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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > T > Tertullian



Ecclesiastical writer in the second and third centuries, b. probably about 160 at Carthage, being the son of a centurion in the proconsular service. He was evidently by profession an advocate in the law-courts, and he shows a close acquaintance with the procedure and terms of Roman law, though it is doubtful whether he is to be identified with a jurist Tertullian who is cited in the Pandects. He knew Greek as well as Latin, and wrote works in Greek which have not come down to us. A pagan until middle life, he had shared the pagan prejudices against Christianity, and had indulged like others in shameful pleasures. His conversion was not later than the year 197, and may have been earlier. He embraced the Faith with all the ardour of his impetuous nature. He became a priest, no doubt of the Church of Carthage. Monceaux, followed by d'Ales, considers that his earlier writings were composed while he was yet a layman, and if this be so, then his ordination was about 200. His extant writings range in date from the apologetics of 197 to the attack on a bishop who is probably Pope Callistus (after 218). It was after the year 206 that he joined the Montanist sect, and he seems to have definitively separated from the Church about 211 (Harnack) or 213 (Monceaux). After writing more virulently against the Church than even against heathen and persecutors, he separated from the Montanists and founded a sect of his own. The remnant of the Tertullianists was reconciled to the Church by St. Augustine. A number of the works of Tertullian are on special points of belief or discipline. According to St. Jerome he lived to extreme old age.

The year 197 saw the publication of a short address by Tertullian, "To the Martyrs", and of his great apologetic works, the "Ad nationes" and the "Apologeticus". The former has been considered a finished sketch for the latter; but it is more true to say that the second work has a different purpose, though a great deal of the same matter occurs in both, the same arguments being displayed in the same manner, with the same examples and even the same phrases. The appeal to the nations suffers from its transmission in a single codex, in which omissions of a word or several words or whole lines are to be deplored. Tertullian's style is difficult enough without such super added causes of obscurity. But the text of the "Ad nationes" must have been always rougher than that of the "Apologeticus", which is a more careful as well as a more perfect work, and contains more matter because of its better arrangement; for it is just the same length as the two books "Ad nationes".

The "Ad nationes" has for its entire object the refutation of calumnies against Christians. In the first place they are proved to repose on unreasoning hatred only; the procedure of trial is illogical; the offence is nothing but the name of Christian, which ought rather to be a title of honour; no proof is forthcoming of any crimes, only rumour; the first persecutor was Nero, the worst of emperors. Secondly, the individual charges are met; Tertullian challenges the reader to believe in anything so contrary to nature as the accusations of infanticide and incest. Christians are not the causes of earthquakes and floods and famine, for these happened long before Christianity. The pagans despise their own gods, banish them, forbid their worship, mock them on the stage; the poets tell horrid stories of them; they were in reality only men, and bad men. You say we worship an ass's head, he goes on, but you worship all kinds of animals; your gods are images made on a cross framework, so you worship crosses. You say we worship the sun; so do you. A certain Jew hawked about a caricature of a creature half ass, half goat, as our god; but you actually adore half-animals. As for infanticide, you expose your own children and kill the unborn. Your promiscuous lust causes you to be in danger of the incest of which you accuse us. We do not swear by the genius of Caesar, but we are loyal, for we pray for him, whereas you revolt. Caesar does not want to be a god; he prefers to be alive. You say it is through obstinacy that we despise death; but of old such contempt of death was esteemed heroic virtue. Many among you brave death for gain or wagers; but we, because we believe in judgment. Finally, do us justice; examine our case, and change your minds. The second book consists entirely in an attack on the gods of the pagans; they are marshalled in classes after Varro. It was not, urges the apologist, owing to these multitudinous gods that the empire grew.

