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Tertullian: A Latin Father


Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (ca. 155-220) was born in Carthage, North Africa in what is now modern Tunisia. He was the son of pagan parents - his father a Roman centurion. He studied and practiced law in Rome where he was converted to Christianity around 195 A.D. Returning to Carthage, he was ordained a priest and began a long and prolific career as the leading theologian of
early Latin Christianity. Even though he eventually left the mainstream of the church to join the Montanist sect around 207 A.D., his influence was considerable upon the subsequent history of the church.

Of all the writers of the early church, it is certain that the two theologians who most influenced the development of Western Christianity were Tertullian and Augustine. These two theologians shaped the terminology, theology and direction of not
only the Roman Catholic Church but also modern Christianity. In particular, it was Tertullian's writings (over 31 books known to have been written) which are primarily responsible for providing the West with a stability of doctrine while other parts of
Christianity swirled in controversy.

Tertullian himself introduced many of the technical terms which are still used in theological discussion. For instance, it was
Tertullian who first used such terms as "Trinity" (from the Latin trinitas), "sacrament" (from the Latin sacramentum), and "satisfaction" (satisfactio). Tertullian even coined the phrase "apostolic age" to underscore the unique authority of the apostles. Many of his terms have survived in English due to the direct descent of modern theology from its Latin origins in early Christianity.

Tertullian's contribution to the history of doctrine may be summarized in three areas. First, it was Tertullian who gave the
Western Church its fundamental understanding of the both the Trinity and the person of Christ. He used the term "Trinity" to
describe the unity of three persons in one divine essence or substance. He clearly argued that there are neither three Gods
nor a single person in the Godhead. Further, he argued that Jesus possessed both a full human nature and a full divine
nature, but that these two natures were united in the one person of the second person of the Trinity. Jesus was not a mixture of the divine and human, but one person who had two full and complete
natures. These descriptions of the Trinity and the person of Christ have remained the bedrock of Western orthodoxy. Tertullian's doctrinal formulations on these two issues and the adoption of them by the Western Church preserved the west from the divisive and harmful debates of the third, fourth and fifth centuries which engulfed the east.

Second, Tertullian advocated traducianism, that is, the doctrine that the soul is a material substance which is transmitted from
parent to child through heredity. Tertullian denied that the soul was created at conception. As a result, Tertullian believed that the corruption which Adam brought upon himself is transmitted to his posterity by procreation. Consequently, every child born into the world is born corrupt. However, Tertullian denied that the child was born guilty of any sin. In fact, when the baptism of infants was being introduced into North Africa, it was Tertullian who opposed it on the ground that infants have no need for the remission of sins. He stated: "why does the age of
innocence hasten to the remission of sins?" Tertullian wrote the first book on baptism, and in it opposed infant baptism. Nevertheless, while opposing infant baptism and affirming the freedom of the will, Tertullian paved the way for the Western
concept of total depravity.

Third, Tertullian provided the Roman Catholic Church with its basic concept of repentance. He calls repentance a "process of satisfaction" which is "set in motion by confessions and by confession penitence is produced, and by penitence God is appeased." This process involved the prostrating of oneself before a priest. The process of penitence involves, then, a
paying for penalties of sin by making satisfaction before God and his priest. This formed the foundation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance. It was the rejection of this doctrine, of course, which shaped the character of the Protestant Reformation and so repulsed Luther.

Tertullian was a prolific writer who covered a wide range of subjects, including baptism, the dress of women, defense of Chritsianity against pagan critics and against heretics, marriage and other subjects. Yet his most important contribution to the history of Christianity is the foundation he laid for both orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in the West. In only 25 years of writing as a Christian, the influence of Tertullian still persists in our modern culture.

First appeared in Gospel Advocate 130.10 (October 1, 1988), 51.


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