Skip to main content

Tertullian on Heresy, History, and the Reappropriation of Revelation

  • Peter Iver Kaufman (a1)

Tertullian understood the apostle Paul to have suggested there would always be heretics (1 Cor. 11:19), and he presumed God had supplied scripture for their use. Without sacred literature heretics would have nothing of consequence to misread. Without contests over critical passages, there could be no winners, no losers—no heretics.1 The difficulty, Tertullian acknowledged, was that heretics were the poorest of losers; they never conceded defeat. He advised against trying to take (or take back) scripture passage by passage. The only way to get the best of heretics and get on with the work of interpreting texts correctly was to deny heretics' right to appeal to scripture.2 It had been supplied for them, but only to enable wayward expositors to identify themselves as heretics. This was Tertullian's version of “enough rope.” Heretics' expositions showed others how far the expositors deviated from the precious tradition originating with the apostles, and to assist those others apologists introduced a rule of faith condensing the apostles' instruction and tradition. Tertullian's several presentations of the rule of faith raise important questions; discrepancies prompt suspicion that no precise formulation or rule inspired consensus, that rules were rather makeshift. At the time, however, Tertullian obviously was more interested in another discrepancy, the one between his rule(s) expressing Christianity's incontrovertible truths and the opinions and exegesis of benighted heretics, for God provided heretics, apologists, and controversy to keep traditional or “regular” Christianity advancing on its proper course.3 Tertullian's confidence in the advance of Christianity is the subject of this paper. How did he come by it and just how did he relate the persistence of heresy to the progress of Christianity?

Hide All

1. De praescriptionibus adversus haereses omnes (hereafter cited as Praes.), 39.7. I have used texts in Corpus Christianorum: Series Latina, vols. 1–2 (Turnhout, 19531954). For Tertullian'spraescriptiones, see Stirnimann, Joseph K., Die praescriptio Tertullians im Lichte des römischen Rechts und der Theologie (Freiburg, 1949), pp. 135149; for his tactics,Leer, Flesseman-Van, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church (Assen, 1954), pp. 180185 and Kuss, Otto, “Zur Hermeneutik Tertullians,” Neutestamentliche Aufsätze: Festschrzft für Prof. Josef Schmid zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Blinzler, J., Kuss, Otto, and Mussner, F. (Regensburg, 1963), pp. 140144.Siniscalo, Paolo, “Recenti studi su Tertulliano,” Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa 14 (1978): 396405 and Sider, Robert D., “Approaches to Tertullian: A Study of Recent Scholarship,” The Second Century 2 (1982): 228260 provide bibliographical surveys. Useful bibliographical remarks as well as a general biographical introduction are available in the second edition Barnes, Timothy D., Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford, 1985); the postscript corrects errors in the first edition (Oxford, 1971) and recommends the plural of praescriptio, which I have adopted also. Among other studies that take difft;ent approaches to the issues discussed here, note Zimmermann, Gottfried, Die hermeneutischen Prinzipien Tertullians (Würzburg, 1937);Karpp, Heinrich, Schrift und Geist bei Tertullian (Gütersloh, 1955);Fredouille, Jean Claude, Tertullien et la conversion de culture antique (Paris, 1972);Van, J. E. L. der Geest, Le Christ et l'Ancien Testament chez Tertullien (Nijmegen, 1972); and particularly two recent, provocative papers: Grossi, Vittorino, “A proposito della conversione di Tertulliano al Montanismo (De pudicitia 1.10–13),” Augustinianum 27 (1987): 5770 and Uglione, Renato, “La gradualità della rivelazione in Tertulliano,” in Crescita dell'uomo catechesi dei padri, ed. Felici, Sergio (Rome, 1987), pp. 133144.

