Tertullian, The Father of Latin Christian Literature

Author: Various


(Ed. Note: In a preceding issue, in an article on "The Latin Fathers," reference was made to Tertullian. In this issue we give a more specific account of his achievement, as given by three different writers, and some selections from his works.)

(1) Evaluations of Tertullian

To impart to Christianity a complete Latin character, there was need of both a Tertullian and a Cyprian as founders, and of an Augustine and Gregory as the two principal men of the Western Church.

Of the two founders, the earlier, Tertullian, had the more vigorous mind, With a sternness of nature becoming the son a Roman centurion, he combined a fierceness of temper befitting his Punic birth. An advocate; conversant with the Roman law, possessing also a rich fund of knowledge, he lacked the thorough grammatical training of his successor. Notwithstanding this lack-- perhaps in part because of it, since a thorough Greek training might have cost him something of his native vigor of expression-- he had for his task to create much of the language for those spiritual truths which were then new to the Latin tongue. He had also to formulate the requirements of Christianity upon the conduct of men in terms suited to that legal bias which characterized the Roman social and political fabric. The Montanistic ideas which he adopted, so far from unfitting him for this task, only seemed to intensify the Roman in his nature, and helped him to impress upon his work the true stamp....

As a writer, Tertullian was the first of the Latin fathers. His numerous works were all known and very highly esteemed in the church. Jerome relates that Cyprian had them read to him daily, and in asking for them was accustomed to say, "."

From (1881) by Rev. George A. Jackson (Anglican Clergyman)

Tertullian aimed at a direct effect and confrontation, and by appeals and lectures tried to reach primarily his nearest brethren and fellow-citizens. But what Latin it was that Tertullian suddently dared to write! It was without precedent in the literary field. In Tertullian's writings, we come across the living language of the Christians of that time, the Latin of the growing Latin Church, a language which accordintly is filled with loanwords and new coinage to describe the new facts and ideas of the Christian daily life. It observes and adopts at the same time even in grammatical details the language actually spoken by the society of Carthage, and by the people whom Tertullian knew, observed and sought out. But above all it was Tertullian's own language, an expression of his violent creative power which left nothing unattempted in order to obatain the new self-impossed goal....

This impression of an inflexible, heroic realism even intensifies the intended close-clipped phraseology, the volcanic eruption of his sentences. According to a statement made by a critic in the ancient church, almost every word of Tertullian becomes an aphorism.

And another consequence of his style for us is that Tertullian's sentences cannot possibly be directly translated into a modern language, not even into English. Only the original Latin preserves the hard stroke and sound of the metal, the sparks flying as he forges it.

There was scarcely a problem in the church of that time about which Tertullian did not express his view, or in some way offer his opinion. The thirty or so different writings we possess are as varied as can be imagined.

From (1964), pp. 8-9, by Hans Von Campenhausen.

The first Latin Christian writer was a man of genius and had a greater natural talent for writing than any of his Greek contemporaries. At this time classical Roman literature had practically come to an end.

A strange silence had fallen on the Latin pagan world. And in this silence a new voice of passionate intensity and conviction suddenly made itself heard. It was the voice of Tertullian, the founder of Latin Christian literature and one of the most powerful formative influences in Western Christian culture, Tertullian, the son of a Roman officer at Carthage, was a born writer and a born figther with a passion for theological controversy and a gift for creating telling phrases which pierce the armor of indifference and prejudice and strike the heart of the matter. Nothing could be more unlike the style and thought and temperament of his great contemporaries at Alexandria--Clement and Origen. They wrote as Greek intellectuals for a cosmopolitan, Hellenistic audience. He wrote as a Roman to Romans, as a citizen to citizens, as a lawyer to lawyers. Although his strange, difficult, baroque style has always been a scandal to the purists and has caused him to be treated as a kind of outlaw by the conventional literary historians, his Latin was a living tongue and he did more than any other writer to create the language of the Church.

Moreover he was no less a Roman in his thought and his ideals. He is the last representative of the great Roman moralists, like Lucretius and Juvenal and Tacitus, and the moral indignation which made Lucretius an atheist and Juvenal a pessimist makes Tertullian the champion of the Christian faith against the corruption of the pagan world. No doubt it also made him a puritan and eventually a heretic, but even in these respects also he is only too representative of the later developments. But unlike other heretics he retained his theological and literary influence on the Church from St. Cyprian to St. Jerome, and he has always been recognized as the first of the Latin Fathers.

Christopher Dawson, (1967), pp. 111-112.

