the soul has an innate intuition of the existence of the God whom the Christians worship. But Socrates and Plato, with their noble lives and moral teaching and devout thought, are demon inspired. Tertullian seems to prefer the thoughtless and meaningless expressions of the pagan throng to the admission of the philosopher who concedes the existence of God, but withholds his approval of the whole Christian conception of God.

But the testimony of the ‘soul by nature Christian’ is something more substantial than that. Those expressions, which were so often upon the lips of men, were, in his estimation, something more than superstitious or meaningless phrases. They were, as it were, the welling up of the consciousness of God in the human soul. God had created man that he might possess and enjoy the knowledge of God. In his original condition his knowledge of God had been clear and unclouded, but through sin that knowledge had been obscured. In the untutored soul, however, it had not been obliterated, and these phrases, which sprang involuntarily to the lips of men, were expressions of the innate sense of God which even sin could not entirely eradicate. ‘These testimonies of the soul are simple as true, commonplace as simple, universal as commonplace, natural as universal, divine as natural. I do not think they can appear frivolous or feeble to any one if he reflects on the majesty of nature, from which the soul derives its authority. If you acknowledge the authority of the mistress, you will own it also in the disciple. Well, nature is the mistress here, and her disciple is the soul. But everything the one has taught, or the other learned, has come from God, the Teacher of the teacher; and what the soul may know from the teaching of its chief instructor thou canst judge from that which is within thee. . . . Even fallen as it is, the victim of the great adversary’s machinations, it does not forget the Creator, His goodness and law, and the final end both of itself and of its foe.’2 |p123

 (3)      The argument from the testimony of Scripture is based upon its antiquity and its majesty. ‘There is nothing so old as the truth.’3 Tertullian fully endorses the current notion that the antiquity of a doctrine is a guarantee of its truth. He accordingly asserts that God has revealed Himself and His ways to men of old, prophets who were inspired by the Holy Ghost. Moses, he says, dates far beyond the earliest history of the Greeks and Romans, and others of the sacred writers are little less remote. But he excuses himself from the task of arranging the chronology of the Hebrews, as it would be tedious and laborious. Then he falls back upon a second line of argument—that of the majesty of the Scriptures—and this, it seems, consists in their prophetic nature, i.e. in the fact that they foretold the course of events. Such an argument appeals with varying force to different minds, but even at its best it is one of the weakest arguments as to the true worth of the Scriptures.

It is important to bear in mind that these arguments are not to be regarded as the best that Tertullian could have evolved if he had given the whole force of his mind to the task of proving the existence of God. Such a task would have seemed to him an unnecessary work. He accepted the truth of the existence of God as a part of the traditional ‘Rule of Faith.’ It commended itself to him, with his practical bent of mind, as obvious when once revealed, and his arguments on this subject are but passing interludes in the course of his rapid polemic.


The unity of God is the first article of the regula fidei as it is stated by Tertullian. Monotheism was a legacy from the teaching of the Old Testament, and within the Church it was unchallenged until the time of Marcion. But in the time of Tertullian it had to be defended against the polytheistic notions of the pagans, and against the dualistic conceptions of Marcion, while it had to be defined in contrast to the anti-trinitarian unity upheld by Praxeas and to the materialistic theory of Hermogenes.

‘The object of our worship is the one-only God.’ Tertullian finds the defence of this article of the regula fidel against the |p124 heathen belief in ‘gods many and lords many’ a congenial task. He ransacks every available repository of learning for material and illustration, and employs every device of satire, and logic, and ridicule, to pour contempt on the polytheism of the pagan world. When he comes to the positive statement of the Christian belief he depends upon the arguments indicated above for the existence of God. It is the ‘one-only’ God whose existence he maintains.

Against Marcion, Tertullian points to the fact that, though there were perversions of doctrine in the days of the apostles, no man was then bold enough to surmise the existence of a second God. And such a second God is impossible. But Tertullian first maintains, by a method of proof which foreshadows the modern ontological argument, that there can be only one supreme Being.

