The Teachers of the Church: Tertullian of Carthage (Part 1)

The History of Christianity #49

Our Scripture verse today is 1 Timothy 2:5 which reads: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Our quote today is from Tertullian of Carthage. He said: “The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed – because it is shameful. The Son of God died: it is immediately credible – because it is silly. He was buried, and rose again: it is certain – because it is impossible.”

Today, we are looking at “The Teachers of the Church” (Part 6) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Tertullian of Carthage (Part 1)

Tertullian was very different from Clement. He seems to have been a native of the North African city of Carthage. Although he spent most of his life there, it was in Rome that he was converted to Christianity when he was about forty years old. Having returned to Carthage, he wrote a number of treatises in defense of the faith against the pagans, and in defense of orthodoxy against various heresies. Many of his works are important for a number of different reasons. For instance, his treatise On Baptism is the oldest extant treatise on that subject, and is an important source for our knowledge of early baptismal practices. And his work To His Wife gives us an interesting glimpse into marriage among second-century Christians.

Tertullian was a lawyer, or at least had been trained in rhetoric, and his entire literary output bears the stamp of a legal mind. In an earlier chapter, we have quoted his protest against the “unjust sentence” of Trajan, ordering that Christians should not be sought out, but should be punished if brought before the authorities. Those lines read like the argument of a lawyer appealing a case before a higher court. In another work, On the Witness of the Soul, Tertullian places the human soul on the witness stand and, after questioning it, comes to the conclusion that the soul is “by nature Christian,” and that if it persists in rejecting Christianity this is due to obstinacy and blindness.

The treatise where Tertullian’s legal mind shines is Prescription against the Heretics. In the legal language of the time, a Prescription could mean at least two things. It could be a legal argument presented before the case itself was begun, in order to show that the trial should not take place. If, even before the actual case was presented, one of the parties could show that the other had no right to sue, or that the suit was not properly drawn, or that the court had no jurisdiction, the trial could be canceled. But the same word had a different meaning when one spoke of a “long-term prescription.” This meant that if a party had been in undisputed possession of a property for a certain time, that party became the legal owner, even if at a later time another party claimed it.

Tertullian uses the term in both senses, as if it were a case of a suit between orthodox Christianity and the heretics. His aim is to show, not simply that the heretics are wrong, but rather that they do not even have the right to dispute with the church. To this end, he claims that scriptures belong to the church. For several generations the church has used the Bible, and the heretics have not disputed its possession. Even though not all of scripture belonged originally to the church — for a large part of it was written by the Jews — by now it does. Therefore, the heretics have no right to use the Bible. They are latecomers who seek to change and to use what legally belongs to the church.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Teachers of the Church: Tertullian of Carthage.

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