Adapted from: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev, .ed.. F. L.. Cross; Elizabeth A.Livingstone (Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press, 2005), p.1602.

Tertullian, Quintus Septimius Florens (c.160–c.225), African Church Father. Brought up in Carthage as a pagan, Tertullian received a good education in literature and rhetoric; he may have practised as a lawyer, though identification with the jurist Tertullian is improbable. He was converted to Christianity before 197. Acc. to St Jerome he became a priest, but there are other indications that he remained a layman. Eventually he joined the Montanist sect. The detailed chronology of his life and works has recently been much disputed.

   Tertullian was the author of a long list of apologetic, theological, controversial, and ascetic works in Latin, as well as of a few writings in Greek. In the ‘Apologeticum’ (c.197) and other early apologetic writings he appeals for the toleration of Christianity, attacking pagan superstition, rebutting charges against Christian morality, and, to him the chief point, claiming that Christians were no danger to the state but good and useful citizens. In these works he is less concerned with theology than with the Greek Apologists whom he had read, though ‘De testimonio animae’ affirms the witness of natural instinct to the existence of God. In moral and disciplinary works addressed to Christians (e.g. ‘De spectaculis’, ‘De corona militis’, ‘De idololatria’, ‘De paenitentia’), he emphasizes rather the separation from pagan society, which was necessary in order to escape contamination from its immorality and idolatry. Many occupations (including military service) and social institutions are barred, and in the last resort martyrdom must be accepted; the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. Tertullian may well be the editor of the ‘Passio SS Perpetuae et Felicitatis’.

   His theological writings are mostly polemical in origin and form. In the early ‘De praescriptione haereticorum’ he disposes of all heresy in principle: the one true Church, visible in history through the episcopal succession (here he follows Irenaeus), alone possesses the authentic tradition from Christ and the apostles, and alone has authority to interpret Scripture. It need not argue. Yet he himself frequently argued against Gnostic dualism and spiritualism: against Hermogenes, the Valentinians, Marcion, and in ‘De carne Christi’, ‘De resurrectione mortuorum’, and ‘Scorpiace’. Against Marcion he defended the identity of the one God of the Old and New Testaments and His activity throughout history, both just and loving, and the identity of Jesus Christ, truly the incarnate Word of God, with the Messiah of prophecy. Against the unidentified ‘Praxeas’ he tried to expose the unscriptural and unhistorical implications of modalism and to formulate a positive doctrine of the Trinity without falling into the opposite error of subordinationism. In these respects his thought and language powerfully influenced Christianity. ‘De baptismo’, which is liturgically valuable, also raises the problem of Infant Baptism, which Tertullian disliked. But his later ‘De anima’, a pioneer work in Christian psychology, which advocated Traducianism, prepared the way for that pessimistic doctrine of the Fall and Original Sin which came, through Augustine, to dominate Latin theology.

   The rigorist strain in Tertullian, and the opposition which it evoked in Carthage, took him into Montanism, with its heightened eschatological expectations, its emphasis upon the immediacy of the Spirit (Paraclete) and ecstatic prophecy, its asceticism, and, at least by implication, a perfectionist and potentially sectarian doctrine of the Church which challenged the more institutional one that he had earlier helped to establish against Gnosticism. All this, but especially the rigorism, is evident in the extant Montanist works, e.g. ‘De monogamia’, ‘De exhortatione castitatis’, ‘De jejunio’ and ‘De pudicitia’. This last was written in the 220s against the disciplinary leniency with sexual sin of a Bp. of Carthage. His understanding of the other aspects of Montanism might have been clearer if ‘De ecstasi’, ‘De paradiso’, and ‘De spe fidelium’ had survived.

   Tertullian’s style is brilliant, masterful, and difficult. In argument he employs every rhetorical and sophistical device (his ambience is the elaborate Second Sophistic); he devastates opponents with ridicule and cleverly undermines their reasoning. Yet, though often unfair and superficial in controversy, he grapples thoughtfully with the moral and religious problems of his time. Legal knowledge may have helped him to formulate, but did little to determine, his theology, except perhaps in his legalistic conception of reward and punishment. Though influenced by Stoicism and willing to use philosophy as a tool, he distrusted it as a source of truth. Christianity is revelation, act and gift of God. So his theology is fundamentally scriptural, and, while his exegesis can be perverse in attack, for theological construction he generally perfers a literal and historical interpretation to an allegorical one. If, as seems probable, a Latin Bible was available to him, the creation of a Latin theological terminology must not be too readily attributed to him. But his influence upon language and thought was sufficient to justify the title of Father of Latin theology.

