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The Theology of Tertullian




No attempt has been made in recent times, as far as the writer is aware, to deal in a systematic manner with the theology of Tertullian as a whole, and with due regard to the chronological order of his writings. Various phases of his teaching have been treated, e.g. his doctrine of the soul, his ethics, and his view of the Trinity; but the expositions of these phases of his teaching have often been vitiated by the failure on the part of the expositors to place the writings in their chronological order, and to recognize the development in Tertullian's thought. Harnack, for instance, notes the frequency of contradictory statements in the writings of Tertullian, without allowing sufficiently for the changing outlook of one who passed through various stages of growth, from that of a pagan who was initiated into the Christian community, to that of the mature Christian theologian and the devoted disciple of the Paraclete. Some inconsistencies and contradictions there were, inevitably, in the writings of one who endeavoured to reconcile the traditional teaching of the Church and the authority of the Scriptures with the inspiration of the Paraclete and his prophets, and these endured to the end; but many of the so-called contradictions in Tertullian's writings are no more than the reflections of a changing and advancing exposition of the Christian position by one who lived in a period of transition, who came under the influence of various currents of thought, and who himself was a remarkable example of growth in the knowledge of Christian truth.

The only English scholars who have endeavoured to deal in a systematic manner with the writings of Tertullian as a whole are Bishop Kaye (The Writings of Tertullian, third edition, 1845), and Fuller (Dictionary of Christian Biography, vol. iv., pp. 818—64). Kaye is content to divide the writings |p10 of Tertullian into four classes: (1) Works probably written while Tertullian was yet a member of the Church; (2) Works certainly written after he became a Montanist; (3) Works probably written after he became a Montanist; (4) Works concerning which nothing certain can be pronounced. It is a sufficient commentary on such a classification to note that De Spectaculis and De Idololatria are classed among those probably written after he became a Montanist. Kaye's work contains a great deal of interesting information, but its usefulness is limited by the following considerations: (1) The chronological arrangement of the books is unsatisfactory; (2) The design of the work is to illustrate Mosheim's outline of the history of the period; (3) The plan of using the writings to illustrate and support the doctrines of the Church of England, as set forth in the Thirty-nine Articles, tends to give the reader a wrong perspective.

Fuller (1887) has given a summarized statement of the contents of Tertullian's writings, but has contributed nothing to our understanding of his theology. In his view of the chronology of the writings he follows Kaye mainly, but introduces some modifications suggested by Bonwetsch. He divides the works into: (I) Those written while Tertullian was still a member of the Church, (a) Apologetic writings, (b) other writings of this period (197—9) but of less certain date; (2) Montanistic writings, (a) defending the Church and her teachings, (b) defending the Paraclete and his discipline. He also gives a brief sketch of the times in which Tertullian lived, and a concise characterization of the Carthaginian as he reveals himself in his writings. As a brief review of the writings of Tertullian, Fuller's article is useful, but some of his statements need to be accepted with caution in view of later research.

Antignostikus; or, the Spirit of Tertullian, by Dr. Augustus Neander (1849, translated into English 1851),is a brilliant exposition of the writings of Tertullian. He divides the writings into: (1) Those which were occasioned by the relation of Christians to the heathen, (a) prior to his becoming a Montanist, (b) after he had embraced Montanism; (2) Writings which relate to Christian and Church life, and to ecclesiastical discipline, (a) pre-Montanist, (b) Montanist; (3) The dogmatic and dogmatic-polemical writings, (a) pre-Montanist (b) Montanist. Neander is more favourably |p11 disposed towards chronological data than Kaye, but in broad outline he, too, is content with the distinction between preÂ-Montanist and Montanist writings, and the fact that he places Adversus Judaeos and Adversus Hermogenem among the Montanist writings is sufficient to show the unsatisfactory nature of this classification. Neander's method is to expound the thought of each book in turn. This method has its advantages, but, while it saves time for the writer, it throws upon the reader the task of correlating the views of Tertullian upon any subject or topic. It has the further disadvantage that it allows Neander to develop the thought of Tertullian on a subject without paying due regard to the qualifications which are necessary in the light of expressions and statements found in other of the author's writings.

The problem of placing the writings of Tertullian in their chronological order was faced by Uhlhorn (Fundamenta Chronologiae Tertullianeae, 1852),Bonwetsch (Die Schriften Tertullians nach dem Zeit ihrer Abfassung, 1878), Harnack (Zeitschrift fur Kirchengeschichte, 1878), and Noeldechen (Die Abfassungzeit der Schriften Tertullians, in Texte und Untersuchungen, vol. 5). These perceived the importance of the problem and approached it in a scientific manner, and the latest statement of the case by Noeldechen has gone far towards establishing the order of the writings as definitely as is possible with the data at our service. The latter also (Tertullian dargestellt, 1890) has endeavoured to establish, with the aid of hints in the writings themselves, a life of Tertullian, and has expounded the teaching of the writings in chronological succession. In his task of building up a life of Tertullian he has profited by, and improved upon, the attempts of Hesselberg (Tertullians Lehre, 1848), Grotemeyer (Ueber Tertullians Leben und Schriften, 1863), and Hauck (Tertullians Leben und Schriften, 1877). But the work of these writers was confined to questions of literary and historical significance. With the theology of Tertullian they did not deal.

Of the books which deal with the special aspects of Tertullian's theology the chief are Esser's Die Seelenlehre Tertullians, 1893, Ludwig's Tertullians Ethik, 1885, and Rauch's Der Einfluss der stoischen Philosophie auf die Lehrbildung Tertullians,1890. Esser's work is a careful and sympathetic exposition of the teaching of Tertullian on the soul, and is based upon the |p12 treatise De Anima, together with such reflections of the subject as appear in other writings (mainly De Carne Christi and De Resurrectione Carnis). Ludwig has given an ample exposition of the ethical teaching of Tertullian, while Rauch has shown the influence of Stoicism upon his psychology, theology, and ethics.

Of books which treat of Tertullian's theology in relation to the general development of Christian thought the most helpful are Harnack (History of Dogma, English translation, vols. ii. and v.), Loofs (Leitfaden), and Bethune-Baker (Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine), while the treatment of Tertullian in Bishop Bull's Defence of the Nicene Creed is worthy of careful consideration. Harnack's treatment of Tertullian is not over-sympathetic, and some of his conclusions appear to be arrived at hastily, but his treatment of the treatise Adversus Praxean is masterly. Loofs' treatment of the teaching of Tertullian is brief, but as a sketch of the historical relation of that teaching to earlier and later developments of Christian thought it is admirable. Bethune-Baker also has given a lucid, though brief, statement of Tertullian's contribution towards the solution of the great problem of Christian doctrine—the Trinity.

With a few exceptions the translations of Tertullian and other writers given are those of the Ante-Nicene Library, while the Latin and Greek readings, which have been given only where essential, are from the Patrologia edition of Migne.

Greek text is rendered using the Scholars Press
SPIonic font, free from here.

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This document ( last modified 14th July 2001) from the Tertullian Project.
© Epworth Press, Methodist Publishing House.  Reproduced by permission.