(2) Selections from Tertullian

Marcion made the Creator the God of Evil, and as a counterpart he assumed the existence of another God, the Father of Christ, and the Author of all good. But God is not if he is not one. He is the great Supreme and the Supreme must be unique. Marcion, indeed, does not make his gods equal: one is harsh and judicial, one good and mild. Still, by calling the Creator God, he makes him supreme, and so can not subject him to another.

No one, moreover, can exist to whom nothing belongs; but all things are full of the Creator, and no place is left for Marcion's God. He can not be shown to have made even a vegetable. The creation is not to be despised, as witness the wonderful work of God in a single feather or the cell of a bee. Even Marcion's Lord makes use of the Creator's works, bread, water, etc., in his sacraments. The antithesis assumed by Marcion to exist between two makers, of the visible and of the invisible, holds rather of the different works of the one Creator. Jesus Christ was the revealer of the Creator, and of none other. He appeared in the reign of Tiberius, but Marcion's God was only revealed one hundred and fifteen years afterward.

Marcion holds to a difference of understanding between Peter and Paul; but he misunderstands the latter. Paul identifies the Creator and the Father of Christ, as do all the Apostolic churches.

The goodness of the known God, being eternal, puts the benevolence of Marcion's God to shame. That man fell showed no failure in the Creator, since the perfection of man was only to be found in that liberty by which he sinned; only as he was free could he be rewarded or punished. God foreknew the result, but knew that in sinning man would see himself answerable to God's law. Man was made stronger than any angel, and now, in his liberty, he is stronger than the devil. God did not sin in man; for in breathing into him the breath of life, he did not make man God. Nor did God cause sin by making the devil; he rather made an angel of light who himself sinned. The divine justice is an eternal attribute; by it alone could God discriminate in his creation. The expression, "I create evil," is understood by noting two kinds of evil - evils of sin and penal evils - only the latter of which God causes. When God is spoken of as jealous, angry, etc., we must not liken these emotions to the same, emotions in men; e.g., God in anger is "moved, but not subverted." God's government as shown in history is full of goodness. He did not curse Adam and Eve, who confessed their sin, but only Cain, who would not confess. To Marcion's objection to the condescension of the Creator, we reply that all the appearances of God in the Old Testament were appearances of Christ, whom he himself allows to have become incarnate. There is preserved the majesty of the invisible God. But this very condescension is "the sacrament of man's salvation. God held [such] converse that man might learn to act divinely; God acted upon equal terms with man, that man might act upon equal terms with God; God was found little that man might become great."

Tertullian Against Marcion

(Partly quotation, partly paraphrase by Jackson)

(Tertullian's Appeal to The Pagans, based on the witness of the human soul)

If, with the object of convicting the rivals and persecutors of Christian truth, from their own authorities, of the crime of at once being untrue to themselves and doing injustice to us, one is bent on gathering testimonies in its favour from the writings of the philosophers, or the poets, or other masters of this world's learning and wisdom, he has need of a most inquisitive spirit, and a still greater memory to carry out the research....

But the unbelieving hardness of the human heart leads them to slight even their own teachers, otherwise approved and in high renown, whenever they touch upon arguments which are used in defence of Christianity....

I call in a testimony, yea, one which is better known than all literature, more discussed than all doctrine, more public than all publications, greater than the whole man--I mean all which is man's. Stand forth, O soul, whether thou art a divine and eternal substance, as most philosophers believe--if it be so, thou wilt be the less likely to lie,--or whether thou art the very opposite of divine, because indeed a mortal thing, as Epicurus alone thinks-- in that case there will be the less temptation for thee to speak falsely. Whether thou art received from heaven, or sprung from earth; whether thou art form of numbers, or of atoms; whether thine existence begins with that of the body, or thou art put into it at a later stage; from whatever source, and in whatever way, thou makest man a rational being, in the highest degree capable of thought and knowledge,--stand forth and give thy witness. But I call thee not as when, fashioned in schools, trained in libraries, fed in Attic academies and porticoes, thou belchest wisdom. I address thee simple, rude, uncultured and untaught, such as they have thee who have thee only; that very thing of the road, the street, the work-shop, wholly. I want thine inexperience, since in thy small experience no one feels any confidence. I demand of thee the things thou bringest with thee into man, which thou knowest either from thyself, or from thine author, whoever he may be.