Out of this fierce appeal and indictment was developed the grander "Apologeticus", addressed to the rulers of the empire and the administrators of justice. The former work attacked popular prejudices; the new one is an imitation of the Greek Apologies, and was intended as an attempt to secure an amelioration in the treatment of Christians by alteration of the law or its administration. Tertullian cannot restrain his invective; yet he wishes to be conciliating, and it breaks out in spite of his argument, instead of being its essence as before. He begins again by an appeal to reason. There are no witnesses, he urges, to prove our crimes; Trajan ordered Pliny not to seek us out, but yet to punish us if we were known; — what a paralogism! The actual procedure is yet more strange. Instead of being tortured until was confess, we are tortured until we deny. So far the "Ad Nationes" is merely developed and strengthened. Then, after a condensed summary of the second book as to the heathen gods, Tertullian begins in chapter xvii an exposition of the belief of Christians in one God, the Creator, invisible, infinite, to whom the soul of man, which by nature is inclined to Christianity, bears witness. The floods and the fires have been His messengers. We have a testimony, he adds, from our sacred books, which are older than all your gods. Fulfilled prophecy is the proof that they are divine. It is then explained that Christ is God, the Word of God born of a virgin; His two comings, His miracles, passion, resurrection, and forty days with the disciples, are recounted. The disciples spread His doctrine throughout the world; Nero sowed it with blood at Rome. When tortured the Christian cries, "We worship God through Christ". The demons confess Him and they stir men up against us. Next, loyalty to Cæsar is discussed at greater length than before. When the populace rises, how easily the Christians could take vengeance: "We are but of yesterday, yet we fill your cities, islands, forts, towns, councils, even camps, tribes, decuries, the palace, the senate, the forum; we have left you the temples alone". We might migrate, and leave you in shame and in desolation. We ought at least to be tolerated; for what are we? — a body compacted by community of religion, of discipline, and of hope. We meet together to pray, even for the emperors and authorities, to hear readings from the holy books and exhortations. We judge and separate those who fall into crime. We have elders of proved virtue to preside. Our common fund is replenished by voluntary donations each month, and is expended not on gluttony but on the poor and suffering. This charity is quoted against us as a disgrace; see, it is said, how they love one another. We call ourselves brethren; you also are our brethren by nature, but bad brethren. We are accused of every calamity. Yet we live with you; we avoid no profession, but those of assassins, sorcerers, and such like. You spare the philosophers, though their conduct is less admirable than ours. They confess that our teaching is older than theirs, for nothing is older than truth. The resurrection at which you jeer has many parallels in nature. You think us fools; and we rejoice to suffer for this. We conquer by our death. Inquire into the cause of our constancy. We believe this martyrdom to be the remission of all offences, and that he who is condemned before your tribunal is absolved before God.

These points are all urged with infinite wit and pungency. The faults are obvious. The effect on the pagans may have been rather to irritate than to convince. The very brevity results in obscurity. But every lover of eloquence, and there were many in those days, will have relished with the pleasure of an epicure the feast of ingenious pleading and recondite learning. The rapier thrusts are so swift, we can hardly realize their deadliness before they are renewed in showers, with sometimes a blow as of a bludgeon to vary the effect. The style is compressed like that of Tacitus, but the metrical closes are observed with care, against the rule of Tacitus; and that wonderful maker of phrases is outdone by his Christian successor in gemlike sentences which will be quoted while the world lasts. Who does not know the anima naturaliter Christiana (soul by nature Christian); the Vide, inquiunt, ut invicem se diligant (see they exclaim, how they love one another), and the Semen est sanguis Christianorum (The blood of Christians is seed)? It was probably about the same time that Tertullian developed his thesis of the "Testimony of the Soul" to the existence of one God, in his little book with this title. With his usual eloquence he enlarges on the idea that common speech bids us use expressions such as "God grant", or "If God will", "God bless", "God sees", "May God repay". The soul testifies also to devils, to just vengeance, and to its own immortality.

Two or three years later (about 200) Tertullian assaulted heresy in a treatise even more brilliant, which, unlike the "Apologeticus", is not for his own day only but for all time. It is called "Liber de praescriptione haereticorum". Prescription now means the right obtained to something by long usage. In Roman law the signification was wider; it meant the cutting short of a question by the refusal to hear the adversary's arguments, on the ground of an anterior point which must cut away the ground under his feet. So Tertullian deals with heresies: it is of no use to listen to their arguments or refute them, for we have a number of antecedent proofs that they cannot deserve a hearing. Heresies, he begins, must not astonish us, for they were prophesied. Heretics urge the text, "Seek and ye shall find", but this was not said to Christians; we have a rule of faith to be accepted without question. "Let curiosity give place to faith and vain glory make way for salvation", so Tertullian parodies a line of Cicero's. The heretics argue out of Scripture; but, first, we are forbidden to consort with a heretic after one rebuke has been delivered, and secondly, disputation results only in blasphemy on the one side and indignation on the other, while the listener goes away more puzzled than he came. The real question is, "To whom does the Faith belong? Whose are the Scriptures? By whom, through whom, when and to whom has been handed down the discipline by which we are Christians? The answer is plain: Christ sent His apostles, who founded churches in each city, from which the others have borrowed the tradition of the Faith and the seed of doctrine and daily borrow in order to become churches; so that they also are Apostolic in that they are the offspring of the Apostolic churches. All are that one Church which the Apostles founded, so long as peace and intercommunion are observed [dum est illis communicatio pacis et appellatio fraternitatis et contesseratio hospitalitatis]. Therefore the testimony to the truth is this: We communicate with the apostolic Churches". The heretics will reply that the Apostles did not know all the truth. Could anything be unknown to Peter, who was called the rock on which the Church was to be built? or to John, who lay on the Lord's breast? But they will say, the churches have erred. Some indeed went wrong, and were corrected by the Apostle; though for others he had nothing but praise. "But let us admit that all have erred:— is it credible that all these great churches should have strayed into the same faith"? Admitting this absurdity, then all the baptisms, spiritual gifts, miracles, martyrdoms, were in vain until Marcion and Valentinus appeared at last! Truth will be younger than error; for both these heresiarchs are of yesterday, and were still Catholics at Rome in the episcopate of Eleutherius (this name is a slip or a false reading). Anyhow the heresies are at best novelties, and have no continuity with the teaching of Christ. Perhaps some heretics may claim Apostolic antiquity: we reply: Let them publish the origins of their churches and unroll the catalogue of their bishops till now from the Apostles or from some bishop appointed by the Apostles, as the Smyrnaeans count from Polycarp and John, and the Romans from Clement and Peter; let heretics invent something to match this. Why, their errors were denounced by the Apostles long ago. Finally (36), he names some Apostolic churches, pointing above all to Rome, whose witness is nearest at hand, — happy Church, in which the Apostles poured out their whole teaching with their blood, where Peter suffered a death like his Master's, where Paul was crowned with an end like the Baptist's, where John was plunged into fiery oil without hurt! The Roman Rule of Faith is summarized, no doubt from the old Roman Creed, the same as our present Apostles' Creed but for a few small additions in the latter; much the same summary was given in chapter xiii, and is found also in "De virginibus velandis" (chapter I). Tertullian evidently avoids giving the exact words, which would be taught only to catechumens shortly before baptism. The whole luminous argument is founded on the first chapters of St. Irenæus's third book, but its forceful exposition is not more Tertullian's own than its exhaustive and compelling logic. Never did he show himself less violent and less obscure. The appeal to the Apostolic churches was unanswerable in his day; the rest of his argument is still valid.

A series of short works addressed to catechumens belong also to Tertullian's Catholic days, and fall between 200 and 206. "De spectaculis" explains and probably exaggerates the impossibility for a Christian to attend any heathen shows, even races or theatrical performances, without either wounding his faith by participation in idolatry or arousing his passions. "De idololatria" is by some placed at a later date, but it is anyhow closely connected with the former work. It explains that the making of idols is forbidden, and similarly astrology, selling of incense, etc. A schoolmaster cannot elude contamination. A Christian cannot be a soldier. To the question, "How am I then to live?", Tertullian replies that faith fears not famine; for the Faith we must give up our life, how much more our living? "De baptismo" is an instruction on the necessity of baptism and on its effects; it is directed against a female teacher of error belonging to the sect of Gaius (perhaps the Anti-Montanist). We learn that baptism was conferred regularly by the bishop, but with his consent could be administered by priests, deacons, or even laymen. The proper times were Easter and Pentecost. Preparation was made by fasting, vigils, and prayers. Confirmation was conferred immediately after by unction and laying on of hands. "De paenitentia" will be mentioned later. "De oratione" contains aan exposition of the Lord's Prayer, totius evangelii breviarium. "De cultu feminarum" is an instruction on modesty and plainness in dress; Tertullian enjoys detailing the extravagances of female toilet and ridiculing them. Besides these didactic works to catechumens, Tertullian wrote at the same period two books, "Ad uxorem", in the former of which he begs his wife not to marry again after his death, as it is not proper for a Christian, while in the second book he enjoins upon her at least to marry a Christian if she does marry, for pagans must not be consorted with. A little book on patience is touching, for the writer admits that it is an impudence in him to discourse on a virtue in which he is so conspicuously lacking. A book against the Jews contains some curious chronology, used to prove the fulfilment of Daniel's prophecy of the seventy weeks. The latter half of the book is nearly identical with part of the third book against Marcion. It would seem that Tertullian used over again what he had written in the earliest form of that work, which dates from this time. "Adversus Hermogenem" is against a certain Hermogenes, a painter (of idols?) who taught that God created the world out of pre-existing matter. Tertullian reduces his view ad absurdum, and establishes the creation out of nothing both from Scripture and reason.

