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Tertullian

Tertullian

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One might be surprised to learn that the origins of Latin Christian literature are found not in Rome, but in North Africa. Tertullian (c.160-220; fl. 196-212) is a foundational figure in Latin Christianity as the first Christian figure who wrote extensively in Latin and brought into Christianity much of the Latin legal terminology prevalent at the time. He may also have written some of his works in Greek, although none have survived. He was most likely a native of Carthage, coming from a well-to-do family that enabled him to engage in an extensive and, no doubt, expensive education. He was married, but we hear of no children. He may have been a lawyer as well as a presbyter in his local church, although these, as well as other aspects of his life can no longer be stated with certainty.

The legal terminology Tertullian used encompassed such terms as meritum (merit), regula (rule), sacramentum (oath), demonstrating an intimate familiarity with Roman law and providing the basis for much of Western Christian thought's emphasis on penance, confession, merit, and justification, et. al. Other terminology he coined became foundational for Trinitarian thought. Using the Latin words for "substance" and "person," Tertullian was one of the earliest to work out the doctrine of the Trinity in his apologetic and polemical writings such as Against Praxeas. He spoke of three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) co-existing in one substance (Against Praxeas 29).

Tertullian was also a defender of the faith. His Apology (197 A.D.) and other works, such as To the Gentiles; Testimony of the Soul (de Anima); To the Martyrs were written to defend Christianity from the rumors and attacks of the pagans. He also wrote a number of more polemical works against those who were not gentiles but whom he considered outside the Church: Prescription Against Heretics; Against Praxeas; Against Marcion (5 books). Other areas of his writing were more concerned with the moral and practical aspects of Christianity. His concern in this area was such that he advised Christians to wait until late in life to be baptized, lest if they sin after Baptism they could not be forgiven and thus lose salvation.

Today, Tertullian is very much viewed as a Father of the Church. He has been quoted in Vatican II as well as other contemporary documents. And yet, those who followed him in Africa, such as Augustine, considered him a heretic, as did those in Europe such as Vincent of Lerins. Around 207 A.D., Tertullian did align himself with the Montanists, although it is not clear that he ever actually broke with the church in Carthage. The Montanist's heretical notions regarding the Holy Spirit and new prophecy ensured its condemnation by the Church. It attracted Tertullian, however, because of its rigorous adherence to the Biblical principles of discipline and piety he found lacking among the more established orthodox churches. His move to Montanism is reflected in the category of writings concerned with the moral and practical aspects of faith spoken of earlier. Before his conversion to Montanism he had written: On Penance; On Patience, To His Wife. After his conversion, we see an even mor e marked emphasis on asceticism in his writings: On Monogamy; On Fasting; On Modesty; Exhortation to Chastity.

In the end, what perhaps most characterizes and permeates Tertullian's writings for today are his views of philosophy and martyrdom. One of his most famous quotes, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the academy with the Church?" is still quoted by those who long for a less philosophical, more spiritual faith. Another of his famous quotes, "The blood of the Christians is seed" (Apology 50), comes from the hope he found in those Christians who gave their lives during the tumultuous time of martyrdom he witnessed in the life of the 3rd century Church. This phrase, too, has (unfortunately) been quoted often concerning life in the Church of the 20th century which, according to many estimates, has seen more martyrs than all the previous centuries combined-and may perhaps indicate what lies ahead for the Church of the 21st century that remains faithful to the rule of faith (regula fidei) which Tertullian judged as the arbiter for all of Christian faith and life.