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.

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

Darkness

little-church-001[1].jpgThis is the shirt I wore that night.
It was exactly a year ago, in a park I had visited only once before, to which I pursued a redhead.
In my frenzy I lost myself in the darkness, and clung to the only island of light, trusting the Christians to lead me home safely.

(Ironic how by turning from the light and following another redhead, that Westleigh park was not so dark.)

This is the first time I’ve worn this shirt since that night.
Because once again, I’m running into the heart of darkness.
But this time I don’t aim to find a redhead.
This time I hope to lose a shadow… beneath pure black.

So into the heart of darkness again,
To search for a long lost friend.
Let light fall, on the shadows
of the shadow that should be mine.

Alex Herlihy – 2009

Swimming Carnival Bogans

0ff06e0a0bc5340c98d7fa63004f0dcf[1]I sat down at the swimming carnival today
Searching for rangas with the ranga that is Ray
And had fun watching the buff, the bluff and the gay

Laugh at Diow trying to dress up as a doll
Hear “If you can’t swim you’ll be paying me a toll”
Seems that English have the announcements under control

So it’s time to buff up for the tug of war.
Everyone jumps in as the rest of the school snore
“This is so rigged, they can’t even touch the floor!”

We’ve won! It’s the end! Make that two
We have the rope in the shape of a horseshoe
Yet even with both ends we fail to drag it through

Oh great I can’t see, it must be the splashing
The carnival equivilant of a good chest bashing
We want to rub in the fact that we gave them a thrashing

I usually watch and laugh, spy and hide.
But not today, no sitting out; I enjoyed the ride
It’s so strange to be in it rather than off to the side

The Asians have whipped out their magic cards
The canteen still hasn’t started serving lard
And of course, “Dennis! Why are you such a retard?”

Dennis just takes it all with a grin
Oh crap, the tiredness is kicking in
As I throw my first bogan in the bin

I wake up to find chaos and fun
Looks like Randall found himself a gun
I hear someone behind me scream “Run bitch run!”

I turn to find all the black guys laughing
Some small year seven has just been sent flying
A certain teacher wants lunch upon punishment of dying

I sit up to watch the peruvian wave
A random year eleven who’s having a shave
The year seven who fails, but was extremely brave

Davies getting shot in the wrong direction
As Derek displays his pokemon card collection
And Ridley finds cricket at the point of inflexion

The second bogan is getting run down.
As Warrigal recieves the carnival crown
Luckily this year no year sevens drowned.

Alex Herlihy – 2010

Maths

image-20160927-14593-1rf92dt[1]

/* Bad poetry alert */

I hate maths it turns mind into brain
Intelligent thought lost like tears in the rain
Equations functions, graphs I’ve had enough,
If this is all there is to life then I give up.
I was not born for a life that means
I need to crunch numbers like machines
I spy a paradox! How about you?
How can a machine be alive too?
And that is exactly how I feel
With every equation I become less real.

Every X, every Y, I feel my heart flutter,
Oh god, who would have guessed? Death by Algebra!
Every point plotted produces pain I must hide
Every new question kills me from inside
Every new topic I die a little more
The amount of horror makes up for the gore

Maths is stupid maths is lame
Maths is death by another name
In maths death is a game, Just a statistic to take the blame.

Alex Herlihy – 2009

Spiral

thumb[1].pngWhenever he draws that spiral, everyone’s eyes glaze over; It’s obviously just another diversion. But there are three people in the room who notice that swirl, and four who understand it; The Riddler, the Politician, the Redhead and the Poet.

If the other eyes are glazing, then the enlightened four’s eye is the fire.
Like a fingerprint, this flame is unique for each of them.
The Riddler reflects knowledge, and reveals a candle.
It burns within wisdom, not without time.
The Politician captures ambitious modesty,
And sends a smile of realisation over his shoulder.
The Redhead blinks osmosis, green fire, blue smoke, red sky.
Both sub specie aeternitatis and ignorance lie in that eye.
But the Poet can’t know the fire in his eyes;
Mirrors and windows are someone else’s reflection.

He can only believe it is there,
and try to guess at its true nature.
People say he knows everything.
Yet they are foolish for thinking he knows anything.
The people who make such wild claims about “He”,
Should realise what a God that makes “Me”,
And retract the claim if they believe and fear Hell.
If they don’t? Their hypocrisy would have God as a mere poet regardless.

Of eternity, reality, infinity, God. The poet is not.
They are all reflections of a single eye’s idea.
Not his eye.
He can see another’s reflection, but never notice his own eye.

All four understand that spiral,
But only the Riddler, Politician, and Redhead notice it.
The Poet does not notice it. Why?
Because he can see it…

Alex Herlihy – 2009

Hugs

Ahh but you see,
hugs are not something
I give out for free

And quite smilarly
I do not accept them
Merely as charity

I’ve always been told that I’m rather cold, prefering my own company.
Only ever see a hug, as something of a bug, I’m not touch and feely

Whatever a hug means to you, I’ll respect
A hug that is free is not wasted on me.
I love a good hug, I love to keep snug,
Yet you’ll get no hugs from thee.
For I don’t agree with the philosophy
That a hug should be a mere charity.
I see a hug as something special,
I do not treat them as trivial.
So you can hug me but if I hug you,
See the situation differently;
Don’t feel my arms, don’t feel “me”.
No… Feel safe, Feel happy.
Feel loved.

