I’m continuing my occasional series on great Christians in history, by going back earlier than I ever have, to an important early Christian known as Tertullian. He wrote in the latter decades of the 2nd century CE and the early decades of the 3rd, a crucial time when a lot of Christian thought had only just begun to gel.
What we know of Tertullian himself comes mainly from his own pen, so it must be taken with a grain of salt. He was a Carthaginian Roman who wrote mainly in Latin, and lived in the central Empire, at a time when most Christian writers wrote in Greek and lived in the East. In this regard he stands out a bit from the rest of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers, yet his writings influenced many other Christians, both during his life and after.
Tertullian’s writings carry a legalistic edge and employ legal language and expressions. As a result, later Christian legend claims he had been trained as a lawyer before his conversion. But if one examines what Tertullian says about Roman law, it’s not really certain he was a lawyer. Nevertheless, his legalism later became a strong theme in Christian thinking, and this is one of Tertullian’s chief legacies to Christianity. Doctrines ceased to be notions that illustrated higher spiritual ideals, but became, rather, statutes which had to be viewed absolutely and literally.
Another of Tertullian’s enduring legacies is the inclusion of the Old Testament (or Hebrew scriptures) in the Christian canon. In the middle of the 2nd century many Christians — including the Marcionites, as well as most Gnostic sects — rejected the Hebrew God as a deficient creature, one distinct from, and inferior to, the “true” God revealed by Christ himself. Tertullian opposed this philosophy, insisting that the Hebrew God was, in fact, THE God, and that there was no difference between them. Toward that end, Tertullian taught the opposite of what these groups believed … he insisted that the Hebrew scriptures were absolutely sacred and indispensable to Christians. It was in his massive anti-Marcionite tome, Adversus Marcionem, that Tertullian coined the terms vetus testamentum (“Old Testament”) and novum testamentum (“New Testament”) to explain how the two realms of Christian scripture were connected.
While the Trinity doctrine did not exist in his own time — it was the product of later anti-heretical formulations — Tertullian did presage it a bit, having introduced the term trinitas (meaning “trio,” which later became English “Trinity”) to describe the interrelationship of the “three persons” of God.
These are all innovations for which Tertullian is famous. But the reality of the man is that he was stiff and puritanical. He yearned for the Christians of his time to return to older, stricter customs. With the exception of the few notions he invented, he considered innovation to be impious and dangerous for Christians to engage in. Over time he became increasingly frustrated with, and disappointed in, the Christians he usually associated with; he eventually left them for a Montanist community which was near Carthage. The Montanists of his time and locale were both ascetic and charismatic, so their approach to Christianity appealed to the puritanical Tertullian. It’s astoundingly ironic that a rigid Christian who despised heresy and had written extensively against several of them, ended up embracing one of them. (His departure from the “orthodox” Latin Christianity of his time, to this horrible heretical outfit, is the reason Tertullian has never been sainted, unlike most other Church Fathers.)
But as I see it, the most important legacy Tertullian left behind — something which left its mark on all of Christianity after him — is a certain unmistakable viciousness that most Christians have tried to copy, but few have equalled. Tertullian was — put simply — a fiercely arrogant, pompous ass who reveled in his own superiority and piety. Here is an example of his distinct brand of Christianity:
But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One! What that exultation of the angelic hosts! What the glory of the rising saints! What the kingdom of the just thereafter! What the city New Jerusalem! Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? what my derision? Which sight gives me joy? which rouses me to exultation?–as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness with great Jove himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation; governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ. What world’ s wise men besides, the very philosophers, in fact, who taught their followers that God had no concern in ought that is sublunary, and were wont to assure them that either they had no souls, or that they would never return to the bodies which at death they had left, now covered with shame before the poor deluded ones, as one fire consumes them! Poets also, trembling not before the judgment-seat of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but of the unexpected Christ! I shall have a better opportunity then of hearing the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity; of viewing the play-actors, much more “dissolute” in the dissolving flame; of looking upon the charioteer, all glowing in his chariot of fire; of beholding the wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows; unless even then I shall not care to attend to such ministers of sin, in my eager wish rather to fix a gaze insatiable on those whose fury vented itself against the Lord. “This,” I shall say, “this is that carpenter’s or hireling’s son, that Sabbath-breaker, that Samaritan and devil-possessed! This is He whom you purchased from Judas! This is He whom you struck with reed and fist, whom you contemptuously spat upon, to whom you gave gall and vinegar to drink! This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!” What quaestor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favour of seeing and exulting in such things as these? And yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination. But what are the things which eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and which have not so much as dimly dawned upon the human heart? Whatever they are, they are nobler, I believe, than circus, and both theatres, and every race-course. (De spectaculis or “On the Games”, chapter XXX)
If Tertullian’s happy, sanctimonious, giddy reveling in the endless, horrific torment of others doesn’t make your blood run cold, then nothing will. And that, I fear, is perhaps his greatest imprint on subsequent Christianity … a belief that it is not only right for non-Christians to suffer eternally, but “good” for them to do so — and this, in turn, is something that righteous Christians should find enjoyable and entertaining. This philosophy left its mark on all subsequent Christianity … unfortunately.
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