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Post Apostolic Period

Early Christianity
1012 Lecture 9
Original Date
July 7, 2010

The Ante-Nicene Period (“before Nicaea”), or Post-Apostolic Period, of the history of early Christianity spanned the late first century to the early fourth century, with the end marked by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Christianity during this time was extremely diverse, with many developments difficult to trace and follow. There is also a relative paucity of available material and this period is less studied than the preceding Apostolic Age and historical ages following it. Nevertheless, this portion of Christianity history is important, having a significant impact on the development of Christianity.

Christianity throughout the second and third centuries have generally been less studied than the periods that came before and after it. This is reflected in that it is usually referred to in terms of the adjacent periods with names as such “post-apostolic” (after the period of 1st century formative Christianity) and “ante-Nicene” (before the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE). However, the second and third periods are quite important in the development of Christianity.

There is a relative lack of material for this period, compared with the later Church Father period. For example, a widely used collection (Ante-Nicene Fathers) includes most second and third century writings in nine volumes. This includes the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Apologists, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria and the New Testament Apocrypha, among others. In contrast, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (consisting mainly of Augustine, Jerome and Chrysostom) fills twenty-eight volumes.

The developments of this time are “multidirectional and not easily mapped”. While the preceding and following periods were diverse, they possessed unifying characteristics lacking in this period. First century Christianity possessed a basic cohesion based on the Pauline church movement, Jewish character and self-identification as a messianic movement. The second and third centuries saw a sharp divorce from its early roots. There was an explicit rejection of then-modern Judaism and Jewish culture by the end of the second century, with a growing body of adversus Judaeos literature. Fourth and fifth century Christianity experienced imperial pressure and developed strong episcopal and unifying structure. The ante-Nicene period was without such authority and immensely diverse. Many variations in this time defy neat categorizations, with as various forms of Christianity interacted in a complex fashion to form the dynamic character of Christianity in this era.

The early work The Shepherd of Hermas was a Roman work composed in the early second century. It speaks of a collective of “rulers” and “elders”, but does not treat bishops as a distinct office. The early writings of Clement of Rome were not composed from a position of authority as the Bishop of Rome, but as an elder of the church serving as a literate member responsible for writing other communities. Eamon Duffy states that all of the evidence regarding the church in Rome during its first century reinforces this depiction of church authority. While the Christians of the city viewed themselves as a single church, the social reality was a loose confederation of house churches and (later) rented halls and baths. According to Duffy, there was not a single leader, but a group leadership that distributed tasks, such as a secretary responsible for correspondence.

Irenaeus of Lyons believed in the second century that Peter and Paul had been the founders of the Church in Rome and had appointed Linus as succeeding bishop.

The four Eastern patriarchs affirmed Saint Peter’s ministry and death in Rome and the apostolic succession of Roman bishops. However, they perceived this as a mark of honor rather than an overarching authority over belief and practices, as they still considered themselves to be the final authorities in their own regions, see for example Metropolitan bishops and Pentarchy. Other patriarchs did turn to Rome for support in settling disputes, but they also wrote to other influential patriarchs for support in the same fashion. Outside of a few notable exceptions, the body of literature left from this period, and even as late as the fifth and sixth centuries, is said by Bernhard Schimmelpfennig to illustrate the generally limited scope of the Roman bishops’ authority.

William Kling states that by the end of second century that Rome was a significant, if not unique, early center of Christianity, but held no convincing claim to primacy. The Petrine proof text first occurs historically in a dispute between Cyprian of Carthage and Pope Stephen. A bishop from Caesarea named Firmilian sided with Cyprian in his dispute, seething against Stephen’s “insulting arrogance” and claims of authority based on the See of Peter. Cyprian’s argument won out the day, with Pope Stephen’s claims meeting rejection.

Cyprian’s claim was that bishops held the keys to the forgiveness of sins, with all bishops being the successors of Saint Peter. Jerome later took up the argument for the primacy of the Roman bishop in the fifth century, a position adopted by Pope Leo I.

By the end of the first century, Christianity had already spread to Rome and to various cities in Greece, Asia Minor and Syria. Major cities such as Rome, Ephesus, Antioch and Corinth served as foundations for the expansive spread of Christianity in the post-apostolic period. Christianity spread quickly throughout Asia Minor.

