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01.5.0 Tertullian’s Writings’ Impact on Modern Theology

If you’re a modern day Orthodox Christian, whether you know it or not, Tertullian has had a powerful influence on what you believe. So it might be worth your while to take a look at who this character was. Major foundational pieces of the Orthodox Christian church such as the use of the word Trinity and the concept of sacraments are traced to this man.

Most of what we know about Tertullian comes from authors a century or more after Tertullian’s life. You might be surprised to know that not only was he not only not a prophet or apostle, but there is a dispute as to whether or not he was ever ordained even as a priest. According to Britannica, the encyclopedia, he was born 155 A.D. most probably to a family of position and wealth. “Tertullian received an exceptional education in grammar, rhetoric, literature, philosophy, and law. Little is known of his early life.”i

He most probably was born a pagan as Britannica lists his parents as pagan.

“During the next 20 to 25 years—i.e., from his early 40s to mid-60s—Tertullian devoted himself almost entirely to literary pursuits. Developing an original Latin style, the fiery and tempestuous Tertullian became a lively and pungent propagandist though not the most profound writer in Christian antiquity. His works abound with arresting and memorable phrases, ingenious aphorisms, bold and ironic puns, wit, sarcasm, countless words of his own coinage, and a constant stream of invective against his opponents. Yet, he could be gentle and sensitive, as in a treatise to his wife (Ad uxorem), and he could be self-critical and reflective, as in his treatise on patience (De patientia), a virtue that he admitted was conspicuously absent from his life.”ii

So basically what we have here is an intelligent, well educated man with good writing skills in the late second and early third century A.D. Somewhere along the line he became a committed believer. But just as interestingly, sometime before 210 A.D. this man stopped adhering to the Orthodox Christian faith and began following a view of Christianity called Montanism. So Orthodox writers who cite his references to the great “truths” that he presented are careful to point out that they follow him in his days before his conversion to Montanism!

If he is anything, Tertullian is a theologian, someone who studies God, and presents the conclusions of that study. So it must be emphasized that when Tertullian writes it is as a man who has had varying viewpoints of Christianity, He is not a prophet, one who speaks for God, or an apostle, one who is set forth by God. He may have achieved the status of a pastor, we don’t know, but his importance in history are definitely his theological writings. But the theological writing that are cited as useful to Orthodox theologians today are those of him when younger, not the writings from his perpectives as an older man, which is usually when one is usually considered to be wiser.

The Tertullian Project is a website that’s devoted to this man. THE THEOLOGY OF TERTULLIAN by Robert E. Roberts is in this site and explains Tertullian’s positions in good detail.

Rather than give you a theological synopsis of Tertullian’s writing I am going to let you see his actual written ideas so you can form your own opinion. Here are some snippits of Tertullians writing. This following citation “is sometimes designated the only pre-Nicene treatise on any of the sacraments;…”iii

“A treatise on our sacrament of water, by which the sins of our earlier blindness are washed away and we are released for eternal life will not be superfluous.… [2] vipers and asks, as it is true of serpents in general, are found in dry and waterless places. [3] but we, little fishes, are born in water after the manner of our [?????], Jesus Christ; nor can we be otherwise saved, except by abiding prominently in the water.”

This was written between 200 and 206 AD. Notice that it is purely the authors logic and reasoning that he is presenting here.

Next lets look a little at the context of Tertullian’s use of the word “Trinity”:

“As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. How they are susceptible of number without division, will be shown as our treatise proceeds.”iv

This bit of writing, I think, shows how intricate the thinking is in Tertullian’s writing. Intricate, yes, but definitely hard to follow. Yet Tertullian is cited for these and other references as if he is a prophet of some kind, a revealer of “progressive revelation”, and even though the concept of the Trinity stated here is not the concept it became, this reference is given as proof as to the universality of the concept.

Some say the Apostle Paul is hard to follow at times. To me, Paul has nothing on Tertullian.

