The Teachers of the Church: Tertullian of Carthage (Part 4)

The History of Christianity #52

Our Scripture verse today is 1 Corinthians 8:6 which reads: “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.”

Our quote today is from Tertullian of Carthage. He said: “Christians are made, not born.”

Today, we are looking at “The Teachers of the Church” (Part 9) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Tertullian of Carthage (Part 4)

Even after he became a Montanist, Tertullian continued his campaign against doctrinal error. Probably the most significant of the works that he wrote during this period is his brief treatise Against Praxeas, where he coined formulas that would be of great importance in later trinitarian and christological debates.

Little of nothing is known of Praxeas. Some scholars believe that there never was such a person, and that Praxeas was another name for Calixtus, the bishop of Rome, whom Tertullian prefers to attack under a fictitious name. Whoever Praxeas was, it is clear that he was influential in the church of Rome, and that there he had sought to explain the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a manner that Tertullian found inadmissible. According to Praxeas, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were simply three modes in which God appeared, so that God was sometimes Father, sometimes Son, and sometimes Holy Spirit – at least, that is what may be inferred from Tertullian’s treatise. This is what has been called Patripassianism (the doctrine that the Father suffered the passion or Modalism (the doctrine that the various persons of the Trinity are “modes” in which God appears).

Since Praxeas had also curtailed Montanist influence in Rome, Tertullian opens his treatise with typical mordancy: “Praxeas served the Devil in Rome in two ways: expelling prophecy and introducing heresy, evicting the Spirit and crucifying the Father.”

But Tertullian then moves on to explain how the Trinity is to be understood. It is in this context that he proposes the formula “one substance and three persons.” Likewise, when discussing how Jesus Christ can be both human and divine, he speaks of “one person” and “two substances” or “natures,” the divine and the human. The manner in which he explains the meaning of the term “person” and “substance” is drawn mostly from their legal use. Later theologians would explicate the same words in metaphysical terms. In any case, it is significant that, in both the trinitarian and the christological questions, Tertullian coined the formulas that would eventually become the hallmark of orthodoxy.

For all these reasons, Tertullian is a unique personality in the story of Christianity. A fiery champion of orthodoxy against every sort of heresy, in the end he joined one of the movements that the church at large considered heretical. And, even then, he produced writings and theological formulas that would be very influential in the future course of orthodox theology. Furthermore, he was the first Christian theologian to write in Latin, which was the language of the Western half of the empire, and thus he may be considered the founder of Western theology.

Next time, we will look at The Teachers of the Church: Origen of Alexandria.


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