While the exact date and place of Tertullian’s birth and death are unknown, he lived roughly from the middle of the second century through to the middle of the third century, and he grew up and spent most of his life in Carthage, North Africa. He is therefore an ante-Nicene church father.
Tradition holds that he was a lawyer and a priest, but the scholarly consensus today leans towards this being mere legend, proposing that there was perhaps a contemporary figure who practised law that was also named Tertullian, who came to be fused with Tertullian the church father in the historical record.
Tertullian was a highly influential church father, who planted some crucial theological seeds that would eventually sprout and continue growing into the Roman Catholic tradition. The main theological and ecclesial opponents he had to confront were Gnostics and Modalists, while simultaneously coping with physical persecution from the secular authorities. In the course of these confrontations, he laid down the foundational technical terminology that came to be used to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in the Latin tradition, and also kick-started the theology itself. Terms such as persona, substantia, esse, ratio, sermo, and trinitas were first deployed and coordinated by Tertullian.
Tertullian was never canonised due to a variety of factors. The common explanation given for this is that he left the Catholic faith and died in communion with an extra-ecclesial heretical movement called “Montanism,” but the actual story is more nuanced. Firstly, Montanism was a movement within the Catholic church of the day; it was not an external phenomenon in the way that Gnosticism was. Secondly, Tertullian’s adherence to Montanism was inseparable from his Trinitarianism. Thirdly, Tertullian had a bad reputation among the orthodox believers of the day not because he was a heretic, but arguably because he was ahead of his time in his doctrine and asceticism, and the simplices in the pews simply couldn’t keep up with him. As a result, despite being quite orthodox and an influential father in the Latin tradition, he died while being suspected of heresy, and his name has never really been cleared since.1
Tertullian produced a lot of writings, and many of them survive to this day. Some of the most recognisable quotes in Christian history were penned by Tertullian. For example:
The more you mow us down, the more we multiply. The blood of Christians is the seed of the church.2
This is the violence God delights in . . . It is chiefly the quality of our love in action that brands a distinguishing mark upon us in some people’s eyes. ‘See how they love one another’, they say – for they themselves hate one another. ‘See how ready they are to die for each other’– for they are more ready to kill each other . . .3
The two most important texts expressing his Trinitarian theology are “Against Praxeas” and the “Apology.” In the “Apology” Tertullian’s Trinitarianism is not fully explicit, and often he appears to be more Binitarian, by sometimes conflating the spirit with the father, other times conflating the spirit with the Son. This was because Modalism was a rampant heresy in Carthage among the Catholics, so Tertullian had to spend most of his energy defending the distinct identities of Father and Son, and the Spirit was seen as a separate issue. He did not ignore the Spirit however, and in “Against Praxeas” there are early hints of the theology of the filioque:
For the Spirit is a third from God and the Son, just as the fruit is a third from the root out of the new growth, and the canal is a third from the spring out of the river, and the point of light is a third from the sun out of the beam: nothing, however, is cut off from the source from which it derives its properties.4
The one God has also a Son . . . who … sent from the Father the Holy Spirit … as the sanctifier … of those who believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.5
In Tertullian’s thought, the Spirit guaranteed the infallibility of the “New Prophets”, analogously to what later developed into the theology dogmatised at Vatican I concerning the Spirit’s guarantee of Papal infallibility.6 In Tertullian’s understanding the Spirit also guaranteed the transmission and interpretation of the rule of faith (ie, the liturgy and scripture), while simultaneously being a key part of that rule of faith. In this way Tertullian simultaneously sowed the seeds of what would later develop into magisterial Catholicism (in that he strongly affirmed the traditions of the church), and anti-magisterial Protestantism (in that he emphasised the necessity of an individual possessing and being led by the Spirit if they are to comprehend the faith correctly).
While Tertullian did not explicitly coin the phrase, his theology was very much an elucidation of the principle of lex orandi lex credendi: he intimately ties disciplina and doctrina together and points to the Spirit as the power lying behind both. In terms of theological method, his Montanism was crucial: He understood the witness of the Holy Spirit to be key for learning, properly comprehending, interpreting, understanding and living out the rule of faith. Tertullian was adamant that simply participating in the liturgy and learning doctrine are not enough, and that theology cannot be properly done without the guidance and influence of the Paraclete.
Tertullian’s place in history means that he was doing theology without the magisterial resources that Catholics would draw on to today, such as the Catechism, Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Dogma, the Enchiridion, the Pope and council of bishops. Tertullian instead worked with a minimalist rule of faith and a primitive liturgy which hadn’t had as much time to evolve as the liturgies of today. However as long as Tertullian had the witness of the Paraclete, he was confident that his theological conclusions were orthodox. Unlike his contemporaries in the Eastern Christian world, he was resistant to allegorical hermeneutics.
Specific Contributions to Trinitarianism
Tertullian was an ante-Nicene Christian which meant that he was not dogmatically obliged to affirm that the Father, Son and Spirit were consubstantial (“homoousios”). His theology is therefore a fascinating glimpse into the fluidity of Trinitarian theology between the actual historical event of Christ and the later concilliar dogmatic definitions. Tertullian represents an expression of the transitional period between “Christian Platonism” and “Nicene Orthodoxy”. He wasn’t explicitly concerned with whether or not the three persons were consubstantial and as such, his writings could be interpreted in support of both Subordinationism and Consubstantiality.
In Tertullian’s context, it was actually the “heretics” (ie, the Montanists) that were the ones most firmly insisting on the divinity of the Spirit, because their understanding of “the New prophecy” depended on it. Whereas the “Orthodox” of the day were not so firm on the divinity of the Holy spirit and often opted for either simple Modalism, Subordinationism, or some fusion of the two. Tertullian and the Montanists were presenting their Trinitarian theology together with extreme ascetical demands as a complete package, and so the lay rejection of these ascetical demands coincided with a rejection of Trinitarianism that went with it.
Tertullian is the first father known to have identified the Angelic doxology of “Holy holy holy” as a Trinitarian prayer; he points out that the triple repetition of the word corresponds to the Triune nature of God.
Tertullian arguably lays the foundation for a equivocal understanding of the relationship between the immanent and economic Trinities, and by the same stroke expresses what could be taken as a “Latin Nestorianism.” This is shown in that he affirms the eternal pre-existence of the Logos, but not of an eternal pre-existence of the Son. Tertullian understands that the logos becomes the Son when Jesus becomes Son.7 This could perhaps be read as nothing more than an orthodox account of the logos asarkos, but there is definitely room for it to be taken in heretical directions too.
McGowan, Andrew and Joan F. W. Munro. “Tertullian and the “Heretical” Origins of the “Orthodox” Trinity.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 14, no. 4 (Winter, 2006): 437-457. http://ipacez.nd.edu.au/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ipacez.nd.edu.au/docview/215200946?accountid=41561.
McGowan, Andrew B., Daley, Brian E., and Gaden, Timothy J., eds. God in Early Christian Thought : Essays in Memory of Lloyd G. Patterson. Leiden: BRILL, 2009. Accessed August 16, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.
1Origen was the Greek contemporary of Tertullian in the Eastern church, and he makes for a close analogy in terms of both his substantial impact on later Greek theology, and a tarnished reputation which ultimately prevented canonisation.
4Contra Praxeas 8:4
5Contra Praxeas 2:1
6Despite the surface level similarities, a direct link between the doctrine of Papal infallibility and Tertullian’s understanding of Prophetic infallibility has not (to my knowledge) been demonstrated.
7It isn’t clear to me whether Tertullian locates the event of the logos becoming the Son at Christmas, or at the baptism of Christ, or at some other point.