Vigiliae Christianae 5 (1951), pp.111-2




The fact that Tertullian broke with the church and died a heretic compromised his memory in the ancient church.   Even Cyprian who draws at every moment from the works of Tertullian never mentioned his predecessor. The anathema of the heresy was, at once after his death, truly a damnatio memoriae. Lactantius is the first who breaks the silence by saying that the obscurity of the style of Tertullian is the reason for the fact that he is very little known (div. inst. 5, 1, 23).  The judgement of  St. Hilary of Poitiers is much more penetrating and at the same time wiser: consequens error hominis detraxit
scriptis probabilibus auctoritatem
(Comm. in Matth. 5, 1).

During fourth and fifth centuries there is an increasingly intense interest in the works of Tertullian and it is St. Jerome who has the courage to lavish praise on him.  He qualifies him as eruditus et ardens vir (ep. 84, 2), as  creber . . . in sententiis, sed difficilis in loquendo (ep. 58, 10) and in  ep. 70, 5 he admires his erudition at the same time as his penetration:  quid Tertulliano eruditius, quid acutius? Apologeticus eius et contra gentes libri cunctam saeculi continent disciplinam.  But he too does not pass in silence over the fact that Tertullian is a heretic: in Tertulliano laudamus ingenium, sed damnamus haeresin (Adv. Ruf . 3, 2 7 ).   However, the monk of Bethlehem cannot repress a feeling of sympathy for the impetuous Carthaginian and for his irascible character (acris et vehementis ingenii, de vir. ill. 53).   The reason for this sympathy seems to me to be clear: in several ways there is a psychological relationship between Tertullian and Jerome.  Beneath this rapport is what St. Jerome very eloquently suggests in  de vir. ill. 53: that Tertullian had been pushed towards Montanism by the less than agreeable experiences which he had had in his relationship with |[p.112 ] the clergy of Rome (hic cum usque ad mediam aetatem presbyter Ecclesiae perinansisset, invidia postea et contumeliis clericorum Romanae ecclesiae ad Montani dogma delapsus)In this information of St.Jerome, which is not confirmed by any other data, one sees reflected the resentment of saint Jerome himself with
regard to the clergy of Rome.

By comparison with the favorable judgement of St. Jerome, the attitude of Augustine saint is very severe. Not only does he range Tertullian among the heretics (Haer. 86), without qualifying the pitiless judgement which attends this observation, as St. Hilary had done it in a so wise way, but he does not even mention the name of Tertullian when he enumerates, in de doctr. Christ. 2, 40, 61, important Christian authors. And what is more, in  the treatise de bono viduitatis 4, 6, he reproaches Tertullian for his emotional style by words which are - themselves - quite declamatory enough: buccis sonantibus non
. It should be added however that in de gen. ad litt. 10, 25, 41 he describes Tertullian as a penetrating spirit: quoniam acutus est (Tertullianus).1

What has not been noticed until now, is that St. Augustine in one of his sermons, reprised one of the most beautiful phrases of Tertullian in a not very Augustinian form.   They are the words semen est sanguis christianorum (apol. 50, 13), which became in St. Augustine, serm, 22, 4, 4: sparsum est semen sanguinis, surrexit seges ecclesiae.2  Despite his antipathy St.Augustine could not be prevented from translating in a very personal way one of the more sublime phrases of Tertullian and it is the Augustinian version which is much more emotional than the concise and lapidary phrase of Tertullian.

Nijmegen, 40 Sint Annastraat.

1 Cfr. A. Harnack, Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur I, Leipzig 1893, p. 683 ff. and J. H. Waszink, Tertulliani De anima, Amsterdam 1947, p. 163.

2  L'idée comme telle revient chez Augustine à plusieurs reprises: quasi semine sanguinis impleta est martyribus terra, et de illo semine segea surrexit ecclesiae, serm. 286, 4, 3; sic sanguine martyrum impletus orbis praeiactatis seminibus seges ecclesiae pullulavit, serm. 301, 1, 1; tunc enim seges ista seminabatur, quando ille locus sanguine martyris rigabatur, serm. ed. Morin Den. 15, 2; pauca grana seminata sunt, et tantam messem fecerunt et horrea Christi inpleverunt (de plusieurs martyrs), serm. ed. Morin 2, 3.

Christine MOHRMANN, Saint Jérôme et Saint Augustin sur Tertullien,Vigiliae Christianae 5 (1951), pp.111-2.  © Brill Academic Publishers, 1951.  Reproduced by permission of the publisher.  All rights reserved.

This translation by Roger Pearse.

This page has been online since 3rd August 2000

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