Now, since all are agreed on this point (because no one will deny that God is in some sense the great Supreme), what must be the condition of the great Supreme Himself? Surely it must be that nothing is equal to Him, because, if there were, He would have an equal, and if He had an equal He would be no longer the great Supreme. That Being, then, which is the great Supreme must needs be unique. . . . Therefore, He will not exist otherwise than by the condition whereby He has His being, i.e. by His absolute uniqueness.’4

Then he deals with the supposition that two great Supremes may exist, distinct and separate in their own departments, after the manner of earthly kingdoms. Such a notion overlooks the fact that the analogy of human kingship and authority and divine is imperfect and fallacious. ‘For although a king is supreme on his throne next to God, he is still inferior to God; and when he is compared to God he will be dislodged from that great supremacy, which is transferred to God.’ 5

In like manner, the argument from the case of rulers who ‘preside one by one in a union of authority’ is unsound. 6 For a careful comparison of the minutalibus regnis enjoyed by these so-called equal rulers shows that one of them is superior in the essential features of royalty, and to him alone can the term ‘ supreme ‘really be applied. ‘The inevitable conclusion at which we arrive, then, on this point is this: either we must deny that God is the great Supreme, which no wise man will  |p125 allow himself to do, or say that God has no one else with whom to share His powers.’ 7

Nor does the fact that the Scriptures speak of ‘gods’ imply that there are beings equal in condition to the one God. For it is necessary to consider, not names, but essences, to which the names belong. These essences are such that supremacy belongs, and can belong, to one alone.

A discussion of the unity of God in relation to the opinions of Praxeas will be found under the heading of the Trinity.

In his task of confuting Hermogenes, who defended the eternity of matter, Tertullian reveals again his strong grip on the conception of the unity of God; for he makes this conception the assumption from which to belabour Hermogenes. Eternity is a’ property’ of God, an essential and characteristic equality, the possession of which is the sole and inalienable right of the one God. Hence to ascribe eternity to matter is to deify it, and so to premise two Gods. But the conception of two Gods is an unthinkable one according to Tertullian.


It is a fundamental assumption of Tertullian’s thought that God is both knowable and known. His refutation of Marcion’s second God is based upon this assumption. Marcion held that the true God—the God of Jesus Christ and of the New Testament, as opposed to the God of the Old Testament—was unknown prior to the revelation of Christ. But Tertullian maintains ‘that God neither could have been, nor ought to have been, unknown; could not have been because of His greatness; ought not to have been because of His goodness.’8

God was known to men even before Moses gave the knowledge of Him in the Pentateuch. Man’s knowledge of God dates back, in fact, to Paradise, for the very creation testifies to His existence, and the goodness of His works attests the beneficence of His character. This is further proved by the testimony of the soul. ‘The soul was before prophecy,’ and, even when idolatry overshadowed the world, the soul bore its witness to the existence and the providence of God. ‘If God pleases,’ ‘I commend you to God’; ‘Which may God grant,’ were, even in pre-Mosaic days, the sentiments found on the lips of men. |p126

That knowledge was enlarged and strengthened by the prophets, and amplified by Jesus Christ. The questions of the relation of God to things contrasted as visible and invisible, and of the relation of the visible to the invisible God, are discussed by Tertullian, the former in contention with Marcion, the latter in his Adversus Praxean.

He finds the solution to the problem of relating the invisible and the visible creation in the antithetical principle in God. This principle is manifested in the works of creation. They consist of things corporeal and incorporeal, of things animate and inanimate, of vocal and mute, of movable and stationary, of productive and sterile, of arid and moist, of hot and cold. Then why not of visible and invisible? ‘Why do they take Him to be uniform in one class of things alone as the Creator of visible things, and them alone; whereas He ought to be believed to have created both the visible and the invisible, in just the same way as life and death, or as evil things and peace.’9

Tertullian resolves the distinction between the invisible and the visible God by ascribing invisibility to the Father and visibility to the Son. There is no doubt that he holds the spirituality of God. ‘The eye cannot see Him, though He is (spiritually) visible. He is incomprehensible, though in grace He is manifested. He is beyond our utmost thought, though our human faculties conceive of Him.’ 10 But He has to meet the difficulty that the Scriptures speak of God as both visible and invisible. He meets it by saying that the passages which ascribe invisibility to God refer to the Father, and that those which ascribe visibility to Him refer to the Son. But, in the Old Testament at least, the references to the Son are to His preincarnate state. How, then, was He visible? The answer of Tertullian is that He manifested Himself to men in dreams, or visions, or ‘through a glass darkly,’ and that the promise to Moses that he should see Him face to face was spoken prophetically of the transfiguration. 11

