« Prev The Writings of Tertullian Next »

§ 197. The Writings of Tertullian.

Tertullian developed an extraordinary literary activity in two languages between about 190 and 220. His earlier books in the Greek language, and some in the Latin, are lost. Those which remain are mostly short; but they are numerous, and touch nearly all departments of religious life. They present a graphic picture of the church of his day. Most of his works, according to internal evidence, fall in the first quarter of the third century, in the Montanistic period of his life, and among these many of his ablest writings against the heretics; while, on the other hand, the gloomy moral austerity, which predisposed him to Montanism, comes out quite strongly even in his earliest productions.15271527    On the chronological order see Notes.528

His works may be grouped in three classes: apologetic; polemic or anti-heretical; and ethic or practical; to which may be added as a fourth class the expressly Montanistic tracts against the Catholics. We can here only mention the most important:

1. In the Apologetic works against heathens and Jews, he pleads the cause of all Christendom, and deserves the thanks of all Christendom. Preëminent among them is the Apologeticus (or Apologeticum).15281528    Comp. H. A. Woodham: Tert. Liber Apologeticus with English Notes and an Introduction to the Study of Patristical and Ecclesiastical Latinity, Cambridge, 1850. Am. ed. of Select Works of Tert., by F. A. March, New York, 1876. p. 26-46.529 It was composed in the reign of Septimius Severus, between 197 and 200. It is unquestionably one of the most beautiful monuments of the heroic age of the church. In this work, Tertullian enthusiastically and triumphantly repels the attacks of the heathens upon the new religion, and demands for it legal toleration and equal rights with the other sects of the Roman empire. It is the first plea for religious liberty, as an inalienable right which God has given to every man, and which the civil government in its own interest should not only tolerate but respect and protect. He claims no support, no favor, but simply justice. The church was in the first three centuries a self-supporting and self-governing society (as it ought always to be), and no burden, but a blessing to the state, and furnished to it the most peaceful and useful citizens. The cause of truth and justice never found a more eloquent and fearless defender in the very face of despotic power, and the blazing fires of persecution, than the author of this book. It breathes from first to last the assurance of victory in apparent defeat.

"We conquer," are his concluding words to the prefects and judges of the Roman empire, "We conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued .... Many of your writers exhort to the courageous bearing of pain and death, as Cicero in the Tusculans, as Seneca in his Chances, as Diogenes, Pyrrhus, Callinicus. And yet their words do not find so many disciples as Christians do, teachers not by words, but by their deeds. That very obstinacy you rail against is the preceptress. For who that contemplates it is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines? And, when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fulness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, by giving in exchange his blood? For that secures the remission of all offences. On this account it is that we return thanks on the very spot for your sentences. As the divine and human are ever opposed to each other, when we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by the Highest."

The relation of the Apologeticus to the Octavius of Minucius Felix will be discussed in the next section. But even if Tertullian should have borrowed from that author (as he undoubtedly borrowed, without acknowledgment, much matter from Irenaeus, in his book against the Valentinians), he remains one of the most original and vigorous writers.15291529    Ebert, who was the first to assert the priority of Octavius, nevertheless admits (Gesch. der christl. lat. Lit. I. 32) "Tertullianist einer der genialsten, originallsten und fruchtbarstem unter den christlich-lateinischen Autoren."530 Moreover the plan is different; Minucius Felix pleads for Christianity as a philosopher before philosophers, to convince the intellect; Tertullian as a lawyer and advocate before judges, to induce them to give fair play to the Christians, who were refused even a hearing in the courts.

The beautiful little tract "On the Testimony of the Soul," (6 chapters) is a supplement to the Apologeticus, and furnishes one of the strongest positive arguments for Christianity. Here the human soul is called to bear witness to the one true God: it springs from God, it longs for God; its purer and nobler instincts and aspirations, if not diverted and perverted by selfish and sinful passions, tend upwards and heavenwards, and find rest and peace only in God. There is, we may say, a pre-established harmony between the soul and the Christian religion; they are made for each other; the human soul is constitutionally Christian. And this testimony is universal, for as God is everywhere, so the human soul is everywhere. But its testimony turns against itself if not heeded.

"Every soul," he concludes, "is a culprit as well as a witness: in the measure that it testifies for truth, the guilt of error lies on it; and on the day of judgment it will stand before the court of God, without a word to say. Thou proclaimedst God, O soul, but thou didst not seek to know Him; evil spirits were detested by thee, and yet they were the objects of thy adoration; the punishments of hell were foreseen by thee, but no care was taken to avoid them; thou hadst a savor of Christianity, and withal wert the persecutor of Christians."

2. His polemic works are occupied chiefly with the refutation of the Gnostics. Here belongs first of all his thoroughly catholic tract." On the Prescription of Heretics."15301530    Praescriptio, in legal terminology, means an exception made before the merits of a case are discussed, showing in limine that the plaintiff ought not to be heard. This book has been most admired by R. Catholics as a masterly vindication of the catholic rule of faith against heretical assailants; but its force is weakened by Tertullian’s Montanism.531 It is of a general character and lays down the fundamental principle of the church in dealing with heresy. Tertullian cuts off all errors and neologies at the outset from the right of legal contest and appeal to the holy Scriptures, because these belong only to the catholic church as the legitimate heir and guardian of Christianity. Irenaeus had used the same argument, but Tertullian gave it a legal or forensic form. The same argument, however, turns also against his own secession; for the difference between heretics and schismatics is really only relative, at least in Cyprian’s view. Tertullian afterwards asserted, in contradiction with this book, that in religious matters not custom nor long possession, but truth alone, was to be consulted.

Among the heretics, he attacked chiefly the Valentinian Gnostics, and Marcion. The work against Marcion (A. D. 208) is his largest, and the only one in which he indicates the date of composition, namely the 15th year of the reign of Septimius Severus (A. D. 208).15311531    English translation by Peter Holmes, in the "Ante-Nicene Libr., " vol. VII., 1868 (478 pages).532 He wrote three works against this famous heretic; the first he set aside as imperfect, the second was stolen from him and published with many blunders before it was finished. In the new work (in five books), he elaborately defends the unity of God, the Creator of all, the integrity of the Scriptures, and the harmony of the Old and New Testaments. He displays all his power of solid argument, subtle sophistry, ridicule and sarcasm, and exhausts his vocabulary of vituperation. He is more severe upon heretics than Jews or Gentiles. He begins with a graphic description of all the physical abnormities of Pontus, the native province of Marcion, and the gloomy temper, wild passions, and ferocious habits of its people, and then goes on to say:

"Nothing in Pontus is so barbarous and sad as the fact that Marcion was born there, fouler than any Scythian, more roving than the Sarmatian, more inhuman than the Massagete, more audacious than an Amazon, darker than the cloud of the Euxine, colder than its winter, more brittle than its ice, more deceitful than the Ister, more craggy than Caucasus. Nay, more, the true Prometheus, Almighty God, is mangled by Marcion’s blasphemies. Marcion is more savage than even the beasts of that barbarous region. For what beaver was ever a greater emasculator than he who has abolished the nuptial bond? What Pontic mouse ever had such gnawing powers as he who has gnawed the Gospel to pieces? Verily, O Euxine, thou hast produced a monster more credible to philosophers than to Christians. For the cynic Diogenes used to go about, lantern in hand, at mid-day, to find a man; whereas Marcion has quenched the light of his faith, and so lost the God whom he had found."

The tracts "On Baptism" "On the Soul," "On the Flesh of Christ," "On the Resurrection of the Flesh" "Against Hermogenes," "Against Praxeas," are concerned with particular errors, and are important to the doctrine of baptism, to Christian psychology, to eschatology, and christology.

3. His numerous Practical or Ascetic treatises throw much light on the moral life of the early church, as contrasted with the immorality of the heathen world. Among these belong the books "On Prayer" "On Penance" "On Patience,"—a virtue, which he extols with honest confession of his own natural impatience and passionate temper, and which he urges upon himself as well as others,—the consolation of the confessors in prison (Ad Martyres), and the admonition against visiting theatres (De Spectaculis), which he classes with the pomp of the devil, and against all share, direct or indirect, in the worship of idols (De Idololatria).

4. His strictly Montanistic or anti-catholic writings, in which the peculiarities of this sect are not only incidentally touched, as in many of the works named above, but vindicated expressly and at large, are likewise of a practical nature, and contend, in fanatical rigor, against the restoration of the lapsed (De Pudicitia), flight in persecutions, second marriage (De Monogamia, and De Exhortatione Castitatis), display of dress in females (De Cultu Feminarum), and other customs of the "Psychicals," as he commonly calls the Catholics in distinction from the sectarian Pneumatics. His plea, also, for excessive fasting (De Jejuniis), and his justification of a Christian soldier, who was discharged for refusing to crown his head (De Corona Militis), belong here. Tertullian considers it unbecoming the followers of Christ, who, when on earth, wore a crown of thorns for us, to adorn their heads with laurel, myrtle, olive, or with flowers or gems. We may imagine what he would have said to the tiara of the pope in his mediaeval splendor.


The chronological order of Tertullian’s work can be approximately determined by the frequent allusions to the contemporaneous history of the Roman empire, and by their relation to Montanism. See especially Uhlhorn, Hauck, Bonwetsch, and also Bp. Kaye (in Oehler’s ed. of the Opera III. 709–718.) We divide the works into three classes, according to their relation to Montanism.

(1) Those books which belong to the author’s catholic period before a.d. 200; viz.: Apologeticus or Apologeticum (in the autumn of 197, according to Bonwetsch; 198, Ebert; 199, Hesselberg; 200, Uhlhorn); Ad Martyres (197); Ad Nationes (probably soon after Apol.); De Testimonio Animae; De Poenitentia; De Oratione; De Baptismo (which according to cap. 15, was preceded by a Greek work against the validity of Heretical Baptism); Ad Uxorem; De Patientia; Adv. Judaeos; De Praescriptione Haereticorum; De Spectaculis (and a lost work on the same subject in the Greek language).

Kaye puts De Spectaculis in the Montanistic period. De Praescriptione is also placed by some in the Montanistic period before or after Adv. Marcionem. But Bonwetsch (p. 46) puts it between 199 and 206, probably in 199. Hauck makes it almost simultaneous with De Baptismo. He also places De Idololatria in this period.

(2) Those which were certainly not composed till after his transition to Montanism, between a.d. 200 and 220; viz.: Adv. Marcionem (5 books, composed in part at least in the 15th year of the Emperor Septimius Severus, i.e. a.d. 207 or 208; comp. I. 15); De Anima; De Carne Christi; De Resurrectione Carnis; Adv. Praxean; Scorpiace (i.e. antidote against the poison of the Gnostic heresy); De Corona Militis; De Virginibus ve!andis; De Exhortatione Castitatis; De Pallio (208 or 209); De Fuga in persecutione; De Monogamia; De Jejuniis; De Pudicitia; Ad Scapulam (212); De Ecstasi (lost); De Spe Fidelium (likewise lost).

Kellner (1870) assigns De Pudicitia, De Monogamia, De Jejunio, and Adv. Praxean to the period between 218 and 222.

(3) Those which probably belong to the Montanistic period; viz.: Adv. Valentinianos; De cultu Feminarum (2 libri); Adv. Hermogenem.

« Prev The Writings of Tertullian Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |