Previous Page Table Of Contents Next Page




The character of Tertullian's work—Ancient opinions—Modem views— Contradictions in his writings—The extent to which he dealt in a systematic manner with Christian truth—The limitations of his endeavours: (1) The Rule of Faith; (2) Controversy; (3) Legal training—The merits of his endeavours: (1) Exclusion of Gnosticism; (2) Aid in defining the views of the Church; (3) The laying of the foundation for later teachers— Doctrines to which Tertullian made a definite contribution: (1) The Trinity; (2) The Person of Christ; (3) The nature of Man—Conclusion.

ONE marked feature of the Christian religion in the early centuries was that it attracted to itself so many men of outstanding ability. Few of them were greater than Tertullian. His virtues were many, though, in common with so many great men, he did not escape the defects of his qualities. He was a prolific writer, and the originator of Latin Christian literature. His works supply a wealth of information on a variety of subjects—Church History, Ethics, Theology, and Archaeology. He was before all an apologist. Of his work in that direction it is beside our present purpose to speak.1 His passionate protests against the injustices to which the Christians were subjected, his terrible scorn, his scathing satire, his dialectical subtleties, his powerful reasoning and compelling logic, are subjects upon which much has been written, and upon which, doubtless, much will be written again. His love of righteousness, and his devotion to the truth as he perceived it, were only surpassed by his impatience of error in others. His readiness in the realm of doctrine to go out not knowing whither he went, save that he pursued the truth, combined with a faithful adherence to the revelation in Christ, which was handed down through the Church, led him into many apparent contradictions, and ultimately robbed him of the |p234 regard of the mater ecclesia. But that impelling force of mind and passionate love of truth, where it did not lead him into the error of extremity, enabled him to expound the doctrines of the Christian faith with praiseworthy clarity.

Tertullian's writings have been variously appraised. Cyprian2 read them daily, and was proud to call him 'Master.' Augustine3 and Jerome4 esteemed his keen perception, his fertile thought, and his great constructive ability. Lactantius5 scorned his style but recognized his erudition. Vincent of Lerinum6 speaks of him with unqualified admiration. 'Who,' he asks, 'of all his race was ever more instructed and versed in things human and divine? His genius was at once so powerful and so impetuous that he never devoted himself to the study of any doctrine but he brought to bear upon it all the weight of his reason, or pierced through all its intricacies with his penetrating glance. Who can sufficiently praise his eloquence? There is a necessity in his logic which forces conviction on those whom it cannot persuade; every word conveys a striking thought, and every thought a triumph over his adversaries. This they know well, for he has come down like a thunderbolt, crushing the dead mass of their blasphemous writings. He is among the Latins what Origen is among the Greeks—the greatest of all.'

In modern times the theology of Tertullian is variously esteemed. Earnest advocates of the Greek school can see in him simply the one who first gave to Christian thought that Latin character which has dominated Western theology ever since. In this they are right, but they err when they attribute to him every development of his thought and every vagary of theologians of the Latin school. It is often the manner of theologians who belong to the Greek or the Latin school of thought to condemn the exponents of the opposite school in toto. It should be borne in mind, however, that the theology that is to approximate most nearly to the truth is that which can solve the problem of harmonizing the two systems in a higher unity. What is defective in the one is provided by the other, and each is dazzled by excess of light upon some |p235 aspects of the truth and baffled by the lack of it upon others. The perfect theology will see things whole. In the meantime, it is wise to recognize the clearness with which some aspects of the truth are perceived by Tertullian and his successors, even though their vision is defective in other directions.

Others who are not obsessed by the Greek point of view, but who regard the hardening of Christian thought into the mould of ecclesiastical theology as a calamity, see in Tertullian the fatal turning-point of Christianity. The Christian religion, they claim, is not a system of doctrine, but a life, revealed in Christ and lived in the Spirit. But while there is truth in that, it is inevitable that if Christianity is to claim dominion over the mind as well as the heart it must justify its claim at the bar of reason. If it is to guard itself against misinterpretation and perversion it must be subject to legitimate interpretation and exposition. If it is the essence of truth, it must submit to the elucidation of its implications and the application of its principles. That Tertullian perceived this challenge to Christianity in the necessities of his day, in the speculation of the Gnostics, in the reasonings of philosophers, in the objections of the heathen, and in the difficulties of the Christians themselves, and accepted it, is to his credit. With the aid of an acute intellect, a philosophic spirit, and a legal training, he aimed at establishing the claim of Christianity to be the truth of God and the hope of man. In pursuit of that aim he delved into philosophy, into medical lore, and into mythology; he laid bare the folly and wickedness of paganism; he indicated the limitations of philosophy; he presented a rational view of the universe as understood by Christians; and he expounded some of the contents of the Christian religion at great length and in systematic form.

Tertullian's teaching is characterized by Monceaux thus: 'A la base du système la Règle de foi. Puis la raison intervient pour justifier et explique le dogme. L'imagination complete l'oeuvre par des tableaux réalistes dont le cadre est fourni par la foi, les lignes par la raison, les couleurs par la realité.'7

'It is well to remember that the 'Rule of Faith' consists very largely of the elements of Christian truth, and that Tertullian is not the first nor the only Christian thinker |p236 to base his exposition upon it. Irenaeus8 and Origen9 take it as the basis of their theology. That Tertullian's 'picture' is primarily (as Scullard10 interprets the characterization of Monceaux) a work of the imagination, and only secondarily based upon faith and reason, is surely an over-statement. The exercise of reason upon the fundamental positions of the 'Rule of Faith,' combined with an appeal to fact, and tinged with imagination, would be a fairer estimate of Tertullian's work. In his exposition of the main tenets of Christianity he may be at fault, but at least he has advanced beyond his predecessors, and has indicated lines of thought which are valid to this day.

Much has been made, too, of the fact that contradictory statements are to be found in Tertullian's writings. In part these are due to the vividness with which he visualized the aspect of the truth with which he happened at the time to be dealing, so that at different times he expresses opposing opinions. In part they are due to the development in his perception of the truth, so that what at an earlier period seemed a satisfactory view is replaced on maturer consideration by another. In part, again, they are due to the fact that he sought to reconcile opposing tendencies in the Church of his day where no reconciliation was possible. 'It was his desire to unite the enthusiasm of primitive Christianity with intelligent thought, the original demands of the gospel with every letter of the Scripture and with the practice of the Roman Church, the sayings of the Paraclete with the authority of the bishops, the law of the Churches with the freedom of the inspired, the rigid discipline of the Montanist with all the utterances of the New Testament, and with the arrangements of a Church seeking to set itself up within the world.' 11|p237 Some, again, of the contradictions in the writings of Tertullian are capable of yet another explanation. Truth as we see it is often paradoxical, and many of the apparent contradictions of Tertullian are reflections of this fact. No doubt the perfect theology, like the perfect city of God, will lie foursquare, but in the meantime a projection here and there may be a necessity to the ultimate symmetry. It is far more important that two points of view should be put, if both are true, even when their reconciliation is beyond the power of him who puts them, rather than that essential truth should be sacrificed for the sake of consistency. Some of the contradictions in Tertullian's theology are unreconciled to this day.

Before we discuss those separate doctrines to which Tertullian made a definite contribution, it is necessary that we should indicate the extent to which he dealt with the Christian revelation in a systematic way.

He perceived clearly the need of his day, which was that the claim of the Church to possess the full revelation of essential truth 'should be substantiated. In order to maintain this position it was necessary to master the secular knowledge of the time and the sacred knowledge revealed in the Scriptures, and to show that the former was but a remote approximation to the truth, the latter the truth itself. His wide knowledge of history and philosophy, of literature—poetry and prose—and of thought of every description, is remarkable. His mastery of the sacred writings of the Old and New Testaments is likewise astonishing. Both made demands upon sheer memory alone, of whose severity he pardonably complains.


Tertullian's endeavours were not without their limitations. They were frankly limited by the 'Rule of Faith.' Though of a decidedly speculative turn of mind, he laid down the express rule that no speculation outside the 'Rule of Faith' was permissible. That procedure had its advantages in an age when the Scriptures were not easily accessible to all, and when |p238 the principles of exposition were undetermined. The extravagances of the Gnostics are evidence of the excesses to which unrestrained speculation might easily lead. The limitation of speculation to the explanation of the contents of the 'Rule of Faith' gave sanity and balance to the doctrine of the Church at a time when it was sorely needed.

They also suffered from the limitations inseparable from the fact that he was constantly engaged in controversy. Unlike Origen, who lived in a time of comparative immunity from such conflict, he had to fight the cause of Christianity against the heathen populace; he was engaged in controversy with the Gnostics, with the Monarchians, and with the Jews; and was prominently concerned in the rift between the Phrygian community and the Catholic Church. Hence his writings suffer from that one-sidedness which is characteristic of controversial compositions.

