BMCR 2000.05.12

Tertullian, First Theologian of the West

, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xxii, 285.

Tertullian has been a controversial figure in the western religious tradition.1 He is often regarded as a champion of religious faith over reason and secular philosophy, an estimation which seems to be supported by Tertullian’s question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” and the assertion attributed to him ” Credo quia absurdum est“. Indeed, Tertullian has been portrayed as the quintessential fideist, the forerunner of later religious thinkers who disparaged reason such as Luther, Bayle, Kierkegaard and Barth.

One of the chief merits of this study of Tertullian by Eric Osborn (henceforward O.) is to show that such a reading of Tertullian is questionable; indeed one hopes that this book will finally lay to rest the image of Tertullian the irrationalist. According to O., “ratio” was Tertullian’s favourite word (pp. xv and 4). Moreover, in this book O. clearly demonstrates Tertullian’s rational approach to theology and his debt to the classical philosophical tradition. O. is an acknowledged patristic authority, the author of several works on the emergence of early Christian theology as well as influential studies of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. His erudition is evident throughout this present work as well.

In the introductory chapter O. argues for the simplicity of Tertullian’s approach to Christian theology. Of course Tertullian’s writings exhibit inconsistencies. He was not a tidy thinker; yet this adds to the interest Tertullian holds for us today. Nevertheless, O. asserts that there is a fundamental unity at the core of Tertullian’s thought, i.e. “the economy of salvation perfected in Christ” (p. 10). Moreover, for Tertullian truth is one while false teaching is marked by uncertainty and complexity. Gnosticism furnishes an example of the latter: O. describes Tertullian’s view of Gnosticism evocatively as “a complex movement … Like all theosophy, Gnosticism presents philosophy without argument, which is like opera without music, Shakespeare without words and ballet without movement” (p. 23). According to O., Tertullian attacked Gnosticism in part because it claimed to surpass reason by presenting a story (i.e. the myth of the fall of the archons) rather than argument (p. 23, cf. pp. 191-208). To illustrate the difference between simple unitary truth and the multiplicity of error Tertullian contrasts the symbolism of the philosopher’s cloak (pallium) and the toga. (Like Justin, Tertullian regarded Christianity as the “true philosophy”.) Christians are entitled to wear the pallium, he said, because it is simple and convenient, reflecting their better philosophy; on the other hand the toga, despite its higher social status, is elaborate and has many folds so that it is unsuited to the Christian ( De pallio 1 and 6) (pp. 15-16).

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Tertullian’s reputation as an irrational fideist. In chapter 2, O. deals with the phrase “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” from Tertullian’s De praescriptione haereticorum 7.9. O. particularly rejects the explanation of A. Labhardt, who argued that Tertullian’s claim to repudiate Athens reflects a “sacrificium intellectus” which according to Carl Jung entailed a kind of “self-castration” (Selbstverstümmelung).2 O. has little patience for such an approach to Tertullian, claiming that it constitutes “anachronistic psychoanalysis” (pp. 28-29). He prefers more recent interpretations proposed by J.-C. Fredouille3 and H. Steiner4 that Tertullian achieved “clarity through disjunction”: that is to say, Tertullian had been influenced by ancient philosophy to such an extent that he even incorporated a traditional philosophical critique of philosophy into his thought. For example, Tertullian drew on the critique that philosophers do not live up to their beliefs, which had been stated or answered in Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch and some episodes related by Diogenes Laertius and is also found in the satirical tradition of Aristophanes, Horace, Petronius and especially Lucian of Samosata. As a further source for the Athens/Jersualem disjunction O. points to the Pauline antitheses in 2 Corinthians 6.14-16 (“what does righteousness have in common with lawlessness, light with darkness, Christ with Belial, believer with unbeliever, God’s temple with idols?”), a text which is frequently echoed in Tertullian’s writings. O. describes disjunction as “a stylistic tic in the writings of Tertullian. … Simplicity is his concern and disjunction his method” (pp. 35-36). An additional element of Tertullian’s philosophical background which O. adduces is the traditional Stoic teaching (raised against Academic skepticism) of the criterion as a way of arriving at certainty: O. argues that Clement of Alexandria had adapted this way of arguing using the Christian ” regula fidei” as the criterion, and that this type of argument was taken on by Tertullian. Thus Tertullian was able to assimilate as well as criticize Greek philosophy for the purposes of Christian theology, using the ” regula fidei” as his criterion. O.’s discussion in this chapter helps to explain how Tertullian the philosopher can utter a “pretended ban on philosophy” (pp. 37-39).

