Trinitarian Thought: Tertullian

Overview

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.

Bibliography

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.

2Apology 50:13

3Apology 39:2,7,11

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.

The need to be long.

71ge+Y1jsWL._SL1264_[1].jpgJimmy was a giraffe.
The other giraffes weren’t very nice to Jimmy because Jimmy didn’t have a long neck like the rest of them.
They teased Jimmy and called him names, like “Chode”, “Short stuff” and “n00b-neck”.
One day Jimmy was being beaten up by the other giraffes and having a cry, when all of a sudden a redhead appeared from the clouds and descended from heaven, only to immediately return as she had heavenly duties to attend to (God needs his morning paper you know)
Jimmy sniffed and wandered away into the desert, where he ran into Rozencrantz and Frank Einstien personified as some loveable Disney characters.
They all sung a song and danced happily around, frolicking and laughing as they flew off into the sunset.
The other giraffes, seeing as they had long necks, could see everything that was happening and didn’t liked it. They called upon his highness sir Santa Claus and said “Right, see here old chap! We’ve got the accent, you’ve got the power” Santa claus laughed, and his beer-gut wobbled like jelly. “Say no more my good friends”
And so Santa jumped in his humvee and whipped his reindeer until they made a revving noise that sounded sufficiently hardcore. He slammed down the hammer and did a massive burn out while leaning out the window, wacking on some shades and going “Oh yeah
And santa clause was never seen again in that part of the world.
Meanwhile, Jimmy had not been procrastinating, he had been working out. Hard. He returned to the tribe with abs that shone gold, well-hung and with a neck that could split any giraffette in half. The female giraffes loved Jimmy and his neck, Jimmy got some, and everyone lived happily every after.
And whenever Jimmy was asked what was the secret to success he always replied “You gotta be long brother. You gotta be loooooong.”

Alex Herlihy – 2010

I Hate You

seven-last-words-church-of-god-in-christ-jesus-vNBnzj-clipart[1]I opened up my heart to you
I opened up my mind to you
I revealed all my weaknesses to you

Then you went and fell in love with me
But I your best friend? It wasn’t to be
Through my rejections you came to hurt me

And then I turned my back on you
So now I “present” my back to you
But what are you going to do?

Do what damage you will as I know
This is to be the final blow
And I am prepared to take it

Once more I reveal my memories to you
One final time I show my heart to you
Again I open my windows of weakness to you

So hit me.
And then I can finally be free of you.

Alex Herlihy – 2010

Confessions

failure-edited[1].jpgYou do… do you?

Oh god how much hurt a lie can do
My mind was torn everytime I spoke those words
“No, I don’t love you”

What I meant was “I can’t love you”
It was said with a sense of paradox too
Because it was exactly what I wanted to do.

Exactly what I ‘needed’ to do
In order to extract the key to your heart
And allow me to love you.

Alright alright alright yes I loved you
I had to hide it and it hurt
But what else was I to do?

You flew from those with love on their; “To do”
But I wouldn’t have that be me
Oh no… oh no damn you.

At first it seemed to work with you
I still uncovered your feelings
But fixing them I was not in a position to do

Yet there was nothing I wanted more to do!
Oh God knows I wanted to
God knows I tried to help you

You love me too do you?
I was so sure…
Really? Really? You do?

You do? Do you? You do?
I remember you, do you remember me?
Do you? You do? Do you?

You don’t… Do you.

Alex Herlihy – 2010

Unfinished Poetry Fragment

At first, it was love.
My more logical side was always shouting “Slow down! Slow down!”
But the barely audible, back of my head still managed to win my devotion.
Someone who stays silent slays both ignorance and intelligence in a single stroke
The quiet ones know best, don’t they.
Don’t they…?

It was love.
I, A Lex.
I, Above the law.
I, A clockwork orange.
My creative and destructive impulses
Forcibly repressed
To make me quite presentable as an all-around acceptable member most respectable in our school society.
I used to engage in violence, revel in the fight,
It was Blood, guts, gore and glee! Until the doctor set me right.
So with classical and chilli-sauce, A repression of my drives
I share the name and I share the pain;
I am a clockwork orange.
And yet… it all comes down
To the milk I drink in the morning.

It was love!
My milk was neglected.
My drugs left untouched.
All my long repressed emotions and desires
Bubbling, exploding, escaping!
I was swimming in freedom!
Freedom out of control.
My heart was torn out and dangled before me
To show me what I had done
Reveal my love for what it really was
only an addiction.
As my life fell back upon the milk
Punishment was madness, insanity.
Withdrawal symptoms ironically.
The longing to return to the place where I belong
grew weaker and faint through time
To the point where indifference replaced the love
A faint annoyance at the blindness in my old friends minds.

