Tertullian, Quintus Septimius Florens

, the iirst Latin writer of the primitive church whose writings are come clown to us, was an African, and born at Carthage in the second century. His father was a centurion in* the troops which served under the proconsul of Africa. Tcrtullian was at first an heathen, and a man, as he himself owns in various parts of his works, of loose manners; but afterwards embraced the Christian religion, though it is not known when, or upon what occasion. He flourished chiefly under the reigns of the emperor Severus and Caracalla, from about the year 194 to 216 and it is probable that he lived several years, since Jerome mentions a report of his having attained to a decrepit old age. There is no passage in his writings whence it can be concluded that he was a priest; but Jerome affirms it so positively, that it cannot be doubted. He had great abilities and learning, which he employed vigorously in the cause of Christianity, and against heathens and heretics; but towards the latter part of his life quitted the church to follow the Montanists, which is the reason why his name has not been transmitted to us with the title of saint. The cause of his separation is not certainly known. Baronius has attributed it to jealousy, because Victor was preferred before him to the see of Rome; Pamelius hints at his disappointment, because he could not get the bishopric of Carthage; and Jerome says, that the envy which the Roman clergy bore him, and the outrageous manner with which they treated him, exasperated him against the church, and provoked him to quit it. What perhaps had as much weight as any of these reasons was the extraordinary austerity, which the sect of Montanus affected, which suited his monastic turn of mind. Whatever the cause, he not only joined them, but wrote in their defence, and treated the church from which he departed, with unbecoming contempt. Error, however* says a modern ecclesiastical historian, is very inconstant; for Tertullian afterwards left the Montanists, or nearly so, and formed a sect of his own, called Tertullianists, who continued in Africa till Augustine’s time, by whose labours their existence, as;i distinct body, was brought to a close. The character of Tertullian is very strongly delineated by | himself in his own writings if there bad been any thing peculiarly Christian, which he had learned from the Montanists, his works must have shown it; but the only change discoverable is, that he increased in his austerities. He appears to have been married, and lived all his life, without separating from his wife upon his commencing priest, if, indeed, he did not marry her after. The time of his death is no where mentioned.

Many historians have spoken highly of the abilities and learning of this father, particularly Euscbius, who says that he was one of the ablest Latin writers, and particularly insists upon his being thoroughly conversant in the Roman laws; which may incline us to think that, like his scholar, Cyprian, he was bred to the bar. Cyprian used every day to read part of his works, and, when he called for the book, said, “Give me my master,” as Jerome relates. Lactantius allows him to have been skilled in all kinds of learning, yet censures him as an harsh, inelegant, and abstruse writer. Jerome, i n his Catalogue of ecclesiastical writers, calls him a man of a quick and sharp wit; and says, in his epistle to Magnus, that no author had more learning and subtlety; but in other places he reprehends his errors and defects; and, in his apology against Ruffinus, “commends his wit, but condemns his heresies.” Vicentius Lirinensis gives this character of him: “Tertullian was,” says he, “among the Latins, what Origen was among the Greeks; that is to say, the first and most considerable man they had. For who is more learned than he r who more versed both in ecclesiastical and profane knowledge? Has he not comprised in his vast capacious mind all the philosophy of the sages, the maxims of the different sects, with their histories, and whatever pertained to them? Did he ever attack any thing which he has not almost always either pierced by the vivacity of his wit, or overthrown by the force and weight of his reasonings? And who can sufficiently extol the beauties of his discourse, which is so well guarded and linked together by a continual chain of arguments, that he even forces the consent of those whom he cannot persuade? His words are so many sentences; his answers almost so many victories.

Of the moderns, Malebranche says, “Tertullian was a man of profound learning; but he had more memory than judgment, greater penetration and extent of imagination than of understanding. There is no doubt that he was a visionary, and had all the qualities I have attributed to | visionaries. The respect he had for the visions of Montamis, and for his prophetesses, is an incontestable proof of the weakness of his judgment. His fire, his transports, his enthusiasms upon the most trifling subjects, plainly indicate a distempered imagination. What irregular motions are there in his hyperboles and figures! How many pompous and magnificent arguments, that owe all their force to their sensible lustre, and persuade many merely by g’ddying and dazzling the mind.” He then gives examples out of his book “De Paliio;” and concludes with saying, that “if justness of thought, with clearness and elegance of expression, should always appear in whatever a man writes, since the end of writing is to manifest the truth, it is impossible to excuse this author; who, by the testimony of even Salmasius, the greatest critic or our times, has laid out all his endeavours to become obscure; and has succeeded so well in what he aimed at, that this commentator was almost ready to swear, no man ever understood him perfectly.

