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§ 196. Tertullian and the African School.

(I.) Tertulliani quae supersunt omnia. Ed. Franc. Oehler. Lips. 1853, 3 vols. The third vol. contains dissertations De Vita et Scriptis Tert. by Nic. Le Nourry, Mosheim, Noesselt, Semler, Kaye. Earlier editions by Beatus Rhenanus, Bas. 1521; Pamelius, Antwerp, 1579; Rigaltius (Rigault), Par. 1634 and Venet. 1744; Semler, Halle, 1770–3. 6 vols.; Oberthür, 1780; Leopold, in Gersdorf’s "Biblioth. patrum Eccles. Latinorum selecta"(IV-VII.), Lips. 1839–41; and Migne, Par. I 1884. A new ed. by Reifferscheid will appear in the Vienna "Corpus Scriptorum Eccles. Lat."

English transl. by P. Holmes and others in the "Ante-Nicene Christian Library," Edinb. 1868 sqq. 4 vols. German translation by K. A. H. Kellner. Köln, 1882, 2 vols.

(II.) Euseb. H. G. II. 2, 25; III. 20; V. 5. Jerome: De Viris III.c.53.

(III.) Neander: Antignosticus, Geist des Tertullianus u. Einleitung in dessen Schriften. Berl. 1825, 2d ed. 1849.

J. Kaye: Eccles. Hist. of the second and third Centuries, illustrated from the Writings of Tertullian. 3d ed. Lond. 1845.

Carl Hesselberg: Tertullian’s Lehre aus seinen Schriften entwickelt. 1. Th. Leben und Schriften. Dorpat 1848 (136 pages).

P. Gottwald: De Montanismo Tertulliani. Breslau, 1863.

Hermann Rönsch: Das Neue Testament Tertullian’s. Leipz. 1871 (731 pages.) A reconstruction of the text of the old Latin version of the N. T. from the writings of Tertullian.

Ad. Ebert: Gesch. der Christl. lat. Lit. Leipz. 1874, sqq. I. 24–41.

A. Hauck: Tertullian’s Leben und Schriften, Erlangen, 1877 (410 pages.) With judicious extracts from all his writings.

(IV.) On the chronology of Tertullian’s works see Noesselt: De vera aetate et doctrina Scriptorum Tertull. (in Oehler’s ed. III. 340–619); Uhlhorn: Fundamenta Chronologica Tertullianeae (Göttingen 1852); Bonwetsch: Die Schriften Tertullians nach der Zeit ihrer Abfassung (Bonn 1879, 89 pages); Harnack: Zur Chronologie der Schriften Tertullians (Leipz. 1878); Noeldechen: Abfassungszeit der Schriften Tertullians (Leipz. 1888).

(V.) On special points: oehninger: Tertullianund seine Auferstehungslehre Augsb. 1878, 34 pp). F. J. Schmidt: De Latinitate Tertutliani (Erlang. 1877). M. Klussmann: Curarum Tertullianearum, part. I et II. (Halle 1881). G. R. Hauschild: Tertullian’s Psychologie (Frankf. a. M. 1880, 78 pp.). By the same: Die Grundsätze u. Mittel der Wortbildung bei Tertullian(Leipz. 1881, 56 pp); Ludwig.: Tert’s Ethik. (Leipz. 1885). Special treatises on Tertullian, by Hefele, Engelhardt, Leopold, Schaff (in Herzog), Ebert, Kolberg.

The Western church in this period exhibits no such scientific productiveness as the Eastern. The apostolic church was predominantly Jewish, the ante-Nicene church, Greek, the post-Nicene, Roman. The Roman church itself was first predominantly Greek, and her earliest writers—Clement, Hermas, Irenaeus, Hippolytus—wrote exclusively in Greek. Latin Christianity begins to appear in literature at the end of the second century, and then not in Italy, but in North Africa, not in Rome, but in Carthage, and very characteristically, not with converted speculative philosophers, but with practical lawyers and rhetoricians. This literature does not gradually unfold itself, but appears at once under a fixed, clear stamp, with a strong realistic tendency. North Africa also gave to the Western church the fundamental book—the Bible in its first Latin Version, the so-called Itala, and this was the basis of Jerome’s Vulgata which to this day is the recognized standard Bible of Rome. There were, however, probably several Latin versions of portions of the Bible current in the West before Jerome.

