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Tertullian’s Theology

Tertullian’s writings sound the rigorist strains which will become the themes of North African Christianity throughout its entire subsequent history in antiquity (cf. Frend 1965; 1985): Christianity as the nova lex; the centrality of God as lawgiver and judge; fear of God as the foundation of salvation; the “gathered” or “pure” notion of the Church separated from all idolatry of the secular world. His writings are especially important for Western theology because they contain so many of the first Latin appearances of key theological terms—trinitas, persona, substantia, status, dispositio, dispensatio (cf. Otto 1960; Braun 1977). Once thought to be the inventor of such a Latin theological vocabulary (Morgan 1928: 39, 41–45), then the voice of an ecclesiastical Latin carried in the Christian community (Schrijnen 1934: 110–11; Teeuwen 1926: XIV–XV, 54; Pétré 1948), Tertullian (see the positions of Becker 1954: 341–43 and Braun 1977: 17–26) is now seen as a linguist of extraordinary sensitivity, capable of creating neologisms in line with current usages of his day (cf., e.g., Braun 1977: 151) but also careful to reflect both contemporary pagan or Christian usage and biblical meanings in his theological terminology (Braun 1977: 17–26; O’Malley 1967: 26–27, 41, 62–63; Stirnimann 1949: 93, 96).

In his writings to A.D. 209, Tertullian acts as the spokesperson for a Latin Christian community centered in the capital and confined to the proconsular province (cf. Barnes 1971: 280–82). The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (A.D. 180) and the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas (A.D. 203) are our only sources for knowledge of early North African Christianity besides Tertullian. Tertullian’s writings give us a picture of a solidly middle-class Christian community (Groh 1970; 1976) with distinctive liturgical and theological traditions, though the origins of this community are not certain; both Roman and Asia Minor roots and connections are indicated. However, Tertullian’s audience indicates a highly literate Latin-speaking group, capable of enjoying satire, irony, and, above all, great style as expressed by Tertullian’s use of North African rhetoric of the forensic, epideictic, and deliberative genres (Sider 1971) and by his frequent imitation of the great 2d-century writer Lucius Apuleius (Waszink and van Winden 1987: 277). The appellation “Christian Sophist” applied to Tertullian is both apt and nonpejorative (Barnes 1971: 211–32; 1985: 333). Portrayed in earlier scholarship as a writer concerned to vanquish and silence all opponents (Lortz 1927–1928; Nister 1950: 49–51, 68; Steinmann 1967: 70), he has emerged in more recent scholarship as a nuanced interpreter, seeking to bring clarity and unanimity to widely diverse ideas and traditions (Braun 1977; O’Malley 1967: 2, 14, 36).

At the heart of Tertullian’s theological method was the drive for truth (his most frequent word) and clarity in theological and exegetical matters, perhaps best expressed in his concern for simplicity of meaning (O’Malley 1967: 28, 122, 169). This means that the literal meaning of Scripture, as revealed by the rule of context (both historical and stylistic) is his preferred method of scriptural interpretation (O’Malley 1967: 130–31). Although he will defend allegorical exegesis of Scripture against the heretic Marcion, it is the plain truth of Scripture, represented by the Rule of Faith with its certainties, which binds and contains the conclusions of the theologian or the exegete (cf. On the Prescription against Heretics 13–14).

Tertullian’s general systematic principle that inner reality (of a person or text) must correspond with outer reality (Groh 1971: 13–14; 1985: 88–90) results both in an increasing moral rigor in his writings and in his late adoption of the philosopher’s pallium instead of the Roman toga (cf. De pallio).
After A.D. 208 (Barnes 1985: 328) Tertullian turned to Montanism and to Montanist prophets to resolve the uncertainties of points of Church discipline which neither theology nor Scripture could settle normatively, such as the proper length of fasts or veils for virgins. His community of Montanist prophets seems to have practiced charismatic exegesis and the production of spiritual psalms and visions (Groh 1985: 92–95). The vision of a Montanist sister confirmed his immanent sense of eschatology when a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem was seen hovering over the earthly Jerusalem (Adv. marc. 3.24.4; cf. Groh 1985: 81). By his later treatises, Tertullian and his group seem to have split from the Catholics of Carthage (Braun 1977: 721), but Augustine’s witness to an independent group in his day known as the Tertullianists (De haeresibus 86) is not solid (Groh 1970: 18–19; Barnes 1985: 334).

Tertullian’s Latin quotations of the Scriptures have been isolated (Roensch 1871), but it is extremely difficult to tell exactly what versions he is using. His habit of glossing a text (O’Malley 1967: 36, 63) and his facility in translating directly from Greek occlude his text traditions. He also quotes with frequent inaccuracy (Waszink and van Winden 1987: 119). Studies indicate that he knew and cited all books of our present NT except 1 Peter, 3 John, and James (Campenhausen 1972: 276, n. 44), that he had at his disposal at least customary readings of certain texts and Latin translations of portions of biblical books (O’Malley 1967: 7, 45, 63; Barnes 1971: 276–78), but no precise text type has emerged (Aland and Aland 1987: 182–83). The problem is complicated by the high degree of theological self-consciousness of Tertullian. For example, his treatise De oratione preserves our earliest Latin commentary on the Lord’s Prayer with a curious reversal of clauses. While the other clauses follow the Greek and Vulgate traditions, he reads: “Fiat uolentas tua in caelis et in terra” (“Thy will be done in heaven and on earth”; Or. 4.1) and then (Or. 5.1) “Veniat … regnum tuum” (“Thy kingdom … come”; cf. also Or. 9). It is impossible to tell whether the North African Church’s version of the prayer contained this reversal, or whether Tertullian’s theological belief (that obedience to the will of God was the heart and substance of the kingdom) caused that reversal (cf. Evans 1953: XIV–XV).

Groh, D. E. (1992). Tertullian. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 6, pp. 389–390). New York: Doubleday.

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