They were limited also by the attitude of mind induced by his legal training. It has often been averred that a man's conception of God colours his view of everything. This is certainly true of Tertullian. His conception of God was defective, and its inadequacy is reflected in every department of his thought. His portrait of God lacks the element of love. The two chief attributes of God are goodness and justice. The former of these would, if it were given an adequate place in the character of God, or even if Tertullian consistently gave it the prominence in his own thought that he does in his polemic against Marcion, go a long way toward relieving the bare justice which stands out so cold and rigid. But, despite the eloquent description of the goodness of God which Tertullian gives as an eternal attribute, which is manifested in His dealings with man, we must acknowledge that it is the heat of his ardour against the doctrines of Marcion, who taught that the God of the Old Testament was just but not good, rather than a dominant conviction of the inherent goodness of God, which led Tertullian to place the attribute of goodness beside that of justice in his description of the character of God. The dominant idea in his mind is that of the justice of God.

Hence we find no trace of love, or even of goodness, in his exposition of the Trinity. It might be argued that there was little, if any, appreciation of the love of God as the basis of the Trinity in Unity throughout the long controversy over that |p239 important doctrine; but of Tertullian, at any rate, it is true to say, not simply that he did not, but that he could not, from his view of the character of God, realize the place of love in the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The same may be said of his Logos doctrine. He certainly does hold securely the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ, but his indication of the impelling motive points' in the direction of wisdom rather than of love, and of sovereignty and power before all. The result is that even the Christ is primarily the Judge of men.

The gospel follows in the same line. It is a Rule of Faith which one accepts as a means of salvation for oneself, and which is appropriated through the sacraments. It is reasonable enough, defensible enough, once our God is Tertullian's God, but it is a gospel without a heart. The statement of Gwatkin12 is quite true: 'To Tertullian the revelation through Christ is no more than a law.' It is a gospel of the law-courts—of justice tempered with mercy—but it is not the gospel of Jesus. That had its source in the Fatherhood of God, and its basal principle is love. Any glimpses that Tertullian had of the essential truth that God is love were glimpses merely. Hence he has given but fragmentary and fleeting expression to that aspect of the Gospel which views the work of Christ as an expression of the love of God. But his view of the Judge upon the throne was clear and compelling, so that he has laid the foundation for that theology which has interpreted the gospel in terms of law.

The results of starting from the sovereignty of God are not seen in Tertullian's theology in their stark nakedness, because he did not himself draw the conclusions to which later thinkers, starting from his premisses, were inevitably led. When God is thought of as the Great Supreme, the Fountain of Righteousness, the outcome for feeble, sinful man is terrible indeed. The order of the divine attributes inscribed upon the portal of hell is, according to Dante, Power, Wisdom, Love. If such an abode is the logical deduction from the God whose attributes rank in that order, what wonder that from a God who is Power and Righteousness alone, with no leaven of Love, men were led to the conclusion that even upon the abode of earth for the multitude the doom is inscribed: 'Abandon hope, ye who enter here.' |p240


There are three conspicuous merits of Tertullian's endeavour to systematize Christian thought.

The first is that it led to the exclusion of Gnosticism. What that meant can be realized only by visualizing the consequences that must have followed the triumph of Gnosticism. The theosophical absurdities of their unrestrained speculations would have provided a poor substitute for the Christian God; the aeons and emanations a weak alternative to the incarnation of God in Christ for bridging the gulf between the finite and the infinite; the threefold division of mankind into spiritual, psychic, and material would have fastened a hopeless destiny upon the bulk of mankind, an unsatisfactory alternative to the possibility of virtue and of eternal life for all who seek it. A triumphant Gnosticism would have meant the reduction of Christianity to but one more Oriental speculation on the meaning of life. Those who served in the great controversy and saved Christianity for the world deserve to be numbered with the worthy defenders of the faith, and among them Tertullian occupies an honourable position.

The second is that it helped the Christian Church to define its own views. This is sometimes claimed to be the negative virtue of Gnosticism. Positively it was the work of none more conspicuously than of Tertullian. In these days, when Christian theology has developed into an exact science, systematically ordered and expressed, it is easy to under-estimate the immense service rendered by those who endeavoured, though with but partial success, to give systematic and reasoned expression to the contents of the Christian faith. The members of the Christian Church were at the mercy of those who with ridicule and satire, no less than with dialectical skill, could reduce to absurdity the 'fables' and 'simple notions' upon which their faith rested. But these 'fables' could be proved to be historical facts; the 'simple notions' could be proved to be the highest revelation of a rational God to His rational creatures. The simple faith was the wisdom of God. The whole position was one that was worthy of the respect and admiration of the profoundest intellect. It needed, however, an advocate who could demonstrate its wisdom and power. That advocate it found in Tertullian. |p241 In the third place, the endeavours of Tertullian resulted in the laying of the foundation for other thinkers to build upon. He was the 'Father of Latin Christianity,' but his influence was mediated mainly through Cyprian and Augustine. Cyprian stood upon his shoulders, and Augustine stood upon those of Cyprian. Augustine is the greatest teacher of the Western Church, and Tertullian is worthy of being described as his forerunner. This preparation for the labours of others is, as Freppel says, by no means the least of Tertullian's merits. 'C'est le mérite de Tertullien, d'avoir préludé aux travaux de l'avenir par un essai, qui restera un modèle, comme il avait été sans précédent.'13

DOCTRINES TO WHICH TERTULLIAN MADE A DEFINITE CONTRIBUTION.—It remains to consider those separate doctrines to which Tertullian has made a distinctive contribution. They are the doctrines of the Trinity, the humanity of Christ, and the nature of man. These all have been treated already, but it is necessary here to give some estimate of the value of his work in these directions.

