Also Tertullian belongs to the First Period of the Church, 80 to 250 A.D. His full name was Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian, and he was the first great writer of Latin Christianity and one of the grandest and most original characters of the ancient Church. He was born at Carthage about 150 or 160, and died there between 220 and 240. Of his life very little is known, and that little is based upon passing references in his own writings, and upon Eusebius. His father held a position (centurio proconsularis, “aide-decamp”) in the Roman army in Africa, and Tertullian’s Punic (of or pertaining to ancient Carthage) blood palpably pulsates in his style, with its archaisms, or provincialisms, its glowing imagery, its passionate temper. He was a scholar, having received an excellent education. His conversion to Christianity took place about 197-198, but its immediate antecedents are unknown except as they are conjectured from his writings. The event must have been sudden and decisive, transforming at once his own personality; he himself said that he could not imagine a truly Christian life without such a conscious breach, a radical act of conversion: “Christians are made, not born.” In the church of Carthage he was ordained a presbyter, though he was married—a fact which is well established by his two books to his wife. In middle life (about 207) he broke with the Catholic Church (not to be confused with the present day Roman Catholic Church, but referring to the one, Catholic Church of that day) and became the leader and the passionate and brilliant exponent of Montanism. The Montanists, who sought to remain members of the Catholic Church, stressed the ecstatic way of living. The statement of Augustine that before his death Tertullian returned to the bosom of the Catholic Church; is considered very improbable. Jerome says that Tertullian lived to a great age. In spite of the fact that he joined the schismatic Montanists, Tertullian continued to fight heresy, especially Gnosticism; and by the doctrinal works thus produced he became the teacher of Cyprian, the predecessor of Augustine, and the chief founder of Latin theology. For this description of the, life of Tertullian we are indebted to the New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia.
In his writings on the subject of creation, Tertullian opposed the writings of Hermogenes. Hermoneges was a teacher of Gnostic tendency at the end, of the second century. He asserted the eternity of matter, and denied the creation of the world out of nothing. These writings of Tertullian are recorded in the Writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III. Writing on the truth of God’s work in creation, Tertullian writes as follows:
This rule is required by the nature of the One-only God, who is One-only in no other way than as the sole God; and in no other way sole, than as having nothing else (co-existent) with Him. So also He will be first, because all things are after Him; and all things are after Him, because all things are by Him; and all things are by Him, because they are of nothing: so that reason coincides with the Scripture, which says: ‘Who hath known the mind of the Lord? or with whom took He counsel? or who hath shown to Him the way of wisdom and knowledge? Who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed to him again?’ Surely none! Because there was present with Him no power, no material, no nature which belonged to any other than Himself. But if it was with some (portion of Matter) that He effected His creation, He must have received from that (Matter) itself both the design and the treatment of its order, as being “the way of wisdom and knowledge.” For He had’ to operate conformably with the quality of the thing, and according to the nature of Matter, not according to His own will; in consequence of which He must have made even evil things suitably to the nature not of Himself, but of Matter.
In this quotation Tertullian emphasizes that the Lord is the One-only God, and that He is the One-only God in no other sense than as the sole God. Hence, He must have made all things out of nothing, because the Lord is necessarily first, and there is nothing outside of Him; But, if He made this world out of Matter, than Matter must have existed prior to the creation of the universe, and this must mean that the Lord did not create all things after the counsel of His own will but that He received from that Matter both the design and the treatment of its order.
Appealing to the history of creation, and writing on the true meaning of the term, beginning, in the account inGenesis 1, Tertullian writes as follows:
But I shall appeal to the original documents of Moses, by help of which they on the other side vainly endeavor to prop up their conjectures, with the view, of course, of appearing to have the support of that authority which is indispensable in such an inquiry. They have found their opportunity, as is usual with heretics; in wresting the plain meaning of certain words. For instance the very beginning, when God made the heaven and the earth, they will-construe as if it meant something substantial and embodied, to be regarded as Matter. We, however, insist on the proper signification of every word, and say that principium means beginning,—being a term which is suitable to represent things which begin to exist. For nothing which has come into being is without a beginning, nor can this its commencement be at any other moment than when it begins to have existence. Thus principium or beginning, is simply a term of inception, not the name of a substance. Now, inasmuch as the heaven and the earth are the principal works of God, and since, by His making them first, He constituted them in an especial manner the beginning of His creation, before all things else, with good reason does the Scripture preface (its record of creation) with the words, “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth;” just as it would have said, “At last God made the heaven and the earth,” if God had created these after all the rest. Now, if the beginning is a substance, the end must also be material. No doubt, a substantial thing may be the beginning of some other thing which may be formed out of it; thus the clay is the beginning of the vessel, and the seed is the beginning of the plant. But when we employ the word beginning in this sense of origin, and not in that of order, we do not omit to mention also the name of that particular thing which we regard as the origin of the other.
