Tertullian's Theology

[I apologise for the skimpiness of this page.  Academic theology is not something in which I am really very interested, and am certainly unqualified to comment.  Yet I must say something.  So this is mostly a quick summary of material from Quasten.  However I hope to add more material from time to time, if only bibliographically.  I  have online R.E. Roberts, The Theology of Tertullian (1924) which addresses some of these issues.]


From his surviving works, there seems no evidence that Tertullian was interested in the construction of a system of theology. All of his extant works seem to be drawn forth in response to some external prompt - legalised murder of Christians in contemporary society (e.g. Apologeticum, Ad Scapulam); the deliberate attempts to confuse and seduce by the heretics, in various flavours (e.g. De praescriptione haereticorum, Adversus Valentinianos, etc); drift towards compromise of church officials (De pudicitia); and so on. If we knew more about his life, it might be possible to say why.

It is necessary to be cautious in evaluating the intellectual position of a man, when we have only tentative information about the dating of his works, little more than speculation about his life, and it is known that works dealing with his views in detail on some subjects (e.g. De ecstasi on Montanism) have perished. In addition, deriving information from the asides made by a writer in the course of rhetorical flourishes can only be regarded as a hazardous procedure; men are not under oath when telling anecdotes to illustrate a subject. This is true today, and was even more true in Tertullian's day. As such, we must admit that we cannot really know Tertullian's calm opinion on many issues on which we might like to have it.

When we look at Tertullian's works, we do not find any systematic position adopted, other than that based on the Bible. The position of Tertullian is that something is true if Christ taught it, the apostles passed it on, and therefore it is found in the Scriptures - and the indefinite boundary of the latter is balanced by the authority of the churches founded by those apostles. As he moved over to the New Prophecy, inevitably he revised his unquestioning loyalty to the bishop. Otherwise he has no interest in adding anything to the Christian teaching as he received it. He does, indeed, accept some of the pagan ideas in circulation where they did not contradict the Scriptures, much as a modern might accept some science (e.g. in De anima, where Stoic technical ideas on the nature of the soul are deployed against Hermogenes, although later Fathers would not regard such ideas as neutral and objective, but rather contrary to the inspired teaching). He is quite willing to make use of philosophical arguments to show the error of heresy. But it seems that this is all surface stuff to him - just tools to argue with - and he is equally willing to reject the same arguments in other contexts.

Ultimate authority is not found in ideas invented or developed by men. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? ... away with a mottled Christianity", he cried in De praescriptio 7. This has often been misunderstood by people eager to claim that the early Christians were deliberately irrational. Tertullian himself knew the full value of contemporary thought, its virutes and its inadequacies. But he came to believe that something thought untrue in his day - the Christian religion - was in fact true, on grounds of empirical experience, and therefore firmly refused to adulterate it with other material, rightly supposing such matter to be transitory.

Tertullian was fond of paradox, in a way that will stir up associations with G.K.Chesterton. He was quite willing to push an issue to its purest form, in order to see the real nature of the thing under examination. He did not value the 'fruitful ambiguity' of the heretic - the questions that are only asked by heretics or make heretics - but rather truth and clarity. One of his works has 186 references to the word 'truth'.


This runs up to 1955.  Where not otherwise indicated, details are from Quasten's Patrology, 2 (1955). 