In Syria, it reached Edessa during this era, spurring the development of various local Christian legends. Further to the east on the bank of the Euphrates, the earliest known house-church was found, dating to 232 CE. The third-century Acts of Thomas relates the early spread of Christianity to India, though the accuracy of this tradition is disputed.

Christianity spread very quickly throughout Italy, establishing nearly one hundred episcopal sees by the middle of the third century. Christianity spread more slowly throughout Gaul and Spain, but was established in the main urban centers by the end of the second century. By the end of the third century, Christianity had reached Britain and spread significantly throughout Gaul, Spain, Germany and Iberian peninsula.

In North Africa, Carthage and Alexandria were notable centers of Christianity. The writings of Tertullian and Cyprian indicate the vitality of the churches in the area of Carthage, Numidia and Tunisia during the ante-Nicene era. Clement and Origen bear witness to the influential Alexandrian Christian community. Apocryphal works indicate a strong ascetic component to some forms of Alexandrian Christianity. The Nag Hammadi library indicates the strong presence of Gnostic forms of Christianity in Egypt, but the dating of the earliest Gnostics in the area is heavily disputed.


Ante-Nicene Fathers


Clement of Rome (Pope Clement I – Clemens Romanus)  – Few details are known about Clement’s life. According to Tertullian, Clement was consecrated by Saint Peter, and he is known to have been a leading member of the church in Rome in the latter part of the 1st century. Early church lists place him as the second or third bishop of Rome after Saint Peter. The Liber Pontificalis presents a list that makes Linus the second in the line of bishops of Rome, with Peter as first; but at the same time it states that Peter ordained two bishops, Linus and Cletus, for the priestly service of the community, devoting himself instead to prayer and preaching, and that it was to Clement that he entrusted the Church as a whole, appointing him as his successor. Tertullian too makes Clement the immediate successor of Peter. And while, in one of his works, Jerome gives Clement as “the fourth bishop of Rome after Peter” (i.e., fourth in a series that included Peter), he adds that “most of the Latins think that Clement was second after the apostle“. Clement is put after Linus and Cletus/Anacletus in the earliest (c. 180) account, that of Irenaeus, who is followed by Eusebius. The meaning of these early reports is unclear, given the lack of evidence for monarchical episcopacy in Rome at so early a date.


Clement’s only genuine extant writing is his letter to the Corinthian church, 1 Clement (c. 96), which was a response to strife in the Corinth church, where certain presbyters had been deposed. He asserted the authority of the presbyters (elders) as rulers of the church, on the grounds that the Apostles had appointed such. It was read in church, along with other epistles, some of which would later become Christian canon; and is one of the oldest Christian documents still in existence outside the New Testament.This important work was the first to affirm the apostolic authority of the clergy.

A second epistle, 2 Clement, was attributed to Clement although recent scholarship suggests it to be a homily by another author. In the legendary Clementine Literature, Clement is the intermediary through whom the Apostles teach the church. According to a tradition not earlier than the 4th century, Clement was imprisoned under the Emperor Trajan but nonetheless led a ministry among fellow prisoners. He was then executed by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea.

Clement is recognized as a saint in many Christian churches. He is commemorated on November 23 in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and the Lutheran Church. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity his feast is kept on November 24 or November 25.

Clementine literature (also called Clementina, Pseudo-Clementine Writings, Kerygmata Petrou, Clementine Romance etc.) is the name given to the religious romance which purports to contain a record made by one Clement (whom the narrative identifies as both Pope Clement I, and Domitian’s cousin Titus Flavius Clemens) of discourses involving the apostle Peter, together with an account of the circumstances under which Clement came to be Peter’s travelling companion, and of other details of Clement’s family history.

Ignatius of Antioch, also known as Theophorus (ca. 35 or 50-between 98 and 117) was among the Apostolic Fathers, was the third Bishop and Patriarch of Antioch, and was a student of John the Apostle. En route to his martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which have been preserved as an example of very early Christian theology. Important topics addressed in these letters include ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the role of bishops.