There is little trace in Tertullian of the theory developed by the Neo-Platonists and reflected in the thought of Clement of Alexandria that God Himself is unknowable and incapable of possessing attributes. Tertullian readily recognizes that God transcends human thought, and acknowledges the  |p127 anthropomorphic nature of men’s conclusions regarding Him. But he does not on that account lose faith in the power of man to know God. He recognizes that the true way to the knowledge of God is not by a negation of the validity of human thought about God, but by a dialectic that stretches upward from the imperfections of the human conception of God to the perfection of His nature.


The influence of the refined materialism of Stoic thought is evident in Tertullian’s view of the corporeity of God. In Christian theology the idea first appears in Melito of Sardis, 12 who is reported to have given expression to it in a treatise not now extant.

It is plainly evident in Tertullian. ‘For who will deny that God is a body, although God is a spirit?’ ‘For spirit has a bodily substance, of its own kind, in its own form. Now, if even invisible things, whatsoever they be, have both their substance and their form in God, whereby they are visible to God alone, how much more shall that which has been sent forth from His substance not be without substance?’ 13 Here the corporeity of God, in a certain sense, is clearly held, and the notion is applied in like manner to the human soul. ‘Everything which exists is a bodily existence sui generis. Nothing lacks bodily existence but that which is non-existent.’ 14

But it is important to note that Tertullian does not confuse the corporeity of God with the bodily organs of the human soul. ‘Discriminate between the natures, and assign to them their respective senses, which are as diverse as their natures require, although they seem to have a community of designations. We read, indeed, of God’s right hand, and eyes, and feet; these must not, however, be compared with those of human beings, because they are associated in one and the same name.’ 15

THE MORAL ATTRIBUTES OF GOD.—The two great moral attributes of God, according to Tertullian, are Goodness and Justice, and they are not incompatible. Goodness is an  |p128 attribute of God neither temporal nor accidental. It did not come into existence after the creation, nor did it find its birth in the moment of its expression. But it was prior to time and the world, eternally present in the character of God. ‘Being, therefore, without all order of a beginning and all mode of time, it (goodness) will be reckoned to possess an age measureless in extent and endless in duration. Nor will it be possible to regard it as a sudden or adventitious or impulsive emotion, because it has nothing to occasion such an estimate of itself; in other words, no sort of temporal sequence. It must, therefore, be accounted an eternal attribute, inbred in God and everlasting.’16

To the question ‘Where are the evidences of the goodness of God?’ the answer of Tertullian is that they are found in the work of creation. By observing the works of God, which are prior to the existence of man, it is possible to secure a starting-point, from which to proceed to the examination and explanation of the world order, which was later complicated by the arrival of man.

This starting-point is the obvious goodness of the natural creation. Tertullian finds no discord or imperfection in the world of nature. It is purely good.

But the whole work of God in the creation of the world is subsidiary to a fuller manifestation of His goodness. This consists in the self-communication of God. The knowledge of God is the best of all good things. Wherefore God created man, to whom He could communicate the knowledge of Himself, and the world as the means of communicating it. The instrument whereby God leads men to the knowledge of Himself is twofold. It consists of the fabric of the seen (and lower) and the vaster (and higher) habitation. The one leads to the knowledge of what is good; the other to the knowledge of what is best.

So the whole process of creation manifests the goodness of God, and of that process man is the consummation. ‘Goodness formed man of the dust of the ground into so great a substance of the flesh, built up out of one element, with so many qualities; goodness breathed into him a soul, not dead but living. Goodness gave him dominion over all things, which he was to enjoy and rule over, and even give names to. |p129 In addition to this, Goodness annexed pleasures to man, so that, while master of the whole world, he might tarry among higher delights, being translated into paradise, out of the world into the Church. The selfsame Goodness provided also an helpmeet for him, that there might be nothing in his lot that was not good.17

Furthermore, the imposition of the law was a manifestation of Goodness. Its purpose was to secure the happiness of man, to lead him to cleave to God and to utilize his freedom aright. It was a rational guide to a being of a rational nature. Even the sanction, ‘In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt die,’ was prompted by the goodness of God, for it was a warning of the danger that would accrue from neglect of the law. He who annexed the penalty to the law was yet unwilling that it should be incurred. ‘Learn, then, the goodness of our God amidst these things and up to this point; learn it from His excellent works, from His kindly blessings, from His indulgent bounties, from His gracious providence, from His laws and warnings so good and merciful.’