I. Life of Tertullian.

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus is the father of the Latin theology and church language, and one of the greatest men of Christian antiquity. We know little of his life but what is derived from his book and from the brief notice of Jerome in his catalogue of illustrious men. But few writers have impressed their individuality so strongly in their books as this African father. In this respect, as well as in others, he resembles St. Paul, and Martin Luther. He was born about the year 150, at Carthage, the ancient rival of Rome, where his father was serving as captain of a Roman legion under the proconsul of Africa. He received a liberal Graeco-Roman education; his writings manifest an extensive acquaintance with historical, philosophical, poetic, and antiquarian literature, and with juridical terminology and all the arts of an advocate. He seems to have devoted himself to politics and forensic eloquence, either in Carthage or in Rome. Eusebius calls him "a man accurately acquainted with the Roman laws,"15151515    H. E. II. 2. He adds that Tertullian was "particularly distinguished among the eminent men of Rome," and quotes a passage from his Apology, which is also translated into the Greek."516 and many regard him as identical with the Tertyllus, or Tertullianus, who is the author of several fragments in the Pandects.

To his thirtieth or fortieth year he lived in heathen blindness and licentiousness.15161516    De Resurr. Carn. c. 59, he confesses: "Ego me scio neque alia carne adulteria commisisse, neque nunc alia carne ad continentiam eniti." Comp. also Apolog., c. 18 and 25; De Anima, c. 2; De Paenit., c. 4 and 12; Ad Scapul., c. 5.517 Towards the end of the second century be embraced Christianity, we know not exactly on what occasion, but evidently from deepest conviction, and with all the fiery energy of his soul; defended it henceforth with fearless decision against heathens, Jews, and heretics; and studied the strictest morality of life. His own words may be applied to himself: "Fiunt, non nascuntur Christiani." He was married, and gives us a glowing picture of Christian family life, to which we have before referred; but in his zeal for every form of self-denial, he set celibacy still higher, and advised his wife, in case he should die before her to remain a widow, or, at least never to marry an unbelieving husband; and he afterwards put second marriage even on a level with adultery. He entered the ministry of the Catholic church,15171517    This fact, however, rests only on the authority of Jerome, and does not appear from Tertullian’s own writings. Roman Catholic historians, with their dislike to married priests, have made him a layman on the insufficient ground of the passage: "Nonne et Laici sacerdotes sumus? "De Exhort. Cast., c. 7.518 first probably in Carthage, perhaps in Rome, where at all events he spent some time15181518    De Cultu Femin., c. 7. Comp. Euseb. II. 2.519 but, like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, he never rose above the rank of presbyter.

Some years after, between 199 and 203, he joined the puritanic, though orthodox, sect of the Montanists. Jerome attributes this change to personal motives, charging it to the envy and insults of the Roman clergy, from whom he himself experienced many an indignity.15191519    De Vir. illustr., c. 53: "Hic [Tert.] cum usque ad mediam aetatem presbyter ecclesia epermansisset, invidia et contumeliis clericorum Romanae ecclesiae ad Montani dogma delapsus in multis libris novac prophetiae meminit."520 But Tertullian was inclined to extremes from the first, especially to moral austerity. He was no doubt attracted by the radical contempt for the world, the strict asceticism, the severe discipline, the martyr enthusiasm, and the chiliasm of the Montanists, and was repelled by the growing conformity to the world in the Roman church, which just at that period, under Zephyrinus and Callistus, openly took under its protection a very lax penitential discipline, and at the same time, though only temporarily, favored the Patripassian error of Praxeas, an opponent of the Montanists. Of this man Tertullian therefore says, in his sarcastic way: He has executed in Rome two works of the devil; has driven out prophecy (the Montanistic) and brought in heresy (the Patripassian); has turned off the Holy Ghost and crucified the Father.15201520    Adv. Prax. c. 1.521 Tertullian now fought the catholics, or the psychicals, as he frequently calls them, with the same inexorable sternness with which he had combated the heretics. The departures of the Montanists, however, related more to points of morality and discipline than of doctrine; and with all his hostility to Rome, Tertullian remained a zealous advocate of the catholic faith, and wrote, even from his schismatic position, several of his most effective works against the heretics, especially the Gnostics. Indeed, as a divine, he stood far above this fanatical sect, and gave it by his writings an importance and an influence in the church itself which it certainly would never otherwise have attained.

