Biography of Tertullian, Father of Latin Theology

Tertullian's works outlined Western Christian doctrine at its earliest stage

Tertullian
Tertullian, Latin language writer born in Carthage (today Tunisia).

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Tertullian was an early Christian apologist, theologian, and moralist from Carthage, North Africa. Zealous and articulate, Tertullian was highly educated in the fields of law, rhetoric, literature, Greek, and Latin. His works significantly impacted the early church, giving shape and definition to Western Christian theology, and his influence still resonates today. As the first major theologian to produce extensive Christian literature in Latin, Tertullian earned the title of “Father of Latin Theology.”

Fast Facts: Tertullian

  • Also Known As: Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus
  • Known For: Prolific Christian writer who produced the earliest formal doctrinal works of Western Christianity
  • Born: The exact date of his birth is unknown; most likely in Carthage (now Tunisia), North Africa between 145-160 A.D.
  • Died: After 220 A.D. in Carthage (now Tunisia), North Africa
  • Published Works: Ad Nationes, Apologeticum, Ad Martyras, Adversus Hermogenem, Adversus Marcionem, De Carne Christi, De Resurrectione Carnis, and many more.
  • Notable Quote: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Early Life

Tertullian was born in Carthage, a Roman province in North Africa which is now Tunisia. Historians place the date of his birth anywhere from A.D. 145 to 160. In this period of history, Carthage was a leading cultural and educational hub, second only to Rome. Tertullian gained a superior education in subjects including law, rhetoric, philosophy, literature, grammar, Greek, and Latin.

Other than what can be gleaned from his own writings, Tertullian’s early life is poorly documented. His parents were gentiles, and his father may have been a Roman centurion. Around the age of 20, Tertullian moved to Rome to continue his studies. It is likely that he practiced law in Rome for a time. Also, while in Rome, Tertullian was profoundly shaken to witness the brutal persecution and martyrdom of Christians, which likely set the stage for his conversion to Christianity.

Radical Devotion

Near the end of the second century, Tertullian returned to Carthage, where he resided until he died. Sometime in his late thirties, Tertullian experienced a radical change when he came to faith in Jesus Christ. He married a Christian woman, and, after her death, remained a widower.

As a believer, Tertullian devoted himself to studying the Scriptures. Soon he excelled as a teacher in the church at Carthage and began writing extensively in defense of Christian beliefs and practices. One fourth-century scholar, Jerome, claimed that Tertullian was an ordained priest, but this idea has been challenged by current scholarship.

Through an uncompromising commitment to his faith and to the truth, Tertullian grew discontent with what he perceived as negligence in the orthodox church. Eventually, he left the church in Carthage and joined a newly formed separatist movement known as Montanism. The group, with its rigorous adherence to morality, appealed to Tertullian. For the most part, the sect was free of heretical influence, but even the Montanists were not strict enough for Tertullian. In time, he broke with them to form his own offshoot called the Tertullianists. The Tertullianists remained active in Africa until some time in the fifth century, when they rejoined the church in Carthage. Apart from Tertullian’s rigid ideas regarding church life, he remained doctrinally sound until his death.

Defending the Faith

Not long after his conversion, Tertullian began to produce copious amounts of Christian writings centered in three areas: apologetics, dogma, and morality. Many of these literary works are in Latin and still exist today. Two of his most notable early works were Ad Nationes, an essay regarding the injustice of Roman persecution against early Christians, and Apologeticum, a polished defense of religious liberty and the Christian faith.

With a strong sense of truth, Tertullian attacked the heresies of his day and often addressed the theological problems of specific opponents. For example, in Adversus Hermogenem (“Against Hermogenes”) Tertullian refuted the ideas of a local Carthaginian painter who believed God formed creation out of preexisting matter.

Tertullian’s writing style employed a biting wit and confrontational force unmatched by early Christian authorities. As a lawyer, Tertullian recognized the value of human reason in defending the doctrines of the Christian faith. In Adversus Marcionem, Tertullian wrote, “All the properties of God ought to be as rational as they are natural … nothing else can properly be accounted good than that which is rationally good; much less can goodness itself be defected in any irrationality.”

Tertullian wrote for the church on doctrines like the resurrection (De resurrectione carnis), baptism (De Baptismo), and the soul (De anima). He wrote to help believers deal with everyday problems like how to dress modestly as a woman (De cultu feminarum), about marriage and remarriage (De exhortatione castitatis), on the arts (De spectaculis), idolatry (De idollatria), and repentance (De poenitentia).

Tertullian believed that conflict between Christianity and pagan society was unavoidable, leading to persecution. In De fuga in persecutione, Tertullian encouraged Christians facing persecution to imitate Christ and accept martyrdom. Tertullian also wrote devotionals and teachings about prayer (De oration).

A Mixed Legacy

Tertullian’s dedication to his faith is best perceived in his hefty production of literary works, many of which are preserved to this day. Familiar Christian sayings—including “God bless,” “God grant,” and “If God will"—originated from Tertullian’s pen. He was also the first writer in Latin known to use the term Trinity.

When Tertullian strayed from Catholic orthodoxy into Montanism, he lost favor with most ancient scholars and the church. However, today’s academics esteem Tertullian as one of the most influential and brilliant figures in church history. His works outline many of Christianity’s central doctrines at their earliest development. For example, Tertullian wrote of the Trinity as three persons in one substance; of the fully divine and fully human nature of Christ; of the fall of man and original sin; and of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Tertullian’s ideas had a direct impact on men like Athanasius and Augustine as well as other church fathers and the councils they influenced.

According to church tradition, Tertullian lived to an advanced age. His last writings are dated around A.D. 220, although some suppose he may have lived until A.D. 240.

Sources 

  • "Tertullian." Who’s Who in Christian History (pp. 665–666). 
  • "Tertullian." Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (p. 721). 
  • “Tertullian.” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tertullian.
  • “Tertullian.” https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/tertullian-11629598.html.