Justice is not to be conceived of as having its origin subsequently to the fall of man. It is coeval with Goodness. ‘From the very first the Creator was both good and just.’ 18 As Goodness created, so Justice arranged the world. The activity of Justice is evident in the separation of day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea, male and female. Goodness conceived these, and Justice discriminated between them. This is the justitia architectonia which justifies the premiss of Tertullian that Justice is an innate and natural property of God. ‘By such considerations, then, do we show that this attribute advanced in company with Goodness, the author of all things, worthy of being herself, too, deemed innate and natural, and not as accidentally accruing to God, inasmuch as she was found to be in Him, her Lord, the arbiter of His works.’ 19

As the imposition of the law was consistent with the goodness of God, so the annexing of punishment to the infringement of the law was a course of justice. It was right that, when man swerved from the path of the law intended for him by the good purpose of God, he should be punished. For the fear of punishment restrains from wrongdoing, and the certainty  |p130 of punishment contributes to good. Thus justice in its penal aspect is an ally of Goodness.

But here arises another distinction. There are two kinds of evil, malum culpae and malum poenae (sinful evil and penal evil). It is only the latter of which God is the Author. The former is to be attributed to the devil. The malum poenae is inseparable from the dispensing of Justice, and though in its incidence it is felt to be bad, in its effect it is undoubtedly good. For the punishment attached by God to wrongdoing is not vindictive or arbitrary, but remedial.

It is noteworthy that to Tertullian the goodness and the justice of God are the attributes of the greatest importance, and that he never attains to the New Testament conception of the love of God. The nearest approach he makes to this last is in the following passage:

‘Thus far, then, Justice is the very fullness of the deity Himself, manifesting God as both a perfect Father and a perfect Master; a father in His mercy, a master in His discipline; a father in the mildness of His power, a master in its severity; a father who must be loved with dutiful affection, a master who must needs be feared; be loved because He prefers mercy to sacrifice, be feared because He dislikes sin; be loved because He prefers the sinner’s repentance to his death, be feared because He dislikes the sinners who do not repent. Accordingly, the divine law enjoins duties in respect of both these attributes: Thou shalt love God, and, Thou shalt fear God. It proposed one for the obedient man, the other for the transgressor.’ 20

But this is a very inadequate conception of the greatest New Testament doctrine, and, even so, it appears to convey more on the surface than it really does when related to its context. The judgement of Loofs appears to be true: ‘Auch er betont vornehmlich die Gerichtigkeit und Güte Gottes und versteht die neutestamentlichen Gedanken von der Liebe Gottes und der Liebe zu Gott nicht besser als die Apologeten.’21

THE TRINITY.—The passages in Tertullian’s writings which are of greatest importance for ascertaining his doctrine of the Trinity are a short statement in Apologeticus, c. 21, and a longer and more detailed statement in Adversus Praxean. The former statement follows Tatian, but keeps more distinctly |p131 in view than that writer the idea of the Logos as manifested in the historic Jesus Christ. Christ is the Son of God, who came to renovate and illuminate man’s nature. His birth will be understood in the light of Word (Sermo) and Reason (Ratio) and Power (Virtus). The philosophers of the heathen also regard the Logos as the Creator, e.g. Zeno and Cleanthes. The Christians, likewise, ‘hold that the Word, and Reason, and Power, by which God made all, have spirit (spiritus) as their proper and essential substratum (propriam substantiam), in which the Word has in-being to give forth utterance (cui et Sermo insit pronuntianti), and Reason abides to dispose and arrange (et Ratio adsit disponenti), and Power is over all to execute (et Virtus praesit perficienti). We have been taught that He proceeds forth from God, and in that procession He is generated; so that He is Son of God, and is called God from unity of substance with God (et idcirco Filium Dei et Deum dictum ex unitate substantiae). For God too, is a Spirit. Even when the ray is shot from the sun it is still part of the parent mass; the sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of the sun—there is no division of substance (substantia), but merely an extension. Thus Christ is Spirit of Spirit, and God of God (de Spiritu Spiritus et de Deo Deus), as light of light is kindled. The material matrix remains entire and unimpaired, though you derive from it any number of shoots possessed of its qualities; so, too, that which has come forth out of God is at once God and the Son of God, and the two are one (unus). In this way also, as He is Spirit of Spirit, and God of God, He is made a second (alterum) in manner of existence, in position, not in nature (gradu non statu), and He did not withdraw from the original source, but went forth (non recessit sed excessit).’

Obviously there is no attempt here to set forth the doctrine of the Trinity, since the Holy Spirit is not even mentioned. Tertullian has a practical purpose in view—to set forth the original nature of the Founder of Christianity—and to that purpose he devotes his thought. But incidentally he indicates a distinction between God and the Son of God which is of importance for our study. What Tertullian is setting forth here is what the Christians have been taught, and an examination of what that teaching contains yields the following results: |p132

(1) God is a spiritual substance, ‘For God, too, is a Spirit.’

(2) He is the Creator of the world.

(3) The agency by which He created the world was His Word, and Reason, and Power.

(4) These three are evidently identified with the Logos of philosophy.

(5) They also have spirit as the substratum, in which they have their in-being, each having a distinct province, the Word to give utterance, Reason to arrange, and Power to execute.

(6) But they also, regarded as one, are identical with the Son of God, who is called God as being of one substance with God.

(7) The ray from the sun, and the shoot from the matrix, are figures of the relation of the Son to God.

The points that call for notice are:

(1) The emphasis upon the unity of the Son, or the Logos, and God—not here expressly called the Father.

(2) The spiritual existence within the substance of God of Word, and Reason, and Power, which are not yet personal existences, but which form a basis for the later development by Tertullian of personal distinctions within the Godhead.

(3) The relation of the Son to creation.

The latter statement in Adversus Praxean shows us how Tertullian, under the necessity of refuting the heresy of Monarchianism, developed his thought from the position indicated in the prior statement in Apologeticus, c. 21. It shows a curious blend of juristic and philosophic ideas and terms, which enabled Tertullian to set out the trinitarian doctrine in a form which, despite its limitations and imperfections, supplied the framework for the later presentation of the doctrine at the Council of Nicaea, and by the Cappadocians.

Tertullian definitely uses the term trinitas (Adversus Praxean, c. 12 ff.). He also emphatically maintains the unity of God. With how much success he combined the trinity of Persons and unity of substance in the Godhead we must inquire. Very different judgements have been passed upon the subject by different writers. Petavius said, ‘So far as relates to the eternity of the Word it is manifest that Tertullian did not by means acknowledge it.’ Bishop Bull declares the very contrary: ‘To myself, indeed, and, as I suppose, to my reader |p133 also, after the many clear testimonies which I have adduced, the very opposite is manifest . . . for Tertullian does indeed teach that the Son of God was made, and was called, the Word from some definite beginning. . . . But for all that, that he really believed that the very hypostasis which is called the Word and Son of God is eternal, I have, I think, abundantly demonstrated.’22

Bishop Kaye23 thought that Tertullian was orthodox, but that he used occasionally expressions which were carefully avoided by later writers, who learned through controversy to use greater precision of language. Harnack24 declares that Tertullian’s Trinity is purely economic, and instances the following defects in his view: ‘ (1) Son and Spirit proceed from the Father solely in view of the work of creation and revelation; (2) Son and Spirit do not possess the entire substance of the Godhead, but, on the contrary, are portiones; (3) They are subordinate to the Father; (4) They are, in fact, transitory manifestations; (5) The Father alone is absolutely invisible, and, though the Son is invisible too, He can become visible, and can do things which would be simply unworthy of the Father.’ Bethune-Baker25 again avers that the judgement of Harnack is based upon isolated statements, to the disregard of others, and is, in fact, modified by Harnack’s subsequent survey of the treatise Adversus Praxean.