The Trinity is a doctrine whose value is variously estimated to-day, and which is looked at from various points of view. As a mystical truth, which defies comprehension, and yet is an expression of that ultimate reality in God that appeals to the mystic soul, it is to be accepted as a matter of divine revelation, which neither needs nor is capable of precise definition. As a rational truth, which can be illustrated by analogies from human experience, it is regarded as expressing the real life of God. As an experimental truth it is an endeavour to explain the revelation of God to men. It is a threefold revelation of God: (1) As ultimate reality; (2) As imparting Himself; (3) As a spiritual force in the consciousness of man.

But historically the doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to express in philosophical form the truth revealed in the Scriptures of the existence in the Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

That attempt culminated in the work of the Cappadocians. In definite, formal statement it began with Tertullian. The Monarchian agitation forced him into formulating a statement in which the essential elements of the Trinitarian doctrine were included. The final dogmatic form of the doctrine is found in |p242 the Athanasian Creed, which summarized concisely the teaching of Augustine on the subject in his work De Trinitate.

Compared with previous Christian writers, we find in Tertullian: (1) A definite statement of three Persons in one Substance and the repeated use of the term trinitas; (2) The use of the terms substantia and persona in a semi-legal, semi-philosophical sense; (3) The clearer definition of the Logos doctrine as applied to Christ, and as expressive of the relationship of Father and Son. Compared with later developments we find: (1) No definite exclusion of the view of the Person of Christ propounded by the Arians; (2) No discussion of ou0si/a and u(po&stasij, of o(moou&sioj and o(moiou&sioj or of the distinctions implied by them; (3) No adequate discussion of the place of the Holy Spirit; (4) The eternal generation of the Son is not perceived; (5) The procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son is not treated.

Thus it is fair to say that Tertullian 'expressed in all its essential elements the full Catholic doctrine of the relation between the three Persons in the one Trinity, linked together in the one divine life. This is the first attempt at a scientific treatment of the doctrine.'14 Later developments, however, called for a more precise definition of the doctrine, and led to a more careful formulation. It was not to be expected that Tertullian should have anticipated and guarded against later accruing misinterpretations.

As to the question how far indications are to be found of the three points of view from which the subject is looked at to-day, we may say: (i) There is no indication in Tertullian's statement of this doctrine of any recognition of that view of the Trinity which represents it as a mystery that transcends reason. (2) There is some recognition of that view which regards it as an experimental truth. Indeed, the prime motive which led Tertullian to state and expound the doctrine was the fact of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The recognition of the divinity of Christ led to difficulties in the minds of earnest but simple Christians, who thought that it implied two Gods. Tertullian was led to expound the nature of God, with the aid of current philosophical conceptions, in such a manner as to harmonize the thought of the divine nature of Christ with the 'Monarchy' of God. That this was his leading motive is |p243 abundantly evident from the fact that in the treatise Adv. Praxean, in which he professedly deals with the doctrine of the Trinity, he devotes a considerable space to an explanation of the two natures in Christ. It is to be remarked, however, that there is no real attempt on his part to indicate the place of the Holy Spirit in this view as the Agent who is represented by the activity of God in the consciousness of men. This is all the more remarkable in that he was at the time a follower of the Paraclete. (3) But it is chiefly on the speculative side that Tertullian's contribution to the doctrine is rendered. Here he makes use of analogies in human experience and in nature which are imperfect, but one of which, at least, is in substance identical with the psychological analogy of modern speculation. The analogies from human experience are those of a monarch and his son who is associated with him in the government of a kingdom, and of a person and his speech; while the analogies from nature are those of the sun and its ray, and the peak of the ray—the well, the stream, and the river—and the root, the shoot, and the fruit. That which foreshadows the psychological analogy of modern speculation is the analogy of a person and his word. Tertullian seeks to express the relation of God, His Reason, and His Word, by the analogy of human personality and thought. 'Whatever you think, there is a word; whatever you conceive, there is reason. You must needs speak it in your mind; but while you are speaking you admit speech as an interlocutor with you. . . . Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second within you. The word itself is a different thing from yourself.'15