We give offence by proclaiming that there is one God, to whom the name of God alone belongs, from whom all things come, and who is Lord of the whole universe. Bear thy testimony, if thou knowest this to be the truth; for openly and with a perfect liberty, such as we do not possess, we hear thee both in private and in public exclaim, "Which may God grant," and, "If God so will." By expressions as these thou declarest that there is one who is distinctively God, and thou confessest that all power belongs to him to whose will, as Soverign, thou dost look. At the same time, too, thou deniest any others to be truly gods, in calling them by their own names of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Minerva; for thou affirmest Him to be God alone to whom thou givest no other name than God; and though thou sometimes callest these others gods, thou plainly usest the designation as one which does not really belong to them, but is, so to speak, a borrowed one. Nor is the nature of the God we declared unknown to thee: "God is good, God does good," thou art wont to say; plainly suggesting further, "But man is evil." In asserting an antithetic proposition, thou, in a sort of indirect and figurative way, reproachest man with his wickedness in departing from a God so good....

Has it no fear of Him whose favour it is so desirous to possess, and whose anger it is so anxious to avoid? Whence then, the soul's natural fear of God, if God cannot be angry? How is there any dread of Him whom nothing offends? What is feeared but anger? Whence comes anger, but from observing what is done? What leads to watchful oversight, but judgement is prospect? Whence is judgement, but from power? To whom does supreme auhtority and power belong, but to God alone? So thou art always ready, O soul, from thine own knowledge, nobody casting scorn upon thee, and no one preventing, to exclaim, "God sees all," and "I commend thee to God," and "May God repay," and "God shall judge between us." How happens this, since thou art no Christian? How is it that, even with the garland of Ceres on the brow, wrapped in the purple cloak of Saturn, wearing the white robe of the goddess Isis, thou invokest God as judge? In thine own forum thou appealest to a God who is elsewhere; thou permittest honour to be rendered in thy temples to a foreign god. Oh, striking testimony to truth, which in the very midst of demons obtains a witness for us Christians!

Even fallen as it is, the victim of the great adversary's machinations, it does not forget its Creator, His goodness and law, and the final end both of itself and of its foe. Is it singular then, if, divine in its origin, its revelations agree with the knowledge God has given to His own People? But he who does not regard those outburst of the soul as the teaching of a congenital nature and the secret deposit of an inborn knowledge, will say that the habit and, so to say, the vice of speaking in this way has been acquired and confirmed from the opinions of published books widely spread among men. Unquestionably the soul existed before letters, and speech before books, and ideas before the writing of them, and man himslef before the poet and philosopher. Is it then to be beloved, that before literature and its publication no utterances of the sort we have pointed out came from the lips of men? Did nobody speak of God and His goodness, nobody of death, nobody of the dead? Speech went a- begging, I suppose; nay, (the subjects being still awaiting, without which it cannot even exist at this day, when it is so much more copious, and rich, and wise), it could not exist at all if the things which are now so easily suggested, that cling to us so constantly, that are so very near to us, that are somehow born on our very lips, had no existence in ancient times, before letters had any existence in the world--before there was a Mercury, I think, at all. And whence was it, I pray, that letters themselves came to know, and to disseminate for the use of speech, what no mind had ever conceived, or tongue put forth, or ear taken in?

And if you would have faith in God and Nature, have faith in the soul; thus you will believe yourself. Certainly you value the soul as giving you your true greatness,--that to which you belong; which is all things to you; without which you can neither live nor die; on whose account you even put God away from you. Since, then, you fear to become a Christian, call the soul before you, and put her to the question. Why does she worship another? Why name the name of God? Why does she speak of demons, when she means to denote spirits to be held accused? Why does she make her protestations towards the heavens, and pronounce her ordinary execrations earthwards? Why does she pass judgements on the dead? What Christian phrases are those she has got, though Christians she neither desires to see nor hear?

The soul is not a boon from heaven to Latins and Greeks alone. Man is the one name belonging to every nation upon earth: there is one soul and many tongues, one spirit and various sounds; every country has its own speech, but the subjects of speech are common to all.

God is everywhere, and the goodness of God is every-where, demons are everywhere, and the cursing of them is everywhere, death is everywhere, and the sense of death is everywhere, and all the world over is found the witness of the soul. There is not a soul of man that does not from the light that is in itself, proclaim the very things we Christians are not permitted to speak above our breath. Most justly, then, every soul is a culprit as well a witness: in the measure that it testifies for truth, the guilt of error lies on it; and on the day of judgement it will stand before the courts of God, without a word to say. Thou proclaimedst God, O soul, but thou didst not seek to know Him: evil spirits were detested by thee, and yet they were the objects of thy adoration; the punishements of hell were foreseen by thee, but no care was taken to avoid them; thou hadst a savour of Christianity, and withal wert the persecutor of Christians.

From (tr. by S.Thelwall in the 1880's)

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.