It is evident that there are statements in Tertullian’s writings which support the views of those who criticize his theory adversely. He actually says, in Adversus Hermogenem, that there was a time when the Son did not exist. He uses figures as that of the sun and the ray and the apex, and that of the root, the tree, and the fruit, and that of the well, the spring, and the river, which are imperfect (as, indeed, all figures of the Trinity must be) as illustrations of the relations of the Persons in the Trinity. He commences his treatment of the subject in Adversus Praxean by setting forth the oi0konomi/aof the Godhead.

But the statement in Adversus Hermogenem needs to be viewed in the light of the peculiar character of the subject that is being treated. Hermogenes affirmed that matter was |p134 eternal, or else God could not have been Lord from eternity, since there would have been nothing over which He could exercise sovereignty. Tertullian answered that God was not always Lord, as He was not always Judge, or always Father, since ‘ Lord’ was a title which was given to Him in connexion with the created universe, ‘Judge’ in connexion with sin, and ‘ Father’ in connexion with Son. The idea in Tertullian’s mind seems to have been, not that there ever was a time when God’s Ratio or Sermo did not exist, but that there was a time when He did not exist as Son.

With regard to the illustrations, it is sufficient to say that they are illustrations merely, and that it is not just to argue back from an imperfection in the illustration to a like imperfection in the author’s conception. The fact that Tertullian so commences his treatment of the Trinity in Adversus Praxean must not be allowed to cast its shadow over the whole treatise. It is the fact that Tertullian is combating Monarchianism which leads him to place his statement of oi0konomi/a in the commencement, but that must not be allowed to prejudge the question as to whether the whole statement in the treatise is one of an ‘economic’ Trinity merely or not.

Tertullian first states his belief (Adversus Praxean, c. 2) ‘Unicum quidem Deum credimus: sub hac tamen dispensatione, quam oeconomiam dicimus, ut unici Dei sit et Filius Sermo ipsius, qui ex ipso processerit, per quem omnia facta sunt et sine quo factum est nihil. . . qui exinde miserit, secundum promissionem suam a Patre Spiritum sanctum Paracletum, sanctifactorem fidei eorum qui credunt in Patrem, et Filium, et Spiritum sanctum.’ This oi0konomi/a he maintains, does not impair the unity of God. It is not ‘ as if in this way also One were not All, in that All are of One, by unity, that is, of substance (substantia).’ Nevertheless, the mystery (sacramentum) of the oi0konomi/a is guarded. The Unity is distributed into a Trinity (unitatem in trinitatem disponit). The unity is of substance (substantia), and condition (status), and of power (potestas). The Trinity is in degree (gradus), and form (forma), and aspect (species).

He then explains how this can be (Adversus Praxean, c. 3). Confusion arises from not distinguishing between numerus and dispositio of the Trinity, and divisio of the Unity. The former is compatible with belief in the Unity of God, the latter, |p135 of course, would destroy it. The idea of a monarxi\ais quite in accord with the orthodox teaching of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, since it does not preclude the association of others in its administration, especially when the sharer in the monarchy is a son. What overthrows the true idea of monarchy is not the assigning of second and third places in the administration to others (in this case the Son and the Holy Spirit), who are closely joined in substance to the monarch (in this case the Father), but the introduction of a rival dominion.

In elucidating this idea of monarchy Tertullian is led into a statement which certainly seems to imply the subordination of the Son to the Father. The monarchy ‘remains so firm and stable in its own state, notwithstanding the introduction into it of the Trinity, that the Son actually has to restore it entire to the Father; even as the apostle says in his epistle concerning the very end of all, “when He shall have delivered up the Kingdom to God, even the Father; for He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet.”’ We must, however, bear in mind that Tertullian is pursuing his purpose of applying the illustration of a monarchy to the Trinity, also that he is quoting Scripture to support his illustration, and lastly, that there is no thought of an end to sonship implied, but an end to the administration of the Kingdom by the Son. If we find elsewhere a more abstract and careful expression of the relation of the Son to the Father, we shall have to bear in mind these circumstances before forming the conclusion that this passage contradicts such an expression.