The endeavour to find in human personality an analogy to the triune nature of God was continued with greater success by Augustine. He found in man memory, understanding, will, in all of which the whole mind is active. In like manner he distinguished the mind, the knowledge which the mind has of itself, and the love which it has for itself. In modern times, Hegel applied his psychological analysis of all thought as trinitarian to the consciousness of God. Others, following him, find in the self as knowing, the self as known, and the union of both in one consciousness, an illustration of the Trinity. Dr. W. N. Clarke has expressed the doctrine through this analogy, and realizes the transition implied from logical distinction of |p244 thought to metaphysical distinction of being. 'In finite and imperfect minds these mental movements pass half-noticed, oftener unnoticed.' But in the perfect Being 'it does not seem impossible that to Him each of the three should be a centre of conscious life and activity, and that He should live in each a life corresponding to its quality. The assertion that He lives such a life is the assertion of the divine Triunity. He lives as God original and unuttered, He lives as God uttered and forthgoing, and He lives as God in whom the first and the second are united. He not only lives and is conscious in these three modes, but from each of these He acts from everlasting to everlasting. His perfect life consists in the sum of these three modes of activity. They are not personalities in the modern sense of the term, but separate aspects of one personality.'16

But the difficulty is to distinguish between the 'centres of conscious life and activity' and separate personalities. The analogy from the human individual here breaks down, and the only recourse is to turn to the social life of mankind. Here we come upon an element that is conspicuously absent from Tertullian's thought. He had no basis of love in either God or man to work upon. But Augustine discovered that love is threefold—there is the one who loves, the one who is loved, and love. The threefoldness of love is carried up by analogy to the character of God. In Him there is the Father who loves, the Son who is loved, and the Union of the Two in the Holy Spirit. This view, which is admirably expressed by Dr. Fairbairn, is attractive.17 It begins with the essential nature of God—love—and it provides an explanation of how God could be love from all eternity. The great difficulty in this view, however, is that it leans towards tritheism, and it opens the door to those speculations which were characteristic of the Gnostics, and the equality of Persons in the Trinity is scarcely maintained when the Holy Spirit is just the bond of union between the Father and the Son.


The Person of Christ is a subject of intense interest to-day, as it has been throughout the centuries. How the divine |p245 could enter into the life of humanity and express itself in a human life, and what relation the divine and the human must bear to one another in such a personality, are questions of never-failing interest. A solution to the former is sought along the lines of Kenosis, or of a progressive incarnation (Dorner), or of a 'Werthurteil' (Ritschl). The mode of approach to the latter is along the lines of metaphysical, or historical, or psychological inquiry.

Historically, the problem was in the early centuries not so much to discover how the incarnation was possible, but to maintain that it did really occur; and to preserve the two elements—the divine and the human—in the conception of the Person of Christ. The docetic view was particularly prominent in Tertullian's day. Hence he was led, in opposition to this, to emphasize the reality of the flesh and the human experience of Jesus. But he also held firmly the divinity of Christ, and worked out a theory of the possibility and mode of the incarnation, and of the relation of the human and divine natures in the Person of Christ, which is not only a great advance upon the work of his predecessors, but also a remarkable prefiguring of the conclusions attained at the Council of Chalcedon. The essential elements in the doctrine of the Person of Christ which was embodied in the creed of Chalcedon, and maintained by the orthodox Church throughout the ages, are clearly and definitely stated by him. One can easily imagine how Tertullian would signify his assent to the Chalcedonian formula: 'We confess and all teach with one accord one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once perfect (complete) in Godhead and perfect (complete) in manhood, truly God and truly man, and, further, of a reasonable soul and body; of one essence with the Father as regards His Godhead, and at the same time of one essence with us as regards His Manhood, in all respects like us, apart from sin; as regards His Godhead begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards His manhood—on account of us and our salvation—begotten in the last days of Mary the Virgin, bearer of God; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, OnlyBegotten, proclaimed in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures being in no way destroyed on account of the union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature |p246 being preserved and concurring in one Person and one hypostasis, not as though parted or divided into two Persons, but one and the same Son and Only-Begotten God the Logos, Lord, Jesus Christ.'18 The echo of later controversy is audible in this statement, but the Creed of Chalcedon is in essence the verdict of the Church that it agrees with the doctrines as set forth by Tertullian.