2. Praes., 15.4 and 19.2–3.

3. Adversus Marcionem (hereafter cited as Marc.), 4.5.2–4. For Tertullian's summaries see Praes., 13; De virginibus velandis (hereafter cited as Virg.), 1.23;Adversus Praxean (hereafter cited as Prax.), 2.1–5; and Kuss, , “Hermeneutik,” pp. 146150. Tertullian's stands against heresy and for doctrinal conformity are customarily cited in comments on his rules; see, for example, Leer, Flesseman-Van, Tradition, pp. 159173;Hagglund, Bergt, “Die Bedeutung der regula fidei als Grundlage theologischer Aussages,” Studia Theologica 12 (1958): 1929, 3444; and Moingt, Joseph S.J., Théologie trinitaire de Tertullien, 4 vols. (Aubier, 1966), 1:7986. For general remarks on the issue of apostolic origins, see Pederson, Sigfred, “Die Kanonfrage als historisches und theologisches Problem,” Studia Theologica 31 (1977): especially 85–89. The most helpful and suggestive conclusions about formulations and functions of Tertullian's regulae are those of Braun, René, Deus Christianorum: Recherches sur le vocabulaire doctrinal de Tertullien, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1977), pp. 446453 and Countryman, L. William, “Tertullian and the Regula Fidei,” The Second Century 2 (1982): 208227. Countryman identifies the pattern followed by instructors, accounting for consistencies and variations by associating the rules with catechesis (“oral instruction”) and with “the need to innoculate the catholic people against Gnosticism.” O'Malley, Thomas P., S. J., Tertullian and the Bible (Utrecht, 1967) reconstructs Tertullian's attitudes toward exegesis, yet also consult Hanson, R. P. C., “Notes on Tertullian's Interpretation of Scripture,” The Journal of Theological Studies, new series 12 (1961): 273279;Braun, , Deus Christianorum, pp. 454473; and Waszink, J. H., “Tertullian's Principles and Methods of Exegesis,” Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition: In honorem Robert M. Grant, ed. Schoedel, William R. and Wilken, Robert L. (Paris, 1979), pp. 1731.

4. De pudicitia (hereafter cited as Pud.), 1.10–13 and Grossi, “Della conversione,” pp. 64–67. Despite the declaration, Tertullian was no schismatic (see for example, Moignt, , Théologie 1:5859).Rambeaux, Claude, Tertullien face aux morales des trois premiers siêcles (Paris, 1979), pp. 304305 implies that childish ways” may refer only to Tertullian's early agreement with the church's policy on pardons. At issue is also the character of Montanism in North Africa. Could it have been a loyal opposition within the church? Powell, Douglas, “Tertullianists and Cataphrygians,” Vigiliae Christianae 29 (1975): 3840, 5254 and Paulsen, H., “Die Bedeutung des Montanismus für die Herausbildung des Kanons,” Vigiliae Christianae 32 (1978): 2829, 3740 offer suggestive and conditionally affirmative answers. Also consult the informative presentations in Barnes, , Tertullian, pp. 130142 and in two much older yet still valuable studies, Monceaux, Paul, Histoire littéraire de l'Afrique chrétienne, 7 vols. (Paris, 1901), 1: 394438 and Pierre Champagne de Labriolle, La crise montaniste (Paris, 1913).Bray, Gerald Lewis, Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian (Atlanta, 1979), pp. 6065 minimizes Montanist influence.

5. Fredouille, , Tertullien, pp. 434442 and Uglione, , “Gradualitá,” pp. 141144.

6. Apologeticum (hereafter cited as Apol.), 39.3; De monogamia (hereafter cited as Monog.),12.3; Praes., 36.1 (“apud quas ipsae authenticae litterae eorum recitantur sonantes vocem et repraesentes faciem”); and De spectaculis, 19–21. Also note De anima, 9.4, where Tertullian may be emphasizing correspondences between worship among the Montanists and among Christian critics of Montanism (“scripturae leguntur”). See Tertullianus, De Anima, ed. Waszink, John Hendrik (Amsterdam, 1947), p. 169. For other observations on Tertullian's revelations about reading, consult Glaue, Paul, “Die Vorlesung heiliger Schrift bei Tertullian,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 23 (1924): 147149.

