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Who Was Tertullian? His Writings and Significance

May 03, 2010
Who Was Tertullian? His Writings and Significance

Who Was Tertullian?

If he ever came to speak at your church you would probably never forget him. He was passionate, articulate, totally committed. He boldly taunted the might of the Roman empire, courageously defended oppressed believers, and harshly reprimanded compromising Christians. In later life, he lost favor with much of the Church when he at least temporarily took up with the Montanists-- what we would probably call today a puritanical-charismatic sect.

He was the pacesetter as the church expanded its teaching and influence into the Latin speaking world, breaking new and fertile ground in theological understanding. For example, he coined the word Trinity, a word that does not appear anywhere in the Bible, to help us to understand the New Testament teaching about what God is like. He was one of the most fascinating leaders in all church history.

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born about 150 AD in Carthage, North Africa, the city considered second in importance only to Rome in his time. His father was the captain of a Roman legion and provided Tertullian with the education and training to become a lawyer. When he was about 40, Tertullian was converted to Christianity. He exuberantly embraced the gospel and ably used his legal skills to defend Christianity from pagan attackers.

Writings of Tertullian: Bait, Blood, and Seed

Thirty-one of Tertullian's writings remain, touching on all areas of human life. His works include apologetic treatises, controversial attacks on heresies, and moral writings. His Apology defending the Christian faith contains one of the earliest and most eloquent pleas for religious liberty. He argued that the church was self-supporting and provided the most peaceful citizens to the state. The government should be protecting such citizens, not persecuting them. Tertullian also saw, however, that the persecution of the church by the Roman authorities actually strengthened the Church of Christ: "It is bait that wins men for (our) school. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow: the blood of Christians is seed [of the church]."

Persecution was an ever-present danger in Tertullian's time and place. Christians were often perplexed by it. Was it from the Devil? Should they flee to avoid persecution? Tertullian took a tough line as difficult to understand today as it must have been then for he saw even persecution as from God: It never happens without God willing it, and it is fitting--even at times necessary--for Him to do so, to the approval or condemnation of His servants. . . this is his winnowing fan which even now cleanses the Lord's threshing floor--His church, winnowing the mixed heap of the faithful and separating the wheat of the martyrs from the chaff of the cowards... (When persecution strikes), the Church is mightily stirred; then the faithful are more careful in their preparations, greater attention is given to fasts and station days, to prayers and humility, to mutual charity and love, to holiness and temperance. Men have time for nothing but fear and hope. Therefore, it is clear that persecution, which works for the improvement of the servants of God, cannot be blamed on the Devil.

Tertullian and Truth

Tertullian had a tenacious sense of the truth and frequently railed against the church's conformity to the world and compromise with surrounding paganism. The social life of his time (just like our time but in slightly different appearance) was riddled with idolatry. Tertullian believed the Christian's conscience should be sensitive to the idolatry associated with the gladiatorial shows, violent games, plays, literature, administration, and even business guilds. "Our Lord Christ has surnamed Himself Truth, not Custom," and Christians should beware of being conformed to this world. The spirit of Christianity, wrote Tertullian, is of meekness, peace, and purity, while the public shows and sporting events only excite the wild and furious passions of anger and lust. Licentious speech is condemned by God, and what a man should not say he should not hear.

Regarding Worldly Philosophies

In these early years, church leaders were struggling to understand how they should relate the faith to worldly learning. Other Christians of this period, such as Justin Martyr, sought common ground between Greek philosophy and Christian belief. He would consider someone like Socrates as perhaps a Christian before the time of Christ. Tertullian, however, demanded, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Socrates, he asserted, was not a forerunner of Christianity: For by whom has truth ever been discovered without God? By whom has God ever been found without Christ? By whom has Christ ever been explored without the Holy Spirit? By whom has the Holy Spirit ever been attained without the mysterious gift of faith? Socrates, as none can doubt, was actuated by a different spirit. . .

In keeping with his great sense of truth, Tertullian also wrote several works attacking the heresies of his day, writing against Gnosticism and expounding orthodox Christian belief, especially the doctrine of the Trinity. Some of his ascetic ideas were later adopted by medieval monasticism.

He fought the battle on many fronts as Christians sought to find their way in the midst of a hostile pagan culture. But Tertullian, who had written so outspokenly about martyrdom and persecution, died peacefully sometime after 229 AD

Christian History magazine devoted an entire issue to "Worship in the Early Church."

Not forgotten. In keeping with his great sense of truth, Tertullian wrote several works attacking the heresies of his day, writing against Gnosticism and expounding orthodox Christian belief, especially the doctrine of the Trinity. These writings were influential, as were some of his ascetic ideas, which were adopted by medieval monasticism.

Written by Diane Severance, Ph.D.

Image credit: Joseph Betty, Tertullian's Prescription against Hereticks. Oxford (1722).


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