When we examine the teaching of Tertullian with a view to discovering what, if any, indications it reveals of a recognition of those lines of inquiry into the problem which are characteristic of modern theology we find that it is the explanation of the incarnation along what are now called 'Kenotic' lines that is propounded by Tertullian. There are attributes of God which belong to Him as the 'Father, who is invisible and unapproachable, and placid, and (so to speak) the God of the philosophers.' These are not found in Christ, but He is 'the Witness and Servant of the Father, uniting in Himself man and God, God in mighty deeds, in weak ones man, in order that He may give to man as much as He takes from God.'19 This involves humiliation upon the part of God, but it is a humiliation born of the moral greatness of God—it is, in fact, 'the sacrament of man's salvation.' Tertullian does not express more explicitly than that the self-limitation of God in the incarnation, nor does he make use of the passage in Philippians20 which is the scriptural basis of the Kenotic theory.

On the further question of the relation of the two natures in the Person of Christ the theory of Tertullian is that the two mutually exclusive natures of God and man co-existed in one Person. Each retained its own peculiar properties, and exercised its own function independently of the other. This theory is based upon a philosophy which held sway over the Church until the final dogmatic statement took form in the Council of Chalcedon—a philosophy which conceives of God as transcendent and far removed from the nature of man, and which is forced to bridge the gulf between the human and divine by the doctrine that the Logos assumed an impersonal human nature. It satisfies the conditions of the problem in every respect save one. It fails to realize the consciousness of |p247 Jesus Himself. This, however, is the starting-point of our present-day investigation into the divine-human personality of Jesus Christ, and from this point of view, while there is still a problem to be solved, the impressiveness of His character comes out with ever-increasing grandeur. It was not to be expected that Tertullian, with the far different philosophical background of his day, should have contributed much that is of value to our modern understanding of the Person of Christ, but at least we can be grateful to him for emphasizing the precious truth of the humanity of Christ at a time when it was in great danger of being lost. 'Much has changed in outlook and preconceptions since Tertullian wrote, but his language on the reality of Jesus as an actual human being and no sidereal or celestial semblance of a man, on the incarnation and the love of God, still glows, and still finds a response.'21


The Christian doctrine of man, his nature, origin, and destiny, has of necessity undergone great changes in modern times. The larger view of the world introduced by modern science has called for the examination, and in some cases for the re-fashioning, of the conceptions which were the outcome of a far different view of the world. The origin of man is seen to date much farther back than the biblical record will show, but it is still possible to hold that he is the creature of God. The elements of his nature are two, body and spirit (or soul). The threefold division into body, soul, and spirit is based upon a dualistic philosophy which cannot maintain itself. His destiny is now seen to be, not the recovery of a pristine perfection, but the realization of the ideal revealed in Jesus Christ. On the question of the freedom of the will the issue is still undecided between the determinist and the libertarian, the former maintaining that a man can only act according to his own character; the latter averring that he has the power, at times at least, of rising above himself, and making a free choice between alternatives. On the allied subject of the transmission of evil propensities from parents to children, while biological evidence seems to lean in favour of the transmission, the ground is still contested by those who |p248 find a sufficient explanation of the apparent transmission in the powerful influences of environment. The remarkable fact about the doctrine of man as set forth by Tertullian is that it was not only a notable advance upon that of his predecessors, but that it is in some important respects still valid to-day.

Historically, Tertullian owes something to the work of Athenagoras and Tatian. The former of these had affirmed the untrammelled free will of man; the latter had, in addition, maintained that man was composed of body and soul. In this connexion, however, it is necessary to point out that the philosophical basis of the latter conception was found in the teachings of the Stoics. Tertullian's statement of these doctrines is far more elaborate than those of his predecessors. His doctrine of original sin and of transmitted depravity was adopted by Augustine, who went farther than Tertullian in maintaining the total depravity of man, and propounded a theory of the will which gave a far more sinister character to the theory of inherited depravity. By depriving man of the ability to will what is good (apart from the grace of God) he closed the door which had been kept open by Tertullian's insistence on the freedom of the will. He also lost sight of the other factors which had qualified Tertullian's theory of the transmission of sinfulness, the 'soul by nature Christian,' and the transmission of grace.

The most distinctive contribution of Tertullian to Christian doctrines is his teaching on the nature of man. His so-called 'Traducianism' is especially noteworthy. But it is important that we should bear in mind in what sense he taught Traducianism, and in what way it affects the character of man.

In outline his theory may be stated thus. The nature of man is single, but it is composed of two species, body and soul, which are in life inseparably united. Man was created complete, body and soul, and he transmits his nature complete, body and soul, to his offspring. There are in him two kinds of seed, a bodily seed and a soul-seed, and they are inseparably united in transmission, so that the conception of body and soul takes place at the same moment. It follows that the whole race is one. It is 'evolved out of one' (ex una redundans),22 'The souls of all form one genus' (unum omnes animae|p249 genus).23The process of generation receives its trend from God, 'Grow and multiply.' Thus parents and offspring, and, indeed, the whole human family, are intimately connected, not only in body, but in soul. So strongly does Tertullian hold this that he even affirms that in the creation of Eve there was a transmission (tradux) of the soul as well as of the flesh of Adam.