Alex Herlihy – 2010

Seven Words

It was quite an absurd occurrencedownload.jpg
which gave rise to reason for
seven words of swift deterrence
Which I’ll now relate through more

The first word can be used to shout
and identify who is who
The word we would be lost without
It allows me to talk to you

The second word was my weapon of choice
Inverse osmosis, so give a bored blink
But it’s meaning should be given voice
What worth is the the chance to think

The third word was the same as the first
And this time with less glee
The subject couldn’t be any worse
If I know you’re talking about me.

The fourth word was almost a pet hate
To me it’s all a show
So throw me maths and throw me fate
I’ll believe, but never know

The fifth word was a name actually
The glowing opposite of death
Someone who I love to see
She is addressed as Beth

The sixth word was the same as the third
But following the other five
Apprehension flies high with the birds
Pointing my heart toward knives

The seventh word was a final blow
Of what I want and won’t
See it only went to show
What you can do but don’t

Alex Herlihy – 2010

Winter Formal

wintermemorie-6592[1].jpgWe were standing there one winters day
Me and Ba and Shank and Ray
“The seats are wet”, “I know hey”
Oh look there’s Scott, “His hair is so gay”

There was a time where I would have defended
Raised up my arms and cried most offended
Scott is a friend “Hey stop it you guys”
“Give it up with the slander and lies”

But no not today oh no no no way
Scott is the reason the sky is so grey.
I look left to déjà vu this dreary day;
For fate I have a debt to repay.

Ironic, how he’s no longer my friend
There’s no doubt how this is going to end.
Should I try to correct the fault?
Let my hard feelings out of that vault?

Yet I can no longer trust Scott, so I refuse.
Andrew Semler has been naught but bad news.
He has hit my moral event horizon on
the side which sends our friendship long gone

He’s made the mistake you don’t make twice
The kind of promise I won’t take thrice
He’s entered the game and stolen the dice
My poker face now is a cold mask of ice.

He knows I’ve played this game before
And I’ll not lose again; this time it’s war!
I have confidence either way for once
Security in my success against this dunce

I’m married. I simply can’t lose
My loving wife will join me on the cruise
So I’m not competing for a partner
Not searching for a happily ever after.

All I want is to ruin Scott’s dreams
And do it all with my smile like a beam.
Yes I’m a bastard, a horrible fiend
I will no longer tolerate Scott on the scene

I write it all with a touch of guilt
But that’s good, it’s how I’m built
There will be no regret by the time I am done
Only plenty of guilt with which to have fun

Already the emails have found themselves sent
The third vertex already finds herself bent
It seems like an early success
But I am not so easy to impress

My power on the internet has only grown stronger
My stalking resumé grows longer and longer
I can see all that has exchanged between
My favourite nerd and my Redheaded Queen

At the slightest hint of love and wonder
I will ruthlessly tear their hearts asunder
And it’s none of this from Jealousy, yet.
It’s the nerve of this shadow in every respect

I’ve fought against him for a whole year
It’s time for the right words to enter his ear.
This happens to be the most fitting way
To get across what I’ve wanted to say:

You are not you; you are stubbornly me
And I’m sorry to destroy your heart, honestly
But if it takes such murder to make you see
Then I have no regrets; Let it be.

Alex Herlihy – 2010

A Dance

rsz_a1-5-740x555[1].jpg

Walking, talking,
Rushing off in excitement and me not pursuing.
A cross between a train station, my year nine camp accommodation sleeping quarters, and the bubblers outside at my primary school.
I let you go,
Head inside to the hall, meet people,
Talk to a troll for some reason that escapes me.
The troll provides some bogan philosophy,
I head back out,
try to find you,
looking through walls windows and mirrors,
they’re all the same anyway,
find you,
your face is just as happy as before,
but it has a falseness about it which I don’t know if it was there the whole time and I just didn’t notice or it is a new development.
I ask what is wrong, you say “nothing” and are so sincere.
You aren’t even acting; you ARE sincere,
and yet I know you are false.
“Alright… but just in case, I want to hug you to make sure”.
She does and falls asleep;

You slept with your head on my shoulder and your arms and legs wrapped around me.
As tall as me, and only a little younger, yet you were lighter than a feather,
and I held you as I would hold my one year old sister.

I walked and the world moved around us in a way that didn’t match up with how my legs were telling it to move.
Down the middle of a busy street,
across crossings that were lacking lights and painted stripes,
one second, or five, or a minute no cars, the next one hundred.
I moved out of their way, understanding the danger, but not feeling it.
Too calm, and you slept as if nothing at all were happening.

