Lent: Day 9 of 40 - Tertullian

Sophistication is fine, but what about when push comes to shove?

Tertullian was born rich, in Carthage, part of the imperial elite which controlled trade in North Africa. Privileged and educated, he wrote in Latin, with satirical rhetoric and Roman law, opposing Marcion’s dualisms, and then reductions of Jesus and the Spirit to subordinate deities to the Father.

Tertullian is comfortable with paradox:

The Son of God died;
It must needs be believed
Because it is absurd.

He was buried and rose again;
It is certain
Because it is impossible.

Tertullian’s writing in Latin gave us the term ‘trinitas’ or trinity, to refer to God as creator, redeemer, and spirit, in the course of his opposition to Marcion reducing Jesus to the status of demiurge, and the monarchian tendency to make Jesus just an emanation of the one God.

The shift to Latin also exacerbated the challenges of Greek formulations of 3 ‘hypostases and one homoousios; with the translation to 3 ‘personae, una substantia’. We are moving as the century ends beyond the Christology issues of Jesus’ humanity and divinity to the speculative Trinitarian issues of Jesus’ relation to Creator and Spirit.

Tertullian lived into the next century, facing the pressures of new persecutions, and turning in response to those circumstances from the luxuries of sophisticated privilege to a partisan purity and piety, based in Montanism’s assurance of the Spirit against oppressive powers. The child of the elite resisted Roman imperial oppression in his nationalist north Africa.

A privileged educated sophisticate can think and write among peers in the elites. That’s not a mixed blessing to the popular movement. Under the pressure of political and religious persecution by Rome in Africa, later in his life, Tertullian stopped trying to pitch a big inclusive tent, and battened down with higher, narrower standards.

Class or education, relations to power, still tempt us. An anti-intellectual popular culture has a point in mistrusting the rhetoric of complex formulations and translations. But is the respect earned by the pious under pressure enough to make us all puritans?

We need sophistication – but we also are tested by adversity, 

and need to hold on to something when push comes to shove.