The Paradox of Tertullian

‘WHERE is there any likeness between the Christian and the philosopher? between one who corrupts the truth, and one who restores and teaches it? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?’ Such bold questions were raised by Tertullian, a writer in the second and third centuries C.E. He came to be known as “one of the most prolific sources of the history of the Church and of the doctrines which were taught in his time.” Virtually no aspect of religious life escaped his attention.

Tertullian was perhaps best known for his paradoxical, or seemingly contradictory, statements, such as these: “God is then especially great, when He is small.” “[The death of God’s Son] is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.” “[Jesus] was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible.”

There is more to the paradox of Tertullian than his statements. Though he intended that his writings defend the truth and uphold the integrity of the church and her doctrines, he actually corrupted true teachings. His key contribution to Christendom turned out to be a theory upon which later writers built the doctrine of the Trinity. To gain insight into how this happened, let us first get a glimpse of Tertullian himself.

“Incapable of Being Dull”

Very little is known about the life of Tertullian. Most scholars agree that he was born about 160 C.E. in Carthage, North Africa. Evidently, he was well-educated and thoroughly familiar with the main schools of philosophy of his day. Apparently, what attracted him to Christianity was the willingness of professed Christians to die for their faith. Concerning Christian martyrdom, he asked: “For who that contemplates it, is not excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? who, after inquiry, does not embrace our doctrines?”

After his conversion to nominal Christianity, Tertullian became an inventive writer with a flare for terse and witty statements. “[He] possessed an ability rare among theologians,” observes the book The Fathers of the Church. “He is incapable of being dull.” One scholar said: “Tertullian [had] a gift for words rather than sentences and it is much easier to appreciate his sallies than it is to follow his arguments. Perhaps this is why he is so often quoted and so infrequently quoted at length.”

To the Defense of Christianity

Tertullian’s most famous work is Apology, considered to be one of the most powerful literary defenses of nominal Christianity. It was written during a time when Christians were often victims of superstitious mobs. Tertullian came to the defense of these Christians and protested the irrational treatment of them. He said: “[Opposers] consider that the Christians are the cause of every public  calamity and every misfortune of the people. . . . If the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the weather will not change, if there is an earthquake, a famine, a plague​—straightway the cry is heard: ‘Toss the Christians to the lion!’”

Although Christians were often accused of disloyalty to the State, Tertullian endeavored to show that they were actually the most trustworthy citizens in the realm. After calling attention to several attempts that were made to overthrow the government, he reminded his antagonists that those conspirators arose from the ranks of the pagans, not the Christians. Tertullian pointed out that when Christians were executed, the real loss was sustained by the State.

Other works of Tertullian dealt with Christian living. For example, in his exposition On the Shows, Tertullian counseled against being present at certain places of entertainment, pagan games, and theatrical events. Apparently, there were new converts who saw no inconsistency in meeting for Bible instruction and then attending the pagan games. Trying to stir up their thinking ability, Tertullian wrote: “How monstrous it is to go from God’s church to the devil’s​—from the sky to the stye.” He said: “What you reject in deed, you are not to bid welcome to in word.”

Corrupts the Truth While Defending It

Tertullian began his essay entitled Against Praxeas saying: “In various ways has the devil rivalled and resisted the truth. Sometimes his aim has been to destroy the truth by defending it.” The man named Praxeas of this essay is not clearly identified, but Tertullian took issue with his teachings concerning God and Christ. He viewed Praxeas as a pawn of Satan covertly trying to corrupt Christianity.

A crucial issue among professed Christians at that time was the relationship between God and Christ. Some among them, particularly those of Greek background, found it difficult to reconcile belief in one God with the role of Jesus as Savior and Redeemer. Praxeas attempted to solve their dilemma by teaching that Jesus was just a different mode of the Father and there was no difference between the Father and the Son. This theory, known as modalism, alleges that God revealed himself “as the Father in Creation and in the giving of the Law, as the Son in Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit after Christ’s ascension.”

Tertullian showed that the Scriptures made a clear distinction between the Father and the Son. After quoting 1 Corinthians 15:27, 28, he reasoned: “He who subjected (all things), and He to whom they were subjected​—must necessarily be two different Beings.” Tertullian called attention to Jesus’ own words: “The Father is greater than I am.” (John 14:28) Using portions of the Hebrew  Scriptures, such as Psalm 8:5, he showed how the Bible describes the “inferiority” of the Son. “Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son,” Tertullian concluded. “Inasmuch as He who begets is one, and He who is begotten is another; He, too, who sends is one, and He who is sent is another; and He, again, who makes is one, and He through whom the thing is made is another.”

Tertullian viewed the Son as subordinate to the Father. However, in his attempt to counteract modalism, he went “beyond the things that are written.” (1 Corinthians 4:6) As Tertullian erroneously sought to prove the divinity of Jesus by means of another theory, he coined the formula “one substance in three persons.” Using this concept, he attempted to show that God, his Son, and the holy spirit were three distinct persons existing in one divine substance. Tertullian thus became the first to apply the Latin form of the word “trinity” to the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit.

Beware of Worldly Philosophy

How was Tertullian able to devise the theory of “one substance in three persons”? The answer lies in yet another paradox about the man​—his view of philosophy. Tertullian called philosophy “‘the doctrines’ of men and ‘of demons.’” He openly criticized the practice of using philosophy to support Christian truths. “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition,” he stated. Yet, Tertullian himself made liberal use of secular philosophy when it harmonized with his own ideas.​—Colossians 2:8.

One reference work states: “Trinitarian theology required the aid of Hellenistic concepts and categories for its development and expression.” And the book The Theology of Tertullian notes: “[It was] a curious blend of juristic and philosophic ideas and terms, which enabled Tertullian to set out the trinitarian doctrine in a form which, despite its limitations and imperfections, supplied the framework for the later presentation of the doctrine at the Council of Nicaea.” Hence, Tertullian’s formula​—three persons in one divine substance—​played a major role in the spreading of religious error throughout all of Christendom.

Tertullian accused others of destroying the truth while they were trying to defend it. Ironically, however, by mixing divinely inspired Bible truth and human philosophy, he fell into the same trap. Let us therefore take to heart the Scriptural warning against “paying attention to misleading inspired utterances and teachings of demons.”​—1 Timothy 4:1.

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Tertullian criticized philosophy but used it to advance his own ideas

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Pages 29 and 30: © Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

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True Christians avoid mixing Bible truth with human philosophy