The next period of Tertullian's literary activity shows distinct evidence of Montanist opinions, but he has not yet openly broken with the Church, which had not as yet condemned the new prophecy. Montanus and the prophetesses Priscilla and Maximilla had been long dead when Tertullian was converted to belief in their inspiration. He held the words of Montanus to be really those of the Paraclete, and he characteristically exaggerated their import. We find him henceforth lapsing into rigorism, and condemning absolutely second marriage and forgiveness of certain sins, and insisting on new fasts. His teaching had always been excessive in its severity; now he positively revels in harshness. Harnack and d'Alès look upon "De Virginibus velandis" as the first work of this time, though it has been placed later by Monceaux and others on account of its irritated tone. We learn that Carthage was divided by a dispute whether virgins should be veiled; Tertullian and the pro-Montanist party stood for the affirmative. The book had been preceded by a Greek writing on the same subject. Tertullian declares that the Rule of Faith is unchangeable, but discipline is progressive. He quotes a dream in favour of the veil. The date may be about 206. Shortly afterwards Tertullian published his largest extant work, five books against Marcion. A first draft had been written much earlier; a second recension had been published, when yet unfinished, without the writer's consent; the first book of the final edition was finished in the fifteenth year of Severus, 207. The last book may be a few years later. This controversy is most important for our knowledge of Marcion's doctrine. The refutation of it out of his own New Testament, which consisted of St. Luke's Gospel and St. Paul's Epistles, enables us to reconstitute much of the heretic's Scripture text. The result may be seen in Zahn's, "Geschichte des N. T. Kanons", II, 455-524. A work against the Valentinians followed. It is mainly based on the first book of St. Irenæus.

In 209 the little book "De pallio" appeared. Tertullian had excited remark by adopting the Greek pallium, the recognized dress of philosophers, and he defends his conduct in a witty pamphlet. A long book, "De anima", gives Tertullian's psychology. He well describes the unity of the soul; he teaches that it is spiritual, but immateriality in the fullest sense he admits for nothing that exists, — even God is corpus. Two works are against the Docetism of the Gnostics, "De carne Christi" and "De resurrectione carnis". Here he emphasizes the reality of Christ's Body and His virgin-birth, and teaches a corporal resurrection. But he seems to deny the virginity of Mary, the Mother of Christ, in partu, though he affirms it ante partum. He addressed to a convert who was a widower an exhortation to avoid second marriage, which is equivalent to fornication. This work, "De exhortatione castitatis", implies that the writer is not yet separated from the Church. The same excessive rigour appears in the "De corona", in which Tertullian defends a soldier who had refused to wear a chaplet on his head when he received the donative granted to the army on the accession of Caracalla and Geta in 211. The man had been degraded and imprisoned. Many Christians thought his action extravagant, and refused to regard him as a martyr. Tertullian not only declares that to wear the crown would have been idolatry, but argues that no Christian can be a soldier without compromising his faith. Next in order is the "Scorpiace", or antidote to the bite of the Scorpion, directed against the teaching of the Valentinians that God cannot approve of martyrdom, since He does not want man's death; they even permitted the external act of idolatry. Tertullian shows that God desires the courage of the martyrs and their victory over temptation; he proves from Scripture the duty of suffering death for the Faith and the great promises attached to this heroism. To the year 212 belongs the open letter "Ad scapulam", addressed to the proconsul of Africa who was renewing the persecution, which had ceased since 203. He is solemnly warned of the retribution which overtakes persecutors.