Such is the theory of Tertullian, but a few points are worthy of notice.

(1) Though this theory of the transmission of the soul later contested the ground with the theory of' Creationism,' according to which the body alone is transmitted from parent to child, and each soul is a new creation of God, Tertullian did not discuss it in opposition to that theory—which he does not even mention—but in opposition to Gnosticism.

(2) It affords very strong ground for refuting the Gnostic theory of three separate natures in man. The strange figment of three classes of men distinguished by the predominance in them of the spiritual, the animal, and the material, the first being destined for salvation, the third for reprobation, and the second oscillating between the two,24 was amply refuted by the commonsense theory of Tertullian. The Gnostics began with their unrestrained speculations concerning the nature and character of the Divine Being, and worked downwards to an explanation of the nature of man that was both immoral in its tendency and inadequate to the facts of human experience. Tertullian, by a reasoned observation of the facts of human experience, produced an explanation which accorded with the revelation of Scripture, and easily discredited the fabrications of the Gnostics.

(3) It is facilitated by his theory of the corporeity of the soul. As has already been indicated, the belief in the corporeity of the soul made easy the analogy between the transmission of the body and that of the soul. But here again we must qualify our comment by the observation that Tertullian does not base his argument upon the corporeity of the soul. He does not even mention that quality of that soul in this connexion. It is the unity of man's nature that is the basis of his argument.

(4) It appears to give a materialistic cast to the soul. But |p250two considerations must be borne in mind: (i.) Tertullian is definitely opposed to the materialistic explanation of the soul as a product of the body; (ii.) Some such explanation as that of Augustine,25 that the conception of soul from soul is similar to that of a light kindled from a light, would be nearer to Tertullian's thought than any less spiritual idea.

The chief importance of this theory of the transmission of the whole man, soul and body, lies in its relation to the doctrine of original sin and hereditary depravity. How far does the theory assist in the elucidation of this doctrine? Tertullian was conscious of this relation, and stated it clearly, but he did not discuss it at any length, nor did he deal with the many difficult problems that arise out of the subject.

His view, briefly stated, is this: Man as created by God was pure. But by the sin of Adam a vitium was introduced into his nature, and that vitium was transmitted to his descendants. The vitium is conveyed, not by the body alone, but by the soul and the body together. The chief agent in sin, however, is the soul, and so it becomes the principal channel in its transmission. The evil is moral, and so attaches itself to a moral agent. But the body is not free from complicity. It is a caro peccatrix26as a result of its participation in the one nature of man. The result is that every soul has, by reason of its birth, its nature in Adam, and is unclean, and suffuses even the flesh, by reason of their conjunction, with its own shame.27 In the beginning man was entrapped into breaking the commandment of God, 'and, being given over to death on account of his sin, the entire human race, tainted in their descent from him, were made a channel for transmitting his condemnation.'28

Three qualifications of this statement are found in Tertullian. The first is that the corruption of the nature of man is not complete. There is still a portion of good in the soul-of that original, divine, and genuine goodness which is its proper nature.29 The second is that the nature of man provides a vehicle, not only for the transmission of evil, but also for the transmission of grace. 'Again, if the blessing of the fathers was likewise destined for their offspring, previous to any merit |p251 on the part of those, why might not also the guilt of the fathers redound to their children? As was the grace, so was the offence; so that the grace and the offence ran down through the whole race.'30 The third is that the nature which was contaminated in Adam is regenerated in Christ. 31 And as the contamination was not confined to the soul, so, too, the flesh is a partaker in grace. 'The flesh follows the soul, now wedded to the spirit, as a part of the bridal portion—no longer the servant of the soul, but of the spirit. O happy marriage, if in it there is committed no violation of the nuptial vow .'32

In conclusion, Tertullian was a child of his day, keenly alive to all that happened around him, and extremely active m relation to the life of his time His energetic spirit made him the earnest advocate and exponent of the religion that claimed his allegiance. Every shade of intensity in the persecution of the Christians is reflected in his writings. Every device of logic and satire was employed in his contention with heathenism. He used the tricks of his rhetorical art to defend his own position and to attack his opponents. He delved into all manner of learning, that he might the better expound the perfect learning. He fought the Gnostics, and Marcion in particular, and exposed the absurdities of their doctrines. He expounded the doctrine of the Church on matters that were in dispute. He entered into every controversy of his day within the Church, devoting himself with equal ardour to expounding the nature of God and the details of worship and conduct. He involved himself in contradictions, seizing a new position without abandoning the old, and he lived to see himself, the arch-enemy of heresy, branded as a heretic.

