Printer Friendly


In April we concluded the series on the Greek Fathers ("Greek" because they wrote in Greek) with Saint Cyprian of Alexandria. We began with St. Ignatius of Antioch (April 2004), then covered St. Polycarp, St. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Gregory Nazianus, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Athanasius, and St. John Chrysostom.

In this edition of May 2005 we start a shorter series (there were fewer of them) of the Church Fathers who wrote in Latin. In addition to Tertullian (below), Prof. Baldwin will cover Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine in individual articles and, in two additional articles, a mixture of "lesser" writers and theologians. He will conclude the whole series with a two-article survey of various heresies which threatened the Church in the first five hundred years of her existence.--Editor

"An expert on Roman law, and famous on other grounds, in fact one of the most brilliant men at. in Rome";--Eusebius, Church History 2.5. Modern authorities agree: "The first significant Christian writer in Latin"--David Sider, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity; "Father of Latin Theology"--Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

Quintus Septimius Tertullianus Florens, a centurion's son, was born c.160 at Carthage, where he was brought up as a pagan--"The kind of people we once were, blind without the Light of the Lord" (Penitence 1.1.). Moving to Rome, he trained in law, and was converted. Jerome's assertion (On Illustrious Men 53) that "the Roman clergy drove him out into Montanism" is disputed, but he did return home to militate for Christianity as priest and writer until his death around 230.

Montanism, to which he ardently subscribed, was an apocalyptic-cure-ascetic creed, seen by the famous Protestant theologian Adolf Harnack (1851-1930) as an attempt to return to early Christian roots; it survived sketchily until the 9th century.

Thirty-one of Tertullian's books survive. About a dozen are lost. He may have composed the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. The treatise Against the Jews is now deemed largely spurious. His books may be basically arranged into three categories: Apologetics; Polemics; Disciplinary/Moral/Ascetic.

His Apology (datable to 197, preceded by the less ambitious To the Nations), is simultaneously a defence of Christianity and a challenge to pagans to accept its truth. Eusebius quotes from it often, always for historical matter on emperors and their responses to Christianity. Tertullian was not just a propagandist. Appreciating the value of archival sources, he went to them when researching (e.g.) solar eclipses or census information on Christ's parents (Apol. 21.19; Against Marcion 4.19.10). Also from this period comes his On the Witness of the Soul, described by Sider as a "little literary jewel."

His polemics were mainly directed at the Gnostics. They include fiery pamphlets, along with exegetical works on the Resurrection of the Flesh and On the Soul. Chief among them are his five-volume Against Marcion and Against Praxeas (an otherwise unknown heretic), laying the basis for Nicene Christianity. On the Soul advocates Traducianism (parents' transmission of human souls to their children), paving the way for Augustine's (who frequently quotes him) teachings on the Fall and Original Sin. Overall, for Tertullian, Christianity was Revealed Truth, his theology was scripturally based, the New Testament to be taken at face value, not as allegory.

The moral tracts, on such subjects as Baptism, Modesty, and Penitence, spread over his literary career, become more rigid under the Montanist teachings which (e.g.) frowned upon infant baptism and proscribed military service and second marriages. The one on Woman's Demeanour (denouncing excess in dress, jewellery, and make-up) is a prime source for the feminist role in Christian life, while On the Spectacles is the richest document on the Roman Games (the shout "The Christians to the Lions!" is first attested here). Tertullian is a source for diverse things, e.g. two references (Apol. 16. 12-13; Ad Nat. 1.14) to an anti-Christian donkey-man cartoon which interestingly suggests growing pagan awareness of the New Testament.

"Tertullian's style is brilliant, masterful. He employs every rhetorical device, devastating opponents with ridicule, cleverly undermining their reasoning. He grapples thoughtfully with the moral and religious problems of his time"--ODCC. His legal skills helped him hone his arguments, while he drew on pagan philosophies, especially Stoicism, whose Roman luminary Seneca was traditionally thought to have corresponded with St. Paul. Thus, apart from coining the term 'Romanitas' ('Romanness', On the Cloak 4) and popularising the expression 'Anima naturaliter Christiana' ('A Naturally Christian Soul', applied to, among others, Virgil), he fathered two famous expressions: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" (Apol. 50.13) and "I believe because it is impossible" (On the Flesh of Christ 5).

Jerome says his immediate successor Bishop Cyprian read Tertullian every day. The Apology was printed in 1483; his Collected Works soon appeared (1521) at Basel. Apart from Epiphanius, he was the only Father in Jonathan Swift's library.

FURTHER READING: Many works are translated by Ernest Evans (SPCK, London, 1948-1972). Outstanding books include: T.D. Barnes, Tertullian: a Literary and Historical Study (Toronto, 1971; rev. ed. 1985); T.P. O'Malley, Tertullian and the Bible (Nijmegen, 1967); D. Rankin, Tertullian and the Church (Cambridge, 1995). Some 93.000 'Google' sites include his Catholic Encyclopedia entry plus the all-embracing 'Tertullian Project' at


(Cap. 20, 1-9; 21, 3; 22, 8-10: CCL 1, 20-204)

The preaching of the apostles

Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself declared what He was, what He had been, how He was carrying out His Father's will, what obligations He demanded of men. This He did during His earthly life, either publicly to the crowds or privately to His disciples. Twelve of these he picked out to be His special companions, appointed to teach the nations.

One of them fell from his place. The remaining eleven were commanded by Christ, as He was leaving the earth to return to the Father after His resurrection, to go and teach the nations and to baptize them into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The apostles cast lots and added Matthias to their number in place of Judas, as the twelfth apostle. The authority for this action is to be found in a prophetic psalm of David. After receiving the power of the Holy Spirit, which had been promised to them, so that they could work miracles and proclaim the truth, they first bore witness to their faith in Jesus Christ and established churches throughout Judea. They then went out into the whole world and proclaimed to the nations the same doctrinal faith.

They set up churches in every city. Other churches received from them a living transplant of faith and the seed of doctrine, and through this daily process of transplanting they became churches. They therefore qualify as apostolic churches by being the offspring of churches that are apostolic.

Every family has to be traced back to its origins. That is why we can say that all these great churches constitute that one original Church of the apostles; for it is from them that they all come. They are all primitive, all apostolic, because they are all one. They bear witness to this unity by the peace in which they all live, the brotherhood which is their name, the fellowship to which they are pledged. The principle on which these associations are based is common tradition, by which they share the same sacramental bond.

The only way in which we can prove what the apostles taught--that is to say, what Christ revealed to them--is through those same churches. They were founded by the apostles themselves, who first preached to them by what is called the living voice and later by means of letters.

The Lord had said clearly in former times: I have many more things to tell you, but you cannot endure them now. But He went on to say: When the Spirit of truth comes, He will lead you into the whole truth. Thus Christ shows us that the apostles had full knowledge of the truth, for He had promised that they would receive the whole truth through the Spirit of truth. His promise was certainly fulfilled, since the Acts of the Apostles prove that the Holy Spirit came down on them.

Barry Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Calgary.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Catholic Insight
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Baldwin, Barry
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:May 1, 2005
Previous Article:John Paul's legacy.
Next Article:Religious freedom under attack in Canada.

Related Articles
Holy waters run deep.
The Trinity. .
Make a splash at Sunday Mass: baptisms are a family affair--for the whole parish family.
Who are the Church Fathers?
Eternal duties towards the poor.
The Washing of the Saints' Feet.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters