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Tertullian (Christian Theologian)

Born approximately 155-160.

Died sometime after 220.

Tertullian, also known as the father of Latin Christianity, was an important early Christian theologian, polemicist, and moralist who, as the initiator of ecclesiastical Latin was instrumental in shaping the vocabulary and thought of Western Christianity, he was one of the Latin apologists of the second century.

The knowledge pertaining to his life is based almost entirely on documents written by men living more than a century after him and from obscure references in his own works. The general outline of his life has been constructed but most of the details remain continually disputed by modern scholars.

Little is known of his early life. He was born in Carthage, His parents were Pagan, and his father may have been a centurion in an African-based legion assigned to the governor of the province. Tertullian seems to have gone to Rome in his late teens or early twenties for further education. While in Rome, he became interested in the Christian movement, but not until he returned to Carthage toward the end of the second century, was he converted to the Christian faith. He left no account of his conversion experience, but in his early works, To the Martyrs, To the Nations, and Defense, he indicated that he was impressed by certain Christian attitudes and beliefs. Especially the courage and determination of the martyrs' moral rigorism and an uncompromising belief in one God.

As a historic personage, Tertullian is known less for what he did than for what he wrote. The range of his interests and the vigor with which he pursued them, however, encouraged other Christians to explore previously uninvestigated areas of life and thought. He wrote works in defense of the faith and the treaties on theological problems against specific opponents such as Marcion, Hermogenes, and Valentinus.

Some Opponents Tertullian Addresses in his Polemical Writings.

"Against Marcion"

Marcion was an Anatolian who believed that the world was created by, what was in his mind, the "evil" God of the Jews.

"Against Hermogenes"

Hermogenes was a Carthaginian painter who claimed God created the world out of preexisting matter.

"Against Valentinus"

Valentinus was an Alexandrian gnostic.

In addition to apologetical and polemical works, Tertullian addressed a whole range of moral and practical problems on issues facing Christians of his day.

Sometime before 210 Tertullian left the orthodox church to join a new prophetic sectarian movement known as Montanism (founded by the 2nd-century Phrygian prophet Montanus), which had spread from Asia Minor to Africa. His own dissatisfaction with the laxity of contemporary Christians was congenial with the Montanist message of the imminent end of the world combined with a stringent and demanding moralism. Montanism stood in judgment on any compromise with the ways of the world, and Tertullian gave himself fully to the defense of the new movement as its most articulate spokesperson. Even the Montanists, however, were not rigorous enough for Tertullian. He eventually broke with them to found his own sect, a group that existed until the 5th century in Africa. According to tradition, he lived to be an old man. His last writings date from approximately 220, but the date of his death is unknown.

In antiquity most Christians never forgave him for his shift to Montanism. Later Christian writers mention him only infrequently and then mostly unfavorably. Almost begrudgingly, they acknowledged his literary gifts and acute intelligence. His practical and legal bent of mind expressed what would later be taken as the unique genius of Latin Christianity. Like most educated Christians of his day, he recognized and appreciated the values of the Greco-Roman culture, discriminating between those he could accept and those he had to reject.

For more information on Tertullian, here are some helpful links:

The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition (15 Volume Set)

Connected study article: December 25: Christian Or Pagan Origin?

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