The scene changed to become more grassy,
and you flickered in and out of existence on my shoulder.
I carried you across the suburban Noork’s elbow.
Street, turned to bridge,
bridge over train tracks,
and before I had even stepped onto the bend, you had disappeared,
I forgot all about you, and the dream flowed on into the morning.

Only when my eyes open did I remember that,
and realise what a strange,
amazing dance we had just performed.

But you’ll never remember it.

The last message I received from you was sent before our dance, but only received after;
Dream about cruise ships and ball pit rooms.
Usually you are there, always there in case I need you. But not today.
I don’t remember my dance involving any juggling.
It wasn’t a dance of love, sadness, joy, happiness. It wasn’t a dance of the night, it wasn’t a dance of the morning, it wasn’t a dance of light, or of the moon falling. No guns were firing no swords were drawn, it wasn’t a dance of bullets or skin torn.
No words were said, but it was no dance of silence.
In simplicity lies beauty and perfection.
It was a pure dance, no more.
I dreamt of the cruise ship, but not the ball pit.
I dreamt a dance, we danced a dance,
And you’ll never remember it.
In simplicity lies beauty and perfection.
To walk while the world runs?
It was a pure dance, no more.
And you’ll never remember it.

Alex Herlihy – 2010 (Mildly edited)

Train Ride

800px-GO_Train_sunset[1].jpgIn the one hour past dawn, freezing cold
I wore nothing. You wore Black.
Was it your practicality? There was no light for absorbing sunheat
Could it have been your mind? Grief at yet another holiday
The station was warm enough to me. All the smiling faces,
Children wrapped up in the warmth of their innocence
The loving arms of warm ignorance; A smiling mother
Using her whole body to shield the future
from the cold world.
What was behind that smile?
Fear, uncertainty, love
But most of all, protection.
Your mother smiled in the same way
And you felt for the arms of your father.
A blind master of the many colours she commands
Her eyes reflected the black back not to what she saw
Only to herself.

My mask kept me warm.
All through the shivers and goosebumps
All I ever needed was my head.
And warmth enough to insist
“I’m not cold”

The train came and went within a minute
Enough time to exchange a merry goodbye
Time to see a body of smiles
To see a face of resignation
And the sadness in her eyes.
For the whole minute, you waved to your father.

On the train you slept.
Restless, you curled yourself up, unrolled,
Got into a tangle, not once did you look comfortable
But I stayed silent, watching, thinking.
A spider once told me “A simple arm over the shoulder
can go a long way” to spin the web further.

Silent and blind.

What a way to set up for tragedy
I might have been wearing blue, but
“I’m not cold”
Yet, where my arm lay said otherwise
You were warm to touch, comfort in the air.
So why were you shivering?
I felt you warm when you felt cold
“I’m not cold”

I sat next to you for seven hours
Awake or not, Asleep or not
I had eyes for the scenery
I couldn’t help it
The people around us were too interesting
I chuckled as they guffawed
Smiled at their slang
Made the world rhyme with every action they made
But the most unchanging, beautiful view
would not have been the same without you.
The world rushed past the window
I gave it a glance or two
But my mind was focused on you.
Your mother has been aiming you at God
Choose your father and touch the trigger.
Oh how I wanted to hug you, hold you, help you
but never love. A lie became the truth.
“Lean on me” the three word poem in my mind
Three simple words, held back inside
Snuggle, cuddle, hold, hug

Sleep.

You tossed and turned, dreaming of God knows what.
My tiredness only wanted your rest,
My inaction was silence, observation, thought.
Philosophers may understand the world
But they aren’t the people who change it
Warm ignorance escaped my gaze and fell to you again
I waited and waited,
expecting to see a memory of the spider
playing with his prey
play out again.
But No face-to-face revelation occurred.

I wanted to give you warmth, comfort, and help
But I never gave myself the opportunity because
“I’m not cold”

Alex Herlihy – 2010

Random Poetry Fragment

Try all you want to provide consolation.
It won’t do any good, for the only comfort I need
Is that this is what it means to be human.
To experience the full emotional spectrum,
This is what it is to be alive

Try to provide consolation and kill me.
The words of wisdom I ignore; they specify suicide.
The only comfort I need, is that I am human.
This is what it means to be alive
Kill me?
Brush away the grief? Repress my creativity? Suppress my humanity?
Replace the power, strength, life of an emotion
With the weak, silent, death of acceptance?
Kill my emotions and kill me!
Kill me when I am most alive!
Embrace the anger! Give in to the grief!
And right as they smile to evil victory,
I turn around, and take control;
Anger embraces me, grief gives in to me,
and I make them work. Work words.

Alex Herlihy – 2010