Tertullian is known in church history as the father of Latin theology, as he was the first church leader to write his works in Latin. Most of his writing was in defense of Christianity against persecution from without or heresy from within. He had an enormous influence on the early church, and much of that influence can still be seen today.
Born about AD 145 to a Roman centurion in Carthage, Quintis Septimus Florens Tertullianus was trained in Greek and Latin and became a lawyer in Rome, where he was converted to Christianity about AD 185. Though we know very little about the details of his conversion, he said that he could not imagine a truly Christian life without a conscious breach, a radical act of conversion. Prior to his conversion, he indulged in the typical licentiousness of Roman society, including sexual promiscuity and enjoying the games in the arena. He was profoundly affected by the testimonies of Christians who were martyred in the arena, and it is likely that his conversion was a result.
Tertullian was ordained a presbyter in the church at Carthage, North Africa, and began writing books addressing the issues facing the church of his day. In response to a heresy about the Godhead, Tertullian wrote Against Praxus, which for the first time used the word trinity to describe the Godhead. Concerning Father, Son, and Spirit, Tertullian said, “These three are one substance, not one person.” His longest book, Against Marcion, defended the use of the Old Testament by the Christian church, and demonstrated how to use the Scriptures to refute heresies. Gnosticism was a major threat to the church of his day, and Tertullian did more than anyone else to overthrow the influence of the Gnostics.
Tertullian was a key player in the transition of the church from a persecuted minority to a major influence in Roman society. Early in his ministry, he wrote his Apology, which defended the church against the persecutions of the state and explained the principle of religious liberty as an inalienable right of man. He was the first writer to use the word church to describe a specific building, rather than the assembled people. He was also the first to speak of a distinction between clergy and laity, though he affirmed the universal priesthood of the believers.
While he is known as the father of Latin Christianity, and some would blame him for the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, many of Tertullian’s teachings stand against those errors. Tertullian laid down the principle that custom without truth is only time-honored error. In other words, tradition must be backed by Scripture for it to have any value. Regarding baptism, he firmly taught against baptizing children because they were not old enough to repent and believe. Though he was one of the early church fathers who advocated celibacy as the correct interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7, he himself was married.
Later in his life, possibly after a dispute with Roman bishops, Tertullian adopted Montanism, which marked him as a heretic in the church. Despite that move, his earlier writings maintained their popularity and value among his peers and have remained a valuable part of our theological heritage. Tertullian was a man greatly used of God to define and defend the essential doctrines of the faith, and we are still benefiting from his ministry today.