Balzac thus expresses his sentiments of Tertullian in a letter to his editor, Rigaltius: “I expect,” says he, “the Tertullian you are publishing, that he may learn me that patience, for which he gives such admirable instructions. He is an author to whom your preface would have reconciled me, if I bad an aversion for him; and if the harshness of his expressions, and the vices of his age, had dissuaded me from reading him: but I have had an esteem for him a long time; and as hard and crabbed as he is, yet he is not at all unpleasant to me. I have found in his writings that black light, which is mentioned in one of the ancient poets; and I look upon his obscurity with the same pleasure as that of ebony which is very bright and neatly wrought. This has always been my opinion; for as the beauties of Africa are no less amiable, though they are not like ours, and as Sophonisba has eclipsed several Italian ladies, so the wits of that country are not less pleasing with this foreign sort of eloquence; and I shall prefer him to a great many affected imitators of Cicero. And though we should grant to nice critics that his style is of iron, yet they must likewise own to us, that out of this iron he has forged most excellent weapons: that he has defended the honour and innocence of Christianity; that he has quite routed the Valentinians, and s truck Man-ion to the very heart.” Our learned counryman, Dr. Cave, has likewise shewn himself, still more | than Balzac, an advocate for Tertullian’s style; and, with submission to Lactuntius, who (as we have seen above) censured it as harsh, inelegant, and obscure, affirms, that “it has a certain majesty peculiar to itself, a sublime and noble eloquence seasoned abundantly with wit and satire, which, at the same time that it exercises the sagacity or.” a reader, highly entertains and pleases him.“The style, however, of Tertullian, is a matter of less consequence than those other merits which give him a rank among the fathers: but in this respect it seems difficult which of the two were predominant, his virtues or his defects. He was endued with a great genius, but seemed deficient in point of judgment. His piety was warm and vigorous, but at the same time melancholy and austere, and his credulity and superstition, learned as he was, were such as could only have been expected from the darkest ignorance. He placed religion too much in austere observances; and in this respect, the littleness of his views appears conspicuous in the very first tract in the volume of his works,” De Pailio," the purport of which is to recommend a vulgar and rustic kind of garment for Christians in the place of the Roman toga; hut a more remarkable instance is given of his absurd scrupulosity about such trifles, in which he warmly approves the conduct of a Christian soldier who refused to wear a crown of laurel which his commander had given him with the rest of the regiment, and was punished for his disobedience. Upon the whole, although his works throw some light on the state of Christianity in his time, they contain very little matter of useful instruction.

The principal editors of this father, who have given. editions of his works in one collected body, are Rhenanus, Pamelius, and Rigaltius. Rhenanus first published them at Basil in 1521, from two manuscripts which he had procured from two abbeys in Germany, As this editor was well versed in all parts of learning, and especially in-ecclesiastical antiquity, so none have laboured more successfully than he in the explication of Tertullian; and Rigaltius has observed, with reason, that he wanted nothing to have made his work complete, but more manuscripts: and though, says Du Pin, his notes have been censured by the Spanish inquisition, and put at Rome into the Index expurgatorius, yet this should not diminish the esteem we ought to have for him. Rhenanus’s edition had been printed a great number of times, when Pamelius published | Tertulliau with new commentaries, at Antwerp, in 1579; and although this editor has been blamed for digressing too much to things foreign to his points, yet his notes are useful and learned. His edition, as well as Rhenanus’s, has been printed often, in various places. After these, the learned Rigaltius produced his edition in 1634, which is far preferable to either of the former; for, having some manuscripts, and other advantages which the former editors wanted, he has given a more correct text. He has also accompanied it with notes, in which he has explained difficult passages, cleared some ancient customs, and discussed many curious points of learning. The greatest objection to this editor has been made by the Roman catholics, who say that he has occasionally made observations not favourable to the present practice of the church: but, says Du Pin, “whatever exceptions may be made to his divinity, his remarks relating to grammar, criticism, and the explication of difficult passages, are excellent.A new edition of Tertullian was begun at Halle, by Semler, in 1770, and six parts published in small 8vo; and the same was reprinted with a view to be continued by Oberthur, in 1780 81, 2 vols. 8vo, but neither the one nor the other have been completed. Detached pieces of Tertullian have been edited by very learned critics. Salmasius bestowed a very voluminous comment upon his small piece “De Pallio,” the best edition of which is that of Lcyden, 1656, in 8vo; but some so under-rate it as to think that its principal value is a fine print of Salmasius, placed at the beginning of it. His “Apologeticus,” as it has been most read, so it has been the oftenest published of all this father’s works. This apology for Christianity and its professors was written about the year 200, in the beginning of the persecution under the emperor Severus. It is commonly believed that he wrote it at Rome, and addressed it to the senate: but it is more probable that it was composed in Africa, as, indeed, he does not address himself to the senate, but to the proconsul of Africa, and the governors of the provinces. The best edition of it is that by Havercamp, at Leyden, 1718, 8vo. 1


Dupin.—Cave.—Tillemont.—Mosheim and Milner’s Ch. Hist.