E.R. Dodds and A.D. Nock reminded us that philosophy and theology tended to overlap in the religions of classical antiquity. Nevertheless, some early Christians saw a rupture between the two, hence the injunctions against “philosophy” in passages such as Colossians 2.8, for example. O. largely plays down such a rupture in Tertullian’s thought, attempting instead to reconcile Tertullian’s statements against reason with the patent use of reason and philosophy in Tertullian’s writings. O.’s reconciliation of Tertullian’s use of philosophy with his repudiation of Athens is convincing as a correction to a one-sided view of Tertullian as anti-rationalist. At the same time, it is also important to recognize Tertullian as a person of faith who knew the limits of reason; this latter point is conspicuously absent from O.’s summary discussion of the Athens/Jerusalem theme in Tertullian’s thought. The lack is especially evident in the section of the book entitled “Finality of Christ as a solution to the puzzle” (pp. 44-47). Surely the “finality of Christ” is a faith affirmation that is not accessible to philosophy alone: as such it is hardly a rational solution to the puzzle of “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”! It is interesting that O. sees Tertullian’s attitude to Athens and Jerusalem as analogous to Paul’s argument in Galatians that “law precedes gospel, flesh precedes spirit, the paidagogos precedes freedom” (p. 45). In fact, recent scholarship on Galatians has recognized that Paul’s use of the term ” paidagogos” in Gal 3.24 does not refer to a rosy and benign stage preparatory to the coming of the Gospel of Christ; the old King James Version’s translation of Gal 3.24 as “our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ” is really quite misleading. Rather, Paul used the image of the ” paidagogos” to convey the image of a scruffy and disreputable slave who was useless for any other purpose than to act as disciplinarian for the junior members of the family; being under the ” paidagagos” was an infantile condition that was harsh and oppressive.5 That is to say, when Paul describes the Law as a “paidagogos” he is portraying the Law in decidedly negative terms. Similarly, when Tertullian asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” surely he too was expressing some sort of negative evaluation of “Athens” and all that it signified in the classical world. Yet O. never allows that negative evaluation to come through in his portrayal of Tertullian. Considering that O. makes much of “disjunction” in Tertullian’s thought, it is ironic that he plays down the “disjunction” inherent in the rejection of Athens for Jerusalem made by Tertullian as he affirmed the finality of Christ.

Chapter 3 is the best chapter in the book. Here O. turns to the phrase popularly attributed to Tertullian ” Credo quia absurdum est“, words never written by Tertullian.6 Rather, Tertullian actually said: “The Son of God was crucified; the Christian is not ashamed precisely because he ought to be. The Son of God died; it is credible because it is improbable. He was buried and rose again; this is certain because it is impossible” ( De carne Christi 5.4).7 As opposed to explanations that seek to portray Tertullian as an irrationalist, O. argues that this passage is to be understood as a paradox — which is, of course, rational. Moreover, he points out that behind this passage lie Biblical paradoxes such as 1 Corinthians 1.27-29 (“but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God”). The use of paradox was also widespread in the Stoic tradition. Moreover, O. emphasizes the purpose of De carne Christi, which was to refute Marcionite docetic christology. To those like Marcion who claimed that a physical body and crucifixion were incompatible with divinity Tertullian replied that a real incarnation entailed a real body; this logic of the incarnation led Tertullian to claim in De carne Christi 5.4 that it is precisely the improbability of the incarnation that makes Christ’s physical death credible, and continuing in the same fashion Tertullian goes on to say that the resurrection is “certain because it is impossible”. Thus it is the religious context which makes Tertullian’s paradox logical. O. notes that Tertullian did not universalize the paradox; the death and resurrection of the divine-human Christ is the only historical instance where improbability can be construed so as to be rationally compelling.