In these words Tertullian emphasizes that the word “beginning” in Genesis does not denote origin, which would mean that the heavens and the earth were formed by God out of an existing material, but that the word means order, and he maintains that this creation by the Lord “in the beginning” must mean that this creation by the Lord was an absolute first. And then, in the same paragraph Tertullian mentions that the Greek term, beginning, also admits the sense not only of priority of order, but of power as well. The Greek employs this term also as referring to princes and magistrates. So, according to Tertullian, the word “beginning” may be taken in this sense also, as referring to princely authority and power. It was, indeed, writes Tertullian, in His transcendent authority and power that God made the heaven and the earth.
Tertullian also sees in the fact that all things will perish a proof that the Lord made all things out of nothing, and we again quote:
Besides, the belief that everything was made from nothing will be impressed upon us by that ultimate dispensation of God which will being back all things to nothing. For “the very heaven shall be rolled together as a scroll;” nay, it shall come to nothing along with the earth itself, with which it was made in the beginning. “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” says He. “The first heaven and the first earth passed away,” and “there was found no place for them,” because, of course, that which comes to an end loses locality . . . . . I return therefore to the principle which defines that all things which have come from nothing shall return at last to nothing. For God would not have made any perishable thing out of what was eternal, that is to say, out of Matter; neither out of greater things would He have created inferior ones, to whose character it would be more agreeable to produce greater things out of inferior ones,—in other words, what is eternal out of what is perishable. This is the promise He makes even to our flesh, and it has been His will to deposit within us this pledge of His own virtue and power, in order that we may believe that He has actually awakened the universe out of nothing, as if it had been steeped in death, in the sense, of course, of its previous nonexistence for the purpose of its coming into existence.
We can surely sense the irony which characterizes the following quotation of Tertullian. Hermogenes had written that God made the world, not by pervading Matter, but simply by appearing and approaching it. But let us quote the Church Father once mo
“But it remains that I should show also how you make God work. You are plainly enough at variance with the philosophers; but neither are you in accord with the prophets. The Stoics maintain that God pervaded Matter, just as honey the honeycomb. You, however, affirm that it is not by pervading Matter that God makes the world, but simply by appearing, and approaching it, much as beauty affects a thing by simply appearing, and a loadstone by approaching it. Now what similarity is there in God forming the world, and beauty wounding a soul, or a magnet attracting iron? For even if God appeared to Matter, He yet did not wound it, as beauty does the soul; if, again, He approached it, He yet did not cohere to it, as the magnet does to the iron. Suppose, however, that your examples are suitable ones. Then, of course, it was by appearing and approaching to Matter that God made the world, and He made it when He appeared and when He approached to it. Therefore, since He had not made it before then, He had neither appeared nor approached to it. Now, by whom can it be believed that God had not appeared to Matter—of the same nature as it even was owing to its eternity? Or that He had been at a distance from it—even He whom we believe to be existent everywhere, and everywhere apparent; whose praises all things chant, even inanimate things and things incorporeal, according to the prophet Daniel? How immense the place, where God kept Himself so far aloof from Matter as to have neither appeared nor approached to it before the creation of the world! I suppose He journeyed to it from a long distance, as soon as He wished to appear and approach to it.”
If Matter be eternal, as Hermogenes taught, then it is impossible for God to have appeared or approached unto it, for the simple reason that, whereas both God and Matter are eternal, the Lord could never have been separated from it.
And Tertullian concludes with the following:
“O the depth of the riches both of His wisdom and knowledge! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! Now what clearer truth do these words indicate, than that all things were made out of nothing? They are incapable of being found out or investigated, except by God alone. Otherwise, if they were traceable or discoverable in Matter, they would be capable of investigation. Therefore, in as far as it has become evident that Matter had no prior existence, in so far is it proved that all things were made by God out of nothing. It must be admitted, however, that Hermogenes, by describing for Matter a condition like his own—irregular, confused, turbulent, of a doubtful and precipitate and fervid impulse—has displayed a specimen of his own art, and painted his own portrait.”