The letters of Ignatius have proved to be important testimony to the development of catholic theology, since the number of extant writings from this period of Church history is very small. They bear signs of being written in great haste and without a proper plan, such as run-on sentences and an unsystematic succession of thought. Ignatius is the earliest known catholic writer to emphasize loyalty to a single bishop in each city (or diocese) who is assisted by both presbyters possibly elders and deacons. Earlier writings only mention either bishops or presbyters, and give the impression that there was usually more than one bishop per congregation.

For instance, while the offices of bishop, presbyter and deacon appear apostolic in origin, the titles of “bishop” and “presbyter” could be used interchangeably.

By the 5th century, this authentic collection had been enlarged by spurious letters, and some of the original letters had been changed with interpolations, created to posthumously enlist Ignatius as an unwitting witness in theological disputes of that age, while the purported eye-witness account of his martyrdom is also thought to be a forgery from around the same time.

He was sentenced to die in the Colosseum, to be eaten by lions. In his Chronicle, Eusebius gives the date of his death as AA 2124 (2124 years after Adam), which would amount to the 11th year of Trajan, i.e. 108. His body lies entombed under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Ignatius’ feast day is observed on 20 December in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Western and Syriac Christianity his feast is celebrated on 17 October. He is celebrated on 1 February by those following the General Roman Calendar of 1962.

 Justin Martyr (Justin the Martyr, Justin of Caesarea,  in Latin Iustinus Martyr or Flavius Iustinus) (103–165) was an early Christian apologist and saint. Most of what is known about the life of Justin Martyr comes from his own writings. He was born at Flavia Neapolis (ancient Shechem in Judaea/Palaestina, now modern-day Nablus). According to the traditional accounts of the church, Justin suffered martyrdom at Rome under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius when Junius Rusticus was prefect of the city (between 162 and 168). It is alleged that his relics are housed in the church of St. John the Baptist in Sacrofano, a few kilometers north of Rome.


Justin called himself a Samaritan, but his father and grandfather were probably Greek or Roman, and he was brought up as a pagan. It seems that St Justin had property, studied philosophy, converted to Christianity, and devoted the rest of his life to teaching what he considered the true philosophy, still wearing his philosopher’s gown to indicate that he had attained the truth. He probably traveled widely and ultimately settled in Rome as a Christian teacher.

Justin’s use of the idea of the logos has always attracted attention. It is probably too much to assume a direct connection with Philo of Alexandria in this particular. The idea of the Logos was widely familiar to educated men, and the designation of the Son of God as the Logos was not new to Christian theology. The significance is clear, however, of the manner in which Justin identifies the historical Christ with the rational force operative in the universe, which leads up to the claim of all truth and virtue for the Christians and to the demonstration of the adoration of Christ, which aroused so much opposition, as the only reasonable attitude. It is mainly for this justification of the worship of Christ that Justin employs the Logos-idea, though where he explicitly deals with the divinity of the Redeemer and his relation to the Father, he makes use of the Old Testament, not of the Logos-idea, which thus can not be said to form an essential part of his Christology.

His works represent the earliest surviving Christian “apologies” of notable size. Justin was confident that his teaching is that of the Church at large. He knows of a division among the orthodox only on the question of the millennium and on the attitude toward the milder Jewish Christianity, which he personally is willing to tolerate as long as its professors in their turn do not interfere with the liberty of the Gentile converts; his millenarianism seems to have no connection with Judaism, but he believes firmly in a millennium, and generally in the primitive Christian eschatology.  
Justin’s self-perception of himself was that of a scholar, although his skills in Hebrew were either non-existent or minimal. His opposition to Judaism was typical of church leaders in his day, but does not descend to the level of anti-semitism. After collaborating with a Jewish convert to assist him with the Hebrew, Justin published an attack on Judaism based upon a no-longer-extant text of a Midrash.

Polycarp (ca. 69 – ca. 155) – The chief sources of information concerning the life of Polycarp are two: the letter of the Smyrnaeans recounting the martyrdom of Polycarp and the passages in Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses. Other sources are the epistles of Ignatius, which include one to Polycarp and another to the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp’s own letter to the Philippians. Other sources, such as the Life of Polycarp or excerpts from Tertullian and Eusebius of Caesarea are considered largely unhistorical or based on previous material. In 1999, some 3rd to 6th century Coptic fragments about Polycarp were also published.


