I've read the internet about Tertullian's "tres personae, una substantia" of Trinity. It seems that his "tres personae, una substantia" is rejected by all kind of Christianity.

However I would like to know what the Tertullian's "Tres Personae" mean since from the internet I read about English, the word [Person] has different meaning with [Persona].

Now it seems to me the "Tres Personae" is [Three Persona], not [Three Persons], while in the point of view of the pro-Trinity majority (as far as I know) it's about [Three Persons].

So, my question is – did Tertullian meant of his "Personae" a Person? or a Persona?

Or did I make mistake which actually in English language, there is no difference between Persona and Person?

  • I assume you realize that persona is Latin singular, and personae is Latin plural. Thus you seem to be asking what the difference is between Tertullian's Latin persona and modern English's person. Is that right? Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 18:53
  • I think the question is if the Latin persona should be translated as the English 'person' or 'persona'.
    – bradimus
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 19:04
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    Ah, good thought @bradimus. Karma, is it correct that you are referring to the English word persona here, not the Latin one? Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 19:18
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    Just to be clear, tres personae, una substantia is accepted in Nicene Christianity, even if Tertullian's particular version of it is not. Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 19:59
  • @Nathaniel, what I mean is "what Tertullian's pov of his Tres Personae".... before the creation (a) there were three persons or (b) there was one person (Tertullian wrote with He/Him). After the creation, (x) there are three persons or (y) there are three personas. (a) "goes" with (x), time does not matter. Before/After the creation does not matter. But (b) "goes" with (y).
    – karma
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 5:11

1 Answer 1


The Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity provides a brief overview of the evolution of the Latin term persona (plural personae), which Tertullian is famous for introducing into discussions on the threeness of God. It begins with the secular meaning, and then moves to Tertullian's use of the word:

In addition to the classical meanings of the term persona (role, person and individuality), Latin theology from the very beginning knew of a technical meaning. [...] Borrowing from secular exegesis that distinguished persona grammatically and aesthetically (dignity or personal character), and under the influence of the legal tradition, [Tertullian] applied a realist meaning to the term (persona = res). (3:153)

Res is the Latin word for "thing" or "entity," which while pointing us in the right direction, perhaps still feels insufficiently specific. We can turn to J. N. D. Kelly, who writes in Early Christian Doctrines:

The primary sense of persona was 'mask', from which the transition was easy to the actor who wore it and the character he played. In legal usage it could stand for the holder of the title to a property, but as employed by Tertullian it connoted the concrete presentation of an individual as such. (115, emphasis added)

So we might say then that the personae of Tertullian are "persons" in the sense of "individuals" or "entities." But Kelly warns us against anachronistically reading modern understandings of "person" onto Tertullian:

In neither case, it should be noted, was the idea of self-consciousness nowadays associated with 'person' and 'personal' at all prominent. (115)

  • Thank you Nathaniel. Just now I've just read Tertullian's "Against Hermogenes" <a href="newadvent.org/fathers/0313.htm">here</a>. Here are some of Tertullian's sentences : (continued)
    – karma
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 4:58
  • There was, however, a time when neither sin existed with Him, nor the Son; the former of which was to constitute the Lord a Judge, and the latter a Father. In this way He was not Lord previous to those things of which He was to be the Lord. But He was only to become Lord at some future time: just as He became the Father by the Son, and a Judge by sin, so also did He become Lord by means of those things which He had made, in order that they might serve Him (continued)
    – karma
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 4:59
  • To me, in my English understanding of Tertullian's sentence above, it seems what he meant is "Three Personas" (???). It seems that before the creation, there was only He (one person) - no Persona/Personas yet. Before the creation, this Person (He/God) was not (in a Persona of) the Father or the Son yet. Please CMIIW.
    – karma
    Commented Jul 18, 2017 at 5:04

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