He labored in Carthage as a Montanist presbyter and an author, and died, as Jerome says, in decrepit old age, according to some about the year 220, according to others not till 240; for the exact time, as well as the manner of his death, are unknown. His followers in Africa propagated themselves, under the name of "Tertullianists," down to the time of Augustin in the fifth century, and took perhaps a middle place between the proper Montanists and the catholic church. That he ever returned into the bosom of Catholicism is an entirely groundless opinion.

Strange that this most powerful defender of old catholic orthodoxy and the teacher of the high-churchly Cyprian, should have been a schismatic and all antagonist of Rome. But he had in his constitution the tropical fervor and acerbity of the Punic character, and that bold spirit of independence in which his native city of Carthage once resisted, through more than a hundred years’ war,15211521    B.C. 264-146,522 the rising power of the seven-hilled city on the Tiber. He truly represents the African church, in which a similar antagonism continued to reveal itself, not only among the Donatists, but even among the leading advocates of Catholicism. Cyprian died at variance with Rome on the question of heretical baptism; and Augustin, with all his great services to the catholic system of faith, became at the same time, through the anti-Peligian doctrines of sin and grace, the father of evangelical Protestantism and of semi-Protestant Jansenism.

Hippolytus presents several interesting points of contact. He was a younger contemporary of Tertullian though they never met is far as we know. Both were champions of catholic orthodoxy against heresy, and yet both opposed to Rome. Hippolytus charged two popes with heresy as well as laxity of discipline; and yet in view of his supposed repentance and martyrdom (as reported by Prudentius nearly two hundred years afterwards), he was canonized in the Roman church; while such honor was never conferred upon the African, though he was a greater and more useful man.

II. Character. Tertullian was a rare genius, perfectly original and fresh, but angular, boisterous and eccentric; full of glowing fantasy, pointed wit, keen discernment, polemic dexterity, and moral earnestness, but wanting in clearness, moderation, and symmetrical development. He resembled a foaming mountain torrent rather than a calm, transparent river in the valley. His vehement temper was never fully subdued, although he struggled sincerely against it.15221522    Comp. his own painful confession in De Patient. c. 1: "Miserrimus ego semper aeger caloribus impatientiae."523 He was a man of strong convictions, and never hesitated to express them without fear or favor.