A. D'ALES, La Theologie de Tertullien, Paris 1905.  pp.221-3 online.
R. E. ROBERTS, The Theology of Tertullian, London, 1924, 279pp. (Now online complete)
J. LORTZ, Tertullian als Apologet, Munsterische Beitrage zur Theologie, 9/10 (2 vols) Munster 1927/8
J. MORGAN, The importance of Tertullian in the development of Christian dogma, London 1928
J. BERTON, Tertullien le schismatique, Paris 1928
Th. BRANDT, Tertullians Ethik, Gutersloh 1929
J. KLEIN, Tertullian. Christliches Bewusstsein und sittliche Forderungen, (Diss. Bonn), Dusseldorf 1940.
Joseph MOINGT, Théologie Trinitaire de Tertullien, 4 vols. (Paris: Éditions Aubier -Montaigne, 1966).
Robert H. (Robert Hyman) AYERS, Language, logic, and reason in the Church Fathers: a study of Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas. Hildesheim: Olms (1979) [7],146p; 20cm. Series: Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte und Studien; 6.  (Details CUL)
Bernd Jochen HILBERATH, Der Personbegriff der Trinitätstheologie in Rückfrage von Karl Rahner zu Tertullians "Adversus Praxean". Innsbruck: Tyrolia-Verlag (1986)
365p; 23cm. Series: Innsbrucker theologische Studien; 17. Originally presented as the author's Habilitationsschrift - Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Wintersemester 1984/85. Includes bibliographical references (p. [330]-353) and indexes. (Details CUL)
David RANKIN, Tertullian and the Church.  Cambridge University Press (1995). 247 pages. ISBN: 0521480671. Synopsis: Was Tertullian of Carthage a schismatic? How did he view the church and its bishops? How did he understand the exercise of authority within the church? In this study David Rankin sets the writings of Tertullian in the context of the early third-century church and the developments it was undergoing in relation to both its structures and its self-understanding. He then discusses Tertullian's own theology of the church, his imagery and his perception of church office and ministry. Tertullian maintained throughout his career a high view of the church, and this in part constituted the motivation for his vitriolic attacks on the church's hierarchy after he had joined the New Prophecy movement. His contribution to the development of the church has often been misunderstood, and this thorough exploration provides a timely reassessment of its nature and importance.  (Details from Amazon).  
Eric OSBORN, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1997) ISBN: 0521590353. Paperback:2002.ISBN: 0521524954. (Details from Amazon)
David RANKIN (Tr. Tomáš SUCHOMEL), Tertullianus a církev. Centrum pro studium demokracie a kultury (2002) 244 stran, 20x12,5cm, česky, vázaná vazba, 360gr.  ISBN: 80-85959-95-X.  Czech translation of 'Tertullian and the Church'.  (Details from Kosmas bookseller)
Salvador VICASTILLO, La tradición y la Escritura según Tertuliano, La Ciudad de Dios 216 (2003) pp.197-219. Not checked. (Details from CTC 03,22).
Geoffrey D. DUNN, A survey of Tertullian's soteriology. Sacris Erudiri 42 (2003) pp. 61-86. Not checked. (Details from CTC 2003,48).
A. DELRIO, Il Millenarismo di Tertulliano. Augustinianum 43 (2003), pp.365-396. Not checked. (Details from CTC 2003,50).


His attitude to philosophy was that some glimpses of truth might be found in it, but that it was the origin of all the heretical ideas that tainted the church in his day. Seneca he describes as 'almost one of us' (De anima 20), but in the same work he describes the philosophical schools as the 'patriarchs of heretics' (De anima 3). In the work in question Tertullian is concerned exclusively with the issue at hand - the plausible poison that Hermogenes was pouring into the ears of unwary Christians in his day - and not with outlining a general Christian view on the right use of philosophy, and as usual makes no effort to balance these two clashing views. It is useless to ask of a work a function other than that its maker designed, so his overall view must remain a matter of deduction.


Tertullian frequently uses legal terminology and is happy to use it both to attack heresy, and to illustrate Christian ideas.


He refers at various points to proto-creeds, perhaps used in Baptism, much like the Apostles creed of today, in De Virg. Vel 1, Adv Prax 2, De praescriptio 13 and 36. "As will be shown, this rule was taught by Christ, and raises among ourselves no issues other than those which heresies introduce, and which make heretics."(De prae 13).