7. Tertullian's attitude toward philosophy can be perplexing. Philosophy was useful, even admirable (De anima, 20.1 on Seneca and De pallio, 6.2), but it was also, he said, the principal source of heresy (Praes., 7.3: “haereses a philosophia subornatur”). I will stress Tertullian's appreciation of the sinister influence of philosophy, yet his sensitive handling of pagan political thought and his profound debts to classical rhetoric betoken generally positive assessments of the culture of classical antiquity. See Klein, Richard, Tertullian und das römische Reich (Heidelberg, 1968),Sider, Robert Dick, Ancient Rhetoric and the Art of Tertullian (Oxford, 1971),Fredouille, , Tertullien, particularly pp. 2935, 152178, 307357, and Burrows, Mark S., “Christianity in the Roman Forum: Tertullian and the Apologetic Use of History,” Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988): 209235.

8. Pud., 8. 12.

9. Adversus Valentinianos, 6. 3 and 27. 2.

10. Ad nationes (hereafter cited as Nat.), 2. 11; Apol., 10. 6–7.

11. De anima, 6.

12. Praes., 7; Apol., 47. 11; and De idolatria, 10.1.

13. De resurrectione mortuorum, 21.2 and 27.2. On consistence see Monog., 11.13 and Pud., 19. 3–4.

14. De came Christi (hereafter cited as Carne), 22; Apol., 21. 8; and Nat., 1. 19.

15. Marc., 4. 35. 14–15. Also see Zimmermann, , Prinzipien, pp. 1017;Fredouille, , Tertullien, pp. 285288 and his “Bible et apologétique,” in Le monde latin antique et la Bible, ed. Jacques Fontaine and Charles Pietri (Paris, 1985), pp. 483485; and Uglione, Renato, ldquo;L'Antico Testamento negli scritti Tertullianei sulle seconde nozze,” Augustinianum 22 (1982): 169171.

16. Prax., 14.

17. Apol., 6.9–10 and 21.31. Also see Burrows, , “Christianity,” pp. 211214.

18. Adversus Judaeos, 8.2 and 14.2–3; Carne, 9.6–8; and Marc., 5.5.9: “Quid infirmum dei fortius homine, nisi nativitas et caro dei?”

19. De anima, 1.1–4.

20. Praes., 8 and 14.

21. Prax., 18.

22. De fuga in persecutione, 6.1–2. Tertullian's position in De fuga reverses the one articulated in Scorpiace, 10. 14–17. For the reversal, see Barnes, , Tertullian, pp. 171186.

23. Marc., 4.25.14–15.

24. In addition to Campenhausen, Hans von, The Formation of the Christian Bible, trans. Baker, J. A. (Philadelphia, 1972), pp. 276277 (“down-to-earth”) and Hanson, , “Notes,” p. 275 (“realism and restraint”), see Hanson's, “Biblical Exegesis in the Early Church,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. Ackroyd, Peter and Evans, C. F. (Cambridge, 1970);Waszink, , “Principles,” pp. 2730; and O'Malley, , Tertullian, pp. 132133, 151152, and 172.

25. Apol., 4.

26. Monog., 3.8.

27. Nat., 1.7.

28. Pud., 21.16–17.

29. Ibid., 15–16.

30. Ibid., 1.3.

31. Ibid., 9.22: “Non est levior transgressio in interpretatione quam in conversatione.”

32. Virg., 1.4;Monceaux, , Histoire, pp. 285286; and Cardman, Francine, “Tertullian on Doctrine and the Development of Discipline,” Studia Patristica 16.2 (1985): 139141.

33. Virg., l.7; Pud.,11;and Uglione, ,“Gradualità,”pp. 139140.

34. Praes., 39.7 has already been cited, but also consult Prax., 10.8. All things are possible for God. Monarchians, however, infer the truth of their absurd propositions from their possibility. God, after all, could have made humans with wings yet he did not. God could have obliterated hawks and heresy, but both were necessary; “oportebat enim et milvos esse et haereticos.”

35. Praes., 12.4–5.

36. Carne,8.1.

37. For example see Marc., 5.2.

38. Monog., 3.4–4.1; Pud., 14.27; and Fredouille, , Tertullien, pp. 165166.

39. Pud., 1.12: “Nemo proficiens erubiscit.”

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 11 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 156 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 15th August 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.