Hidden Figures: Tertullian
It’s often the case that the hidden figures of history turn out to be pillars on which we stand. This reality was brought to the forefront in recent years through movies like “Hidden Figures” where many learned for the first time that the first successful American orbit around the moon in 1969 was indebted to the mathematics work of Mary Jackson an African American woman. With that said, the Kingdom Diversity Initiative wants to continue in this spirit by bringing attention to often forgotten minority male and female voices and contributions through a series of post entitled ‘Hidden Figures’. This series will highlight figures from church history as well as celebrate the individuals on our campus that reflect the ideals of Kingdom Diversity and our commitment to “equipping students from every corner of the kingdom to serve in every context of the kingdom”.
Tertullian, born as Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus, was born in the mid part of the 2nd century in Carthage, North Africa. The early years of Tertullian’s life are not well documented but various resources infer that his father was a solider under the proconsul in North Africa. His father’s privileged position in society afforded young Tertullian access to high quality education and affluence in Carthage. According to church historian James Morgan, Carthage became “a Christian metropolis, and performed an important part in the development of the Early Church.” However, Tertullian’s parents were pagan, and his influences initially were pagan as he pursued a liberal education. Carthage was not primarily Greek in thought and speech, like Rome, but was mostly Latin speaking during Tertullian’s life. This fact supports the findings of the earliest Latin version of the Scriptures in North Africa, and that nearly all the ecclesiastical Latin which passed into the contemporary language of theology “was coined in the African mint.” Tertullian would eventually become a chief contributor to the African origins all theological inquiry.
Now concerning Christianity, it appears from his early studies and other secondary sources that Tertullian was neither for or against the Christian faith initially. It is not clear what Tertullian did or exactly where he was when he converted to Christianity, but scholars suggest at least two factors of his sitz im leben that paved the way for his conversion.
Tertullian’s writings testify to a keen awareness of Roman law and legal training. In a predominantly Latin city, Roman law was “not merely an instrument of government, determining the domestic, social, and political relations of men”, but rather Roman law embodied the religious and ethical ideas of the Latin society.
Another important factor to consider regarding Tertullian’s pre-conversion religious sentiment, is that somewhere between the years A.D. 193-211 is when his conversion takes place around the age of 40. The significance of this period relates to the time span Septimius Severus became emperor of the Roman Empire. Severus felt that Rome needed religious harmony to thrive, therefore he promoted syncretism and for all to acknowledge the “Unconquered Sun” above all gods. Severus’ policy clashed with the beliefs and practices of the Jews and Christians, so Severus outlawed anyone from converting to these two religions and threatened to kill those who did. The persevering faith of persecuted Christians reverberated within Tertullian and it is likely that their bravery left a lasting impression on his mind. Tertullian seems to echo this sentiment himself by writing “Everyone, in the face of such prodigious endurance feels himself as it were struck by some misgiving, and of this matter: from the moment that he discovers the truth, he forthwith embraces it himself”
His intense study of Scripture undergirded by incisive argumentation was prevalent throughout all of his works, and he advocated the maxim that all truth ultimately finds its origins in God. Tertullian died near the first quarter of the 3rd century and he left behind 31 known writings in Latin that cover topics including heresy, evangelism, and Christian living. The impact of Tertullian’s life and work are essential to everything orthodox Christians believe today. He pioneered Christian dogma and his innovative terminology proved seminal in the development of religious thought. Tertullian blessed the Church with terms such as free will, creatio ex nihilo, and preeminently his precursory exposition of the Trinity. Tertullian carried the “apostles teaching” faithfully as his articulation of doctrine and regula fidei paved the way for formal creeds and theological inquiry for centuries to come.
Even with these highlights of Tertullian’s story and influence on Christianity today, the dark spot of Montanism taints his legacy. The exact reason for why Tertullian took this turn towards the heretical teachings of Montanus is somewhat inconclusive but maybe not that surprising considering Tertullian’s personality. Randolph Rankin brings attention to this possibility by stating that there were many characteristics of Tertullian’s nature which seemed to be in harmony with the basic assumptions of the Montanists; “His enthusiasm, his bent toward an inspired individualism, his growing discontent with the organized Church, his distaste for anything not of the Spirit.” (Rankin) Whether or not these points were the determining aspects for his heretical turn, it is clear that a man who should be celebrated and known by all Christians is unfortunately rarely remembered.