National Catholic Register



Tertullian Today
Christian Dialogues With the Culture of His Time

BY John Lilly

June 10-16, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/5/07 at 10:00 AM


Pope Benedict XVI met with 32,000 pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on May 30. He continued his series of teachings on prominent figures from the early Church and offered his reflections on the prolific author and apologist Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian, (ca. 155-230). He was the first great Christian author to write in Latin. The Holy Father highlighted Tertullian’s important contributions to our current understanding of the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the nature of the Church, the sacraments and the primacy of Peter. He also pointed out that Tertullian was an important figure in the perennial dialogue between the Gospel and the world of culture.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In today’s catechesis, we will resume the series of teachings that we set aside during my trip to Brazil and continue our discussion of some of the prominent personalities of the early Church. They are teachers of the faith for us even today and witnesses to the enduring relevance of the Christian faith.

Today we will talk about Tertullian, an African, who lived at the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century. Thanks to him, Christian literature in Latin was inaugurated, as well as theology in that language. His work yielded fruit that was of crucial importance; it would be inexcusable to undervalue this fruit.

His influence extended into many spheres, ranging from the study of language and the recovery of the classical culture to the identification of a “Christian soul” that is common to the world, and the formulation of new solutions for the coexistence of mankind.

We don’t know the exact date of his birth of his death. However, we do know that he was from Carthage, that he lived near the end of the second century, and that he received a solid formation in rhetoric, philosophy, law and history from his parents and his pagan teachers. Later, he converted to Christianity, apparently attracted by the example of the Christian martyrs.

He began publishing his most famous writings in the year 197. But his overly individualistic quest for the truth as well as certain excesses in his character (he was a very strict man) gradually led him to abandon communion with the Church and to join the Montanist sect. Nevertheless, the originality of his thought coupled with his incisive and effective use of language assure him of a prominent place in ancient Christian literature.

The Apologist

His apologetic writings are especially famous. They demonstrate two main objectives: to refute the terrible accusations that pagans were making against the new religion and, in a more constructive and more missionary vein, to communicate the message of the Gospel in dialogue with the culture of his time. His most famous work, Apologeticus, denounces the unjust behavior of political authorities toward the Church, explains and defends the teachings and morals of Christians, identifies the differences between the new religion and the main philosophical trends of his time, and demonstrates the triumph of the Spirit, who pits the blood, suffering and patience of the martyrs against the violence of their persecutors.

“As refined as it is,” he writes, “your cruelty serves no purpose. On the contrary, for our community, it is an invitation. We multiply every time one of us is mowed down: The blood of Christians is a fruitful seed! (semen est sanguis christianorum!)” (Apologeticus 50:13). In the end, martyrdom and suffering for the truth are victorious and more effective than the cruelty and violence of totalitarian regimes.

But Tertullian, like all good apologists, realizes at the same time the need to communicate the essence of Christianity in a positive way. In order to do so, he adopted the speculative method to illustrate the rational foundations of Christian dogma. He elaborates on them in a systematic way, beginning with a description of “the God of the Christians.”

“He whom we adore,” he writes, “is one God.” Using the antitheses and paradoxes that are characteristic of his language, he goes on to say: “He is invisible, even if you see him; untouchable, even if he is present through grace; unintelligible, even if human sense can perceive him; therefore he is true and great!” (Apologeticus 17:1-2).


Tertullian also took an enormous step in the development of Trinitarian dogma; he gave us in Latin the adequate wording to express this great mystery by coining the terms “one substance” and “three Persons.” In a similar way, he also developed extensively the correct wording for expressing the mystery of Christ, the Son of God and true Man. Tertullian also wrote about the Holy Spirit, demonstrating his personal and divine character: “We believe that, according to his promise, Jesus Christ sent by means of his Father the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of all those who believe in the Father, in the Son and in the Spirit” (Apologeticus 2:1).

We also find in Tertuillian’s works numerous texts on the Church, which Tertullian always refers to as “mother.” Even after joining Montanism, he never forgot that the Church is the Mother of our faith and of our Christian life.

He even offers his reflections on the moral conduct of Christians and the life to come. His writings are also important for understanding trends that were current at that time in the Christian communities regarding the Virgin Mary, the sacraments of the Eucharist, matrimony and reconciliation, the primacy of Peter, prayer, and so forth.

During that era of persecution in which the Christians seemed to be a doomed minority, the apologist exhorted them to hope, which — based on his writings — is not merely a virtue in itself, but a way of being that involves every aspect of Christian life. We have the hope that the future belongs to us because the future belongs to God.

Thus, the Lord’s resurrection is presented as the foundation for our own future resurrection, and represents the principal goal of Christians’’ trust: “And so the flesh shall rise again,” Tertullian states categorically, “wholly in every man, in its own identity, in its absolute integrity. Wherever it may be, it is in safe keeping in God’s presence, through that most faithful mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, who shall reconcile both God to man and man to God” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 63:1).


From a human point of view, we can certainly speak about the tragedy of Tertullian’s life. With the passing of time, he became ever more demanding of Christians. He expected them at all times, and above all in times of persecution, to act heroically. He was rigid in his positions, did not spare harsh criticisms, and inevitably ended up finding himself isolated.

Moreover, many questions linger today, not only about Tertullian’s theological and philosophical thought but also about his way of dealing with political institutions and pagan society.

I often think about this great moral and intellectual figure, this man who gave such a great contribution to Christian thought.

It is clear that in the end he lacked the simplicity and the humility to be part of the Church, to accept her weaknesses and to be tolerant of himself and of others. When a person sees only his own ideas, in all their greatness, it is, in the end, precisely this greatness that is lost.

The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to stand with the Church, to accept her weaknesses and his own weaknesses, because only God is truly all-holy. We, on the other hand, are always in need of forgiveness.

Christianity and Culture

Nonetheless, Tertullian continues to be an important witness of the early years of the Church, when Christians found themselves true subjects of a “new culture” in the close encounter between the classical heritage and the Gospel message.

In his famous statement where he says that our soul “is naturaliter (naturally) Christian” (Apologeticus 17:6), Tertullian evokes the perennial continuity between authentic human values and Christian values. Another reflection, borrowed from the Gospels, says “the Christian cannot hate even his own enemies” (Apologeticus 37); here, unavoidable moral implications that arise from choosing faith propose “non-violence” as the rule of life. Who cannot see the dramatic relevance of this teaching today, especially in light of the heated debate over religions?

To sum up, we can trace many themes in Tertullian’s writings that we are still called to confront today. They involve us in a fruitful interior quest to which I exhort all the faithful to learn how to express in an ever more convincing way the “Rule of Faith” that to quote Tertullian once again “prescribes the belief that there is only one God and that he is none other than the Creator of the world, who drew all things out of nothing through his own Word, generated before all things” (Prescription against Heretics 13:1).

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