The formal secession of Tertullian from the Church of Carthage seems to have taken place either in 211 or at the end of 212 at latest. The earlier date is fixed by Harnack on account of the close connection between the "De corona" of 211 with the "De fuga", which must, he thinks, have immediately followed the "De corona". It is certain that "De fuga in persecutione" was written after the secession. It condemns flight in time of persecution, for God's providence has intended the suffering. This intolerable doctrine had not been held by Tertullian in his Catholic days. He now terms the Catholics "Psychici", as opposed to the "spiritual" Montanists. The cause of his schism is not mentioned. It is unlikely that he left the Church by his own act. Rather it would seem that when the Montanist prophecies were finally disapproved at Rome, the Church of Carthage excommunicated at least the more violent among their adherents. After "De fuga" come "De monogamia" (in which the wickedness of second marriage is yet more severely censured) and "De jejunio", a defence of the Montanist fasts. A dogmatic work, "Adversus Prazean", is of great importance. Praxeas had prevented, according to Tertullian, the recognition of the Montanist prophecy by the pope; Tertullian attacks him as a Monarchian, and develops his own doctrine of the Holy Trinity (see MONARCHIANS and PRAXEAS). The last remaining work of the passionate schismatic is apparently "De pudicitia", if it is a protest, as is generally held, against a Decree of Pope Callistus, in which the pardon of adulterers and fornicators, after due penance done, was published at the intercession of the martyrs. Monceaux, however, still supports the view which was once commoner than it now is, that the Decree in question was issued by a bishop of Carthage. In any case Tertullian's attribution of it to a would-be episcopus episcoporum and pontifex maximus merely attests its peremptory character. The identification of this Decree with the far wider relaxation of discipline with which Hippolytus reproaches Callistus is uncertain.

The argument of Tertullian must be considered in some detail, since his witness to the ancient system of penance is of first-rate importance. As a Catholic, he addressed "De paenitentia" to catechumens as an exhortation to repentance previous to baptism. Besides that sacrament he mentions, with an expression of unwillingness, a "last hope", a second plank of salvation, after which there is no other. This is the severe remedy of exomologesis, confession, involving a long penance in sackcloth and ashes for the remission of post-baptismal sin. In the "De pudicitia" the Montanist now declared that there is no forgiveness for the gravest sins, precisely those for which exomologesis is necessary. It is said by some modern critics, such as Funk and Turmel among Catholics, that Tertullian did not really change his view on this point the writing of the two treatises. It is pointed out that in "De paenitentia" there is no mention of the restoration of the penitent to communion; he is to do penance, but with no hope of pardon in this life; no sacrament is administered, and the satisfaction is lifelong. This view is impossible. Tertullian declares in "De pudicitia". That he has changed his mind and expects to be taunted for his inconsistency. He implies that he used to hold such a relaxation, as the one he is attacking, to be lawful. At any rate in the "De paen." he parallels baptism with exomologesis, and supposes that the latter has the same effect as the former, obviously the forgiveness of sin in this life. Communion is never mentioned, since catechumens are addressed; but if exomologesis did not eventually restore all Christian privileges, there could be no reason for fearing that the mention of it should act as an encouragement to sin, for a lifelong penance would hardly be a reassuring prospect. No length is mentioned, evidently because the duration depended on the nature of the sin and the judgment of the bishop; had death been the term, this would have been emphatically expressed. Finally. And this is conclusive, it could not be insisted on that no second penance was ever allowed, if all penance was lifelong.