Tertullian was the first Christian writer to face a serious attack concerning the nature of God. In response, he outlined a formula summarising the Biblical teaching on this, and was the first to use the word trinitas in a technical way to describe the relation of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The work is question is Adv. Praxean, but he also uses the term in De Pudicitia 2, and 21, and 25. He also was the first to use the word persona for the persons of the Trinity. However Tertullian's pioneering work in this area does not always avoid tending to make the Son subordinate to the Father, no doubt because the issue was not in his mind at the time. In Adv. Hermogenes 4 he makes a statement that there was a time when the Son did not exist, but the context again suggests that the statement is an inadvertence drawn forth by his argument about the appropriate titulature of the persons of the Trinity, rather than a doctrinal statement.

Nature of Christ

His definition in the same work of thetwo natures of Christ (Adv. Prax 27) is identical with the Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD.


Tertullian is orthodox on the virgin birth. He does not maintain the later ideas of Mary ever-virgin, but believes that Christ had a normal birth, and that his brothers were his brothers, and not his cousins as later Fathers were to maintain. Helvidius later invoked this statement by Tertullian as an authority, but was denied by Jerome curtly in the words "As to Tertullian, I have nothing else to say except that he was not a man of the church".

The Church

Tertullian is the first to call the church 'our mother'. In some of his works he describes the church as the repository of true faith and doctrine. But later he seems to have come into conflict with persons in authority in the church who he perceived to be abandoning the apostolic teaching, and moved more to a view of the church as the gathering of spiritual men, and that the church, properly, is simply the Holy Spirit himself. For this reason he is often regarded as the father of protestantism.

Forgiveness of sins

Like all the early fathers, Tertullian is deeply averse to visible sin after baptism. Once only may repentance be effective. As he became a Montanist, he came round to the view that even this could only be for the less serious sins. Note however that it is clear from De pudicitia 3 that he is discussing church discipline, rather than salvation, in that work, and so possibly in the others on the subject also.

Holy Communion

Much discussed in the reference literature, but the questions people interested in arguing for or against transubstantiation do not seem to be really on his mind. He makes occasional references to the practise of communion.


Tertullian uses without much discussion the same view of scripture as Christians do today, without analysing it - that is inerrant and inspired - and also is aware that some passages are to be taken literally, and some allegorically. The canon is not as fixed as it is today - some of the fringe books are still not universally accepted, and there is vagueness about the status of the deuterocanonical literature, notably 1 Enoch, which he refers to as if scripture (although in De Cultu Feminarum I:3 he is clearly aware that many think otherwise). To Tertullian this uncertainty does not seem to be a problem. However Tertullian makes the point that the people mucking about with scripture are all heretics - he is the main authority for Marcion's tamperings - and that a desire to reject portions of scripture is a keynote of heresy (De praescriptione haereticorum).


This subject is not one listed by Quasten. These notes are a temporary collection.

A. D'ALES, La Theologie de Tertullien, Paris 1905.  pp.221-3 online, which deal with scripture.
Adolf HARNACK, Tertullians Bibliothek christlicher Schriften, Sitzungsberichte der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 10 (1914) pp. 303-334.
R. P. C. HANSON, Notes on Tertullian's Interpretation of Scripture, Journal of Theological Studies, New Series 22 (1961), pp.273-9.
T. P. O’MALLEY, Tertullian and the Bible: Language - Imagery - Exegesis. Latinitas Christianorum Primaeva. (Utrecht: Dekker & Van De Vegt N.V. Nijmegen, 1967).  Refers to D'Ales as the most recent study on the inspiration of scripture.  Mostly concerned with imagery.
Dimitri MICHAÉLIDČS,  Foi, écritures, et tradition : ou, Les "praescriptiones" chez Tertullien.  Series: Théologie ; 76. Paris : Aubier (1969). 166 p ; 23 cm (Details from COPAC).
J. H. WASZINK, "Tertullian's Principles and Methods of Exegesis," W.R. Schoedel & R.L. Wilken, eds. Early Christian Literature and the Christian Intellectual Tradition: In Honorem Robert M.Grant. Paris: Beauchesne (1979). pp.17-31. (Details from the web - not checked).
John F. JANSEN, "Tertullian and the New Testament," Second Century 2 (1982): 191-207. (Details from the web - not checked)


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