Irenaeus claims to have been a pupil of Polycarp and regarded the memory of Polycarp as a link to the apostolic past. Irenaeus relates how and when he became a Christian, and in his letter to Florinus stated that he saw and heard Polycarp personally in lower Asia. In particular, he heard the account of Polycarp’s discussion with “John the Presbyter” and with others who had seen Jesus. Irenaeus also reports that Polycarp was converted to Christianity by apostles, was consecrated a bishop, and communicated with many who had seen Jesus. He repeatedly emphasizes the very great age of Polycarp.

The sole surviving work attributed to him is Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, a mosaic of references to the Greek Scriptures, preserved/produced in Irenaeus’ account of Polycarp’s life. It, and an account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp that takes the form of a circular letter from the church of Smyrna to the churches of Pontus, form part of the collection of writings Roman Catholics term “The Apostolic Fathers” to emphasize their particular closeness to the apostles in Church traditions. Outside of the Book of Acts which contains the death of Saint Stephen, the Martyrdom is considered one of the earliest genuine accounts of a Christian martyrdom, and is one of the very few genuine accounts from the actual age of the persecutions.  According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, he died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake then stabbed when the fire failed to touch him.

Irenaeus was born during the first half of the 2nd century (the exact date is disputed: between the years 115 and 125 according to some, or 130 and 142 according to others), Irenaeus is thought to have been a Greek from Polycarp’s hometown of Smyrna in Asia Minor, now ?zmir, Turkey. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was raised in a Christian family rather than converting as an adult.


During the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161-180, Irenaeus was a priest of the Church of Lyon. The clergy of that city, many of whom were suffering imprisonment for the faith, sent him (in 177 or 178) to Rome with a letter to Pope Eleuterus concerning the heresy Montanism, and that occasion bore emphatic testimony to his merits. Returning to Gaul, Irenaeus succeeded the martyr Saint Pothinus and became the second Bishop of Lyon. 

During the religious peace which followed the persecution of Marcus Aurelius, the new bishop divided his activities between the duties of a pastor and of a missionary (as to which we have but brief data, late and not very certain). Almost all his writings were directed against Gnosticism.

Irenaeus wrote a number of books, but the most important that survives is the five-volume On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, normally referred to by its Latin title “Adversus Haereses” (“Against Heresies”) which is an important source regarding the Gospel according to the Hebrews. In Book I, Irenaeus talks about the Valentinian Gnostics and their predecessors, who go as far back as the magician Simon Magus. In Book II he attempts to provide proof that Valentinianism contains no merit in terms of its doctrines. In Book III Irenaeus purports to show that these doctrines are false, by providing counter-evidence gleaned from the Gospels. Book IV consists of Jesus’ sayings, and here Irenaeus also stresses the unity of the Old Testament and the Gospel. In the final volume, Book V, Irenaeus focuses on more sayings of Jesus plus the letters of Paul the Apostle.

The purpose of “Against Heresies” was to refute the teachings of various Gnostic groups; apparently, several Greek merchants had begun an oratorial campaign in Irenaeus’ bishopric, teaching that the material world was the accidental creation of an evil god, from which we are to escape by the pursuit of “gnosis”. Irenaeus argued that the true gnosis is in fact knowledge of Christ, which redeems rather than escapes from bodily existence. Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Against Heresies was the best-surviving description of Gnosticism. According to some biblical scholars, the findings at Nag Hammadi have shown Irenaeus’ description of Gnosticism to be largely inaccurate and polemic in nature.

Ireneus exercised wide influence on the immediately following generation. Both Hippolytus and Tertullian freely drew on his writings. But his literal hope of an earthly millennium made him uncogenial reading in the Greek East and it is only in the Latin translation that his work as a whole has been preserved.

Nothing is known of the date of his death, which must have occurred at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. In spite of some isolated and later testimony to that effect, it is not very probable that he ended his career with martyrdom. His feast is celebrated on June 28 in the Roman Catholic Church, and on August 23 in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Papias – Eusebius of Caesarea calls him “Bishop of Hierapolis” (modern Pamukkale, Turkey) which is 22 km from Laodicea and near Colossae, in the Lycus river valley in Phrygia, Asia Minor, not to be confused with the Hierapolis of Syria.