Like almost all great men, he combined strange contrarieties of character. Here we are again reminded of Luther; though the reformer had nothing of the ascetic gloom and rigor of the African father, and exhibits instead with all his gigantic energy, a kindly serenity and childlike simplicity altogether foreign to the latter. Tertullian dwells enthusiastically on the divine foolishness of the gospel, and has a sublime contempt for the world, for its science and its art; and yet his writings are a mine of antiquarian knowledge, and novel, striking, and fruitful ideas. He calls the Grecian philosophers the patriarchs of all heresies, and scornfully asks: "What has the academy to do with the church? what has Christ to do with Plato—Jerusalem with Athens?" He did not shrink from insulting the greatest natural gift of God to man by his "Credo quia absurdum est." And yet reason does him invaluable service against his antagonists.15231523    In a similar manner Luther, though himself one of the most original and fruitful thinkers, sometimes unreasonably abuses reason as the devil’s mistress.524 He vindicates the principle of church authority and tradition with great force and ingenuity against all heresy; yet, when a Montanist, he claims for himself with equal energy the right of private judgment and of individual protest.15241524    In this apparent contradiction Luther resembles Tertullian: he fought Romanism with private judgment, and Zwinlianism, Anabaptists, and all sectarians ("Schwarm - und Rottengeister" as he called them) with catholic authority; he denounced "the damned heathen Aristotle," as the father of Popish scholaisticism, and used scholastic distinctions in support of the ubiquity of Christ’s body against Zwingli.525 He has a vivid sense of the corruption of human nature and the absolute need of moral regeneration; yet he declares the soul to be born Christian, and unable to find rest except in Christ. "The testimonies of the soul, says he, "are as true as they are simple; as simple as they are popular; as popular as they are natural; as natural as they are divine." He is just the opposite of the genial, less vigorous, but more learned and comprehensive Origen. He adopts the strictest supranatural principles; and yet he is a most decided realist, and attributes body, that is, as it were, a corporeal, tangible substantiality, even to God and to the soul; while the idealistic Alexandrian cannot speak spiritually enough of God, and can conceive the human soul without and before the existence of the body. Tertullian’s theology revolves about the great Pauline antithesis of sin and grace, and breaks the road to the Latin anthropology and soteriology afterwards developed by his like-minded, but clearer, calmer, and more considerate countryman, Augustin. For his opponents, be they heathens, Jews, heretics, or Catholics, he has as little indulgence and regard as Luther. With the adroitness of a special pleader he entangles them in self-contradictions, pursues them into every nook and corner, overwhelms them with arguments, sophisms, apophthegms, and sarcasms, drives them before him with unmerciful lashings, and almost always makes them ridiculous and contemptible. His polemics everywhere leave marks of blood. It is a wonder that he was not killed by the heathens, or excommunicated by the Catholics.

His style is exceedingly characteristic, and corresponds with his thought. It is terse, abrupt, laconic, sententious, nervous, figurative, full of hyperbole, sudden turns, legal technicalities, African provincialisms, or rather antiquated or vulgar latinisms.15251525    According to Niebuhr, a most competent judge of Latin antiquities. Provinces and colonies often retain terms and phrases after they die out in the capital and in the mother country. Renan says with reference to Tertullian (Marc-Aurèle, p. 456) La ’lingua volgata’ d’Afrigue contribua ainsi dans une large part à la formation de la langue ecclésiastique de I’ Occident, et ainsi elle exerça une influence décisive sur nos langues modernes. Mais il résulta de là une autre conséquence; cest que les textes fondamentaux de la littérature latine chétienne furent écrits dans une langue que lettrés d’Italie trouvèrent barbare et corrompue, ce qui plus tard donna occasion de la part des rhéteurs à des objections et à des épigrammes sans fin."Comp. the works of Rönsch, Vercellone, Kaulen, Ranke, and Ziegler on the Itala and Vulgata.526 It abounds in latinized Greek words, and new expressions, in roughnesses, angles, and obscurities; sometimes, like a grand volcanic eruption, belching precious stones and dross in strange confusion; or like the foaming torrent tumbling over the precipice of rocks and sweeping all before it. His mighty spirit wrestles with the form, and breaks its way through the primeval forest of nature’s thinking. He had to create the church language of the Latin tongue.15261526    Ruhnken calls Tertullian "Latinitatis pessimum auctorem" and Bishop Kaye the harshest and most obscure of writers," but Niebuhr, (Lectures on Ancient History, vol. II. p. 54), Oehler (Op. III. 720), and Holmes (the translator of Tert. against Marcion, p. ix.) judge more favorably of his style, which is mostly " the terse and vigorous expression of terse and vigorous thought."Renan (Marc Aurèle, p. 456) calls Tertullian the strangest literary phenomenon "un mélange inouï de talent, de fausseté d’esprit, d’éloquence et de mauvais goût grand écrivain, si l’on admet que sacrifier toute grammaire et toute correction à l’ effet sois bien écrire."Cardinal Newman calls him " the most powerful writer of the early centuries "(Tracts, Theol. and Eccles., p. 219).527

In short, we see in this remarkable man both intellectually and morally, the fermenting of a new creation, but not yet quite set free from the bonds of chaotic darkness and brought into clear and beautiful order.