Tertullian might be called a prude, He advocated against the circus, the theater and other worldly entertainments:

“Are we not, in like manner, enjoined to put away from us all immodesty? On this ground, again, we are excluded from the theatre, which is immodesty’s own peculiar abode, where nothing is in repute but what elsewhere is disreputable. [2] So the best path to the highest favour of its god is the vileness which the Atellan gesticulates, which the buffoon in woman’s clothes exhibits, destroying all natural modesty, so that they blush more readily at home than at the play, which finally is done from his childhood on the person of the pantomime, that he may become an actor. [3] The very harlots, too, victims of the public lust, are brought upon the stage, their misery increased as being there in the presence of their own sex, from whom alone they are wont to hide themselves: they are paraded publicly before every age and every rank–their abode, their gains, their praises, are set forth, and that even in the hearing of those who should not hear such things. I say nothing about other matters, which it were good to hide away in their own darkness and their own gloomy caves, lest they should stain the light of day. [4] Let the Senate, let all ranks, blush for very shame! Why, even these miserable women, who by their own gestures destroy their modesty, dreading the light of day, and the people’s gaze, know something of shame at least once a year. “ v

Tertullian really takes a strong stance here, a puritan is you will.  All worldly entertainment, including plays and the circus are to be avoided.

Next let’s look ar Tertullian’s reference to baptism as a sacrament, sacramentum in latin, which he used as a reference to a mystery of the church, which is how he described what happens in baptism, and more precisely in the rite of water baptism.

“HAPPY iS our sacrament Of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! A treatise on this matter will not be superfluous; instructing not only such as are just becoming formed (in the faith), but them who, content with having simply believed, without full examination of the grounds of the traditions, carry (in mind), through ignorance, an untried though probable faith. The consequence is, that a viper of the Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism. Which is quite in accordance with nature; for vipers and asps and basilisks themselves generally do affect arid and waterless places. But we, little fishes, after the example of our IXq,s204>S Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water; so that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes, by taking them away from the water! ”vi

In the above passage Tertullian refers to the Cainite heresy which evidently has carried away a not insignificant numer of Christians:

“the Cainite heresy, lately conversant in this quarter, has carried away a great number with her most venomous doctrine, making it her first aim to destroy baptism”

Tertullian appears to be arguing here that the power of baptism is somehow in the water, i.e. holy water!  He certainly is writing against the Cainite heresy, a form of gnosticism that was pervasive at the time of the early church, but in his attempt to help he basically is writing new doctrine, IE, sacraments.

It is apparent that Tertullian’s writings form the basis of the rise of Roman Catholicism with the trinity, sacraments, and so forth. Yet he was a man educated in the finest worldly traditions who applied that education to form reasoning to explain the basis of faith. To me that implies bias to explain Christianity in terms of his worldly education. This is certainly admirable as it appears he is seeking God and to explain God’s business in terms of the education of the day. But to raise this effort to the level apostleship or prophecy, ie, bring new light or speaking for God in these matters is beyond the credit anyone should give Tertullian.

It needs to be proclaimed that Tertullian was a prolific writer by trade, and he wrote thought provoking essays on Christianity to be sure. But I haven’t found anything where even Tertullian believed he was acting as an Apostle or Prophet. Yet he is sometimes referred to as an early part of the “progressive revelation” of Christianity. And his writings are certainly treated as such. As such Tertullian is part of the fork in the river where traditional Christianity diverts from original Christianity.

ihttps://www.britannica.com/biography/Tertullian

iiIbid

iiiTHE FAITH of the EARLY FATHERS, volume 1, William a Jurgens, liturgical press, Collegeville Minnesota copyright 1970, P. 126

ivNew Advent, Against Praxeas, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htm

vhttp://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-09.htm#P924_369498

viOn Baptism by Tertullian, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian21.html

December 6th, 2017 Posted by | Movements | no comments

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