Though he died almost 18 centuries ago, Tertullian is often quoted today in theological and apologetics circles. But what did this man believe and what did he ultimately contribute to historic Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of Tertullian—and why he still matters today.
Who Was Tertullian?
Tertullian (c. 160–220) was a North African church father and was likely born in the ancient city of Carthage. His parents were pagans and his father served as a Roman centurion. He was educated in the subjects of law and rhetoric and was an engaging writer. He converted to Christianity in mid-life. Living in the early days in which Christians suffered from persecution, Tertullian wrote a theological treatment on the subject of martyrdom (To the Martyrs). He was a unique, bold, and rather temperamental apologist and polemicist for early Christianity at a time when the faith was encountering a hostile Roman culture.
What Did Tertullian Write?
Tertullian was a prolific author of more than 30 books, but perhaps his two most important apologetics books are The Apology and To the Nations. In both works, Tertullian defends Christianity from the criticisms made by Romans and critiques heretical teachings that challenged historic Christianity. Most of his writings have survived through the centuries, though some have been lost.
What Did Tertullian Believe?
Tertullian affirmed the truth of historic Christianity, and perhaps the following are his three most important Christian apologetics contributions:
- Tertullian was one of the earliest Latin authors to use the word “Trinity” (Trinitas). In his Trinitarian theology he described God as three persons in one substance. While this did not reflect complete Nicene orthodoxy, Tertullian’s views were a very important step in that direction.
- Tertullian critiqued the influential heretical movements of Gnosticism (a religious philosophy that affirmed esoteric knowledge and dualism, that spirit was good, but matter was evil) and Marcionism (a religious philosophy that affirmed Jesus as the savior, and Paul as his chief apostle, but rejected the Hebrew Bible and the God of Israel).
- Tertullian boldly defended Christian beliefs and practices from Roman caricature and distortions. For example, the Romans misunderstood why Jesus died a criminal’s death of crucifixion, and sought to paint it in a negative light.
Tertullian was a courageous defender of the Christian faith at a time when it could have easily cost him his life. However, he is somewhat controversial for his tendency to strongly emphasize the paradoxical nature of Christian truth, and he was perhaps excessively critical of philosophy as is reflected in his famous statement: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”1
Why Does Tertullian Matter Today?
While Tertullian is criticized for his connection to and support of Montanism (a schismatic end-times prophecy sect), it doesn’t appear that he ever departed from historic Christianity. He was the first important Christian leader to write extensively in the Latin language, and for that reason he is considered the “Father of Latin Christianity.” Tertullian is important to remember today because he had deep convictions and was not afraid to defend Christianity, even under threat of persecution. He was also deeply concerned that the followers of Christ in his time lived holy and obedient lives unto God and thus emphasized this in his preaching and writings.
Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards; Søren Kierkegaard; St. Bonaventure; Martin Luther; John Calvin; Irenaeus
Reflections: Your Turn
When it comes to apologetics and evangelism, what role do arguments play and how important is the ethical credibility of the apologist in terms of a person being persuaded of the truth of Christianity?
For a survey of Tertullian’s life and theological accomplishments, see A Concise History of Christian Thought by Tony Lane.
- Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 16.