I. Gems from Tertullian’s writings.

The philosophy of persecution:

"Semen Est Sanguis Christianorum." (Apol. c. 50.)

The human soul and Christianity (made for Christ, yet requiring a new birth):

"Testimonium Animae Naturaliter. Christianae." (De Test. Anim. c. 2; see the passages quoted § 40, p. 120.)

"Fiunt, non, nascuntur Christiani." (Apol. 18. De Test. Anim. 1)

Christ the Truth, not Habit (versus traditionalism):

"Christus Veritas Est, Non Consuetudo." (De Virg. vel 1.)

General priesthood of the laity (versus an exclusive hierarchy):

"Nonne Et Laici Sacerdotes Sumus? "(De Exhort. Cast. 7.)

Religious Liberty, an inalienable right of man (versus compulsion and persecution:

"Humani Juris Et Naturalis Potestatis Est Unicuique Quod Putaverit Colere." (Ad Scap. 2; comp. Apol. 14 and the passages quoted § 13, p. 35.)

Dr. Baur (Kirchengesch.I. 428) says: "It is remarkable how already the oldest Christian Apologists, in vindicating the Christian faith, were led to assert the Protestant principle of freedom of faith and conscience "[and we must add, of public worship], "as an inherent attribute of the conception of religion against their heathen opponents." Then he quotes Tertullian, as the first who gave clear expression to this principle.

II. Estimates of Tertullian as a man and an author.

Neander (Ch. Hist. I. 683 sq., Torrey’s translation): "Tertullian presents special claims to attention, both as the first representative of the theological tendency in the North-African church, and as a representative of the Montanistic mode of thinking. He was a man of an ardent and profound spirit, of warm and deep feelings; inclined to give himself up, with his whole soul and strength, to the object of his love, and sternly to repel everything that was foreign from this. He possessed rich and various stores of knowledge; which had been accumulated, however, at random, and without scientific arrangement. His profoundness of thought was not united with logical clearness and sobriety: an ardent, unbridled imagination, moving in a world of sensuous images, governed him. His fiery and passionate disposition, and his previous training as an advocate and rhetorician, easily impelled him, especially in controversy, to rhetorical exaggerations. When he defends a cause, of whose truth he was convinced, we often see in him the advocate, whose sole anxiety is to collect together all the arguments which can help his case, it matters not whether they are true arguments or only plausible sophisms; and in such cases the very exuberance of his wit sometimes leads him astray from the simple feeling of truth. What must render this man a phenomenon presenting special claims to the attention of the Christian historian is the fact, that Christianity is the inspiring soul of his life and thoughts; that out of Christianity an entirely new and rich inner world developed itself to his mind: but the leaven of Christianity had first to penetrate through and completely refine that fiery, bold and withal rugged nature. We find the new wine in an old bottle; and the tang which it has contracted there, may easily embarrass the inexperienced judge. Tertullian often had more within him than he was able to express: the overflowing mind was at a loss for suitable forms of phraseology. He had to create a language for the new spiritual matter,—and that out of the rude Punic Latin,—without the aid of a logical and grammatical education, and as he was hurried along in the current of thoughts and feelings by his ardent nature. Hence the often difficult and obscure phraseology; but hence, too, the original and striking turns in his mode of representation. And hence this great church-teacher, who unites great gifts with great failings, has been so often misconceived by those who could form no friendship with the spirit which dwelt in so ungainly a form."

