Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Church History 101: Tertullian

Read the introduction to this series – 50 people you need to know: Church History 101

Much of the way we speak of God originated with Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD). The passionate lawyer who converted later in life was driven to make complex theological concepts understandable to the common person.

The African theologian became known as "the father of Latin theology," as he was the first to write primarily in Latin and influence the Western church. Like Origen, however, some of his passions led to his embracing questionable beliefs later in life, leading to his not being granted sainthood.

He defended Christianity against heretical cults and tyrannical governments, while articulating difficult theological concepts in a creative and clear manner.

Tertullian is someone you absolutely have to know.

Who was Tertullian?

Born to pagan parents in modern day Tunisia, Tertullian was educated in rhetoric, law and literature. His father was a Roman centurion, which led him to a somewhat privileged life.

In his late 30's, however, Tertullian experienced a radical conversion to Christianity. He insisted that such a break with the former life was necessary. He said, "Christians are made, not born."

Immediately, he began to use his skills and education to defend his newfound faith against heresies from within and misrepresentations from without.

Many Romans, including those in positions of authority, perpetuated the lie that Christians sacrificed infants in their Lord's Supper celebrations. He refuted those charges, while advocating for religious freedom and fair trials for Christians, despite their minority status.

Fluent in Greek and Latin, Tertullian penned most of his works in Latin in order to reach the growing number of Christians in the Western part of the empire who only spoke Latin. This led to his veneration  and being seen in a patristic role among later Latin theologians.

Unfortunately, Tertullian allowed his passion to drive him further than it should. He often felt that the church was being too lenient with Christians who had openly sinned and later asked for forgiveness and re-admittance.

His tendency toward rigorism, perhaps even legalism, led him later in life to adopt an early form of Montanism due to its strict moral standards. He died 15 years later, removed from many he had influenced so greatly.

Why do you need to know Tertullian?

Have you ever used the word "Trinity" to speak of God? Do you speak of God existing as "three Persons, but one Being"? Those are terminology and phraseology that came from Tertullian attempting to explain deep theological truths in a way everyone could understand.

Not only did he coin the word, "Trinity," Tertullian also was the first to speak of Jesus as being one person with two natures. This allows us to better understand the incarnation and how it is that Jesus was both fully God and fully man.

He is often mistakenly judged to have believed that all philosophy was to be rejected by Christians. Rather, in On The Prescription of Heretics his rhetorical question  of "What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?" is a rejection of self-proclaiming Christians solely relying on philosophy to the exclusion of scripture.

He recognized that Christianity must be defended against attacks from the government and undermining from heresies. His most famous work, The Apology, rebuffs slanderous rumors about Christianity and appeals both theologically and practically to government officials for freedom.

While Americans almost take the idea of religious freedom for granted, that is a rather recent development that originated with Christians like Tertullian. He wrote, "You cannot parcel out freedom in pieces because freedom is all or nothing." Christians, like all citizens, he argued, deserved the freedom to worship and access to a fair trial.

One of his most famous quotes comes from an attempt to persuade officials with the ineffectiveness of martyring Christians. He assured Roman officials, "The more you mow us down, the more numerous we grow; the blood of Christians is seed (of the church)."

Despite the excesses that led Tertullian to embrace a group that later become fully heretical, he brought a needed corrective to the growing laxness of many church leaders. Ethical standards were beginning to wane and Tertullian recognized that Christians must remain different. They must be counter-cultural and focused on the welfare of others.

Bluntly, he wrote, "He who lives only to benefit himself confers on the world a benefit when he dies."

That was not Tertullian. He did not live to benefit himself, but sought to better others and their walk with Christ. It was a loss for this world when he died around 225.

Thankfully he was such a prolific writer and we still have many of his writings today. From them we can learn who God is, how we can speak of Him more intelligently, yet clearly.

Tertullian has influenced the values that shaped the founding of the United States to the very words we use to speak about God.

Trivia Fact: Because of his fiery temper and argumentative nature, church historian Phillip Schaff wrote of Tertullian: "His polemics everywhere leave marks of blood. It is a wonder that he was not killed by the heathens, or excommunicated by the Catholics."


Would you like to write a guest blog for the Church History 101 series? Check out the list of 50 people, find one you would like to work on, then contact me via emailTwitter or Facebook.

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