For the full understanding of Tertullian's doctrine we must know his division of sin into three classes. There are first the terrible crimes of idolatry, blasphemy, homicide, adultery, fornication, false witness, fraud (Adv. Marc., IV, ix; in "De Pud." he substitutes apostasy for false witness and adds unnatural vice). As a Montanist he calls these irremissible. Between these and mere venial sins there are modica or media (De Pud.., I), less grave but yet serious sins, which he enumerates in "De Pud.", xix: "Sins of daily committal, to which we are all subject; to whom indeed does it not occur to be angry without cause and after the sun has set, or to give a blow, or easily to curse, or to swear rashly, or break a contract, or lie through shame or necessity? How much we are tempted in business, in duties, in trade, in food, in sight, in hearing! So that, if there were no forgiveness for such things, none could be saved. Therefore there will be forgiveness for these sins by the prayer of Christ to the Father" (De Pud., xix).

Another list (On Pudicity 7) represents the sins which may constitute a lost sheep, as distinguished from one that is dead: "The faithful is lost if he attend the chariot races, or gladiatorial combats, or the unclean theatre, or athletic shows, or playing, or feasts on some secular solemnity, or if he has exercised an art which in any way serves idolatry, or has lapsed without consideration into some denial or blasphemy". For these sins there is forgiveness, though the sinner has strayed from the flock. How is forgiveness obtained? We learn this only incidentally from the words: "That kind of penitence which is subsequent to faith, which can either obtain forgiveness from the bishop for lesser sins, or from God only for those which are irremissible" (On Pudicity 18). Thus Tertullian admits the power of the bishop for all but "irremissible" sins. The absolution which he still acknowledges for frequent sins was obviously not limited to a single occasion, but must have been frequently repeated. It is not even referred to in "De paen", which deals only with baptism and public penance for the gravest sins. Again, in "De pudicitia", Tertullian repudiates his own earlier teaching that the keys were left by Christ through Peter to His Church (Scorpiace 10); he now declares (On Pudicity 21) that the gift was to Peter personally, and cannot be claimed by the Church of the Psychici. The spiritual have the right to forgive, but the Paraclete said: "The Church has the power to forgive sins but I will not do so, lest they sin afresh."

The system of the Church of Carthage in Tertullian's time was therefore manifestly this: Those who committed grievous sins confessed them to the bishop, and he absolved them after due penance enjoined and performed, unless the case was in his judgment so grave that public penance was obligatory. This public penance was only allowed once; it was for protracted periods, even sometimes until the hour of death, but at the end of it forgiveness and restoration were promised. The term was frequently shortened at the prayer of martyrs.

Of the lost works of Tertullian the most important was the defence of the Montanist manner of prophesying, "De ecstasi", in six books, with a seventh book against Apollonius. To the peculiarities of Tertullian's views which have already been explained must be added some further remarks. He did not care for philosophy: the philosophers are the "patriarchs of the heretics". His notion that all things, pure spirits and even God, must be bodies, is accounted for by his ignorance of philosophical terminology. Yet of the human soul he actually says that it was seen in a vision as tender, light, and of the colour of air! All our souls were contained in Adam, and are transmitted to us with the taint of original sin upon them, — an ingenious if gross form of Traducianism. His Trinitarian teaching is inconsistent, being an amalgamation of the Roman doctrine with that of St. Justin Martyr. Tertullian has the true formula for the Holy Trinity, tres Personae, una Substantia. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are numerically distinct, and each is God; they are of one substance, one state, and one power. So far the doctrine is accurately Nicene. But by the side of this appears the Greek view which was one day to develop into Arianism: that the unity is to be sought not in the Essence but in the origin of the Persons. He says that from all eternity there was reason (ratio) in God, and in reason the Word (Sermo), not distinct from God, but in vulva cordis. For the purpose of creation the Word received a perfect birth as Son. There was a time when there was no Son and no sin, when God was neither Father nor Judge. In his Christology Tertullian has had no Greek influence, and is purely Roman. Like most Latin Fathers he speaks not of two Natures but of two Substances in one Person, united without confusion, and distinct in their operations. Thus he condemns by anticipation the Nestorian, Monophysite, and Monothelite heresies. But he seems to teach that Mary, the Mother of Christ, had other children. Yet he makes her the second Eve, who by her obedience effaced the disobedience of the first Eve.