In the rest of the book O. summarizes the major writings of Tertullian. Chapter 4, “Strife of opposites and faith as recognition” analyzes Tertullian’s Apologeticum, which was written against the Christians’ Roman persecutors. The opposition in the world (including that between persecutors and persecuted) reflects the divine will, according to Tertullian. The background to this doctrine of opposites is the philosophy of Heraclitus; O. shows that this, along with Stoicism, was the primary philosophical influence on Tertullian. Like the Stoics, Tertullian believed that knowledge of God is inherent in humankind. Moreover, because Christ’s coming has been announced, faith in God is obligatory for all human beings. This sheds light on another apparent contradiction in Tertullian, i.e. his statement that “the soul is naturally Christian” ( Apologeticum 17.6) yet “Christians are made, not born” ( ibid. 18.4). The coming of Christ means that God who is universally known must also be acknowledged by each person. O. emphasizes that while the Apologeticum is a defensive piece it contains remarkable respect for Tertullian’s Roman audience (pp. 83-88).

Chapter 5 deals with Tertullian’s large work Adversus Marcionem. O. argues that Tertullian realized that Marcion was trying to make distinctions (e.g. the creator god of the Old Testament and the god of Jesus) that properly belong within the Godhead (i.e. God’s justice and mercy). Theologically, Tertullian was already looking forward to later trinitarian controversies. Similarly, in the treatises Adversus Iudaeos and Adversus Praxean (discussed in chapter 6) Tertullian anticipated later trinitarian and christological discussions. In these chapters O. demonstrates Tertullian’s influence on later theological developments (pp. 131, 142) which supports his view of Tertullian as the “first theologian of the west”. Praxeas held to a monarchianism which identified God the Father with Christ who suffered on the cross. While his theology was resoundingly condemned by Tertullian, it has striking affinities with the emphasis on the doctrine of the suffering God which (it has been claimed) has acquired the status of a new orthodoxy in contemporary theology.8 O. does not make any connection between the ancient debate of Tertullian and Praxeas and such themes of modern theology.

Chapter 7 discusses Tertullian’s treatise on prayer, De oratione. This leads into O.’s treatment of Tertullian’s approach to the Bible, and the problem of coherence between the “regula fidei” and the Scriptures. In chapter 8, O. treats Tertullian’s anthropology (especially as found in the treatise De anima), pointing out that Tertullian was the first to argue for the origin of sin in a soul that is both responsible and corrupt. Here Tertullian was moving toward a doctrine of original sin. The chapter goes on to treat Tertullian’s ecclesiology as well, looking at writings that are usually attributed to the period of his involvement with Montanism. O. expresses support for the recent research of his student David Rankin, who has concluded that Tertullian was not a schismatic but that his Montanist views led him to more intense involvement with (and criticism of) the catholic tradition.9 Chapter 9 surveys Tertullian’s satirical attacks on Hermogenes and the Valentinians. Like Marcion, Hermogenes posited a second primordial entity in addition to God, i.e. matter out of which God created the world. Tertullian condemned these notions, as well as the resulting dualistic system of Hermogenes. In his discussion of Tertullian’s Contra Valentinianos O. highlights the information regarding Gnosticism available from this work which adds to what we know from the Nag Hammadi documents. O.’s discussion of Tertullian’s eschatology in chapter 10, and of the details of his ethics in chapter 11, are thorough and informative. Tertullian held high expectations of ethical behaviour for himself as well as his fellow Christians: he believed that people guilty of grave sins such as murder, idolatry, apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and fornication were beyond the intercession of Christ and should be permanently excluded from the church ( De pudicitia 19). Bishops who allowed repentance after baptism for such severe offences also came under criticism from Tertullian for being too lenient. It is with regard to this restrictive view of divine forgiveness that O. offers one of his few criticisms of Tertullian (p. 230).

Indeed, while this book conveys profound insight into Tertullian’s thought and writings the author offers surprisingly little in the way of critical evaluation. Chapters 3-11 largely consist of summary presentations of Tertullian’s writings, based on O.’s reading of the Latin texts. The detailed content of these chapters makes the book a useful introduction for the student who is largely unfamiliar with these texts. However, other aspects of the study of Tertullian are unfortunately neglected. A particularly glaring omission is the absence of discussion of the social and historical context of Christianity in North Africa during Tertullian’s lifetime. Thus (to cite one small example only): on p. 12-13 O. reports the assertion in Adversus Marcionem 1.18.1 that the Marcionites practiced astrology, yet he makes no mention of the fact that no other evidence exists concerning astrological interest among the Marcionites. Therefore, it seems at least plausible to claim that Tertullian was merely satirizing his opponents in this passage. O.’s lack of reference to any other pertinent evidence is a problem.