Concerning the date of his writing, there is Irenaeus’ statement, later in the 2nd century, that Papias was “a hearer of John, and companion of Polycarp, a man of old time.” (Adversus Haereses V 33.4) If Polycarp was in fact born not later than AD 69, then there may be no reason to depend on a further, but disputed tradition, that Papias shared in the martyrdom of Polycarp (ca AD 155). In sum, the fact that Irenaeus thought of Papias as Polycarp’s contemporary and “a man of the old time,” together with the affinity between the religious tendencies described in the fragment from Papias’s Preface quoted by Eusebius and those reflected in the Epistles of Ignatius and of Polycarp, all point to his having flourished in the first quarter of the 2nd century.

Indeed, Eusebius, who deals with him along with Clement and Ignatius (rather than Polycarp) under the reign of Trajan, and before referring at all to Hadrian’s reign, suggests that he wrote “as early as 110 and probably no later than the early 130s, with several scholars opting for the earlier end of the spectrum”. No known fact is inconsistent with c. 60-135 as the period of Papias’s life. Eusebius (3.36) calls him “bishop” of Hierapolis, but whether with good ground is uncertain. In this putative capacity as bishop, Papias was supposedly succeeded by Abercius of Hieropolis.

Concerning the date of his writing, there is Irenaeus’ statement, later in the 2nd century, that Papias was “a hearer of John, and companion of Polycarp, a man of old time.” (Adversus Haereses V 33.4) If Polycarp was in fact born not later than AD 69, then there may be no reason to depend on a further, but disputed tradition, that Papias shared in the martyrdom of Polycarp (ca AD 155). In sum, the fact that Irenaeus thought of Papias as Polycarp’s contemporary and “a man of the old time,” together with the affinity between the religious tendencies described in the fragment from Papias’s Preface quoted by Eusebius and those reflected in the Epistles of Ignatius and of Polycarp, all point to his having flourished in the first quarter of the 2nd century.

Indeed, Eusebius, who deals with him along with Clement and Ignatius (rather than Polycarp) under the reign of Trajan, and before referring at all to Hadrian’s reign, suggests that he wrote “as early as 110 and probably no later than the early 130s, with several scholars opting for the earlier end of the spectrum”[10]. No known fact is inconsistent with c. 60-135 as the period of Papias’s life. Eusebius (3.36) calls him “bishop” of Hierapolis, but whether with good ground is uncertain. In this putative capacity as bishop, Papias was supposedly succeeded by Abercius of Hieropolis.

Theophilus, Patriarch of Antioch – 7th Bishop of Antioch (ca. 169–ca. 181-8). He was born a pagan, not far from the Tigris and Euphrates, and was led to embrace Christianity by studying the Holy Scriptures, especially the prophetical books. No reference to his office in his existing writings, nor is any other fact in his life recorded. Eusebius, however, speaks of the zeal which he and the other chief shepherds displayed in driving away the heretics who were attacking Christ’s flock, with special mention of his work against Marcion.


The one undoubted extant work of Theophilus, is his Apology to Autolycus (Apologia ad Autolycum), a series of books defending Christianity written to a pagan friend. The theology of Theophilus was routed in Jewish ideas and the Hebrew scriptures. Theophilus’s quotation from the Old Testament scripture is copious, drawing largely from the Pentateuch and to a smaller extent from the other historical books. His references to Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are also numerous, and he quotes from Ezekiel, Hosea and other minor prophets. His direct evidence respecting the canon of the New Testament does not go much beyond a few precepts from the Sermon on the Mount, a possible quotation from Luke 18:27, and quotations from Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy. 

More important is a distinct citation from the opening of the Gospel of St. John (1:1-3), mentioning the evangelist by name, as one of the inspired men by whom the Holy Scriptures were written. The use of a metaphor found in 2 Peter 1:19 bears on the date of that epistle. According to Eusebius, Theophilus quoted the Book of Revelation in his work against Hermogenes; a very precarious allusion has been seen in ii. 28, cf. Revelation 12:3, 7, etc.

Although Theophilus cites the opening of the Gospel of St. John (1:1), he does not speak of the incarnation of the Word in the person Jesus of Nazareth. Theophilus makes no mention of the name of Jesus or use the word Christ or the phrase Son of God. There is no explicit reference to a historical person Jesus or to the concept of the atoning sacrificial death of the Son of God. His death probably occurred between 181 – 188.

Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c. 215) or Titus Flavius Clemens, was a Christian theologian and the head of the noted Catechetical School of Alexandria. Clement is best remembered as the teacher of Origen. He united Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine and valued gnosis that with communion for all people could be held by common Christians specially chosen by God. Though he constantly opposes the concept of gnosis as defined by the Gnostics, he used the term “gnostic” for Christians who had attained the deeper teaching of the Logos. He developed a Christian Platonism. He presented the goal of Christian life as deification, identified both as Platonism’s assimilation into God and the biblical imitation of God.


Like Origen, he arose from Alexandria’s Catechetical School and was well versed in pagan literature. Origen succeeded Clement as head of the school. Alexandria had a major Christian community in early Christianity, noted for its scholarship and its high-quality copies of Scripture.

Clement’s birthplace is not known with certainty. Athens is named as his birthplace by the sixth-century Epiphanius Scholasticus, and this is supported by the classical quality of his Greek. His parents seem to have been wealthy pagans of some social standing. The thoroughness of his education is shown by his constant quotation of the Greek poets and philosophers. He travelled in Greece, Italy, Palestine, and finally Egypt. He became the colleague of Pantaenus, the head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, and finally succeeded him in the direction of the school.

One of his most popular pupils was Origen. During the persecution of Christians by Septimius Severus (202 or 203) he sought refuge with Alexander, then bishop (possibly of Flaviada) in Cappadocia, afterward of Jerusalem, from whom he brought a letter to Antioch in 211.

From philosophy Clement of Alexandria takes his conception of the Logos, the principle of Christian gnosis, through whom alone God’s relation to the world and his revelation is maintained. God he considers transcendentally as unqualified Being, who can not be defined in too abstract a way. Though his goodness operated in the creation of the world, yet immutability, self sufficiency, incapability of suffering are the characteristic notes of the divine essence. Though the Logos is most closely one with the Father, whose powers he resumes in himself, yet to Clement both the Son and the Spirit are “first-born powers and first created”; they form the highest stages in the scale of intelligent being, and Clement distinguishes the Son-Logos from the Logos who is immutably immanent in God, and thus gives a foundation to the charge of Photius that he “degraded the Son to the rank of a creature.” Separate from the world as the principle of creation, he is yet in it as its guiding principle. Thus a natural life is a life according to the will of the Logos.

The Incarnation, in spite of Clement’s rejection of the Gnostic Docetism, has with him a decidedly Docetic character. The body of Christ was not subject to human needs. He is the good Physician; the medicine which he offers is the communication of saving gnosis, leading men from paganism to faith and from faith to the higher state of knowledge. This true philosophy includes within itself the freedom from sin and the attainment of virtue. As all sin has its root in ignorance, so the knowledge of God and of goodness is followed by well-doing. Against the Gnostics Clement emphasizes the freedom of all to do good.

Down to the seventeenth century Clement was venerated as a saint. His name was to be found in the martyrologies, and his feast fell on the December 4. But when the Roman Martyrology was revised by Clement VIII (Pope from 1592 to 1605), his name was dropped from the calendar on the advice of his confessor, Cardinal Baronius. Pope Benedict XIV in 1748 maintained his predecessor’s decision on the grounds that Clement’s life was little-known; that he had never obtained public cultus in the Church; and that some of his doctrines were, if not erroneous, at least suspect.




Tertullian (ca. 160 – ca. 220), or Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He is the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy. Tertullian has been called “the father of Latin Christianity”.


Though conservative, he did originate and advance new theology to the early Church. He is perhaps most famous for being the oldest extant Latin writer to use the term Trinity (Latin trinitas), and giving the oldest extant formal exposition of a Trinitarian theology. Other Latin formulations that first appear in his work are “three Persons, one Substance” as the Latin “tres Personae, una Substantia” (itself from the Koine Greek “treis Hypostases, Homoousios”). Some of Tertullian’s ideas were not acceptable to the orthodox Church; in later life he became a Montanist . Scantly reliable evidence exists to inform us about Tertullian’s life. Most history about him comes from passing references in his own writings. 

