Tertullian (155-240? CE), whose full name was Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, was from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. Although once a pagan, he eventually became a priest and wrote extensively. Some of his writings include: Apology, On Idolatry, The Shows, The Chaplet, To Scapula, Ad Nationes, An Answer to Jews, Soul’s Testimony, Treatise on the Soul, Against Heretics, Against Marcion, Against Hermogenes, Against Valentinians, Flesh of Christ, Resurrection, Against Praxeas, and the list goes on. He was considered to be “the father of Latin Christianity” and “founder of Western theology.”
As I reflect on much of what I have read that was written by Tertullian, his works against various heresies, and An Answer to the Jews, as well as Against Praxeas stand out to me personally.
Some of what Tertullian addressed had already been addressed by Irenaeus’ Against Heresies.
Although Tertullian lived in the second and the third century, some of what he wrote was used to formulate the creeds in the fourth century. In fact, contrary to what some people seem to realize, the Oneness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was mentioned in the Apostolic Scriptures, as well as the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The creeds that were developed in the fourth century were based on what the apostles and Ante-Nicene fathers taught.
Within the last month or so, I have been really surprised as I’ve been online and read nasty, hateful, and clipped comments by those who are against what has been written by John, Luke, Peter, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews, as well as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian concerning Yeshua, God’s Son – specifically regarding the Son of God as being equated in some way with God.
As I laid out in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, there is plenty of evidence for the idea of Oneness and Separateness/Differentness of the Father and the Son. Tertullian, I believe, helps us better understand this relationship. In Apology, chapter 21, Tertullian said, “We have been taught that He (the Word) proceeds forth from God, and in that procession He is generated; so that He is the Son of God, and is called God from unity of substance with God. For God, too, is a Spirit. Even when the ray is shot from the sun, it is still part of the parent mass; the sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of the sun — there is no division of substance, but merely an extension. Thus Christ is Spirit of Spirit, and God of God, as light of light is kindled. The material matrix remains entire and unimpaired, though you derive from it any number of shoots possessed of its qualities; so, too, that which has come forth out of God is at once God and the Son of God, and the two are one. In this way also, as He is Spirit of Spirit and God of God, He is made a second in manner of existence — in position, not in nature; and He did not withdraw from the original source, but went forth. This ray of God, then, as it was always foretold in ancient times, descending into a certain virgin, and made flesh in her womb, is in His birth God and man united. The flesh formed by the Spirit is nourished, grows up to manhood, speaks, teaches, works, and is the Christ.”
The Flesh of Christ contains an explanation of the physical flesh of Yeshua because there were various heresies that denied the reality of His human flesh. Against Praxeas contains a response to those who deny the doctrine of unity. Apparently, Praxeas had said that the Father came down into the Virgin, as opposed to the Holy Spirit, and that the Father Himself was born of her, that He suffered and was Himself Yeshua Messiah. In Tertullian’s mind, Praxeas had driven away prophecy, brought in heresy, put the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) to flight, and crucified the Father. Tertullian attempted to correct this error by saying, “We, however, as we indeed always have done and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth, believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia (Economy), as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her – being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and , after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before the older heretics…” Further, Tertullian refers to this Economy or Unity as a trinity of three persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In addition, Tertullian believes that Spirit to proceed from the Father through the Son.
I’ve also noted that John taught that Yeshua’s conception was by the Holy Spirit. It would seem that it was in this manner the Son was sent and entered into the virgin.
Even today there is the idea, among many who do not agree with the Oneness of God, that the Logos or Word was begotten at some later point in time other than the beginning. Let’s see how Tertullian addresses that as he explains the Logos, which is also a Greek idea called Reason. “For before all things God was alone – being in Himself and for Himself universe, and space, and all things. Moreover, He was alone, because there was nothing external to Him be Himself. Yet even not then was He alone; for He had with Him that which He possessed in Himself, that is to say, His own Reason. For God is rational, and Reason was first in Him; and so all thing were from Himself. This Reason is His own Thought (or Consciousness) which the Greeks call logos, by which term we also designate Word or Discourse and therefore it is now usual with our people, owing to the mere simple interpretation of the term, to say that the Word was in the beginning with God; although it would be more suitable to regard Reason as the more ancient; because God had not Word from the beginning, but He had Reason even before the beginning; because also Word itself consists of Reason, which it thus proves to have been the prior existence as being its own substance. Not that this distinction is of any practical moment. For although God had not yet sent out His Word, He still had Him within Himself, both in company with and included within His very Reason, as He silently planned and arranged within Himself everything which He was afterwards about to utter through His Word. Now, whilst He was thus planning and arranging with His own Reason, He was actually causing that to become Word which He was dealing with in the way of Word or Discourse.”
Tertullian goes on to talk about how people have a conversation with themselves and how this process is carried on by your reason. He says, “Whatever you think, there is a word; whatever you conceive, there is a reason.” Further, he says, “Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second person within you, through which in thinking you utter speech, and through which also, (by reciprocity of process,) in uttering speech you generate thought.” This process, according to Tertullian, is going on within God – “that even then before the creation of the universe God was not alone, since He had within Himself both Reason, and inherent in Reason, His Word, which He made second to Himself by agitating it within Himself.” Even further, Tertullian says, “This power and disposition of the Diving Intelligence is set forth also in the Scriptures under the name of Sofia, Wisdom; for what can be better entitled to the name of Wisdom than the Reason or the Word of God?”
Tertullian goes on to quote from Proverbs 8:22-30 where Wisdom is personified as being possessed by YHVH, in the beginning before the earth ever was. For me, to equate the Word with Wisdom was surprising because at some point, I was taught that Wisdom was the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure where that idea came from other than “the word of wisdom” is a gift of the Spirit.
Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sira) 1:4-6 says, “Wisdom hath been created before all things, and the understanding of prudence from everlasting. The word of God most high is the fountain of wisdom; and her ways are everlasting commandments. To whom hath the root of wisdom been revealed? Or who hath known her wise counsel?” Here, we can see the idea that Wisdom comes from the fountain of the Word of God. Therefore, if wisdom flows from the Word, and Wisdom was in the beginning before creation, the Word has to be in the beginning too. No matter how we look at it, it does makes full sense to me that Reason, Word, and Wisdom would be related as in how Tertullian presents his case. In Tertullian’s view, the Son (Logos/Wisdom) is second to the Father, and the Spirit is third in the order of the Economy as he called it.
I can envision God as a unity reasoning within Himself, so that the Word of God is the fountain of Wisdom that is flowing in the creation process. But I can’t see how Wisdom, if believed to be the Spirit itself, can flow only from the Word since the Spirit descended from the Father onto Yeshua as a dove at His baptism. I can, however, see how the power of the Spirit flowed from Yeshua as He performed miracles.
Based on Tertullian’s understanding of the Son being an inseparable extension of the Father, we can understand the anthropomorphism of the arm of YHVH, who is Yeshua the Messiah. It is this arm of YHVH that the Father used to do many things in Scripture. These are mentioned in The Nature of God series in the presentation entitled The Nature of God, One But Different.
Even though Tertullian provides more information on the nature of God, it is highly disappointing to see his position regarding the Jews in An Answer to Jews. It seems that he is suggesting replacement theology by discussing Rebecca’s twins as representing the Jews and the Gentiles, where the Gentiles who were “lesser” would eventually overcome the Jews who were “greater” due to their idolatry. In addition, he says the Gentiles attained God’s grace of divine favor from which Israel had been divorced. He seems to be forgetting that there were plenty of believing Jews during the time in which the Gentiles were entering the assembly.
Tertullian recognizes that the law given to the Jews had been intended for all the nations. He says that the law had been in embryonic form in the Garden of Eden. This law that was unwritten was habitually understood and kept naturally. According to Tertullian, it was later reformed by the patriarchs, and again for the Jews, the prophets, and for the Gentiles. He suggests that the laws are reformed to the circumstances of the times with a view to man’s salvation. Further he suggests that Sabbaths and circumcision are not necessary because they were not necessary prior to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. He also refers to the law of Moses as a burden. He suggests that the old law had been obliterated and that Sabbath observance has been demonstrated to be temporary. This is based on Isaiah 1:13 where God says He hates their Sabbaths.
Tertullian, like other Ante-Nicene Fathers, failed to understand why God was saying that and failed to see how that problem should have been fixed, so that Sabbath, as well as feasts, which included sacrifices, would have been acceptable and pleasing to God. As it was, by Tertullian’s day, sacrifices could no longer be brought due to the destruction of the temple. That does not mean that idolatry could not cease, so that Sabbaths and other feasts could be pleasing to God.
Tertullian never makes the following connections that pertain to the future:
- Ezekiel 44:9 – “Thus says YHVH GOD: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart or uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter My sanctuary, including any foreigner who is among the children of Israel.”
- Ezekiel 44:24 – “They shall keep My laws and My statutes in all My appointed meetings, and they shall hallow My Sabbaths.”
- Ezekiel 45:17 – “Then it shall be the prince’s part to give burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings, at the feasts, the New Moons, the Sabbaths, and at all the appointed seasons of the house of Israel. He shall prepare the sin offering, the grain offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offerings to make atonement for the house of Israel.”
Physical circumcision is not the means by which people enter the covenant, but these verses state that it will be required if one wants to enter the temple after it is rebuilt. For now, circumcision of the heart is highly important for everyone who desires to walk according to the Spirit.
The Sabbaths and the other feasts are not to cease until God, not man, says they are. We must keep in mind Colossians 2:16-17 which says, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” Unfortunately, certain Bible translations insert their bias into this verse by saying these were things that were to come. We need to remember that all of the shadows of the feasts have not yet been fully revealed or fulfilled. For now, we wait in anticipation of the significant fulfillment of the fall feasts when Messiah returns. In addition, as the future unfolds – specifically after Messiah’s millennial reign – there will be a fulfillment of the judgment that has been prophesied in Revelation, which was written by John.
As for earthly sacrifices, they are not being offered now; however, we can and are expected to offer spiritual sacrifices that are holy and acceptable to God. Therefore, Tertullian is correct to cite Psalm 51:17, where a broken and spirit and contrite heart are not despised by God, and Psalm 50:14, where we are told to offer a sacrifice of praise or thanksgiving.
After suggesting the ceasing of circumcision, Sabbath, and offerings, Tertullian suggests that the old Law has ceased as well, and that a new law was in operation. There is simply no evidence that this could be true. It is evident that Peter was still eating clean meat in the first century when he saw the vision from heaven; he had only been eating meat from peace offerings and had never eaten anything considered to be common. Paul was still offering sacrifices and keeping vows while the temple was still standing. Jewish believers were only considered a sect of mainstream Judaism. Over the first several centuries of time, various sects of believers were still eating clean meat, circumcising their children, and keeping the holy days, although they were discouraged from doing so.
As I think about all of this, I want to know how much comingling existed between Jewish and Gentile believers in the early assembly, and how the teaching of the Ante-Nicene Fathers impacted these assemblies. I hope to explore this more in a separate post at some point in the future. I just don’t know when that will be or if my question can be fully answered.