Tertullian proceeds (Adversus Praxean, c. 5)to state in more philosophic manner arguments deduced from the dispensation (dispositio) of God, in which He existed before the creation of the world up to the generation of the Son. His statement is that before all things God alone existed, since there was nothing external to Himself but Himself (Solus autem quia nihil aliud extrinsecus praeter illum). Yet He was not alone, even at that time, for He had with Him His own Ratio, or Consciousness (sensius ipsius), which the Greeks call lo&goj and which the Latins call Sermo. Strictly speaking, says Tertullian, we should distinguish between Logos and Ratio, because God had not Logos from the beginning, but He had Ratio even before the beginning (ante principium). Ratio is thus prior to Logos, |p136 since it is the substance (substantia) of Logos. But this distinction is not to be emphasized, because God had His Sermo within Himself both within and included in His Ratio. In the very process in which God silently cogitated and arranged with His own Ratio, He caused that to become Sermo which He was dealing with in the way of Sermo. As Ratio is the contemplation of God become objective, so Sermo is the active principle of the Divine Nature objectivized. The analogy of human thought and speech as found in ‘the image and likeness of God,’ while not perfect, is certainly closer than the analogy of a monarchy, and it enables Tertullian to express the relation of the Persons in the Trinity more adequately. ‘Observe, then, that when you are silently conversing with yourself, this very process is carried on within you by your reason, which meets you with a word at every movement of your thought, at every impulse of your conception. Whatever you think, there is a world; whatever you conceive, there is reason. You must needs speak it in your mind; and, while you are speaking, you admit speech as an interlocutor with you, involved in which is this very reason, whereby, while in thought you are holding converse with your word, you are (by reciprocal action) producing thought by means of that converse with your word. Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second (person) within you, through which in thinking you utter speech, and through which also (by reciprocity of process) in uttering speech you generate thought. The word is a different thing from yourself. Now how much more fully is all this transacted in God, whose image and likeness even you are regarded as being, inasmuch as He has Reason within Himself even while He is silent, and involved in that Reason His Word. I may, therefore, without rashness, first lay this down (as a fixed principle), that even then before the creation of the universe God was not alone, since He had within Himself both Reason, and, inherent in Reason, His Word, which He made second to Himself by agitating it within Himself.’

A scriptural basis for this distinction within the Unity of God is found by Tertullian in ‘Wisdom,’ which is a name befitting the Ratio or the Sermo of God, and with the scriptural basis the distinction becomes one of ‘Person.’ ‘Listen therefore, to Wisdom herself constituted in the character of a second person (secundam personam). “At the first the Lord |p137 created Me as the beginning of His ways, with a view to His own works.”’ It is hardly to be wondered at that, with such a passage before him, Tertullian was led to make the statement, ‘Then, therefore, does the Sermo also Himself assume His own form and glorious garb, sound and vocal utterance, when God says, “Let there be Light.” This is the perfect nativity of the Word.’

The difficulty arising out of the use of the word Sermo, which is used in common speech for an impersonal sound, is met by the assertion (Adversus Praxean, c. 7) that the Sermo of God is substantial, as being sent forth out of the substance (substantia) of God, and the substance of the Sermo is a Person, ‘Whatever, therefore, was the substance of the Word that I designate a Person. and I claim for it the name of Son.’

The term probolh& (Adversus Praxean, c. 8), which had been used by Valentinus, was capable of expressing what was in Tertullian’s mind with regard to the relation of Father and Son and Spirit, and he does not shrink from using it, despite its unfortunate associations. But he indicates the sense in which he employs the word. It is not to express division and separation, but to indicate the unity of source and the distinction of form.

‘This will be the probolh&(or prolation) taught by the truth, the guardian of the Unity wherein we declare that the Son is a prolation from the Father,without being separated from Him. For God sent forth the Word, as the Paraclete also declares, just as the root puts forth the tree, and the fountain the river, and the sun the ray. For these are probolai/(or emanations) of the substances from which they proceed. I should not hesitate, indeed, to call the tree the son or offspring of the root, and the river of the fountain, and the ray of the sun; because every original source is a parent, and everything which issues from the origin is an offspring. Much more is (this true of) the Word of God, who has actually received as His own peculiar designation the name of Son. . . . Following, therefore, the form of these analogies, I confess that I call God and His Word—the Father and His Son—two. . . . Where, however, there is a second, there must be two; and where there is a third, there must be three. Now the Spirit, indeed, is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun. Nothing, however, is |p138 alien from that original source whence it derives its own properties.’