Tertullian's doctrine of the Holy Eucharist has been much discussed, especially the words: "Acceptum panem et distributum discipulis corpus suum illum fecit, hoc est corpus meum dicendo, id est, figura corporis mei". A consideration of the context shows only one interpretation to be possible. Tertullian is proving that Our Lord Himself explained bread in Jeremiah 11:19 (mittamus lignum in panem ejus) to refer to His Body, when He said, "This is My Body", that is, that bread was the symbol of His Body. Nothing can be elicited either for or against the Real Presence; for Tertullian does not explain whether the bread is the symbol of the Body present or absent. The context suggests the former meaning. Another passage is: Panem, quo ipsum corpus suum repraesentat. This might mean "Bread which stands for His Body", or "Presents, makes present". D'Ales has calculated that the sense of presentation to the imagination occurs seven times in Tertullian, and the similar moral sense (presentation by picture, etc.) occurs twelve times, whereas the sense of physical presentation occurs thirty-three times. In the treatise in question against Marcion the physical sense alone is found, and fourteen times. A more direct assertion of the Real Presence is Corpus ejus in pane censetur (On Prayer 6). As to the grace given, he has some beautiful expressions, such as: "Itaque petendo panem quotidianum, perpetuitatem postulamus in Christo et individuitatem a corpore ejus" (In petitioning for daily bread, we ask for perpetuity in Christ, and indivisibility from His body. — Ibid.). A famous passage on the Sacraments of Baptism, Unction, Confirmation, Orders and Eucharist runs: "Caro abluitur ut anima maculetur; caro ungitur ut anima consecretur; caro signatur ut et anima muniatur; caro manus impositione adumbratur ut et anima spiritu illuminetur; caro corpore et sanguine Christi vescitur ut et anima de Deo saginetur" (The flesh is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed [with the cross], that the soul, too, may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also may be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may have its fill of God — "Deres. Carnis.", viii). He testifies to the practice of daily communion, and the preserving of the Holy Eucharist by private persons for this purpose. What will a heathen husband think of that which is taken by his Christian wife before all other food? "If he knows that it is Bread, will he not believe that it is simply what it is called?" This implies not merely the Real Presence, but transubstantiation. The station days were Wednesday and Friday; on what other days besides Holy Mass was offered we do not know. Some thought that Holy Communion would break their fast on station days; Tertullian explains: "When you have received and reserved the Body of the Lord, you will have assisted at the Sacrifice and have accomplished the duty of fasting as well" (De oratione, xix). Tertullian's list of customs observed by Apostolic tradition though not in Scripture (De cor., iii) is famous: the baptismal renunciations and feeding with milk and honey, fasting Communion, offerings for the dead (Masses) on their anniversaries, no fasting or kneeling on the Lord's Day and between Easter and Pentecost, anxiety as to the falling to the ground of any crumb or drop of the Holy Eucharist, the Sign of the Cross made continually during the day.

Tertullian's canon of the Old Testament included the deuterocanonical books, since he quotes most of them. He also cites the Book of Enoch as inspired, and thinks those who rejected it were wrong. He seems also to recognize IV Esdras, and the Sibyl, though he admits that there are many Sibylline forgeries. In the New Testament he knows the Four Gospels, Acts, Epistles of St. Paul, I Peter (Ad Ponticos), I John, Jude, Apocalypse. He does not know James and II Peter, but we cannot tell that he did not know II, III John. He attributes Hebrews to St. Barnabas. He rejects the "Pastor" of Hermas and says that many councils of the Psychici had also rejected it. Tertullian was learned, but careless in his historical statements. He quotes Varro and a medical writer, Soranus of Ephesus, and was evidently well read in pagan literature. He cites Irenaeus, Justin, Miltiades, and Proclus. He probably knew parts of Clement of Alexandria's writings. He is the first of Latin theological writers. To some extent, how great we cannot tell, he must have invented a theological idiom and have coined new expressions. He is the first witness to the existence of a Latin Bible, though he seems frequently to have translated from the Greek Bible as he wrote. Zahn has denied that he possessed any Latin translation, but this opinion is commonly rejected, and St. Perpetua certainly had one at Carthage in 203.

About this page

APA citation. Chapman, J. (1912). Tertullian. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Chapman, John. "Tertullian." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Lucy Tobin.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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