The Tragic End of Tertullian

This Saturday I will be hosting a book table at the Diocese of Grand Rapids Parish Ministry and Catechetical Conference. The theme of this year’s conference is “the gift of reconciliation.” The keynote speaker is Marcellino D’Ambrosio. I’ve not read much by “Dr. Italy” as he called but I did start to read his newest book When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers. So far I’ve really enjoyed it. Here’s a sample from the chapter on Tertullian.

“John Henry Newman, a nineteenth-century expert in the history of doctrine, said that the original sin of all heretics is impatience. Sadly, Tertullian, for all his zeal, was afflicted with this sin in the extreme. He was not unaware of his weakness–he confessed in the beginning of his treatise On Patience that Tertullian writing about patience is like an invalid writing about health.”

“He always wrote as an angry man. And he never was satisfied with just defeating his opponents; he always set out to annihilate them. First the pagans and then heretics served as the target of his biting and sarcastic invective. But finally, he turned his fire upon the bishops of the Church.”

“In reaction to his own pre-bapstismal lifestyle, he had always been prone to severity and rigidity. So it was no wonder that he would find congenial the ‘New Prophecy’ of the Montanists. Irenaeus had to battle their theology of revelation, their idea that new prophecy could in fact supersede prior revelation. But part of this heresy was rigorism, the idea that serious post-baptismal sins like fornication, and adultery, along with murder and apostasy, could not and should not be forgiven by the Church. The bishops, according to Montanist prophecies, had no authority to do so. If anyone could forgive sins in the name of Christ, these prophets proclaimed, it would be the holy and inspired ones such as themselves, not the corrupt bishops of a lax church.”

“Tertullian gradually fell under the spell of this rigorist sect and remain in it for about twenty years. He apparently died bitter and resentful, in self-imposed exile from the peace and communion of the catholic Church. But Tertullian, in spite of himself, had been used mightily of God. His writings are an important witness to the apostolic tradition, even though he broke with that tradition near the end of his life. Ironically, his most original contributions to clarifying and developing that tradition with regard to Christ and the Trinity were made even as he himself drifted away.” (pp. 111-12)

When the Church Was Young is a paperback with 304 pages. It is published by Servant Publications (an imprint of Franciscan Media). It sells for $19.99.

When the Church was Young


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to The Tragic End of Tertullian

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Willaims III says:

    Dear Louis,

    Interesting post. There three things that seem to stick out.

    First, It seems that Tertullian’s attacks against the corrupt bishops of the Church predated the Donatist Controversy; although that controversy was more over the issue of apostasy of bishops and the effect of their performing the “sacraments” and their validity after their apostasy.

    Second, There is also the issue of the Montanist’s view of prophecy and how that is the same problem the church is seeing with the Neo-Montanists of today’s Charismatic/Pentecostal Movements.

    Finally, it appears that Tertullian was also beginning to see the dissolution of the doctrine of the “Priesthood of all believers.” The Montanists and the reaction of the church, i.e. the Bishops, contributed to this problem. It eventually led to the distinction of the clergy and the laity and a power shift to restricting performance of the “sacraments,” so-called, to the clergy. The Reformation began to pull back on this to a certain extant, but it was the Anabaptists and Baptists who would lead the fight against the separation of clergy and laity and insist on the “priesthood of all believers” to be an actual practice. This would mean that there was no longer a need to go to “Cofession” and receive absolution of sins, etc. for Christ being our Mediator would be who the sinner would go to NOT a priest.


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