Against the objection which arises from these comparisons— that is, the objection that they imply priority in time on the part of the Father—it may be urged that that is a point that does not fairly arise, since Tertullian makes no mention of the time-relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in this connexion. It might just as well be argued that the tree is superior to the root, and the fruit to the tree, from some points of view, and, therefore, that the Son and the Holy Spirit are superior to the Father. In fairness we must not press the analogy beyond the points in illustration of which Tertullian used it. A passage in Adversus Praxean, c. 13, is instructive in this respect. He there says, ‘For although I make not two suns, still I shall reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things, and two forms (species) of one undivided substance (substantia), as God and His Word, as the Father and the Son.’ Does not this imply, by parity of reasoning to that employed in the above objection, the equality of the Father and the Son?

SUMMARY.—A cursory glance at the above outline indicates at once that the theory of the Trinity worked out by Tertullian is defective as compared with the later theory of the Cappadocians. It was not to be expected that Tertullian should, as the first one to attempt the exposition of such a difficult doctrine, meet with complete success. It was much that he saw the lines along which a satisfactory solution to the problem was to be sought. His familiarity with legal terms, and his adoption and adaptation of them to the question of the Trinity, proved undoubtedly of great service to himself and to those who followed him; but it seems too much to say, as Harnack does, that ‘Tertullian knows as little of an immanent Trinity as the apologist. The Trinity only appears such, because the unity of substance is very vigorously emphasized,’ and that his juristic terms enabled him in appearance to set forth the doctrine of the Trinity in accordance with the views later developed by the Cappadocians without his having any sense of the reality with which he dealt. Tertullian does not use the terms in an entirely juristic sense, and really does seem at times to get beyond a formal Trinity, and to perceive the necessity of postulating an immanent Trinity. But he did not hold that necessity clearly and persistently before his |p139mind. His treatment of this and other subjects is always limited by the apologetic purpose of his writings, and his mentality was such that he easily leaned towards the overstatement of any topic. It is an interesting speculation as to what contribution he would have made to the subject had he been writing subsequently to the Arian controversy, when the need of guarded and careful statement had become apparent. The remarkable thing is that, with so little prior thought on the subject to guide him, and with the intellectual atmosphere of contemporary thought, he achieved so much in this direction. Bishop Bull says: ‘Read only his single work Adversus Praxean, in which he treats fully and professedly of the most holy Trinity; he there asserts the consubstantiality of the Son so frequently and so plainly that you would suppose the author had written after the time of the Nicene Council.’


1. p.121 n.1 Apologeticus, c. 46.

2. p.122 n.1 De Testitnonio Animae, c. 5.

3. p.123 n.1 Apologeticus, c. 47.

4. p.124 n.1 Adversus Marcionem, I., c. 3.

5. p.124 n.2 Ibid., c. 4.

6. p.124 n.3 Ibid.

7. p.125 n.1 Adversus Marcionem.

8. p.125 n.2 Ibid., I., C. 9.

9. p.126 n.1 Adversus Marcionem, I., c. 16.

10. p.126 n.2 Apologeticus, c. 17.

11. p.126 n.3 Adversus Praxean, c. 14.

12. p.127 n.1 Origen, Homilies on Genesis, and Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., IV. 26.

13. p.127 n.2 Adversus Praxean, c. 7.

14. p.127 n.3 De Carne Christi, c. 11.

15. p.127 n.4 Adversus Marcionem, II., c. 16.

16. p.128 n.1 Adversus Marcionem, II., c. 3.

17. p.129 n.1 Adversus Marcionem, II., c. 4.

18. p.129 n.2 Ibid., c. 12.

19. p.129 n.3 Ibid., c. 12.

20. p. 130 n.1 Adv. Marcionem, II., c. 13.

21. p. 130 n.2 Leitfaden, p. 153.

22. p.133 n.1 Defence of the Nicene Creed (sec. III., c. 10).

23. p.133 n.2 The Writings of Tertullian, pp. 519 ff.

24. p.133 n.3 History of Dogma, vol. IV., p. 121, note 3.

25. p.133 n.4 Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine, p. 144, note 2.


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