But he was more than the product of his own time. Though his strength undoubtedly lay in his ability to grasp a position and expound it without relating it to his view on other subjects, he had sufficient insight to deal with the subjects he handled to effect a contribution in some directions of value for all time. His devotion to the Christian faith as he understood it, coupled with a speculative ability above the ordinary, made him not only an able advocate of the early Church teaching, but also a thinker of fertile suggestion, to whom men like Calvin and Richard Hooker turned for light upon the problems of their day. He has suffered more than most men from one-sided |p252 and unfair judgements.33 The influence of his writings is itself an ample refutation of the ill-considered criticisms of those who have based their judgement upon a superficial acquaintance with them. When, with an imagination that is vivid enough to reproduce the situation, the circumstances, and the temperament of the man, and a judgement that is based upon a calm review of his theology in its historical setting, we draw near to Tertullian, we shall recognize in him, despite his failings and limitations, one of the noblest characters and greatest thinkers of the Christian Church.


1. p.233 n.1 The work of Tertullian as an apologist is fully treated in Pressensé, The Early Years of Christianity, Vol. III., pp. 374—414, 591—605, and T. R. Glover, The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire, pp. 305—347. But see Appendix II. for a brief characterization of his apologetic work.

2. p.234 n.1 De Viris Illus., c. 53 (St. Jerome): 'Nunquam Cyprianum absque Tertulliani lectione unum diem praeterisse, ac sibi crebro dicere: Da Magistrum.'

3. p.234 n.2 De gen. ad. litt., X. 41.

4. p.234 n.3 Cat. 53.

5. p.234 n.4 Lactant., Div. Inst., V. 1.

6. p.234 n.5 Vincent of Lerinum, Commonitor, 24: 'Cuius quot paene verba, tot sententiae sunt; quot sensus tot victoriae.'

7. p.235 n.1 Histoire littéraire de l'Antique Chrétienne, Vol. I., p. 362.

8. p.236 n.1 Irenaeus, Adversus Omnes Haereseis, I., x. (1).

9. p.236 n.2 De Principiis, Preface, 4—8.

10. p.236 n.3 Early Christian Ethics in the West, p. 161.

11. p.236 n.4 Harnack, Ency. Brit., article 'Tertullian'; cf. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II., p. 16: 'Tertullian dwells enthusiastically on the divine foolishness of the gospel, and has a noble contempt for the world, for its science and its art, and for his own; and yet are his writings a mine of antiquarian knowledge, and novel, striking, and fruitful ideas. He calls the Grecian philosophers the patriarchs of all heresies . . . and yet reason does him invaluable service against his antagonists. He vindicates the principle of Church authority and tradition with great force and ingenuity against all heresy; yet, when a Montanist, he claimed the right of private judgement and individual protest. He has a vivid sense of the corruption of human nature and of the absolute need of moral regeneration; yet he declares the soul to be born Christian, and unable to find rest except in faith. . . . He adopts the strictest supernatural principles, and shrinks not from the credo quia absurdum est. At the same time he is a most decided realist, and attributes body, that is, as it were, a corporeal tangible substantiality, even to God and to the soul.'

12. p.239 n.1 The Knowledge of God, Vol. II., p. 163.

13. p.241 n.1 Cours d'éloquence sacrée, Vol. II., p. 364.

14. p.242 n.1 Bethune-Baker, p. 201.

15. p.243 n.1 Adv. Praxean, c. 5.

16. p.244 n.1 W. N. Clarke, Outline of Theology, p. 174.

17. p.244 n.2 The Place of Christ in Modern Theology, pp. 294 ff.

18. p.246 n.1 Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church, Vol. III., p. 346.

19. p.246 n.2 Adv. Marcionem, II., c. 27.

20. p.246 n.3 Philippians ii. 7.

21. p.247 n.1 T. R. Glover, The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire, p. 340.

22. p.248 n.1 De Anima, c. 22.

23. p.249 n.1 De Anima, c. 41.

24. p.249 n.2 Adv. Valent., c. 29.

25. p.250 n.1 Epist. Ad Optat., 190, c. 4 : 'Tamquam lucerna a lucerna accendatur.'

26. p.250 n.2 De Anima, c. 40.

27. p.250 n.3 Ibid.

28. p.250 n.4 De Test. Animae, c. 3.

29. p.250 n.5 De Anima, c. 41.

30. p.251 n.1 Adv. Marc., II., c. 15.

31. p.251 n.2 De Anima, c. 40.

32. p.251 n.3 Ibid., c. 41.

33. p.252 n.1 Cf., e.g., Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, c. 15 ; Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, Cent. II., Part II., c. 5.


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

Previous Page Table Of Contents Next Page

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