Saturday 21 March 2015

Tertullian .. An apologist for today?

I love Church history, particularly the first three centuries. One of my heroes is Tertullian. Hailing from what is today Tunisia ( at that time and for centuries after, the area was a hotbed of Christian theology). He wasn't perfect and some quotes of his I truly would not want to agree with. However, he was the sharpest mind of his generation, a robust Latin speaking lawyer, mixing it with the pagans but in a context where Christians could have persecution break out at any moment.    He became a Montanists who were 'charismatics' and ' restorationists' of their day ( both designations I too am happy to bear). The non charismatic winners of that argument have given them bad press and not a little slander , it won't wash though because if the sharpest mind of that generation could be won over they certainly weren't as kooky as later authors make out!,

I found what follows in an old Christian History magazine, it's relevance to major 'internal' and 'external' apologetics issues facing us today is staggering.  Are you listening Mr Chalke, Bell and McLaren?  Are you listening 'relevant Church people? Are you listening baby baptisers?  The part I have put in bold is probably my favorite quote from the Pre Nicene fathers. He has something relevant and powerful to say to those inside and outside of the church today.

Ladies  and gentlemen, brothers and sisters in the 21st century I present to you...... TERTULLIAN (AD 160-225)

Pugnacious apologist

While some apologists tried to reconcile Christianity and philosophy, Tertullian tried to draw a sharp distinction between the Christian faith and the world.Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullian was raised in Carthage in North Africa, educated in classical literature, and is said to have trained to be a lawyer. But some time around a.d. 197, he converted to Christianity and may have become a priest. Tertullian did not leave a record of his conversion, but many scholars believe that the heroism of Christian martyrs made a deep impression on him.

Tertullian declared that the church need not even argue with such people: "You will lose nothing but your breath and gain nothing but vexation from their blasphemy.". His earliest known work is a letter of solace and encouragement to imprisoned Christians awaiting execution. Shortly after that, he sent a long letter to the Roman authorities mocking their attempts to suppress Christianity.

"We are but of yesterday," he wrote, "but we have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum—we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods."

Tertullian is more commonly remembered for his apologetic writings—and for his razor sharp wit—in defense of the Christian faith. To the pagan world, Tertullian's tracts asserted that Christians posed no threat to the empire and were loyal citizens; so Christians should be tolerated. In his writings to Christians, Tertullian warned that separation from pagan culture was necessary to avoid moral and doctrinal corruption. The theater, pagan banquets, public assemblies, and above all, the gladiatorial games were incompatible with Christian faith. "With such dainties" he wrote, "let the devil's guests be feasted." Tertullian leveled his deepest criticism at those who attempted to change or modify the Christian faith. God, he insisted, was the same loving and merciful God in both the Old Testament and New; Christ was God incarnate and the fulfillment of all messianic prophesy, and the church alone carried on the legitimate faith received from the apostles.

Gnostics, heretics, schismatics, and pagans, he said, were just plain wrong. They had no right to quote the Scriptures, which did not belong to them anyway.Tertullian declared that the church need not even argue with such people: "You will lose nothing but your breath and gain nothing but vexation from their blasphemy." But with Christians he did argue, in book after book. He disliked infant baptism, believed the return of Christ was at hand, and had little time for clergy, who were (in his opinion) lenient about sexual immorality. He believed the Holy Spirit still spoke through believers of his day, and he held this belief so strongly, he ended his days among the Montanists, a movement eventually condemned by the church. Nonetheless, his learning and writing have earned him a lasting legacy as one of the great African Fathers of the church. 


  1. Are you listening baby baptisers?

    I thought this blog wasn't a venue for Christians to argue among themselves over secondary issues?

    Anyway, you should know that the *reason* that Tertullian was sceptical of infant baptism was that he was worried that if you committed a bad enough sin after having already been baptised, you couldn't possibly be saved---therefore you shouldn't get baptized until you could be sure enough that your repentance was so genuine that you wouldn't ever sin like that again (and who can sure of that?). That's also the reason that the Emperor Constantine wasn't baptised until his deathbed.

    Now I understand that lots of Christians today don't think that it's right to baptise infants ... but surely not for the same reason as Tertullian?

  2. the problem is Matthew is that some arguments being put forward by those who self identify as Christians are exactly the same as those being put forward by atheists, sceptics and opponents of the faith. Example...... I was on a christian board yesterday and a guy had returned from a conference with Rob Bell and Steve Chalke. He was waxing eloquent about it and the convo ended up being around the resurrection of Jesus. he said , but its not unique plenty of others had a dying and rsing God in the first century. Suddenly I found myself on a 'Christian' board supposedly about 'Church' going into apologetic mode. This piece from Tertullian is a salutory reminder to us today that the world of the second century wasn'tTHAT much different to ours. T handled pagans without and false teachjing within......lets appreciate him.

  3. OK let me restate my point. I believe that it is biblical to baptise the infant children of believers. I accept that not all Christians agree about this, but I find it insulting to be compared with Rob Bell or Steve Chalke. Furthermore, "infant baptism is wrong because Tertullian said so" is not a good argument, particularly when (we can now see) the reason he said so wasn't a good one.

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