   Except for the Apologeticum, MSS are scarce. The damaged ‘Codex Agobardinus’ (Par. lat. 1622; 9th cent.) contains 13 of the 31 extant works; ‘Codex Trecensis’ (Troyes, Bibliothèque Municipale, 523; 12th cent.) is important for 5 works. The 16th-cent. eds. used several MSS now lost. Collected writings containing 22 works, by Beatus Rhenanus (Basle, 1521); edn. by J. Gagnaeus (Paris, 1545) added 9. Good notes in edn. of N. Rigaud (ibid., 1634). Modern edns. by F. Oehler (3 vols., Leipzig, 1853–4, with comm.), A. Reifferscheid and others (CSEL 20, 47, 69, 70, 76, etc.; 1890 ff.), and E. Dekkers, OSB, and others (CCSL 1–2; 1954). Eng. tr. of works by P. Holmes and others (ANCL 7, 11, 15, and 18; 1868–70). Comm. on individual works, with edns. of text, incl. De anima, ed. J. H. Waszink (Amsterdam, 1947; valuable for Tertullian generally); and De idololatria, ed. id. and J. C. M. van Winden (Supplements to VC, 1; 1987); and the edns. by E. Evans (all with Eng. trs.) of Adversus Praxean (London, 1948), De oratione (ibid., 1953), De carne Christi (ibid., 1956), De resurrectione mortuorum (ibid., 1960), De baptismo (ibid., 1964), Adversus Marcionem (Oxford Early Christian Texts, 2 vols., 1972). There are also comm. in the Eng. trs. of Adversus Hermogenem by J. H. Waszink (ACW 24; 1956), of Ad Uxorem, De exhortatione castitatis, and De monogamia by W. P. Le Saint, SJ (ibid. 13; 1951), of De paenitentia and De pudicitia by id. (ibid. 28; 1959), and of De praescriptione and De idololatria by S. L. Greenslade, Early Latin Theology (Library of Christian Classics, 5; 1956), pp. 21–110. Several works are also ed., with comm. and Fr. tr., in SC.

   A. d’Alès, SJ, La Théologie de Tertullien (1905); J. Lortz, Tertullian als Apologet (Münsterische Beiträge zur Theologie, 9–10; 1927–8); E. Dekkers, OSB, Tertullianus en de Geschiednis der Liturgie (1947); C. Becker, Tertullians Apologeticum: Werden und Leistung (Munich, 1954); R. Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., La Cristologia di Tertulliano (Paradosis, 18; Fribourg, 1962); R. Braun, ‘Deus Christianorum’: Recherches sur le vocabulaire doctrinale de Tertullien (Paris thesis; 1962; 2nd edn., with much suppl. material, Études Augustiniennes, 1977); id., Approches de Tertullien [collected essays] (Études Augustiniennes, Série Antiquité, 134; 1992); J. Moingt, SJ, Théologie trinitaire de Tertullien (Théologie, 68–70; 1966); T. P. O’Malley, SJ, Tertullian and the Bible (Latinitas Christianorum Primaeva, 21; 1967); D. Michaélidès, Sacramentum chez Tertullien (Études Augustiniennes, 1970); T. D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford, 1971; repr., with corrections and postscript, 1985); R. D. Sider, Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (ibid., 1971); J.-C. Fredouille, Tertullien et la conversion de la culture antique (Études Augustiniennes, 1972); C. Aziza, Tertullien et le judaïsme (Nice, 1977); C. Rambaux, Tertullien face aux morales des trois premiers siècles (1979); D. Rankin, Tertullian and the Church (Cambridge, 1995); E. [F.] Osborn, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West (ibid., 1997); J. Alexandre, Une Chair pour la Gloire: L’anthropologie réalistique et mystique de Tertullien (Théologie Historique, 115 [2001]); W. Bähnk, Von der Notwendigkeit des Leidens; Die Theologie des Martyriums bei Tertullian (Forschungen zur Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte, 78; 2001). G. Claesson, Index Tertullianeus (3 vols., Études Augustiniennes, 1974–5). J. Quasten, Patrology, 2 (Utrecht, 1953), pp. 246–340. CPL (3rd edn., 1995), pp. 1–10 (nos. 1–36). P. Siniscalco in DPAC 2 (1984), cols. 3413–24, s.v. ‘Tertulliano’; Eng. tr. in Encyclopedia of the Early Church, 2 (1992), pp. 818–20; C. Munier in Dict. Sp. 15 (1991), cols. 271–95, s.v. ‘Tertullien’; C. Butterweck in TRE 33 (2002), pp. 93–107.

Benedict XVI  General Audience Wednesday, 30 May 2007


Today, we speak of an African, Tertullian, who from the end of the second and beginning of the third century inaugurated Christian literature in the Latin language. He started the use of theology in Latin. His work brought decisive benefits which it would be unforgivable to underestimate. His influence covered different areas: linguistically, from the use of language and the recovery of classical culture, to singling out a common “Christian soul” in the world and in the formulation of new proposals of human coexistence.

We do not know the exact dates of his birth and death. Instead, we know that at Carthage, toward the end of the second century, he received a solid education in rhetoric, philosophy, history and law from his pagan parents and tutors. He then converted to Christianity, attracted, so it seems, by the example of the Christian martyrs.