Two themes in particular merit not just reporting but also critical discussion. One is Tertullian’s view of women. Tertullian has been condemned as a misogynist who blamed Eve for the fall of humankind; and referred to woman in terms such as “the devil’s gateway, the unsealer of the [forbidden] tree, the first deserter of the divine law” ( De carne Christi 17; De cultu feminarum 1.1ff.).10 On the other hand, Tertullian also extolled Mary as the one through whom salvation came ( De carne Christi 17.4-6). Surely some discussion of Tertullian’s view of women is warranted in light of contemporary concerns with regard to the role of women in Christian tradition. Secondly, Tertullian engaged in heated polemic against Judaism, and was the first Christian writer to compose a text directed specifically Adversus Iudaeos. He was thus a progenitor of the tragic history of Christian anti-semitism. O. reports Tertullian’s attacks on the Jews at several points in the book (pp. 80, 117-119, 148); the only place where O. acknowledges the tragic legacy of these attacks is in a footnote on p. 246 where O. admits that the “failure of Christian forgiveness [evident in Tertullian’s anti-Jewish statements] was to have serious consequences.” O. correctly observes that by the second century Christians were no longer displaying fear or timidity in dealing with Jews (p. 118-119); however, an essential point that O. ignores is that writers such as Tertullian developed an arrogant triumphalism in their treatment of the Jews instead. Moreover, it is possible that Tertullian’s arrogant approach to the Jewish Scriptures has rubbed off on O. as well. Against Marcion, Tertullian defended the Christians’ retention of the Old Testament; yet Tertullian held that the Jewish “old covenant” had been replaced by the “new covenant” of Christianity. It is hard to see how such a view of supersession can be maintained in the context of modern religious pluralism—let alone after the Holocaust. Yet O. not only fails to comment on the dangers of Tertullian’s anti-Judaism but even repeats the stereotypical view of the God of the Old Testament as a God of punishment: O. writes “None will deny that Tertullian’s validation of the Old Testament has been of influence in Christian thought, and few will deny its harmful effects in promoting the fear of God and the mutual destruction of humans”, and he then goes on to refer to the “barbarities of the Deuteronomic God of battles” (pp. 102-103, cf. 247 and n.4). The book also displays no recognition of the problems posed by christological exegesis of the Old Testament (pp. 154-57). The reader is thus left to wonder if O. agrees with Harnack, who in his study of Marcion had argued that the early Christians only retained the Old Testament out of religious inertia and that it could safely be jettisoned from the Scriptural canon (pp. 89, 104 n.58).11


1. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on an earlier version of this book review.

2. A. Labhardt, “Tertullien et la philosophie ou la recherche d’une ‘position pure’,” Museum Helveticum 7 (1950) p. 180 with n.66, citing C.G. Jung, Psychologische Typen.

3. Tertullien et la conversion de la culture antique. Paris, 1972.

4. Das Verhältnis Tertullians zur antiken Paideia. St Ottilien, 1989.

5. Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia, 1979), pp. 177-178.

6. T.D. Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1985), p. 223.

7. Trans. of ibid. The Latin text reads: “Crucifixus est dei filius; non pudet, quia pudendum est. Et mortuus est dei filius; credibile est, quia ineptum est. Et sepultus resurrexit; certum est, quia impossibile” ( Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 2, p. 881.26-29). I am not persuaded that any advantage is gained by O.’s translation of ” ineptum” as “inept”.

8. Ronald Goetz, “The Suffering God: the Rise of a New Orthodoxy,” The Christian Century 103 (1986) pp. 385-389.

9. David Rankin, Tertullian and the Church. Cambridge, 1995.

10. Bernard P. Prusak, “Woman: Seductive Siren and Source of Sin? Pseudepigraphal Myth and Christian Origins,” in Rosemary Radford Ruether ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1974), pp. 104-105; Denise Lardner Carmody, Women and World Religions, 2d edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1989), p. 171.

11. A. von Harnack, Marcion, Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott 2. Aufl. (Leipzig, 1924), p. 217.