Tertullian courtesy of Romana Klee and Flickr
The Life of Tertullian
Upon being immersed into the theological world of Christian life, it is not long before one is confronted with the question “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem.” Distraught over the insistence on merging Christian doctrine with secular philosophy, it was Tertullian of Carthage who uttered this phrase . . . or rather wrote it. Much of his life would be defined by this very stance.
A contemporary of Clement of Alexandria (click here
to see our study on him last week) Tertullian focused much of his efforts countering the work of Clement. Prior to this, Tertullian has already established roots in the secular world himself, having not been converted until about AD 190. Born about AD 150, Tertullian was a lawyer who, upon conversion, devoted the rest of his life and skills to defending the Christian faith, even traveling to Rome a number of times to further this defense.
Tertullian is often overlooked in historical church studies, probably partly because of the traditional claims that he joined the Montanist movement of ‘New Prophecy.’ Upon defecting from the Orthodox Church in AD 207, Tertullian clearly joined elsewhere. Although we cannot be completely certain about his movements from there, we have no reason to suspect that the tradition that connects Tertullian to ‘New Prophecy’ to be untrue. What is known is that Tertullian left the Orthodox Church due to the moral and theological decline of the church and the people.
The Legacy of Tertullian
Upon his death around AD 212, the legacy of Tertullian is left behind through his theological developments laid out in the 30 volumes of work available to us today. Tertullian’s contributions center around several areas.
1) Philosophical Input in the Christian Life
Most notably, it was clear that Tertullian rejected any Christian studies that were not grounded in primary sources from the apostles or apostolic succession. It was in his writing Prescription Against Heresies where he made the noted comment “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem” in an effort to lay forth the case that philosophy and Christianity should not be mixed.
2) The Christian Life
As Tertullian used his legal prowess to defend Christians and the Christian faith to those who sought to stamp it out through persecution he set forth some key definitions in the doctrine of the Christian Life. While that was not his primary purpose, he was one of the first to outline the role of worship and belief in the Christian life.
With a high view of Christ, Tertullian’s defenses brought reason into the argument about worshiping Christ. Using Logos in his explanation, Tertullian defined the rationality of worshiping Christ instead of any other God (or emperor for that matter).
4) The Trinity
If there is one area in which Tertullian had the greatest impact, it would have to be in the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity. As Praxeas sought to influence the debate about the Trinity, he systematically explained the details of the Trinity. However, his reductionist definitions eventually lead to what is known as modalism. To this end, Tertullian rejected Praxeas’ systematic analysis and wrote Against Praxeas that was the greatest work at the time. Using language later adopted by many, Tertullian gave us one of the clearest theologies of the Trinity up until that time, and would influence later teachings for centuries to come.
Perhaps Tertullian’s teachings against philosophy went to the extreme. Perhaps they didn’t go far enough. Regardless, both Clement and Tertullian had an impact in the development of our theology. Their foundations set forth a high view of God to be followed by those who followed.