Early Christian History

Christian Legalist: Tertullian of Carthage

Shortly after Irenaeus had established a definition for orthodoxy, “scriptural and apostolic,” Tertullian rose to prominence. An adult convert to Christianity, he was the son of a Roman centurion in the Carthage vicinity who had some wealth, making Tertullian a scion of privilege. As a boy he was well-educated and trained to be a lawyer. His education level is seen in the fact that he wrote both in Latin (the chief language of the region), as well as in Greek (his three Greek works haven’t survived, they’re attested only in citations and quotations elsewhere). His early training as a lawyer would affect the rest of his life deeply.

Once converted and taught Christian doctrine in depth, Tertullian wrote on various topics of interest to him. Initially these dealt with the prevailing customs of northern Africa and of Roman culture in general and their relation to Christianity. For instance, he wrote a treatise, De Spectaculis, which condemned the “games” (i.e. gladiatorial games) as something Christians should not attend. To revel in violence and the suffering of others in this world, he wrote, was wrong. Interestingly enough, however, near the end of this work, he stated that he planned to revel in the hellish suffering of “the great” who would be condemned to eternal perdition (presumably because they weren’t Christian). The difference? The former were condemned to suffer by other human beings; the latter, by God. There was nothing wrong with reveling in God’s judgment.

That he felt the need to write such a thing, shows that Christians of his area very likely attended gladiatorial games and otherwise retained trappings of Greco-Roman culture which Christianity supposedly shunned. Tertullian grew increasingly concerned that his fellow Carthaginian Christians weren’t behaving as he thought they ought. Applying a rigorous, legalistic point of view to Christianity, he promoted an increasingly strict, rule-oriented behavioral orthodoxy. Over time, it appears that Tertullian and his fellow Christians began to diverge, and a wedge was driven between them.

Among the problems Tertullian also addressed, was the Gnostic sect founded by the sage Marcion of Sinope. Although Marcion had died by the time Tertullian wrote, his sect had a wide presence in the central and northeastern Empire (Italy, central northern Africa, the Greek mainland, and Anatolia). Marcion’s Gnosticism was, arguably, the most successful of all the Gnostic sects.

In order to fend off the relentless advance of Marcionism, Tertullian wrote a large tome, Adversus Marcionem (“Against Marcion”). This was a watershed document in Christian history (as had been Irenaeus’ Adversus Haeresis). Tertullian slowly built a case against Marcion’s sect, in a relentless, lawerly fashion (as one might expect of him). One of the hallmarks of Marcionism had been Marcion’s utter rejection of Judaic scripture; for Marcion, YHWH, the God of the Jews, was an evil being who had trapped human souls beings of light in the prison of the material world. Thus, according to Marcion, Judaic scripture had no place in the new religion. Furthermore, with the proliferation of Christian writings, Marcion had settled upon only a few as having any significance. These were a few of Paul’s epistles, as well as Marcion’s own redacted version of the gospel of Luke. All other Marcionist teachings were conveyed verbally to initiates, being esoteric in nature (as was the case with Gnosticism in general).

Tertullian attacked all of these positions. Christ had been a Jew, he argued, hence what had been sacred to him Judaic scripture must also be sacred to his followers. But in order to address concerns which had won Marcion many converts, he wrote that Judaic scripture only carried so much weight. Thus, Christianity honored two bodies of sacred texts; the Judaic, and the Christian. He is thus credited with creating the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” distinction.

Tertullian also attacked the position that only one pared-down gospel was sacred. He proposed that Irenaeus’ list of gospels, the four we now have, were all sacred, and all taught about Christ. He also proposed that a number of works in addition to Paul’s epistles were sacred, such as 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and others. Furthermore, he asserted that all Christian doctrine could be found in writing, and that none of it was to be “secret.”

Interestingly, Tertullian ultimately became so disenchanted with the failure of his fellow Christians to follow his sort of “orthodoxy,” that he ultimately joined with another, non-Gnostic Christian sect, the Montanists. Founded around 150 CE by Montanus, in central Anatolia, Montanism emphasized the companionship of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) with each believer, and further asserted that all believers could become “Christian prophets.” Most Montanists outside of Anatolia lived in communes; a large one was outside Carthage. Apparently Tertullian became enamored of the piety and asceticism in which the Montanists of this commune lived, and after a while, joined them. While he may have written after this second conversion of his life, nothing of it remains.

Thus, while one critic of heretics, Irenaeus, is acclaimed a saint, Tertullian is not.

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