He began to publish his most famous writings in 197. But a too individualistic search for the truth, together with his intransigent character - he was a rigorous man - gradually led him away from communion with the Church to belong to the Montanist sect. The originality of his thought, however, together with an incisive efficacy of language, assured him a high position in ancient Christian literature.

His apologetic writings are above all the most famous. They manifest two key intentions: to refute the grave accusations that pagans directed against the new religion; and, more propositional and missionary, to proclaim the Gospel message in dialogue with the culture of the time.

His most famous work, Apologeticus, denounces the unjust behaviour of political authorities toward the Church; explains and defends the teachings and customs of Christians; spells out differences between the new religion and the main philosophical currents of the time; and manifests the triumph of the Spirit that counters its persecutors with the blood, suffering and patience of the martyrs: “Refined as it is”, the African writes, “your cruelty serves no purpose. On the contrary, for our community, it is an invitation. We multiply every time one of us is mowed down. The blood of Christians is effective seed” (semen est sanguis christianorum!, Apologeticus, 50: 13).

Martyrdom, suffering for the truth, is in the end victorious and more efficient than the cruelty and violence of totalitarian regimes.

But Tertullian, as every good apologist, at the same time sensed the need to communicate the essence of Christianity positively. This is why he adopted the speculative method to illustrate the rational foundations of Christian dogma. He developed it in a systematic way, beginning with the description of “the God of the Christians”: “He whom we adore”, the Apologist wrote, “is the one, only God”. And he continued, using antitheses and paradoxes characteristic of his language: “He is invisible, even if you see him, difficult to grasp, even if he is present through grace; inconceivable even if the human senses can perceive him, therefore, he is true and great!” (cf. ibid., 17: 1-2).

Furthermore, Tertullian takes an enormous step in the development of Trinitarian dogma. He has given us an appropriate way to express this great mystery in Latin by introducing the terms “one substance” and “three Persons”. In a similar way, he also greatly developed the correct language to express the mystery of Christ, Son of God and true Man.

The Holy Spirit is also considered in the African’s writings, demonstrating his personal and divine character: “We believe that, according to his promise, Jesus Christ sent, by means of his Father, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of all those who believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (ibid., 2: 1).

Again, there are in Tertullian’s writings numerous texts on the Church, whom he always recognizes as “mother”. Even after his acceptance of Montanism, he did not forget that the Church is the Mother of our faith and Christian life.

He even considers the moral conduct of Christians and the future life. His writings are important as they also show the practical trends in the Christian community regarding Mary Most Holy, the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Matrimony and Reconciliation, Petrine primacy, prayer.... In a special way, in those times of persecution when Christians seemed to be a lost minority, the Apologist exhorted them to hope, which in his treatises is not simply a virtue in itself, but something that involves every aspect of Christian existence.

We have the hope that the future is ours because the future is God’s. Therefore, the Lord’s Resurrection is presented as the foundation of our future resurrection and represents the main object of the Christian’s confidence: “And so the flesh shall rise again”, the African categorically affirms, “wholly in every man, in its own identity, in its absolute integrity. Wherever it may be, it is in safe keeping in God’s presence, through that most faithful Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, who shall reconcile both God to man, and man to God” (Concerning the Resurrection of the Flesh, 63: 1).

From the human viewpoint one can undoubtedly speak of Tertullian’s own drama. With the passing of years he became increasingly exigent in regard to the Christians. He demanded heroic behaviour from them in every circumstance, above all under persecution.

Rigid in his positions, he did not withhold blunt criticism and he inevitably ended by finding himself isolated.

Besides, many questions still remain open today, not only on Tertullian’s theological and philosophical thought, but also on his attitude in regard to political institutions and pagan society.
This great moral and intellectual personality, this man who made such a great contribution to Christian thought, makes me think deeply. One sees that in the end he lacked the simplicity, the humility to integrate himself with the Church, to accept his weaknesses, to be forbearing with others and himself.

When one only sees his thought in all its greatness, in the end, it is precisely this greatness that is lost. The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others’ weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We, instead, always need forgiveness.

Finally, the African remains an interesting witness of the early times of the Church, when Christians found they were the authentic protagonists of a “new culture” in the critical confrontation between the classical heritage and the Gospel message.

In his famous affirmation according to which our soul “is naturally Christian” (Apologeticus 17: 6), Tertullian evokes the perennial continuity between authentic human values and Christian ones. Also in his other reflection borrowed directly from the Gospel, according to which “the Christian cannot hate, not even his enemies” (cf. Apologeticus 37), is found the unavoidable moral resolve, the choice of faith which proposes “non-violence” as the rule of life. Indeed, no one can escape the dramatic aptness of this teaching, also in light of the heated debate on religions.

In summary, the treatises of this African trace many themes that we are still called to face today. They involve us in a fruitful interior examination to which I exhort all the faithful, so that they may know how to express in an always more convincing manner the Rule of faith, which - again, referring to Tertullian - “prescribes the belief that there is only one God and that he is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through his own Word, generated before all things” (cf. Concerning the Prescription of Heretics, 13: 1).


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