Hase (Kirchengesch. p. 91, tenth ed.): "Die lateinische Kirche hatte fast nur Übersetzungen, bis Tertullianus, als Heide Rhetor und Sachwalter zu Rom, mit reicher griechischer Gelehrsamkeit, die auch der Kirchenvater gern sehen liess, Presbyter in seiner Vaterstadt Karthago, ein strenger, düsterer, feuriger Character, dem Christenthum aus punischem Latein eine Literatur errang, in welcher geistreiche Rhetorik, genialer so wie gesuchter Witz, der sinnliches Anfassen des Idealen, tiefes Gefühl and juridische Verstandesansicht mit einander ringen. Er hat der afrikanischen Kirche die Losung angegeben: Christus sprach: Ich bin die Wahrheit, nicht, das Herkommen. Er hat das Gottesbewusstsein in den Tiefen der Seele hochgehalten, aber ein Mann der Auctoritaet hat er die Thorheit des Evangeliums der Weltweisheit seiner Zeitgenossen, das Unglaubliche der Wunder Gottes dem gemeinen Weltverstande mit stolzer Ironie entgegengehalten. Seine Schriften, denen er unbedenklich Fremdes angeeignet und mit dent Gepraege seines Genius versehen hat, sind theils polemisch mit dem höchsten Selbstvertraun der katholischen Gesinnung gegen Heiden, Juden und Haeretiker, theils erbaulich; so jedoch, dass auch in jenen das Erbauliche, in diesen das Polemische für strenge Sitte und Zucht vorhanden ist "

Hauck (Tertullian’s Leben und Schriften, p. 1)  Unter den Schriftstellern der lateinischen Christenheit ist Tertullianeiner der bedeutendsten und intressantesten. Er ist der Anfänger der lateinischen Theologie, der nicht nur ihrer Sprache seinen Stempel aufgeprägt hat, sondern sie auch an die Bahn hinwies, welche sie lange einheilt. Seine Persönlichkeit hat ebensoviel Anziehendes als Abstossendes; denn wer könnte den Ernst seines sittlichen Strebens, den Reichthum und die Lebhaftigkeit seines Geistes, die Festigkeit seiner Ueberzeugung und die stürmische Kraft seiner Beredtsamkeit verkennen? Allein ebensowenig lässt sich übersehen, dass ihm in allen Dingen das Mass fehlte. Seine Erscheinung hat nichts Edles; er war nicht frei von Bizzarem, ja Gemeinem. So zeigen ihn seine Schriften, die Denkmäler seines Lebens Er war ein Mann, der sich in unaufhörlichen Streite bewegte: sein ganzes Wesen trägt die Spuren hievon "

Cardinal Hergenröther, the first Roman Catholic church historian now living (for Döllinger was excommunicated in 1870), says of Tertullian (in his Kirchengesch. I. 168, second ed., 1879): "Strenge und ernst, oft beissend sarkastisch, in der, Sprache gedrängt und dunkel der heidnischen Philosophie durchaus abgeneigt, mit dem römischen Rechte sehr vertraut, hat er in seinen zahlreichen Schriften Bedeutendes für die Darstellung der Kirchlichen Lehre geleistet, und ungeachtet seines Uebertritts zu den Montanisten betrachteten ihn die späteren africanischen Schriftsteller, auch Cyprian, als Muster und Lehrer "

Pressensé (Martyrs and Apoloqists, p. 375): "The African nationality gave to Christianity its most eloquent defender, in whom the intense vehemence, the untempered ardor of the race, appear purified indeed, but not subdued. No influence in the early ages could equal that of Tertullian; and his writings breathe a spirit of such undying power that they can never grow old, and even now render living, controversies which have been silent for fifteen centuries. We must seek the man in his own pages, still aglow with his enthusiasm and quivering with his passion, for the details of his personal history are very few. The man is, as it were, absorbed in the writer, and we can well understand it, for his writings embody his whole soul. Never did a man more fully infuse his entire moral life into his books, and act through his words."

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