Today, Tertullian (c. AD 155–240) has something of a mixed reputation in many Christian circles. He's recognized as a significant thinker and a major contributor to the doctrine of the Trinity. But in his later years he became associated with a movement known as Montanism, and he seems to have separated himself from the church.

As a result of this and some of his teachings, he is not recognized as a saint in Catholicism, for example, and scholars have varied opinions of him.

In light of this modern disagreement, I'd like to know how those in the early church saw Tertullian. According to their writings, what did the church fathers of the fifth century or prior think of Tertullian?

1 Answer 1


Like today, those in the early church had differing opinions regarding Tertullian. Some were largely critical, some largely complimentary, and some more balanced.

The first writings we have discussing Tertullian are decidedly in the first category – their author, Lactantius (c. 250–325), was dismissive of him:

Septimius Tertullianus also was skilled in literature of every kind; but in eloquence he had little readiness, and was not sufficiently polished, and very obscure. (Divine Institutes, 5.1)

Although Tertullian fully pleaded the same cause in that treatise which is entitled the Apology, yet, inasmuch as it is one thing to answer accusers, which consists in defence or denial only, and another thing to instruct, which we do. (5.4)

Following Lactantius we might turn next to Eusebius (c. 260–340) and Jerome (c. 347–420). Eusebius emphasizes Tertullian's credibility, calling him "especially distinguished in Rome" (Church History, 2.2; cf. 2.25, 3.20, 3.33, 5.5), while Jerome focuses on his influence on Cyprian (c. 200–258) and his "lapse" into Montanism:

I myself have seen a certain Paul an old man of Concordia, a town of Italy, who, while he himself was a very young man had been secretary to the blessed Cyprian who was already advanced in age. He said that he himself had seen how Cyprian was accustomed never to pass a day without reading Tertullian, and that he frequently said to him, "Give me the master," meaning by this, Tertullian. He was presbyter of the church until middle life, afterwards driven by the envy and abuse of the clergy of the Roman church, he lapsed to the doctrine of Montanus, and mentions the new prophecy in many of his books. (Lives of Illustrious Men, 53)

Historians agree that Cyprian was greatly influenced by Tertullian; see, for example, Everett Ferguson, Church History, 7.I.B.

Our last two authors take more balanced approaches, both praising and critiquing Tertullian. Augustine (354–430) briefly writes of him in On Heresies, acknowledging his "many eloquent works" and defending his doctrine of the soul, before explaining his heresy:

Therefore, the reason Tertullian became a heretic was [...] because in joining the Cataphrygians, whom he had earlier demolished, he also began to condemn, contrary to Apostolic teaching, second marriage as debauchery. Later, having separated from them too, he established congregations of his own. (On Heresies, 86)

Finally we come to Vincent of Lerins (d. 445). In his treatment of Tertullian one can sense both his admiration and frustration:

For who more learned than he, who more versed in knowledge whether divine or human? [...] Was not his genius of such unrivalled strength and vehemence that there was scarcely any obstacle which he proposed to himself to overcome, that he did not penetrate by acuteness, or crush by weight? As to his style, who can sufficiently set forth its praise? It was knit together with so much cogency of argument that it compelled assent, even where it failed to persuade.

Yet this man also, notwithstanding all that I have mentioned, this Tertullian, I say, too little tenacious of Catholic doctrine, that is, of the universal and ancient faith, more eloquent by far than faithful, changed his belief, and justified what the blessed Confessor, Hilary, writes of him, namely, that "by his subsequent error he detracted from the authority of his approved writings." He also was a great trial in the Church. (Commonitory, 18)

Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310–367), mentioned here, was another church father who was influenced by Tertullian yet eschewed his divergence from the developing orthodoxy.


So we find then that, not unlike today, some in the first five centuries of the church had little regard for Tertullian (Lactantius), some were largely positive (Eusebius and Jerome), and others recognizing his merits while unable to defend his faults (Augustine and Vincent). His influence on Latin Christianity was not always admitted (e.g., in Cyprian and Hilary), but his errors were significant enough that they were rarely ignored.

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