Alex Herlihy – 2009

Not Again

I always thought he was the enemyThe-Girl-in-the-Spiders-Web-Movie-Wallpapers-9[1]
In that simple – not quite love – triangle.
“We’re still learners” was forever in mind
Mistakes of the past never left behind.
I regret nothing. I would do it all…
again? Yes. In exactly the same way;
No difference to my actions, because
The past is only a chain of events
That have led me to where I am right now.
To break that chain, is to commit murder –
Bloody murder, murder, murder most foul.
I am not who I was an hour ago,
That hour was but another link of chain
And I sit now in the present, gazing,
back at the links of my amazing chain.
Some of the links are stronger and harder
to imagine the chain lacking; the past,
The events, the links and the memories
without which we are nothing of ourselves.
If you break a single link in a chain
You break the chain, you kill the present: You.

This was one of those events, tragedy
I could never be here without knowing.
And so I look back and laugh at the fool
that used to be me, his stupid mistakes.
And I learn. That triangle, was not won.
Events from that triangle are again
like bad omens, jumping up on my chain;
A redhead. A good friend. And a formal.
I can see a new triangle forming
Again I must run the hypotenuse
But experience and foresight are mine
I have the advantage of time, and space –
yes, I live closer then him on a map.
But he already knows her, not as I
would come to. But they were on friendly terms.
Funny how futile this was, everything
I was doing, only set up more pain.
I did not want to lose a friend again.

Shakespeare was right you know, with Othello;
Suspicion and Jealousy can drive you,
usually mad, but sometimes to success
and quite rare when it happens to be both.
This triangle never was one of love
I always thought he was the enemy
And in doing so only made him one.
Mistakes only seemed to be repeating
themselves, and I was ready to cry, die.
“I give up”; Those words which I never say
passed by my lips that day in ignorance
of the victory that I had achieved.
Despite all the evidence; I had won!
But the announcement had to come too late
The triangle had grown more than three sides.
It was a web, horrible and tangled.
I escaped to one side and hung over
the edge, holding on by a thread – not red
No, this was not a redhead. An old friend
who delivered me my true victory;
An invitation, the sweetest success.
Everything would have been perfect but no,
She had to be stuck in the webs center.
The spider in this web had lost it’s prey;
“She couldn’t come today” and retreated
to the center of this web it had spun.
He was the real enemy from the start
Always there, but that’s not the scary part,
He thinks like me. That sparkle in his eye
Same as the smile that I tend to wear
His thoughts, to me, were déja vu. No more.
So I am competing with me, myself
and almost I. Rodriego wants to try
for the part. He tries to be like me more
then he realises. The tangled web
got infinitely more tangled for me
When Rodriego tried to become master.

A web is not like a chain – break as much
as you want and a web will still remain.
But if I killed the spider… no more web,
only a simple triangle again.

Alex Herlihy – 2009

Dark Days

/* Bad poetry warning */ap,550x550,12x16,1,transparent,t.u6[1].png

Why is my bed not happy?
Why is my chair not sad?
Why isn’t a watch full of envy?
Why is my pen not mad?

Because they are inanimate objects?
At least that’s what science says so…
But I always hated that subject,
Trust it? or stick to what I know?

How is a brain any different,
to a bed or a pen or a chair?
They all came from atomic elements
As physical as the paper we tear.

So how on earth can it be
that I possess personality?
As I fall back on my bed
A scary thought swirls in my head;

I’m sad to say not a tear was shed.
I’m sad to say… This world is dead.

Alex Herlihy – 2009

The Ace of Hearts

I have before me a card. It is Jumbo sized Art. ace-of-heartsmassive
It has a story, this card. It is the Ace of Hearts.
I found it, or stole it, one black day
With the sky from the clouds raining grey.
“Missions” he called it, laughing with glee
and flickering eyes that betrayed his honesty.
I had naught to juggle, and nothing to squeeze
but then someone out there warmed to my pleas;
Two jumbo sized packs, one of red, one of blue.
I silently start shuffling, and watch as I do.
He bounces up and down all around the room,
Cramped as it is, there’s not the slightest boom
The cards I am shuffling are now being sorted.
The blue pack is missing the cards most important.
This fiend before me protects his best
Breaking the rules? nothing to contest
The four aces he keeps close to his heart,
But I know where they are, at least in part.
I look up from my royal flush,
My poker face doesn’t betray as much
and see this monster calling for help
But with a mad grin, not a loud yelp.
“Missions” he calls it, laughing viciously
The angel in the room jumps up immediately.
Well there you go, that seals my fate
Again into darkness to head a clean plate
I stand up and prepare to brave the rain
and I laugh at the other’s looks of pain.
As the cards go smack down upon the table,
The demon rushes out the door with my angel
I’m ready to run, pursue, protect and die
But something has stopped me, caught my eye
His four aces are there and so heavily exposed
lust for an angel; As a hole in defence, it shows.
There is only one card that I care to take
One of four aspects that I intend to break
The club is his skills, his practice and trade
The genius to which that combines is his Spade
The diamond is his luck and face but in part,
it is his amazing ability to abuse the heart.
I grabbed the card, the organ throbbing in fright
I Stuffed it in my pocket and clenched it tight.
Run out the door into the rain,
past the overflowing storm drain.
The water coming down as a wall
I run and slip and avoid a fall
There’s always the light of the angel before
Beautiful hair showing me through the downpour
All the while I clenched the card, I never let go
Despite it’s burning black blood ruining the show
But I got through to the end of the night
When I got home I knew I had won the fight
The demon failed again, as the angel survived
His heart is disfigured and no longer alive
It’ll grow back, such an ungodly sight
To him the loss of a heart is slight.
But it will never be the same one, and that’s fine
Because this is no longer his heart, it’s mine.
This is a symbol for the angel; I have her not him
But I vow I will not abuse her under light dim.
I’ll not rip it in half, I’ll never set it on fire
But I’ll never ever use it like that horrible liar.
And now I sit here, with Heart’s Ace before me
The crease through the middle should tell you its’ story.

Alex Herlihy – 2010