According to church tradition, he was raised in Carthage and was thought to be the son of a Roman centurion, a trained lawyer, and an ordained priest. These assertions rely on the accounts of Eusebius of Caesarea, [Church History, II, ii. 4], and Jerome’s [De viris illustribus (On famous men) chapter 53]. Jerome claimed that Tertullian’s father held the position of ‘centurio proconsularis’ (“aide-de-camp”) in the Roman army in Africa. However, it is unclear whether any such position in the Roman military ever existed.

Further, Tertullian has been thought to be a lawyer based on his use of legal analogies and an identification of him with the jurist Tertullianus, who is quoted in the Pandects. Although Tertullian utilized a knowledge of Roman law in his writings, his legal knowledge does not demonstrably exceed that of what could be expected from a sufficient Roman education. The writings of Tertullianus, a lawyer of the same cognomen, exist only in fragments and do not denote a Christian authorship. (Tertullianus was mis-identified only much later with the Christian Tertullian by church historians.) Finally, any notion of Tertullian being a priest is also questionable. In his extant writings, he never describes himself as ordained in the church and seems to place himself among the laity.

Roman Africa was famous as the home of orators. This influence can be seen in his style with its archaisms or provincialisms, its glowing imagery and its passionate temper. He was a scholar with an excellent education. He wrote at least three books in Greek. In them he refers to himself, but none of these are extant. His principal study was jurisprudence and his methods of reasoning reveal striking marks of his juridical training. He shone among the advocates of Rome, as Eusebius reports.

His conversion to Christianity perhaps took place about 197–198 (cf. Adolf Harnack, Bonwetsch, and others), 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 said of himself that he could not imagine a truly Christian life without such a conscious breach, a radical act of conversion: “Christians are made, not born” (Apol, xviii).

Two books addressed to his wife confirm that he was married to a Christian wife. In middle life (about 207) he was attracted to the “New Prophecy” of Montanism, and seems to have split from the mainstream church. In the time of Augustine, a group of “Tertullianists” still had a basilica in Carthage which, within that same period, passed to the orthodox Church. It is unclear whether the name was merely another for the Montanists or that this means Tertullian later split with the Montanists and founded his own group.

Jerome says that Tertullian lived to a great age, but there is no reliable source attesting to his survival beyond the estimated year 220. In spite of his schism from the Church, he continued to write against heresy, especially Gnosticism. Thus, by the doctrinal works he published, Tertullan became the teacher of Cyprian and the predecessor of Augustine, who, in turn, became the chief founder of Latin theology.

Thirty-one works are extant, together with fragments of more. Some fifteen works in Latin or Greek are lost, some as recently as the 9th century (De Paradiso, De superstitione saeculi, De carne et anima were all extant in the now damaged Codex Agobardinus in 814 AD). Tertullian’s writings cover the whole theological field of the time — apologetics against paganism and Judaism, polemics, polity, discipline, and morals, or the whole reorganization of human life on a Christian basis; they gave a picture of the religious life and thought of the time which is of the greatest interest to the church historian.

Though thoroughly conversant with the Greek theology, Tertullian was independent of its metaphysical speculation. He had learned from the Greek apologies, and forms a direct contrast to Origen of Alexandria, who drew much of his theories regarding creation from middle platonism. Tertullian, the prince of realists and practical theologian, carried his realism to the verge of materialism. This is evident from his ascription to God of corporeity and his acceptance of the traducian theory of the origin of the soul. He despised Greek philosophy, and, far from looking at Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers whom he quotes as forerunners of Christ and the Gospel, he pronounces them the patriarchal forefathers of the heretics (De anima, iii.). He held up to scorn their inconsistency when he referred to the fact that Socrates in dying ordered a cock to be sacrificed to Aesculapius (De anima, i). Tertullian always wrote under stress of a felt necessity. He was never so happy as when he had opponents like Marcion and Praxeas, and, however abstract the ideas may be which he treated, he was always moved by practical considerations to make his case clear and irresistible. It was partly this element which gave to his writings a formative influence upon the theology of the post-Nicene period in the West and has rendered them fresh reading to this day. He was a born disputant, moved by the noblest impulses known in the Church. It is true that during the third century no mention is made of his name by other authors. Lactantius at the opening of the fourth century is the first to do this, but Augustine treats him openly with respect. Cyprian, Tertullian’s North African compatriot, though he nowhere mentions his name, was well read in his writings, as Cyprian’s secretary told Jerome.