Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Pella, Iowa.
In our first article we began to treat the subject of the church father Tertullian (circa A.D. 160-220) and the heresy over against which he was called to defend the orthodox faith, namely, Gnosticism (you may want to go back to that article and refresh your memory). Tertullian certainly was not the only church father to battle this heresy. Irenaeus and Hippolytus were also on the forefront against the Gnostics. But we single out Tertullian because of the positive developments he made in his work against this pernicious error. He is in fact referred to as the “founder of Latin theology” (i.e., the doctrine of the Western church, which is our tradition), and even the “forerunner of Augustine” (Fisher History of Christian Doctrine, p. 90).
Who was Tertullian? We know very little about the personal life of this church father. He was born around A.D. 160, the son of an unbelieving centurion, in Carthage, North Africa where he also did the majority of his work. In early life he was educated in the pagan culture of Carthage, becoming well acquainted with the humanistic philosophies of his time. He was trained in law and rhetoric and entered the career of a lawyer. He was converted in mid-life, married a Christian wife, and became active in the church at Carthage. It is unclear whether he labored as a presbyterian (elder) in the church or simply as a prominent teacher and catechist. Sadly, Tertullian left the church later in life and joined the sect of the Montanists, known for their strict ascetic life-style. This may have been a reaction against the immorality that had once characterized his life as an unbeliever.
It must have been only shortly after his conversion that the Spirit of truth guided Tertullian to take up his pen against the Gnostic heresy, for his writings roughly cover the period from 196-212. He directed several of his writings against the Gnostics: a general work entitled “The Prescription Against the Heretics”; and, more specifically, three works against the noted Gnostics of his day: Marcion, Hermogenes, and Valentinus. From his writings he is known as an uncompromising, vigorous, and fervent supporter of true Christianity.
How did Tertullian meet the attack of Gnosticism? First of all, he rejected the Gnostic attempt to mingle the Christian faith and pagan philosophies and heathen mysticism. The Christian faith according to him is not the “best” religion because it is a combination of teachings from man-made religions. Instead he posited that the Christian faith is the only true doctrine and religion precisely because it is revealed truth. It is not based upon human wisdom but upon the wisdom of God Himself, who has given us the truth concerning Himself and all things in His holy and infallible Word. It is from this Scripture that the church has arrived at the true doctrine, following the “rule of faith,” i.e., the right interpretation of the Scriptures according to the tradition of the apostles and their successors.
Writing in his “Prescription Against Heretics,” Tertullian expressed himself strongly on this matter. Said he, “These (i.e., heresies, CJT) are ‘the doctrines’ of men and ‘of demons’, produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom . . . . For philosophy it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are instigated by philosophy” (which he then goes on to prove in detail), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, p. 246.
And so he concludes: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon’ . . . . Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides” (p. 246).
We can see from this how the Spirit used Tertullian’s previous education in these very philosophies to prepare him to do battle against them. We should also learn that this argument of Tertullian is a critical point, and one which we must bear in mind in dealing with modern-day heresies and cults. Almost without exception they are the result of an attempted compromise between and commingling of Christianity and humanistic philosophy. Over against this we hold that the faith of the church is exclusively derived from and based upon the holy Scriptures. Such was the general way in which Tertullian answered his foes.
From this fundamental starting point Tertullian rose up to the defense of the biblical doctrine concerning God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Against the Gnostic teaching which denied that the supreme God can be known and that He created the world, Tertullian set forth that God, while He is indeed supreme and transcendent, is the God who has made Himself known by His Word and works. He is the one God revealed both in the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures, and He is the sovereign Maker of the universe and all it contains.
In a section of “The Prescription Against Heretics” in which he gives a brief summary of the faith of the church, Tertullian states this, concerning God: “How with regard to this rule of faith . . . it is . . . that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word . . .” (Fathers, p. 249).
Tertullian in fact found it incredible that these heretics denied the doctrine of creation. In another section of his “Prescription” he writes that this was a doctrine which had always been accepted and never before attacked as it was by the Gnostics. After referring to all kinds of other heretical teachings, he says, “And yet we find amongst so many various perversions of truth, not one school which raised any controversy concerning God as the Creator of all things. No man was bold enough to surmise a second god” (p. 259). That ought to sound a warning to those within the church who currently deny the orthodox doctrine of creation. Such a denial has its origin in these second century heresies.
It was in dealing with the doctrine of God that Tertullian defended and developed the truth of the Trinity. Attacking the Gnostic idea of a series of divine beings (“aeons”) emanating from the supreme God to the world, one of whom was Christ, he set forth the truth of the unity of God, namely, that God is only one divine Being or Essence. Hence, there are no other divine beings beside Him. Yet at the same time he taught that there are three distinct Persons in the Godhead, each of Whom shares equally in the fullness of the one divine Being, these being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Christ therefore is not an “aeon,” a subordinate being to God, but the divine Son of God, of the same substance of the Father and equal to Him as a distinct Person.
Thus Tertullian could write in another of his works, “We . . . believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, . . . that this one only God has a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made . . . . Who sent also from heaven from the Father . . . the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and ‘in the Holy Ghost” (“Against Praxeas”, Fathers, p. 598).
It is to this church father that the Western church owes the beginnings of her concepts and terminology concerning the truth of the Trinity. Tertullian was in fact the first to use the term “Trinity.” And it was his concepts of “substance” and “person” that were later incorporated into the Nicene Creed in A.D. 325.
Furthermore, in his fight against the Gnostics Tertullian also defended the true doctrine of salvation in Jesus Christ. He rejected first of all their explanation of the origin of evil and instead maintained the biblical account of the Fall on the part of Adam and Eve in paradise. Sin came on account of Adam’s disobedience, which also brought death upon the whole human race. Salvation, then, according to Tertullian, is not that Gnostic idea of the release of the soul from the evil body and ascension into the world of pure spirit, but it is deliverance of both soul and body from the misery of sin and death.
Secondly, Tertullian taught that it was for this purpose that Jesus Christ came into the world and became man. Because the Gnostics denied that Christ assumed a real human flesh, Tertullian went out of his way to stress the reality of Christ’s Incarnation and His full humanity. The Son of God truly became man and took on the complete human nature while retaining the fullness of the divine nature. He directed a special work to this subject, entitled “On The Flesh of Christ.” We do not have room to quote from it, but it is an excellent treatise on “the Word become flesh.”
Finally, in connection with the doctrine of salvation, Tertullian set forth the truth that it was in this human nature that Christ accomplished deliverance for His people by His suffering, death, and resurrection. Christ’s death is the sacrifice for and payment of sins. By His perfect obedience as the second Adam He atones for the first Adam’s disobedience.
Even though the doctrine of the atonement of Christ was not very well developed yet, Tertullian contributed to its development by applying legal terminology to the work of salvation. His ideas of God as Lawgiver and Judge, and of sin as guilt which demands satisfaction through punishment, were later applied to Christ’s redemptive work. We can see from this too how the Spirit of truth used Tertullian’s background for the progress of the faith, in this instance his previous labors as a lawyer.
This brings us to the end of our first subject on Tertullian and the Gnostics. From our perspective now I believe that we can more fully appreciate the work of the Spirit of truth in leading the church into the truth through men such as Tertullian. Moreover we can learn that this heresy of Gnosticism is a heresy which is still applicable for us today. And therefore the way in which Tertullian defended the Christian faith is an example for us too in our dealings with such errors. May the Lord remind us of our calling to be “valiant for the faith” in this age of apostasy and doctrinal indifference.