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Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, usually known as Tertullian, was an early Christian writer living c. 155-c. 240 CE. Known for his theological writings, which combined Christianity with something close to materialism and advocated an ascetic lifestyle, he was a founding figure in Christian thought, even though many of his ideas went totally against the mainstream. He was a great hater of heretics, until he became one himself after joining the Montanists. For this reason he has never been entirely welcomed into the pantheon of theological greats, not being a Doctor of the Church or even a saint.
There is little biographical evidence about him, although he said a few things in his own writings from which conclusions may be drawn. Catholic tradition holds he was born in Carthage, the son of a centurion, and himself probably a lawyer (based on legal references he makes). He was raised a pagan and converted shortly before 197 CE, becoming a priest in Carthage in around 200 CE.
He is known for attacks on heresy in works such as Apologeticus and Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, but he was exceptionally disputatious and schismatic as a priest: The Catholic Encyclopedia accuses him of "writing more virulently against the Church than even against heathen and persecutors". He became a Montanist: a follower of Montanus, a heretical second-century prophet from Asia Minor, and seems to have been excommunicated around 211 or 212 CE. He quit the Montanists eventually and formed his own church, which was after his death reconciled with Rome by St Augustine. His last known writing dates from some time after 218 but St Jerome says he lived into old age.
Tertullian is commonly considered close to a materialist (possibly under the influence of Stoicism): he held that the soul comes into being with the body rather than the Platonist idea of a pre-existing soul, and suggested that God was more or less corporeal. He believed in literal bodily resurrection, rather than any airy notion about going to live in the spirit realm when you die.
He opposed worldly pleasures and advocated asceticism, saying Christians should avoid the theatre and Roman games. He valued celibacy, saying that if the pagans could be Vestal Virgins then so could Christians, and he opposed remarriage even after death of one's spouse (contrary to Church teaching). He also spent a long time classifying sins into different types, comparing some sinners to dead sheep and others to lost sheep who may yet be recovered. His attitude toward goats is unknown.
He is accused of misogyny for telling women things like: "The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die."
Perhaps his best known quote is "Certum est quia impossibile est" ("this is certain because it is impossible").
- Chapman, J. (1912). Tertullian. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 17, 2016 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14520c.htm
- An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy, Arthur Hilary Armstrong, Rowman & Littlefield, 1957
- De Cultu Feminarum, I.I.2, trans C W Marx, quoted on Wikipedia